Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Supernatural in Hamlet

I found this today while going through my files. It was an essay on Hamlet I wrote while doing my A-Levels 2 years ago. Excuse immaturities and errors: I was young and eager to bring out the most ridiculous theories then, propounded by academics 40 years my senior (who have no excuse to write such ridiculous stuff, being older and supposedly wiser).

Discuss Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural in Acts 1 and 2.

Beginning with a supernatural foreboding, Shakespeare introduces the audience to this horrific element in Hamlet at once.  Although the play employs only one supernatural character in only a few scenes, it is precisely the Ghost whose presence dominates much of the hidden tension in Acts 1 and 2, visually, psychologically, symbolically and thematically.

From the staging perspective the use of the ghost creates fear and uncertainty in the audience.  Speak to me,” implores Horatio repetitively, only to receive no reply.  This arouses a lurking suspense in the audience. Hamlet proved to become a very popular play. What is the ghost’s intention of haunting the castle at night?  Rod Bennett’s BBC production illuminates the Ghost in green, exuding an eerie aura in the visual sense. It appears as an unearthly wraith. Often he arrives in mist or dim light. Symbolically, the Ghost appears at night, obscuring the audience’s view of him.  The image of darkness represents evil, accompanied by a storm, lightning and thunder.  Malignant forces are presented. The Elizabethans believed that ghosts were devilish spirits.  Ludwig Lavater wrote in Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking by Night in 1572, “It is no hard thing for the Devil to appear in divers shapes, and to bring to pass strange things.”  Significantly, the Ghost motions to Hamlet to follow him to the cliff.  James the First wrote in Daemonologie that spirits were likely to lead a person to a high spot and drive him insane.   The Ghost is spoken of in frightened tones by Marcellus and Horatio: this “Dreaded sight” in addition disappears when the cock crows at dawn, the beginning of daylight and hence symbolic goodness.  Another important visual effect is the invisibility or near-invisibility of the ghost.  During the Shakespearean era, the voice of the Ghost uttering “swear” came from beneath a trapdoor under the stage.  The lack of bodily presence is fearful, the lower position of the Ghost representing the pits of Hell.  In Sir John Gielgud’s 1962 production in New York, the Ghost never appears but is “a great black shadow which suddenly took shape above the stage and hovered over Hamlet” that speaks in a disembodied tone.

            If we view Hamlet historically, the ghost establishes its genre as revenge tragedy.  Its roots are derived from Seneca’s Roman plays, where the ghost appears in the prologue. A Warning to Fair Women depicts its ghost as crying “Vindicta! – Revenge, revenge!”  In the Elizabethan age the character of the revenge-ghost was developed further.   Analysing detail by detail, the Ghost outlines his purpose : “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”  The late king has been murdered by his brother, and the rising of King Hamlet’s ghost from the dead is already an act of revenge.  In Bennett’s BBC film, the ghost arrives in “armour,” a sign of war, and thus intentional slaughter.   This spurs Hamlet to obsession with vengeance: “Thy commandment all alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain.”   Forsaking all “baser matters,” the main character of Hamlet devotes his life to revenge. Hamlet earnestly swears to this with his sword.  Indeed, Hamlet’s ploy includes putting on “an antic disposition” to disguise his malevolent intentions.  In Act 2 he soliloquises, “I … must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.” The only true course of action he takes is to instruct the players how to re-enact the Murder of Gonzago: “I’ll have these players / Play something like the murder of my father/ Before mine uncle … the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”  It is interesting to note that prior to his conversation with the Ghost, Hamlet was inclined to “self-slaughter” and does not mention revenge. 

            Symbolically, the Ghost warns of a distempered government: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” summarises Marcellus.  The “portentous figure” in “Armour” as if prepared for war foreshadows “the question of these wars.”  Horatio refers to the events preceding Caesar’s assassination: “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets, … prologue to the omen coming on.”  The issue uppermost on Horatio’s mind is: “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate … O speak.” The fact that the ghost dons armour shows that he is watching over Denmark, like a military ruler who cannot let go.  The idea that a dead spirit instead of a living king is paying attention to Denmark’s condition metaphorically signifies the death of Denmark’s golden reign.  Indeed, King Hamlet’s reign won lands for the country, something that the less able Claudius and even Hamlet cannot do.”  “’A was a man … I shall not look upon his like again.”   From Act 1 it is revealed that Fortinbras, prince of Norway intends to recapture the lands conquered from his father by the late king.  Claudius’ flamboyant speech itself is suspicious with his oxymoronic treatment of his brother’s death : “with an auspicious and a drooping eye.”  He has also committed incest by marrying his brother’s widow, an act disapproved of in the Elizabethan era. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film depicts Claudius as celebrating his marriage to Gertude with the jovial act of drinking and a lack of sincerity over his brother’s passing.   “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown,” proclaims the Ghost.  Political undercurrents are far from harmonious.  The tragi-comic figure of the politician Polonius introduces the audience to a manipulative mind who uses flattery and sacrifices his daughter’s honour by reading Hamlet’s amorous letters to her aloud for his own good reputation. Polonius, though at the side of the King, represents the scheming politician who spies on the undeserving Hamlet whose assumed insanity is really his own concern, and not of his social inferiors.  The fact that Polonius has remained in power for so long indicates a devious self-centred mind.  He was able to pay sufficient lip service to the late stentorian king. Polonius’ insenility and corruptness is a remnant of Denmark’s political decay. 

            Thematically, Hamlet is an intellectual play with the background of Wittenberg University, the centre for Lutheran philosophy behind Hamlet and Horatio.  The question raised here is whether the Ghost is good or evil. “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,” Hamlet addresses it, quiveringly in Bennett’s BBC production while he raises his sword in self-defence.  While the green light is eerie, it is still a light, a symbol of truth and goodness.   The Ghost is not bloody, but walks stately and waves at Hamlet with “a courteous air.”  Yet his intention is to execute revenge. Not entirely free from human passion, the Ghost’s directions form the core of this play: he demands revenge, in the way a living person might.  The fact that he is secretive about the reasons for his nightly prowling is that the sin he commands Hamlet to commit is treason, the greatest sin imaginable during the Elizabethan era.  Horatio’s interpretation of the Ghost’s desire to speak to Hamlet quietly is that it will “tempt you … to the dreadful summit of the cliff …deprive your sovereignty of reason/ And draw you into madness.” This sentiment was expressed by James I in Daemonologie. On the other hand, the ghost does not physically injure Hamlet, but looks on at him like a father.  He is gentle, even lenient to his faithless widow: “”Taint not thy mind … against thy mother aught.” The ghost’s purpose is then to redeem justice.  Elizabethan playwrights including Shakespeare had remodeled the Senecan revenge-ghost into a more humanized figure; not a creature from the ancient underworld of Tartarus, but a visitor from the church-yard.  However, Shakespeare took a step further, as the revenge-ghost portrayed is not a pure, unadulterated revenge-ghost. Many critics consider the Ghost’s commands as just. In Notes on the Tragedies of Shakespeare, Coleridge writes, “Hume himself could not but have faith in this Ghost dramatically.” While the Elizabethans believed in the diabolicalness of spirits, there were two theories on the nature of ghosts at the time.  The Conservative Catholics believed in heaven, hell and purgatory, whereas the Protestants disregarded the existence of purgatory.  Influenced by Protestantism at Wittenberg, Hamlet and Horatio see the ghost as belonging to the camp of either good or evil. Plato’s ideals which influenced Renaissance thought dealt with inner justice and ordinary justice in his Republic.  Taking Denmark as a substitute Republic, the Ghost maintains ordinary rational and spirited justice by attempting to save his country from a profligate, murderous king, in the process installing a more serious monarch (Hamlet would be next in line).  Inner justice, however, is harmony of the soul, something that the melancholy Hamlet cannot attain in his pursuit of vendetta.    The Ghost’s ultimately well-meaning intentions torment Hamlet’s conscience and freedom of movement, as his self-created drama attracts unwanted attention from Claudius and Polonius.  The key to Hamlet’s troubled soul is his conscience. While he feels that Claudius is an unworthy ruler he is not too certain whether the latter is a murderer.  Should he kill an innocent man, he could be condemned to hell.  In Act 3 scene 1 the famous soliloquy expresses his disbelief that “to die” is “to sleep.” His father’s haunt is proof of that.  In fact the Ghost’s instructions oppose Hamlet’s inner justice, making him a tyrant.  In the BBC production he speaks to his son commandingly, without the disembodiment associated with spirits.  This brings us to the question of the afterlife: considering that Hamlet is a pro-Protestant play, why does Shakespeare champion the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, from where the ghost hails?  This reveals the underlying theme of the intertwining forces of good and evil.  The late king was good to his nation, but slew another king to claim land.  Hamlet is well-meaning, but vengeful.  “Doomed … to fast fires,” purgatory is painted in gory terms, and befits the world Hamlet perceives: “Denmark’s a prison.”  This world is earth, a living purgatory, where good and evil co-exist.

            Psychologically, the Ghost is the precursor to Hamlet’s madness, both feigned and real.   While Hamlet is a philosophical, sane thinker, he is haunted by neurosis and fear, driving him beyond ordinary sanity.  Already Hamlet despises his mother who sped  to “incestuous sheets.”  “A beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer.”  Structurally the Ghost leads the plot to the other thematic concern: the soul of a sensitive, neurotic young man.  Hamlet in the Bennett production shrieks in laughter while sitting on the ground after his discourse with the Ghost. Eventually, Hamlet’s desire to justify his existence by defending his father’s honour will lead to paranoia, increasing self-absorption and more extreme male chauvinism.  When Hamlet criticizes his mother’s sexuality he is in fact defending his father’s manhood.  He feels that she has insulted her “Hyperion” first husband by taking a “satyr” as her second spouse.  Horatio’s rational advice to avoid being led to the “dreaded summit of the cliff” by the ghost is a warning against a fall – the ruin of Hamlet’s rationality.  The Ghost’s desire to take him away from Horatio’s logical influence represents the war between reason and animalistic appetites, parts of the soul emphasized by Plato.  By striving to obey the Ghost’s logical and spirited (courageous) maxims, Hamlet is overwhelmed by the consuming appetites, the essential passions in man – revenge, and subsequently becomes a new recruit in Denmark’s sinning factory.  However the Ghost’s appearance has a symbolic implication.  In modern 20th century productions, an attempt to psychologize the ghost presents him as a manifestation of Hamlet’s unconscious.  Richard Burton, Nicol Williamson and Jonathan Pryce played the role of Hamlet against invisible ghosts. W.W. Greg writes in his article, “Hamlet’s Hallucination” in The Modern Language Review in October 1917 that “Shakespeare not only constructed his play on the basis of a hallucination on the part of his hero, but that he intended the Ghost to be an illusion throughout.”  Gertrude’s inability to see the Ghost in Act 4 gives this hypothesis more credence.  “It was not the Ghost’s story that suggested the Murder of Gonzago, but the Murder of Gonzago that supplied the details of the Ghost’s story.”   In Gielgud’s 1964 production, the Ghost did not appear.  The “great black shadow” in this production represents the dark and hidden evil thoughts of Hamlet’s unconscious.  While Shakespearean ghosts are real in the theatrical sense, the ambiguity of the Ghost’s reality arouses the audience’s doubts and reflections.  The Ghost appears when Hamlet is in a state of great emotion, against his uncle and mother, and urges him to action. The result is internal self-conflict portrayed.  Absorbed by an inhabitant from another world, this symbolizes Hamlet’s withdrawal from the real world into his imaginary fantasies.  The ambiguity gives the Ghost’s existence a double meaning in this case. 

In conclusion, Shakespeare’s use of the Ghost conveys the concealed meanings in Hamlet.  A figure rather than a true character, the Ghost’s legacy to the audience is a trail of political issues reflecting the precarious Elizabethan monarchy, a predecessor to modernist drama, horror and brings to light the innate passions in man.  What has emerged is a power struggle between nations, within society and, in an abstract sense, between Reason and Instinct, a battle in an individual.



  1. So which theories do you consider ridiculous now? Reading this very late at night, but I enjoyed what my brain processed. ;)

    1. I wouldn't say the theories are entirely wrong, but the way they're presented makes me blush now. As in I had to classify every paragraph to say that the Ghost has a prupose that Shakespeare probably never thought of. Also I was under the impression that you had to mention Plato or somebody similar just to sound intellectual.