The Role of the Ghost in Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The role of the ghost in Hamlet is twofold: firstly it is to create

interest; secondly it is to further the narrative of the play.

Shakespeare recognized that he needed to create interest in the

audience from the very first scene of the play.

The play opens with a conversation between Officers of the Watch who

patrol the Battlements of Elsinore castle. Their talk is of a ghost

who has appeared before twice previously:

” What, has this thing appeared again tonight?”

Immediately this arouses the audience’s curiosity. What is the nature

of ‘this thing’ that has appeared?

Horatio, who has not seen the ghost, voices the scepticism that some

of the audience may have been feeling:

” Tush, Tush, ’twill not appear”.

Suspense is therefore created in the minds of the audience i.e. will

the ghost actually appear; does the ghost exist?

The character of Horatio is contrasted with that of Barnardo,

Francisco and Marcellus.

Barnardo, Francisco and Marcellus are believers in the ghost, whereas

Horatio, who is highly educated, unlike Barnardo, Francisco and

Marcellus, questions the ghost existence.

When the ghost finally appears in line 40, cutting short Barnardo’s

line, it is a moment of high drama resulting from the tension that has

been created.

The appearance of the ghost has a huge impact on both the characters

and the audience (who together with Horatio see the ghost for the

first time). Horatio, sceptic, expresses his fear and amazement in the

first line he speaks since seeing the ghost:

“…. It harrows me with fear and wonder”.

The audience would have been filled with similar emotions on seeing

the ghost, and would have realised that the appearance of the ghost

signifies that something is wrong. Elizabethans believed that only

people who died without the chance of confessing their sins walked the

earth as troubled spirits. Horatio questions the ghost, which

disappears mysteriously without speaking. When the ghost fails to

speak, it adds to the tension of the scene and the apprehension of the


The ghost makes a second appearance in Act 1 Scene 1 after Horatio has

talked about preparations for war with Norway. This sets up the idea

in the minds of the audience that the ghost may have something to do

with the on going war, but, again the ghost does not speak, and so the

audience is left with unanswered questions. This sense of mystery

sustains interest and builds suspense in the preparation for scene 2.

At this point the nature of the ghost is ambiguous. Is it a good

ghost, it appears in the form of Old Hamlet, or is it an “erring


It disappeared when the cock crowed i.e. at first light. The audience

would have known that light represent goodness, and dark represents

evil. Horatio comments:

“And then it started like a guilty thing”.

The audience would have been left wondering why the word ‘guilty’ had

been applied to the ghost. Is the ghost to be trusted, or not? The

only thing person who can decide is Hamlet:

“Let us impart what we have seen tonight unto young Hamlet.”

In the next scene Horatio tells Hamlet after some prevarication, that

he has seen his fathers ghost. Hamlet is thoroughly depressed because

his mother Gertrude, has re-married very quickly. To make matters

worse, she has married Claudius, Old Hamlets brother, whom young

Hamlet mis-trusts. This is a man

“With one auspicious and one dropping eye”

Which an Elizabethan audience, would have recognized as the sign of a


Horatio describes the ghost to Hamlet, emphasising that the ghost

appears to look like Old Hamlet:

” A figure like your father armed exactly, cap-a-pe”

And is dressed in armour. Hamlet wants to know everything about the

ghost, where it appeared, whether it spoke etc, and through his short,

excited questions which he utters in quick succession, reinforces the

mystery and ambiguity of the ghost, thus building the audiences

anticipation of the second appearance of the spirit.

The scene closes with Hamlet arranging to take the watch on the

battlements that night, in order to meet with the ghost. He asks the

others to keep quiet about the appearance of the ghost.

The ghost appears to Hamlet in Act1, Scene 4. Immediately, the

ambiguous nature of the ghost is addressed. Hamlet himself says,

“Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned”

, Meaning is the ghost to be trusted, or is it some evil creature come

to destroy?

The ghost refuses to speak in front of the others, but beckons Hamlet

away to speak with him alone. Marcellus and Horatio are suspicious of

the ghost intentions:

Marcellus. “But do not go with it”

Horatio. “No, by no means”.

Eventually, almost fighting off his companions with a sword, Hamlet

follows the ghost and they are alone.

In scene 5, the role of the ghost moves from creating interest and

suspense, to the function of moving on the narrative and plot line.

Hamlet is not naturally a man of action, and, although suspicious of

his Uncle Claudius, would not have tried to find out more about the

circumstances surrounding his father’s death. It is the appearance of

the ghost that forces Hamlet to take action, and therefore moves on

the action of the play.

The ghost begins by telling that he is in purgatory.

“Doomed for a certain term to walk the night”

Hamlet must have felt puzzled and, at the same time, full of wonder

and despair at the terrible situation his father is in. When his

father finally reveals that he was murdered, Hamlet is overwhelmed. To

make matters worse, the ghost then asks Hamlet to revenge his murder.

Ghost. “If ever thou didst ever thy dear father love.”

Hamlet. “O God!”

Ghost. “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”.

Like Hamlet, at this point, the audience would want to know more. The

questions that have been posed in Scene 1 are finally about to be

answered. When the ghost reveals that he was murdered by Claudius,

Hamlet reacts with:

“O my prophetic soul! My uncle?”

Hamlet had suspected from the beginning that his uncle was the

complete opposite of Old Hamlet in appearance, personality and action.

Now his worse fears have been confirmed. His mother has married a

murderer! Before the ghost leaves, Hamlet swears to revenge his


To make matters worse, the ghost describes the horrific nature of his

death, by poison and the fact that he died without having confessed

his sins:

“With all my imperfections on my head”.

This is in sharp contrast with the glib statement made by Claudius to

Hamlet concerning the death of his father:

“…. All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity”

Finally, at the end of the scene Hamlet rejoins the others and

confirms that the ghost is not evil but,

“It is an honest ghost….”

He makes his friends swear to keep the existence of the ghost a

secret. The cries of the unseen ghost “SWEAR, SWEAR” whom Hamlet calls

“old mole”, reinforce Hamlet’s insistence in secrecy. Interestingly,

only Hamlet can hear the ghost. Is Hamlet ‘really’ going mad?

The final appearance of the ghost follows the pivotal scene. Up to

this point there has been little action-taking place. Instead the play

consists of building up characters, making motives and giving the

audience information. After this the action increases dramatically in

pace. Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius, but fails because

he believes that Claudius is praying. If he had known that Claudius

cannot pray:

“My words fly up my thoughts remain below,

Words without thought never to heaven go”

Presumably, Hamlet would have killed Claudius and the play would be

over. It is possible that Hamlet used the situation as an excuse for

the deed he was afraid to do.

Therefore, when Hamlet confronts Gertrude he is full of frustration

and anguish at his inability to act. In this scene, Hamlet almost

loses his self-control and perhaps is truly “mad”. Having killed

Polonius, it is only the entrance of the ghost that prevents Hamlet

from harming his mother.

This time, the ghost appears, not in armour, but

” In his habit as he liv’d”

In other words, dressed in every-day clothes. The ghost has changed;

no longer the warrior king seeking revenge for his murder, the ghost

is more insubstantial a quieter, gentler ghost perhaps because it is

nearer to oblivion. This ties in with the ghost’s speech back in Act 1

Scene 5 when he says:

“I am thy fathers spirit,

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night”

This time only, Hamlet can see the ghost, which begs the question, is

the ghost really there, or is Hamlet quite mad?

The role of the ghost in this scene is primarily to remind Hamlet of

his promise.

“Do not forget.”

However, the ghost also serves as a reproof to Hamlet, exhorting him

to be gentle with Gertrude.

” Oh step between her and her fighting soul:

Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works”

Having delivered its message, the ghost simply slips away. In this

scene, in contrast to earlier scenes in which the ghost appears, there

is no knocking from underneath the stage, the ghost merely “steals


From this moment, the play gathers pace as Claudius attempt to have

Hamlet killed, Ophelia’s commits suicide in her madness, and the final

scene of the play ends in a blood bath.

From the very first dramatic appearance of the ghost the whole plot is

set in motion towards inexorable scene of murder and mayhem at the end

of the play.

Hamet appears to regain his sanity; we as an audience wonder was he

ever mad and if so was his madness incurred by the ghost.

In conclusion it could be stated the ambiguity of the ghost is never

resolved. This is questioned again because as a result of the ghost,

the majority of the characters die. Therefore despite Hamlets thoughts

of the ghost, in the end the audience wonder is the ghost and its

intentions really, true and good or actually bad and evil.