The ghost of Hamlet's late father is a character from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. In the stage directions he is referred to as "Ghost." His name is also Hamlet, and he is referred to as King Hamlet to distinguish him from the Prince.
The ghost (right) appears to Hamlet (left) in the "closet scene", from Rowe's edition of Shakespeare's works (1709), showing the Prince and Queen in contemporary dress; the former king's portrait is on the wall behind
Prince Hamlet (son)
King Claudius (brother)
|Other name(s)||King Hamlet (former)|
He is loosely based on a legendary Jutish chieftain, named Horwendill, who appears in Chronicon Lethrense and in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum. According to oral tradition, the Ghost was originally played by Shakespeare himself.
- For a synopsis of the play, see Hamlet
The Ghost appears three times in the play: in Act I, Scene i; in the continuum of Act I, Scenes iv and v; and Act III, Scene iv. The ghost arrives at 1.00 a.m. in at least two of the scenes, and in the other scene all that is known is that it is night.
The Ghost first appears to a duo of soldiers—Bernardo and Marcellus—and a visitor to Denmark, Horatio. The men draw their swords and stand in fear, requesting that Horatio, as a scholar, address the ghost. Horatio asks the ghost to speak, and reveal its secret. It is about to do so when the cock crows, signaling morning, and the ghost instead disappears. In this scene, the Ghost is clearly recognized by all present as the King, dressed in his full armour. Marcellus notes that the ghost had appeared to the castle guards twice before. Talk of spectral visitations has unsettled the night watch. Francisco, who Bernardo relieves on guard duty says, "For this relief much thanks; 't is bitter cold, And I am sick at heart."
Seeing the Ghost arrayed in a military aspect, and aware of Fortinbras marshalling his forces on the frontier, Horatio recognizes that the appearance of the Ghost must portend something regarding matters of state.
Horatio then persuades Prince Hamlet into staying up with the guards to see if the ghost returns. At midnight, it appears, and beckons Hamlet to follow. Once alone, the ghost describes his wanderings on the earth, and his harrowing life in purgatory, since he died without receiving last rites.
He tells the young Hamlet that he was poisoned and murdered by his brother, Claudius, the new King of Denmark, and asks the prince to avenge his death. He also expresses disgust at his wife, Gertrude, for marrying Claudius, but warns Hamlet not to confront her, but to leave that to Heaven. Later, Prince Hamlet returns to his friends and has them swear on his sword to keep what they have seen a secret. When they resist, the ghost utters the words "Swear" and "Swear on the sword", from below the stage, until his friends agree.
The prince Hamlet, fearing that the apparition may be a demon pretending to be King Hamlet, decides to put the ghost to the test by staging a play that re-enacts the circumstances that the spirit claims led to his death. Claudius's reaction is one of guilt and horror, and Prince Hamlet is convinced that the ghost is, in fact, his father. However, due to his over-analytical mind and the complexity of the ghost's conditions, much time passes before Hamlet can carry out his orders.
In the third appearance, Hamlet is confronted by the ghost in his mother's closet, and is rebuked for not carrying out his revenge and for disobeying in talking with Gertrude. Hamlet fearfully apologizes. Gertrude, however, cannot see the ghost, and thinks Hamlet is mad, asking why he stares and talks to nothing. In this scene, the ghost is described as being in his nightgown. He is never mentioned again.
King Hamlet is described by the few who mention him—and this excludes basically all except Hamlet, Horatio and the guards—as a warrior, as he led Denmark's forces to victory against Norway, and personally defeated its King Fortinbras in hand-to-hand combat. Hamlet respects him, saying Claudius pales in comparison to him, and frequently reflecting on him in an endearing manner.
"The Ghost in Hamlet is essential to the plot of the play." He has also been the subject of a variety of interpretations. W.W. Greg was of the opinion that the Ghost was a figment of Hamlet's overwrought imagination. J. Dover Wilson and others have argued that in having the Ghost appear a number of times to others before appearing to Hamlet, Shakespeare makes clear that the apparition is not a mere illusion.
- Sylvan Barnet, "Shakespeare: An Overview," in Macbeth, ed. Sylvan Barnet, A Signet Classic, 1998, p. ix.
- Egan, Maurice Francis. The Ghost in Hamlet and Other Essays in Comparative Literature. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co, 1906. pp. 11-47
- "Hamlet (Folio 1, 1623)". uvic.ca.
- Joseph, Miriam. "Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet." PMLA 76.5 (1961): 493-502
- Greg, W.W., "Hamlet's Hallucinations", MLR, XII, 1917, 393-421