Seeing and Interpreting the Ghosts in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy



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The Spanish Tragedy is a revenge tragedy, and as such has to have a revenger. At the beginning of the play we are presented with a Ghost who wants revenge. Don Andrea was killed in battle, which, while distressing, is honourable. Only later it is suggested that his death is not as honourable as Don Andrea himself initially thought. There is no real family of Don Andrea mentioned, only Horatio, his friend, and Bel-Imperia, his lover. Bel-Imperia does not comply with the requirements of an avenger, since she is a woman. But there is Horatio who, enchanted by her passions, can serve as a revenger. The problem is that Horatio lacks his own passion, so necessary to revenge. Here comes the Ghost in the shape of a bloody scarf that was originally given to Don Andrea by Bel-Imperia: “‘twas my favor at his last depart” (1.4.47), and ties them together: “But now wear thou it both for him and me” (1.4.48). Nevertheless, Horatio and Bel-Imperia, however close they were to Don Andrea, are not his family, where blood calls for blood. This situation is about to change. Horatio, taking Andrea’s place as Bel-Imperia’s lover, now becomes the object of Lorenzo and Balthazar’s malice, whose focus turns from Don Andrea to him. This is not the only substitution Horatio must make. His murder substitutes for Andrea’s since, as Robert Watson puts it, “[t]he murder of Horatio systematically re-enacts the death of Don Andrea, in order to reconceive it as a crime” (1994: 59).

With the murder of Horatio, the call for blood can be answered. Hieronimo is the perfect revenger, for the death of his son brought out the great passion that only a father can feel for a lost child.

Where shall I run to breathe abroad my woes –

My woes, whose weight hath wearied the earth –

Or mine exclaims, that have surcharged the air

With ceaseless plaints for my deceased son? (3.7.1-4)

Here the tragedy becomes even more tragic. Not only is Hieronimo condemned for taking up the act of revenge, but he unconsciously does so unconsciously on behalf of Don Andrea. Since Hieronimo does not know who he should bring to justice, Bel-Imperia steps in again and “becomes a spokesman for Andrea and Revenge in the human world” (Hallet and Hallet 143). She informs Hieronimo about what has happened, and calls upon him to revenge: “Revenge thyself on Balthazar and him [Lorenzo], / For these were they what murdered thy son” (3.2.28-29). At first, Hieronimo doubts her in the same way as Hamlet initially does the Ghost of King Hamlet, “Hieronimo, beware, thou art betrayed, / And to entrap thy life this train is laid. / Advise thee, therefore, be not credulous” (3.2.37-39). Bel-Imperia is also here to remind Hieronimo of this loss and to urge him to revenge when she feels that he loses his passion, “Hieronimo, are these thy passions [?]” (4.1.4), and neglects his duty, “Thus to neglect the loss and life of him” (4.1.11). Hieronimo, however, is far from forgetting. He has his own mementos that serve him as ghosts. The bloody scarf changes its owner once again to serve to its original one: “It shall not from me till I take revenge” (2.7.52). In addition, there is yet another ghost, even more powerful and more dreadful, Horatio’s own body, and his father will not part with the remains just as he clings to the scarf: “I’ll not entomb them till I have revenged” (2.7.54). The action is in motion and cannot be stopped. All the characters are directly or otherwise taken into the whirl of passions elicited by Don Andrea. His passions are awoken in Bel-Imperia who uses Horatio as a tool for revenge. His death flares deep emotions in Hieronimo who, unaware, becomes the true revenger of the play, and his son’s body carries the message passed on by Andrea. Finally, the bloody handkerchief seems to encompass all the passions and emotions activated by Don Andrea, and “[a]s always in revenge tragedy, the innocent suffer along with the guilty” (Videbaek 37). Since Andrea comes from the world of the dead, his presence brings nothing less than Death.

Even though, as Charles and Elaine Hallet point out, Don Andrea cannot be wholly blamed for the death of all those people, it is his passion, almost lust, which sets Revenge in motion, and makes it do its job (23). Once set free, there is nothing that could prevent Revenge from pursuing its aim. There is only one way with only one possible result, however contrary the events might seem, for “Though I [Revenge] sleep, / Yet is my mood soliciting their souls” and “Nor dies Revenge, although he sleep awhile” (3.15.19-20,23). Separately, Don Andrea’s Ghost and Revenge mean nothing “for they function essentially as a unit” (Hallet 46). The importance lies in their relationship, similar to that of Golem and its shem.

No less interesting and even more important is the insight into the understanding of the Ghost of Don Andrea by the Elizabethan audience. By no means is it possible to positively determine what exactly people felt at that time, how they interpreted what they saw, and what their attitudes were like. Nevertheless, there have been a number of writings focusing on the period background of these people, on their culture and society. It cannot be denied that understanding of any kind of issue, including art, depends essentially on people’s backgrounds. Art is influenced by its culture. The way they perceived the figure of the Ghost might have influenced their comprehension of both the play as a whole, and the individual characters as well.

One of the things that first pops up is Death, because for Elizabethans “[l]ife and the reminders of death were closely united” (Spencer 36-37). Death is everywhere in Kyd’s play; a ghost of someone who died; there is revenge because someone wants to avenge someone’s death; there is a corpse, a bloody scarf, violence, murders, wars and battles, despair and tears. What all these have in common is Death. It is hidden behind every word and behind every effort, and only Revenge knows where it all leads, and how everything ends; “Their love to mortal hate, their day to night, / Their hope into despair, their peace to war, / Their joy to pain, their bliss to mystery” (1.5.7-9). Life leads to Death, and Death leads to life. One cannot be without the other. The borders still mingle no matter what century it is. It certainly must have been a much greater issue for a time so obsessed with Death as Elizabethan period was.

Thus, when people came to the theatre and the first thing they saw was a ghost and Revenge, thoughts about Death presumably crossed their minds. Don Andrea, who, as all ghosts are, is neither alive nor dead either, is “himself a liminal creature compromising the boundary between life and death” (Hattaway 313). Revenge, as a character, belongs to the mythological Underworld and is sent to the human world by Proserpine, but its identity reaches further. Revenge is materialized, it has been given body, face, and voice. What a striking resemblance to man! In order to understand something, to grasp its essence, that something must be made more human. As Theodore Spencer aptly puts it, “[i]n desiring to get nearer to God, man made God more and more like himself” (16). This can be easily applied not only to revenge but to love, desire, and Death as well. Don Andrea’s Ghost personifies the memory left behind, Revenge is the personification of passions, and both are the embodiment of the path between life and Death.

Identification of the Ghost himself would not be in this case a great puzzle for the audience. Coming back from pagan Hades as a spirit of a warrior and lover, Don Andrea cannot find his place in the Underworld until his past human affairs are resolved. That is why he still stands with one foot in the human world and with the other on the other side of Acheron. Having all those ideas in mind, the audience could now turn to the play, and judge it accordingly.

Let us focus on several important issues of the play, where the existence of the Ghost might have influenced their interpretations in the eyes of the Elizabethan audience. In a literal sense, the connection between the Ghost and revenge has been presented. In a figurative sense, this relation gains even more significance. As has already been mentioned, the question of revenge had never had a clear answer among Elizabethans, whose irreconcilable feelings struggled between reason and passion. Reason should prevail, otherwise the universal order would be destroyed. Nevertheless, passion cannot be put aside, it cannot be forgotten. It is part of a man who “is by nature a passionate rather than a rational animal” (Ornstein 41), and even though it might be seen as “a dark and irresistibly destructive force, [or] a curse from the gods” (McAlindon 14), it is included in the equipment that people are given when entering this world. “[P]assion, appetite, and desire are as natural to man as reason and moral prohibition” (Ornstein 37). It might be hidden deep inside waiting for the right key that would set it free. Such is the case with Hieronimo who, his passion set seemingly aside, has faith in reason and justice, since he himself is one of its representatives. Justice is as a friend Hieronimo believes in and trusts, but when he turns to his good friend for help and support, he walks away. Hieronimo is left alone with his burden surrounded by all his ghosts. Reason cannot help Hieronimo to carry the burden. It is becoming heavier and heavier, and he is short of breath. Calling for revenge, he is not able to wait any longer. His passion is awake and thirsty, and “naught but blood will satisfy [its] woes” (3.7.68).

The audience watching Hieronimo’s immense struggle is aware of the two figures, the Ghost and Revenge, standing on his shoulders and pulling strings. They understand his desire to revenge, and they can imagine the reasons for his fight: anger, grief, and anxiety; anxiety about one’s own mortality. Hieronimo is trying to fight a losing battle with Death. Horatio, when still alive, served as lebenselixir to his father. Hieronimo’s “immortality is precariously located in his child” (Watson 1994: 56). No wonder that he seeks rectification in vain hope that “death can be corrected by eliminating its ‘author’” (Watson 1994: 57). Until the moment of his fatal decision there is still hope. Elizabethans could feel his inner fight, the conflict of passion and reason. If he only shook Revenge off his shoulder, Hieronimo would be able to breathe, and with the fresh air let reason come in again. They certainly knew as well that he would not do that, and that his path leads to damnation, because “[n]ot only is the revenger guilty of blasphemy and malice, he cuts himself off from the possibility of forgiveness and thus is damned forever” (Prosser 7). Hieronimo cannot free himself from Revenge, since Revenge is tied to the Ghost, and “the Ghost’s state of mind is reflected in Hieronimo’s; [and] Hieronimo’s desire for revenge mirrors that of Andrea” (Hallet 50).

Although the lost of his son and the strong influence of the Ghost on Hieronimo might have seemed to justify his actions in the eyes of Elizabethan audience, they were far from approving. Not only was revenge a delicate issue with a considerable religious pressure, but Hieronimo has also done something that must have at least given the audience a pause for thought if not shocked them completely. Hieronimo has decided not to pay the last honours to his only son: “See’st thou those wounds that yet are bleeding fresh? / I’ll not entomb them till I have revenged” (2.5.53-54). In the Renaissance people believed “that happiness beyond the grave was somehow contingent upon proper disposal and preservation of one’s mortal remains” (Neill 265). There is also Don Andrea’s Ghost to remind us that “churlish Charon, only boatman there, / Said that my rites of burial not performed, / I might not sit amongst his passengers” (1.1.20-22). Don Andrea was not allowed to cross the river of the Underworld until his worldly remains were properly buried. Hieronimo, a loving father, denies his son access to the afterlife “Under green myrtle trees and cypress shades” (1.1.44). The question is if he acts only as a puppet in the hands of the Ghost and Revenge, or if he “longs for revenge solely as a means for realizing his own misery” (Prosser 45), realizing and fighting his own mortality.

Hieronimo is determined to fight a losing battle. He is ready to rebel “against natural law on behalf of human immortality” (Watson 1994: 9), ready to fight reason and follow his passions. There is both reason and passion in a man. They cooperate if passion does not oppose reason, and reason rules insofar as man’s passion can tolerate. Hieronimo in his decision to follow the Ghost’s command chose to follow his passions and leave out the reason. To eliminate reason is foolish in the same way as completely eliminating one’s passions. There is an interconnection that, if violated, causes disruption of the mind. In the Renaissance it was assumed “that irrational emotions distract and craze the psyche” (Hallet and Hallet 9). Hieronimo’s road towards madness is paved. The last straw that pushes him over the edge seems to be the moment when he is becoming conscious of “the irreversibility of his son’s annihilation in death” (Hattaway 314).

The very end of the play offers a ghastly spectacle. The stage covered with dead bodies of Lorenzo, Balthazar, Bel-Imperia, the Duke of Castile, Hieronimo, and what is left of Horatio. Don Andrea and Revenge enter into the last conversation of the play. Don Andrea is, for the first time, satisfied: “now my hopes have end in their effects” (4.5.1). His passion grew over the course of the play. His desire for revenge is nothing else than a call for blood, and only “blood and sorrow finish [his] desires” (4.5.2). The pile of dead bodies seems to satisfy the thirst for blood. Their deaths deliver them to Andrea’s control where he can torture them for his own revenge. At that very moment Don Andrea has lost the audience’s support and understanding. There is no doubt left about how just this revenge actually was (4.5.16) after the Ghost, the authority where all this came from, cannot wait to show his hate (4.5.26). The disillusioned audience was left with the impression of absolute vanity. How foolish to die in the battle of immortality. However, the deep belief in afterlife, in something beyond the grave was confirmed after all. It depends on how people live whether they end up in heaven or “begin their endless tragedy” (4.5.48).

HAMLET

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, written probably in 1601, follows the tradition of revenge tragedy established over ten years earlier by The Spanish Tragedy. The Ghost of King Hamlet is the most famous and the most discussed apparition of all the ghosts in Elizabethan revenge tragedies. Since the turn of the seventeenth century his ambiguity and mysteriousness have been raising a number of questions that might never be fully and satisfactorily answered.

Seemingly one of the Senecan ghosts, “pale, colorless beings introduced merely to create an atmosphere of horror” (Hankins 131), and crying for revenge, the Ghost of King Hamlet, who “is, in a sense, a return to Kyd’s Ghost” (Hallet 59), significantly exceeds the role and impact of Don Andrea’s Ghost. To begin with, this Ghost “does not [just] frame the action… [he not only] dominates the initial stage of the play” (Maslen 3), but he is “the prime mover of the action in this play, from start to finish” (Austin 79). Although he only appears on the stage in the first act, and then in the closet scene, his presence is felt through the whole play. “He is there not in person, but in principle, so to speak; not visible all the time, but all the time perceptible – by the task he has laid on his son’s shoulders… He is the originator of the task – and what happens with the task, its ups and downs, the near miss, the near fulfillment, that is the play” (Flatter 6).

At the very beginning the Ghost enters the play in the lines of a minor character: “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” (1.1.21) A few lines later “this thing”, “this dreaded sight” (25), “this apparition” (28) appears on the stage: “Look where it comes again” (1.1.40). The audience carefully watches the strange specter together with Horatio, and feels the same anxiety as he does: “it harrows me with fear and wonder” (1.1.44). It does not take more than fifty lines without a single word for the Ghost, the usurper of the night (1.1.46), to establish the tone of the play. The uneasiness of the characters caused by this “intervention from another world” (Hankins 132) reflects the anxiety of the audience about the perception of Death. The main role of the Ghost lies in intervening in the life of Hamlet; he is the driving power, the key necessary to start the car that, once in motion, cannot be stopped. The relationship of the Ghost and Hamlet resembles that of Revenge and Andrea’s Ghost. The interaction of the two in both cases is an essential prerequisite for the plots to happen. The Ghost’s role depends on his interpretation and understanding by the characters, in this instance by Hamlet. The Ghost is perceived in different ways, but, nevertheless, his main function remains the primary stimulus of the whole play.

The relation of the Ghost to the other characters seems to partly follow the pattern of The Spanish Tragedy. The influence of the Ghost is imposed via Hamlet, who is connected with the other characters. This is the case with Revenge, whose impact on Don Andrea is projected onto other characters via memory and substitution. The obvious departure from the rule are three witnesses whose commentaries on the apparition of the assumed King Hamlet help to set the mood of the play as well as to provide the audience with different points of views. The perception of the Ghost by Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo as well as Hamlet gives the audience the necessary clues it needs for interpreting and understanding the specter. The problem is that we are given far more clues than we like, and a conflict of comprehension arises.

The essential fact is that “[e]veryone believes in ghosts” (Austin 80). What we are trying to understand here is not one of our neighbours or friends, it is not really a human at all, it is a ghost, and “[a] ghost is a problematic phenomenon, less substantial than a human of flesh and blood, but much more powerful. A ghost is a disturbance. Disturbed himself, this ghost creates a profound disturbance in all who see him” (Austin 80). Above all the Ghost disturbs the audience. To know what the Ghost represents for the characters is crucial for understanding his role in the play, and what he represents for the characters mirrors the perception and attitudes of the audience. Despite Walter King’s statement that “the identity of the ghost is secondary to its effect upon Hamlet” (25), it is obvious that the knowledge of the Ghost’s identity is the condition upon which the subsequent effect depends. Hamlet needs to know if he can trust what the Ghost says and so to be sure of his identity: “I’ll have grounds / More relative than this” (2.2.615). Here begins the search for the Ghost’s as well as Hamlet’s identity, the search for hidden truth that goes on the whole play.

In determining the nature of the King Hamlet’s Ghost, I found useful the approach of John Erskine Hankins who divides the Elizabethan ghost lore into five different theories, and “hints of all these theories appear in Hamlet” (134). They represent the popular beliefs held by Elizabethan audience.

1. All supernatural apparitions, including ghosts, have no objective existence whatsoever. They are hallucinations of a diseased ‘fantasy’ or imagination and are usually perceived when the mind is affected by some abnormal condition of the body. (134)

2. The Ghost’s appearance is a physical phenomenon portending danger to the state. It is of the same nature as the appearance of the comet, the falling of bloody dew… all of which are ominous of great crisis in national affairs. (142)

3. The Ghost is the ‘spirit’ of the deceased, stirred from its sleep in the grave by a vague consciousness of some earthly mission, after the performance of which it can find rest. (151)

4. The Ghost is the actual soul of the elder Hamlet, returned from purgatory in full possession of all his faculties to bring a message to his son. (157)

5. The Ghost is an evil demon who attempts to ensnare Hamlet’s soul by inducing him to commit a horrible crime. (166)

The first two possibilities, as will be illustrated, can be easily dismissed. We are left with three remaining alternatives that are never in the course of the play fully testified. We cannot decide, and we challenge every possibility. In the end, there is nothing else certain than the fact that none of these possibilities is defendable. The whole play is about uncertainty and doubts that are passed on to the audience.

Let us turn to the very start of the play where we encounter the Ghost for the first time, and where we are given the first clues to his identity. Barnardo and Marcellus report their experience of seeing a ghost to Horatio, who challenges them, stating that it must have been their imagination only, mere “fantasy” (1.1.23). Perhaps Horatio believes that Barnardo and Marcellus have their minds clouded from excessive celebration of the royal wedding and therefore “will not let belief take hold of him” (1.1.24). Together with Horatio we shall soon find out that the fantasy materializes itself into the “fair and warlike” (1.1.47) apparition that leaves a great question mark behind. The significance here does not lie in Barnardo and his friend, but in preventing any later doubts about Hamlet. He is the most vulnerable character, with a mind having been completely absorbed in grief, anxiety, and confusion. As John Wilks aptly puts it, Hamlet’s grief over his father’s death suppresses his reason, and he is ready to follow his passion against “the laws of heaven and nature” (105). His mind is susceptible to a belief in anything that would override his grief. He is eager to replace the fact of Death by whatever is offered him, and Horatio suspects so: “He waxes desperate with imagination” (1.4.87). We know that the Ghost is real, three other people saw him, “he has an objective reality” (Hallet 60). Still, the conversation between Hamlet and the Ghost is without witnesses. The question of the Ghost’s existence is answered, but his essence and purpose are not. Hamlet is called by a silent apparition (1.4.84), and the nature of the call remains hidden.

By the second approach the King Hamlet’s Ghost is an omen that foreshadows some disaster coming to the world of men. As Horatio observes, it is similar to the events “A little ere the mightiest Julius fell” (1.1.114), “when all the sway of earth / Shakes like a thing unfirm” (Julius Caesar 1.3.3-4), signifying that “the world, too saucy with the gods, / Incenses them to send destruction” (JC 1.3.12-13). The same way the appearance of the Ghost might be a messenger from “up there” to foretell some tragedy: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (1.1.69). We are here presented with the clue of “folk tradition of ghost lore; [Barnardo and Marcellus] fear the Ghost, they know that its appearance is important” (Atchley 10). We also know that it might be connected with their country: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90).

Horatio is acquainted with the third theory as well. Challenging the Ghost to speak, he proposes a possible explanation of his appearance. One of them, already mentioned, relates to the “country’s fate” (1.1.133). Another one that touches on religious issues shall be discussed later. The last left, “thou hast uphoarded in thy life / Extorted treasure in the womb of earth, / For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death” (1.1.136-138), suggests, as Atchley says, that the Ghost came back to take care of something he left behind (11), to “oversee [his] familial, financial, and political legacies” (Ornstein 78). Another possible explanation may be associated with the deceased person mourning for the life in a human shell, “nothing other than his own remains” (Watson 1994: 79). Such might be the case with the Ghost, who cries for “All [his] smooth body” (1.5.73).

There are a few clues presented that might lead to the conclusion that the Ghost, as the fourth possibility suggests, comes from Purgatory, and Anthony Low agrees with this eventuality (453). First, there is one of the explanations suggested by Horatio who addresses the Ghost “as if it were a troubled purgatorial spirit seeking rest for its soul” (Atchley 10): “If there be any good thing to be done / That may to thee do ease and grace to me” (1.1.130-131) If this hint is not sufficient, there is another indication provided by the Ghost himself: “I’m thy father’s spirit, / Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / … Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (1.5.9-13). A few lines later he explains why he is caught inbetween Heaven and Hell: “Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, / Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled / … With all my imperfections on my head” (1.5.76-79). King Hamlet was murdered while asleep, and was thus not ready for the afterlife; he was “deprived of his chance to receive three of the Sacraments that would have prepared him to face death and individual judgment” (Low 454). Finally, Hamlet gives us the last clue concerning Purgatory, “by Saint Patrick… / It is an honest ghost” (1.5.136-138). As Stephen Greenblatt mentions in his work, Saint Patrick was closely associated with Purgatory, and the Elizabethan audience would have no problems in recognizing “the patron saint of Purgatory” (233-234). Hamlet then assumes that the Ghost must be an honest good spirit who came to ask his son for help on his way to Heaven. Despite all the evidence there are many other hints that refute them all, and invite the final possibility.

Following the last of the theories, let us trace the allusions that might suggest a demonic nature of the Ghost. When Horatio sees the thing that looks “like the king” (1.1.43), he dares to address it and call upon it: “By heaven I charge thee, speak” (1.1.49). He hopes that it might be perhaps a good spirit that “cannot speak until he has been charged to do so in the name of God” (Prosser 114). There are two possibilities. Either the Ghost is too proud to talk to Horatio, who is not of royal blood, or the mention of Heaven prompts an evil spirit to leave. Nevertheless, the Ghost returns and Horatio decides to cross its path again. After a vain attempt to make it speak, the silent apparition suddenly vanishes again: “’Tis gone” (1.1.142). An explanation is offered immediately stating that “it” left “when the cock crew” (1.1.147) behaving “like a guilty thing” (1.1.148). As Eleanor Prosser states, the audience is here presented with a popular belief that “only hellish spirits were banished by the light of the sun” (109), and what else can the crowing of the cock mean than the outset of a new day. When Hamlet eventually comes on stage to meet the strange specter, the thought of possibly evil nature of the apparition crosses his mind: “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned” (1.4.40). However, he is eager to accept the identity of the Ghost as his father: “I’ll call thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane” (1.4.44-45). Still, the heavy burden that was set by the Ghost of King Hamlet upon his only son compels Hamlet to reassure himself of the true nature of the apparition. “The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T’assume a pleasing shape… / [in order to] to damn me” (2.2.611-614). By presenting the mousetrap for Claudius, he wants to find out if what the Ghost says is true, and if it is indeed an honest spirit. Hamlet is both wise and foolish, because his interpretation of the commonly known truth about demons lacks a second half. He sees just one face of a two-faced fact. As Wilson points out, devils can use the form of the deceased person “in order to work bodily or spiritual harm upon those to whom they appeared” (62), which is one of the faces that Hamlet clearly observes. There is, still, another face left. Not only can an evil spirit take on someone’s likeness to harm, but it will do whatever to lead one’s soul to damnation, since “the instruments of darkness tell us truths only to betray us in deepest consequence” (Wilks 104).

The last clue that I would like to present can easily override the preceding evidence. It lies in the Ghost’s speech. Although he is trying to present himself as a good spirit of Hamlet’s father, possibly from Purgatory, there is no doubt left about the speculation of whether he is or is not a purgatorial spirit after we hear the command directed to his son: “Revenge his [thy father’s] foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25). Whatever he says, the Ghost has now closed the door to Purgatory as the eventual place of his residence: “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).3 Consequently, “[i]f a ghost urges something against the teaching of the Church, it is surely demonic” (Prosser 111), and what is more, Purgatory “is utterly incompatible with a Senecan call for vengeance” (Greenblatt 237). I agree with Norman Austin that “[t]he Ghost in this play is not in purgatory, whatever definition of purgatory we choose” (86)4. There are at least two other instances insinuating that the disturbing specter might come from Hell. One occurs in act 1.5 where Hamlet urges Horatio and his two companions to swear that they will not reveal what they have seen and heard. The Ghost intervenes by crying from under the stage: “Swear” (1.5.149). In the Elizabethan time the stage of the theatre was divided in three parts: Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Since the Ghost makes himself heard from the space under the stage, that signifies Hell, he is apparently “acting like a devil” (Prosser 140). Even though, on one hand, all this evidence does suggest that the Ghost is not a good spirit coming from neither Heaven nor Purgatory, it is not, on the other hand, quite certain that he must necessarily be of an evil nature. Even Walter King argues that “the very humanness of the ghost’s emotional outpouring suggests the contrary” (30).

Before coming to conclusion about the Ghost’s origin, identity, and nature, it is important to have an insight into the audience’s attitude to what they see, and to what degree their comprehension is influenced by the clues provided. For if we want to fully understand the Ghost and his meaning, we have to look at him through the eyes of the Elizabethan spectators and consider their beliefs and the time they lived in. As was mentioned in the introduction, England, at the time when Hamlet was written, was a country of conflicting religious beliefs. Still, regardless of their religious persuasions, Elizabethans shared a common view of revenge. Not only does it touch on the question of justice, but it also deals with one of the burning subjects of that time, Death. As far as justice is concerned, the Ghost might be viewed as a reminder for Hamlet as a duty to avenge his ancestor. Although the time, in general, was against any kind of private revenge, the medieval belief in individual justice was not completely eradicated. As Prosser puts it, “[t]he Elizabethan audience may have entered the theatre doubting that revenge was justified, but it was probably ready to be convinced” (35). There lies the conflict and tragedy that drew the audience to the theatre to watch a revenge tragedy. They knew that “[t]o do what the Ghost asks is to risk damnation, to avoid it seems like cowardice [“Am I a coward?” (2.2.582)], and to escape the whole problem through suicide is only to arrive back at square one – doing damnation” (Hallet and Hallet 189). It is much of an interest to watch and judge some current issue if one is not directly involved.

Unlike The Spanish Tragedy where the identity of the Ghost is not a riddle, and where the audience can focus primarily on the question of revenge, Hamlet urges its spectators to wonder, doubt, and search the identity of the Ghost; and they do so, principally for the reason, as Charles Hallet states, that “Hamlet himself seeks the source of the Ghost’s authority” (60). Hamlet invites both the Protestants and Catholics to examine the apparition according to their beliefs and superstitions. Prosser presents her readers with a Catholic and Protestant approach to the nature of the Ghost. They correspond in three of the four possible explanations. Either the Ghost is a hallucination, an angel’s spirit, or a devil. The additional Catholic interpretation is, of course, that the specter is a spirit of the dead, and before the Reformation, obeying such commands would be seen as a sacred duty (106-109). Even using all the clues given, it still might be hard for the audience to determine the Ghost’s nature. Presented with three witnesses to the Ghost’s reality, they can reject the delusion theory. Still, the role of illusion is not yet completely put aside. Although we are convinced of the existence of the apparition, its nature is open to interpretation: Hamlet “[o]ut of [his] weakness and [his] melancholy” (2.2.613) can be misled by his grief, “deluded by his senses” (Prosser 110). There is only a small possibility that King Hamlet could reside in Elizabethans’ minds as a good spirit, because we do not meet the Ghost in any other time but at night, and as Marcellus points out, “no [evil] spirit… / …. nor witch hath power to charm” (1.1.163) in the time of daylight. Though the idea of a purgatorial spirit would be denied by Protestants, Catholics might have secretly believed in its existence. Nevertheless, the evidence presented above objects to such a presumption. What we are left with is the option of an evil spirit.

However convincing the proofs leading to such a conclusion, there is one important presumption that can disprove them. To condemn the Ghost as demonic disrupts the concept of a revenge tragedy. If we concede that he is a devil, the richness and fascination we have experienced so far will diminish, and “thus [we together with the audience] reject the devil theory” (West 67). What William Shakespeare does here is simultaneously offer his audience all plausible interpretations of King Hamlet’s origin, and at the same time undermining all the adduced evidence. It does not only make the play more appealing, it also makes the audience search the different meanings behind the figure of the Ghost, and question its own beliefs.

Revenge itself does not seem to be the primary concern here; rather, it covers a more important matter, how to deal with Death, and the associated questions of remembrance and identity. After the Reformation, there was, all of sudden, a gap between the world of the dead and the living. Purgatory had provided the path between the two worlds, and secured the link. With the bridge pulled down, the black emptiness raises questions. On one hand, what is going to happen to those close to us after they die, and on the other hand, how can the deceased stay in touch with those alive. If they lose touch, how can one prevent the utter oblivion of those who crossed the path? Not only did “death bec[o]me a more absolute annihilation” (Neill 38), but “the blankness of being forgotten was of all thoughts the most tormenting” (Spencer 135). Finishing his long speech directed at Hamlet the Ghost utters two words: “Remember me” (1.5.91). What is it that Hamlet should remember? From a Catholic point of view, Hamlet might have been asked to remember his father through prayers. The problem is that Hamlet, as one of the students “at Wittenberg, political base of Martin Luther and hotbed of radical Reformation thought” (Atchley 11), never “openly reveals that he has heard of such a place as Purgatory” (Low 459). However, it is more likely that he does know about such a place as something forbidden and unreal, and as such it takes away the plausible explanation of the happening after one’s death. To remember might then be a call from blank nothingness echoing the fear of not being which equals being forgotten, the anxiety of one’s identity. Above all, it might be a reminder that all human beings who “are notoriously ready to disbelieve in their own mortality” (Watson 1994: 29) are, nevertheless, mortal. The nature of the Ghost seems to reflect it all.

It is not, then, important what or who the apparition is; the significance lies in what it embodies. The Ghost of King Hamlet bitterly complains that he was robbed “[o]f life [his immortality], of crown [his identity], of queen [his remembrance]” (1.5.75). King Hamlet was deprived of his life before he was ready to accept mortality. His identity was taken away together with the crown, and he is now “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night” (1.5.10) until he finds his identity again. Finally, his wife is ensnared by his brother, and the time of his remembrance and mourning is replaced by the wedding celebration of the new royal couple. Death has placed him on the same level with many others who died, and he is terrified by “its indifference, which steals away the difference by which we live” (Watson 1994: 98). Hamlet is not ready to experience the unmerciful law of mortality either. The death of his father has taken away his identity as a son. The basis of his life was shaken to its foundation. He has lost his father, and also his mother, who has stepped away from him and has become his “aunt”.

The Ghost not only functions “as an emblem for Hamlet’s own deeply conflicted vision of death” (Zimmerman 81) projecting the anxiety of his identity, and reflects “[o]ur guilt about the dead we have forgotten” (Watson 1994: 60), but he, at the same time, proposes a remedy: “Revenge” (1.5.25). Hamlet believes that this is the right solution and eagerly agrees: “I have sworn’t” (1.5.112). He can put his mourning and confusion into action. Even before he meets the Ghost, Hamlet is desperate and overridden by grief, and wants to compensate death by death, only by his own: “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.132-133). Now, he has got something to focus on, a target into which he can project all his feelings. Thus “[t]he visitation [of his father’s spirit] renews the young man’s hope… of the lasting significance of mortal life, inspiring him to defend his father’s memory against the ravages of time, and to attack the proximate cause of his father’s death” (Watson 1990: 200). Hamlet’s concealed insecurity is shifted onto the Ghost and his demand. By mending his father’s death, he wants to restore both his father’s and his own life, and the significance that the life carries. He is determined to free his mind, “from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records” (1.5.98-99), and concentrate on his task.

What he is about to undergo is not just the clearing of his mind, but a complete change of his personality; he thus gains a new identity that is more of “an imposed rather than a self-willed role” (Willson 80). It is easier for Hamlet to believe that this is not about him, that he is just undertaking a task given to him by the spirit of his father, rather than facing the bare reality of death. As a facile solution, he seeks to “avoid perceiving death as an ultimate defeat … declar[ing] something else more important” (Watson 1994: 94-95), and instead of pulling himself together, he willingly embraces his new other self, “I, with wings as swift / as meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (1.5.29-31). From that moment on, the audience knows that Hamlet will not survive, because as a revenger he must pay the highest price of all, his life. As Watson says, Hamlet is trying “to sustain his father’s existence by identifying with him… [and so] joining him in death” (1994: 80). He is not sure any more who he is, and wants to take over the Ghost’s identity by becoming one. Claudius makes a very observant comment regarding his nephew’s condition, getting unknowingly to the true heart of the matter:

Of Hamlet’s transformation: so call it,

Sith nor th’ exterior nor the inward man

Resembles that it was. What it should be,

More than his father’s death, that thus hath put him

So much from th’ understanding of himself. (2.2.5-9)

From the outside and the inside, Hamlet has changed. The way he dresses, the way he behaves and talks, he looks as a ghost himself: “Pale as his shirt… / As if he had been loosed out of hell” (2.1.81-83). As Robert F. Willson aptly puts it, “[f]or much of the play he haunts the recesses of Elsinore as if he were a ghost, and other characters [such as Ophelia] often react to his appearance as if they were confronting a damned spirit” (80). Nevertheless, after his unexpected return from England, he not only appears as a real ghost to Claudius, who thought him already dead, but he becomes the embodiment of a real vengeance ghost. His only purpose is to answer the call of passion that nothing short of Death can satisfy. Hamlet is ready to die. His role having been taken over, the Ghost disappears, only to come back one more time. When Hamlet, in the closet scene, faces his mother, his old self, filled with painful memories, which he has successfully blocked out, comes up again. The Ghost regains for a while his own existence only to hand it again over to Hamlet a few lines later, and to seemingly disappear forever. However, “incorporated by his son” (Greenblatt 229) he remains on the stage and controls the whole plot.

We should not forget to mention Hamlet’s pretended madness, and consider its relevance in the play. One of the obvious reasons might lie in the fact that, as Charles and Elaine Hallet state, madness is one of the conventional elements of the revenge tragedy (8), and as such it should not be missing in Hamlet either. Hamlet makes sure that we know his madness is only feigned, urging Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo to swear that they will not reveal that he has purposefully “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.172). Nonetheless, we cannot be really sure if this is so. Until now we were made to examine every evidence presented. There is no reason why we should trust the suggested explanation this time. This is not to say that Hamlet must be actually mad. I would only like to point out that he is not who he used to be. At the time of his decision to pretend madness, he might still have been sane. Nevertheless, the burden of his memories and his unrelenting effort to conceal himself from himself could not be without consequences. The difference lies in the staged madness produced by Hamlet on purpose, and the irrationality of his thinking.

Before coming to conclusion, the role of the skull should not be omitted. Yorick’s skull follows the purpose of the Ghost in reminding Hamlet of the nature of Death. Unlike the ghostly apparition, Yorick is “the emblem of natural mortality” (Maslen 2). What is more, as Elizabeth Maslen points out, Hamlet meets ‘him’ in the graveyard where he encounters “a world free from ghosts”, and Yorick serves Hamlet as “memento mori [that] he can interpret without ambivalence” (10). The striking difference from the Ghost is apparent. There is nothing certain about the Ghost whose mysterious nature fills up the whole play. On the contrary, there are no questions and doubts about Yorick. He is nothing more than a dead body, an image of human mortality. After “meeting” Yorick, Hamlet seems to come to his senses, and although he cannot shake off the existence of the Ghost, he “re-enters the world of men” (Maslen 12). “The graveyard… is the play’s most brutal sign of mortal ending” (Neill 87). It might be here where Hamlet, after talking to a gravedigger, finally accepts the fact of mortality, because where the Ghost “represent[s] the unrepresentable anonymity of death” (Zimmerman 96), “Yorick [by all means, embodies] death demystified” (Watson 1994: 76).5 There is nothing ambiguous and ghostly about the skull, and Hamlet does not ask where Yorick is. The skull unlike the Ghost is a tangible proof of human mortality.

What is, then, the ghostly apparition, the alarming specter? Is it “a true spirit or a destructive illusion, a cultural convention or a pathological projection” (Watson 1994: 74-75)? It might be a little bit of everything. Hamlet lost his father. Unlike others who, too readily for his taste, accepted that “all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity” (1.2.72-73) Hamlet stubbornly keeps with “veiled lids / Seek[ing] for [his] noble father in the dust” (1.2.70-71). “The problem of action in Hamlet is posed immediately and ultimately by Death, the philosophical tutor who forces man to consider the value of existence” (Ornstein 237). Hamlet faces such a difficulty. The anxiety of what has happened to his father consumes his mind. He is tortured by guilt of being unable to prevent the oblivion of his father. Nevertheless, “his deepest concern is [certainly] not only for his lost father but for himself and for his innermost identity” (Low 463), which lies in his father’s grave. The Ghost is a projection of Hamlet’s anxiety of what has become of his father, but, mainly, of what is going to become of Hamlet. His consciousness is not ready to take it in, and Hamlet is unable to take any action. He needs someone to tell him what to do. Consequently, Hamlet “in a sense […] produces the Ghost; every son does so, reproducing the deceased parent at least in memory” (Flatter 157). King Hamlet was an authority to his son; who else could help him to deal with his life?

Although we do not doubt the existence of the Ghost in the play, because there are three other people who saw him, we definitely doubt his nature. Only through Hamlet are we able to trace his origin. In a way, then, “[w]hat they [all] are seeing is not physical reality… [but] a kind of embodied memory” (Greenblatt 212). Hamlet’s consciousness produces a substitute for his burden that incarnates in itself all those tormenting memories, thoughts about Death and annihilation, and that offers Hamlet a new identity. The Ghost “succeeds in giving a shape… to the horrors of Hamlet’s imaginings” (Zimmerman 81); he bridges the bottomless emptiness between Hamlet’s world and that of his father’s. After accepting an external authority, Hamlet is prepared to struggle with his fate with the Ghost “forcing him to define his own code, to determine for himself his own course” (Prosser 173). When the play comes to its end, it is not certain whether Hamlet won or lost. The only definite reality is that “[t]he final scene… systematically undoes the mythologies that represent death as curable, tolerable, or in any legitimate way consolable. All we are left with is the bare necessity of our denial” (Watson 1994: 45). What we come to realize is that it was impossible for Hamlet to win or lose; with Death, there can be no winners or defeated. It is necessary to accept what is inevitable. Denial is to find winners and defeated where they are none.



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