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Role of the Supernatural Element in Shakespeare's Hamlet - Part 2

Ayesha is an English literature and language teacher. She obtained her Master's degree in English Literature.


While the Ghost’s revelation may have confirmed Hamlet's own suspicion regarding his father's death, a new element enters his thinking to disturb his peace of mind. It now becomes his secret duty to avenge his father’s death. He now knows that his father’s death has been deliberately caused by his uncle. But he finds the task to be irksome. The task of revenge is by no means welcome to him. This becomes clear when he says:

‘The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!’ (Act I, Scene V)

The appearance of the Ghost is responsible for another important development in the play. It leads him to put on an antic disposition. This antic disposition partly explains Hamlet's strange behaviour and his strange remarks when he speaks to Polonius, Ophelia, King Claudius, and others. His strange behaviour and remarks have been attributed by some critics to real madness.


The Paradox

The nature of the Ghost is uncertain as it stands for the paradox implicit in an action against evil which itself is a submission to evil. He commands:

‘But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,

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Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive

Against thy mother aught:’ (Act I, Scene V)

The injunctions are antithetical, for how can Hamlet execute a vengeance which God expressly forbids? And how can he expose his mother’s sin and murder her husband without contriving against her? The seemingly impossible can only be accomplished by resigning to the will of God. Hamlet's hysterical confusion, when the Ghost has departed, reflects the confusion which is to mark his action against Claudius. He has already begun to plan the series of ineffective plots with which the following acts will be concerned. His antic disposition stands for the folly which is to mark his every scheme.

The Second appearance of the Ghost

The Ghost appears once again in Act IV Scene III. It is the famous Bedroom Scene, where Hamlet is having a talk with his mother. He has already killed Polonius. This time, the Ghost is visible only to Hamlet. The Queen does not see the Ghost, and upon finding Hamlet speaking to vacancy, she thinks that Hamlet is mad. The Ghost tells Hamlet that it has come ‘to whet thy almost blunted purpose,’ that is, to urge Hamlet not to go on delaying his revenge. When Hamlet asks his mother whether she saw anything she replies, ‘nothing at all’. It is all possible to argue that the Ghost here represents only Hamlet’s own conscience urging and spurring him to revenge and scolding him for his inaction.


Views of some Critics

Andrew Cecil Bradley, the famous English literary scholar, rejects the view that the appearance of the Ghost in the closet scene is not real, but a product of Hamlet's fancy. Bradley says, ‘it is a moment when the state of Hamlet's mind is such that we cannot suppose the Ghost to be meant for an hallucination; and it is of great importance here that the spectator or reader should not suppose any such thing. He is further guarded by the fact that the Ghost proves, so to speak, his identity by showing the same traits as were visible on his first appearance -- the same insistence on the duty of remembering, and the same concern for the Queen.’

Coleridge, in a lecture on Hamlet, also commented on the appearance of the ghost. He said, ‘Hamlet's own disordered fancy has not conjured up the spirit of his father, it has been seen by others: he is prepared by them to witness its reappearance, and when he does see it, Hamlet is not brought forward as having long brooded on the subject.’

Another commentator writes: ‘through the introduction after the Ghost of the dead King in the very first scene, Shakespeare immediately creates an atmosphere which is a forewarning that unnatural deeds are either to take place or to be disclosed. The Ghost, indeed, remind us that even the greatest earthly strength is still subject to the controlling influence of a spiritual power beyond the laws of man.’


To conclude, in Hamlet, the supernatural element plays a very important role in three ways: firstly, it reveals the important facts about Hamlet I’s murder; secondly, it lays upon Hamlet the responsibility of avenging his father’s death; and thirdly, in showing up of the characters and in driving home a certain moral effect. In the first Act of the play, the ghost is seen by all the characters, but in the Bedroom Scene, it is only seen by Hamlet. This indicates that there is a close and intimate relationship between father and son, and it is, therefore Hamlet alone who is admitted to the inner secrets. It also illustrates the lack of any such close affinity between Hamlet and his mother. The fact that the ghost is not seen by the Queen suggests that the woman has strayed so far from the path of honour that she is unable to receive spiritual visions.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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