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Role of the Supernatural Element in Shakespeare's Hamlet - Part 1

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

The supernatural element plays an important role in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It appears in the form of the Ghost of Hamlet, the First (father of the present Prince Hamlet). The Ghost reveals an evil that touches Hamlet's immediate being. It reflects the general evil which has already reduced Hamlet to despair. The Ghost commands:

‘If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;’ (Act I, Scene V)


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Background

The atmosphere, right from the beginning of the play, is cold, dark, mysterious, hidden and full of fear. The very first line is a question: ‘Who's there?’ (Act I, Scene I). The question suggests the mystery present around. Fear suggests insecurity and a premonition of something horrible which is going to happen in the future. The perfect atmosphere of tension and fear is set up before the appearance of the Ghost. The Ghost has twice been seen by two guards Marcellus and Bernardo before. They decide to bring Horatio to the particular spot. Horatio is a scholar and he is sceptical about the existence of ghosts. Horatio comes to verify the report given to him by Marcellus. Marcellus tells Bernardo that Horatio is not inclined to believe that they have seen the Ghost and attributes the account to their fantasy. Horatio's comment and reply to this is:

‘Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.’

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The appearance of the Ghost interrupts their discussion. Horatio agrees that the Ghost resembles the late King in every respect and says:

‘Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder.’

The atmosphere of the supernatural has been created effectively and the sensation of astonishment and terror is effectively aroused in the audience and readers. Horatio becomes pale, trembling and awe-stricken, and does not know what to think of the Ghost. He no longer remains sceptical. In Horatio’s opinion, the visitation of the Ghost is a bad omen for the country. He says:

‘This bodes some strange eruption to our state.’

He supports his views with reference to the strange supernatural omens that were witnessed in Rome just before the assassination of Julius Caesar.

At this point, the Ghost appears again. Horatio decides to cross it even if it were to blast him. He tries his utmost to make the Ghost speak, but in vain. When the Ghost is stalking away, Horatio asks Marcellus to stop it and even to strike at it with his partisan, but the Ghost disappears. Marcellus points out the folly of any attempts to offer violence to the Ghost. Horatio says that the Ghost ‘started like a guilty thing’ upon hearing the cock crow and that all spirits must go back to their abodes when the cock is heard crowing.

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In Act I Scene II, Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo share their experience with Hamlet. Hamlet makes up his mind to visit the spot at midnight to see if the Ghost will appear again. Hamlet, too, believes that the appearance of the Ghost signifies some evil:

‘My father's spirit in arms! all is not well;

I doubt some foul play.’

The suspicions prove to be well-founded later. In Scene IV of Act I, the Ghost is seen by Hamlet who is baffled and astonished though not frightened as Horatio had been upon seeing the Ghost. He asks the ghost to tell him its purpose in appearing there in full armour.

Theme of Revenge

The reaction of the Ghost, however, makes it obvious that it would like to speak to Hamlet alone. Hamlet follows the Ghost disregarding the advice given by his friends.

In Scene V of Act I, the Ghost reveals to Hamlet the secret unknown to anyone so far when he says:

Murder most foul, as in the best it is;

But this is most foul, strange and unnatural.

He tells Hamlet how Claudius, who wears the crown of Denmark now, had murdered his brother, the reigning monarch, by pouring poison into his ear while he was asleep. Claudius had then given out that the King had died of the bite of a serpent. The Ghost speaks of his brother as ‘that incestuous, that adulterate beast,’ who not only has taken possession of his crown but also his ‘virtuous queen’. The Ghost, then, lays a duty upon Hamlet. Hamlet must avenge his father’s death. Thus, we see that the supernatural appearance of the Ghost, apart from producing an atmosphere of mystery and fear, is vital to the plot as well. There is another major theme running within the play – the theme of revenge. The motive for this revenge is provided by the Ghost.

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It is evident Hamlet was always suspicious of his uncle concerning the death of his father. It comes out when he says:

‘O my prophetic soul! My uncle!’

Some have argued the possibility that the Ghost might be a personification of Hamlet’s suspicion. But, if it were so, the Ghost would have been seen by Hamlet only. Indeed, the Ghost does not speak to any of the other characters. It speaks only to Hamlet and, that too when he is alone. However, this is not sufficient to establish the case against the Ghost being regarded as an objective reality. Elizabethan audiences believed in ghosts, and it was not a far-fetched device for Shakespeare to introduce a ghost in this play.

When Hamlet asks Horatio and Marcellus to swear that they would keep the incident a close secret and would not speak about it to anyone, the Ghost joins Hamlet in asking them to swear. The Ghost repeats the word ‘swear’ twice. It is to be noted that this repetition is not only heard by Hamlet but also by Horatio and Marcellus.

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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