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William Shakespeare?s Hamlet is a tragic story involving themes of sanity, revenge, mourning, chaos, and also the interactions and conflicts among these themes. These different themes are exhibited through the complex actions of several important characters in the play. Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Horatio all are key elements of the plot and each have a strong effect on the unfolding events of the play. However, there is one character that has a minor part but plays a major role: the Ghost of King Hamlet. Even as a character that might possibly not even exist, upon examination this ghost plays an integral role in the play as it exhibits and affects varied elements of the aforementioned themes.
One of the first themes noticed in the play is the theme of sanity. This theme is introduced almost immediately in Act I, Scene 1, as the characters Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio are conversing about the presence and reappearance of a ghost. When discussing ghosts and other spirits, one can immediately suspect and judge the validity of these claims. Are Bernardo and Marcellus merely hallucinating, with the Ghost existing only in their minds? Or have the two guards actually seen the real Ghost of King Hamlet? Either explanation is possible at this point, but the question of sanity is one that should linger in the minds of the readers. Bernardo and Marcellus are not sure of their own sanity and have brought Horatio along to confirm their vision. Just as they are talking about the ghost, it appears, “In the same figure, like the King that’s dead.” Bernardo asks, “Is not this something more than fantasy?” They cannot believe their eyes as the Ghost has appeared before all of them. Could it possibly be that all three men are insane and have just seen an “illusion” as Horatio calls it? The fact that the three of them all see the apparition gives credence to the notion that the Ghost actually exists. However, the question of sanity and the existence of the Ghost can be further disputed as the Hamlet and the Ghost meet and converse.
The question of Hamlet’s sanity is a major theme in the play. Is Hamlet really mad? If so, what causes Hamlet’s madness? The Ghost plays a part in the understanding and interpretation of Hamlet?s madness/sanity. If Hamlet is actually insane, a series of events could have helped drive him to insanity, the most important being the appearance of the Ghost. When Hamlet first encounters the Ghost of his father in Act I, Scene 5, the Ghost reveals to Hamlet the way in which he died. His father tells him “But know, thou noble youth,/ The serpent that did sting thy father?s life/ Now wears his crown” and “?won to his shameful lust/ The will of my most seeming virtuous queen.” After Hamlet hears this news coming out of his own father’s ghostly mouth, he instantly feels rage towards his uncle and mother. The Ghost’s revelation unbalances his already disturbed emotions. He is angry with his mother because of the fact that she would marry Hamlet?s uncle right after the death of his father. Hamlet comments, “How stand I then, that I have a father killed, and a mother stained.” All of these domestic issues with his family are making Hamlet start to feel like he cannot trust anyone, not even his own mother. These issues alone would possibly be enough to affect his mental status, and combining it with the fact his father actually returns as a ghost to tell him this terrible information could induce him to lose his mind.
Hamlet?s sanity is again up for debate when he confronts his mother in Act III, Scene 4. As Hamlet berates his uncle Claudius to his mother, the Ghost appears to him again. Hamlet’s extravagant reaction upsets Gertrude even more, for she cannot see the spirit and now thinks her son is definitely going insane. The ghost has only come to tell Hamlet that he has nearly forgotten his task. “This visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” Hamlet tries to make his mother see the ghost, but Gertrude sees nothing and insists again that he is mad and hallucinating. She calls Hamlet?s vision a “bodily creation of ecstasy.” In this scene, the existence of the Ghost is again questioned. The lone fact that Gertrude cannot see the apparition supports the idea that Hamlet is hallucinating. If Hamlet is the only one that can see and hear the ghost, is it just a product of his insanity, something which he has conjured up to help him explain the events that have been occurring? Hamlet himself is now forced to face the possibility that he is imagining the Ghost. Even he can?t be sure whether he is completely sane or not.
One possible explanation for the view that Hamlet is in fact hallucinating is mentioned in Sigmund Freud?s Interpretation of Dreams. In this Freud suggests the idea of an Oedipus complex. That is, a desire to take his father’s place in his mother’s affections, a desire that would naturally trigger intense feelings of guilt if the father suddenly died. This complex also would suggest that Hamlet obscurely knows that in killing Claudius he would be satisfying his repressed oedipal desire to be like Claudius, who has become king and husband by killing Hamlet?s father. So thus in order to justify the desires attributed to his Oedipus complex, Hamlet possibly has conjured up this image of a ghost that tells him what to do and reinforces his intentions to kill Claudius. It should be noted that the Ghost does not serve to change Hamlet?s mind about Claudius and his mother, but merely confirm what Hamlet already feels and give him further reason for hating his uncle. Hamlet already has a preconceived notion that something is wrong with his father?s death and when the Ghost tells him what happened, Hamlet, who has suspected his uncle all along, exclaims, “O my prophetic soul!” He seems more vindicated with this information than surprised.
Another theme that the Ghost helps establish is the theme of revenge. All the action of Hamlet is based on the one task the Ghost gives the prince: to avenge his father’s murder. When the Ghost meets with Hamlet he first tells him that he is his father?s ghost and that he is “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,/ And for the day confined to fast in fires,/ Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away.” Hamlet must avenge his father?s “foul and most unnatural murder.” The Ghost tells Hamlet that he must not tolerate his uncle’s making the royal bed of Denmark “A couch for luxury and damned incest.” Hamlet is stunned. His worst fears have been realized. Calling on heaven, earth, and hell, he vows to erase everything but his father’s story from his mind, attacks his mother- “O most pernicious woman!” and swears to get revenge for his father. From this point on, the play revolves around Hamlet?s quest for revenge and his inability to complete this task.
As dedicated to this theme of revenge that Hamlet initially appears, he eventually wavers in his decision as the image of his father?s ghost gets more and more distant. The Ghost?s powerful demand is countered in Hamlet’s mind by several questions. Is revenge a good or an evil act? Is Claudius actually guilty and deserving of punishment? Is it Hamlet’s responsibility to punish him? The Ghost brings up this idea of revenge and justice. Throughout the play there are also deeper questions about whether justice is to be left to the state or taken into one’s own hands, and about whether it is possible, in a deceitful world, to tell a good man from a criminal. These questions are focused on Hamlet, who must decide whether to avenge his father or not, and if so, how.
The theme of mourning is also an important part of Hamlet. It is Hamlet?s mourning for his father that provokes him to exact his revenge on Claudius. Hamlet wants to ease the pain of his father?s ghost and suffers from the weight of this burden. He could almost be considered to be in a state of melancholia as a result of his mourning for his father. If so, the melancholy could account for many of Hamlet?s actions later in the play, or actually his inaction in killing Claudius. Before Hamlet sees the Ghost of his father, he is already mourning the loss. He tells Horatio, “My father-methinks I see my father.” However, once Hamlet sees the Ghost, it changes his emotions about the death of his father. Learning about the murder and deceit, just makes the death seem more tragic and unnecessary, providing Hamlet with a reason to set into a state of melancholy and deeper mourning. Although he may not walk around in a constantly depressed mood, his melancholy affects his indecision to kill Claudius and his attitudes towards Gertrude and Ophelia. The melancholy results in a lack of motivation and an outer hatred and distrust towards life. This being true, it seems that his mourning can also account for his perceived sickness and insanity. The mourning of his father?s ghost drives him, and this causes him to make some rash decisions and do and say things he wouldn?t normally do.
The Ghost also supports a theme of chaos and disorder in Hamlet. The fact that a ghost appears suggests that something isn?t right with the situation and with the environment. Horatio notices this strangeness and states that this apparition “bodes some strange eruption to our state.” In order for the Ghost to be present, something must be unsettled or wrong. At first Marcellus thinks the Ghost may be a good omen, but Horatio, who is “a scholar,” reminds Marcellus that both earth and heaven showed omens of disaster in Rome before Julius Caesar’s assassination. He says “A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,/ The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets?” After seeing the Ghost leave with Hamlet, Marcellus realizes the possibility of this disorder and notes “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” He is correct in his assumption. There is something definitely wrong and Hamlet is about to figure this out when the Ghost tells him what has happened and the real reason for his presence.
The theme of chaos can also be interpreted in the fact that Hamlet and all his thoughts and actions, which are provoked by the Ghost of his father, are chaotic. He is unsure of what?s going on, unsure of what to do, unsure of whom to trust, and this all ends up in chaos at the end of the play. This chaotic culmination is a direct response to Hamlet?s madness, and his madness results from the disorder brought about by the appearance of the Ghost at the beginning of the play.
The Ghost of King Hamlet, although playing a very minor part in the play, is a character that plays several important roles in the understanding of Hamlet. Without the Ghost, the play would not be able to be developed as it was. The Ghost helps to introduce different perspectives of interpreting the play. In the world of Hamlet, there is sanity, insanity, chaos, disorder, mourning, revenge, and conflict. Deep in the middle of all this, lies the Ghost.
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