Hamlet is possibly the greatest work of literature in the history of the English language, but it sure isn’t a very good ghost story.
First off, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the late King of Denmark, doesn’t act like a proper ghost. Other Shakespearean ghosts, in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Richard III, get it right. They haunt the person responsible for their deaths, and only that person. These spectral avengers are half divine punishments, half vivid hallucinations of guilt-ridden minds. But the King’s ghost tries to get his revenge by pricking his innocent son Hamlet to the task, which is highly inefficient. One has to assume that he tried haunting Claudius directly, but his lout of a brother was too busy drinking and schtupping Gertrude to care. Hamlet, then, is plan B.
Revealing himself to Hamlet and Horatio (and half the guards in Denmark) proves the reality of the ghost, but if the ghost is real, then many of the central questions of the play about the inevitability and ineffability of death are given definitive answers. Does what we do in life matter after death? Is there an afterlife at all? Are our sins punished in the next world if not in this one? If the ghost is real, then the answers are “yes,” “yes,” and “hells yes.”
Hamlet calls what comes after death “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” But his father did return, and while the ghost is forbidden from giving details, the hints he drops about burning and purging imply that there is definitely an afterlife and it’s not a very nice place. “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,” eh, Hamlet? Ask your father, he probably knows. Where are Yorick’s gibes, gambols, and songs? Well, he’s not walking the battlements each night like your dad, so he’s probably not confined by day to the bad place with the fires and the chains.
And if Hamlet knows souls exist and Hell is real, then he has no need to kill his uncle. Time will eventually do what he should not, and divine justice will take care of the rest. Like ordering that PFC Santiago is not to be touched and booking him a plane off of Gitmo, there’s a contradiction between the ghost’s claims of punishment after death and the urgency with which he urges Hamlet to avenge him.
Either that’s a flaw in Shakespeare’s writing, or it lends credence to Horatio’s theory that what they see is not the spirit of Hamlet’s father after all. The ghost could be a demonic presence pretending to be the old king to take advantage of Hamlet’s natural antipathy for his uncle with the goal of inciting violence in the Danish court. In The Spanish Tragedy, a proto-Hamlet, the ghost returns for the last scene to laugh heartily over all of the horrible deaths his words caused. (It’s also possible that the ghost is just Fortinbras wearing a white sheet with two holes cut out.)
But the ghost has to be the spirit of Hamlet’s father, or else there’s no play. Without the ghost floating about, Hamlet is a one act about a depressed dude who goes home for his dad’s funeral, has a couple of awkward scenes with Mom, New Dad, and his ex-girlfriend, then goes back to school; basically an Elizabethan Elizabethtown. It’s the ghost that kicks things off by commanding Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” and the plot requires a witness to the murder that Hamlet believes but can’t be called to testify.
So there you have it, Hamlet requires the ghost for the plot, but the existence of the ghost muddles the questions of life, death, and duty that make Hamlet the masterpiece it is. It’s a ghost story ruined by the existence of ghosts. Hamlet may be many things, but above all it’s a crappy ghost story.
Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. He is working on a novel best described as “Psychic Hamlet.” Yes, really. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.