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Raymond Nighan, Ph.D.


To write about Hamlet is presumptuous. Most claim the definitive interpretation, or at least hope posterity will agree. The volume of criticism overwhelms, but "once more unto the breach" I want to go, hoping that readers will not evoke Pope's admonition,

Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found

Any investigation that wishes to harvest "fruit of sense" must begin with the ghost. Dover Wilson is right in terming Hamlet's visitor the "linchpin," but the history of critical opinion regarding its origin has been diverse and conflicting. Generally, critics have opted for a Purgatorial ghost: Bradley speaks of "...a soul come from Purgatory," (1) Lily Campbell believes "Shakespeare has pictured a ghost from Purgatory according to all the tests possible," but adds, "Shakespeare chose rather to throw out suggestions which might satisfy those members of his audience who followed any one of the three schools of thought on the subject." (2). G. Wilson Knight fuses Purgatorial origin with ambiguity: "With exquisite aptness the poet has placed him, not in heaven or hell, but purgatory," adding "It is neither 'good' nor bad', True its effects are mostly evil." (3) In another work he notes, "The ghost may or may not have,., been a 'goblin damned': it certainly was no 'spirit of health,' (4) Wilson terms his 'linchpin' as Catholic: "...the Ghost is Catholic: he comes from Purgatory."(5)

A flurry of critical opinion began, however, in 1951 when Roy Battenhouse argued, "The ghost, then, does not come from a Catholic Purgatory, but from an afterward exactly suited to fascinate the imagination and understanding of the humanist intellectual of the Renaissance." By that he meant, "...the purgatory of the Ancients, or their hell...since all are Hell from a Christian point of view: an inhabitant of any one of them is a "damned" spirit...(6) The battle was joined. I. J. Semper's rebuttal warned that the tradition of critical commentary supported a Purgatorial spirit as best articulated by Wilson's beliefs.(7) Robert West argued in "King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost," published four years later, that the ghost "...leaves us where all living men must stand in relation to that country: weighted with its awe and terror and its uncertainties buffeted by conflicting theories..."(8) Harry Levine likewise endorsed the play as written in a "...grammar of doubt." (9) Sister Mariam Joseph's article confirmed a Purgatorial ghost: "...the abode of the ghost and his character fit descriptions of a purgatorial ghost in both doctrine and popular legend." (10)

More recent scholarship of course has not been silent. Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge (1971) articulates a view of the ghost very much consistent with my own, noting "...the command [of the ghost] to murder is as malign as we sense it to be, and Hamlet is responsible for his descent into savagery." (11). She of course argues for a non-purgatorial ghost. In contrast, Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet and Purgatory (2001), citing Medieval and Renaissance texts plus plays that feature ghosts including: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, and Julius Caesar, concludes the ghost is not from hell. Its injunction to be remembered, for example, is predicated on the growing Protestant assault on Purgatory. (12). Eissler's Discourse on Hamlet and Hamlet asserts the rather paradoxical thesis that the ghost is purgatorial, but "...neither expresses the slightest sign of pity, love, or affection for his sown nor mentions the son's claim to the throne, but rather imposes on him a demand that is couched exclusively in terms of the father's own self-interest." (13). Certainly that view implies private revenge, making the ghost non-Purgatorial. Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human argues that whatever sociologists, theologians, psychologists or psychiatrists mean by personality comes from Shakespeare: to wit he invented the very concept. Bloom sees Hamlet's prodigious intellect as transcendent; he is his own "ironist," rendering the play's Protestant or Catholic perspective therefore moot. He does stipulate, however, that Shakespeare's father died a Catholic, (14) a point made by Greenblatt to sustain his purgatorial thesis.

And so it goes. I agree with Levin that irony pervades the play, but that the "grammar of doubt" can and must be resolved in favor of a malignant ghost not from a pagan hell, but from the Christian one sent by God to test Hamlet's faith and courage by trying to damn his soul. This reading helps to define Hamlet's irony by viewing it as an outgrowth and continuation of Medieval moral plays such as Everyman. Further a malevolent spirit explains some of the play's most baffling and enigmatic questions the answers to which refute previously held axioms: affirm several metaphysical primaries without which meaning is impaired.

Refuted are the contentions that Hamlet ia a tragedy of excessive reflection as Coleridge thought. Hamlet is certainly one of Shakespeare's most dynamic protagonists, and any procrastination may be explained when the ghost's nature is understood. Likewise and as a corollary, Hamlet is not melancholic as seen when his behavior is studied according to Burton's understanding of the humor.

Hamlet affirms that Shakespeare well understood the dramatic contexts of Medieval antecedents to Renaissance tragedy, and it does not demean the play to view it as a sophisticated morality play exploring the mystery of a Divine Providence that allows evil to flourish in the macrocosm and microcosm for a greater good. Such an interpretation must be based on a malevolent ghost and the irony involved in its operation in the macrocosm and microcosm.

Structurally, Shakespeare's familiarity with Renaissance Daemonological traditions and beliefs and cosmological systems permitted him to construct a metaphysical subplot based on an analogy:

Although not a perfect correlation since Claudius has some redeeming qualities, the correspondence is sufficiently valid to warrant the assumption that the former is a microcosmic dramatization of a malignant macrocosm. By validating the presence of a malignant ghost, two important 'problems are solved: the question of Hamlet's madness and his relationship to Ophelia and Gertrude. If Hamlet be mad, the condition is aggravated and perhaps initiated by the ghost as Burton's analysis proves. Further, the madness explains his love - hate relationship to Gertrude and Ophelia, The ghost participates by commanding Hamlet to revenge while leaving his mother to heaven because it knows that is the one mission he cannot ignore. The dialectical tension thus created makes madness almost inevitable.

To be kept in mind of course is that Hamlet remains art rather than a supernatural tract. Shakespeare was not a theologian Consequently this study initially considers structure and language patterns as they are Shakespeare's means of dramatizing malignancy. Extensive citations from primary sources are provided insofar as they are not generally available or have been too infrequently applied to the play, The text used is the Arden Edition, edited by Harold Jerkins, together with the Variorum, edited by Howard Furness. Quotations from other Shakespeare play are taken from: Shakespeare: The Complete Works edited by G.B. Harrison, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952). Citations from Plato are from: Desmond Lee's translation of The Republic (New York: Penguin Classics, 1987). Linguistic problems are resolved by the O.E.D., Onions' A Shakespeare Glossary, Schmidt's Shakespeare Lexicon, and Quotation Dictionary, and Partridge's, Shakespeare's Bawdy, plus my own interpolations, The conclusions affirmed are my own, and I accept responsibility for any deficiencies discovered by critics more astute and discriminating

I owe a debt to Donald Cheeseman whose perceptive reading resolved more than one ambiguity, and to Mel Colvin for his considerable expertise in providing technical assistance.

August, 2001




(1) A. C. Bradley. Shakespearean Tragedy. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, n.d., pp. 146-147. (Bradley's lectures were published in 1904).

(2) Lily Campbell. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1952, pp. 126 and 257. Her three thoughts are: the devil, natural explanations, and alterations of the mind.

(3) G. Wilson Knight. The Imperial Theme. London: University Paperbacks, 1965. p, 104.

(4) G. Wilson Knight. The Wheel of Fire. New York: Meridian Books, 1963, p. 42.

(5) J. Dover Wilson. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge. University of Cambridge, 1951. p. 70.

(6) Roy Battenhouse "The Ghost in Hamlet: A Catholic Linchpin?" SP 48 (1951), p. 192. (The second quotation appears on page 190.)

(7) I.J. Semper. "The Ghost in King Hamlet: Pagan or Christian?" The Month. 9 (1953), pp. 233-234.

(8) Robert West. "King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost:" PMLA. 70 (1955), p. 1116.

(9) Harry Levin. The Queftion of Hamlet. New York: Oxford Books, 1970), p. 43.

(10) Sister Mariam Joseph. "Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet." PMLA 76 (1961), p. 502

(11) Eleanor Prosser. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1091, p. 252.

(12) Stephen Greenblatt. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

(13) K.R. Eissler. Discourse on Hamlet and Hamlet: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry. New York: International Universities, Press, 1971, p. 68.

(14) Harold Boom. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. Hamlet and Falstaff is treated throughout the book as touchstones for all other characters. Chapter 23 discusses Hamlet specifically. NOTE ADDED MAY, 2004: READERS PROBABLY KNOW THAT Harold Bloom has published: Hamlet Poem Unlimited [New York: Riverhead, 2003]. Written as an extension to Invention of the Human, the short book does not spend much time on the ghost, but an intriguing line, and Bloom of course being Bloom, makes the read worth while: "It is Hamlet's Triumph over Shakespeare...that the prince implicitly persuades us he knows more than his creator does...Hamlet longs for a mighty opposite, and discovers he has to be his own." (pp. 112/136). The relationship between creator and created becomes a major theme in Sophie's World, a novel about the history of philosophy. See my web site: click here.

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