Hamlet opens with the simple question, “Who’s there?” But, simple as the question may be, it echoes repeatedly through the play. Who is Hamlet really, who is Ophelia, who is Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude? Beneath their words and their smiling or frowning exteriors, their external portrayals of themselves, who are they?
But the character for whom the answer to this question is most indefinite, is the Ghost. WHO IS IT? Its true identity is arguably central to understanding the identities of the other characters. If it is really the spirit of Hamlet’s father, Hamlet is better justified as a hero, and his revenge scheme is somewhat ratified. But if the Ghost is a demon, or even an incarnation of the devil, then Hamlet is not at all justified as attempting revenge, and he is in fact acting against himself and his father. The identity of the Ghost could also directly affect the identity of Gertrude, because for whatever reason, she is unable to see it.If it were an evil spirit, then perhaps her goodness would prevent her from seeing it. But if it were the true spirit of her dead husband, then maybe she could not see it because she was defiled and sinful. Or, maybe the Ghost simply chooses to not reveal itself to her at all, giving her no influence at all over whether or not she may see it.
However, the Ghost does reveal important information about itself, which does give us a clue as to its identity. First, it tells Hamlet that it is “doomed for a certain term to walk the night,/ And for the day confined to fast in fires.” This is not a likely portrayal of a heavenly being. Especially when the punishment defined by the Ghost seems much like the Catholic idea of Purgatory, and at the time Hamletwas written and performed, England was militantly Protestant. Catholics were seen as evil and dangerous, and subsequently, were executed (Remember what Mary, Queen of Scots was?). So to identify the Ghost as Catholic, would be taking a step towards making it an unsympathetic character in the minds of the original audiences.
But not only is this perhaps a Catholic Ghost, it says that it (while claiming to be the spirit of Hamlet’s father) has a multitude of sins to be punished for, because it was “Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin.” So, if it really is the Ghost of the dead king, it is proving Hamlet’s glorifed perception of his father as being unfounded – that is, the king really was not as good as Hamlet imagined. But, if this is not the king’s Ghost, then it could be merely feeding Hamlet lies calculated to show Hamlet that his father was not perfect and sinned, therefore Hamlet himself could sin. If Hamlet’s role model has fallen, why should Hamlet not fall also?
One thing that becomes very evident about the Ghost is its encouragement of vice in Hamlet. If it was the Ghost of the king, which was having to pay penance for its sins, why would it encourage Hamlet to develop vices which would simply guarantee Hamlet a sure entrance into the same purgatory it was currently in? All that the Ghost encourages Hamlet to do, is selfish. Would a father really ask that of his son? He is constantly using the word “revenge” rather than “justice” and speaks of anger, malice, envy, distain. These are all quite the opposite of the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.
There is also Hamlet’s repeated use of the word “hell” or its imagery or connotations both before and after his dialogue with the Ghost. Hamlet’s own question to the Ghost, ” Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell?” seems to be answered as being blasts from hell. Yet, in spite of this all, Hamlet does initially believe that it is truly his father’s Ghost. It is not until later that he doubts it and suspects that it could possibly be the devil incarnate.
So who is this Ghost? Perhaps it truly is the Dane, but it seems much more likely that it is not. Just look at what it did to poor Hamlet!