Using all of his seemingly infinite faculties to compose Hamlet, Shakespeare gives each significant character in the play all the depth and emotion of a living human being. Because of this, the characters, as well as the plot, become extremely intricate and difficult to define. Simply assigning a "label" to each character does not do justice to their complexity because no one character acts according to any easily discernible guidelines.
By this reasoning, it is difficult to determine for certain whether the ghost of Hamlet's father is either a "Spirit of Health" or a "Goblin Damn'd." In order to do this, it is necessary to look, not at the ghost's intentions, but at the effect of its message on Hamlet's life. If an assessment of the ghost had to be made, it would probably be considered a "Goblin Damn'd" rather than a "Spirit of Health," based on the disastrous effects its words had on the course of Hamlet's life. When the Ghost utters the fateful words "Revenge his [the Ghost's] foul and most unnatural murder," Hamlet's life is forever changed for the worse. Not only does Hamlet's quest for revenge divide his family and friends, but it also divides Hamlet himself.
Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not "seems."
In the exchange that follows this line between the Queen and Hamlet, Hamlet's distaste over his mother and uncle's brief period of mourning becomes evident. It also demonstrates some of Hamlet's suspicion concerning the circumstances surrounding his father's death. This exchange, however, occurs
before the Ghost reveals itself to Hamlet. Before his encounter with the Ghost, Hamlet is only suspicious of the new king and his mother, but after the Ghost reveals the circumstances of its death, Hamlet is enraged. At this point, Hamlet is left with two choices: he must either disgrace his father by taking no action, or, as dictated by custom, he must avenge his father's murder with the death of Claudius -- the murderer. Hamlet, being of the nobler sort, chooses the latter of the two, and so begins his quest for revenge:
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,...
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter.
This quest nurtures a bitter hatred in Hamlet not only toward Claudius, but toward his mother, the Queen, as well. Also, during the course of the play, Hamlet mistakenly murders Polonius, thus making an enemy of Polonius' son, Laertes, and driving his daughter, Ophelia, insane. All of these characters are eventually lost as a direct result of the all consuming nature of vengeance. Claudius, fearing Hamlet's wrath, constructs a trap in which he hopes to kill Hamlet by Laertes' hand, thus securing his throne and allowing Laertes to have his revenge. When this trap is sprung, however, the casualties include Hamlet, as well as Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. Previously, Ophelia, having lost her wits over her father's murder, fell into a river and drowned. When Hamlet discovers this news while in the graveyard, it causes him great pain:
I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum.
Hamlet's continuous pursuit of revenge to satisfy the demands of the Ghost, eventually leads him to his death and the death of those around him.
The Ghost's demand for revenge also leads to a conflict within Hamlet himself. This internal conflict is the result of the struggle between what Hamlet feels is his duty, and his inability to perform that duty. Throughout the play, Hamlet has to justify his desire for vengeance to others as well as to himself. However, the justification always seems to be for Hamlet's benefit; a kind of reassurance or, possibly, a motivator:
I do not know
Why yet I live to say, "This thing's to do,"
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do't. Examples gross as the earth exhort me.
...O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
This segment of Hamlet's soliloquy displays the conflict raging inside of him. At first, he is bewildered because, although he has ample reason to exact his revenge upon Claudius, he still has not attempted it. Earlier in the soliloquy, Hamlet is angry with himself because he feels that he is a mere beast, since he takes no action against Claudius. Hamlet's soliloquy ends with his firm resolve that all of his thoughts and actions will be directed toward the task of revenge. This is a pattern found in many of Hamlet's arguments that try to justify his quest for revenge.
The madness that Hamlet feigns early in the play is not due to his troubles with Ophelia, as many of those who are around him think, but to his melancholy over the task that lays before him. While Hamlet feigns madness, he is left alone
and he is allowed time to mull over the problems that face him. As he thinks them over, he becomes depressed and bitter toward those around him:
You should not have believed me, for virtue
cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish
of it. I loved you not.
Here, Hamlet denies that he had any feelings for Ophelia, even though he wrote her love letters, and later, when she is dead, he claims to have loved her deeply. This contradiction may be the result of Hamlet's melancholy, caused by the struggle that goes on inside of him.
Was the Ghost a "Spirit of Health" or a "Goblin Damn'd?" Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost was a pivotal point in his life. However, from that point on his life steadily became filled with grief and strife. Considering all the casualties and losses in the name of vengeance, a vengeance first sparked by the words of the Ghost, it must be determined that the Ghost is a "Goblin Damn'd."