Neither Vengeful nor Honorable Be
Although the title character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet soon determines that the apparition which speaks to him in the end of Act I is not, in fact, the devil, the ghost, Hamlet’s father, still portrays a devilish disposition. Alone, the ghost’s first entrance into the play is characteristic of the revenge tragedy. His motives, too, can easily be explained by the cultural standards of the time period through the ideas of honor, duty, and responsibility. Yet, it is the ghost’s second appearance in front of Hamlet which makes the reader question, perhaps, the ghost’s true intentions—whether to preserve honor, an acceptable motive for revenge, or to seek his brother’s death by his own son’s hand out of hatred.
While in our time any sort of murder is generally considered immoral, in the time of Hamlet, historically or within the setting of the play, revenge with just cause, in most cases, was considered acceptable and even necessary when involving family or friends. The motive as outlined in the ghost’s first encounter with young Hamlet, then, seems, by itself, an acceptable request from a father’s ghost to his son:
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnčd incest. (i.v.83-4)
King Hamlet asks only for his honor to be maintained in this scene—nothing more. He asks young Hamlet to remember and to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” but only, so it seems, because of his brother’s lust—a noble and worthy cause for which to ask his son to take his uncle’s life—not because of his own personal motives (i.v.25).
Yet Hamlet does not trust the apparition wholly. Suspicious of the spirit’s claims, Hamlet considers the possibilty that the ghost is the devil, for “the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape” (ii.ii.611-2). The story the ghost tells is fantastic; Hamlet has witnessed nothing yet to show his uncle’s guilt. But even so, Hamlet himself feels the need to discover the genuine intent of the spirit, whether to “abuse [him] to damn [him]” or to preserve the dignity of the state of Denmark.
While Hamlet soon uncovers the new king’s guilt, the ghosts original motives still remain unclear. The play within the play forces Claudius to reveal the murder, enough of a reason for young Hamlet to seek revenge for himself rather than at the ghost’s request, for Hamlet no longer needs to rely solely on the spirit’s story to form motives of his own to kill his uncle. Yet, the original intentions of the ghost are left no less questionable. With the advent of the ghost’s disturbing second appearance, the reader wonders why the ghost is so impatient with his son:
Do not forget. This visitation
is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. (iii.iv.111-6)
Even if this second major appearance comes from the ghost’s concern for Queen Gertrude, then falling under Hamlet’s rage, the first two lines of this, the ghost’s only speach in the scene, remain difficult. The reader can only wonder why the ghost himself is so vehemently adamant in brining about the death of his brother as quickly as possible, no matter how horrible his murder or his brother’s actions have been.
Regardless of his father’s intentions, however, Hamlet himself still possesses enough ground in the ideals of honor, duty, and responsibility to finally take revenge upon his uncle. Whether the ghost is truly devilish or not remains unclear, open to the reader for interpretation. The ending, however, itself fairly characteristic of the revenge tragedy, still results by Hamlet’s hand, not by his father’s. And so, in the end, it is young Hamlet who determines the motives, not the ghost.