Hamlet, a ghost story

In Shakespeare’s day, the belief in ghosts and the supernatural was much more widespread than it is today. In 2015, television shows like “Ghost Hunters” might feed a curiosity but also act as a clearly ironic view of the endeavor. I would suggest that just as many people watch the show to laugh at it as watch it to have their own beliefs validated. But remember that this play was created some time between 1599 and 1602, not in 2015. In 1603, James I (VI of Scotland) would ascend the throne after the death of Elizabeth, and this was a man for whom the study of witchcraft was a branch of theology. He wrote a scholarly tract on the subject, and according to some, may have even overseen the torture of some women who had been accused of being witches. We’ll delve into this a bit more in a few months when we get to Macbeth.

But this is Hamlet, and we have no witches on stage, only in the speeches and minds of a few of the characters. Instead, we get a ghost and a glimpse into the afterlife.

While purgatory is never stated by name in the play (only “purg’d,” “purging” [twice], and “purgation,” are used), Old Hamlet’s Ghost seems linked to this concept as he is

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
  • I.v.10-3

Souls not good enough to go immediately to heaven (as well as those who are not evil enough to go immediately to hell) are sent to purgatory where those souls would be punished and by this punishment, purged of their sins, allowing them to go to heaven. According to Catholic belief, these souls in limbo might be allowed to return to earth to warn the living that they needed to repent before death. The Ghost does discuss his punishment, but his return to earth is about revenging not repenting. This might be the reason why Hamlet has doubts about the Ghost’s true identity and mission, as he voices his fear that

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.
  • II.ii.537-42

This is why Hamlet says, “I’ll have grounds // More relative than this” (II.ii.43-4), proof stronger than just the word of a Ghost.

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