Questions re: the Ghost in Hamlet

In Hamlet, there is a Ghost. There can be no question. It’s in the list of characters and that’s how it’s listed as a speaker in the text.

In the world of the play and–as we’ve seen–in the belief system of its audience, it’s real. While in some productions that omit the opening scene, it feels like it could be a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, the dialogue exchanged in Act One, Scene One, is pretty conclusive in proving its existence. And while it’s real, it’s real quiet, too, as Horatio hopes “This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to (Hamlet)” (I.i.171).

And speak it does in Act One, Scene Five. I count nine speeches with Hamlet, including that 50-line behemoth that begins “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast” (I.v.42-91), plus an additional four urgings to “swear” near the end of the scene, once Horatio and Marcellus have re-entered it.

But does the Ghost speak only to Hamlet?

There’s nothing explicit in the text that demonstrates Horatio or Marcellus hear the Ghost.

Horatio says after the first urging, “Propose the oath, my lord” (I.v.155), but this could be more in response to Hamlet’s “Consent to swear” (I.v.155) than to the Ghost. Yes, I know that Hamlet says, “You hear the fellow in the cellarage” (I.v.154, emphasis mine), but he also assumes Gertrude sees the Ghost in Act Three, Scene Four… and she doesn’t (more on that in a moment). Plus neither Horatio nor Marcellus acknowledges hearing the Ghost, and I would argue that “cellarage” is more of an in-line stage direction for where the voice should come from (along with “old mole” [I.v.165]).

Horatio, after the third urging, says, “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange” (I.v.167). However, the statement follows more immediately Hamlet’s “wild and whirling words” (I.v.133): “Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast? // A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends” (I.v.165-6), and these words are “wondrous strange.”

I would argue that while you could play it either way in production, it might be more interesting if Hamlet’s partners do not hear the Ghost.

More interesting and more consistent, because….

Gertrude sees “nothing at all” (III.iv.132), and hears “nothing but ourselves” (III.iv.133), meaning herself and Hamlet, in the closet scene. The guards and Horatio couldn’t hear it in the opening scene, and the queen can’t hear it here. This makes me think only Hamlet can hear it.

But that doesn’t explain why Gertrude can’t see the Ghost. Why is that? It can’t be because the Ghost can only appear to whom he wants to avenge his murder (since the guards see him). I don’t think it’s because he can only appear to blood relatives since Claudius doesn’t see him (though the Campbell Scott 2000 television production does a neat trick by having Claudius see his dead brother as the Player King for just an instant before he calls for the play to end). I mean, if he could appear to Claudius, why wouldn’t he? Caesar appears to Brutus; multiple victims appear to Richard, and (as we shall see) Banquo will become an unwanted dinner guest of Macbeth’s. If I were the Ghost, I’d try to scare the hell (or a confession) out of my murderous brother.

But back to the question at hand: why can’t Gertrude see the Ghost when Hamlet (and we) can? Is it a male thing? There’s no support for that in either the text or rational thought. Because Hamlet’s the protagonist and she isn’t (which would explain Claudius), but the how to explain the guards? Then why?

I don’t have an answer. (unless, with apologies to the prince: unless he’s mad. unless he’s mad. unless he’s mad. )

One last question: in the closet scene, why does the Ghost appear “in his nightgown” (III.iv.101 stage direction)? Because this is in the queen’s bedchamber and a nightgown was what he wore there? That might explain it, but then why does he appear in armor on his own battlements? Did he have to defend Elsinore from foreign foes?

Again, I don’t have answers here. But in this play, I can’t help coming up with the questions.

One Reply to “Questions re: the Ghost in Hamlet”

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