The Ghost of King Hamlet: Character Analysis

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

In this lesson, we will explore the character of the Ghost of King Hamlet in William Shakespeare's ''Hamlet'' and how the ghost introduces the theme of revenge to the plot.

Ghost Hunters

Like many people, the characters in Hamlet are skeptical about ghosts until faced with one. The watchmen of Elsinore Castle, where Hamlet takes place, encounter the ghost of their late king, King Hamlet. Prince Hamlet's friend Horatio is skeptical that the ghost exists, despite the watchmen insisting they have seen him twice. The first time the Ghost of King Hamlet appears in the play is when Horatio and the watchmen are watching for it to appear. Horatio is shocked and speaks to the ghost, but cannot get it to respond. He believes that King Hamlet's son, Prince Hamlet, will be able to get the ghost to speak, so he encourages Hamlet to come watch for it with them.

Father and Son

King Hamlet's character is best portrayed in his dialogue with his son. While Prince Hamlet waits with Horatio and the watchmen for the ghost, it appears a little after midnight. Prince Hamlet is shocked at its appearance and, though unsure if the spirit is good or bad, says, ''Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, / Be thy intents wicked or charitable, / Thou comest in such a questionable shape / That I will speak to thee.'' King Hamlet refuses to speak until he and his son are both alone, then reveals his purpose for appearing.

The ghost of King Hamlet leading Prince Hamlet to a private place to talk
The ghost of King Hamlet leading Prince Hamlet to a private place to talk

Revelations and Revenge

King Hamlet claims that he is tortured in purgatory and is only allowed to roam the earth for a short period at night. In response to his son saying he is ''bound to hear'' what his father is telling him, King Hamlet says, ''So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.'' Though Prince Hamlet is confused by this, the ghost proceeds to tell the prince that his death was not natural--but was murder. He says, ''If thou didst ever thy dear father love-- / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.'' He claims that not only was he murdered, but it was ''foul'' and ''unnatural'' because of the circumstances. He tells his son that he was murdered by his brother Claudius, Prince Hamlet's uncle, who now is king of Denmark and is married to Gertrude, King Hamlet's wife and Prince Hamlet's mother. Although the rumor has been spread that King Hamlet was killed by a poisonous snake biting him while he was asleep, the ghost reveals to his son that Claudius poisoned him.

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