Throughout Hamlet, both the reader and the title character are drawn into the complex question of whether or not the ghost of Hamlet’s father is a spirit sent to tempt and destroy Hamlet or if it is truly his father who has come to reveal the tragedy of his death so that revenge can be sought. Although by the end of Hamlet it seems that Hamlet as a character (full character analysis of Hamlet here) has abandoned the idea of the ghost’s suggestions and call for revenge, the question causes both Hamlet and the reader alike to question two prevailing views about ghosts and the supernatural in Hamlet.

On the one hand, it is rather easy to believe that the general Shakespearian attitudes and assumptions about apparitions are correct—that they are spirits sent from hell to tempt and wreak havoc on the living. On the other hand, however, the reader, like Hamlet, cannot help but feel compelled to listen to the ghost’s tale about his death and his lack of peace. Because of the verbal power of the ghost we find ourselves sucked into his rhetorical power and supernatural influence. The final result for the audience then is just what it seems to become for Hamlet. Hamlet relies on ocular, earthly proof (the play) to determine Claudius’ guilt and can thereby eliminate the need for ghostly influence. The only question left after that point in Hamlet is whether or not to take revenge, a question that is finally worked out in the tragic conclusion of Hamlet.

Attitudes common in Shakespeare’s time about the evil and deceitful nature ghosts and apparitions are defined by the reactions of both Horatio and Marcellus upon encountering the image of their fallen king. Although Hamlet eventually appears to briefly succumb to the rhetorical power of the ghost, his two friends are immediately on the defensive and warn the prince to avoid it for fear that is a devil rather than the true spirit of his father.

Interestingly, both Horatio and Marcellus do not even refer to the ghost with the masculine pronoun, instead choosing to call the apparition an “it." Marcellus fears that it will take him away, perhaps to hell when he warns in one of the important quotes from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, “Look with what courteous action it wafts you to a more removed ground/ But do not go with it" (1.4.42-43). The reader might easily assume that the “removed ground" is in fact another plane of existence which is, quite possibly, hell itself. Horatio also adds a stern warning about the intentions of the ghost by suggesting that it might attempt to trick him or lead him to destruction or death when he states, “What if it tempt you toward the flood my lord / or to the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea" (1.4.50-52).

These words of warning in Hamlet by Shakespeare remind the reader of the danger surrounding the appearance of a ghost and make Hamlet’s subsequent indulgence of it even more frightening to the audience. Furthermore, they cause one to immediately begin questioning whether or not this apparition is a demon sent from hell to tempt and destroy Hamlet or if it is truly his father who has come to divulge the horrors of his murder in hopes of revenge. Since the ghost, in no uncertain terms, provokes Hamlet to consider revenge even before he tells his story, the latter theory seems to be the most correct assumption. Unfortunately, the reader must watch Hamlet grapple with this same question, especially in his infamous“to be or not to be speech” (full analysis of that speech here) until he can find his own earthly proof of his father’s murder (by means of the play) instead of relying on the potentially misleading testimony of the questionable spirit. In general, the initial reactions of fear and paranoia expressed most explicitly by Horatio and Marcellus foreground the question of the ghost’s identity and remind modern readers of different perceptions of the nature and function of ghosts. In some ways these reactions act as foreshadowing for the reader as he or she attempts to sort out the apparition’s purposes.