Hamlet's Ghost has presented a problem for critics and readers since it first appeared on stage some four hundred years ago. Serving as the pivot upon which the action of the play is established -- Hamlet's father's ghost delivers him important information about his death and the throne -- one is likely to ask whether the ghost is truly the soul of King Hamlet or rather a devil appearing in disguise in order to trick (like Iago) the hero of the drama into a fatal course. This paper will examine the theology behind Hamlet's ghost and compare and contrast the Christian and unchristian, Catholic and Protestant, traits found in the play.
As Roy W. Battenhouse states, "One may agree with Dover Wilson that the Ghost is the 'linchpin' without which Hamlet falls to pieces, yet question Wilson's judgment that the Ghost 'is Catholic,' 'comes from Purgatory,' and 'is the only non-Protestant in the play'" (161). What Battenhouse and other critics like him object to in calling the Ghost Catholic is the fact that he urges Hamlet to spill blood -- in short, to revenge his death by taking the life of Claudius. According to Battenhouse, such a desire is unCatholic in that it is evil and sinful and a violation of the 5th Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."
Yet, not every critic is in agreement with Battenhouse. Sister Miriam Joseph is perhaps one of the most outspoken critics of the view that the Ghost is not Catholic: "Roy W. Battenhouse holds that the ghost comes from a pagan hades or a Christian hell, that although he mentions the sacraments, they are to him mere shells in which he does not believe, and that his words reveal him as having a vindictive and vainglorious character incompatible with that of a saved soul" (493). Sister Miriam then refers to a lengthy rebuttal from Monsignor I.J. Semper who states that "the Ghost pays a moving tribute to the last sacraments, and hence to assert that he merely 'mentions' them is to be guilty of understatement" ("Discerning the Ghost" 493). Indeed Sister Miriam analyzes the belief system concerning spirits popular during Shakespeare's time and argues that the Ghost could easily be viewed as a soul returned from Purgatory to insist that Hamlet pursue a course of justice and avenge his murder.
The idea of Purgatory would, of course, be a Catholic one -- not a Protestant one (Luther, for example, did not accept it). So then when the Ghost announces that "my hour is almost come, / When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself" (1.5), we may interpret the Ghost's place of suffering as that of Purgatory where souls go to expiate their crimes before being admitted into heaven. The idea is as old as the Church itself, and had been rendered into art by Dante in the Purgatorio -- and so this view is not merely an invention of Sister Miriam and others who would prefer the Ghost simply to be Catholic -- and not a devil.
However, if we assume that the Ghost is indeed a soul that has been saved and is merely suffering sulphurous and tormenting flames momentarily, we might pause at the implicit words in the Ghost's message. Indeed, Robert West gives such pause when he states that "orthodox Elizabethan pneumatology (that is, the time's special literature on spirits), whether Catholic or Protestant, hardly provides a single example of such a ghost as Semper suggest Hamlet's to be or give any account of an apparition that demands revenge unless it is a devil" (1107). West implies that that is the precise reason Hamlet cannot immediately spring into action at the Ghost's bequest: he cannot discern this spirit and understands not whether it is good or evil.
Sister Miriam, however, suggests that while the discernment of spirits is a necessary conjunctive of the Catholic faith, Hamlet is in position to do so properly simply because he has been away at school at Wittenberg where Protestantism was rampant. In other words, he has not been educated in the Catholic doctrine, but in Protestant ecclesiology -- and, therefore, he is plagued by doubts concerning not only the Ghost but the existence of good and evil in everyone. Hamlet cannot discern whether the Ghost is Christian or unchristian because Hamlet has not been raised in the traditions of the Catholic Church.
The source of the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius is the fact that not only has Claudius married Prince Hamlet's mother so soon after King Hamlet's death, but also that Claudius is suspected of murdering King Hamlet. This suspicion is provoked by the appearance of King Hamlet's ghost, who urges the moody young Danish prince to kill the incestuous Claudius -- thus initiating the conflict. The conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, however, reveals a deeper conflict within Hamlet himself: Hamlet cannot appropriately act on the information given him by the ghost -- for Hamlet cannot accept that the nature of man is part good, part bad. Sister Miriam states that "Hamlet is a Christian hero whose tragic flaw is his failure at the moment of crisis to measure up to the heroic Christian virtue demanded of him by the moral situation and by the ghost" ("Hamlet, a Christian Tragedy" 119). It is, again, Hamlet's inability to discern the spirit of the ghost's intentions that leads to the conflict between himself and Claudius.
In a sense, Hamlet is a play about doubt. Hamlet has been called the first and quintessential modern man by scholars -- because he suffers from a lack of conviction, an inability to act, and an inability to accept that good and evil often exist in every soul. He distrusts what he sees, what he hears, and what he reads; doubting everything from the message of King Hamlet's ghost to the sincerity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- even the love of Ophelia. At the same time, Hamlet is caught in a web of manipulation that involves his mother, Claudius, Polonius, and Polonius' children. Throughout, Hamlet trusts only Horatio, but not enough to confide in him his own internal struggles. Thus, the major conflict in Hamlet is within Hamlet himself: "To be, or not to be" (III.i.56) is the question -- but it arises because Hamlet cannot determine whether to act or not to act.
Claudius presents a problem for Hamlet because he does not seem sinister. Yet, he invites the "spies" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to watch the step-son, and runs from the performance of the players. He becomes convinced that Hamlet poses a threat, issues an order to have Hamlet executed, and arranges this to be carried out upon Hamlet's return to school. Hamlet, however, is onto Claudius by this point -- even if he cannot challenge Claudius directly. Instead, Hamlet changes the order, swapping out his own name with the names of the "spies." And the conflict between step-father and step-son is carried into the final act.
However, the final act is predicated by the extremes to which Hamlet goes to relieve himself of the nightmare of his own reality. Hamlet is faced with the prospect that good and evil co-exist in the human heart -- and it cripples his will. For example, just as he is about to slay Claudius in Act 3, he realizes that Claudius is praying. Unwilling to allow for such an act, Hamlet retreats; for according to the ghost, Claudius is evil and must be punished. So Hamlet bitterly and ironically soliloquizes: "A villain kills my father, and for that, / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven / & #8230;No" (III.iii.76-87). Instead, Hamlet goes off to rebuke his mother, slays Polonius in a fit of rage (thinking him Claudius), and drags the body off, delaying resolution even longer.
Throughout the play, Hamlet rationalizes, questions, delays, doubts, feigns madness, causes madness, and perhaps even becomes mad himself. The conflict of the play is founded in Hamlet's inability to accept the fact of human nature and act accordingly. The central conflict is within Hamlet's own soul, but it manifests itself in the conflict between himself and Claudius.
This conflict, of course, would not be possible were it not for the Ghost, who essentially forces it to arise. Paul Siegel states that "for more than two centuries critics of Hamlet were in agreement that Hamlet is morally obligated to take revenge on Claudius" (15). What he views as the differences in modern discernment he calls "more awesomely mysterious for its theological inconsistency" (21). Yet, students of theology like Semper and Sister Miriam find nothing inconsistent in the Ghost's urging for justice. Indeed, Siegel notes this as well when he states that Sister Miriam tries to "justify the idea of a purgatorial spirit calling for revenge…Saint Thomas had cited God's command to Moses to kill those who had worshipped the golden calf as a special exception to [the 5th] commandment. The Ghost's call for revenge is another…