William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a drama which has been renound for its content and depiction of characters. Over the years, it has gone through many variations of interpretations and criticisms. One such criticism is the nature of the ghost who takes the form of Hamlet’s dead father. At first glance, it may be sufficient to accept the ghost as the spirit of Hamlet’s dead father who returns to the land of the living in order to have his son avenge his murder. However, looking deeper into the text, several unignorable signs become visible which lead us to see that the ghost is actually the devil in disguise. Kenneth Brannagh’s 1997 production of Hamlet brilliantly portrays these signs of evil and cynicism.
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The Devil had an agenda from the very beginning: to cause havoc in the royal family, leading to the downfall of the crown of Denmark. After King Hamlet’s death, the Devil saw this as its perfect opportunity to begin the first stage of its plan. It was aware of Hamlet’s hatred toward his uncle Claudius, who came between Hamlet and his rightful seat on the throne. It was aware of Hamlet’s disgust with his mother’s incestuous marriage to her brother-in-law. And it was aware of Hamlet’s despair over losing his father who he dearly loved and admired.
In Brannagh’s film, we see Francisco (the guard outside the castle walls) startled by the ghost, who motions for his sword. This is the second time the ghost has appeared and the guards are both afraid and confused. They then call upon Horatio, Hamlet’s dear friend to witness the vision to confirm their fears. When Horatio arrived, the ghost appeared once again in “that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march” (I:1:47-49). But when Horatio charges the ghost in heaven’s name to speak, the apparition stalks away “like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons” (I:1:147-148). This is the first sign that the ghost has come from a place other than heaven. Horatio explains the tradition concerning spirits and the crowing of the cock:
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Awake the god of day, and at his warning,
Th’ extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine; and of the truth herein
This present object made probation. (I:1:147-155)
Then Marcellus adds to this by explaining the tradition concerning the Christmas season. He says that during this time of year, “no spirit dare stir abroad” because “so hallowed and so gracious is that time” (I:1:160,163). Because the season has come for the grounds to be sacred and holy, the Devil is cautious in its moments appearance and disappearance.
When Hamlet sees the ghost for the first time, the first words out of his mouth are, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” (I:4:39). This is the first sign of evil that is sensed through the ghost. The men had no idea what kind of a spirit the ghost was, whether it was sent by heaven or by hell. Horatio then shows his concern, warning Hamlet that the apparition may lead him to a horrible place and change form “Which might deprive [Hamlet’s] sovereignty or reason / And draw [him] into madness” (I:4:73-74). This gives us a foreshadowing of the events, which will take place in the play. Later, due to Hamlet’s heavy load of emotional problems, he is drawn into madness.
Hamlet does decide to follow the ghost. In Branagh’s film, this place is portrayed as woods of darkness. The viewer gets an eerie feeling, then suddenly, Hamlet stops and beckons for the ghost to speak. When we finally hear the ghost speak to Hamlet, it is fearful voice. In a deep, whisper-like, and cynical manner, the ghost tells Hamlet that its time is almost up “when [it] to sulph’rous and tormenting flames / Must render up [itself]” (I:5:3-4). This description sounds much like the commonly believed vision of hell.
The mere fact that the ghost is calling upon Hamlet to revenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle, is a sign that this ghost is not from heaven. If it were, the natural Christian belief were that the judgement of all is in the hands of God, and should not be taken into human hands. Because the apparition instructs Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” it is giving away the fact that he is from the devil. The Devil, in the form of Hamlet’s father, speaks in a spiteful and angry way regarding his brother and his former wife. In its description of the King’s murder, the Devil tells it in such a way to spark up and surface Hamlet’s hatred and anger toward his mother and uncle. This plan succeeded, and therefore, the first stage the Devil’s agenda toward destruction.
In Kenneth Branagh’s film, the ghost has eyes as clear as glass. The light blue and crystal clear eyes give the ghost a more pale and dead look. It seems as if the ghost has no life left in it at all. The significance of the ghost’s eyes will become clearer later in the examination.
When Horatio and Marcellus finally find Hamlet, the ghost had disappeared from sight. Hamlet then asks them to swear upon his sword not to mention to anyone what they have seen. At that point, the ghost breathes out a startling command for them to swear. Just then, as depicted in Branagh’s film, the Earth began to crack and split, releasing hot steam, which seems to have been rising from beneath the Earth. Here, we see another sign of the origin of the ghost. Hell was believed to be below the Earth. The mere depiction of the ghost’s voice coming from nowhere, followed by steam from the bottom of the Earth, shows us that it must have come from the Devil’s abode.
Later in the play, just as Horatio predicted, Hamlet is drawn into madness. This is best seen in his conversation in Queen Gertrude’s chamber after the production of the players. While Hamlet is scorning his mother, he suddenly sees his father’s ghost. One can argue that this is not the same ghost seen in the beginning of the play. Many characteristics show that this ghost is merely a hallucination conjured up by Hamlet out of his madness. One sign of this is the ghost’s attire. It no longer comes in armor, the way he appeared the first three times to the soldiers and to Hamlet. This time, the ghost is dressed in a robe, wearing a hood. Another distinguishing feature is the color of his eyes. Branagh caught this feature brilliantly. Instead of the glassy light blue eyes, we see the ghost with darker, browner eyes. Even the content of the ghost’s speech and the tone in which it was speaking sounded different. It sounded more sympathetic, and therefore, more human. It is not surprising that the ghost, as a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, would be presented in such a way as to mirror the human father which Hamlet so admired and revered. Also, the fact that this apparition could be seen only by Hamlet is contrary to the appearance of the ghost in the beginning of the play, where the ghost was not only visible to Hamlet, but to others as well.
Other signs of Hamlet’s madness is his obsession with death. He has turned into a cynical person, who delays the slaying of his uncle because he wants to be certain that Claudius falls straight to hell. Although the murder of Polonius was due to a case of mistaken identity, this is nevertheless questionable when Hamlet refuses to reveal the location of the body to the castle guards. Also, Hamlet deviously plans the death of his so-called friends by sabotaging their journey to England.
As the play continues, we can see obvious signs of chaos and destruction already present. In summarizing the chain reaction of events, we begin with the death of King Hamlet. After his death, Claudius marries Gertrude, stirring up hatred and fear in Hamlet. Taking the opportunity, the Devil disguises himself as the dead King Hamlet and instructs Hamlet to murder Claudius. Hamlet goes mad, which is pains Ophelia. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius out of rage, then Ophelia dies after going mad due to the madness of Hamlet and the death of her father. Laretes comes home to find his father dead, later finding out his sister dead, then conspires a plot with Claudius to kill Hamlet. This dual ends in the deaths of Claudius, Larates, Gertrude, Hamlet, and later we find out that Rozencranz and Guildenstern have been killed.
The death of King Hamlet began a chain reaction which inevitably leads to the downfall of the royal family of Denmark. The Devil has succeeded in its plan by skillfully choosing Hamlet to carry out its dirty work.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. In The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 1995. (1306-1404).