Ghost (Hamlet)

Ghost (Hamlet)

Prince Hamlet (held back) is confronted by his father's ghost, King Hamlet
Creator William Shakespeare
Play Hamlet
Family Gertrude (wife)
Prince Hamlet (son)
King Claudius (brother)

The ghost of Hamlet's father is a character from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, also known as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In the stage directions he is referred to as "Ghost."

He is loosely based on a legendary Jutish chieftain, named Horwendill, who appears in Chronicon Lethrense and in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum. According to legend, the Ghost was originally played by Shakespeare himself.[1]


For an overall synopsis of the play, see Hamlet

King Hamlet appears as a Ghost four times in the play: in Act I Scenes i, iv, and v, and Act III Scene iv. The ghost arrives at 1.00 a.m. in at least two of the scenes, and in the other scene all that is known is that it is night.

The Ghost appears first to a duo of soldiers—Barnardo and Marcellus—and a visitor to Denmark, Horatio. Francisco never sees the Ghost having the immediate preceding watch to Barnardo and Marcellus. The men draw their swords and stand in fear, requesting that Horatio, as a scholar, address the ghost. Horatio asks the ghost to speak, and reveal its secret. It is about to do so when the cock crows, signaling morning, and the ghost instead disappears. In this scene, the Ghost is clearly recognized by all present as the King, dressed in his full armour. It is also said that he had appeared to the castle guards at least twice before at exactly the same time.

"...but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy Fathers life,
Now wears his crown."

Ghost of Hamlet's Father [2]

In his second appearance, Horatio has talked Prince Hamlet into staying up with the guards to see if the ghost returns. At midnight, it appears, and beckons Hamlet to follow. Horatio and his friends beg him not to go alone, but he does anyway, driven by curiosity. Once alone, the ghost describes his wanderings on the earth, and his harrowing life in purgatory, since he died without receiving the ordinances of the Catholic Church, such as Extreme Unction. He tells the young Hamlet that he was poisoned and murdered by his brother, Claudius, the new King of Denmark, and asks the prince to avenge his death. He also expresses disgust at his wife, Gertrude, for marrying Claudius, but warns Hamlet not to confront her, but to leave that to Heaven. Later, Prince Hamlet returns to his friends and has them swear on his sword to keep what they have seen a secret. When they resist, the ghost utters the words "Swear" and "Swear on the sword", from below the stage, until his friends agree.

The prince Hamlet, fearing that the apparition may be a demon pretending to be King Hamlet, decides to put the ghost to the test by staging a play that re-enacts the circumstances that the spirit claims led to his death. Claudius's reaction is one of guilt and horror, and Prince Hamlet is convinced that the ghost is, in fact, his father. However, due to his over-analytical manner and the complexity of the ghost's conditions, much time passes before Hamlet can carry out his orders.

In the third appearance, Hamlet is confronted by the ghost in his mother's closet, and is rebuked for not carrying out his revenge and for disobeying in talking with Gertrude. Hamlet fearfully apologizes. Gertrude, however, cannot see the ghost, and thinks Hamlet is mad, asking why he stares and talks to nothing. In this scene, the ghost is described as being in his nightgown.

King Hamlet is described by other characters in the play as a warrior, as he led Denmark's forces to victory against Norway, and personally defeated its King Fortinbras in hand-to-hand combat. Hamlet respects him, saying Claudius pales in comparison to him, and frequently reflecting on him in an endearing manner.


About a hundred years after Shakespeare died, Nicholas Rowe reported that he had heard an anecdote that Shakespeare himself had played the Ghost, causing a rumour that continues to this day, but which has little evidence to support it.[1]


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  1. ^ a b Sylvan Barnet, "Shakespeare: An Overview," in Macbeth, ed. Sylvan Barnet, A Signet Classic, 1998, p. ix.
  2. ^ Act 1 Scene 5

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