how does the ghost look like in hamlet

William Shakespeare

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Good news: Hamlet's father is back. Bad news: He's transparent and requesting murder. We talk about who the ghost in Hamlet is and why it matters.

Introduction See All

Summary see all.

  • Act I, Scene i
  • Act I, Scene ii
  • Act I, Scene iii
  • Act I, Scene iv
  • Act I, Scene v
  • Act II, Scene i
  • Act II, Scene ii
  • Act III, Scene i
  • Act III, Scene ii
  • Act III, Scene iii
  • Act III, Scene iv
  • Act IV, Scene i
  • Act IV, Scene ii
  • Act IV, Scene iii
  • Act IV, Scene iv
  • Act IV, Scene v
  • Act IV, Scene vi
  • Act IV, Scene vii
  • Act V, Scene i
  • Act V, Scene ii

Themes See All

  • Art and Culture
  • Lies and Deceit

Characters See All

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Analysis See All

  • What's Up With the Title?
  • What's Up With the Ending?
  • Tough-o-Meter
  • Writing Style
  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis
  • Plot Analysis

Quotes See All

  • For Teachers

how does the ghost look like in hamlet

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Ghosts are a common element in revenge tragedy (which you can read more about by going to " Genre ") so it's not terribly surprising that the specter shows up in the play. What is surprising is that this ghost isn't as straightforward as it seems.

Ghost Hunters

What is the ghost? What does it want? Where has it come from? Is it a "spirit of health or goblin damned" (1.4.44)? And did someone remember to bring the ice?

We just don't know for sure. But here's what the spirit claims: (1) The ghost says he's Hamlet's father (it sure looks like the guy); (2) The ghost also says that he was murdered by his brother, who happens to be Hamlet's uncle Claudius, the guy who's now married to Gertrude and sitting on the throne of Denmark ; (3) The ghost also claims he's "doomed" to suffer in "sulph'rous and tormenting flames" until the "foul crimes done in [his] days of nature / Are burnt and purged away" (1.5.6; 17-18). Hm, sounds a lot like Purgatory, where sins had to be "purged" before a soul could make it to heaven. (That also sounds like a no on the ice.)

But there are a couple of hitches. First, purgatorial spirits weren't supposed to ask people to commit murder, since that basically defeats the point of being purged of your sins. Still, that's exactly what the ghost wants. In fact, he says he's doomed to suffer until he gets his revenge.

Second, Protestants don't officially believe in the doctrine of Purgatory and Hamlet is a Protestant. (He lives in Denmark, a Protestant nation, and goes to school in Wittenberg, where the Protestant Reformation began. Be sure to check out our discussion of " Religion " for more about this.) Pretty suspicious, if you ask us. Hamlet seems to agree, and he's not about to go on a murdering spree until he knows the truth. The ghost's appearance sets the revenge plot into motion, but it also delays the play's action.

The Ghost and Hamlet

A lot of literary critics notice that the ghost has a whole lot in common with young Hamlet. They talk alike (mostly about Gertrude's "unnatural" and "incestuous" relationship with Claudius) and they also kind of look alike at one point. Remember when Ophelia describes the way Hamlet appeared when he showed up in her room looking all ghostly "pale," almost "as if he had been loosèd out of hell" (2.1.93)? Yeah, sounds a lot like the ghost to us.

So maybe the ghost-as-dad is just a figment of Hamlet's imagination. Other characters may see the ghost (the castle guards and Horatio, for example), but Hamlet's the only one who has a dialogue with it. He's also the only one who sees or hears the ghost when it shows up in Gertrude's chamber to remind Hamlet to be nice to his mom (3.4.126-131).

Has Hamlet been imagining his conversations with the ghost the whole time? Does this have anything to do with the fact that Hamlet says to Horatio "My father—methinks I see my father [...] in my mind's eye" (1.2.191; 193) before he even finds out that the ghost has been appearing on the castle walls?

Regardless of whether or not we believe the ghost is "real," we feel safe saying that the spirit represents the way young Hamlet is haunted by his dad's memory. We get it; the prince has just lost one of the most important figures in his life, a man he idolizes and loves, and everyone is just telling him to move on and forget about his father. Claudius insists Hamlet's excessive grief is "unmanly" and Gertrude tells Hamlet to ditch his mourning clothes and quit moping (1.2.98).

Maybe he's real and maybe he's not—either way, he sure seems real to Hamlet.

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Hamlet: Act 1 Scene 1 - Summary

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Hamlet: Act 1 Scene 1 - Notes

Contextual info:.

  • Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1 involves Francisco, Barnardo, Marcellus, Horatio, and a Ghost who looks like the late King Hamlet
  • The scene takes place at Elsinore Castle in Denmark near midnight

Plot Summary:

  • This scene introduces some important contextual information to give us an idea of the mood and tone of the play
  • The scene mostly focuses on Barnardo, Marcellus, Horatio, and a Ghost that looks like the King of Denmark who recently died (King Hamlet)
  • In the beginning, Horatio doubts the existence of the ghost, but once it appears, Horatio accepts it as a real entity, and begins to think about why it has appeared
  • Horatio explains that before King Hamlet of Denmark died, the King had a sort of duel with King Fortinbras of Norway, and won
  • The agreement between the kings was that whoever should win the duel would take the loser’s lands - so King Hamlet of Denmark acquired the lands of King Fortinbras of Norway
  • Horatio also explains that Fortinbras, King Fortinbras’ son is rumored to be plotting a revenge scheme against Denmark to take back his father’s lands
  • The ghost doesn’t say a word in this scene, even when Horatio tries to speak to it
  • At the end of the scene, Horatio convinces Barnardo and Marcellus that they should go tell Hamlet, the late King Hamlet’s son and the main protagonist of the play, about the appearance of the Ghost

Detailed Breakdown

Part 1: introduction to francisco, barnardo, marcellus, and horatio.

Barnardo and Francisco are the first two characters to enter the play. They can’t see each other because of the weather conditions (it is night time/dark), and Francisco demands that Barnardo identify himself before he lets his guard down. Barnardo says “Long live the king!” and Francisco relaxes. Barnardo and Francisco are both guards, and Barnardo has shown up to relieve Francisco of his post. Francisco is naturally thankful, as he mentions,

FRANCISCO For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart. (1.1.8-9)

As Barnardo and Francisco are saying farewell, Barnardo asks Francisco to tell Horatio and Marcellus to hurry up, if he sees them, but just at that moment, Horatio and Marcellus enter the scene. Because it’s dark and the guards are tense, Francisco yells at them, telling them to identify themselves. Horatio and Marcellus reveal their identities by mentioning their allegiance to Denmark

HORATIO Friends to this ground MARCELLUS And liegemen to the Dane. (1.1.16-17)

which allows Francisco to lower his defences once again, and he leaves the scene.

Part 1: Analysis

We get a strong sense of darkness from these first few interactions, and from the setting itself. Francisco is clearly spooked out by everything around him, and his fatigue makes us, the audience, want to empathize with how dark and exhausting the circumstances are. The scene takes place at night and it’s difficult for the characters to even recognize the other characters who enter the scene. This forces the characters to demand that they identify themselves, and here we see that Francisco is only ever relieved by another’s response if it includes some mention of Denmark or the King. This is interesting because we immediately get a sense of nationalism and global scale to the play. From this first part of the scene alone, we might already begin to suspect that political pressures of a national scale may pressure the characters in this play.

Part 2: The ghost appears, Horatio’s doubts are cleared, and we get insight into the political backdrop of the play

Once Francisco leaves, Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio begin an interesting discussion about something that’s been concerning them. According to Marcellus, an apparition/ghost has appeared twice to Marcellus and Barnardo already. The guards try to convince Horatio that this ghost is real, but Horatio does not believe them. As Barnardo is in the middle of explaining that him and Marcellus saw the ghost around the same time last night, the ghost actually appears to the three men, and this time, they acknowledge the ghost’s likeness to the recently deceased King of Denmark. Marcellus and Barnardo urge Horatio to speak to the ghost, since Horatio is a scholar/academic, but the ghost simply disappears when Horatio speaks to it.

After the ghost’s disappearance, Horatio changes his attitude about the ghost completely. He has changed from a person who scoffed at Marcellus and Barnardo’s belief in the ghost to a person who is trying to figure out what the ghost could represent and the science behind it. Horatio mentions that this probably means something bad for Denmark, and Marcellus adds to this conversation by mentioning how all the guard’s night duties have increased, and how the shipbuilders have been working without taking any breaks (even weekends) to make ships of war.

Horatio explains that this hard work in apparent preparation for war may be because of something that happened before King Hamlet (former King of Denmark) passed away. You see, King Hamlet and King Fortinbras, King of Norway, had a kind of duel. They agreed, with legal terms set, that the winner of the duel would get to take the other’s lands, and King Hamlet won. However, rumors say that King Fortinbras’ son, Fortinbras (yes, they have the same name), is preparing to avenge his father by attacking Denmark. These rumours are why, according to Horatio and Marcellus, Denmark has been preparing for war. Barnardo chimes in to say that the ghost that looks like the late King Hamlet is probably appearing to them because he feels guilty for causing this preparation for war in the first place.

While Marcellus’ speculations of the ghost’s motives and reasons for appearance are related to the military busy-ness of the country, Barnardo’s speculations are more spiritual and related to the late King’s actions themselves. However, just as Horatio supported and expanded on Marcellus’ reasons, Horatio also supports and expands on Barnardo’s comparatively spiritual commentary - Horatio cites a story of spiritual terrors that sacked the Roman empire just before Julius Caesar’s assasination, and says that similar omens are currently ailing Denmark.

Once again, the ghost appears and this time, Horatio is more prepared to speak to it. Horatio demands that the ghost speak, but at the crowing of a rooster, the ghost begins to disappear. Horatio demands that Marcellus try to prevent the ghost from leaving, but Marcellus fail to do so. The three men discuss the significance of the crowing of the rooster, and how it awakens the god of day, sending all ghosts back to their hiding spots during the day. At the end of this rather superstitious and spiritual conversation, Horatio convinces the guards that they ought to tell Hamlet about the events of the night.

Part 2: Analysis

The dialogue and the overall tone of conversation before and after the appearance of the ghost are nearly total opposites. The skeptical and rational Horatio changes/develops from a person who would never believe in a ghost to a person who suddenly has respect for the spiritual realm. This helps us, as an audience, accept that the ghost is not just a figment of the men’s imaginations, but is actually real and has influence and ties to the physical world. After all, if a scholar changes their mind from a skeptic to a believer, we are more inclined to respect the scholar’s rational opinions than the words of those who are less educated.

The acceptance of the ghost as a real entity is further strengthened by the differing evidence that Barnardo and Marcellus present to Horatio - While Marcellus brings up present-day events and stories of the recent political circumstances (lines 81-90), Barnardo comments on the ghost’s apparent representation of the late King.

BARNARDO In the same figure like the King that’s dead. (1.1.48)

Barnardo also brings up a point that confirms for us, as an audience, the ghost’s actual existence.

BARNARDO It was about to speak when the cock crew. (1.1.62)

This line spurs further expansion by Marcellus and Horatio (below), who essentially confirm that, in addition to the earlier speculation on the ghost’s relationships to Denmark’s preparations for war and likelihood of connection to the late King Hamlet, the ghost is a supernatural entity, possibly stuck in a space between earth and the afterlife due to some unfinished business.

MARCELLUS It faded on the crowing of the cock. Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated, This bird of dawning singeth all night long; And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad, The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, So hallowed and so gracious is that time. HORATIO So have I heard and do in part believe it. (1.1.172-180)

Are the line numbers different in your book? Here’s why:

There are many different versions of Shakespeare’s works throughout the world, and different versions sometimes interpret dialogue line numbers differently. At Nerdstudy, we follow the Folger version of Shakespeare’s works, which may be different from the version you are using. Always make sure that you refer to your instructor’s recommendations about which version of the play you’re using in class and whether they will grade you based on accuracy of line numbers for essays, tests, and assignments. Folger Digital Texts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license .

As of Act 1 Scene 1, which characters (although not an exhaustive list) did not appear in the play yet?

When horatio sees the ghost, he realizes that the ghost looks like which of the following people, in hamlet act 1 scene 1, which of the guards/sentries are present at the end of the scene, in hamlet act 1 scene 1, marcellus mentions that the country is in a state of unrest and preparation for war and horatio says that this is happening because:, in hamlet act 1 scene 1, the ghost, who has some remarkable similarities to the late king hamlet, does what in this scene, in hamlet act 1 scene 1, which of the three men attempt to speak to the ghost and why, what does horatio believe the significance of king hamlet’s ghost to be, what is the significance of the crowing of the rooster, hamlet playlist.

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Hamandista Academy

The Role of The Ghost in “Hamlet” by Shakespeare

Shakespeare never allows the supernatural to take the upper hand in the dramatic action of his tragedies.

Shakespeare’s tragic world is essentially the human world in which man initiates actions and pursues them to their proper end; they suffer for their deed that issues out of their characters.

Nonetheless, Shakespeare thus makes efficient use of the supernatural to add extra significance to the meaning of his plays.

The appearance of the three witches in  Macbeth  and of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in  Hamlet  are two brilliant examples of the use of the supernatural in his plays. 

These supernatural elements add an extra dimension of mystery and fear. The world we live in is not wholly intelligible to us.

The Ghost’s First Appearance Warns about The Shaping of Destiny

Mysterious forces are working and shaping our destiny when the ghost arrives from the other world. He comes bursting the frame of mortal understanding; he comes as a traveler from that country “from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

The knowledge, the secret that the ghost brings with it, not only puts Hamlet into a whirlwind of emotional response, it also denotes that something is rotten behind the happy and prosperous facade of the Danish Court. How to murder has been committed, and a betrayal of the worst kind has taken place.

The ghost is also structurally significant in the play because actual actions start with the ghost’s revelation of the secret to Hamlet. The commandment of the ghost to take revenge against Claudius makes Hamlet put on an ‘antique disposition’ to plan the play within the play and seek an opportunity to execute his task of revenge.

The Ghost Reappears to Remind Hamlet of Revenge

The ghost reappears in the scene with Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet has delayed taking his revenge, and the ghost reappears to remind him of his neglected duty.

The Elizabethan audience had a mixed attitude towards ghosts. They neither disbelieved their existence nor did they take them as a reality. The opening scene of Hamlet is one of the most striking openings in Shakespeare’s dramas.

The whole world is asleep at midnight; only three watchmen are keeping watch in darkness and awaiting the arrival of a ghost with frightened hearts. The sense is a mystery, and ominous overtakes the characters on the stage.

The audience critics are almost unanimous in praising the creation of the atmosphere of uncertainty, suspense, mystery, and fear in the opening scene.

Where Does Hamlet Meet The Ghost at First?

Hamlet first meets the ghost of his dead father in Act-1, scene IV, and scene V. The ghost reveals a terrible secret that his uncle Claudius murdered his father by pouring poison into his ear when the king had died of a serpent’s sting. But the ghost says to Hamlet-

“The serpent that stung thy father’s life now wears his crown” The Ghost, Hamlet, Shakespeare

Although now only a ghost, the ghost retains some of the human feelings and emotions; it talks about the queen’s fickleness and shows his grief over her hasty remarriage. He also speaks in very harsh words of the murderer who has usurped the throne of Denmark and won the queen to his shameful lust.

The ghost lays the duty of revenge on Hamlet:-

“If thou hart nature in thee, Bear it not, Let not the royal bed of Denmark A couch for luxury and damned incest” The Ghost, Hamlet, Shakespeare

But even in his indignation, the ghost shows excellent chivalry towards the erring queen. The ghost forbids Hamlet to do anything against his mother and—

“To leave to happen And to those thorns that in her bosom badge To prick and sting her.” The Ghost, Hamlet, Shakespeare

The ghost is thus an integral part of the structural design of the play. It provides the hero with revenge and thus initiates the tragic action. The ghost is indispensable from the plot’s viewpoint, which hinges on the secret revealed by it to Hamlet.

How The Ghost’s Appearance Impacted Hamlet’s Mind

The impact of the ghost’s appearance on Hamlet’s mind is tremendous. The mysterious world of the dead certainly usurps hamlet’s known world. Hamlet immediately resolves to carry out the ghost’s order. However, as the days pass, we find Hamlet in a despondent mood, as he finds this task of killing a murderer irksome.

The second appearance of the ghost takes place in Act-III, Scene- IV, when Hamlet is talking to his mother in her chamber. This time the ghost is visible only to Hamlet, while Hamlet’s mother feels surprised to see Hamlet gazing at nothing.

The first appearance was visible to Marcellus, Bernardo, Horatio, and Hamlet. So the ghost had an objective existence; it was not just a figment of Hamlet’s imagination.

But in the second appearance, the ghost seems to hallucinate his guilty conscience. His conscience comes in the form of the ghost urging and spurring him to take revenge.

Shakespeare makes the ghost plausible to the audience by humanizing it. Significantly, the ghost does not appear again after the closet scene.

By this time, Hamlet has got complete proof of Claudius’s guilt, this problem of “to be or not to be” is resolved. The ghost as an initiator and supporter of action becomes redundant.

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