In the history of English classical literature, the tragedy of “Hamlet” written by William Shakespeare has been considering as one of the most significant among the master’s works. In the main character, Hamlet is a representation of the human soul’s complexity. This complexity is further worked into the theme of the play by use of other minor characters. In this paper, I will discuss the minor character of the ghost of King Hamlet and his particular significance to the overall themes of the play.
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When Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, King Hamlet in Act 1:4, this event influences a great deal of what subsequently happened in the play, and ultimately what will be the result of Hamlet's destiny. At the point when Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father, he reveals to Hamlet how he was murdered and uncovers that Claudius poisoned him. The spirit of King Hamlet then requests that Hamlet avenge his death and deliver retribution on Claudius. Hamlet, whom at this point in the play becomes enraged then seeks to honor the request of his father and vindicate his death by killing Claudius. The ghost of King Lear, who is a minor character, then subsequently has a major impact in the play when the mystery of his death is uncovered, in that he plants the seed of vengeance in Hamlet. In this manner, the ghost becomes essential to the plot of the play, and sets in motion all the events that follow.
Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” depicts the themes of vengeance, duty, loyalty, and family love and bonds. These themes are demonstrated in the play through the characters and their reactions to certain situations and circumstances. Regarding focal themes of the play, it is possible to argue that the concept of revenge is at the forefront of all the themes considered in the play. The idea of revenge is the very thing that drove Hamlet to the extreme, and pushed him beyond his mental limits. In the character of Hamlet, murder was depicted as the primary way to avenge King Hamlet’s death, and the route in which consciously Hamlet outwear the sorrow he felt due to the murder of his father. At the same time, Hamlet seemed bound by social obligations of the royal court and loyalty to what his father King Hamlet represented. This may have contributed to the points in the play where Hamlet demonstrated a struggle with the desire to obey the will and power of King Claudius and his mother, the Queen. This inner battle of Hamlet is illustrated in Act 1, Scene 2 of the play, when Hamlet is being requested by Claudius and his mother to remain in Denmark, but he only acknowledges the desires of his mother when he says, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam” (Shakespeare, 40). He does not acknowledge the King in his reasoning for deciding to stay. For Hamlet, seemingly his father remained the true King, and the person whom in which he submitted to his authority. In this sense, I perceive the demands of the ghost of King Hamlet that his son get revenge and avenge his death with the same sense of Hamlet submitting to the will of the true “King” and his authority.
To further examine the idea that Hamlet was facing an inner battle regarding honoring the same family he felt betrayed by, we can look at the lines in which he attempts to share the shame he felt about his mother’s new marriage. Hamlet says, “Or ere those shoes were old with which she follow’d my poor father’s body, like Niobe, all tears; - why she, even she, - O God!.. married with my uncle, my father’s brother, but no more like my father, than I to Hercules”(Shakespeare, 44-45). For him, his mother misbehavior could only be avenged by blood. In this case, only the personal amnesty given by his father, King Hamlet can forgive her sin. Hamlet is clearly portrayed as subordinate and passive to his father, and that point is made clear from the beginning acts of the play. I believe this is one reason why it took Hamlet so much time to settle on killing Claudius; because he had to go against his mother and disobey the order of the kingdom.
In the play, Hamlet seemingly struggled mentally with dismissing the temptation not to destroy what was left of the family. The ghost of King Hamlet was the figure in the play that would persuade Hamlet that his real obligation is in fact to kill Claudius. In this father and son relationship, Shakespeare created both an external and internal circumstance that would create motive and desire to carry out the plot of the play. In the play, we see that the only person the ghost communicates with is his son Hamlet. This point is made clear in Act 1, Scene One, when Horatio tells Marcellus, “And, by my advice, let us impart what we have seen to-night unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life, this spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him…” (Shakespeare, 25-26). Except for the concept of duty, the appearance of the ghost of King Hamlet involves the idea of family love and bonds as one of the moral struggles Hamlet battled. Hamlet is conflicted in being a good son to his father in the Renaissance’s understanding of the notion.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet touched upon the importance of the devotion to family and asking oneself does this devotion justify the motive to murder. For Hamlet, obeying the will of his father to commit murder is seemingly the only way. It is also necessary to mention, that the tragedy of Hamlet was allegedly rooted in the medieval stories. According to Davies, the Danish legend about Amleth, became the main source of William Shakespeare’s tragedy (69). It this sense, Shakespeare’s Hamlet kept the medieval tradition of loyalty to kin and the duty to family ties important. Therefore, the idea of killing in order to do justice seems to be a logical behavior for the character of Hamlet. This also explains the presence of the ghost of his father and his meaning in the plays plot.
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The relations between parents and children were often the object of William Shakespeare’s interest. Sometimes his characters were not quite ready to obey their parent’s will. The play “Romeo and Juliet” is perhaps the most demonstrative and famous examples disobedience children in Shakespeare’s works. This theme of disobedient children in Shakespeare works can also be seen in the majority of our reading this semester “A Midnight Summer’s Dream”, “As You Like It”,” King Lear”, and “Cymbeline’, just to name a few. “As Cristaudo mentioned, “Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provides a compellingly powerful observation of the collision course between the fragility and fickleness of the individual’s will and the sturdiness of families” (138). In many of Shakespeare’s plays, the characters seem tortured by the necessity to obey their kin, in who they see the highest authority, while at the same time battling the choice between their personal happiness and the well-being of their families. Therefore, in the development of his Shakespeare’s writings, the idea of love, kinship, and vengeance consistently dictates the way in which the characters evolve and act.
In “Hamlet,” the importance of family relations and the complexity of parent/ child conflicts finds its incarnation in the character of the ghost of King Hamlet. The ghost was essential to the psychological evolution of the main character in the play. The ghost serves as the guide for Hamlet and is essential in the theme of revenge throughout the play. The ghost of King Hamlet is the main character that defines the future development of the story. Without this character, Hamlet would never know of his uncle and his mother’s guilt. Without the ghost, Hamlet would never have felt there was an authoritative request that required him to fulfill such a murderous request. Perhaps, Hamlet would not have had motive strong enough to cause him to desire to commit the act of murder. His father’s ghost is the one whom put the idea of the revenge into his son’s head; and the one to give him the evidence the vengeance was actually needed. His presence allows the author to use the themes of vengeance, duty, loyalty, and family love and bonds as an important motivation for Hamlet’s action. Therefore, I consider the ghost of King Hamlet as one of the most significant roles of minor figures in the play “Hamlet”. In this sense, the ghost’s role in the story should not simple be acknowledged as a minor one, but rather as a main device in fulfilling the overall plot of the play.
- Cristaudo, Wayne. A Philosophical History of Love. Routledge, 2017.
- Davies, Michael. Hamlet: Character Studies. A&C Black, 2008.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Lippincott, 1877.
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