taking the ghost's word Essay examples

Submitted By kjsimpson
Words: 8438
Pages: 34

Taking the Ghost's Word: Transcendence and the Rationale of Hamlet's Choices in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet HAMLET. Angels and ministers of grace defend us! Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked or charitable, Thou com’st in such a questionable shape That I will speak to thee . . . (1.4.20-25). Although the ghost in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet purportedly appears “in the same figure like the King that’s dead,” any attempt at using words in the play appears woefully inadequate when the characters try to describe the phenomena to which they are witness (1.1.39). Worse yet, formulating decisions based upon acceptance of this eerily transcendent figure's unsubstantiated words leads Hamlet, the protagonist, inexorably to the plays tragic end for it is the insubstantial ghost which seemingly drives the concrete action of the play. As the audience, we see that Hamlet’s own misgivings and the misgivings of other characters reflect our own doubts, particularly when faced with the ghostly form of what we may assume to be the spirit of Hamlet’s dead father. Many critics like Harold R. Walley buy into the assumption that Hamlet was indeed “called upon for vengeance by the ghost of his murdered father” (784). M. D. Faber accepts the plays premise as well, taking for granted the identity of “the ghost” as “Hamlet’s father” while attempting to determine whether or not the ethereal figure is even a “‘real’ ghost” or, in fact, a creation of Hamlet’s tormented imagination (132). Yet for all that, the rationale behind Hamlet's choices derives from one unmistakable act of faith in the ghost's testimony, and by exploring the root of this faith in the play we may discover something about ourselves, as I shall explore below. This question as to the ghost's identity touches upon the very same issue of transcendence and knowledge that we sometimes face in our own lives as we struggle to give meaning to events which shatter our conception of the world. There exist questions in the minds of the characters and audience alike, uncertainties that are as haunting and familiar as the ghost itself. “Spectators,” writes Aaron Landau, “would have found the ghost in the play at least as ’questionable’ as the characters do” (222). We are little different from our Elizabethan counterparts in longing to comprehend the nature of this visitor from another place and time, for etymologically a ghost represents not a natural phenomena of the here-and-now, but rather a supernatural, spiritual one that is said to propel itself from the dark grave of yesterday into the current world of the living. Landau asserts quite skillfully “disagreement about ghosts, firmly embedded in contemporary religious debates, were pretty much the order of the day” during England’s Reformation (221-22). Thus, in “a world where the very fundamentals of religious knowledge were continuously contended . . . the ghost functions as the very emblem of such confusion” (220, 221). I could not be in more agreement with Landau’s acute assessment. I would add further that 400 years later, neither religion nor technology has brought us any closer to an understanding of that which is transcendent and metaphysical. Still, on many levels, humans often tend to put faith into metaphysical phenomena, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their own lives while carrying out the mission of a mysterious, ambiguous supernatural figure.
Linguistically, I would note how the application of reliable and original literary critique requires a certain subset of knowledge upon which to base one’s literary theories and assertions. One could argue from a post-structuralist view that