The ghost first appears on a chilling night outside the castle, giving physical form to the anxiety that surrounds the transfer of power following the old King Hamlet’s passing. Its appearance immediately indicates that something is wrong in Denmark, that some aspect of the king’s death has upset the balance of nature. Horatio, in particular, views the ghost as an omen boding darkness and turmoil in the kingdom’s future, comparing it to the supernatural auguries that supposedly foreshadowed the assassination of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome: “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead Did speak and gibber in the Roman street”. In this light, the ghost’s presence symbolizes the condition of the kingdom – “Something is rotten in the state” – where a corrupt king sits on the throne, poisoning “the whole ear of Denmark”, the same way he murdered the former king.
As the play progresses, Hamlet questions whether the ghost is a spirit that “Abuses me to damn me” or is truly his father coming to reveal the truth about his death so that it can be avenged. Even as this dilemma ensues, Hamlet cannot help but feel compelled to listen to the ghost’s tale about his death and his lack of peace in the afterlife: “Be thy intents wicked or charitable…I will speak to thee”. In contrast, Horatio and Marcellus are skeptical upon encountering the image of the deceased king. While Hamlet appears to eventually succumb to the apparition’s influence, his two friends immediately warn the prince not to follow it for fear that it is the devil leading him to hell; Horatio cautions that it may “waft you to a more removed ground”, referring to the ghost as “it” rather than “him.” As this “removed ground” may be hell itself, the two feel that the ghost’s intentions may not be honorable, that it may trick Hamlet into death or destruction: “What if it tempt you toward the flood or…into madness?”. The warning is a reminder of the uncertainty surrounding the ghost.
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