Even as Hamlet laments the horrors his father’s ghost describes, so the prince is already becoming a ghost himself.
It waves me still.—Go on, I’ll follow thee.
You shall not go, my lord. [They hold back Hamlet.]
HAMLET Hold off your hands.
Be ruled. You shall not go.
HAMLET My fate cries out
And makes each petty arture in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.
Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away!—Go on. I’ll follow thee.
[Ghost and Hamlet exit.]
“My fate cries out.” Hamlet follows the ghost and his following works on several levels. In one sense, he follows the ghost physically, trailing behind the apparition as it leads him to another location. In another sense, he follows the ghost into its own narrative, listening to what it tells him, opening his mind to it, and entertaining a willingness to act on its version of events–to avenge his father’s murder.
In a third sense, the ghost also leads Hamlet into the spirit realm. Following the ghost is moving towards the ghostly, moving Hamlet closer to becoming a ghost himself. Each step the prince takes in the ghost’s wake leads him further from the world of the flesh, away from the solid world of sentries and castle ramparts, while ushering him deeper into a realm of incorporeal fog.
This fog may or may not be literal. Although sometimes staged as a foggy night, the dialogue between the two sentries in the opening scene dwells more on the “bitter cold”, heart sickness, and a general apprehension. Identity remains in question, which suggests a kind of fog, and even after the ghost has identified itself to Hamlet as “thy father’s spirit”, doubts remain that the ghost is what it says it is.
Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!1.4.43-9.
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.
Notably, the ghost, for all its likeness to Hamlet’s dead father, is not the former king. The ghost says, “I am thy father’s spirit.” There is a subtle distinction in this. The ghost is no longer Hamlet’s father, rather it is something which once was his father.
GHOST: I am thy father’s spirit,1.5.14-8.
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
Its state of being has altered, and the ghost is in flux, undergoing a purification by fire. Like Ophelia’s later mentioned baker’s daughter, Hamlet’s father has ceased to be in a former state, and is undergoing a sea change in a sea of fire.* As Ophelia later affirms, “Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be.” 4.5.48-9. Life remains ever changing. As Ophelia reminds us again in her mad flower ramblings. “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.” 4.5.207-9.
Poor ghost, or is it the poor remaining daughters, sons, partners, friends whom we should pity.
This ghost writer has written elsewhere about ghosts, how they can be echoes, especially in Shakespeare. They are characters who ‘were’, and ghosts exist as reminders of the past. Spectral Banquo still appears at the banquet from which his murder, arranged by his erstwhile friend, Macbeth, had prevented his attendance. The dead Julius Caesar visits Brutus on the night before his defeat at Philippi. Similarly, on the night before his decisive battle at Bosworth field, Richard III is visited by a host of phantoms of his victims–Prince Edward, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan all tell Richard that they will sit heavy on his soul.
In character terms, ghosts may mark the weight of memory, guilt, of previous transgressions returning to visit the living. Ghosts also indicate moments where things have gone awry in the world of the play’s past, and in terms of dramatic mechanism, they represent pivotal moments in the plot–moments when characters, circumstances, or fate change direction.
In Hamlet’s case, his father’s ghost sets him on a course which ultimately will lead not only to his uncle’s death, but also (either directly or indirectly) to the deaths of multiple other characters as his vengeance cuts an especially wide swath. Not only Hamlet and Claudius, but Hamlet’s revenge also encompasses Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, and Laertes as collateral damage. Not uncommon in early modern revenge tragedies, the mounting deaths can present a challenge to directors. What does one do with the large number of bodies covering the stage at the end of the play?
These corpses are revenants too, visual reminders of death for the audience, even as the final restoration of order takes place in the play’s world. , The profound discord of vengeance lingers, even after someone new takes command. Ghosts seem a bit like the “shine” as Halloran (played by Scatman Crothers) explains to Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s The Shining:
In this film, the ghosts range from creepy to terrifying. Still, in both The Shining and in Hamlet, the most frightening ghosts may be found in characters’ minds.
Once Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, he climbs a metaphorical stile in the fence between the living and the dead. He enters the kissing gate between two different fields of existence–being and been. In this spot, weeds grow highest at the margin of the field and the space beyond the fence gives way to deeper woods.
When the spirit directs him to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet lends the ghost a surrogate physical presence. With the spirit representing a will towards resolution, Hamlet serves as the ghost’s extension by becoming the ghost’s agent in the world of the living. Hamlet also becomes a bridge between the afterlife and his own. He becomes the ghost’s earthly mind and hands. Hamlet begins to serve as a bridge between living and dead, between the world of the play, and the world beyond it.
Such bridges may function on multiple levels. Like the bridge above, they may connect the mortal world with a fairy land outside of it, but they may also signify a connection between the play and the audience, and the action of the play and its aftermath.
There are all sorts of boundaries, borders, connections. In the same sense that life leads on to an inevitable end, so one place leads on to another. Boundaries may also be seen as gateways.
Stiles, bridges, gateways–these may all be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or any combination of these. Transition, change, is constant and unlimited. It may be gradual or precipitous, and each life tends to be full of gradients from across the spectrum. Places go through their own transitions as well, often serving as reminders of and connections to a vanished past.
Even houses of worship may become relics. Remnants of changing patterns of faith and conflict. Marks of the ongoing political struggle inherent in human belief and its place in the world, or between the worlds of gods and those of humankind.
Sometimes, we see those gods’ worlds as humankind conceived them–all stone arches and lofty pinnacles. Reaching. Reaching for something they cannot truly touch (except perhaps within the human heart. Ask William Boyd, or better yet, read the novel).
Whilst offering windows into human pasts, the ancient hallmarks of belief may also extend glimpses of other worlds.
From our human perspective, it may all seem connected, all part of a greater circle. We do stand in a circle.
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
In my beginning is my end. Now the light fallsFrom T.S. Eliot Four Quartets 2: East Coker
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.
The alpha and the omega anyone? Although death coils intimately within life and being, Hamlet seems to cross a line when he chooses to follow it deliberately. Whereas our usual ways of reckoning, of gazing across the fence, may afford a relatively safe kind of thanatopsis (not that anyone reads William Cullen Bryant so much these days), Hamlet defies anyone to stop him from following–offering to make a ghost of anyone who prevents him from climbing the stile and crossing the fence into the next field.
Still, danger is always with us. Death surrounds us like the proverbial lover’s embrace, only closer. In our mating lies the hinge to the door of our senescence. Those ever renewable, quickly healing bodies of our youth seem to decline so quickly after puberty. Carlos Castañeda’s fictionalized Yaqui wise man Don Juan Matus might describe death as a friend who lurks ever at our left shoulder, but it all seems even much more intimate than that.
Some places seem more likely to hasten our ghosthood. We all know dangerous places, albeit these may be changeable. A road at night. A path through the Carpathian Alps (again at night). A secret government facility (perhaps, but not necessarily, at night). A laboratory where someone tests the boundaries of existence or reality as we know it. Any place in eastern Ukraine this week. Still, for all that, it sometimes seems as if in our collective mythology, the most dangerous place in the world might be a small town.
British small towns–we all done seen ’em on the teevee–may have only a few houses and a shop. Perhaps a nearby university extension or an art museum. Some small towns may have neurodivergent physicians or knowing postpersons. Often, there are schools, town halls, amateur theatrical productions. Yet even as small as these places are, people seem to die there at an alarming rate. Worse, people are murdered!!
Let’s face it, in places like the Shetlands, the Midsomer, and other similar small remote locations across the United Kingdom, beleaguered detectives and their faithful sidekicks wade endlessly through personal quagmires of simmering resentment and smoldering, sometimes unrequited passions. Shocking murders seem to happen in such places on a weekly basis! And don’t tell me that this is just television, that the ideas are merely fabricated.
Just as bad might be the small town in the United States, where perhaps a stranger from out of town is always stumbling across something much bigger than the small town or its narrow minded police chief can handle. Unless the police chief is the one who, having only recently taken up the post, begins to see just how “wrong” everything is. Only a few ears may be trustworthy. Otherwise, the whole thing is lies. Lies, I tell you. And only one person might set it right.
As Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron says:
School is a lie. Prison’s a waste of time. Girls are wondrous. Grab your fill. No man was ever lain in his barrow wishing he’d loved one less woman. Don’t listen to no one and nothing but what your own heart bides. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Fight to the death. Don’t give up.Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, Act 3.
No sirree, Bob. Not for me. Not even the Christmas specials on the teevee can stop the killing in those small towns.
Might be safer to live in a city. But then one had better not look out the window too much. Might see something bad. And commuter trains? Forget it. Might be better just to stay inside and keep the blinds drawn.
In polite social discourse, Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes might all be said to be so young–too young to be visited by death. And although we all know there really is no age limit (upper or lower) on death, it still seems significant that Hamlet follows his father’s ghost. This seems to set him on a track to all things ghostly. Murder and haunting and all things foul be they physical or not. In some sense it is almost as if Hamlet’s subsequent entanglement also entangles everyone around him, and they all go traipsing down skull and crossbones lane together.
Oh, sure. Claudius is already on it. He’s so riddled with guilt (rotted with guilt, rutting in guilt) that it seems as though he’s almost waiting for the avenging angel to show up and smite him. (See how I worked the word smite in there? Great word. Should be used much more frequently than it is.) As soon as Hamlet steps on the ghost road though, all the younger generation either follow along or are dragged onto the track.
In a larger sense, we are all on this path, of course–all following either late or soon. We are all becoming ghosts. Yet there seems to be some degree of elasticity about when we step into the shade. In most of our lives, some matter of degree remains. We may walk by the river, but we need not necessarily approach the gravestones.
This elasticity, this potential for temporal election, does not deny the inevitability of death, but for many people it does introduce some element of choice. We still follow the course into darkness, but we have at least an illusion of delaying that. Not that, Hamlet’s father, Old Hamlet, was given any choice. The ghost tells Hamlet:
Sleeping within my orchard,Hamlet 1.5.66-77
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood.
Of course, no one in Denmark knows the real truth–no one except the murderer (Claudius), the ghost (Old Hamlet), and now Prince Hamlet as well. As the ghost says:
’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forgèd process of my death
Perhaps Denmark needs a good detective, but that’s not the way early modern playwrights usually did things, is it? Why have a detective when you can have an avenger instead? No, not the superheroes necessarily. We still have modern vengeance films galore, and although they may not all be typical westerns, they still are.
Naturally, we aren’t all avengers. We aren’t all gunslingers, sword wielders. Very few of us are ex-servicemen with outrageous sleuthing and tactical skills and seemingly limitless supplies of cash, strength, and stamina. Yet, we all approach the river boats of night inexorably.
Eventually, we climb on board, even if the nature of the ensuing journey remains a matter of doubt and a subject of debate.
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,Ibid
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark
Naturally, life remains a journey as well, with a whole catalogue of trials and concerns before we board the final boats.
Yet, there are also as many ways to become a ghost here without even touching a boat. Staying lost for any reason, neurodivergence, atypical emotional engagement, or a host of ‘misfitisms’ may leave one internally howling at on the edge of the gutter, where one may wander like a spirit all of one’s days.
Last stage of all (strange eventful history indeed–or is it eventless in a larger sense?), perhaps, one may move to one of those suburban neighbourhoods. You know them. Soulless, post modern architecture, living with the ongoing conversations of mostly weather. Lots of it. More every day. There, one may subsist as a shadow in the aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally landscape forever. At least until that final boat finally arrives.
It may be love which never arrives. Something which never reaches fruition. The fruit tree dies in its sapling state instead. The love which we thought might be meant nothing in the end. Perhaps our only real consolation is coffee.
So many ways to become a ghost, or perhaps to see the ghost change happening. We look up at the sky and as in Clarke’s story, all the stars start going out one by one.
Maybe we are swept out to sea. But we don’t actually mind. At least not like we thought we would. Maybe that truly is our purpose. Just a catalog, a filing system.
For all of it, maybe becoming a ghost is usually much more accidental than Hamlet’s intentions. For without intention, where are we? Illinois? Nebraska? What would the Wizard of Omaha say?
Maybe we just remain too late. We linger when the carnival is closing down. We see the tired carneys removing blocks and sandbags, taking down the lights. Maybe it isn’t the stars going out. Maybe it is just bits of neon going dark. Much as we might long to ride the sky swing to the heavens, we may only arrive after the last ride has left.
For once the lights begin to go out, we may not really reach the sky after all. We may only have a ‘Sy Swig’, which may not taste at all like we thought. Perhaps we should have gone with a Guinness, or a real ale somewhere. Maybe that ride with all the sporting logos on it, or another sandwich.
No matter what it is in the end. We eventually reach the boats. Even Kane Tanaka reached the boats. And they are always waiting for us. Day and night. Year in, year out.
Maybe, with the world so threatened these days, Hamlet’s course does not seem so far afield. Perhaps we should focus on righting the wrongs done to us. Perhaps the course of vengeance might help to focus our being. In some cases, it must:
The revenge which may drive us through life may take many forms.
Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!Melville, Herman, introduction by Viola Meynell. Moby Dick or the Whale. New York: Avenel Books, 1985, 581.
“Go on, I’ll follow thee”, Hamlet says to the ghost. Ahab shouts, “. . .let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!”**
We all follow something, even if what we follow is a wish for peace. We yearn for resolution. A quiet, comfortable place. A home. A good book. A lover’s arms. Satisfaction of some kind–intellectual, emotional, physical. Somehow our passions come to rest. The owl hoots softly, but not urgently. Winters mild but summers not rendering us a howling inferno.
We would prefer not to howl. Not to have to howl unless we want to. Those dogs do that more than enough deep in the night. And the butterflies. Howling silently. You may have heard them without knowing. Ghastly.
When we do wake from the butterfly’s dream of being human, where will we find ourselves buried?
In a church?
Along a distant road at the edge of some lake country?
In a seldom used chapel?
The question is, once we’ve done (or not done) whatever the ghosts of our various pasts have demanded, will they think of us? Remember us? Will angels pray for us?
Becoming a ghost is a natural process which may happen faster or slower, depending on what we choose. Will we fade in the artless milieu of the modern world, eating our own tails like a forgotten mythic serpent, spitting venom to kill the thunder god. Is that only in comic books? Will we climb the belfry when we realize our betrayal, or will we just stay at the table for another hand at hearts?
Will we speak? Will we stay silent? Hear the din of racing combustion engines, leaf blowers, mowers, and oversized SUVs and pickups murdering our unborn children. Will we look at monuments, angels or gargoyles, and wish that we were stone like them?
*A 1948 song by Sonny Burke with words by Paul Francis Webster. Memorably recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. This ghost suggests that it is worthwhile to listen to each of these versions, and all the others. K. D. Lang did a version with Grover Washington Jr. It’s on Youtube as well, and it’s fantastic.
**For more about whales and Hamlet, including parallels with the biblical Jonah, please see the essays of my friend, Paul Adrien Fried, who has done a great deal of work on biblical references and allusions in Hamlet: