catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 4 :: 2002.10.25 — 2002.11.07


How to see dead people

A ghostly guide to apparitions and phantoms in film and literature

Shakespeare’s Ghosts Part II

Having examined the ghost and its tendency to challenge sound belief, good sense and mental stability in Macbeth and Horatio, we must now turn to Hamlet, whose sanity becomes increasingly questionable as his own drama unfolds. We first meet Hamlet as he stands before his mother, the Queen, and Claudius, the usurper of his father’s throne. The two attempt to put Hamlet in a good mood despite the young man’s grief over his father’s death. The Queen tries first.

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark,
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ’tis common,—all that live must die,
Passing through nature to eternity. (I. II. 68-73)


Since Hamlet is not convinced by his mother’s words, Claudius endeavors to school the boy in the realities of death. Claudius explains that true men who are knowledgeable concerning the naturalness of death put an end to their grieving and forget about the dead. Knowledge, not grief, is the way of the world.


For what we know must be, and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we, in our peevish opposition,
Take it to heart, Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd; whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day, This must be so. (I. II. 98-106)


Claudius’ argument is a strong one. After all, the reality of death finds support in all the books of history. All records clearly document the fact that the death of fathers is a common occurrence. It would indeed be unreasonable to continue grieving that which is so natural.

Hamlet does not give in to reason, however. Rather, the sight of his father in ghostly form inspires him to oppose reason altogether. Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost makes him resolutely insane. Instead of conforming to the pattern of nature, Hamlet swears to discard all knowledge of the nature of things, deciding instead to obey the unnatural order of the spectral.


Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixt with baser matter: yes, by heaven! (I. V. 96-104)


The ghost’s desire for revenge against Claudius now becomes Hamlet’s single insane desire. Hamlet’s insanity—like the ghost itself, diverges from reason, rebels against nature and opposes knowledge. Hamlet’s previous knowledge—gained through books—about the natural order of things are all tossed aside. Instead, Hamlet’s insanity will be fueled by the memory of this phantom.

<< Memory and The Books of the Dead >>

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