The ghost in Hamlet
Dr. Eugene J. Mahon
Psychological underworlds and afterworlds
One task of analysis, according to Loewald, is to turn ghosts into ancestors. If unconscious, uncanny revenants of the past are conceptualized as “ghosts”, when analyzed and made conscious they lose their eerie unconscious magnetism and become ancestors, memories of the past rather than compulsive, supernatural repetitions of it. Ghosts in analysis are not our topic: Shakespeare’s use of ghosts as aesthetic vehicles to enhance the psychological dynamic depth of his plays is. While there are ghosts in five of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard the Third, Cymbeline) the ghost in Hamlet is the most developed, a fully fledged character really that promotes the drama, not just a supernatural fleeting presence that is meant to shock and then vanish. I would like to suggest that even without the presence of the actual ghost, the reality of Hamlet’s father’s absence would have been felt throughout the play, “absence the highest form of presence” as Joyce proclaimed in Portrait of the Artist. I have argued elsewhere (Mahon 1998) that in his first soliloquy Hamlet makes a most intriguing slip of the tongue in which at first he imagines his father “but two months dead” and then corrects himself immediately saying “nay, not so much, not two”. (Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2: line 138). In this parapraxis Shakespeare has invited the unconscious mind of Hamlet to play a pivotal role in the propulsion (or indeed retardation) of the psychological action throughout the play. In a sense the unconscious mind is a ghost of all that repression has secreted in the psychological under-world.
It could be argued that the presence of the ghost serves a similar function as that haunted parapraxis, for whether Shakespeare “believed” in ghosts or not, he certainly exploited this re-presentation of Hamlet’s father as a way of depicting the turmoil of dramatic, psychological conflict the tragic hero struggles with on stage. In Act 3, Scene 4 when the ghost makes a final appearance Hamlet intuits, in fact anticipates, the reason for the supernatural visit:
Hamlet: “ Do you not come your tardy son to chide…?”
The ghost has two purposes, not only to remind Hamlet: “Do not forget. This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” but also to ask Hamlet to help Gertrude:
Ghost: “But look, amazement on thy mother sits. / O step between her and her fighting soul. / Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works. / Speak to her, Hamlet.”
The visitation of the ghost at this precise moment in the play adds drama to a conflict that had begun two scenes earlier in Act 2, Scene2 in which Hamlet, having staged the play within a play, has become convinced by Claudius’s guilty reaction that the ghost had not lied when it accused Claudius of killing him. As Hamlet exclaims to Horatio: “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pounds.” Convinced as he now is of his stepfather’s guilt he is not without conflict however as he goes to see his mother who has summoned him. It is a manic Hamlet that recites a soliloquy that captures his ambivalence most expressively:
Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft, now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature. Let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom;
Let me be cruel, not unnatural.
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
(Act 3, Scene2: 379- 387).