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Discuss the significance of the ghost in Act 1

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Discuss the dramatic significance of the ghost in Act 1. "It harrows me with fear and wonder." Horatio's expressive words on first encountering the ghost in Hamlet are reflective of the concerns that were preeminent in the minds of the Elizabethans of Shakespeare's time with regards the supernatural. The influence of the people's rampant belief in ghosts, witches and superstitious ideas is evident on the pages of such Shakespearean works as Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III. This idea of ghosts triggered a sense of fear, and instigated thought on matters such as death and the afterlife. The appearance of King Hamlet's ghost is thus not only typical of the era in which the play was supposedly written, as well as typical of other Shakespearean works, but brings to mind issues which are still widely debated today. Act 1 begins with a change of guards at the Elsinore castle, an active scene which has been interpreted by some to set off the tension in the play. The guards on duty, Marcellus and Barnardo, attempt to convince Horatio of an 'apparition', a 'dreaded sight' which they had twice previously seen. Horatio, however, is filled with disbelief, proclaiming, "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear." The repetition of the word 'tush' in this alliterative statement draws our attention to his doubts of the ghost's appearance, and thus makes it even more dramatic when the ghost suddenly appears. The setting of the first scene on the castle battlements past midnight, and the manner in which the ghost's previous appearances are described by the guards, employing such adjectives as 'dreaded' and references to heaven and the "star...where now it burns" all come together to create a fearful scene. These all pave the way for the appearance of the ghost, and further dramatic description of it and its actions. The way the ghost moves and acts, seen in the use of sibilance in "See, it stalks away", and in the stage directions, "It spreads his arms" can be described as frightening and haunting. ...read more.


The appearance and words of the ghost confirms the speculation by the guards and Horatio that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." This is reminiscent of where Horatio earlier points out, making use of alliteration, that "this bodes some strange eruption to our state." There is a lot of war imagery used in this Act, including "...assail your ears/ That are so fortified..." and "martial stalk". The Danes are worried that war will be waged on them by Fortinbras of Norway, and thus the reason for people working to make weapons day and night, and guards watching the palace all night long. The ghost only seems to buffer these thoughts, appearing in "warlike form" and wearing the same armour which King Hamlet had on when he "combated" Norway. However, the ghost's calling of Hamlet aside is significant as it proves that he has appeared for a more private reason than those concerning the wars of Denmark. The evocative and vivid language which the ghost employs in speaking to Hamlet about purgatory is highly significant as it encourages Hamlet to spur to action in avenging his father's death. The ghost states that he is 'doomed for a certain term to walk the night' and in the day to "fast in fires". The alliteration in the last phrase places emphasis on the suffering which he is going through. He further describes purgatory with the imagery of a "prison house" and says, in a simile, that should he detail Hamlet on the secrets of purgatory, his hairs would stand on end like quills upon a 'fretful porpentine'. The ghost also introduces the idea of murder in the play, stating alliteratively, "Murder most foul." Orders are also given to Hamlet by the ghost such as "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" and the haunting "Remember me." All of these factors come together to make Hamlet pity his father and be even more prepared to seek his father's revenge. ...read more.


The ghost charges him to avenge his father's death and, should he slack, the ghost reappears to urge him to carry out the revenge. For instance, the ghost appears when Hamlet is being violent towards his mother later on in the play, rather than paying full attention to what he had been charged to do- to revenge. However, the fact that the ghost is present in the play means that we, and Hamlet, can question the validity of what the ghost says. The whole basis of the revenge lies on the words of the ghost, but what if the ghost is an illusion of Hamlet's? What if the ghost leads Hamlet to destruction, as is hinted at by Horatio's rhetorical question "Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/ And draw you into madness?" This is notably the first hint at madness in the play, and Hamlet, perhaps having doubts about what the ghost says, delays his revenge and sets out to find proof for himself. He wants proof to assure himself that the ghost's words are valid, and thus he puts on a 'play within a play' on the theme of his father's death called the Murder of Gonzago to watch the reaction of his uncle. Whilst he delays his revenge, Hamlet does pretend to be mad, fulfilling Horatio's prediction in a manner. The result of all of this is that Ophelia, his lover, actually turns mad and commits suicide. The play is thus, very importantly, set off by the appearance of the ghost. He is a sort of catalyst to the subsequent events of the play. Described in Act 1 as a "portentous figure", the ghost does not fail to fulfil its potential as the initial trigger which led to the chain of events that make up the plot of this play. The significance of the ghost in this Act is therefore highly important, as the ghost's appearance, words an actions, are the basis on which the rest of the play is built. ?? ?? ?? ?? ...read more.

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The writer has a good knowledge of the text but should ensure that the question is addressed more analytically and less descriptively. Context is used effectively and much of the textual analysis achieves a good standard. ****

Marked by teacher Karen Reader 08/03/2012

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