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How does a knowledge of the Elizabethan spectator's beliefs about ghosts help your understanding of Hamlet and the task he is set?

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Introduction

Jodean Sumner How does a knowledge of the Elizabethan spectator's beliefs about ghosts help your understanding of Hamlet and the task he is set? To understand Hamlet in the play we need to understand the context of the story and the beliefs in which Shakespeare's audience would have held on ghosts. These beliefs in which the Elizabethan audience would have are the key to understanding Hamlets predicament in the play and why he acts and behaves in the manner in which he does. There were three main views on ghosts within the Elizabethan era which were that of the catholic faith, the protestant faith, and the more sceptical view of ghosts. The catholic view of ghosts was that as well as heaven and hell, after death a soul may go to another place called purgatory, to pay for their sins. From here they may return to earth to fulfil a particular purpose. However protestants, though they usually believed in ghosts undoubtedly, held the view that there was no such place as purgatory and that a person could go to either heaven or hell, a "bourn from which no traveller returns" and so if ghosts did appear they may be angels however in ...read more.

Middle

Hamlet shows that it is only the ghost who has given him any hint of the murder and that the ghost has" prompted" him to take revenge almost as though Hamlet needed an excuse to avenge his uncle. Also Hamlet says that ghost is from "heaven and hell" demonstrating that Hamlet cannot decide if the ghost is from one or the other and so in his confusion ,until he knows any different, he must name it from both. Hamlet fears that the ghost may be from hell and so he must find out the truth of the ghost, "The spirit I have seen may be the devil. And the devil have power T'assume a pleasing shape...and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy...Abuses me to damn me" he fears, as Horatio would, that the devil is tempting him to murder as he is at his weakest and so in his mind is susceptible to temptation. Shakespeare shows Hamlet's doubt in the line as the devil "assumes" his fathers image conveying the supposed falsity of the ghosts image and that Hamlet would see it as "a pleasing shape" as he misses his father and so to see him again, it would be assumed, he would be trusting towards the ghost and glad to see his father again. ...read more.

Conclusion

The ghost appears to be looking at Hamlet in such a saddened way that Hamlet himself is so moved that he too is nearly drawn to tears instead of wanting to draw blood. Hamlet tells the ghost not to look at him because it makes him want to cry. This is emphasised further with the exit of the ghost, "Look how he steals away" this sense of "stealing" by Shakespeare makes the audience pity the ghost, the first time he see's his wife since his death and this is revealed to him and has made it clear that the person he loved most will be separate from him forever even in death. This also confirms further that the ghost is the true spirit of his father with the ghost's reaction. We can then clearly see that if we did not understand what the Elizabethan's believed about ghosts we would not understand Hamlet and his task, his fear and puzzlement would be incomprehensible to the modern reader. We would not know why Hamlet waits so long to avenge his father, why he cannot decide the origin of the ghost and why his mother cannot see the ghost. The knowledge of the audience's beliefs is vital when understanding Hamlet. ...read more.

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