The central problem for Hamlet is the nature of his father’s ghost.
The main reason that Hamlet does not immediately kill Claudius after seeing his father’s ghost is that he does not know whether or not to believe what the ghost has told him. His scepticism is deeply rooted in the fundamentally opposed views of the nature of ghosts that the play explores and which, for Hamlet, represent deep philosophical and religious problems.
Hamlet’s desire to return to Wittenberg is significant because that is where Martin Luther preached a new Protestant view of the afterlife. The medieval Catholic view was that after death, souls went to purgatory to be cleansed of their sins before ascending to heaven. In particular, sinners who did not receive the last sacrament went to purgatory until their sins were purged, or in the case of the ghost, until justice was done for wrongs done to them in their lifetime. These souls could be manifest to the living who then had an obligation to act on their behalf. Hamlet’s father appears to be such a Catholic ghost.
The Protestant view, by contrast, proposed that there was no purgatory where sins were purged. Souls either went straight to heaven or straight to hell. Returning souls were sent by the devil to tempt the living to sin and eternal damnation. So Hamlet, the student from Wittenberg, and also his fellow student Horatio, probably harboured serious doubts about the nature of the ghost.
Many of the Shakespearean audience would have been extremely familiar with this particular debate. People were being burned at the stake over questions of theology within living memory and being Catholic in Elizabeth’s England was increasingly dangerous.
Evidence that Hamlet accepts, or at least gives credence to, the Protestant view is shown when he hesitates to kill Claudius when he finds him at his prayers
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged.
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes
III.iii 73 – 99
He certainly harboured some doubts about the afterlife when he says in his most famous soliloquy
the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
III.i 78 – 82
While trying to deal with the feelings of disgust his mother’s marriage, some of Hamlet’s friends turn up and tell him that they have seen the ghost of his father on the battlements of the castle. Hamlet suspects foul play
My father’s spirit in arms! all is not well;
I doubt some foul play: would the night were come!
Till then sit still, my soul: foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes
Act 1 Scene 4 sees Hamlet on the battlements where he reflects that
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth…that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.
I.ii 24 – 34
This speech has been the basis for many commentators endeavouring to understand what the vicious mole of nature is in Hamlet’s case. A C Bradley defined the root of Hamlet’s problem as melancholy, one of the five humours of Elizabethan psychology. Today, we would probably describe it as depression, condition that saps people ability to act.
My contention is that this particular approach is misguided and that Hamlet’s problems are of a more philosophical and religious nature rather than of an inherited nature. The basis for this contention is established in what Hamlet says when the ghost first appears to him:
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable
I.ii 39 – 42
Hamlet has two different views of the ghost, put very simply it’s a good ghost or a bad ghost scenario, with the ghost coming either from heaven or from hell and being either wicked or charitable.
Horatio has a very clear understanding of the nature of ghosts, they’re evil spirits designed to tempt mortals and cautions Hamlet
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?
I.ii 69 – 72
This Catholic view is that ghosts remain in Purgatory until they are avenged and it is the duty of their children, in particular, to be the avengers. King Hamlet appears to be such a ghost.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d 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
I.v 9 – 13
There is only one way for Hamlet to save his father from this torment
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
I.v 23 – 25
Not only has King Hamlet being murdered by his brother, but he has died without absolution
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
I.v 74 – 79
Which has left him in the torments of Purgatory. Later, Hamlet says to his companions
Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you:
I.v 137 – 138
This indicates that, at this point in the play, Hamlet believes what the ghost has told him, but something holds him back, Hamlet’s Protestant training has left him not entirely convinced of the ghost’s “honesty”.
After the arrival of the players and the self-laceration of the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy, Hamlet decides to lay a trap for Claudius
I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ
II.ii 562 – 568
He articulates his concerns about the nature of the ghost and realises that the ghost may be playing on his hatred of Claudius and his disgust at his mother’s marriage.
The spirit I have seen
May be a devil and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy
As he is very potent with such spirits
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
II.ii 572 – 579
He has resolved on a means to have more evidence.
In the first half of the play, we see Hamlet waiting for an opportunity to confirm the veracity of the ghost’s word. As a good Renaissance scholar, he seeks tangible evidence. It is not until the arrival of the players that he has an opportunity to do this.
Before the players perform for the court, Hamlet instructs Horatio
Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy.
III.ii 81 – 85
When the King rushes from the hall, Hamlet is convinced
Hamlet: O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound.
Horatio: Very well, my lord.
Hamlet: Upon the talk of the poisoning?
Horatio: I did very well note him
III.ii 281 – 285
From this point onwards, inevitable spiral of violence drives the play to its final bloody conclusion.