Hamlet’s Father: Ghost or Demon?

Marcellus: What, has this thing appeared again tonight?

Bernado: I have seen nothing…

Marcellus: Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us… that if this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak of it.

Horatio: But soft, behold, lo where it comes again!
I’ll cross it though it blast me. Stay, illusion.
If thou has any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me.
If there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.
If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid,
Oh speak.
If thou hast uphoarded in thy life,
Extorted treasure in the womb of the earth,
For which they say you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it…

Marcellus: Shall I strike at it with my partisan?

Horatio: Do it if it will not stand.

Marcellus: ‘Tis gone.
We do it wrong being so majestical
To offer it the show of violence,
For it is as the air invulnerable,
And our vail blows malicious mockery.

Bernado: It was about to speak when the cock crew.

Marcellus: It faded on the crowing of the cock.

Above is an abridged version of the scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet where three officers of the watch witness the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunting the castle of Elsinore.

When Hamlet himself, already identified as a bit of an odd bird, meets the ghost he says:

Hamlet: Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane…

Here, we see that the spirit seen in the castle of Elsinore has three possible identities: ghost, demon, or hallucination.


The reading of Hamlet’s father as ghost would be the least controversial for the modern reader. The simplest answer would be that it is indeed the spirit of the Danish prince’s Dad, returned to demand the redress of his terrible murder.

And there is some indication in the text that some of the characters entertain this as a possibility. When Horatio says, “If there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease, and grace to me, speak to me. If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid, oh speak,” he is alluding to tropes of the benevolent spirit.

We see this from the Icelandic Sagas, and in the British ghost stories found in the Bylands Manuscript from the 14th century.

In the Bylands manuscript we see the ghost of a damned soul who attacks a tailor at the roadside. The man shifts into one shape, and another until he successfully compels it to speak (as Horatio attempts to do in the play), whereupon it tells the haunted tailor that it died excommunicate, and asks him to intercede on its behalf.

The spirits of the dead can also return to warn of the future: in stories often recycled into Christian Sermon Exempla, we see the North-European and Icelandic sagas bring in ghosts as advisors and prophetic figures, usually in dreams. In the Saga of the Gul-Thorir, from the 14th century, the dead man Agnar reveals the future to Thorir, although seemingly not of his own volition.

We also see the dead act as outright guards and protectors to the living. The author of Dives and Pauper, from the 15th century, wrote, “Commonly such spirits be fiends… [but spirits might be sent back by God] sometimes for to have help; sometimes to show that the souls live after the body, to confirm them that be feeble in the faith.” In The Golden Legend we have the passage, “A man always recited the psalm De Profundis for the dead every time he passed a cemetery. One day, when he took refuge there, being pursued by his enemies, the immediately arose… and they defended him vigourously…”

Treasure is another reason why the dead rise. As I’ve already blogged, the dead sometimes haunted the barrows and tombs where their wealth is buried, but the dead sometimes rose because of treasure they’d stashed in life: William of Newburgh wrote of a Newburgh Cannon who rose after death to confide in that he couldn’t rest because some silver spoons that he’d stolen in life were still hidden.

Finally, we have the much-displayed invulnerability of demons, where Marcello hits the ghost with his partisan and it seems unaffected by the blows. Early Modern life was full of examples of invulnerable ghosts: whether it was the ghost of another Newburgh Clergyman, who returned to plague his mistress, only to be attacked by a group of armed men, or the ghost in the Bylands manuscript, where the haunted traveller attacks it with his sword, only to feel as if he’s swiping the weapon through peat.


It was the Reformation in England that made the link between ghosts and demons. Before the Reformation, as in the rest of Europe, Britain had a rich culture of Revenants and the walking dead: Walter Map, William of Newburgh and John of Salisbury all wrote about them. The regulations of medieval gilds forbade night watchmen from summoning them for their own amusement, and unwary widows sometimes blundered into churches full of them.

The animation of the dead had been blamed on demons even before the rise of Luther and Henry’s split with the Catholic Church. In Thomas de Cantimpé’s description of the blessed virgin, she is attacked by The Devil wearing the corpse of a man who has been laid out in her church; in the anonymously penned life of Ida of Louvaine, The Devil jumps into the body of a man on a funeral bier and uses it to attack the female divine.

With the Reformation, however, demonic interference became the go-to reasoning for any appearance of the living dead. In order to shake the cultural hold the Catholic faith had on the people of Europe, Protestant thinkers insisted that all sight and sound of the dead was either base trickery (Henry More accused Catholic priests of putting black candles on the backs of crabs to simulate Will’o’wisps and Corpse Candles) or demons. Reformer theologians insisted that the necromantic raising of Samuel in the Bible was in fact nothing more than the Witch of Endor inviting The Devil to step into the room and play-act the part of the dead man, to better ensnare the souls of the living.

Not only that, but if Horatio is supposed to be a surrogate for the relatively educated, middle class tradespeople who made up two thirds of the capacity of the Globe Theatre, where Hamlet would have been performed, then he could be expected to have the sorts of predispositions one might expect to find in a protestant citizen ‘grocer’: he knows the archaic folklore that some ghosts want a service done for them so that they can rest, but he also knows the tales he would have heard in the pulpit of the other things that demons can do.

One of the most tempting things a demon can do is find buried treasure. In the Munich Book, a German book of magical ‘experiments’ from 15th century Munich, there are the names and functions of eleven demons revealed, out of which six are able to bring ‘hidden things’ or to reveal treasures. Since the influence of Scandinavian myths it had been thought that ancient burials had left the land full of lost, buried treasure.

On the continent, there were plenty of instances where demons were compelled, or were attempted to be compelled, to give the location of buried treasure: Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography gives the story of where he and a friend fall in with a magician-cleric who frightens them half to death with a display of demons crowding into a colosseum all around them, only to suggest that Cellini:

“…join with him in consecrating a book, by means of which we should derive immeasurable wealth, since we could call up the demons to show us some of the treasures of which the earth is full, and by that means we should become very rich…”

Even without leaving London it was possible to hear stories of occult treasure hunters: Edward Kelly had attempted to use manuals of Necromancy to find buried treasure (without success), and with the ubiquity of books like the Legematon and the Centrum Regnum, both popular books on the summoning of demons, spirits who can bring buried treasure are a significant group.

And Protestant Reformers were sure to ensure that good English folk knew all too well that Devils could tell the future: in John Bale’s The Pageant of Popes Contayninge the Lyues of All the Bishops of Rome, he tells the tale of Pope Sylvester II, who uses necromancy to sell his soul to the Devil in return for being Pope. When he becomes concerned about his own death, the Devil tells him that he will not die until he goes to Jerusalem.

Terrified that he will be killed, Sylvester cancels an upcoming pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to preach a sermon in the unfortunately named, Temple of Jerusalem in Rome, where he is seized by demons and torn apart. The act of devilish prophesy an trickery is familiar to the other famous Shakespeare work: Macbeth, where the overtly Satanic witches tell Macbeth that he will not die ‘by man of woman born.’

Or Illusion?

The final option for the demon is that it might be illusion. Reginald Scot was a believer in the possibility of God and certain kinds of spirits, but he was also a huge proponent of the idea that many appearances by The Devil could be nothing more than illness: we already know that Hamlet is of a melancholy humour since he is described as being strange, and reading silently.

Insanity was another of Bale’s favourite explanations for strange apparitions and overly-mystical miracles.

Devilish illusion was one accepted way in which Satan sent forth spirits to damage faith and lower spirits, but for his part, Shakespeare never takes a side. We can read Hamlet however we wish: Hamlet can be mentally ill, a Conjurer (as the Elizabethans would have called them), or genuinely haunted. With great finesse, we are put in the position to make our own judgement, which is never confirmed nor denied.


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