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The Significance of the Ghost in Armor

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford.

So much is said in the play about the ghost's warlike form that great significance must be attached to that fact. On its appearance on the stage Horatio speaks of it as having on,
"that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march."
(I. i. 47-49.)
And when Marcellus asks,
"Is it not like the king?"
Horatio replies:
"As thou art to thyself;
Such was the very armor he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated."
(I. i. 58-61.)
When Marcellus further observes its "martial stalk," Horatio suggests that,
"This bodes some strange eruption to our state."
(I. i. 69.)
Then after Horatio has explained to Marcellus and the others the reason for the warlike preparations and the impending danger from Norway, Bernardo remarks:
"Well may it sort, that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch, so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars."
(I. i. 109-111.)

It is quite clear, then, that they regard the king's appearance in arms as a portent of grave danger to the state from the ambitions of young Fortinbras of Norway. When they inform Hamlet of the apparition, one of the points they specially mention is that he was "arm'd." Horatio describes the ghost as,
"A figure like your father,
Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe."
(I. ii. 199-360.)
Hamlet seems not more impressed with the appearance of the ghost than with the fact that he was "arm'd." After being apparently convinced that the ghost had actually appeared, in great excitement he questions his friends until all three assert that the ghost was "arm'd." Then he cross-questions them, and, when convinced of the truth of their statement, he begs them to keep the matter secret, and
"Give it an understanding, but no tongue."
(I. ii. 249.)
When alone, he observes,
"My father's spirit in arms I all is not well;
I doubt some foul play."
(I. ii. 254-5.)
It is the general opinion, then, that great significance is to be attached to the fact that the king appeared in armor. When we take this in connection with the fact that he appeared to the guards, as they said, "upon the platform where we watch'd," it is impossible not to infer that the king came upon a patriotic mission, and that his appearance was intended to have a relation to the defence of Denmark.

All that Hamlet's friends had told him was soon confirmed by the appearance of the ghost to him in the same guise. As if to confirm the words of his friends, he notices that the "dead corse" of his father is again clad "in complete steel." (I. iv. 52.) The apparition will say nothing, however, in the presence of all, though he makes it clear by beckoning Hamlet that he has something for his ear alone. As the ghost and Hamlet withdraw for their private interview, Marcellus feels that it is upon the business of the state that the ghost appears, and remarks:

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." (I. iv. 90.)
To this Horatio replies, "Heaven will direct it." The inference they all appear to draw is that the visit of the late king's spirit is in connection with the impending danger to the state of Denmark. This seems to imply that the task that is falling to Hamlet is not merely a personal matter between him and his father, but a momentous undertaking of great national import.

How to cite this article:
Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < >.


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Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
- Hamlet (1.1.42), Marcellus

Why is it more fitting that a scholar speak to the Ghost? As a scholar, Horatio would have a firm understanding of Latin, the language in which the exorcising of spirits would have been performed. Marcellus hopes that Horatio will have the proper Latin formulae to rid them of the spirit if it proves evil. Shakespeare uses the idea again in a hilarious scene in Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick, complaining about Beatrice, laments, "I would to God some scholar would conjure her." (2.1.233)

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Did You Know? ... The first quarto of Hamlet was published by London booksellers Nicholas Ling and John Trundell. Four more quarto versions followed, and the play was also included in the First Folio of 1623. Please click here to learn more about the Bad Quarto of Hamlet.


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