In a famous article, “The Christian Tragic Hero,” Poet W. H. Auden defines a Christian tragic hero according to the Judeo-Christian view that all people are moral agents and own responsibility for their actions. One of his examples is Macbeth, who listens to the witches and is tempted to commit a crime that he knows is wrong. Auden says that the audience’s response to Macbeth’s fall is, “What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.” This contrasts with the pagan tragic hero, like Oedipus, who is bound by fate. Because Oedipus can do nothing about his ancestry, the audience’s response is, “What a pity it had to happen this way.” 1
Hamlet’s Own Moral Concern
Just as Macbeth’s tragedy begins when he first heeds the witches, Hamlet’s tragedy begins by a similar action. This action is one which Hamlet knows is wrong because it was forbidden by the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures: He heeds the advice of a ghost. When he first encounters the ghost he says he will follow it because of it looks like his late father—even if it “brings blasts from hell”:
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.2
Later, as he considers a course of action, he again recognizes that he could be falling for the bait of a devilish trap, but he does not care. He has been tempted to seek revenge. He has listened to the ghost.
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 to damn me. 3
When Hamlet says this, he is acknowledging that he could be heeding the advice of an evil spirit which plans to harm him. Indeed, he is echoing the well-known Bible warning:
For Satan himself is transformed into an Angel of light. Therefore it is not great thing though his ministers transform themselves, as though they were the ministers of righteousness, whose end shall be according to their works. (II Corinthians 11:14-15) 4
Hamlet expresses a moral awareness here, just as Macbeth did when he admitted to himself and his wife that murder was wrong. Hamlet is admitting that he could be deceived. He goes on in the above soliloquy, though, to justify himself saying he will use The Murder of Gonzago play to see whether or not the ghost is lying.
Shakespeare’s England was patriotically Protestant. From a Protestant perspective there is even more than just the possibility of deception. The Bible prohibits any consultation with the dead.
Let none be found among you that…asketh counsel of the dead…because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth cast them out before thee. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
Just as Hamlet acknowledges in the above quotation, the result of consulting the dead is being cast out—being damned.
The tragedy of King Saul in the Bible illustrates this. Saul, the first King of Israel, has turned his back on God, but he is still looking for advice before going to battle against the Philistines. He goes to a medium and asks her to call up the spirit of the recently deceased prophet-priest Samuel, whom Saul used to consult when he was serving God. Just as a ghost in the garb of the late King Hamlet appears before the prince, a ghost in a priestly garment appears before Saul. I Samuel 28:14 says, “Saul knew that it was Samuel.” Saul asks the ghost for advice, becomes very scared, and the next day in battle takes his own life. The new king, David, mourns Saul and expresses horror at his death, just as Fortinbras does with the death of Hamlet.
In the play Hamlet there is never a definitive statement on the ghost’s identity, though the fact that it shuns light and advocates revenge suggest an infernal origin. 5 Similarly, the actual Scripture narrative does not explicitly say whether the ghost of Samuel was really Samuel or a demon impersonating him. The notes in the Geneva Bible, however, say that Saul was deceiving himself, basing their arguments on Scriptural commands that Saul should have known like that from Deuteronomy 18. Indeed, earlier in his reign, Saul expelled or executed the witches and mediums in Israel (I Samuel 28:3), so he clearly knew the commandment. The Geneva Bible note to I Samuel 28:11 says:
He [Saul] speaketh according to his gross ignorance, not considering the state of the saints after this life.
This note from the Geneva Bible is especially interesting considering that Hamlet is probably set in the eleventh century. A pre-Reformation Hamlet might have believed in Purgatory, where the ghost claimed to have come from, but a sixteenth-century Protestant would have rejected that as an extra-Biblical “Popish” tradition.
To the verse, “Saul knew it was Samuel,” the Geneva Bible adds the note which refers to directly to II Corinthians 11:14:
An English Protestant like Shakespeare, using the Geneva Bible and Reformation doctrine, would have understood Hamlet’s serving the ghost as a dangerous error. In the passage from Act 2 above, Hamlet admits this possibility, too.
Elsewhere sans Calvinist notes, the Scriptures summarize the death of Saul as a consequence of his sin:
So Saul died for his transgression that he committed against the Lord, even against the word of the Lord, which he kept not, and in that he sought and asked counsel of a familiar spirit, and asked not of the Lord; therefore He slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse. (I Chronicles 10:13-14)
Here, the Scripture tells us that the spirit was not actually Samuel, but a “familiar spirit,” a demon. This summary of the death of Saul also sounds very similar to the tragic end of certain prince of Denmark.
An educated “Renaissance man” like Hamlet would have known the story of Saul just as he did know the warning of II Corinthians 11:14. He also would have known the Bible’s warning that revenge belongs only to God which was “much used by Elizabethan writers to reserve the execution of vengeance to God.”6
An “honest ghost” would not have exhorted Hamlet to seek revenge.
Similarly, in the New Testament Jesus Himself tells his followers not to make oaths.
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is the throne of God:
Nor yet by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
Neither shalt thou swear by thine head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:34-37)
Yet Hamlet and the ghost force Horatio and Marcellus to swear on Hamlet’s sword, even after they have already promised not to tell anyone what they saw. Indeed, Hamlet’s friends have tried to let their yes be yes, but the ghost insists that they swear on the sword.7 We understand, then, that the ghost “cometh of evil.” Indeed, the note in the Geneva Bible to this verse says “From an evil conscience, or from the devil.” This suggests as well, that Hamlet has compromised his conscience and that the ghost is diabolical.
Instead of heeding these warnings, the seed planted in Hamlet’s mind by the ghost takes root. Hamlet avenges his father’s murder but loses his life and his kingdom. Shakespeare’s “Christian tragic heroes” each succumb to a temptation, one that they recognize and that they know could have terrible consequences. For Hamlet the temptation is listening to the counsel of the “dead.”
1. W. H. Auden, “The Christian Tragic Hero,” New York Times Book Review, 16 Dec 1945: 1, 21.
2. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992) 1.4.44-49. Online Hamlet is 1.4.43-47.
3. Hamlet, 2.2.627-632. Online Hamlet is 2.2.611-620.
4. All quotations from Scripture and notes are from The Geneva Bible, (1560; rpt Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). Spelling has been modernized. The Geneva Bible was the common English Bible in Shakespeare’s time, and the one which Shakespeare used.
The links are to the Geneva Bible from Bible Gateway online. The online version is the 1599 revision. There may be slight textual differences from the 1560 print version quoted in the text.
The following link includes some of the notes from the Geneva Bible. Those listed for I Samuel 28:11 and 28:14 also illustrate the interpretation of the “Ghost of Samuel” incident: http://www.reformed.org/documents/geneva/1samuel.html.
5. The ghost in another play of Shakespeare’s is more explicit. In Julius Caesar, 4.3.317-319, Brutus specifically asks the Ghost of Caesar, “Speak to me what thou art.” The ghost replies, “Thy evil spirit, Brutus.”
7. Hamlet, 1.5.160-168.