The purpose of the Ghost


We’ve finished Richard III with the introduction to ghosts within Shakespeare’s play(s). In the last act of Richard III, Richard has vivid dreams which feature the ghosts of all those who he has had murdered. In this final act, there is an emphasis on “All Souls Day” by Buckingham, and then soon after the appearance of ghosts through dreams that speak to Richard and Richmond.

When speaking to Richard, each ghost comes in one by one to remind him of what he has done. When speaking to Richmond, the ghosts give him praise for his actions because he will be correcting all the wrong doing that has occurred due to Richard’s actions to become king.


(to RICHARD) Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow!

Think how thou stabbed’st me in my prime of youth

At Tewkesbury. Despair therefore, and die!


Be cheerful, Richmond, for the wrongèd souls

Of butchered princes fight in thy behalf.

King Henry’s issue, Richmond, comforts thee. (Act 5, 123-130)

This scene in Act 5 really demonstrates that good will prevail over evil. The ghosts work as a reminder to Richard and reassurance to Richmond, they were murdered due to Richard’s greed and now provide comfort for the man who will overthrow this evil.

This episode also gives the reader and audience insight into our villain. We see that he has guilt and that although Richard has relentlessly killed many different characters (all for his ultimate goal of power and kingship) there are consequences, and that Richard is a tyrant but he also isn’t completely unfeeling. We finally see he has some guilt and a slight conscious. He realizes that he is a murderer.

Regardless, Shakespeare cleverly uses the murdered victims to return as ghosts to creates more insight into the main character and villain than we’ve ever encountered before. In previous plays we have been unsure of certain character’s motives and only get to see the surface.


In the very opening scenes of Hamlet, there are anxieties concerning a ghost. This ghost is supposed to represent King Hamlet (who has died previous to the beginning of the play). Horatio does not believe, and Bernardo and Marcellus have already seen the ghost. However, in the first appearance the ghost says nothing. The idea of the ghost is being used to foreshadow later events and give insight into the past. (This is clearly what happens in Richard III as well)

Act 1:1 47-50

Marcellus: It is offended

Barnardo: See, it stalks away

Horatio: Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!

(Exit, Ghost)

The scene continues giving insight on who this ghost might be and why he might be returning. The men agree that the ghost might speak to his son, Prince Hamlet.

As outsiders (and readers) we realize there has to be a meaning for Shakespeare to incorporate this figure as a ghost. There are many reasons, but for this specific purpose its to avoid having to add these scenes beforehand. It adds to the play an explanation and also warning. Horatio thinks the ghost is a bad sign because he resembles the dead king.

Ghosts are arbitrary beings, as seen from the character Horatio; he is skeptical but proven wrong when the ghost appears. However, for literary and performance usage they can be very helpful and insightful. They are narration, characters, explanation, useful, and much more. They have the ability to represent information or events in the future. The ghosts in Richard III foreshadowed his demise (we knew it was coming) and we will see what useful way Shakespeare uses the ghost of King Hamlet in Hamlet.


2 thoughts on “The purpose of the Ghost

  1. caitoconnor13

    I honestly find the implementation of King Hamlet’s ghost both hilarious and terrifying; because it raises so many questions about Hamlet’s sanity that you can’t really concretely give a diagnosis to, if you will. Because he is acting and then he says things and then takes them back, it’s so difficult to understand what he’s really doing. As we discussed in class today, I really think the play would be so different and so much more interesting if Gertrude could at some point see the ghost of her dead husband and listen to him tell her that Claudius is mal-intentioned. I bet that that would have had a much greater effect on the death of everyone at the end, and would have prevented it; but then again, that small detail would have turned Hamlet from a tragedy in which everyone dies at the end, to a comedy where the status quo is restored and everything is made right because Claudius is found out.

  2. pamsutherland

    The ghosts in Richard III foreshadow the death of Richard and the victory of Richmond, a winner and a looser. It is a setup to give Richmond spiritual forgiveness and blessings for committing treason and murder.

    In Hamlet, however, Hamlet is approached by his father to avenge the death of himself. It doesn’t seem like there can be a winner in this situation. Hamlet is perceived as a crazed murderer. His father is already dead. The plan is to kill Claudius. I am anxious to see if there is a winner in this ghostly setup.


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