"Spirit of Health" or "Goblin Damn’d"? The Representation of the Ghost’s Ambiguity in Two Hamlet Film Adaptations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Larissa Fick (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Significance of the Ghost and its Ambiguity in Hamlet

3. The Representation of the Ghost in Two Film Adaptations
3.1. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: A Classic
3.1.1. An ‘Essay in Hamlet?’
3.1.2. The Ghost as a Shadowy and Misty Figure
3.1.3. An Ambiguous Ghost throughout the Film
3.2. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet: a Full-Text Masterpiece
3.2.1. Hamlet as Bright and Opulent Winter Tale
3.2.2. Representing the Ghost as Moving Statue
3.2.3. A Changing Ghost – From Demon to Purified Monk

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

All Hamlet films face the particular problem of how to handle the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Film seems a medium even more receptive to handling the supernatural than the stage because of its technical abilities and special effects. But the history of Hamlet on film reveals that film-makers are often as stumped as stage directors in how to handle the Ghost (43).

This problem is unfolded by Samuel Crowl in his book Screen Adaptations: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. By taking a closer look at the Ghost in Hamlet, it becomes obvious why it is so difficult for stage directors and film-makers to visualise the Ghost. For many years, scholars are concerned with the questions of the Ghost’s origin and purpose. Even Hamlet himself is agonised with this issue:

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 (1.4.40-421 ) Therefore, it is only logical that also film-makers are not sure about how to represent the Ghost: As a demon from hell? Or as an honest embodiment of Hamlet’s father?

Over the years, various scholarly interpretations of the Ghost were established. They lie between extremes; some consider the Ghost an evil spirit whose call for revenge should have been ignored2, and others stick with the opposite opinion that the Ghost is truly the spirit of Hamlet’s father returned from purgatory because that is what the Ghost himself states (1.5.9-14). Many Hamlet scholars argued for the one and the other side, and convincing arguments for both points of view exist. However, the actual question is not if the Ghost is good or evil, but what William Shakespeare aimed at with the integration of a character so difficult to capture. As Constanze Pleinen detected correctly in Das Übernatürliche bei Shakespeare, the Ghost’s ambiguity explains the perseverative popularity of the play; if it could be definitely clarified that the Ghost is either a good or evil spirit, a lot of tension would be lost for the audience and reader (76). To prove that this thesis is also applicable on film adaptations of Hamlet is the aim of this term paper.

Therefore, I chose two screen adaptations of Hamlet - this choice will be justified in chapter 3 - and examined how the Ghost is represented in each of them. My thesis is that in neither adaptation the Ghost is clearly marked as good spirit or evil demon, but the ambiguity between those two options is maintained in both adaptations; the directors play with this equivocality to retain the tension of the audience.

In order to prove my thesis, at first the significance of the Ghost and its ambiguity in Hamlet will be explained. It will be shown that Shakespeare did not embed a Ghost in Hamlet to simply entertain the audience, but that the Ghost is a central character of the play. In the subsequent chapter I will take a close look at the Hamlet adaptations of Olivier and Branagh. Primarily, an overview of each film by itself will be provided, then the representation of the Ghost will be described and afterwards analysed with regard to the Ghost’s ambiguity. By linking my own observations to those of other literary scholars, I will hopefully be able to prove my thesis in the conclusion of this paper.

2. The Significance of the Ghost and its Ambiguity in Hamlet

Fairies, goblins, ghosts, witches, and spirits; supernatural beings occur in many of Shakespeare’s works. Plenty of scholars dealt with the topic of the supernatural in Shakespeare, and found out interesting facts. Surprising might be the discovery of Linda Woodbridge in The Scythe of Saturn:

Despite the common assumption that Shakespearean comedy deals in unreal and fantastic worlds, it is interesting that overt magical practice and supernatural beings occur in only about a quarter of Shakespeare’s comedies, while they appear in 60 percent of his history plays and 60 percent of his tragedies (8).

Also in Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy a supernatural being is represented: The Ghost of Hamlet’s father. However, one question occurs: Why did Shakespeare integrate a Ghost into a revenge tragedy? Diane Long Hoeveler writes in Gothic Riffs, “The appearances of ghosts, particularly in the works of Shakespeare, had always produced an extremely popular dramatic effect, one that audiences anticipated and enjoyed” (103). Of course Hoeveler is right with that assertion; nevertheless, the Ghost in Hamlet does not only seem like a stylistic device with the purpose to entertain and give the audience the creeps, but it plays a prominent role in the tragedy. Bridget O’Connor explains the important role of the Ghost in her article “’Spirit of Health’ and ‘Goblin Damned’”; she calls the Ghost “[…] the catalyst, that sets the play in motion. Without him, Hamlet would never have known the truth about his father's death and would never have embarked upon the mission to kill Claudius” (1). I totally agree with O’Connor in that point; the Ghost is an essential character in Hamlet.

In spite of the importance of the Ghost for the play, his origin and ambitions persist ambiguous. As mentioned in the introduction, throughout the play, references to the Ghost’s nature can be found; and the central question with regard to the Ghost remains until the end of the play: Is he a “spirit of health or goblin damn’d” (1.4.40)? The Ghost himself explains his existence in Act I Scene 5:

I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away […] (1.5.9-13)

However, can we - and also the other characters- believe this statement? Many scholars analysed the Ghost, mostly in interrelation to the religious beliefs and ghost-lore in Elizabethan time. All scholars agree in one point: That Shakespeare tried hard to fulfil all the demands of popular superstition; for instance, the Ghost comes in strange and creepy circumstances at midnight, and he is expelled by the cockcrow. Furthermore, in Act III Scene 4 he can only be seen by Hamlet and is invisible to Gertrude. In Shakespeare and the Supernatural Cumberland Clark explains very well which two different opinions commonly held in regard to Ghosts existed in Shakespeare’s time:

The first, and that in which the more educated people concurred, maintained that their origin was evil, that they were devils from hell, charged with a special mission to earth which could only be conveyed by supernatural mean, and that they adopted for their purpose the form, figure, and characteristics of a deceased person. The second opinion interpreted ghosts as the actual spirits of departed men and women, who rose from the grave and appeared in a form recognizable to those still living, in order to impart information of the first consequence (68).

Both beliefs are applicable on Hamlet: The Ghost denounces himself a spirit from purgatory; that would make him a ‘good spirit’, he is not a devil returned from hell but truly Hamlet’s dead father. However, at the same time the Ghost asks openly for revenge: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love- / […] / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.23-25). This request for revenge does not match a ‘good spirit’; quite the contrary: It alludes to a demon from hell.

The explanation of all those aspects is supposed to illustrate how broad and difficult the discourse on Hamlet’s Ghost is. As mentioned several times before, many scholars dealt over the years with this ambiguity – and there is no end or agreement in sight. I just want to give an overview of this issue in order to explain the significance of the Ghost and its double entendre for Hamlet; but to stay in line with the required extent of this seminar paper, the matter will not be explained any further.3 The one central point for my thesis is made clear: The Ghost’s ambiguity draws through Hamlet, and the scholarly discourse, and I will show that it also remains in the film adaptations; this is exactly what keeps the thrill and tension about Hamlet.

3. The Representation of the Ghost in Two Film Adaptations

Samuel Crowl writes in Screen Adaptations: Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Hamlet is the most read, discussed, and performed work in the Western literary canon“(1). Therefore, it is no surprise that also countless film adaptations of the tragedy exist. For this seminar paper I limited my selection to two films, in order to ensure that each film can be presented adequately. The two adaptations that will be presented are the 1948 adaptation of Laurence Olivier, and the 1996 adaptation of Kenneth Branagh. Those two films are canonical Hamlet adaptations which are discussed extensively in scholarly discourse. Furthermore, both directors succeed in modernising Hamlet to suit modern audiences without destroying its original character and atmosphere. In Cinematic Hamlet Patrick J. Cook characterises the adaptations4 as follows: “They succeed as highly intelligent and original interpretations of the play capable of delighting any audience. Most of all, they are innovative and eloquent translations from the Elizabethan dramatic to the modern cinematic medium” (2). I absolutely agree with Cook in that point; this is exactly what makes these adaptations so outstanding, and therefore, expedient for my analysis.

In Hamlet the Ghost has three appearances: In Act I Scene 1 when he is seen by Horatio and the watchmen, then he has his grand entrance in Act I Scenes 4 and 5 where the Ghost tells Hamlet about the murder, and finally the Ghost returns in Act III Scene 4 when Hamlet denounces Gertrude. Therefore, in the films those are the scenes which will be examined precisely with regard to the representation of the Ghost. To simplify my analysis - especially regarding the comparison of the films and the text - I divided the Ghost scenes in the following five parts: The small Ghost scene (1.1.43-147), the grand entrance of the Ghost (1.4.38-92), the narration scene (1.5.1-112), the swear scene (1.5.156-189), and the Gertrude scene (3.4.103-138). This subdivision has no claim to completeness or scientificness; it is just supposed to be a helpful foundation for my following film analyses in which I am only going to talk about “the small Ghost scene” or “the grand entrance”, but I will not give the exact references to act, scene or line again.

One more important aspect about my film analyses is the method that will be applied: In order to stay in line with the required extent of this seminar paper, it is impossible to analyse each aspect of the films - such as setting, camera, lighting design, music etc. - individually. Hence, only the overall effect of each movie which arises from the interplay of all the separate aspects will be analysed. My aim is to show, how the directors visualised their own interpretation of Hamlet, and especially the Ghost; therefore, also analogies and differences to the text and between both adaptations will be involved in my analyses.5 In the following chapter, the film adaptations of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh will be analysed in chronological order. At first, an overview of each film at large will be outlined in order to contextualise the Ghost design; afterwards, the representation of the Ghost will be described precisely; and finally, the representation of the Ghost will be analysed regarding the Ghost’s ambiguity.

3.1. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: A Classic

Olivier’s Hamlet from 1948 became a classic in regard to Hamlet film adaptations: Most modern Hamlet adaptations are said to be orientated on the Olivier adaptation, and many directors, such as Franco Zeffirelli (Cartmell 220), commit that this is true. Olivier’s British adaptation - in which the director also plays the leading role - won several film awards, amongst others four Academy Awards. The film was shot in black and white and takes 155 minutes.

3.1.1. An ‘Essay in Hamlet?’

Laurence Olivier himself considered his adaptation ‘an Essay in Hamlet’. What he meant with that statement is explained very well by Sarah Hatchuel in Shakespeare. From Stage to Screen: “When Laurence Olivier considers his film ‘an Essay in Hamlet’, he emphasizes the fact that a screen version of the play can merely offer a facet of the work. A production can only provide the audience with one version of the play“(144). In order to trim the film to 155 minutes, many scenes and dialogues were excluded by Olivier. However, I would not consider this film an ‘Essay in Hamlet’ since all essential parts of the story are present. Furthermore, Olivier managed to adapt a strong interpretation of the tragedy: His film was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas about ego psychology (Crowl Screen Adaptations 32) and Olivier interprets Hamlet strongly oedipal.

The visual style of Olivier’s Hamlet is reminiscent of film noir. As characteristics of the film noir Harry Keyishian designates in his article “Shakespeare and Movie Genre” “[…] low key lighting, shadows and fog. A mise-en-scène that makes settings as important as people” (75); all those aspects are very well applicable on Olivier’s adaptation. The black-and-white optics of the film adds to this conception, and creates a “mysterious chiaroscuro visual effect”, as Samuel Crowl nicely formulates in Screen Adaptations: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Patrick J. Cook found out that the film that influenced Olivier’s Hamlet visually most was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (4) – actually, the alikeness is astounding. Therefore, the film is the perfect basis for supernatural occurrences: The mysterious prevailing mood asks for a Ghost to show up.


1 All bibliographical information on act, scene and line are derived from: The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1987. Print.

2 This opinion is maintained by Eleanor Prosser in her book Hamlet and Revenge from 1967.

3 Another very interesting article on this topic, especially with regard to the religious background, is “King Hamlet’s Ambigious Ghost” by Robert H. West. Even though this article was written 60 years ago, it is still newsworthy.

4 With this statement, Cook does not only characterise Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, but he also comprises the Hamlet adaptations of Franco Zeffirelli and Michael Almereyda.

5 The method that will be used is orientated on the method applied by Zrinka Cutura in Hamlet im Film. Von Svend Gade (1920) bis Gregory Doran (2009).

Excerpt out of 17 pages


"Spirit of Health" or "Goblin Damn’d"? The Representation of the Ghost’s Ambiguity in Two Hamlet Film Adaptations
University of Bayreuth
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ISBN (Book)
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Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, Ghost
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Larissa Fick (Author), 2014, "Spirit of Health" or "Goblin Damn’d"? The Representation of the Ghost’s Ambiguity in Two Hamlet Film Adaptations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/293901


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