Elizabethan audiences would have been very receptive to the idea of ghosts. Right from the opening lines of Hamlet, the ghost is given a prominent role. In Act I Marcellus asks the question: “What, has this thing appear’d again tonight?” It is clear from the conversation that follows that “this thing” is something to be feared – a “dreaded sight”. It is this mention of the ghost that sets the atmosphere of foreboding for the play. There is a sense of disaster, and this is emphasised when Horatio points out that similar unnatural events preceded the assassination of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar in ancient Rome:

“The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun”…

Horatio thinks that the appearance of the ghost is a sign that there is something seriously amiss in the state of Denmark. The audience would have believed that ghosts often returned to earth to complete some unfinished business, and would always come in the dark of night. The ghost in Hamlet appears on the stroke of midnight – an ominous hour. Once Hamlet is informed of the apparition of his dead father in the shape of a Ghost, nothing will dissuade him from being present at midnight to see if it will return. He suspects that something is rotten in the State of Denmark, and feels compelled to try to commune with this Ghost who is dressed in the armour of his dead father:

“I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace…..”

In Hamlet, the ghost is representative of a supernatural world where restless spirits are in torment because of something which happened when they lived on earth. The frightened talk about the Ghost right from the opening of the play, and then its appearance to the terrified night-watch soldiers, and later to Hamlet himself, establishes an atmosphere of evil beneath the surface. In Act I Scene iv, when the ghost appears to Hamlet, the cautious Horatio is frightened:

“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?”

But in Hamlet Shakespeare is deliberate in creating a ghost that is not really sinister at all, and so cannot easily be spurned. It would be easier for Hamlet if that were so. This ghost is a restless spirit who crosses the threshold between the physical and the supernatural worlds because it cannot rest in either. This ghost is compelling because it is gentle, even noble. It strikes a deep chord within Hamlet because it is pitiful and pleading. It reminds Hamlet that its murderer gave it no chance to repent for sins committed, and it had to enter the next world without forgiveness or the comfort of the last rites:

“Cut off even in the blossom of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:”

Hamlet is truly shocked by the revelations, and sees his predicament immediately; to revenge his father’s murder – and lay his soul to rest – he must commit murder. This is an unbearable burden because in order to do his filial duty he must commit the very crime (murder) that he has found so repellent in Claudius. Horatio’s words about the danger of his going mad are prophetic. By the end of the fourth scene of Act I, we know that Marcellus is right: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Through no fault of her own, Ophelia is the innocent victim of Hamlet’s terrible predicament. He cannot deal with the burdens laid upon him, and his inner conflict is intense. Ophelia has no one to advise her in her own bewilderment about her lover. Polonius and Laertes have agendas of their own when giving her orders, and she is totally helpless when her beloved Hamlet turns on her and seems to have lost his mind.