I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.       (I.v.9-13)

The painting is by Fuseli; there are more Shakespeare-inspired paintings by him and other 19th century artists at  the Shakespeare Illustrated site.

The strengths of the play lies in the ways in which it expands on the basic conventions of the revenge tragedy, and certainly there is no more fundamental convention than the appearance of the Ghost.  But just because it a convention doesn't mean that the part can be phoned in;  unfortunately, all too often that is exactly what happens.  There is little to say about the presentation of the Ghost in Olivier's film:  lots of fog, odd lighting, and a heavily filtered voice.  It doesn't really do anything to fire our hearts.  The Ghost is in full armor, as stated in the text, which makes it even harder to do much in the way of acting.  The Ghost in the BBC production is cut from the same cloth, though it is distinguished by Jacobi's more intense reactions.  But it is the other two Ghosts that interest me; they demonstrate just how important this character can be.

Branagh stated that he wanted to shoot the scenes with the Ghost as though they were from a horror movie.  All well and good, but when you get down to it--oh, hell, enough of this.  As much as I admire the bulk of Branagh's film, I absolutely detest the presentation of the Ghost.  Utterly and completely.  So much so, in fact, that it is a tribute to the rest of the film that I found myself drawn back into it.  Three key points seriously undermine the scene:

Now I may be overreacting, but the utter failure of the Ghost's scene to strike any real emotional chords had a number of effects.  The most immediate is that I couldn't get a sense that the two Hamlets truly cared for one another.  Consequently, Hamlet's revenge comes across as more politically motivated than anything else.  Now, perhaps that is what Branagh intended; politics is certainly a major component of the play.  But I can't help but wonder why one aspect should be sacrificed for the other--I can't help wondering how much more moving the movie would have been with a more effective presentation of the Ghost.  If we can have a flashback of Hamlet and Ophelia making love, could we not also have a flashback that establishes some sort of rapport between the two characters?  (NB:  Branagh contemplated such a scene, in which the two Hamlets play chess while Claudius and Gertrude look on, but decided against it; the screenplay indicates an indoor curling match, a scene which I simply cannot remember--which may reflect on the effectiveness of the scene.)  Such a scene would set off the somewhat taut, borderline brittle Hamlet that we see early in the film.  Let's see that this brittleness is a result of his father's death rather than a fundamental character trait.  

Zeffirelli takes an entirely different tack in his 1990 film, and gets from Paul Scofield a most touching presentation of the Ghost.  Departing from the text's description of the Ghost in full armor, including helmet, Scofield is basically in pilgrim's robes.  The costuming lets us see all of his face, and what a face it is.  Lines of care, of sorrow, of anguish are not merely etched into his face, they are chiseled.  We see boundless regret as well as boundless love for his son; in Hamlet's eyes we see a combination of horror, sadness, and love.  It is a scene of exquisite tenderness.  And right there, right in this scene lies the key strength of the Zeffirelli film.  Just as we see the love the Ghost bears for his son as well as his wayward queen, we also see that Hamlet reciprocates that love.  This surge of emotion carries Hamlet through the play like the swell of a wave approacing the shore, through his subsequent reactions to Claudius, in his fateful decision to hold his sword in the chapel, to that final cathartic moment when he runs Claudius through and forces the poisoned wine down the dying king's throat, all but spitting out the lines:  "Is there union here?  Follow my mother!"

Let's face it:  If there is one scene that sets the tone for the rest of the play, it's this one.  The legend is that Shakespeare himself performed this part--and he certainly gave himself an opportunity to shine.   In these four productions, though, only Scofield rises to the challenge, rendering a portrait of sorrow and love that provides a legitimate impetus for the following action.  Branagh, I think, was trying to emphasize the political aspects of the play--most of which usually fly out the window along with Fortinbras.  If nothing else, the two plays illustrate just how much maneuvering room a director has, even before the editing pen is picked up.

Back to Hamlet