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Exorcism and Hamlet

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The Apostle Matthew in the book of Matthew, chapter 14 verse 26, writes, “and the disciples having seen him [Jesus] walking upon the sea, were troubled saying, 'It is an apparition,' and from the fear they cried out." William Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins with three guards, Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo, keeping watch over Denmark at night. During that night, the ghost of Denmark’s former king, King Hamlet, appears to the three guards. The first scene of Hamlet portrays the characters of the play as confused people who will later deal with issues of what is good and evil.

The country of Denmark is depicted as in a state of disarray when Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo do not recognize their own ruler. When the Ghost of King Hamlet appears to the three guards, Marcellus tells Horatio, “Thou art a scholar. Speak to it, Horatio” (1.1.44), after which Horatio addresses the Ghost, saying, “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night/Together with that fair and warlike form/In which the majesty of buried Denmark/Did sometimes march? By Heaven, I charge thee,/speak” (1.1.48-51). What can be gained from Horatio’s message to King Hamlet is that neither he nor the other guards recognize the Ghost as their king. Horatio accuse the Ghost of feigning the appearance of their king, and demands an explanation as to why. The guards, which represent some part of the entire population of Denmark, likewise represent the confusion that is present in the country since they are unable to recognize their king’s ghost truly as their king.

A look into exorcism of the Renaissance period provides insight into the first scene of Hamlet. In “The Rhetoric of Exorcism”, Hilaire Kallendorf writes, “During this period, exorcism was intimately bound up with university education. In Catholic countries the role of “exorcist” was one of the minor orders which could serve as a stepping-stone to the priesthood but could also be taken by a layman. It marked one off as clergy. Students in medieval universities were ordained to the minor orders as a matter of course. Thus many students were authorized to perform an exorcism, which is a commonplace in the literature of the period (212-213).” Shakespeare’s Hamlet satisfies Kallendorf’s time period. Thus, when Marcellus tells Horatio, “Thou art a scholar. Speak to it, Horatio”, the audience then knows that Horatio is an educated man of university. Later, Kallendorf describes the steps that one takes in order to perform an exorcism. Kallendorf writes, “Exorcism incorporates all three branches of classical rhetoric: judicial (accusing the demon for his actions); deliberative (exhorting the demon to depart); and ceremonial or epideictic (praising the power of God and blaming Satan for taking possession of a human soul) (214).”

Additionally, in her abstract, Kallendorf writes, “There are five audiences in any given exorcism, three supernatural and two human (209)”.
Kallendorf’s writings on exorcism can be directly applied to the first scene of Hamlet, allowing the reader to see how the audience is led to believe that the Ghost is a demon. One thing that leads the audience to assume that the Ghost is a demon is the fulfillment of what is necessary in order to perform an exorcism. Horatio, being an educated man in the Renaissance period, as Kallendorf suggests, would have experience in performing exorcisms. Also, the requirement for “three supernatural and two human” (209) witnesses is fulfilled when Horatio commands the Ghost to speak “By Heaven” (1.1.51), therefore calling on the trinity as three supernatural witnesses, and also by the presence of Marcellus and Barnardo as two human witnesses. Additionally, Horatio appears to be performing the “judicial” (214) portion of an exorcism when he accuses the Ghost of taking on the appearance of King Hamlet. While the characters of the play never explicitly state that they believe the Ghost to be a demon, the requirements for performing an exorcism, according to research, are met, leading the audience to imply that the Ghost truly is a demon. Not only does the Ghost appearing as a demon build suspense to begin the play, yet also foreshadows future events. When the scene depicts the guards as taking King Hamlet’s ghost for a demon, the first of many misjudgments in the play is demonstrated. King Hamlet, the victim of a family murder, is pictured as one of evil deeds. The king is guiltless, being the victim of a crime, not the murderer. The guards’ misjudgment between what is good and evil portrays the inability of the other characters to differentiate between good and evil as well. In this way, the misjudgment of the guards foreshadows future confusion in the play by other characters.

Essentially, Shakespeare pictures the country of Denmark as disoriented when a trio of sentry guards is unable to recognize their country’s former ruler. Also, when the situation implies that the guards believe the spirit of guiltless King Hamlet to be a demon, future confusion over what is evil and what is good is foreshadowed. The three watchmen’s experience with King Hamlet’s ghost illustrate that sometimes what may appear to be foreign is truly what one recognizes well. The disciples experience spotting Jesus walking on water is similar to the blunder of the three guards; the disciples could not recognize the man that they gave up their lives to follow when walking on water.


Works cited:
Kallendorf, Hilaire. “The Rhetoric of Exorcism”. Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric,
Vol. 23, No. 3. 2005: 209-237. JSTOR. Web. 28 July 2012.



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