The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
It is a nipping and an eager air.

What hour now?

I think it lacks of twelve.

No, it is struck.

Indeed? I heard it not: then it draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.

Returning to the cold and dark atmosphere developed at the play’s start, Shakespeare prepares us for the events to come, and offers Hamlet the opportunity to make some commentary that reveals much about his character:

A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off, within

What does this mean, my lord?

The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.

In response to Horatio’s question, Hamlet explains that each time the King finishes another goblet of wine, the trumpets sound and the cannons are fired off, indicative of the carousing now taking place in the castle.

Is it a custom?

Ay, marry, is't:
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.

Almost prudishly, the melancholy Dane suggests that this tradition of heavy drinking has resulted in a very bad Danish reputation, as the country is viewed far and wide as a nation of drunkards, thereby overshadowing its considerable achievements.

So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.

I’ve always been fascinated by this part of Hamlet’s speech, as it seems to me that he is actually articulating  the Aristotelian notion of the tragic flaw, of which all  Shakespearean tragic heroes are possessed.   Very briefly, the concept of the tragic flaw encompasses the notion that the hero, despite a good and admirable nature, is ultimately led to his downfall through a character trait which, in and of itself is not bad, but due to an imbalance, overwhelms his other qualities.  As the Prince describes it, it is a “habit that too much o'er-leavens/The form of plausive manners,” prevailing and overthrowing his other traits.   An easy way to demonstrate this is to draw an analogy with diet.  We all need certain vitamins, minerals, and trace elements to be healthy.  For example, to avoid thyroid problems such as goiter, we need a certain amount of iodine in our diets.  However, should we ingest too much of it, we run the risk of developing autoimmune thyroid disease and hypothyroidism.

Now this is not to suggest that Claudius has the capacity to be a tragic hero, the reasons for which I won’t go into at this time other than to say that he is not the play’s protagonist.  What Hamlet, in this illustration is doing, however, is substituting a nation for a person, but the outcome is still essentially the same:  dishonour and a kind of national downfall.

For readers conversant with other Shakespearean tragedies, this concept is easiest to apply to the character of Macbeth, a trusted, brave, loyal and valiant defender of Scotland, a man of lofty position with a tremendous potential who is possessed of ambition. If we consider the trait of ambition, we realize there is nothing innately wrong with it; indeed, in most cases it is a desirable characteristic.  Sadly, Macbeth’s ambition is such that it overwhelms all of his other qualities, ultimately leading him to kill his king and usurp the throne.  In the end, Macbeth is destroyed by his tragic flaw.

But what is the tragic flaw of our protagonist Hamlet?  The question is premature at this point; indeed, it really is a question that has bedeviled critics and scholars over the centuries, but it is one that I will nonetheless be exploring fully at the end of my analysis of the play.


Look, my lord, it comes!

Enter Ghost


Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
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,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!


We must not underestimate the importance of Hamlet’s initial reaction to the ghost.  His ambivalence about what it might be is clearly seen in his first line, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” In calling upon all things holy for protection, the Prince is clearly aware that this entity could indeed be an evil spirit.  The three lines that follow also capture that ambivalence, and the fact that he calls it “Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane” is only due to the fact that it looks like his late father.  He is by no means convinced that it is.

Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?

Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?

While he may be predisposed to believing that it is his father, keep in mind the previous commentary.  His inclination to believe is reflected in the diction he uses, including “canonized bones” (remember how he earlier referred to his father in god-like terms), and the personification of the grave that “Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again,” but remember that Hamlet is now in the grips of very strong emotion, but once it subsides, he will have time for more critical reflection on this visitation.

Ghost beckons HAMLET

It beckons you to go away with it,
As if it some impartment did desire
To you alone.

Look, with what courteous action
It waves you to a more removed ground:
But do not go with it.

No, by no means.

It will not speak; then I will follow it.

Do not, my lord.
Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin's fee;
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself?
It waves me forth again: I'll follow it.

Horatio and Marcellus’ immediate reaction is to tell Hamlet not to follow the spectre, rightfully fearful of its intentions.  Hamlet is determined, however, to follow, dismissing their cautions by reminding them that his soul is immortal, and he worries not about his physical safety, the latter perhaps echoing his desire for death expressed in his first soliloquy.  Plainly seen here are Hamlet’s decisiveness and courage in responding to the ghost’s invitation to venture into the unknown, personality traits important to note given questions that will be raised about him later on in the play.

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? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.

Horatio’s articulation of the specific dangers that the spirit might pose, such as tempting him toward the edge of a cliff and then changing into some horrible form to lead him to death is something the Elizabethans watching the play would have taken seriously, given their belief that demons could masquerade as the recently deceased for nefarious purposes.

It waves me still.
Go on; I'll follow thee.

You shall not go, my lord.

Hold off your hands.

Be ruled; you shall not go.

My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.
Still am I call'd. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away! Go on; I'll follow thee.

Shakespeare uses an allusion to the Neamean lion, whose slaying was one of the twelve labours of Hercules; in the myth, the lion’s pelt was indestructible, as seems to be the Prince’s resolve to follow the ghost.

Exeunt Ghost and HAMLET

He waxes desperate with imagination.

Let's follow; 'tis not fit thus to obey him.


Have after. To what issue will this come?

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Heaven will direct it.

Nay, let's follow him.


Probably one of the most well-known of Shakespearean phrases, Marcellus’ “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” proves to be indeed prophetic, as we shall soon see. With suspense at its height, the audience is now completely engaged in the mystery, more than ready for what is to follow.
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