SCENE V. Another part of the platform. Enter GHOST and HAMLET

Where wilt thou lead me? speak; I'll go no further.

Mark me.

I will.
My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.

Upon hearing this, the audience’s first thought would likely be that this is a spirit from hell.

Alas, poor ghost! 

Nonetheless, Hamlet’s use of ‘poor’ suggests his sympathies reside with the spirit.

Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.

Speak; I am bound to hear.


So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.


I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd 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. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--

The ghost reveals his identity, something that, for the moment, both we and Hamlet will accept at face value.  He is in terrible torment, but the use of the phrase, “Doom'd for a certain term,” suggests he is in Purgatory, not hell.  In the Catholic tradition, Purgatory is a place of temporary suffering, sort of ‘hell-lite,” whose flames serve to cleanse the sinner so he can enter heaven.  Those sent to Purgatory were not guilty of unconfessed mortal sin, for which hell was waiting, but rather what are known as venial (lighter) sins and mortal sins that had been confessed to a priest.  The idea was that even though the mortal sins had been forgiven, there was still some punishment due before the deceased was acceptable to God.  A parallel in secular justice can be found in the fact that a criminal can confess to his/her crime and repent, but some kind of sanction, whether a jail term or a fine, is still meted out.

O God!

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.


Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

The ghost’s revelation elicits a passionate response from the Prince.  In the grips of deep emotion, using the metaphor of a bird swooping down, he promises swift revenge.  Remember, however, that Hamlet is living and acting in the moment, and, as we shall see, is ultimately unwilling to take the ghost’s word without independent proof. 

I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.

The spirit is pleased with Hamlet’s response;  using an allusion to the Greek myth of the Lethe River, from whose waters all the deceased drank to forget their earthly experiences, he would see Hamlet as someone who had completely forgotten him had he reacted differently.
                                  Now, Hamlet, hear:
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.

The ghost reveals he was murdered by his brother.  If we consider the orchard with the sleeping King Hamlet as a kind of innocent and peaceful state, and the fact that Claudius is described via the metaphor of the serpent, Shakespeare is clearly using imagery designed to evoke the Biblical Garden of Eden where, in the Book of Genesis, the betrayal of humanity took place. Through the deceit of the serpent, the great tempter, Eve is persuaded to violate God’s injunction against eating the fruit of a particular tree, the consequence of which is exile.

The King’s alleged murder, of course, also puts us in mind of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, also in Genesis.  These Biblical allusions would have resonated deeply with Shakespeare’s audiences, imparting even greater gravity to the ghost’s story.

O my prophetic soul! My uncle!

The Prince’s response is curious; even though he did not mention it in his soliloquy, he seems to have suspected something along these lines since his father’s demise.
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,--
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:

The outrage the ghost seems to feel is underscored here by his diction.  The use of alliteration (‘witchcraft of his wit,’ ‘O wicked wit,’ ‘So to seduce’) lends even greater emphasis to Claudius’ betrayal of his brother which, if we take literally the ghost’s description of him as “that adulterate beast,” seems to have begun while the King was still alive, through his seduction of Gertrude.  If we accept the ghost’s word, his “most seeming-virtuous queen” is guilty not only of incest, but also adultery.

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!

The ghost’s contempt for Claudius and disappointment in his wife is palpable as he contrasts the sanctity of his love for Gertrude with the cheap nature of her relationship with his brother, whom he seems to regard as his gross inferior.

But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

The ghost’s disgust with Gertrude is evident as he describes her virtue as a mere façade; had it been otherwise, she would never have succumbed to the temptation presented by Claudius, even as he worked his powers on her.  The word ‘garbage’ sums up how the ghost sees his brother, and essentially his wife.

But, soft! methinks I scent the morning air;
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.

The ghost’s description of the murder, committed whilst asleep in his orchard, makes the crime especially heinous, and is reminiscent of the murder of King Duncan, while asleep, at the hands of Macbeth.  The vileness of the crime is reinforced by the ugly effects of the poison, which clotted the King’s blood, causing a leprous-like effect that corrupted his body.  

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

The ghost’s anger and grief over what he lost at his brother’s hand is emphasized here, along with the fact that he was not given the opportunity to have last rites administered, something that he would almost have been assured of had he experienced a natural death.  The consequence of his unnatural dispatch is his present torment as he spends his days in the flames of Purgatory.  The repetition of ‘horrible’ underscores both his suffering and his grief over what was taken from him.

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire:
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.


The ghost finally gives Hamlet his mission:  to kill Claudius but not to harm Gertrude; she is to be left to her conscience and to God’s justice.  The scholar and critic John Dover Wilson suggests that this injunction to spare his mother precludes Hamlet from ever making public Claudius’ crime, as to do so would invite her condemnation as an accomplice in the murder.  Wilson asserts that this makes Hamlet’s mission even more difficult.

Before we proceed, something very important and germane to the play needs to be discussed.  Although the ghost may seem to be motivated by purely personal reasons in giving Hamlet this mission, the fact that he appears in his armor, dressed as he would been going into battle to defend Denmark, suggests more is involved here.  Indeed, a far more compelling reason for engineering Claudius’ removal from the throne of Denmark if the story of his treachery is true would be recognized by Shakespeare’s audience.  To understand this reason, we have to first understand how the Elizabethans viewed the universe.  Believers in what is known as The Great Chain of Being, they saw everything in their universe as being arranged in a hierarchical order, with God at the top.  A simple schematic would look like this:

Yeomen Farmers
Soldiers/Town Watch
Household Servants
Tennant Farmers

Within each category, another hierarchy existed.  For example, in the avian world, the eagle was at the top.  In the animal kingdom, the lion was indeed “the king of the jungle.”  When it came to metals, gold was at the top, lead at the bottom, etc., etc.

The most important aspects of this concept involve the idea that there is a natural order in the universe, ordained by God, who exists atop all of the hierarchies.  Examining the diagram, you will notice that directly beneath God and His angels is secular authority, i.e., the King or Queen.   In our democratic traditions today, we see political power as coming from below, i.e., our leaders are elected by the people, whereas for those of Shakespeare’s time it was viewed as coming from above, i.e., from God.  The ruling monarch was thus seen as God’s representative on earth, charged with the responsibility of taking care of His people.  According to the ghost, Claudius has usurped or stolen the crown from the rightful King, Hamlet, and in doing so has committed a crime, not just against the King and the country, but also against nature by interfering with the natural order, and God Himself.

The issue thus goes beyond the sense of grave injustice expressed by the ghost; it becomes an issue of the nation’s well-being.  According to the beliefs of the time, if the King was good, the nation and its people would prosper, but if he were evil, as in the case of a usurper, it would suffer, a theme Shakespeare had previously explored thoroughly in Macbeth.  We are reminded of Marcellus’ possibly prescient words at the end of scene IV: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;

That he has been deeply affected by the ghost’s story is unquestionable; however, his mention of heaven, earth and hell, even in the midst of his reaction, portends his ultimate ambivalence about the spirit’s origins. 

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up.

This comment suggests the devastating impact the story has had on him, almost as if it is too much for him to bear.

                                                   Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:


With his commitment to keep foremost in his mind what the ghost has told him, the vestiges of Hamlet’s once-vibrant idealism dissipate, yet we are only beginning to see how he will be affected.  Like a student, he writes in his notebook the lesson he has just received, that appearances and reality are often two different things, an incipient understanding of which was reflected in his first soliloquy when he considered his mother’s hypocrisy.   The Prince’s describes Gertrude as a “most pernicious woman.”  Since the word usually means ‘deadly,’ it is clear that Hamlet sees his mother directly involved in the murder of the King, something that the ghost did not specify.   The fact that he writes down “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” suggests that this is a new lesson he has learned, further support for the idea that he was formerly quite idealistic, seeing the world as it presented itself, never suspecting that a darker reality lay beneath.  In some ways, this is reminiscent of the scene in The Matrix when Neo takes the pill which allows him to see the reality underlying his world of illusion.


So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word;
It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.'
I have sworn 't.

[Within] My lord, my lord,--

[Within] Lord Hamlet,--

[Within] Heaven secure him!

So be it!

[Within] Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!

Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come.

How is't, my noble lord?
What news, my lord?
O, wonderful!
Good my lord, tell it.

No; you'll reveal it.

Not I, my lord, by heaven.
Nor I, my lord.

How say you, then; would heart of man once think it?
But you'll be secret?

Ay, by heaven, my lord.
There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he's an arrant knave.

There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.
That Hamlet does not intend to share the ghost’s story with the others is evident in the behaviour he exhibits when they arrive back on the scene.  From mimicking the cry of a falconer (“Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come”) to stating a tautology (“There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark/But he's an arrant knave), it seems clear that the Prince is trying to distract the others from asking too many questions.  But is this the only reason behind his peculiar demeanour?  As the scene moves toward its conclusion, it is a question that needs to be asked.


Why, right; you are i' the right;
And so, without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part:
You, as your business and desire shall point you;
For every man has business and desire,
Such as it is; and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I'll go pray.

These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
Hamlet proposes that they thus depart but Horatio, who is presented throughout the play as the essence of calm and stability, of which we will see more later, observes that his friend is really talking nonsense here.

I'm sorry they offend you, heartily;
Yes, 'faith heartily.

There's no offence, my lord.

Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio,
And much offence too. Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you:

Not wanting to shut out Horatio completely, Hamlet alludes to the wrong-doing revealed by the ghost; by citing Saint Patrick, he is drawing upon the belief that the Irish saint had had visions of Purgatory, which the Prince at this point seems to believe is where the spirit, and hence his father, is from.  Indeed, he describes it as “an honest ghost,” in other words, not a demon masquerading as his father.

For your desire to know what is between us,
O'ermaster 't as you may. And now, good friends,
As you are friends, scholars and soldiers,
Give me one poor request.

What is't, my lord? we will.

Never make known what you have seen to-night.

My lord, we will not.

Nay, but swear't.

In faith,
My lord, not I.

Nor I, my lord, in faith.

Upon my sword.
We have sworn, my lord, already.

Indeed, upon my sword, indeed.
[Beneath] Swear.
Ah, ha, boy! say'st thou so? art thou there,
Come on--you hear this fellow in the cellarage--
Consent to swear.

Propose the oath, my lord.

Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.

[Beneath] Swear.

Hic et ubique? then we'll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword:
Never to speak of this that you have heard,
Swear by my sword.

[Beneath] Swear.

Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber'd thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know,' or 'We could, an if we would,'
Or 'If we list to speak,' or 'There be, an if they might,'
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear.

[Beneath] Swear.

Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!

They swear

So, gentlemen,
With all my love I do commend me to you:
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let's go together.


Like much of the play, the entire sequence from Hamlet’s having them swear multiple oaths to the conclusion of the scene is perplexing in many ways.  His insistence that they swear two oaths on essentially the same matter may be Hamlet’s way of emphasizing the importance of secrecy here, but the way it is usually played onstage is to have him moving about manically.  The question, which we will return to momentarily, is why is he acting thus?  It is also debatable as to whether Marcellus and Horatio actually hear the ghost telling them to swear.  It would, after all, mark the first time he has deigned to address them.  If they do not hear him, imagine their even greater bewilderment as the Prince runs wildly across the stage and makes comments that seem to make no sense.

Another aspect that quite frankly I have always found difficult to account for is the apparent levity with which Hamlet addresses the now unseen spirit he believes to be his father.  Referring to him as “this fellow in the cellarage,”  “old mole,” and “worthy pioneer,” all references to being underground, seem strangely flippant and disrespectful ways of referring to an entity one believes to be one’s father.  Is this simply Shakespeare’s attempt at a little comic relief?  Is it an effort at misdirection on Hamlet’s part? Is it, as suggested to me by a friend, a certain giddiness he is feeling now that he has a better understanding of the dramatic developments in the court and therefore a new sense of direction and confidence?  Or could it be something much more consequential?

Perhaps the suggestion of an answer is to be found in the final issue upon which Hamlet asks them to swear.  He tells them that he may “perchance hereafter … think meet/To put an antic disposition on,” in other words, to act like a madman; he has them swear not to reveal to anyone that it is merely an act.  The question we have to ask is why he has decided upon such a course. 

Some have suggested that this will be the perfect disguise for the Prince as he goes about the court trying to verify the ghost’s assassination story, the idea being that people tend to pay little attention to those they deem mentally diseased, and may be therefore less guarded in what they say to others while he is around.  One of the objections I have always had to this explanation is that, at least initially, such behaviour would tend to draw attention to, not divert it from the one who is acting so peculiarly. 

Another possible explanation is that acting like a madman will afford Hamlet some protection when he carries out the ghost’s order to revenge his murder (i.e. kills Claudius).  The problem is that I have never found any textual evidence to suggest that the Prince is in the least bit concerned about his personal safety as he pursues his mission.

Perhaps the best explanation resides in observing his behaviour immediately after his conversation with the ghost.  While they could again be only Hamlet’s efforts to misdirect Horatio and Marcellus, his “wild and whirling words” as characterized by Horatio may, in fact, be an outward sign that the ghost’s visit and mission have had an unbalancing effect on his mind, compromising his stability to the extent that he feels it  necessary to conceal it.  As well, it has been argued that as the pressures of his task grow with the play’s developments, being able to ‘act’ mad will permit a kind of escape valve for Hamlet, allowing him to ‘blow off steam’ by indulging in behaviours that would be deemed unacceptable in a ‘normal’ person. 

We cannot overemphasize the tremendous burden and responsibility the ghost has placed on Hamlet’s shoulders.  On the one hand, what the ghost is asking him to do seems to be a violation of the Christian injunction not to kill; on the other hand, Hamlet has an obligation, should the ghost be telling the truth, to rid Denmark of a usurper for the good of the country.  It cannot help Hamlet’s emotional state that the man he is charged to kill is his uncle, a man who may be evil but who is still his father’s brother and his mother’s husband.  The inner conflict must be tremendous here.

Questions about Hamlet’s inner state will become more pressing as the play progresses, but this preliminary speculation is all that is necessary before we proceed with the play.


                                                                        ACT ONE – SOME CONSIDERATIONS

By the end of Act 1, a great deal has been accomplished.  In terms of narrative, both the main plot and the two sub-plots have been established.  The main plot, initiated by the ghost’s story to Hamlet, is known as the Revenge Plot.  A good portion of the play’s energy will henceforth revolve around Hamlet’s efforts to determine the veracity of the ghost’s story; despite the way Act One ends, Hamlet is by no means certain of the truth, as we shall see.

Also established in a preliminary way is the Norwegian or Fortinbras Subplot.  While seeming to be of peripheral import compared to the ghost’s revelations, we will see that it becomes a very important part of the play’s architecture.  For now, let us remember that this subplot revolves around a young prince with a dead father and an uncle as his king, working to fulfill a mission, on a quest for national honour.

As well, there is the Romantic Subplot involving the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia and revolving around the house of Polonius which, of course, includes Laertes.  The relationship of these three plots will become more apparent as the play progresses.

We have also been introduced to the key characters of the play.  Sufficient commentary has been made throughout Act One as to what can be observed about them, but a few things bear repeating:  Hamlet, our protagonist, is a young man of formidable intellect and conscience.  His moral sense has provoked inner outrage over the marriage of his mother to her brother-in-law, whereas no one else is depicted as having any reservations about the propriety of such a union.  Of course, the act showed that the Prince’s despondency over it is also fuelled by his low opinion of Claudius, his very high opinion of his late father, and his grave disappointment over the fact that already, the Queen seems to have forgotten her first husband.  His disaffection with life is so profound that he wishes for death.

Claudius, putting aside the ghost’s allegations for the moment, is depicted as a skilled politician, dealing effectively with both people and matters of state as evidenced by the fact that everyone seems to have freely gone along with the marriage, and the country has a very good chance of averting a major war with Norway by Claudius sending his emissaries with a letter to the Norwegian King informing him of what his young nephew, Fortinbras, has been up to.  If what the ghost has said is true, he is also a deadly usurper of the throne, a man who can beguile quite effectively.

Whatever else might be said about the morally-blunted Queen, there is no question that Gertrude loves her son, evident in the concern she expresses over what she sees as his protracted mourning for his father.  Her echoing Claudius’ request that he remain in Denmark instead of returning to Wittenberg is undoubtedly prompted by a desire to watch over her distressed son.

As mentioned earlier, one of the key themes of the play is the disparity between appearances and reality.  First introduced by Hamlet’s bitter observations about Gertrude’s betrayal of her husband’s memory despite her torrent of tears as the grieving widow at his funeral, the theme takes on much darker dimensions with the ghost’s story.  According to him, Gertrude is an adulteress who married the King’s murderer.  And this brings us to another dimension of the theme – the ghost itself.  Is it really the spirit of King Hamlet?  Is the mission it has charged Hamlet with consistent with Christian teaching, and, of course, is the story true?

One of the exercises I used to give my students was to draw a line down a page, on one side listing all of the arguments against the ghost being who it claims to be, and on the other side all of the arguments supporting its claims.  I won’t reveal at this point what the consensus tended to be, but keep in mind that this issue is of paramount concern to Hamlet, something that will become quite evident as the play progresses.

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