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‘Kill your uncle in revenge for my death, ignore your mother, avoid losing your sanity, and don’t worry about my suffering in the afterlife’—in simple terms, these are the Ghost’s four instructions in 1.5 to the title character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The Ghost tinges his demands with emotional blackmail: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love …” But offers the prince no practical guidance: “However thou should accomplish this act …”
By the play’s end, Hamlet has broken every one of the directions issued by the “apparition” (1.1) who appears in the “questionable shape” (1.4) like “the King that’s dead” (1.1).
But, after many “purposes mistook” (5.2) and mirroring Laertes’ journey from revenge to forgiveness, the prince finds another way to keep the promise he made to his late father’s memory: “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!” (1.5).
#Hamlet: Is the Ghost "like the King that's dead" ultimately "to blame" for the play's many deaths?
In 1.1, the skeptical “scholar” Horatio dismisses as a “fantasy” claims by the castle guards Marcellus and Barnardo of witnessing “this dreaded sight.” But the evidence of his eyes convinces him “this thing” is real and resembles the “form” of “our last King.”
The Ghost presents himself as a soul returned from a Catholic purgatory, where he is suffering “for a certain term … in fires” until his sins are “purged away” (1.5).
Prince Hamlet leans towards the Protestant view of ghosts: they may be truth-revealing spirits (“airs from heaven”) or manipulative demons (“blasts from hell”, 1.5). He first believes the former (“It is an honest ghost”, 1.5), but later fears what he has seen “may be a devil” who “Abuses me to damn me” (2.2).
Old King #Hamlet's Ghost: from a Catholic purgatory, a Protestant hell - or his son's imagination?
A single murder, two suffering souls. Old King Hamlet died with his sins unconfessed (“all my imperfections on my head”, 1.5) and must so endure a limited period of punishment in purgatory. An entire eternity of hellfire awaits his brother, Claudius; it is the price he knows he must pay for his stolen crown and queen: “O, heavy burden” (3.1).
In the play’s final scene, a conscience-stricken Laertes declares “The King’s to blame” (5.2). But which king? So many lives would have been spared had “the King that’s dead” (1.1) asked not for revenge but for prayers to end the suffering of two souls: his in the “sulfurous and tormenting flames” (1.5) of purgatory, and his brother’s on Denmark’s throne, “limed” and “struggling to be free” (3.3).
Caught in the middle between two brothers at war, Prince Hamlet laments: “O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5).
#Hamlet: The prince swears an oath only to "remember" his father's Ghost, not to avenge him.
To the Ghost in 1.5, Gertrude is both a “radiant angel” and a “seeming-virtuous queen.” For what he sees as her sins (“those thorns”), he wishes her to be punished in the next life (“Leave her to heaven”) after being tormented by them in this one (“To prick and sting her”).
Despite the Ghost’s command, Hamlet cannot ignore his mother. To the Ghost’s revenge mission, the prince adds a second, more poignant quest of his own: to reunite in the afterlife his fractured-by-Claudius family of mother and father. Hence Hamlet’s desire to first rescue his mother’s soul (“Repent what’s past. Avoid what is to come”, 3.4) before he condemns his uncle’s (“as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes”, 3.3).
That the Ghost in Gertrude’s closet is visible to the prince but unseen by his mother (“To whom do you speak this?”, 3.4) reveals the gulf between the haunted-by-the-past Hamlet and the live-in-the-moment queen.
#Hamlet seeks to reunite in the afterlife his fractured-by-Claudius family of mother and father.
After being instructed by the Ghost to “Taint not thy mind” (1.5), the prince immediately and without explanation decides to feign madness. Hamlet appears to be setting in place a defense of temporary insanity should he kill Claudius and face a trial for the crime of regicide.
But the prince’s exploitation of “fair Ophelia” (3.1) to spread word of his “antic disposition” leads him to the edge of insanity (“It hath made me mad”, 3.1) and sends her to actual madness and “self-slaughter” (1.2).
Ophelia and Hamlet each leave behind a “wounded name” (5.2): she, a “document in madness” (4.5) who was “incapable of her own distress” (4.7); the prince, “he that is mad” after “losing his wits” (5.1).
"How came he mad?" - #Hamlet asks about himself to the grave-digger.
In the final 5.2 scene, Hamlet’s killing of Claudius is not long-delayed revenge. It is his immediate and spontaneous response to Claudius’ guilt for the death of Gertrude, Laertes and the prince himself: “In thee there is not half an hour of life.”
The Ghost who appears at the beginning and in the middle of the play goes unmentioned at the end. But Hamlet has not forgotten his vow, made in 1.5: “‘Remember me.’ I have sworn’t.”
In his one act as king, a dying Hamlet surrenders Denmark to the son of his father’s old rival. In so doing he grants his “dear father” (2.2) something more than vengeance: atonement for his land-grabbing, “Extorted treasure in the womb of earth” (1.1) sins committed “in his days of nature” (1.5)—and with it escape from his afterlife torment in the “prison house … fires” (1.5). “Alas, poor Ghost” (1.5), indeed.
#Hamlet grants his father not the revenge he demanded but the atonement his suffering soul needed more.
The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in. If at the cost of his life, Hamlet does in the end “win at the odds.”
His “ambition” for Denmark’s throne leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father murdered” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
Uncle and nephew are two men at war with each other—and themselves. Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”); Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”).
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she, to the water; he, to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
“Those friends thou hast … Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted confidant in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.
A marriage of mutual self-interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the status of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.
Hamlet and Laertes journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on King Claudius becomes the revenge of Old King Fortinbras on Old King Hamlet.
“Who’s there?” The characters struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to behave deceitfully, and to perform in theater.