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William Shakespeare



Hamlet and the ghost re-enter from another direction, indicating that the scene has shifted to another part of the battlements. When Hamlet, unsure where the ghost is leading him, refuses to go on, the ghost speaks at last. Noting that he must walk the earth by night and suffer the tortures of hell during the day, he tells Hamlet that he is indeed his father's spirit, and that Hamlet must avenge his "foul and most unnatural murder." The murderer, he says, is none other than Claudius, who poured poison in the king's ear while he was asleep in an orchard. The official story is that he was bitten by a snake, but according to the ghost,

The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.

(lines 45-46)

Hamlet, who has suspected his uncle all along, exclaims, "O my prophetic soul!" The ghost goes on to describe how Claudius used his clever wit to seduce the queen, and how he himself felt at the moment when the poison took hold, with no opportunity for the last repentance necessary for a dying Christian. Hamlet, he says, must not tolerate his uncle's making the royal bed of Denmark "A couch for luxury [lust] and damned incest"; however, he must not take any action against his mother- "Leave her to heaven" and to her own remorse. Since dawn is breaking, the ghost is forced to leave. "Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me," he says as he vanishes.

Hamlet is stunned. His worst fears have been realized. Calling on heaven, earth, and hell, he vows to erase everything but his father's story from his mind, attacks his mother ("O most pernicious woman!"), and can calm himself down only by writing in his notebook his perception about his uncle- "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." As he swears again to remember his father, Hamlet is interrupted by the shouting of Horatio and Marcellus, searching for him. They naturally want to know what has happened, but Hamlet evades their questions. He will say only that "It is an honest ghost," and then tries to make them swear on his sword never to reveal what they have seen. They are afraid to be trapped into an oath instigated by an evil spirit. They refuse- they have already sworn "by heaven" not to reveal it- and their fears are confirmed by the ghost's voice commanding "Swear" three times from under the floorboards as they shift their ground. "This is wondrous strange," exclaims Horatio, and Hamlet gives the skeptic's view its final rebuke as he says:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

(lines 191-92)

Hamlet warns his friend not to be surprised if he appears to be mad and do strange things. Promising to reward the guards as well as "so poor a man" can, he again beseeches them to keep silent, adding,

The time is out of joint. O curse'd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

(lines 215-16)

Hamlet invites them to go in with him, and they all leave as day breaks and the first act ends.


Once again, in this scene, we can see the changeability of Hamlet's character. After the ghost vanishes he is utterly devoted to it, by the end of the scene he is already starting to regret his obligation ("O curse'd spite"). The question of whether Hamlet is mad or pretending to be mad (what is called his "antic disposition") has been debated for centuries; this scene suggests both possibilities. The ghost's revelation unbalances his already disturbed emotions, but by the time he gives his warning to Horatio he seems to be plotting to pretend madness in some way. Many of the things he says in later scenes will of course seem insane to those who don't know the truth, because from this point on Hamlet is a man with a secret and a mission. Using evidence from various parts of the play, you'll have to decide whether Hamlet merely feigns madness or whether he is in fact mad.  


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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