Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 5
Back on the parapet — the outer walls of Castle Elsinore — Hamlet follows the Ghost, who admits that he is the spirit of King Hamlet and tells his son to hear him out. His time is short before he must return to Purgatory. He cannot share any of the secrets of life in Purgatory, but he has a tale of woe he desperately needs to pass on to his son. Before he will give Hamlet any details, however, he charges the Prince to avenge his murder. The words of the Ghost horrify Hamlet, for they confirm his fears. Hurrying because he can "scent the morning," King Hamlet tells his son that Claudius seduced his seemingly virtuous queen, and then crept to where his brother lay napping and poured a lethal poison in King Hamlet's ear. The poison quickly curdled King Hamlet's blood, robbing him of both his life and the opportunity for absolution.
The Ghost tells Hamlet to "Remember me," but only after he instructs him to leave Gertrude alone. So Hamlet must wrest retribution only from Claudius. The Ghost exits, leaving Hamlet incensed. Hamlet answers the worried calls of Horatio and Marcellus, telling them nothing specific but demanding that they both take an oath to tell no one what they have seen and heard. In confidence, Hamlet tells Horatio that he will pretend to be mad so that he may spy on his mother and uncle. After Horatio has sworn allegiance, Hamlet bids the departed Ghost to rest and then curses his fate before exiting with the other men.
King Hamlet's ghost introduces himself in a way that most certainly evoked the sympathy of the Elizabethan audience. He tells Hamlet that his brother robbed him of everything he was, all that he owned, including his everlasting soul. In the same way that the Bible engenders sympathy for Abel and condemns Cain for the fratricide, Shakespeare favors the murdered brother.
Hamlet is quick to believe the Ghost because the spirit's words confirm his worst fear: Claudius murdered King Hamlet. For the Elizabethan/Jacobean audience who attended the first performances of Hamlet, murder of a king was in itself cause for alarm. Consider that the English people believed that their monarchs ruled by Divine Right, that God Himself appointed them to rule the land. The Church of England went so far as to attribute to the monarch the highest order of executive power in the church as well. In all ways, the English monarch represented God on earth. King Hamlet's murder makes the Ghost a most sympathetic figure to Shakespeare's audiences. No one would have questioned the existence of that Ghost, and few would have believed — even for a moment, as Hamlet does — that the Ghost could be a devil.
The fact that his mother's lover is also her husband's murderer exacerbates Gertrude's crime of incest. Hamlet is bereft of choice. He may have an aversion to violence, and he may live by strict Christian principles, but he must avenge his father's honor. Hamlet sees no way to honor his father except by killing Claudius. Doubly impelled by his father's orders and by tradition, Hamlet becomes a prisoner of his obligation for revenge.
The major conflict here is obvious. Christianity negated the Hebraic notion of "an eye for an eye"; the notion seemed barbaric to the Renaissance population. Further, the medieval custom of a blood feud wherein the closest relative of a murdered man must avenge the death had become passé. Society more often supported the notion of mercy and forgiveness, concepts Shakespeare explored in an earlier play, Merchant of Venice. In Merchant, the audience despises the antagonist precisely because he insists on a blood feud. In Hamlet, Shakespeare asks the audience to empathize with Hamlet's desire for redress. Hamlet is a sympathetic character precisely because the notion of revenge drives him while his Christian morality and inclination simultaneously exhort him to be charitable.
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