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Hamlet’s father was murdered. A month later his mother married his uncle. It was the worst time of his life. He was under tremendous stress. He wanted to spend most of his time grieving his loss but at the same time, he was confronted with an event that has made him question the meaning of what has transpired in the past few weeks. It was mental and emotional anguish that has driven him to despair. Thus, when his father’s ghost appeared to him and commanded him to kill his enemies Hamlet could no longer handle the added pressure and so he suffered tremendously and brought down the whole Danish royal family with him to the grave.
The first thing that has to be determined is the truth behind the claim that Hamlet saw the ghost of his departed father. It is important to know if Hamlet indeed had some form of a vision or if he simply imagined the whole thing. It is easy to understand the significance of the visitation if indeed there was one. If Hamlet simply imagined the presence of a ghost then it simply means that he already had an idea of who the murderer was and that this knowledge pushed him to the edge and as a result, he began to imagine things.
Thus, the introductory part of the play serves a crucial role because in Act 1 one can read that the members of the royal guards saw the ghost of the former king. This sighting was confirmed by none other than Horatio the loyal friend of Hamlet who said that he would not have believed if the event was simply narrated to him, but since he was able to see with his very own eyes then he can confirm that indeed the dead king has revealed himself in the form of a ghost.
In Act 4, the final confirmation came when numerous sets of eyes saw the same thing at the same time. This should eliminate the idea that one of the witnesses was delusional. It has now been made clear by Shakespeare that indeed the dead king succeeded in reaching out to the living. The stage has been set for the dead king to connect with his grieving son.
The ghost beckoned for Hamlet to come nearer. It was a clear invitation to come and confer with the dead. Hamlet understood the negative implications of speaking with the dead and more importantly he was not even sure at first if indeed he was talking to his father or a phantom trying to play a cruel joke on him. But it was indeed the dead old king wearing the armor that he used to vanquish Norway.
The ghost beckons for the son to come and Hamlet obliged until they reached a remote part of the castle. In seclusion and privacy, the ghost unfolded the purpose of his visit. The ghost explained that he is indeed the spirit of Hamlet’s dead father. After allowing Hamlet to absorb the full blow of the revelation the ghost began to speak.
The ghost did not try to encourage the grieving son to be strong and take courage. Instead, the ghost gave the son a charge that would bring him to the edge and tear his soul. The ghost said that the whole of Denmark was told a lie. The tall tale about his purported death through the sting of poison does not contain a grain of truth. Yet, he clarified that indeed a snake has bitten him with treachery but this serpent does not slither in the ground, and in truth, he wears the crown of the king of Denmark.
Hamlet was not surprised by what he had heard. He suspected all along that his uncle has done something wrong. It was obvious to him that there is a better explanation as to the sudden demise of his father and just as quickly the marriage of his mother to his father’s brother. Nevertheless, the charge to slay his uncle to avenge the death of his father and to administer justice in the land is something that Hamlet was not sure he can accomplish.
The Breaking Point
It has to be made clear why Hamlet suffered mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. First of all, there is a need to understand that Hamlet had to deal with so many things at the same time and he had to contend with these matters in different planes of existence. His dead father can only be accessed in the spirit realm and though Shakespeare did not elaborate it is easy to see that Hamlet was in considerable stress when he communed with his father.
Secondly, the charge given to him was made more difficult by the fact that Hamlet was forced to assume an unfamiliar role. No information was supplied that could confirm the warrior mentality of Hamlet. He was no assassin and it is debatable if indeed he has the killer instinct that could propel him to the throne if he needs to fight for it. In the first scene of Act IV one can see the interaction of Hamlet and the Captain of the Norwegian forces and after he has been near this fine warlord Hamlet said the unthinkable for he said that he was a coward.
It may not be true that Hamlet is not a coward and that he simply exaggerated his statement in comparison to a veteran soldier in front of him. However, it can be said that he did not possess the disposition to carry out a grim task. According to commentators, Hamlet is the “melancholy Dane” and “a sweet Prince” (Bloom, p.19). Hamlet may not be a coward in the true sense of the word but he cannot plunge a dagger into the heart of his enemies. Hamlet had to go through the fire to strengthen his will and this was provided when he accidentally killed a man and was sent to exile (Barranger, p.170). After his return Hamlet found the strength to strike with his sword but not before he was pushed to the edge.
Thirdly, Hamlet was up against no ordinary foe. He was contending with a wily politician. It was clear to Hamlet that if Claudius was clever and ruthless enough to eliminate his father, assume the crown, marry his mother and take control of the army then he has to tread gently around this snake or he would be its next victim. His inner-struggle is facing a formidable opponent is exacerbated by the fact that this man is his uncle. Shakespeare may not have elaborated on it but it is possible that Hamlet shared good memories with his uncle and added the weight to the dagger that has to be plunged into this vile creature’s beating heart.
Fourthly, Hamlet seemed paralyzed by the fact that at the center of the controversy is his mother. If he is indeed a sweet prince and more of a philosopher than a warrior then it can be argued that Hamlet is close to his mother. Only a mother’s love can shape the gentle spirit that Hamlet has demonstrated for most of the play. By destroying her mother’s new husband, Hamlet knew that it would be the same as severing the ties that bind him to her.
Finally, his country is in a state of war. It can be argued that in the time of transition, especially in the rather odd circumstances of the sudden death of a reigning monarch and the marriage to the former queen, the stability of the kingdom is suspect. It is normal for ambitious politicians and members of the royal family to seize their opportunity before the new leader has solidified his claim to the throne. Moreover, Denmark has made enemies abroad and as Hamlet pondered his fate forces from Norway are being marshaled to conquer his homeland.
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All of these things came together, to place a tremendous burden in the heart of Hamlet. He was hesitant to carry the orders of a ghost because it was not in his nature to kill. However, there is a major reason why the force of his father’s commands was seared in his heart and his bones. Hamlet idolized his father. Seeing Hamlet through the eyes of modern psychology one can find that, “Central to a prescribed gender role for a man is the existence of a masculine ideal, an ideal to which a boy or a young man can be encouraged to aspire… the impossible male or masculine ideal against which Hamlet must judge himself is his murdered father” (Freedman & Frey, p.72). These forces work in unison to tear Hamlet apart from the inside.
He had to do what his father told him to do because he was challenged by a code of honor that he had learned as a prince of Denmark. He had to avenge his father’s murder. But he finds no clear and compelling reason to do so because it can be said that Hamlet finds the throne of little value. If he was as ambitious as his uncle then the task could have been easier. But Hamlet was made of something else. Nevertheless, the vision of his armored father urges him to push forward, to plot and kill.
The image of an ideal man added another burden to his ever-increasing load. His father was a great hero to his people and he was not only a warrior but an able statesman who had the skills and the charisma to rule his people and bring them to a level of prosperity and influence that enabled the nation to accomplish great things even in the international stage. Hamlet could not see a clear path ahead.
He needed something to allow him to break free from his current desolation so that he need not circle aimlessly around a spiritual and mental wilderness. It came unexpectedly when he accidentally killed a man, not just an ordinary person but someone connected to a woman that he knew and loved him with all her heart. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and the total disintegration of his spirit and character allowed him to wield the sword and vanquish his enemies. He fulfilled the desires of his father but paid with blood not only from his most hated enemy but from others that serve as collateral damage.
Hamlet knew he had to avenge his father at all costs. He knew the consequences of his actions and when he measured himself against the task and when he compared himself against his father he felt useless, unable, and double-minded. He had to go through a very painful experience for him to possess the resolve to carry out his mission. But the moment that he was able to break free, he lost his soul, mind, and character and he brought his loved ones with him to the grave.
Barranger, Milly. Theater: A Way of Seeing. CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2006.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
Freedman, Diane & Olivia Frey. Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines: A Reader. NC: Duke University Press, 2003.