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William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a story grounded in worldly issues like morality, justice, and retribution, begins in a very otherworldly way: the appearance of a ghost desiring vengeance from beyond the grave. The supernatural confrontation between Hamlet and the ghost of his father is perhaps the most important scene in the play, however, as it not only sets the stage for the tragic whirlwind of emotion and death that follows, but offers some of the deepest insight into Hamlet’s character and relationship with his beloved father that the text has to offer. In the short conversation between the two, the intense admiration and respect Hamlet has for his father is plainly revealed, as well as the differences between the father and the son that account for Hamlet’s inability to act or find concrete moral truths in his world. While Hamlet is continuously conflicted about the issues of death and the afterlife, morality, and violent retribution throughout the play, the ghost of his father sees the situation as nothing more than a case of crime deserving punishment, a concept so simple yet effective that the constantly philosophical Hamlet cannot fully grasp it and is ultimately destroyed by it.
The memory of the dead king seems to be preserved by few people other than Hamlet throughout the play. Although he is widely accepted to have been a great and noble man, his son is the only person that still sadly mourns his death and worries about the state of the new kingdom. This leads to constant questioning among the other characters of the play about Hamlet’s mental state before he learns the truth about his father’s death. Even though he does not yet know that the king was murdered, why is Hamlet still so devastated by the loss of his father, and when, if ever, will he move on with his life?
Hamlet’s first contact with the ghost helps to answer this question by exposing the stability and support that he finds in his mighty father’s words and presence. Although he is not at first sure if the apparition is ìa spirit of health or goblin damnedî (1.4.40) and his friends warn frantically against following the ghost into an isolated place, Hamlet pleads with the ghost ìwhy is this? Wherefore? What should we do?î (1.4.57) He quickly dismisses his friends’ doubts about his personal safety, in affect disregarding his reason and logic in the presence of what may be his father. The ghost has not yet said a word nor established who he is and what he wants, but Hamlet is nevertheless eager to obey and follow any instructions the ghost has for him because he wants to believe that it is indeed his father.
When Hamlet and the ghost are alone, the dead king finally confirms his identity and prepares his son for the shocking news, saying ìSo art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.î (1.5.7) Before going into the details of his murder, he goes to great lengths to communicate the extent of his agony and rage to his son by claiming that he ìcould 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.î (1.5.15-17) Before Hamlet is even told the full story, his father has already made it clear what he expects of his son: shock and outrage so great that the motivation to act swiftly for revenge will be all consuming. Hamlet responds accordingly to the ghost that he is now sure is his father, stating, ìwith wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love/May sweep to my revenge.î (1.5.29-31) We know, of course, that this is not the case at all; after his father’s ghost departs, Hamlet is unable to act or even interpret his own emotions throughout the rest of the play, and therefore he is in effect only placating his father with his strong words.
A few lines into the ghost’s story of his murder by Claudius, Hamlet utters the line ìO my prophetic soul!î (1.5.41), a statement that infers that the distraught prince has suspected all along that his uncle was in some way responsible for the king’s death. Given that Claudius has not only usurped the crown that rightfully should belong to Hamlet, but also married his mother and in turn disrespected the relationship that existed between the king and prince Hamlet, one could reason that Hamlet was already given enough reason to feel anger and take action against Claudius but yet has not done so. Now that the person that he respects most has confirmed his suspicions and urged him to lash out in anger, Hamlet is free to openly express and nourish his rage into action. Yet by comparing Hamlet’s strong words in the presence of the ghost to his words in later scenes, it’s clear that Hamlet needs the power and motivation of his father to escape from his endless contemplation and justify murder for retribution.
The ghost departs after once again urging Hamlet to act quickly against Claudius while also advising that he ìTaint not thy mind, nor let the soul contrive/Against thy mother aught.î (1.5.85-6) Hamlet vows to remember his father and to avenge him swiftly by taking Claudius’s life. Yet by the end of the act, only minutes after the ghost’s departure, Hamlet is already showing signs of doubt and moral confliction, uttering the line ìThe time is out of joint. O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right!î (1.5.188-9)
After this scene, we never again see Hamlet entirely focused on his goal, showing clear resolve and purpose, understanding his emotions clearly, or free from endless contemplation and questioning of what he believes to be true. The ghost’s purpose in confronting Hamlet was clear: to inform Hamlet of the need for vengeance, to provoke him with strong words to quick action, and to advise him not to be distracted with anger towards anyone but Claudius. Yet we instead see Hamlet use strange and counterproductive methods to avoid the bloody retribution his father requires of him, including feigning madness, devising an unusual scheme to expose the king’s guilt, and also lashing out strongly against his mother. Hamlet’s dead father embodies the strength and purpose that Hamlet needs to effectively act; without the king’s advisement he is confused, emotional, overly contemplative, and frightened-essentially all the things that his father is not. Hamlet obviously loves his father and desires to fulfill his wish for vengeance, but the conversation between the two and the events that follow prove that although he tries to, Hamlet is unable to be the son that his father expects him to be.
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