An apprehensive sentry stands watch atop Elsinore Castle on a cold, wintry night. There is a rising commotion within the land of Denmark, Elsinore is on guard. The recently late King Hamlet has killed his nemesis King Fortinbras of Norway, and thus claimed all of Norway’s forfeited lands. Now, Fortinbras’s vengeful son (Fortinbras the younger) seeks to avenge his father and regain what was lost while his Uncle sits on the throne and pledges only to battle for lands in Poland. War seems imminent for Denmark, however strangely Denmark seems ill-prepared for war. Its top advisors are aging and lack discernment (i.e. Polonius), its courtiers are foppish sycophants (i.e. Osric), its young men are being educated abroad by foreigners (Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and there is quite clearly “something rotten in the state of Denmark.” The king has unexpectedly died, and the throne has quickly fallen into the conniving hands of the king’s brother, Claudius, who has hurriedly married Queen Gertrude. This has all happened in less than a month’s time, according to Hamlet, and no one seems to be grieving the loss of the King. Now, the new King Claudius lives in a state of drunken revelry (a habit which Hamlet finds impure and abominable). Claudius has been quick to assume all the privileges of kingship while neglecting the burdens of the crown.
In this context, at the outset of the play in Act I scene I, we meet a changing of the guard atop Elsinore’s ramparts. The men have seen a strange apparition appearing in the dead of night, thus they bring along Horatio for clarity, Hamlet’s friend and a well-regarded scholar with courage and cunning. Perhaps Horatio can make sense of the situation. By allowing Horatio to witness and acknowledge with “fear and wonder” the Ghost, Shakespeare allows the audience to dismiss psychoanalytic interpretations of the play in which the Ghost is suggested to be a mere disturbed phantasm of Hamlet’s mind. The Ghost appears “like the King” at midnight (he has appeared twice before). He dons the armor once worn in battle against Norway, and he also frowns just like he once did in failed negotiations with Poland. It should be noted that Shakespeare’s typical character portrayals dressed in armor like the Ghost in Hamlet were classical heroes, as in the case of the Greco-Roman plays. Upon seeing the apparition Horatio, ever the statesman, fears “this bodes some strange eruption to our state.” The Ghost does not speak to the men and he disappears in the early morning light. This is merely the first of several appearances of the Ghost in the play, but his troubling, ominous presence looms large over the story (according to legend Shakespeare played the role of the Ghost).
The following night, Hamlet is brought to the castle walls. When the Ghost appears, it beckons Hamlet to join him in a more removed, private spot atop the wall overlooking the sea. Despite Horatio’s warnings that the Ghost may implant the seed of madness in Hamlet or else try to convince him of suicide, nevertheless Hamlet ventures forth. Then in a combination of classical and Christian mythology, The Ghost explains to Hamlet that the hour draws near in which he must return to “sulphurous and tormenting flames.” He professes to be the spirit of the late King Hamlet the elder. In the evenings, he is doomed to wander the earth until “the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away.” Despite being forbidden from explicating to mortal ears the details of his hellish existence, the Ghost tells Hamlet of a murder “most foul, strange, and unnatural.” One day, he was sleeping in his garden when his brother, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, secretly poured hebona poison into the elder Hamlet’s ear, and then promptly usurped the crown and Queen –leaving the late King with an unfinished and unrequited life. His words to Hamlet inspire what would otherwise be considered the impetus for a classical tale of revenge, if not for the problem of an immortal soul –how does a hero avenge someone in the face of coming immortality? How does Hamlet ensure that Claudius is not contrite nor penitent over his actions, thus punishing him with eternal hellfire according to the Christian tradition?
The Ghost briefly appears in Hamlet one final time in Act III, scene IV wherein Hamlet confronts his mother after having accidentally slain Polonius. The Ghost reminds Hamlet of his true cause –now an “almost blunted purpose.” He seems dismayed at Hamlet’s distractedness, while Hamlet seems to frivolously waste much of his time instead of simply killing Claudius.
In the end, does Hamlet successfully complete the supernatural task placed upon him by the Ghost of his father? Throughout the play we are made aware that Hamlet is not a warrior, he is more of an artist or a poet (as evidenced in the creation of his play, The Mousetrap). Yet he is also not a weakling nor a victim, and yet exacting revenge still proves a difficult task for him. Vengeance requires him to overlook modern injunctions to ‘love thine enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek.’ The idea of revenge is considered in three central characters in the play: Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. Hamlet’s revenge against Claudius comes first in the form of a theatrical performance, then a foiled plan (in which discovers Claudius’s plot to kill him while en route to England), and lastly by turning a poison-tipped sword intended for himself back on Claudius. Is he successful? In a way Hamlet does avenge his father, but in doing so he also attacks the very customs and institutions of his own country and thus he leaves it vulnerable to conquest. Hamlet foresees this problem, but the purification of Denmark must come with an attack squarely at its heart. Perhaps this cleansing was necessary for Denmark in order to overcome its usurpation and cultural decay, though it should be noted that the conclusion of the play is hardly a triumphant classical revenge story. Many characters die merely by accident, and rather than a true duel of capable swordsmen, we see a farcical game of fencing surreptitiously laced with poisoned tips. None of the characters die gloriously in battle. And Hamlet is no super-human hero. Perhaps his greatest failure in the play is the accidental murder of Polonius, for which he expresses remorse and asks forgiveness of Laertes but only when it is too late. Lastly, Fortinbras seems to have found the most success in avenging his father. He comes to Denmark after recent conquests in Poland and we are led to believe he will likely be crowned King of the Danes –a far cry from his father’s failures. The warrior king proves stronger than the poet king in Hamlet, a fact which the scholarly “antique Roman” Horatio seems to understand when his reserved nature continually contradicts Hamlet’s recklessness. When the enemy is internal, as in the case of Claudius in Denmark, the state suffers. When the enemy is external, as in the case of Fortinbras battling Denmark and Poland, the state grows. It is a pity Hamlet and Laertes could not settle things regarding Polonius’s death prior to their fencing duel, but in the end it is Denmark that pays the price. Hamlet is honored like a fallen soldier, and Fortinbras becomes the new King of Denmark (thus avenging his father, and also likely usurping his Uncle who sits on the throne of Norway).
For this reading I used the essential Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.