By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘I am thy father’s spirit’: so speaks the Ghost to Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play. We have analysed Hamlet as a whole in more detail here, but the ‘I am thy father’s spirit’ speech calls for further close analysis to tease out the meaning of the Ghost’s words.
The Ghost is claiming to be Hamlet’s father. Let’s join Hamlet and Old Hamlet – if the Ghost indeed is Old Hamlet – on the battlements of Elsinore Castle, and go through the speech bit by bit.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
The Ghost tells Hamlet who he is: the ‘spirit’ or ghost his father, who died recently. The Ghost has been sighted by several of the watchmen who patrol the castle: Hamlet opens with the characters Marcellus and Barnardo discussing it.
The Ghost says that he is destined to walk around the land of the living every night, while spending the hours of daylight in purgatory: ‘fast[ing] in fires’ was a common punishment for people in purgatory, according to religious literature, and meant that those who found themselves in that liminal space between this world and the next (heaven or hell) would often be starved (hence ‘fast’) while their bodies were ‘purged’ of their sins, in holy fire (hence ‘in fires’).
The reference to Old Hamlet’s ‘foul crimes’ that he committed ‘in my days of nature’ (i.e. when he was alive) is intriguing. What did he do that was so bad that he is required to undergo the punishment of purgatory? There are numerous possible interpretations here: one holds that Old Hamlet is simply drawing attention to the fact that he died without having the chance to confess his sins (however small), hence his being sent to purgatory rather than straight to heaven.
However, the fact that King Hamlet was in the habit of whiling away his afternoons asleep in his orchard (as he will later tell us when outlining to his son the circumstances in which he was murdered) also raises some questions about how effective a king he was – as well as why Claudius would seek to bump his own brother off and take the crown for himself. Was there a darker side to King Hamlet than is immediately apparent?
But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could 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,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
The Ghost tells Hamlet that, if he wasn’t forbidden to do so, he would tell Hamlet about what it’s like in purgatory, and the ‘tale’ he would tell would tear up the soul of Hamlet, freeze his blood, and make his eyes pop out their sockets in horror. Young Hamlet’s hair would stand up on end in shock, like the individual pricks or spines on the porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love –
But, the Ghost concludes, this ‘blazon’ or revelation about the afterlife (hence ‘eternal’) cannot be announced to the living (‘ears of flesh and blood’). King Hamlet then entreats his son to ‘list’ (i.e. listen) to what he has to say, if he ever loved him as a son should love his father.
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
The Ghost drops his bombshell: not only is he the spirit of Young Hamlet’s dead father, but Old Hamlet was murdered.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Murder is always foul, the Ghost goes on, but his murder was more foul and strange than most.
Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
Hamlet urges his father to tell him what happened, quickly, so that he can swiftly take revenge for his father’s murder – as swiftly as one falls in love.
I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.
Hamlet’s father responds by saying that he can see his son is responsive and eager to hear more. He would have to be as unreactive as a bloated weed lodged in Lethe wharf for young Hamlet not to be stirred to action by hearing what the Ghost is about to say. ‘Lethe wharf’ is a reference to the river Lethe, which, in classical mythology, was associated with forgetfulness; it’s the root of our modern word ‘lethargic’, meaning ‘slow to act’ and ‘sluggish’.
Now, Hamlet, hear:
’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
This section of the scene ends with the Ghost telling young Hamlet that the official narrative put about the kingdom, explaining King Hamlet’s cause of death, is false: he was not poisoned by a deadly snake that bit him. Or, rather, not an actual snake – though the (metaphorical) ‘serpent’ that killed him has since taken the throne for himself. In other words, Claudius, who now wears the crown, was the devious and deadly ‘serpent’ that crept into King Hamlet’s orchard and poisoned him.
This revelation will obviously set in motion the rest of the play’s events: Hamlet’s plan to avenge his father’s death, but also his determination to check out the Ghost’s story and find his own evidence that Claudius really is guilty.