Chapter Three | Chapter Five

The Ghost of Hamlet:
Remembering, Revenging, Becoming the Father

In Hamlet, we begin with a ghost. The play opens, not with any of the main characters, but with frightened guards, men who are being haunted. Their fear and uncertainty introduce us to Elsinore:

BARNARDO. Who's there?
FRANCISCO. Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
BARNARDO. Long live the King!
FRANCISCO.                                        Barnardo?
BARNARDO.                                                                He.
FRANCISCO. You come most carefully upon your hour.
BARNARDO. 'Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
FRANCISCO. For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold,
    And I am sick at heart.
(Hamlet 1.1.1-7)

This opening stands in marked contrast both to the careful prologues of Seneca's plays and The Spanish Tragedy, and to the more artful but equally informative speeches that begin Titus Andronicus and Richard III. We have no opening exposition, no information about setting or characters--nothing to ground us in the world of the play.

This method of beginning serves to make us uneasy even before we know what there is to be uneasy about. Stephen Booth remarks that audiences want and expect to be given their bearings at the start of a play ("Value" 140), and Renaissance plays tend, on the whole, to be obliging in that regard and begin with exposition, from Romeo and Juliet's "Two households, both alike in dignity" (R&J Pro. 1) to Orsino's self-revealing, "If music be the food of love, play on" (TN 1.1.1), or the fact-laden courtesies exchanged between Archidamus and Camillo in The Winter's Tale. Before they launch the events of the plot, the plays allow us to situate ourselves in the story. Hamlet does not.

Barnardo and Francisco's dialogue tells us nothing except that they are guards, that it is the middle of the night, that Francisco is cold and unhappy, and--depending on how the opening exchange is performed--perhaps that Barnardo and Francisco are nervous. Building on Maynard Mack's observation that Hamlet and his world exist in the interrogative mood, Harry Levin points out that the opening scenes of Hamlet are nothing but one question piled on top of another (H. Levin 20-21). We do not know where we are, who the king is, or why we are up and about at midnight in the cold. Hamlet begins in the middle of a mystery.

When facts are provided, they are not the sort of facts to make either audience or characters any more comfortable:

MARCELLUS. What, has this thing appeared again tonight?
BARNARDO. I have seen nothing.
MARCELLUS. Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
    And will not let belief take hold of him
    Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us.
(Ham. 1.1.19-23)

Shakespeare is teasing the audience, much as Seneca did with the Messenger's speech in Thyestes. Now we know that the guards are frightened because of something they have seen, but we still do not know what. Barnardo and Marcellus never do get a chance to explain. Barnardo is only beginning to recount his story to Horatio--he has just established that the conditions of the telling are the same as the conditions of the sighting--when the Ghost appears, obviating the necessity of narration; Booth argues that it both interrupts and supercedes the story we are eagerly waiting to hear ("Value" 142). The Ghost's appearance is unsettling on a multiplicity of levels, as much generic and narrative as epistemological. And it is only after the Ghost appears that we learn who he is: "In the same figure like the King that's dead" (Ham. 1.1.39). Once we know what and who the Ghost is, we still have to figure out how to interpret him.

Like the other ghosts in this study, the Ghost is the sign of category violation. Ackerman argues that the Ghost inhabits the compromised interface between interior and exterior, both political/geographical and the literal boundary of Elsinore itself, which in turn tropes the boundaries of the self (Ackerman 120). The interior/exterior problem also registers metatheatrically, since the Globe, as a material building, partook of both qualities, and the same indeterminate stage-space served as both battlements and closet (Ackerman 126). The Ghost, even without the freight of thematic meaning and difficulty he provides the story, is an inherently transgressive figure, destabilizing the most basic epistemological categories between life and death, self and other, fiction and reality.

The Ghost's category violations also register in more culturally specific arenas. Eleanor Prosser, in Hamlet and Revenge, reports that the Ghost in Hamlet is the only one of the fifty-one early modern theatrical ghosts in her study who is placed in a Christian context, rather than the safely literary underworld of the Greeks and Romans (Prosser 260). Hamlet's ghost is anomalous, a ghost as much theological as theatrical, and Hamlet spends much of the play wondering whether it comes from Purgatory or Hell. The audience does, too, but, as Stephen Greenblatt argues in Hamlet in Purgatory, "the point surely is not to settle issues that Shakespeare has clearly gone out of his way to unsettle" (Greenblatt 244). Despite the earnest attempts of critics such as Prosser and Bowers to prove one side or another, the Ghost's origin is ultimately unknowable. Here, too, the Ghost represents category violation, and as Greenblatt points out, the Ghost's ambiguity is part of the wider rhythms of the play (Greenblatt 240). Thus, the question of the Ghost's provenance tropes the habitual gesture of the play as a whole. Terence Hawkes, defining this refusal of linearity and causality as "Telmah" (Hamlet spelled backwards) asserts passionately its right to be considered inseparable from Hamlet itself (Hawkes 330), and Levin advises that we respect the mystery of Hamlet rather than trying to solve it (H. Levin 4). The questions the play poses are not meant to be answered; they are meant to remain questions, meant to keep us eternally in the box with Schrödinger's Cat.

Granted, then, that there are no "answers," there are still patterns that can be detected, starting on the generic level. In most revenge plays, horror is generated by the action of the engine of revenge; we watch helplessly as the innocent and guilty alike are fed into its gaping maw. But in Hamlet, we see that in fact those plays offered a certain degree of comfort. The deaths were terrible and grotesque, but they had a logic to them; people died due to the machinations of the villain or because revenge required it. In Hamlet, we are bereft of that last comfort. The victims in Hamlet are not fed into the engine from necessity, either villain's or hero's (insofar as those terms have relevance in Elsinore); they are simply caught in the machinery, mangled for no reason except that they were standing too close. They are assimilated into the revenge plot either as doubles for Hamlet (revengers) or doubles for the Ghost (victims).

Thematically, horror in Hamlet comes from what Levin describes as the play's epistemologically and eschatologically "open" universe: "its signs and omens, though evident, are equivocal" (H. Levin 42). In much the same way that Seneca's plays looked past the limits of horror defined in classical tragedy, Shakespeare, in Hamlet, looks past the limits of horror in revenge tragedy. Like Seneca, Shakespeare finds the greatest horror is not that maleficent forces are aligning against us, but that they are not, that there is no logic, no order, no reason for the terrible things that happen to the innocent. Claudius does not become an active villain until after the climactic events of the third act; the first two deaths in the play, those of Polonius and Ophelia, are caused by Hamlet's recklessness and folly.

The play also generates horror through setting its genre in opposition to its world. The structure of Hamlet is defined, but not contained, by the revenge plot. We begin with the revenge plot (the Ghost's appearance on the battlements) and we end with the revenge plot (Hamlet at last succeeds in killing Claudius), but the middle of the play is a vast proliferation and confusion of other matters, concerns which seem like distractions from the obsessive work of revenge. In the later acts, each of those concerns, embodied in one of the play's characters, is pruned away, not by the action of revenge as in other revenge plays, but by the play structure's own ruthlessness, as it seeks to rid itself of this excess of subplots. Subplots in Hamlet are not resolved; they are ended, truncated, by the deaths of the characters who were their motive force. This structural purgation makes Hamlet harrowing in a way different from that of earlier revenge tragedies; we are not watching the unfolding of strategy and counter-strategy, but simply action and reaction. Neither revenger nor villain control the progress of the play.

The supernatural in Hamlet is a part of its particular methodology of horror. The Ghost is not merely a ghost; he is also a dictator. Ronald R. Macdonald points out the play's resistance to the Ghost's fiat, as his demands for simplicity and efficiency are met with a sprawling, over-complicated drama (Macdonald 207-08). And yet, despite this recalcitrance, the Ghost gets what he wants. The course of the play is the imposition of the Ghost's desires, what Garber describes as his "unremitting demand" (Garber 146), on the lives of those who thought they had survived him. The Ghost appears to Hamlet twice in the play, once on the battlements at the beginning, once in Gertrude's closet in the middle. These two appearances both instigate and mark the progress of the revenge plot. The first appearance sets Hamlet's feet on the downward path toward revenge and destruction; the second appearance both recalls Hamlet to his appointed purpose and marks the point at which the progress of the play--the progress of Hamlet as protagonist--toward tragedy becomes inevitable.

The Ghost's appearances in Hamlet function as patriarchal sign-posts--and the weight and obligation of patriarchy is something Hamlet never questions--informing and reminding Hamlet of his duty toward his murdered father. The Ghost also functions as a externalization and literalization of the way in which Hamlet is psychologically haunted by his father--demonstrated also by Hamlet's jeremiad in 1.2, before he knows that his father's ghost is walking the battlements (Ham. 1.2.137-42). The memory of Hamlet's father is contested and sensitive ground, as Claudius's command to forget and Hamlet's determination to remember show. The Ghost gives Hamlet something on which to focus his act of remembering which is also rebellion.

Memory is the foundation of the thematic and imagistic structures Hamlet, as a play, creates.1 But, as critics such as Stephen Greenblatt and Anthony Low have pointed out, there is something strange about memory in Hamlet, something which seems to be linked to the question, not only of Purgatory, but of the changing nature of the relationship between the living and the dead. One of the many questions the play raises but does not resolve is the question of what it means to remember someone. Greenblatt shows that the traditional weight of the injunction to remember the dead was the need for suffrages ("masses, almsgiving, fasts, and prayers" [Greenblatt 102]). Low observes specifically about Hamlet: "Hamlet takes his oath to 'remember' with reference only to vengeance. He never remarks that to remember the dead in Purgatory means chiefly to pray for them" (Low 456). Kerrigan argues the opposite, that "Hamlet never promises to revenge, only to remember" (Kerrigan 182). Low is arguing from the religious register, while Kerrigan's discussion contemplates Hamlet chiefly in terms of dramatic genre. By both rubrics, Hamlet's response to the Ghost is inadequate, problematical, and that is the heart of the matter. Whatever we conceive of as the appropriate response to the Ghost, it does not correspond to the response the play actually gives us. Hamlet neither remembers his father in the religious sense Greenblatt and Low explore, nor does he revenge him in what one might call a timely fashion.

Thus, Hamlet's anxiety about remembering the ghost, remembering his father, is a door which swings both ways. As Hamlet comes closer to fulfilling the task the Ghost demands of him, he thinks of the Ghost less. Greenblatt asks, "In Hamlet the Senecan revenge plot seems to rise up from the twisted ruins of the purgatorial system, but in what sense can it actually occupy the same place?" (Greenblatt 225). The answer seems to be that it cannot. Revenge is not remembrance.

But revenge springs from remembrance, and specifically the remembrance of Hamlet's father. The core insight of both Marjorie Garber's argument and psychoanalytic interpretation of Hamlet in general is an important one: the Ghost in Hamlet is not and could not be just any ghost. It is the ghost of the father, and it represents a very particular image of the father:

MARCELLUS. Is it not like the King?
HORATIO. As thou art to thyself.
    Such was the very armour he had on
    When he th'ambitious Norway combated.
    So frowned he once when in an angry parley
    He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
(Ham. 1.1.57-62)

Leaving aside the allusion to Fortinbras's revenge plot, this image of the king--this extraordinary likeness, this idea that the Ghost embodies the quintessence of King Hamlet--is emphatically and entirely martial. The father with which Hamlet is presented is the warrior-father, the father who deals out death and punishment. It is this father who demands Hamlet do his bidding, this father who sets Hamlet's standard of masculine behavior, particularly in opposition to the father-figure offered as a replacement: Claudius.

The first problem facing Hamlet, as Janet Adelman points out in Suffocating Mothers, is that the distinction between the elder Hamlet and Claudius takes strenuous and repeated efforts to maintain. And this distinction/conflation problem feeds into a existing schematic which had powered many of Shakespeare's earlier plays: becoming the true father by killing the false father (Adelman 12). But the trouble is that the signifiers of "true" father and "false" father are no longer mapping cleanly onto a single signifier each. The category of the father in Hamlet is unstable, especially in regards to the relationship of the father, or the false father, to the mother. Despite Hamlet's passionate insistence on the radical difference between his father and his uncle, the play works against him to suggest that these two contested father-figures are constantly, perilously close to collapsing into one.

Aemulatio, the competitive drive that Gordon Braden describes as powering Seneca's tragedies, is equally a factor in early modern thought. As I pointed out in reference to Kyd, aemulatio is part of the warp and weft of revenge tragedy; in Hamlet it takes a very particular form, a very particular set of associations. Hamlet's relationship with his father, and with the idea of his father, is one that cannot help but be couched in terms of comparatives, competition. And Claudius, by murdering the elder Hamlet, turns this competition morbidly dysfunctional. Firstly, Claudius intercepts Hamlet's path to manhood: Hamlet cannot take his father's place (as his name suggests he is intended to) because Claudius has already done so. Secondly, Claudius has taken all the trappings of the father in Hamlet: he is the king, and he is married to Gertrude, meaning again that that role, the role of the adult man, is denied to Hamlet. The father is dead; long live the father. And even if Claudius were not in the way, if Hamlet went straight from the battlements to the throne room and ran him through, there still remains the Ghost, who, as Garber points out, is preventing rather than enabling Hamlet's transition into adulthood (Garber 131). Just as it is crucial that the Ghost is Hamlet's father, it is also crucial that Hamlet's father is a ghost. The Ghost is the father who cannot be killed, because he is already dead. Hamlet cannot escape him.

Moreover, as I suggested earlier, the function of the father as a role model is jeopardized by Claudius's usurpation. Hamlet may revere the elder Hamlet and may wish to emulate him, but at every turn we see him following in the footsteps of the "mildewed ear." In the equation Hamlet sets up--"My father's brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules" (Ham. 1.2.152-53)--he puts himself on the same side as Claudius, opposite Hercules and the elder Hamlet. He is drawn away from the elder Hamlet toward Claudius.

Polonius is the play's other father-figure, balancing the true father (the elder Hamlet) and the false father (Claudius) with what might be described as the bad father2: the senex iratus of Roman comedy. He spies on his son, rides roughshod over his daughter, and irritates Hamlet, toward whom he adopts a paternal manner, to the point of screaming. He is the father as figure of fun, the antithesis of the glorious image Hamlet holds of the elder Hamlet. If the elder Hamlet is the father to be worshipped and Claudius is the father to be loathed and destroyed, then Polonius is the father to be mocked, the father who is "only human."

These three fathers orbit around the third term in the schema: the mother. During the Ghost's first appearance, on the battlements, he tells Hamlet:

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.
But howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.
(Ham. 1.5.82-88)

This speech defines very distinctly what the Ghost and the generic engine of revenge (for which he speaks) perceive as Hamlet's business. He is to pursue revenge against Claudius, to wipe out the abomination of incest and murder, but he is not to touch Gertrude. She, whom the ghost allegorizes as "lust ... to a radiant angel linked" (Ham. 1.5.55), is to be sacrosanct.

But for Hamlet, who is not properly attuned to the demands of the revenge play, the deepest well of horror in the situation is Gertrude's betrayal of his idolized and idealized father. She fails (in Hamlet's mind) to fulfill her function of keeping the categories of the elder Hamlet and Claudius distinct from each other; moreover, her failure makes it impossible for Hamlet to maintain separation between "radiant angels" and "too solid flesh." I agree with Adelman that Hamlet's principal interest is not in revenging his father but redeeming his mother. Hamlet's attention is constantly drawn away from the revenge plot and into a very different play. His proceedings against Claudius, though slow, are rational, but his reaction to his mother's behavior has the hysterical, irrational quality of an obsession. Claudius's evil is Claudius's alone, except where it has, in the thematics of the play, seeped out to contaminate Elsinore and Denmark, but Gertrude's transgression becomes, in Hamlet's view, the fault of all womankind: "frailty, thy name is woman" (Ham. 1.2.146). If the Ghost is the sign that category violation besets Elsinore, then Gertrude is the vehicle through which that category violation occurs. Hamlet's obsession with his mother's sexuality, spilling over onto the innocent Ophelia, comes to obsess him as much as--or more than--proving Claudius's guilt, driving him at last to confront her.

Act III, scene iv, the closet scene, where the play neatly unhinges itself and drops its audience into a tragedy which is no longer avoidable, marks the limits of Hamlet's rebellion against his genre. The revenge plot has been pulling one way, but Hamlet is no longer following its urgings. He has business of his own to attend to.

III, iv, begins with Gertrude and Polonius, the betraying mother and the buffoon father. Polonius is speaking from a remarkably paternal subject-position: "Look you lay home to him. / Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with, / And that your grace hath screened and stood between / Much heat and him" (Ham. 3.4.1-4). In particular, the word "pranks," with its connotations of irresponsibility and malice, position Hamlet as an unruly child, and Polonius and Gertrude as concerned parents.

Gertrude attempts to maintain this position of authority with her opening salvo: "Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended" (Ham. 3.4.9). This line encourages the conflation of the elder Hamlet, Claudius, and Polonius: Polonius has just been enacting the father; Claudius is the father Gertrude means, erasing the distinction between him and the elder Hamlet; and the elder Hamlet, of course, is Hamlet's father, and that is the sense Hamlet comes back with: "Mother, you have my father much offended" (Ham. 3.4.10). Hamlet is not a child to be chastised; he has an adult's command of semantics, and an adult's determination to apply it.

Gertrude continues to try to enact the mother, chiding him for his "idle tongue" (Ham. 3.4.11) and his impertinence, but it is quickly clear that it is Hamlet who has the upper hand. "You shall not budge. / You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you" (Ham. 3.4.18-20). Hamlet denies his mother's authority over him and in fact enforces a power dynamic the reverse of the one Gertrude and Polonius had imagined. Instead of the child fearing the wrath of the parents, it is the parents who fear--and suffer--the wrath of the child: "Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho!" cries Gertrude, and upon Polonius taking up her cry, he is slain, explicitly in mistake for Claudius (Ham. 3.4.21-23). Hamlet takes out his wrath on the nearest available target, displacing his anger at his mother onto (remembering that Hamlet believes he is killing Claudius) the already loathed figure of the false father. Hamlet castigates his mother for choosing "thy father" (Claudius) over "my father" (the elder Hamlet), or--even more simply, since Hamlet bears his father's name and is his father's only child--for choosing Claudius over Hamlet himself. His murderous lashing out is as much a displacement of his anger at Gertrude as it is an attempt to obey one father by killing another.

But Hamlet kills the wrong father: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. / I took thee for thy better" (Ham. 3.4.30-31). Polonius, as the chief advisor of both Claudius and the elder Hamlet, has become fatally entangled with their identities, so that, while Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake, on a more symbolic level, Polonius's death is a surrogate for the death of Hamlet's already dead father. In killing Polonius, Hamlet kills everything about his father that he found unworthy: Polonius as scapegoat for the elder Hamlet's feet of clay. Polonius's death is part and parcel of Hamlet's conflicted relationship with his father, although it does not in any sense resolve that relationship--as the Ghost's second appearance will make clear.

The death of Polonius is the moment where the events of Hamlet begin to slide out of control. Braden identifies the killing of Polonius as the act which "finally locks [Hamlet] into his genre" (Braden 221). The moment at which Hamlet realizes the generic effects of what he has done is delayed, but Braden is right. The murder of Polonius is the flashpoint at which the action of the play can no longer be diverted from tragedy--at which the other priorities and concerns in the life of Elsinore, like Br'er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby, can no longer separate themselves from the inexorable workings of revenge. And it happens by accident. The deaths of innocent, or semi-innocent, bystanders is nothing uncommon in revenge tragedy; the first category revenge tragedy violates is the distinction between participants and observers. But most revengers and villains, when they kill someone, do it on purpose. Hamlet is hoist by his own petard, tripped into the genre he has been trying to escape.

But for the next fifty lines, it looks as if Hamlet will be able to carry the full weight and resistance of the play, as he proceeds with his own agenda: the reclaiming of Gertrude. The matter of Polonius remains unaddressed, but our passions, like Hamlet's, are focused on Gertrude; we accept his estimation of the relative importance of his mother's lechery and his own act of murder.

It has become vitally necessary for Hamlet to force Gertrude to acknowledge the difference between the elder Hamlet (the true father) and Claudius (the false father), in order that he not have to acknowledge his own father as an impure and fleshly creature:

Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated on this brow--
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten or command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear
Blasting his wholesome brother.
(Ham. 3.4.52-64)

All the gods, in Hamlet's imagining, come forward to validate King Hamlet's manhood. He becomes a Platonic ideal of the father, juxtaposed starkly against the living and palpably imperfect Claudius. But as Adelman points out: "the most significantly contaminated ear in the play belongs to Old Hamlet" (Adelman 22). The difference between the two brothers keeps twisting itself around into similitude. The fleshly father will not stay aligned with the false father; Hamlet's agenda has problems of its own.

But Hamlet's impassioned rhetoric does shame Gertrude into admitting her sins, does cause her to repent and regret. For these fifty lines, it looks as if killing the bad father will enable Hamlet to fulfill his goal. His mother is rejecting Claudius and turning back to him; he is able to play the stern father himself, and his mother the weeping and repentant child.

But then comes the second entrance of the Ghost, which, as Margaret Ferguson notes, neatly undoes all the labor Hamlet has put into distinguishing Claudius and the elder Hamlet. As Ferguson says, with a Hamlet-esque pun: "If Claudius is a figure of the father, so is the Ghost" (Ferguson 296). Maguire puts the problem in terms of the play's own obsession with copies and forgeries; the Ghost is in some ways as false a copy of the elder Hamlet as Claudius is (Maguire 70). Hamlet's rhetoric has turned on him; the false father and the ghost of the true father have elided themselves despite--or because of--his desperate efforts to keep them separate.

With the Ghost's second entrance, the play's generic reality comes crashing down around Hamlet's ears:

HAMLET. Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
    That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
    Th'important acting of your dread command?
    O, say!
GHOST. Do not forget. This visitation
    Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
(Ham. 3.4.97-101)

Hamlet here has reverted to the child's subject-position, describing himself as the Ghost's son and using words like "tardy" and "chide," balanced against "dread command." Moreover, the form of his question, "Do you not come," could, depending on inflection, also be a plea: "Don't tell me you've come to chide me." The ambiguity echoes the ambivalence in Hamlet between the adult revenger and the dreaming child. The Ghost is again the father as disciplinarian, also the father as the enforcer of generic compliance: "Do not forget." Do not forget that you are in a revenge tragedy. Do not forget the purpose this genre demands of you.

This moment crystallizes the warring tensions in the play between the characters and their genre. The concerns of the characters are wider and more multivalent than the action of a revenge play will allow for. In III, iv, Hamlet and Gertrude are moving off in another direction entirely, toward a story about the relationship between mother and child, and their truancy explains the second appearance of the Ghost. The Ghost is both the signifier of the revenge genre, in his first appearance, and its enforcer, in his second.

The Ghost's appearance also reinforces the impossibility of Hamlet's ever ridding himself of the specter of his father. Hamlet has killed the buffoon-father; he is on the verge of convincing Gertrude to forsake the false father. But the ghostly father, who cannot be killed and cannot be escaped from, yanks Hamlet abruptly back from his fantasy of rebellion.

The elder Hamlet's second spectral manifestation is for the express purpose of recalling Hamlet to the strait and narrow: "Do not forget. This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose" (Ham. 3.4.100-01). The Ghost cares about neither Polonius nor Gertrude; what he wants is Claudius dead. The Ghost also instructs Hamlet to comfort his bewildered mother, indicating--as much to the audience as to Hamlet--the wide schism between the agenda of the son and the agenda of the father. We, too, may have forgotten the Ghost's initial stipulation that Gertrude was hands-off, not to be included in any scheme of revenge.

The Ghost also weighs down the balance of events in Elsinore, dragging them inexorably out of Hamlet's hands. Because Gertrude cannot see the Ghost, she assumes that Hamlet truly is mad, and we learn the difference between choosing an antic disposition and having one foisted upon you. Hamlet used his "madness" to control the reactions and perceptions of the people around him, but this new evidence of madness creates reactions that are beyond his control. He no longer has the luxury of waiting and plotting; as he says to Horatio in Act V, he finds himself promptly "benetted round with villainies" (5.2.30).

The Ghost's second appearance also marks the point at which the structure of the play begins its pruning operations. The Mousetrap represents the widest spread and density of the play's scope. All the characters are on stage except Laertes and Fortinbras who are, as I will discuss below, doubles for Hamlet as a revenger and thus would be superfluous here. Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio: all the different facets of the play are represented, themselves engaged in the self-referential activity of watching a play. And that play, the Mousetrap, reflects back at them a distorted version of the play they are performing in and living. Hamlet is himself at the height of what John Dover Wilson describes as the "comedy of masks" that makes up Act II and part of Act III (Wilson 89). He is teasing all of his concerned interlocutors, as well as orchestrating, via the Mousetrap itself, an accusation that is also a threat.3 And he intends to catch the conscience, not only of Claudius, but of Gertrude as well, while his unkind teasing of Ophelia belongs to neither purpose.

This diffusion of interests is perhaps partially responsible for Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius in III, iii; immediately after that, the narrowing begins with Polonius's death and the Ghost's admonitory manifestation. The revenge plot's purpose is the death of Claudius, but it takes half the play for the protagonist to fall into line. Greenblatt observes that III, iv, is the last time we see the Ghost, and that after this point he is barely even mentioned (Greenblatt 226). The reason for this absence is that the Ghost has become, in a sense, no longer necessary. Hamlet has finally internalized the generic demands, and the ghost's impetus is no longer required to get the engine to turn over. Polonius's death having foiled Hamlet's last bid for freedom from his genre, the next victims are the persons who are most irrelevant to the revenge plot.

Aside from highlighting Hamlet's growing resemblance to Claudius, the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the clearest example of the ruthlessness of Hamlet's structure. They are only incidental characters, but their experience reflects the action of the play in microcosm, as they go from Hamlet's innocent (in the sense of uninvolved) friends to clumsy co-conspirators with Claudius--never fully understanding what they are doing--to callously dispatched victims. Although Horatio is also Hamlet's friend from Wittenberg, it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who bring the breath of the outside world to Elsinore, they who talk to Hamlet about theater in London, who remind him--and us--that there is a world outside the castle walls, other concerns besides the stark ugliness of revenge. Unlike the other outsiders, the players, who are assimilated via the Mousetrap, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are entirely extraneous to the revenge plot.

And this is precisely why they are sent back out into the world, specifically to England, and specifically to their deaths. They are extra weight, superfluous to the demands of the revenge plot, and they are summarily gotten rid of. Unlike the Fool in Lear, who vanishes without a trace, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must be killed, their deaths testified to, before the action of the play can be over. It seems otherwise unnecessary for the ambassador from England to enter onto the corpse-strewn stage to announce "That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" (Ham. 5.2.315), except that the structure of the play demands their witnessed deaths. Like Ophelia and Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must die before Hamlet can achieve closure.

Removing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both rids the play of a distraction and, in its method, forces Hamlet to behave like a revenger, to become ruthless and scheming, as the genre demands its heroes be. And the course of this transformation emphasizes with increasing vigor that Hamlet is more like Claudius than he is like his own father. Adelman argues that distinguishing Claudius from the elder Hamlet forces Hamlet to recognize his own similarities to Claudius (Adelman 13). We hear much of King Hamlet's martial exploits; Hamlet is a university student. Claudius is devious, sneaky, and murderous; compare Hamlet's subtle revenge on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

HAMLET. Being thus benetted round with villainies--
    Ere I could make a prologue to my brains,
    They had begun the play--I sat me down,
    Devised a new commission, wrote it fair,
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    An earnest conjuration from the King,
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    That on the view and know of thee contents,
    Without debatement further more or less,
    He should the bearers put to sudden death,
    No shriving-time allowed.
HORATIO. How was this sealed?
HAMLET. Why, even in that was heaven ordinant.
    I had my father's signet in my purse,
    Which was the model of that Danish seal.
(Ham. 5.2.30-51)

Not only does Hamlet adopt Claudius's plan as his own, but he finds himself able to forge the contents of the letter, the signature (Ham. 5.2.53), and the seal.

Critics tend to read this moment unproblematically, seeing it as the reclamation of Hamlet's identity.4 But this claiming of identity is an act of usurpation and forgery5; our sense of Hamlet's identity is here at its most precarious, not its most secure. And this is in fact his most compromised moment in the play, the moment at which he most resembles, not his own father, but his uncle. Hamlet uses his father's signet, but this is part of what Greenblatt describes as the depersonalization of the dead in the later acts of the play (Greenblatt 226). The speaking, commanding, suffering Ghost has been replaced by the signet ring, a convenient tool for deception. And Ferguson notes that there is no way to distinguish the original seal from the copy (Ferguson 299-300). In these signifiers, the collapse of the boundary between the elder Hamlet and Claudius is complete. Claudius has usurped the role of the father in more ways than one. Surely the worst is that his presence seems to force Hamlet to become the wrong son, to follow the wrong father. This is horror on a different level than that of the Ghost haunting the battlements, but it is horror nonetheless. We are watching Hamlet lose himself; he surrenders his own identity only to become, not the father he loves, but the uncle he hates. The process of substitution which is purely nominal in The Spanish Tragedy--Hieronimo casts himself in the role analogous to Lorenzo's because that is the only way he can achieve his revenge--is in Hamlet becoming much more fraught and damaging (and will become still more so in Jacobean plays such as The Changeling and The Revengers Tragedy). The Ghost is a place-holder for an identity that becomes increasingly inaccessible as Hamlet strives to earn it.

The doubling of Claudius and the elder Hamlet is one example of a structural principle which the play uses with obsessive consistency, another variation on the theme of category violation. Whereas in Titus Andronicus, characters are literally dismembered, the wholeness of the body violated, in Hamlet identity itself fragments, troped in the way the play mirrors its characters. Levin demonstrates the functioning of doubling at a rhetorical level, noting the prevalence of hendiadys and punning in the text (H. Levin 49). The words through which the characters express themselves double and echo and splinter, reflecting the travails of the contested subjectivities behind the words. Maguire argues that the plot of the play doubles and redoubles itself as well, that every important action is an action that happens at least twice (Maguire 71-72). The textual and narratological doubling trope the action of memory at the same time they reflect the identity-doubling which besets the characters.

The principle of doubling is a classic element of the unheimlich. The Ghost doubles itself, while the elder Hamlet (as a living man) is mirrored by Polonius and Claudius. Thus, likewise, his son is mirrored by Laertes and Fortinbras. Both of Hamlet's doubles are revengers; with Hamlet, they ask the question (presented to us in triplicate) of how one performs revenge.

Fortinbras's mirroring is mostly a structural device; he exists around the edges of the play--a heroic, martial model for how one might revenge one's father, a model that Hamlet has notably not followed--and comes in at the end to perform the all-important closure. Moreover, Fortinbras's structural doubling works in two registers at once: "There are two characters called Fortinbras, the one who dies when Hamlet is born, and the one who arrives when Hamlet dies" (Maguire 72). Fortinbras both frames Hamlet's life (with his father) and reflects it. Unlike Hamlet and Laertes, Fortinbras is still standing at the end of the play, suggesting that his method of revenge, unlike theirs, is survivable.

Laertes's story is much more deeply intertwined with Hamlet's and serves to throw certain aspects of Hamlet's story into relief. Like Hamlet, Laertes loses his father; like Hamlet, he searches for someone or something to replace that father. But whereas Hamlet rejects both the bad father and the false father, Laertes--the son of the bad father--is not so suspicious. He accepts the authority of the false father, Claudius, and Claudius proves his own falsity by his betrayal of Laertes.

Also, Ophelia and Gertrude mirror each other, each trapped between loyalty to Hamlet and loyalty to either the false father (Gertrude) or the bad father (Ophelia). The play does not seem to distinguish particularly, in this mirroring, between a parent-child relationship and a husband-wife (or courting couple) relationship; in fact, as Adelman points out, the distinction tends to collapse, just as the distinction between the elder Hamlet and Claudius does (Adelman 14).6 It is their existence as sexual bodies that is the overriding concern, not questions of virginity, purity, or the relationship in which they stand to Hamlet.

It is extremely difficult in this profusion of doubles and confusion of genres to remember the play's alleged goal: the death of Claudius. This death is, after all the motivator for Hamlet's behavior from Act I, scene v, onwards, also--at least ostensibly--the telos of the play. If one imagines the action of the play as moving from point A (the appearance of the Ghost) to point B (the resolution of the problem which causes the Ghost to walk), then Claudius's death serves as point B. It is that thing which the Ghost needs.

And with that in mind, consider that Claudius is the last person in the play to be killed--not the normal state of affairs for revenge plays. Hamlet dies after him, but was poisoned earlier. Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gertrude, Laertes–all of the people in the play extraneous to Hamlet's dictated revenge, all the victims--die before Hamlet manages to kill the only person the Ghost wants dead.

Moreover, Claudius's death is in a sense an accident which he brings upon himself; Hamlet, having fallen into his plot, is able to turn it against him. Hamlet himself makes no plans beyond orchestrating the Mousetrap; in the latter acts of the play, he only reacts to the machinations deployed against him. And, as Adelman points out, Hamlet acts, when he finally does act, to revenge his mother, not his father (Adelman 31). The drive to revenge the father is opposed by so many other drives that it is not, by itself, enough to motivate Hamlet; the terrible thing--the tragedy and horror of Hamlet--is that it is nevertheless sufficient to motivate the play.

The multitudinous ironies of this ending point out one thing very clearly: the violence wreaked by the revenge plot on the rest of the play. Hamlet is not and never was meant to be a revenger; John Bayley, despite the flaws in his reading of the play, recognizes this very clearly: "The point about Hamlet is not whether he is noble or neurotic, good or bad etc., but that he is unsuited to playing in revenge tragedy" (Bayley 181). Hamlet is forced into the role of revenger by the Ghost, and the play shows us the unnatural, brutal steps necessary to make Hamlet commit an act of revenge. He does not kill Claudius until he knows himself to be dying, until every tie he had to any other concern is itself slaughtered. As Cavell points out, Hamlet cannot wreak the Ghost's revenge until he himself is a ghost (Cavell 190). Only then can the stark, simplistic rubric of the revenge play be imposed on the complicated, over-determined, psychologically fraught world of Elsinore. And in the aftermath, the only person still alive is Horatio.

Horatio is the first major character we meet, brought to the battlements by the frightened guards because he is an educated man ("Thou art a scholar--speak to it, Horatio" [Ham. 1.1.40]). He is also introduced to us as a skeptic; Marcellus tells Barnardo that Horatio will not believe them, and later in the same act, Hamlet gently twits him for his reliance on rationality: "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in our philosophy" (Ham. 1.5.168-69).

But by the end of the play, Horatio has lost his rational detachment. He is more audience than actor--watching Hamlet's confrontations with various people, listening to his plans and perspective--but he is a passionately invested audience. What the end of the play does, when Hamlet begs Horatio not to kill himself, to stay alive long enough to tell his story, is demonstrate the one action that an audience is capable of: describing what it has seen, bearing witness to the events it has seen unfold. Greenblatt recognizes the importance of this function of Horatio's, but undermines it by arguing that Horatio has not witnessed the full story (Greenblatt 228). What he misses is the metatheatrical valence of Horatio's role in the play, and of this conversation in particular. Horatio, as a character, has indeed not witnessed all the events of Hamlet's story7, but that merely serves to reinforce the burden of remembering placed upon the audience. We have seen everything. We as much as Horatio must bear witness to Hamlet's story.

Horatio's partial witnessing also tells us something about the way the play works. He is signally absent from Hamlet's critical scenes with Ophelia and Gertrude, suggesting--as does his lack of apparent ties to a family of his own, or a nation, or any other kind of social group--that he exists in the play as part of the revenge plot. He acts as Hamlet's confidante throughout, but particularly in matters having to do with the Ghost and the Ghost's ukase. Thus, when we observe that he witnesses Ophelia's funeral, we are observing the way in which Ophelia's fate, tangential to the revenge plot at first, has become subsumed by it.

Horatio's isolation flags him as a character who is not a double for Hamlet. Horatio has no tortured relationship with his father to work out; he is not another Hamlet, another Laertes, another Ophelia, another Fortinbras. His only allegiance is to Hamlet himself. He is free of the web of relationships that ensnare the other characters, each of whom has multiple allegiances. Everyone in the play, except for Fortinbras and Horatio, is Janus-faced, trying to reconcile two unreconcilable allegiances, trying to straddle the widening split in categories which they thought were whole and unified. This common characteristic offers one explanation for why Fortinbras and Horatio are the two characters who end the play.

Fortinbras is also the ideal complement to Horatio; as Horatio switches roles from audience to story-teller, he needs someone to be his audience in turn. Fortinbras is the logical character to do that. Pragmatically, he needs to know what happened, how it comes about that Elsinore is an abattoir, since he represents the reimposition of order. But also, Fortinbras--though a character we have been hearing about throughout the play--has not witnessed any of the events. He is the perfect audience because the story is new to him.

Fortinbras also ends the play because he represents the clean version of Hamlet, the version for whom revenge is simply a matter of politics; arguably, Fortinbras enters the play from a different genre, more like Hal proving his manhood on the field of battle than Hieronimo or Vindice. Or Hamlet. Fortinbras has no complication of loyalties, no other concerns to distract him from the matter at hand. Also, by revenging his father's death in the manner in which it happened (by battle), Fortinbras is mimicking his father, stepping into his father's role as cleanly as their doubled name suggests he should be able to. Contrariwise, Hamlet, who also attempts to revenge his father's death in the manner in which it was committed (i.e., sneaking around plotting, instead of announcing Claudius to be a usurper and raising his banner), finds himself mimicking Claudius yet again. For Fortinbras, who is not haunted, all the lines are straight, the decisions simple, and this clarity explains why he is the Hamlet-analogue who survives, the Hamlet-analogue who can step into the power-vacuum at the end of the play and enact the necessary closure. Fortinbras echoes the story of Hamlet without being part of it, and thus that story does not entrap him.8 The play ends with Hamlet's shadow speaking to Hamlet's shadow: Horatio, the faithful follower, to Fortinbras, the successful double.

The end of Hamlet, like the beginning, has a ghost; in this case, the ghost is a character (like Lavinia in Titus Andronicus) who has continued to live past a metaphorical death. Horatio wishes to die with Hamlet, but Hamlet compels him to remain, haunting Elsinore in Hamlet's stead, for the same reason that the Ghost was haunting Elsinore in Act I: so that his story (Hamlet's story--and the doubled name here becomes particularly apposite) will be told. As the Ghost says, at the beginning:

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 knotty and combinèd locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
(Ham. 1.5.15-20)

The Ghost's words reflect a story he says he cannot tell, the story of what Hell is like, but the story he describes is the story that Horatio will tell: the story of Hamlet.


1. Mack argues that the play is pervaded by a sense of irrecuperable loss (Mack 516-17), and thus remembrance is an act of central importance. Maguire shows on how many levels and in how many ways memory informs the thematics of the play: personal, political, theatrical (Maguire 66-67).

2. Yorick's skull and the memories it invokes in Act V, after the Ghost has made its last appearance, are a kind of residue of the Father. It is with Yorick that Hamlet has loving associations, rather than with his own father: "He hath borne me on his back a thousand times" (Ham. 5.1.172-73). But the skull is also merely a skull, an artifact of a relationship rather than a site of conflict.

3. Wilson demonstrates at great length the way in which the Mousetrap is designed by Shakespeare and Hamlet to support two readings (Wilson 164-74).

4. E.g., Garber 156, Adelman 34, H. Levin 94.

5. Patricia Parker discusses the thematics of forgery in Hamlet (Parker 178-80).

6. In a similar vein, Levin remarks on the way in which love, in Hamlet, degrades always to incest (H. Levin 65).

7. Kerrigan also notes this, but draws no conclusions from it beyond observing that the play can "report" more than Horatio can (Kerrigan 189). Kerrigan is not interested in questions of audience.

8. As a comparison, consider the ending of Lear, in which the only characters left alive are walking wounded; neither Edgar nor Albany--certainly not Kent--have either the desire or the strength to put the pieces back together. They are too much a part of the story to be able to see beyond its ending.

Chapter Three | Chapter Five

© Sarah Monette 2004     Feel free to link to this academic trial-by-ordeal, but please do not reproduce it without permission.