Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet | Act 1, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

Hamlet follows the ghost to another part of the castle wall, where the ghost tells Hamlet he must avenge his murder. The ghost explains that the citizens of Denmark believe the king died after being bitten by a snake while napping in his orchard. In reality, the only "serpent" he encountered was his brother Claudius, who now wears the crown.

The ghost tells Hamlet how Claudius poured poison into his ears as he slept, thus stealing his life, crown, and wife. Even as he reiterates his demand that Hamlet take revenge on Claudius, the ghost tells the prince not to touch his mother, Queen Gertrude. Insisting Hamlet to leave his mother to heaven, the ghost disappears as dawn arrives.

Hamlet, overwhelmed by what he has seen and heard, is a mixture of grief, anger, and confusion. He flies from one thought to another in a soliloquy that is both sorrowful and raging. He closes with a commitment to the ghost's entreaty just before Horatio and Marcellus find him.

Horatio and Marcellus are eager to know what transpired between Hamlet and the ghost, but Hamlet responds to their questions by talking in confusing circles. He asks them to promise that they will tell no one of what they have seen and heard that night. He presses them to swear on his sword, and adds that they must hold to their promise no matter how strangely he acts in the future. Three times, before they can swear, the ghost cries out "Swear!" Horatio and Marcellus promise, and as the three men leave, his final words capture both his rage and sorrow.

Analysis

Each scene in which the ghost of King Hamlet appears adds tremendous complexity to the plot. With King Hamlet's ghost now present and speaking, he is revealing actions and even motivation—particularly around his own death—that the characters and audiences would not otherwise know. For Hamlet, he is a catalyst, capable of turning the course of the play's action. He is also a pivotal element when considering themes such as madness or revenge.

The ghost's order for Hamlet to avenge his death increases the play's tension and furthers Hamlet's development. Because he knows the details of his own death—details no one other than Claudius would otherwise be able to impart—he changes the course of the play's action. The information he conveys takes the play from a simple drama to a story of revenge. Even at this point, Hamlet's life parallels Fortinbras's. There are two princes, two dead king fathers, and although they died under different circumstances, the sons are left to consider revenge.

On a more personal level for the title character, the ghost's appearance moves Hamlet from being simply a grieving son to an aggrieved one. Hamlet was filled with sorrow before the ghost made himself known, and he was already unsettled by Claudius and Gertrude's hasty marriage. Once the ghost appears to Prince Hamlet bearing information that Hamlet feels must be the truth—that Claudius murdered his father—Hamlet is still sorrowful but a huge wave of rage has swept in. In light of the obvious friction between him and Claudius in Act 1, Scene 2, there is no doubt that this new information warns of potential violence.

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