Hamlet in Search of Ghosts

First Year Seminar II C. Callanan

In The Last Days of Socrates, Plato’s account of the end of the philosopher

Socrates’ life, Socrates encouraged his followers to spurn the ways of the flesh and instead take joy in more cerebral activities, touting philosophy as a means of preparing for death. Hamlet, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, is not a philosopher by trade, but a prince, albeit a learned one. Yet he exemplifies this belief, perhaps even taking it further, viewing the world around him as a dichotomy between the corporeal and the ethereal, with the latter being associated with truth, purity, and love, and the former with corruption, decay, and lust. This manner of thought seems to have originated with the quick remarriage of his mother to his uncle, after his father has died. Hamlet is clearly disgusted by this, holding that “…a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer” (1.2.150151). His mother’s marriage has affected him to the point where it seems to have disillusioned him with humanity, so much so that he is even disgusted with himself: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.129-132). This general disgust with humanity is fermented into the dichotomous world view of ethereal/corporeal when he meets the spirit, who presumably is the dead representation of his father. Whether the ghost is a “spirit of health or goblin damned” (1.4.40), is never directly verified, but it seems apparent that Hamlet puts some trust into it; the ghost’s claims support his own suspicions (“Oh my prophetic soul!” (1.5.40)), and, later, when speaking with Horatio and Marcellus he refers to the ghost as an “honest ghost” (1.5.138). That there is a character change in him after this experience is apparent through a variety of sources: there is Ophelia’s account to Polonius (“He raised a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being.” (2.1.94-96)),

there is the dialog between the monarchs and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (“…I beseech you to instantly visit / My too much changed son” (2.2.35-36)), there is the conversation between the monarchs and Polonius (“•our noble son is mad” (2.2.92)), but perhaps most importantly is what we see of Hamlet first hand. A prime example of this is Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia. Before Hamlet encountered the ghost, he seemed have some sort of affection for her. Laertes warns Ophelia to be wary of Hamlet’s courting, and latter Ophelia admits to Polonius: “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me” (1.3.99-100). Polonius later produces a letter to the King and Queen, which he claims came from Hamlet to his daughter. It’s a rather sappy work, beginning a poem that reads: “Doubt thou that stars are fire / Doubt that the sun doth move / Doubt truth to be a liar / But never doubt I love” (2.2.116-119). While it is possible that Polonius could have fabricated the letter, we have fairly little reason to believe that he would have done such a thing. Yet the emotions conveyed by this letter are so far from the Hamlet we see interacting with Ophelia later on that it would not seem too unreasonable. Later, when they meet in the castle, Hamlet is downright misogynistic, in addition to his invariable misanthropy. “Get thee to a nunnery,” he says. “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.121-122). He spurns her, particularly her femininity: I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp; you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance (3.1.144-148). This is certainly a much-changed view from “the most beautified Ophelia” (2.2.109-110) that Hamlet saw when he wrote his love letter. Why does this change in view occur? Polonius believes it is because Ophelia, like the dutiful daughter that she is, has spurned his advances, but this answer seems

somewhat unsatisfactory. Looking at how Hamlet views women is essential to understanding his mindset. Despite likening Ophelia to the virginal daughter of Jephthah (“O Jeptha, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!” etc. (2.2.412-428)), Shakespeare includes a number of sexual innuendos that make one question the validity of Ophelia’s innocent character. Take for example, the interaction between Ophelia and Hamlet during the play within the play. The topic of discussion is Hamlet lying between Ophelia’s legs, and Shakespeare gives Hamlet a rather crude pun; Hamlet asks Ophelia, “Do you think I meant country matters?” (3.2.119), the joke being that when the first syllable of “country” is emphasized, the word “cunt” is suggested. This and other lines seem to suggest that Hamlet views Ophelia, at least to some extent, as a sexual object. This is rather problematic for our prince, though, as he has a severe aversion to matters of lust. We find this in his fixation on his mother’s sexual life. After Hamlet severely chastises the Queen for marrying Claudius, she asks him, “What shall I do?” (3.4.182). He responds in excruciating detail: Not this, by no means, that I bid you do: Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed, Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse, And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers, Make you to ravel all this matter out, (3.4.183-187) Clearly Hamlet is disgusted by his mother’s sexuality in conjunction with Claudius, and, considering his views on “flesh” and the corporeal, he most likely is not comfortable with sex in general. Certainly he sees reproduction as a negative thing, which we can see with his rejection of Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery. Why woudst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.121-122). Furthermore, one should note Hamlet’s reaction to the ghost’s testimony. Despite the ghost’s command to “[l]eave [the Queen] to heaven”

(1.5.86), in Hamlet’s following soliloquy, he says, “O most pernicious woman! / O villain, villain, smiling, damnÀd villain! / My tables—meet it is I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (1.5.105-108). This must be in reference to Gertrude– it seems highly unlikely that Hamlet would refer to Claudius as a “pernicious woman”. Note how he uses the generic term “woman”. Hamlet is unable to separate women from villains from this point on. They are slaves to the dirty, sullied flesh, representatives of the lusty, seductive physical, and Ophelia is lumped in with them. Hamlet’s opinion of Ophelia changes greatly upon her death. She no longer belongs the corporeal, and thus no longer part of the female subcategory. Instead Ophelia has become part of the ethereal and free from the restraints and corruption of the body. Hamlet loves not the physical reality of Ophelia, but the idea of Ophelia. The language Hamlet uses calls to mind the poem that Polonius divulged earlier: “What is he whose grief / Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow / Conjures the wand’ring stars, and makes them stand / Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.257-259). Soon afterwards, Hamlet boasts of the things he would do to exemplify his grief and love for Ophelia. The boast is rather ironic, as all of his challenges are physical. Hamlet claims that he would do all of these actions for a dead woman he despised, but he cannot muster the will to avenge his father’s murder. We also find this focus on the conceptual, rather than the concrete, in Hamlet’s play. The play was designed to mirror the events surrounding his father’s enigmatic death as related to him by the ghost, and has two purposes: to test the veracity of the ghost, and to determine Claudius’s guilt: …I’ll have these players Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks, I’ll tent him to the quick. If ‘a do blench I know my course. The spirit I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have such grounds More relative than this. The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. (2.2.606-617) At first it seems that this piece of evidence is antithetical to my claim. Hamlet is attempting to find more concrete, physical evidence for the ghost’s claim. However, there are two important things to note about this situation. One, Hamlet is looking for more substantial when in doubt of the ghost. It is the ghost that truly instills the obsession with the immaterial and repulsion for the physical. It naturally follows, then, that when Hamlet is in doubt of the ghost he should seek out the physical and stray from the immaterial. Secondly, one should note the medium in which Hamlet seeks out his verification. It is through theater, a cerebral abstraction of reality if there ever was one, and Claudius’s guilt is to be measured by the reaction on his face. Quite honestly, it’s really more conjecture than anything else; Hamlet is basing his conclusions on what he sees in Claudius and in what Claudius sees in the play. While he does enlist Horatio assistance in observing the King’s reaction (“…Give [Claudius] heedful note, / For I mine eyes will rivet to his face, / And after we will both our judgments join / In censure of his seeming.” (3.2.87-89)), but it would seem that Hamlet has already formulated an opinion on the King’s relative guilt by the time that the two convene. When Claudius rises to leave, Hamlet tauntingly asks, “What, frightened with false fire?” (3.2.272), and later refers to him as a “stricken deer” that “[goes to] weep” when in the company of Horatio. He makes it quite clear to Horatio that he trusts the ghost now– “O good Horatio, I’ll take the

ghost’s word for a thousand pound,” (3.2.292-293) and pries the answers he expects out of Horatio: “Didst perceive?” asks Hamlet. “Very well, my lord,” responds Horatio. “Upon the talk of poisoning?” “I did very well note him” (3.2.293-296). All in all, this method of testing Claudius’s guilt is marginally more valid than the ghost’s testimony. One should also observe Hamlet’s actions when he discovers Claudius praying and quite vulnerable to attack. He does not see the immediate, physical consequences, that Claudius would be slain, and thus revenge would taken, nor even the direct moral implications for himself, that killing a person who is praying is an act that reflects poorly on one’s soul, but rather the implications on Claudius’s soul: “A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven. / Why this is hire and salary, not revenge” (3.3.76-79). Let us take, for a moment, the characters of our other orphaned sons. If given an opportunity such as this, Fortinbras would not hesitate for a moment to act upon it. Laertes might have some ethical issues with killing a praying person, like he did with the covert use of poison, but Once again, Hamlet i