The Ghost of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Purpose is but the Slave to Memory.”
The past lives on in memories and in that sense, even the dead are alive in us. What are ghosts if not an embodiment of our own memory? The ghost in a literary setting almost always directs attention backwards in time and causes the living characters to reflect on prior events. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is no different. In the first act of the play young Hamlet’s father, the late King Hamlet of Denmark, appears to some guards on the castle walls. While the guards and Hamlet are able to see the ghost, the king’s wife, Gertrude, and her new husband, the king’s brother, Claudius, cannot see the ghost. It is this discrepancy that will be examined.
Upon the walls of Hamlet’s castle, a spectre appears before three guards and Hamlet. Consider their reactions to the appearance of Old Hamlet’s spirit: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state,” says Horatio (1.1.69). “My father’s spirit in arms? All is not well,” states Hamlet (1.2.255). It is interesting how the characters, upon seeing a figure from their memories, immediately begin speculating about the present or the future. While the ghost portends an ominous future by its very nature, we must also consider why he shows up in the first place. While many may argue that Old Hamlet appears simply to have his death revenged, there are deeper reasons which can only be found when we analyze the psychological state of Hamlet and fellow cast of characters. We must consider who of them can and cannot see the ghost in order to understand that the ghost is an embodiment of memory. Those that can see remember, those that cannot have forgotten.
Upon the first glimpse into the dichotomy between Hamlet and his uncle and stepfather, Claudius, the poles of memory are defined. Hamlet, having lost a father two months prior and helplessly witnessing the hasty marriage of his mother and uncle, is in mourning. The memory of his father’s death is physically lodged in his mind and so he is forced to remember and continue to mourn. On the other hand, Claudius, the late king’s brother and murderer finds himself with a new bride and a crown upon his head. He is, essentially, living the dream, or at least attempting to. In an effort to bring Hamlet out of mourning and into the present he states, “’Tis unmanly grief./ It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,/A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,/ An understanding simple and unschooled” (1.2.94-97). While being a rather insensitive means of cheering a nephew up, this statement also reveals the character of Claudius in regards to his view of the past. After having murdered his own brother, Claudius undoubtedly attempts to forget what has been and only focus on what is or what will be.
While Hamlet and Claudius struggle to cope with their memories, Gertrude, Claudius’ new Queen and old Hamlet’s widow, appears to be oddly passive, even apathetic about her husband’s death. Consider the way she discusses the notion of death with Hamlet: “Thou know’s ‘tis common; all that lives must die,/ Passing through nature to eternity” (1.2.72-73). She has a rather realistic view on death, accepting it as a simple fact of life. Her acceptance of death and the great influence Claudius has on her will causes her to forget her former husband rapidly.
Gertrude’s ambivalence causes her will to be weak, and we often see her easily swayed. In the middle of Act 2, the queen, in a conversation about Hamlet’s prolonged depression, states, “I doubt it no other but the main/ His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage”. However, immediately after Polonius, the king’s aide, offers his hypothesis that Hamlet is heartbroken, Gertrude states “It may be, very like” (2.2.153). Her opinions always seem to parallel those of the people around her, namely Claudius. Furthermore, before the theater performance in act 3, Hamlet remarks to Ophelia, “”For look you how cheerfully/ my mother looks, and my father died within’s two/ hours” (3.2.128-131). While Hamlet may be exaggerating about his mother’s “cheerful” demeanor, he certainly touches on the notion that she does not appear to be thinking much about her late husband.
A third group that must be considered is the trio of guards from the first scene: Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus. Each of these characters recalls and openly discuss the late King Hamlet. Horatio, inhis recount of the king’s slaying of Norway calls King Hamlet “our valiant Hamlet” and further mentions, “(For so this side of our known world esteemed him)” (1.1.84-85). Horatio and the two soldiers with him represent a more objective view of the past and present because they hold no familial relation to the king. Unlike Hamlet who is being pressed to forget the past by the new king, the three men are able to freely remember the king as they knew him.
When the three men see the ghost upon the wall, they immediately begin to question it. They ask the ghost why he has appeared before them. Horatio berates the ghost, begging him to speak his purpose. He implores, “If there be any good thing to be done…/ Speak to me./ If thou art privy to thy country’s fate…/ O’ Speak!” (1.1.130-135). Instead of simply standing in awe at the appearance of a spirit, the men assume that he has appeared for a purpose. After the ghost leaves, the three men begin to discuss the current state of the kingdom, specifically the present conflict with Norway. Barnardo, upon reflecting on the current affairs of Denmark, concludes, “Well may it sort that this portentious figure/ Comes armed through our watch so like the king/ That was and is the question of these wars (1.1.109-111). Barnardo, though a small character in the larger story, is the first to bring up the idea that the king has appeared to them for a specific reason. The impending war has them all wondering what will happen next and so, without a competent king ruling, their minds naturally drift to their former, “valiant” king.
Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost adds to the notion that it has appeared due to the memory of the living. Hamlet, more steeped in grief and mourning for his father, remembers King Hamlet better than anyone around him and it is this memory that brings Hamlet to confront the ghost. This meeting sparks the entire driving force of the play in which Hamlet seeks to fulfill his dead father’s orders of avenging his death. King Hamlet tells young Hamlet, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love-/ Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.23-25). King Hamlet words his request more as a challenge in which Hamlet’s love for his late father can only be proven by carrying out his wishes. Furthermore, King Hamlet’s final words to Hamlet are “Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me” (1.5.91). Hamlet responds to his father by stating, “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,/ …And thy commandment all alone shall live” (1.5.99-102). In other words, the memory of Hamlet’s father, embodied in the form of a ghost, gives Hamlet his sole purpose for the remainder of the story.
Not long after Hamlet receives his mission from King Hamlet, he begins to doubt the noble nature of his father’s ghost. During the meeting he calls the ghost “honest” and addresses him as “truepenny”; however, in Act 3 Hamlet has second thoughts and states, “The spirit that I have seen/ May be a devil…” (2.2.610-611). It is at this point that Hamlet decides to find out the truth about his father using his own methods.
Hamlet utilizes the theater company as a way to force Claudius into remembering the murder of his brother and hopefully externally show his guilt. In a way the appearance of the ghost was a performance put on for Hamlet in order to solidify King Hamlet in his memory. The theater company acts as a reminder to Claudius just as the ghost is a reminder to Hamlet. By seeing with his own eyes a clear picture of the past reflected on a stage, Claudius is forced into confronting his memory head on and as we see in Act 3, he demands the play end and leaves abruptly, thus solidifying Hamlet’s suspicions. Claudius’ reaction to the performance renews Hamlet’s faith in his father’s ghost. He states, “I’ll take the ghost’s word for/ a thousand pound” and continues on with his mission under the impression that it is his duty to his father. Claudius never sees King Hamlet’s ghost, but through young Hamlet’s mission, Claudius is reminded of his brother anyway.
The scene in which Gertrude and Hamlet quarrel in the queen’s chamber solidifies the notion that only those who truly remember the king can see him. Gertrude opens the argument by stating, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended” (3.4.10). The “father” she is referring to is Claudius, not King Hamlet. This distinction shows us that Gertrude has moved so far beyond King Hamlet’s memory that she already sees Claudius as Hamlet’s father. Hamlet begins berating Gertrude with insults. He speaks of her heart thus: “If damned custom have not brazed it so/ That it be proof and bulwark against sense” (3.4.38-39). Hamlet believes the infidelity seen in Gertrude’s actions shows that her emotion and sense is veiled, causing her to forget her past and the husband she once loved. Even as Hamlet tells Gertrude of all her faults and openly reminds her of her dead husband, she will not listen and constantly tells Hamlet to “speak no more”. Because Gertrude will not listen to Hamlet, she is unable to see the Ghost when it appears. When Hamlet asks if Gertrude can see anything, she replies, “Nothing at all; yet all that is I see” (3.4.133). This response insights the notion that Gertrude believes only in what is in front of her. She can’t see the king because she doesn’t truly remember him.
Memory is a powerful tool in determining the way we perceive the present and future. The player king in The Murder of Ganzago encapsulates the entire notion of this play perfectly. He states, “Purpose is but the slave to memory” (3.2.194). Hamlet’s memory of his father is so powerful and so encapsulating that it drives him to commit multiple murders culminating in his own death. Hamlet understands the power of memory and in his final moments of life he speaks to Horatio: “Horatio,” he says, “ I am dead;/ Thou livest; report me and my cause aright/ To the unsatisfied” (5.2.339-341). Hamlet knows that people will remember his deeds without knowing why he did them. He knows that memories will misconstrue the truth and so he calls upon Horatio, just as Hamlet was called upon by his father, to remember him and promise “To tell [his] story” (5.2.349).
Shakespeare, William. The Signet Classic Shakespeare. New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1963. Print.
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