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.

Brian Blessed as the ghost of Hamlet in Hamlet (1996)
Brian Blessed as the ghost of Hamlet in Hamlet (1996)

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.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

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.

Gertrude played by Glenn Close in Franco Zeffinelli's 1990 version of Hamlet
Gertrude played by Glenn Close in Franco Zeffinelli’s 1990 version of Hamlet

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).

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Signet Classic Shakespeare. New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1963. Print.

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40 Comments

  1. Nice analyses. I can understand why many claim Hamlet as Shakespeare’s magnum opus. It is a monumental work, both in size and erudition.

    • Greg Beamish

      It’s certainly an interesting representation of the trials of depression or perhaps psychosis in the older adolescent. Shakespeare did an amazing job of covering so many identifiable forms of the human experience.
      *anyone have reference from Hamlet that specifies his age?

  2. I loved how several quotes from the play, such as “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” are still used nowadays.

    • Greg Beamish

      Me too. It would be interesting to see a compiled list of present day references from Shakespeare. Also, what is it about these particular phrases that made them stand out from the vast language of Shakespeare’s writing?

  3. The ghost is a real spirit and a significant role-player in the play.

    • Greg Beamish

      I agree. You use the word “spirit” and I find that interesting. It’s dual meaning of spirit as in spectre and spirit as in metaphysical force that drives us forward can be used to define King Hamlet’s ghost. It seems that only those that still have the “spirit” of King Hamlet can see him.

  4. Avery Clifton
    0

    One might be able to make an argument that Hamlet is seeing things in act three, but one can’t really make the argument in act one.

    • Greg Beamish

      I’m curious as to what you’re referring to in act three. The ghost in front of Ophelia or his speculation based on Claudius’ reaction to the play?

  5. The Ghost is his demand for revenge.

    • Greg Beamish

      I wonder how much of Hamlet’s wish for the death of Claudius is driven by vengeance for his father and how much is revenge for his own loss.

  6. I believe the ghost in Hamlet was trying to get revenge on his brother through his son. By his line wishing Hamlet not to taint his mind, it appears he really cares for his son, and from this show of emotions it proves he is not the devil but the father in a spiritual picture.

  7. The ghost only appears to whom it wants to appear to.

    • Greg Beamish

      I think the ghost only appears for those that want him to appear. Both Hamlet and the guards are the only ones that verbally express a wish for the return of King Hamlet.

  8. I was with Hamlet until he was an idiot. Conflicted… check. In pain… check. His father just died, his uncle married his mother and he found out that his uncle actually murdered his father… check.

    For a smart man who can soliloquize like nobody’s business – oh the stunning language that drips from this guys’ tongue – the fact that he can’t stick to his plan when he realizes that Ophelia’s dead, makes me lose it. All he had to do was keep his head down and wait for backup. No one knew that he was in Denmark. He could have taken the throne, but instead his conscience gets the better of him and he jumps into the grave, practically on top of Laertes? If he’d waited another 12 hours it all would have been his.

    His intellectualization of his pain – with little to no emotional response is what turns me off – Hamlet as sociopath perhaps? Hamlet on the Aspergers’ Spectrum? For my money Othello packs the tragic punch.

    • Greg Beamish

      I like the point you bring up about the eloquence of Hamlet’s words. His angst is exaggerated in verse and in actions. He’s mopey and eventually somewhat psychotic. I’d go so far as to say Hamlet displays signs of a manic depressed individual. Isn’t there some statistic out there about high levels of depression in creative writers? Perhaps Hamlet’s psychosis isn’t necessarily a reflection on his ability to speak eloquently in verse.

      • I would argue you that the very reason you dislike Hamlet, Yang, is the core of it’s tragic value. As seen by his ability to string words and thoughts together, as well as his bravery in fighting pirates after being sent away from his Kingdom, one cannot easily say that Hamlet lacks the abilities to carry out his revenge. What Hamlet does lack, though, is reason. The people of his kingdom do nothing to make him King even though he is the rightful heir. His father was out fighting a war on the day he was born. His mother, as Greg points out in his analysis, is complacent with the new order. Furthermore, the ghost does not ask for revenge for Hamlet’s sake, to put him on the throne in other words, but for the ghost’s sake alone. Hamlet is always playing second to his late father, thereby instilling in him a sense of unworthiness. This, I think, is one of the key tragic elements of Hamlet’s character.

  9. “This above all: to thine own self be true”

  10. When I first read “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, I found it to be really boring because it seemed difficult to comprehend. Additionally, I never liked reading about kings and princes and queens but that was not even the point of the story behind this play. After re-reading it for the second time, I really tried to understand why William Shakespeare is so well known because of his work. I liked how he inflicted the familial relationships.

    I sort of laughed at the fact that Prince Hamlet was able to see the ghost of his father, I still think William Shakespeare did a fantastic job trying to show relationships and themes of sacrifice.

  11. What a depressing depressing read hamlet was.

    • Greg Beamish

      I completely agree, though despite it’s melancholy nature, I appreciate the structure and language of the play, not to mention some of the comic relief subtly hidden in some of the language. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? What a dark joke to have them die in the end. Do you think there’s something deeper in their death or was it simply Shakespeare trying to tie up loose ends in the narrative?

  12. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    Hamlet is by far my favorite Shakespearean play. I learned a lot about your analysis and gave me much to reflect on. Good job!

  13. Candice Evenson

    Isn’t memory an interesting thing? I really like how you supported your points with the play within a play scene. Forcing memory upon someone is to open an old wound….but for Hamlet the wound never closed. It is a great analysis of how as long as one person remembers, the past will continue to knock on the door until there is resolution.

  14. Liz Watkins

    Hamlet’s ghosts are similar to those in other Shakespeare works, such as Macbeth. Are they real or delusions? I like that it is still discussed today, and like many great literary works, there is more than one interpretation.

  15. To me, the role of the ghost is to spur Hamlet into his dilemma. Without the ghost, it is hard to know how Hamlet would find out about what Claudius had done.

  16. I just presented a presentation on Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship and the chamber scene in my Shakespeare class today!! 🙂

    The aspect that was most interesting to me was indeed Gertrude’s memory and attitude towards the king’s passing, to which she decided, though no evidence states, to forget about her late husband. Hamlet on the other hand was disgusted by the fact that his mother not only married his uncle but also lays in his bed, thus becoming a scandal in Denmark for having an incestious relationship.

    The chamber scene spoke truth to how Gertrude knew yet tried so hard to deny that what she had done was wrong. Although Hamlet was at the brink of madness he had enough sense to confront her to speak the truth (until the turning point of killing Polonius accured). He didn’t want there to be harm done upon her but more so that he wanted her to see the ungly truth that he could not bare to see any longer. Thus he states, “Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge. You go not till I see you up a glass” (3.4.1132). Glass meaning a mirror, for Gertrude to look upon her reflection and come face to face with her sins. As the act continues on she does admit to or at least feels guilty for her actions, but this only lasts but for a moment, for she then decides that her son is truly mad and not in his right mind.

    The question I always wondered was if Hamlet was able to truly forgive his mother for what she had done, or for her ‘sins’. Yet I know that unaswered questions are what make the tragedy so profound and great in nature.

    Source: Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays and The Sonnets. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.

    • Greg Beamish

      Great analysis. I especially like the quote you drew out. I think Hamlet is another aspect of “the future” that Gertrude is trying to focus on. Looking at herself in the mirror briefly brings back a memory, but when she quickly returns focus to her sons impending madness, she is quickly brought back to the present and making plans for the future. She speculates about what will come while Hamlet speculates about what has already been.

  17. Excellent piece. Have you considered the role that imagination and manipulation of imagination plays in the text? That might be an interesting angle to explore further.

  18. I have read nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays now (I read Hamlet for a class in high school), and I have to say Hamlet is still one of my favorites. Nice analysis of the ghost’s significance and the various interactions among the characters. This just proves how powerful and intricate the play truly is.

  19. The claim of being able to see ghosts because you still remember the person is really well defined. Obviously Gertrude has completely forgotten her husband because she immediately marries her brother in-law. I really enjoyed reading this. You really seem to know your Shakespeare, which is good because I love Shakespeare more than anything.

    • Greg Beamish

      Thanks, I really appreciate that. My interest in Shakespeare is in the depth of analysis you can apply to it. There are so many layers to peel away from every piece that even after reading the whole collection a hundred times you might still make a new connection.

  20. I find your analysis to be in-depth and fitting to Hamlet. I think that memory, as you say, is powerful enough to drive people to certain decisions. My professor who taught Shakespeare even speculated whether or not the ghost was a physical entity. It could be possible that it’s the memories of Old Hamlet’s murder that initiates Hamlet’s actions and the sight of Old Hamlet’s ghost and his request fuels Hamlet to do the things he does, as you speculate. I find your analysis to be believable and well-supported. There is a lot to dissect with Hamlet, and I now have a new view of one of Shakespeare’s plays.

    As for Hamlet’s age, I believe somewhere in Act One, it mentions that Hamlet has returned from a school (I forget the name) in Germany, so logically, Hamlet would be whatever age scholars/scholarly students were back in Shakespeare’s day. That being said, I remember my professor speculating that Hamlet was around 32.

  21. ElizabethWhite

    Very well written. I see that you took your critique from a psychological point of view. Thus, my comment shall take a slightly similar approach.

    Hamlet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare during the age of the Elizabethan Era in England, coinciding heavily with the many other historical events, both past and during that time.

    In the past, the Renaissance brought forth much knowledge that had been used during the time of the Roman Empire [Pre-Christian]. I refer to this because the knowledge of Greek theater influenced the types of works Shakespeare wrote as plays.

    In the culture of England during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, tradition was severely important. England itself was a maverick politically and religiously [female ruler who refused to marry; a Protestant Church headed by the ruler of the Church of England {which her father had done and she had grown up in}]. Thus, it should not be surprising that there are cultural messages that the late King Hamlet’s ghost the audience thought about.

    They could have identified King Hamlet’s ghost as the father of Queen Elizabeth I, King Harry VIII. Ironically, Queen Elizabeth I would have looked a great deal like her father, with her red hair and fair features.

    Their ruler’s father had not been a good ruler . . . and Elizabeth’s half-siblings who’d ruled before her [aka- King Edward IV and Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary)] had varied from a puppet ruler to a religious dictator that demanded England revert to Catholicism after there had been various generations of people who had not believed in the Catholic faith.

    Thus, Prince Hamlet may have caused the audience to remember Edward IV: a king that was too childish to rule after his father died and eventually passed due to being physically ill.

    The biggest difference between Prince Hamlet and the late King Edward IV is the cause of their deaths: the prince had committed suicide due to severe depression derived from him not having time to properly grieve the loss of his father whereas King Edward IV died naturally due to having been a child of weak constitution.

    Whether this was his intention is unclear. Either way, Shakespeare skillfully wove a tale that had enough similarities to the politics of his day; without making it obvious; that his audience could relate to and would want to see over and over again. This is why Shakespeare was, and still is, studied in English literature today.

  22. sammmtastic

    An interesting analysis. Very well written! However, I think it is important to consider the Hamlet/Gertrude bedroom scene a bit closer. The Ghost reprimands Hamlet and tells him to be kinder to his mother (“O, step between her and her fighting soul”). This implies that Gertrude may be grieving silently and putting on a brave face for the kingdom: Denmark is on the brink of war with Norway, and has just lost its beloved general-king. This is not a time period or a culture where women could rule successfully. Gertrude therefore may have married Claudius in order to protect the scholarly prince Hamlet from the responsibility of ruling a country in wartime. It’s also possible that Gertrude does see the Ghost, but refuses to acknowledge him because it is too painful.

  23. Hamlet is one of my favorite plays, for many reasons. I really appreciated this article!

  24. Helen Parshall

    This is a great piece; Hamlet has been one of my favorites for a long time. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Rachel Watson

    Wow! I’m always pleasantly surprised by that fact that, even having read and seen Hamlet more times than I care to mention, I can still stumble upon new perspectives on the play. I’ve often thought about the discrepancy between who can see the ghost and who cannot in terms of awareness with the spiritual world and with their own (im)morality, but I’ve never considered the influence of memory. As you say, “Those that can see remember, those that cannot have forgotten.” Thank you for this article!

  26. Well done. Some other thoughts. Claudius obviously harbored ambitions to be king for quite some time. Furthermore, Claudius successfully beguiled Gertrude, Polonius (and with him the House of Polonius) and the entire Court. Claudius’ inaugural speech made before those he beguiled was as much a reaffirmation of the promised New World Order as it was insurance to help cement and legitimize his position as king. Hamlet, while away at Wittenberg University was passed over in absentia (courtesy of Claudius) in so far as nominations and elections were concerned. Hamlet alone could not overturn the concensus; namely, Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and the entire Court: he had no one to appeal to as son of a dead king (how helpless he must have felt). Only those who are not subject to the masterful exploits of Claudius could see the ghost of Hamlet; namely Horatio, Maecellus and Bernardo. Their memories were untainted by Claudius’ intrigues (rewriting history), and they provided Hamlet a certain level of moral support, but without the name of action. [“this bodes some strange eruption to our state” and ” something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, discernible sentiments that were not lost on Hamlet, but to no avail.] Hamlet could not openly confess his designs to them as a means to capture the throne: he “lacked advancement”. So in Hamlet’s thinking his world was an “unweeded garden”, “a prison” and “a sterile promontory”. in effect, Hamlet was alone. “Now I am alone…” Hamlet is helpless from escaping the vississitudes of riding the full spectrum of human emotion, which he experiences “so piteously as if to shatter all his bulk” and moreover expresses so eloquently: but his eloquence and intellect are not enough to save him. The best he could achieve was a zero-sum game: the intriguers all passed on to eternity in quick succession. In Hamlet’s dying words the thought closest to him was that of Kingship, “the election lights on Fortinbras”; and Hamlet wishes to be remembered and that is his purpose – because kingship offers a kind of immortality, free from being a ‘slave to death’ . So if you’re going to “sweat under a weary life”, you might as well be king. This was a story of competing ambitions: an all-or-none high-stakes play for the crown.

  27. Well done. Some other thoughts. Claudius obviously harbored ambitions to be king for quite some time. Furthermore, Claudius successfully beguiled Gertrude, Polonius (and with him the House of Polonius) and the entire Court. Claudius’ inaugural speech made before those he beguiled was as much a reaffirmation of the promised New World Order as it was insurance to help cement and legitimize his position as king. Hamlet, while away at Wittenberg University was passed over in absentia (courtesy of Claudius) in so far as nominations and elections were concerned. Hamlet alone could not overturn the consensus; namely, Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and the entire Court: he had no one to appeal to as son of a dead king (how helpless he must have felt). Only those who are not subject to the masterful exploits of Claudius could see the ghost of Hamlet; namely Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo. Their memories were untainted by Claudius’ intrigues (rewriting history), and they provided Hamlet a certain level of moral support, but without the name of action. [“this bodes some strange eruption to our state” and ” something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, discernible sentiments that were not lost on Hamlet, but to no avail.] Hamlet could not openly confess his designs to them as a means to capture the throne: he “lacked advancement”. So in Hamlet’s thinking his world was an “unweeded garden”, “a prison” and “a sterile promontory”. in effect, Hamlet was alone. “Now I am alone…” Hamlet is helpless from escaping the vicissitudes of riding the full spectrum of human emotion, which he experiences “so piteously as if to shatter all his bulk” and moreover expresses so eloquently: but his eloquence and intellect are not enough to save him. The best he could achieve was a zero-sum game: the intriguers all passed on to eternity in quick succession. In Hamlet’s dying words the thought closest to him was that of Kingship, “the election lights on Fortinbras”; and Hamlet wishes to be remembered and that is his purpose – because kingship offers a kind of immortality, free from being a ‘slave to death’ . So if you’re going to “sweat under a weary life”, you might as well be king. This was a story of competing ambitions: an all-or-none high-stakes play for the crown.

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