An incidental comment from a minor character lays down, in the opening moments of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the theme which is to pin together all its aspects. Francisco the guard says, ‘I am sick at heart.’ [Act I. Sc. I, 29]. Francisco’s sick melancholy is in keeping with the atmosphere of corruption and decay which permeates the play; unexplained, difficult to define, but with a clear component of dread. And, typically, his expression of misgivings is misinterpreted, perhaps even underestimated. Barnardo, seeking palpable reasons for Francisco’s distraction, asks whether Francisco has had a quiet watch. Perhaps he wonders if the ghost has disturbed Francisco, but whatever is ailing Franciso remains secret, simply becoming a part of the anxious atmosphere.
We are constantly reminded of the pervading atmosphere of decay through the imagery used in the play. It is a significant point that the ghost, the only character that could arguably be termed an outside observer, and who is certainly qualified to make some form of prophetic judgement, should be one of the prime sources of imagery of decay, poison and rotting.
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment . . .
. . . doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
the thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine.
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body [Act I, Sc. v, 66 – 78]
A graphic description, especially since only moments before the ghost had instructed Hamlet not to pity it!
Throughout the play we can trace a progression of corruption, that leads to death, through ‘disease’ in the characters of Polonius, Claudius and Hamlet.
Polonius is perhaps the most obviously corrupt character in Hamlet. His corruption has occurred long before the play begins; the progression is in the extent to which it is revealed to us. From this courteous, almost comically long-winded member of the court, emerges a personality that is first dominating (as he instructs Laertes: ‘These few precepts in thy memory/ Look thou character.’ [Act I, Sc. iii, 63]), clearly abusive towards Ophelia:
You speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance,
A Christian Reading of Hamlet
A Christian Reading of Hamlet
In a famous article, “The Christian Tragic Hero,” Poet W. H. Auden defines a Christian tragic hero according to the Judeo-Christian view that all people are moral agents and own responsibility for their actions. One of his examples is Macbeth, who listens to the witches and is tempted to commit a crime that he knows is wrong. Auden says that the audience’s response to Macbeth’s fall is, “What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.” This contrasts with the pagan tragic hero, like Oedipus, who is bound by fate. Because Oedipus can do nothing about his ancestry, the audience’s response is, “What a pity it had to happen this way.” 1
Just as Macbeth’s tragedy begins when he begins to heed the witches, Hamlet’s tragedy begins by a similar action. This action is one which Hamlet knows is wrong because it was forbidden by the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures–he heeds the advice of a ghost. When he first encounters the ghost he says he will follow it because of it looks like his late father–even if it “brings blasts from hell”:
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape,
That I will speak to thee.2
Later, as he considers a course of action, he again recognizes that he could be falling for the bait of a devilish trap, but he does not care. He has been tempted to seek revenge. He has listened to the ghost.
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…
… middle of paper …
…which Shakespeare used.
Online Bible verse links are for the Authorized (“King James”) Version since there is no free online version of the Geneva Bible. The Authorized version was published in 1611, the same year Shakespeare’s last play was produced.
The following link includes some of the notes from the Geneva Bible. Those listed for I Samuel 28:11 and 28:14 illustrate the interpretation of the “Ghost of Samuel” incident: http://www.reformed.org/documents/geneva/1samuel.html.
5. The ghost in another play of Shakespeare’s is more explicit. In Julius Caesar, 4.3.319, Brutus specifically asks the Ghost of Caesar, “Speak to me what thou art.” The ghost replies, “Thy evil spirit, Brutus.”
6. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. J.R. Mulryne (New York: Hill and Wang, 1970) 3.13.1 note. This Elizabethan work tells a story similar to that of Hamlet.