From Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet by Kenneth Chan
Scene 4 brings us back to the battlements of the castle wall in the dark of night. Hamlet now awaits the appearance of the ghost, and we are once again immersed in an aura of mystery, awaiting an encounter with the beyond. It is around midnight.
Hamlet The air bites shrewdly, it is very cold.
Horatio It is a nipping and an eager1 air.
Hamlet What hour now?
Horatio I think it lacks of twelve.
Marcellus No, it is struck.
Horatio Indeed? I heard it not.
It then draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.
The suspense builds. In the distance, a flourish of trumpets and the sound of two pieces of ordnance firing prompt Horatio’s question:
Horatio What does this mean, my lord?
Hamlet The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,2
Keeps wassail,3 and the swagg’ring upspring4 reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish5 down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.6
The sound of celebrations in the distance intensifies the isolation at the castle wall. We are now truly on the outside, beyond the coziness of mundane distractions, with the night skies stretching the horizons before us. Now we are on the cutting edge between the known and the vast beyond.
The sound of the King celebrating also brings into sharp contrast the characters of Hamlet and Claudius. One is preparing to face the profound, while the other is attempting to drown out any hint of it in wanton revelry.
Horatio enquires of Hamlet whether drinking and revelry of this kind is customary. Hamlet responds by criticizing this drunkenness as a tradition that damages the nation’s reputation and belittles its achievements. He then generalizes this effect to include any vice and explains how a single defect can overwhelm all of one’s virtues:
Hamlet So, oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole7 of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty
(Since nature cannot choose his origin),
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,8
Oft breaking down the pales9 and forts of reason,
Or by some habit, that too much o’erleavens10
The form of plausive11 manners – that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being Nature’s livery or Fortune’s star,
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram12 of evil
Doth all the noble substance often dout
To his own scandal.
The actual wording of the last sentence is problematic because of a corruption in the published text, but the sense is clear: A small amount of something bad ruins all the noble substance.
Shakespeare has Hamlet say these words just before the ghost appears before him for a reason. The words ironically indicate exactly what will happen to Hamlet himself because of the ghost. Hamlet is intelligent, courageous, and sensitive, with all the makings of a true philosopher king. Yet something goes very amiss with him, and it is exactly at this point that he encounters the poison that practically destroys him.
The ghost now appears.
Horatio Look, my lord, it comes.
Hamlet Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
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 comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.
Like Horatio in Scene 1, Hamlet questions the nature of the ghost, particularly whether it brings good or evil. Nevertheless, Hamlet feels compelled to proceed, compelled to seek the unknown, and he does so without flinching:
Hamlet I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. Oh answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized13 bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements;14 why the sepulcher
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurned
Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?
The ghost beckons Hamlet to follow; Horatio and Marcellus fear for his safety, but Hamlet is determined to learn from the ghost.
Horatio It beckons you to go away with it,
As if it some impartment15 did desire
To you alone.
Marcellus Look with what courteous action
It waves you to a more removed ground.
But do not go with it.
Horatio No, by no means.
Hamlet It will not speak. Then I will follow it.
Horatio Do not, my lord.
Hamlet Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin’s fee,
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself?
It waves me forth again. I’ll follow it.
Hamlet clearly demonstrates his courage and ability to face the profound. He barely pauses to consider the danger and rushes boldly to confront the unknown. He certainly does not appear to be a man prone to delaying his actions from fear or lack of will.
Now, through the words of Horatio, Shakespeare presents us with a brilliant image of what the ghost is about to do to Hamlet, a sensitive man with the courage to confront the profound:
Horatio What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles16 o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason17
And draw you into madness? Think of it:
The very place puts toys18 of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
A confrontation with the profound is like standing fully exposed on the edge of a great abyss, a stark encounter with the vast reality beyond, and we must be prepared for it. We must face it with the qualities of universal love and compassion – otherwise it may well put “toys of desperation” into our brain. This, then, is the problem for Hamlet. He is confronting the profound, but instead of meeting it with the spiritual qualities of love and compassion, he tragically accepts the burden of a dangerous poison – the poison of revenge. The will to vengeance together with a mind that fully accepts the truth of our mortal state is a terrifying combination, leading to a fatalistic view of utter desolation. This, then, becomes the tragic consequence of the ghost’s dreadful injunction to Hamlet.
The scene continues with a dramatic depiction of Hamlet’s courage in facing the unknown. He shakes off the restraints of his two friends and plunges on imperiously. He is compelled to go.
Hamlet It waves me still.
Go on, I’ll follow thee.
Marcellus You shall not go, my lord.
Hamlet Hold off your hands.
Horatio Be ruled; you shall not go.
Hamlet My fate cries out
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion’s19 nerve.
Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets20 me.
I say away! Go on, I’ll follow thee.
The ghost leaves with Hamlet, and the scene ends with Horatio and Marcellus resolving to follow them.
1 eager sharp
2 takes his rouse carouses
3 wassail carousal
4 upspring a dance
5 Rhenish Rhine wine
6 pledge toast
7 mole blemish
8 complexion natural tendency
9 pales palisades, fences
10 o’erleavens mixes with thoroughly (as leaven works on the entire dough)
11 plausive pleasing
12 dram minute amount
13 canonized consecrated
14 cerements grave-clothes
15 impartment communication
16 beetles projects out, overhangs
17 deprive your sovereignity of reason remove the supremacy of your reason
18 toys whims, fancies
19 Nemean lion mythical lion slain by Hercules
20 lets hinders