From Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet by Kenneth Chan
The ghost enters with Hamlet, and the confrontation with the beyond continues.
Hamlet Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak, I’ll go no further.
Ghost Mark me.
Hamlet I will.
Ghost My hour is almost come
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
Hamlet Alas, poor ghost.
The very first words of the ghost inform us that he is no angel. Shakespeare reminds us that the spirit is not one whose counsel we should take as infallible wisdom. There is nothing, in fact, to suggest that he is less deluded than any of us.
Ghost Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
Hamlet Speak, I am bound to hear.
Ghost So art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear.
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
Shakespeare stresses again that the ghost is no angel but rather a spirit still needing to have his crimes purged. To ensure that we do not miss this, Shakespeare even gets him to relate how terrible his temporary state of purging is.
Ghost But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.1
But this eternal blazon2 must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
Shakespeare goes to extreme lengths to emphasize that the ghost is no enlightened being. At the end of this scene, he virtually forces us to experience it emotionally. He has a good reason for this: It is crucial to the message of the play that we understand this point, for it is the ghost’s terrible mandate for Hamlet to wreak revenge that eventually destroys him spiritually.
The ghost now reveals its secret:
Ghost List, list, oh, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love –
Hamlet Oh, God!
Ghost Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Ghost Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Hamlet Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift
As meditation3 or the thoughts of love
May sweep to my revenge.
Hamlet’s initial reaction is to swiftly avenge his father, a reaction probably brought on by the sudden shock of the ghost’s revelation. But, as we know, it does not turn out that way, although the ghost certainly expected it to.
Ghost I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe4 wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear.
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process5 of my death
Rankly abused; but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
Hamlet Oh my prophetic soul! My uncle!
Hamlet, it appears, already had intuitive misgivings about his uncle, even before the ghost’s revelation.
Ghost Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts –
Oh wicked wit, and gifts that have the power
So to seduce! – won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
Oh Hamlet, what a falling off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage; and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself6 in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.
The ghost thus characterizes the Queen as one basically driven by lust into a hasty remarriage. In the play, Gertrude hides from the profound by securing her own physical comfort and well-being from which she derives a false sense of security. Later, even after being informed of the evil nature of Claudius, she continues to stand by him tamely and finally realizes her error only after becoming an accidental victim of his treachery.
Back at the scene on the castle wall, the ghost now relates how Hamlet’s father was poisoned. While he was sleeping in his orchard, Claudius had stolen in and poured a vial of hebenon into his ear, curdling his blood and causing his body to break out in loathsome crusts. In this way was he murdered without an opportunity to repent his transgressions. Thus does the ghost present to Hamlet the poison, the dram of evil, which eventually ruins the noble substance within him. It is the poison of revenge.
Hamlet now has a justifiable cause for revenge. It is hard to conceive of a better reason for vengeance. His father has been murdered in a cowardly manner, and the villain has even entered hastily into an incestuous relationship with his mother. It is, however, characteristic of Shakespeare to present his message this way: If revenge is wrong per se, it has to be wrong even under the most justifiable circumstances. So Shakespeare presents us with the most acceptable reason for vengeance and then proceeds to show us why it is wrong.
Shakespeare echoes the message of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too.” Difficult as it may sound, the advice of Jesus is also meant to apply here. Our actions, out of compassion, should always be based on helping others. Not only does killing Claudius for revenge solve nothing, it is wrong and positively harmful for another reason. In Hamlet, Shakespeare demonstrates the reason. In fact, he makes us live through the experience.
The ghost now continues:
Ghost If thou has nature7 in thee, bear it not,
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But howsomever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once:
The glow-worm shows the matin8 to be near
And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.
The ghost thus ends with an injunction for Hamlet to avenge him. Although he tells Hamlet to leave his mother “to heaven,” this warning does little to stop Hamlet’s condemnation of her. His bitter condemnation of his mother only adds to the terrible poison of revenge, and now the poison goes to work:
Hamlet Oh all you host of heaven! Oh earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell? Oh fie! Hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.9 Remember thee?
Yea, from the table10 of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond11 records,
All saws12 of books, all forms, all pressures13 past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
Oh most pernicious woman!
Oh villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables. Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain –
At least I may be sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word.
It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me.’
I have sworn’t.
Hamlet has the courage to face the unknown and to seek the truth unflinchingly. If he follows this path with the ideals of love and compassion, new spiritual heights will open to him. Tragically, he chooses instead to transform his mind into one obsessed with avenging his father. This mind of bitterness and hatred has disastrous consequences. Hamlet, from this time on, remorselessly transforms into a different person: a cold, cynical, and tormented soul. Thus his new motto is appropriate: “Adieu, adieu, remember me.” For, in effect, we are bidding Hamlet himself goodbye.
In so demonstrating why revenge is wrong, it may seem that Shakespeare does not give due consideration to justice. Surely Hamlet and the ghost have cause to seek redress. Without justice, how is the world a viable place in which to live? Yet Shakespeare does seem indifferent to poetic justice, particularly when it concerns punishment for the transgressor, a trait that is evident from a number of his other plays such as The Tempest, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well. In all these plays, the wrongdoer virtually goes unpunished.
Why is Shakespeare so unconcerned with poetic justice? It is, in fact, the same reason why saints or bodhisattvas never demand justice. That is simply not their purpose; instead they seek to save all beings from suffering. Seeking justice is not necessary for this purpose. In any case, heaven or the law of karma will take care of justice. A saint or a bodhisattva need not be concerned with it.
We may argue, though, that justice is necessary for society to thrive. True, but this is for a society living for mundane ends. If our concern is to accomplish worldly goals, then we should be concerned with seeking justice. Without some rule of justice, favorable circumstances for achieving worldly ends may be jeopardized. Shakespeare realizes, however, that worldly ends do not solve the real problems of the world. They cannot cure the world of the suffering from sorrow, sickness, ageing, and death. We are deluding ourselves and refusing to face the profound if we ignore the fact that the goals of the mundane world cannot help here.
So we need to be clear about our motives. If we truly aim to help the world, we must embark on the spiritual path, come to terms with the truth, and develop love and compassion so that we may lead others to salvation. Seeking justice is irrelevant. Justice takes care of itself. We should seek only to save all beings, without any exception.
On a different point, we note that Hamlet’s soliloquy above contains a curious emphasis on the idea that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” In fact, Hamlet takes pains to write this down, an act that seems out of place and noticeably jolts the flow of the drama. This effect, however, is exactly as Shakespeare intends, for he is deliberately drawing our attention to a recurring motif in the play. It is the motif centered on honesty or, rather, our lack of it; and it echoes in a negative way the words of Polonius: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
The King – the one who may smile and smile – does the reverse as he practices the art of deception. He is being false to himself by refusing to face up to the profound and to the truth of his own mortality; in this state of delusion, he has then given in to his evil impulses. After being false to himself, it follows then that he will also be false to others.
The idea that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” also alludes to our lack of honesty in another way. It highlights our propensity to artificially beautify what is actually rotten as a means of hiding from the truth. Images symbolizing this propensity appear repeatedly in the play.
Back on the castle platform, Horatio and Marcellus now find Hamlet. In a state of excitement, they ask him what transpired. Hesitantly, Hamlet begins to tell them:
Hamlet How say you then, would heart of man once think it –
But you’ll be secret?
Hor., Mar. Ay, by heaven.
Hamlet There’s never a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he’s an arrant knave.
Hamlet changes his mind about telling them midway through his sentence. “But he’s an arrant knave” certainly was not what he had in mind when he began the sentence. Now he resists revealing anything further.
Horatio There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.
Hamlet Why, right, you are i’th’right.
And so without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part,
You as your business and desire shall point you –
For every man hath business and desire,
Such as it is; and for my own poor part,
I will go pray.
Horatio These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
Hamlet I am sorry they offend you, heartily –
Yes faith, heartily.
Horatio There’s no offence, my lord.
Hamlet Yes by Saint Patrick but there is, Horatio,
And much offence too. Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.
For your desire to know what is between us,
O’ermaster’t as you may.
Hamlet cannot help but hint that something is very wrong, but he resists saying more. His reference to an “honest ghost” shows that, at this point at least, he believes the account of the ghost. Now follows the scene with the swearing ritual.
The reason for this long scene, occurring after the ghost had already given an adequate account of his murder, has previously puzzled critics. It is certainly not needed to move forward the play’s action. However, if we understand the effect of the ghost’s injunction on Hamlet, the reason for this scene is evident. Shakespeare makes clear the nature of what transpired by providing us with a dramatic image of evil at work. The voice of the ghost echoes from below, the traditional location of hell, and the way Hamlet now addresses the ghost strongly hints at the devil. While the ghost may not be the devil himself, the effect he has on Hamlet is surely worthy of the devil.
This eerie scene, with Hamlet’s mischievous jesting remarks coupled with the sinister call of the ghost from below to swear, has an unmistakably diabolical aura. The swearing ritual here is linked to the earlier oath of Hamlet to transform himself into an instrument of his father’s revenge. The oaths are all to aid Hamlet on the path of vengeance.
Hamlet And now, good friends,
As you are friends, scholars, and soldiers,
Give me one poor request.
Horatio What is’t, my lord? We will.
Hamlet Never make known what you have seen tonight.
Hor., Mar. My lord, we will not.
Hamlet Nay, but swear’t.
Horatio In faith, my lord, not I.
Marcellus Nor I, my lord, in faith.
Hamlet Upon my sword.
Marcellus We have sworn, my lord, already.
Hamlet Indeed, upon my sword, indeed.
Ghost [Beneath] Swear.
Hamlet Ah ha, boy, say’st thou so? Art thou there, truepenny?14
Come on, you hear this fellow in the cellarage.
Consent to swear.
Hamlet’s wild jesting adds a touch of the burlesque to the scene, suggesting mischief. Also, the strange familiarity in the way he refers to the ghost is reminiscent of how the traditional stage Vice used to address the devil. The sinister term “fellow in the cellarage” again hints at the devil.
Horatio Propose the oath, my lord.
Hamlet Never to speak of this that you have seen.
Swear by my sword.
Ghost Swear. [They swear]
Hamlet Hic et ubique ? Then we’ll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword.
Swear by my sword
Never to speak of this that you have heard.
Ghost Swear by his sword. [They swear]
Hamlet Well said, old mole. Canst work i’th’earth so fast?
A worthy pioneer!15 Once more remove, good friends.
Hic et ubique is Latin for “here and everywhere.” Traditionally, only God and the devil can be “here and everywhere” all at once. That the entity down below has this ability is also suggested by Hamlet’s rhetorical question: “Canst work i’th’earth so fast?”
Horatio Oh, day and night, but this is wondrous strange.
Hamlet And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
This is a true statement and a crucial one. We should keep an open mind and be receptive to the deeper reality beyond the mundane. Otherwise, we close the door to understanding the real meaning of our lives, and to the profound truths that may, at this time, still be veiled from us.
The greatest fault of modern science is its inability to admit ignorance in areas where current scientific techniques cannot penetrate. There are many areas that conventional science cannot even begin to access, particularly those involving consciousness and the mind. The usual response of many scientists is to redefine the boundaries of what is to be taken as science as well as what is to be taken as fact. We must be wary of this tactic and not allow our minds to be locked in by what is essentially an act of deception designed to conceal ignorance. Therefore, to something wondrous and strange that comes our way, we should, in Hamlet’s words, as a stranger give it welcome. There is much we have yet to learn.
Hamlet But come,
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself –
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic16 disposition on –
That you, at such time seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumbered17 thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As ‘Well, we know,’ or ‘We could and if we would,’
Or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be and if they might,’
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me – this do swear,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you.
Ghost Swear. [They swear]
Hamlet Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!
Hamlet thus resolves to feign madness in order to avoid suspicion of his motive for revenge. Ironically, he is actually following the example of Claudius – the one who smiles and smiles, and is yet a villain – in putting up a false front to conceal a more sinister underlying truth. All these practices of being false to others ultimately stem from not being true to oneself in the first place. While Claudius is not being true to himself by refusing to face up to the profound and to the truth of his own mortality, Hamlet is not being true to himself for another reason. As we shall see, he is refusing to acknowledge his inner voice and deeper conscience.
Now, finally, after the third oath of secrecy, the long swearing ritual comes to an end. The reason for its prolonged length should now be evident. All the elements of the ritual are suggestively diabolical. The proceedings are conducted in the dark through the use of almost derisive remarks, while being urged on by the sinister cries of a ghost from below. And all the oaths are taken to aid a path of revenge. The whole ritual thus leaves us with an emotional impression that what transpires – the injunction to vengeance – is actually evil in nature.
As the scene draws to a close, the tragedy of his circumstances dawns on Hamlet.
Hamlet The time is out of joint. Oh, cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
1 porpentine porcupine
2 eternal blazon revelation of the secrets of eternity
3 meditation thought
4 Lethe river of forgetfulness in Hades
5 process account
6 sate itself become satiated
7 nature natural feelings
8 matin morning
9 globe head
10 table writing tablet, notebook
11 fond foolish
12 saws sayings
13 pressures impressions
14 truepenny honest fellow
15 pioneer digger, miner
16 antic mad
17 encumbered folded