Can you guess what Hamlet’s doing at the beginning of this scene?
If you said ‘brooding’ you’d be right, except this time he’s decided to change things up and brood outside instead. It’s exciting stuff.
Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus (one of the guards we met earlier) are sat out in the cold waiting for the ghost to show up while Claudius and the rest of the court party the night away, with trumpeters playing every time he drains a cup of wine. Hamlet admits that this is a Danish tradition, but because he has to complain about something – especially when Claudius is involved – he decides that it’s a rubbish tradition that makes the Danish people look like drunkards.
The ghost arrives just as Hamlet finishes trashing his uncle, displaying a dramatic flair and taste for ironic timing that we have come to associate with the dead. Hamlet, usually so sceptical, immediately yells “Daddy!” and tries to go off by himself with the spectre. His friends have clearly been brushing up on their tropes, however, and warn him that palling around with the supernatural is usually a good way to get yourself killed or worse; Horatio is particularly worried that the spirit will take advantage of his emotional grief and drive him mad *cough*FORESHADOWING*cough*. Hamlet is so desperate to talk to his father again that he doesn’t care and threatens to kill his friends if they stand between him and his father.
IMPORTANT POINT/LIFE LESSON TIME: just because it looks like a dog and barks like a dog doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your father (what?).
Hamlet is very accepting that this ghost actually is his dear old Dad, but Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would likely have been much more cynical. The Elizabethans, on the whole, were a religious lot and to them Hell was a Big Deal, with demons and evil spirits that would love nothing more than to wreak havoc and corrupt your eternal soul. This thing may well look like Hamlet Sr., but it was equally as likely that it was some evil spirit trying to drive Hamlet Jr. to madness or death for the lols. In fact, we never actually get confirmation of whether the ghost is the real deal or not, which could entirely change how we interpret the rest of the play’s events; is what happens (spoiler: death, and lots of it) actually the revenge of a murdered king, or is it the nefarious work of something more sinister who drives Hamlet to madness and causes the death of the entire Danish royal family just for funsies? You can’t say definitively either way, but it’s interesting to look at what happens next in the context of both theories.
Whatever you think the ghost is, its appearance can’t mean anything good. Marcellus sums it up best with one of the play’s most iconic lines:
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
You and I know this, as do Horatio and Marcellus, but Hamlet – angsty, emotionally vulnerable Hamlet – is too wrapped up in his grief for his father and anger at Claudius to care. Place your bets on what will happen next.