Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I, Scene V

 

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This week’s header comic is by Kate Beaton, of Hark, a Vargrant! who is wonderful and I recommend you check out right now.

Now they’re alone, Hamlet demands to know just what the ghost is playing at and it reveals itself to be his father…or so he says. If you take the text at face value then sure, but as I said in the last post Elizabethan audiences knew not to just trust when strange ghosts told you they were your father. Mr. Ghosty claims he’s stuck suffering in Purgatory and wants vengeance on the scoundrel that murdered him.

Murder? This is news to Hamlet. High death rates and lack of medical knowledge meant that it wasn’t particularly surprising when old Hamlet Sr. croaked, even though he’d been apparently healthy just before. It also meant that poisoning was much easier to get away with, and that’s exactly what the ghost claims killed him. As for who carried out this “Murder most foul”, the ghost points the finger at his own brother. Apparently – emphasis on apparently – Claudius seduced Gertrude, then dripped poison in Hamlet Sr.’s ear while he slept, claiming “my life, my crown, and my queen all at once”. Worst of all, because he was murdered Hamlet Sr. didn’t have a chance to repent of his sins or recieve last rites so he’s stuck in Purgatory, which by all accounts is not a Nice Place.

A brief history aside: at the time Denmark’s monarch was not dictated by hereditary succession like the English crown was, but was chosen by Parliament (interestingly known at the time as their ‘Thing’). They usually stuck with the traditional way of the first born son succeeding their father, but if a preferable alternative was available they could diverge from this. There are lines throughout the play that suggest that Hamlet Sr. had indicated that the country should pass to Gertrude when he died (she’s described as “the imperial jointress to this warlike state”) and because this is Ye Olde Olden Days when women were obviously too weak and stupid to own things they would pass on to any future husbands she may have i.e. Claudius. Add the fact that Hamlet was out of the country at University when his father died and it would seem reasonable for the ‘Thing’ to decide that Claudius was a good choice for the new king. All very convenient for Claudius, is it not?

It’s also very convenient for Hamlet, who is the President of the Anti-Claudius Club. If you’re a supporter of the Mad Hamlet theory then the man you resent for stepping into your father’s shoes, marrying your mother and trying to play Dad also turning out to be a conniving murderous snake seems a little too opportune. That said, it is worth noting that Claudius did actually murder his brother (spoiler alert), so it’s possible that Hamlet is just an unusually good judge of character.

Dawn arrives and the ghost vanishes, leaving Hamlet with instructions to avenge him. Hamlet swears to do so, and gets off to an interesting start when his first step is to write down in his little notebo that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. Clearly he’s new to this whole revenge thing.

Horatio and Marcellus arrive and ask what happened with the ghost, but Hamlet isn’t much more forthcoming than ‘bad people are bad’ and then makes them swear not to tell anyone what they’ve seen. They do, but Hamlet is weirdly insistent that they swear on his sword. Then begins a weird almost slapstick sequence where the voice of the ghost follows them around from under the stage, although interestingly the others don’t seem to be able to hear it. Ghostly powers of telepathy or a sign of a cracked mind? You decide.

The friends are obviously concerned by this odd behaviour, and Hamlet muses that playing crazy might be a useful trick to have up his sleeve. Clearly we’re in for crazy shenanigans in the future. Tune in next time on this wacky family drama!

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Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I, Scene IV

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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.