If you've ever heard the song "That's Entertainment," that line where it says "A ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat" is talking about Hamlet :-) That line pops into my head whenever I read this scene.
Everything kicks up a notch in intensity in this scene. The Ghost declares it is Hamlet's father's spirit and spends a bunch of time telling Hamlet he can't tell him just how horrible purgatory is. Roman Catholics teach that purgatory is a sort of hellacious middle-world where believers go to atone for their sins before going to heaven. The word "purgatory" doesn't get used here, but with the line about foul crimes being "burned and purged away" (13), it's pretty clear that's what the Ghost is talking about. Shakespeare lived in militantly Protestant England, but he sets his play in still-Catholic Denmark, and in the past, so he gets away with this blatantly Catholic reference that otherwise might have gotten him in trouble. If you want to dig into this whole issue more deeply, Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory is revelatory.
So anyway, the Ghost informs Hamlet that GASP! he was murdered by Claudius, who thereby acquired both crown and queen. He says that if Hamlet ever loved his father, he needs to avenge this "Murder most foul" (27) -- he lays on the guilt pretty thick, I think. Sir John Gielgud calls him "a bit of a tyrant" (JGDRBIH p. 58), and I would remove the "a bit of," to be honest.
Hamlet seems to have had some suspicion about this already, as he says, "O my prophetic soul! My uncle!" (40-41). We know Hamlet already suspected his uncle of being an icky person, what with marrying Gertrude so quickly, and this just adds to that, I think. I don't believe Hamlet suspected his father had been murdered before this, but that's just my take -- I could be wrong. Perhaps he felt there was something off about his father's death, but didn't want to believe it could have been murder?
Interestingly, the Ghost insists Hamlet not try to punish Gertrude in any way. Some productions have Gertrude totally innocent of any knowledge of Claudius' murderous ways, some have her a little suspicious but trying to ignore it, and some have her totally in on it, all of which can get really interesting. The Ghost's insistence that she be left to heaven makes me think she knew nothing, but then again, the Ghost might just want to believe that. Hmm.
I really like the "ears" motif in this play. First the Ghost says, "So the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abused" (36-38), and then he reveals that Claudius poured poison right into his ears! Later on, Claudius is going to say that gossip has infected Laertes' ears, and himself pour poisonous words into Laertes with his subtle, crafty speech. The Ghost here is pouring the poison of suspicion and vengeance into Hamlet, via words that enter his ears. And we the audience have Hamlet's innermost thoughts poured into us as the words he speaks enter our ears. It's just such a cool thread to have running through the play!
Did you get the little joke in Hamlet's line "whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe" (96-97)? Shakespeare co-owned and co-ran a theater called The Globe, where Hamlet was first performed. So that line is a fun play-on-words.
Hamlet gets very wacky after the Ghost leaves, doesn't he? I tend to feel like he does go a little nuts there. Back in Scene 4, Horatio says that the Ghost might "deprive your sovereignty of reason" (73), which means it might stop reason from ruling over Hamlet ("your sovereignty" here could also be used like "your worship," or "your highness," but it also means "the sovereignty reason has over you"). I think Horatio's fears are proved pretty well founded for a little bit. I don't think Hamlet actually goes entirely mad, but he's kind of over-ecstatic, isn't he? Just so excited and confused and astonished and emotionally over-wrought that he can't think straight. Which is a sort of madness, and definitely involves his reason not reigning over him.
Dear Horatio, who at the end of the last scene insisted "Heaven will direct" what was going to happen (91), here begs, "Heavens secure him!" (115) when he and Marcellus run onstage looking for Hamlet. I love how worried he is about his friend.
Quick note I just learned from my edition -- when Hamlet says "Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio" (138), Saint Patrick was believed to guard the entrance to purgatory. So it's almost like he's cluing his friend in that the Ghost has come from purgatory there. I think that's cool.
Finally, Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus he's going to "put an antic disposition on" (172) and pretend to be mad, though he doesn't actually tell them why. He doesn't tell them what the Ghost said, either, just that he believes it to be honest. Oh, and when he says, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (167-68), I hold with those who say he doesn't mean Horatio's own personal philosophy, but just philosophy in general. He's not slamming Horatio here, he's saying things that are strange aren't necessarily wrong, they're just not something you can think your way to -- you have to believe and accept them for what they are.
Oh, here's another funny Hamlet comic for you, all about the "fretful porpentine" line. It makes me chuckle.
(More) Favorite Lines:
"Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural" (27-28).
"Methinks I scent the morning air" (58).
"Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched" (75).
"Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!" (80).
"And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter" (102-04).
"That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain --
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark" (108-09).
"These are but wild and whirling words, my lord" (135)."
"The time is out of join. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!" (188-89).
(More) Possible Discussion Questions:
Has the Ghost driven Hamlet a bit mad? Or is he faking from the get-go? (There's no right answer here -- this has been debated for centuries.)
Is the Ghost truthful? Does it matter if it is or not, since Hamlet believes it is?
Do you think Horatio and Marcellus hear the Ghost adjure them to "swear," or is Hamlet is the only one who hears the Ghost speak? I've seen it played both ways -- what differences would that make to whether or not we can believe the Ghost?