In my “teaser” post about my 2016 production of Hamlet, I asked my dear readers (both of you?) to mull over the question, “What if the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father is really the devil?” Today, I’m going to write a bit about how I arrived at that question.
When I teach Hamlet at university, I ask my students to think about their expectations of the revenge genre. Modern audiences, like Elizabethan playgoers, have been trained to anticipate a fixed formula: hero loses something, or more often someone, dear to him; hero does Whatever It Takes to get even. Since most Hollywood examples involve mature male heroes avenging their murdered wives or girlfriends, I use that template as an example. “If Liam Neeson’s wife had been murdered by terrorists, what would he do to get revenge?”
Students have no trouble providing imaginative answers. “Dress up as a terrorist to infiltrate their cell.” Would he torture innocent people to prove himself loyal? “Absolutely.” Would he kill only the terrorists who harmed his loved one, or would he kill as many as he could? “Total carnage.” Would he plan an exit strategy? “No, he’d blow himself up.” And so on.
Then, I try to cultivate a bit of empathy in them. “Imagine your partner had been murdered. You’re not Liam Neeson, you’re you. Would you disguise yourself, torture others, and commit mass murder-suicide?” Most of them agree that, while they might feel as if they’d want to do those things, they would probably do nothing reckless, dangerous, or illegal — and not because they love their spouses any less than Liam. They just…don’t have it in them, they say. They’d chicken out.
I reassure them that they are not cowards, and neither is Hamlet. What’s happening instead is a standard revenge narrative interrupted, or even derailed, by the imposition of a moral code. The vengeful hero, whether it’s Liam Neeson or Hieronomo from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, uses the grief of their loss as an excuse to suspend their moral code — assuming their had one to start with. Audiences accept it, dubious though it is, because it can make for cracking good drama. But take away the motivation of bereavement, and what do Liam and Hieronomo become? Psychopaths.
Hamlet might be a play about a lunatic, but it’s not a play about a psychopath. The Prince has a complex ethical system that poses just as many internal obstacles to his revenge-quest as the external obstacles created by Claudius, Laertes, or Polonius. The old cliche about Hamlet, immortalized in Lawrence Olivier’s film, that he is “a man who thought too much,” is true — but most revenge-heroes think altogether too little about the consequences of their actions. In Hamlet, Shakespeare created a highly typical revenge scenario, then placed at its centre a most atypical protagonist — someone who cares about other people.
The Big Question I’m skirting here, of course, is “Why does Hamlet take so damn long?” There are numerous answers, but the one that best suits my instinctive appraisal of the Dane’s character is this: Hamlet takes 4 1/2 acts to revenge his father’s murder because he is not a plot device. He is given a horrific assignment by a dubious taskmaster, and the fact that he doesn’t instantly obey basically just proves he’s human.
When approaching a production of Hamlet, I knew it must be clear that the hero isn’t scared of Claudius per se — but he might have good cause to be afraid of the Ghost, and what he represents. For a moment, let’s assume (as 99.9% of scholars, readers, and playgoers do) that everything the Ghost says is true: he is the spectre of Hamlet Sr., a soul trapped in Purgatory because he died without the opportunity to confess all his sins (“O horrible, horrible, most horrible!”). He has returned to Elsinore to tell Hamlet about Claudius’s crime, but more specifically to instruct him to seek revenge. He is not explicit, but then he doesn’t need to be; what possible revenge could satisfy, besides an “eye for an eye” (or, in this case, “an ear for an ear”)?
Here, then, is a father ordering his son to join him in Purgatory by committing a cardinal sin, breaking one of the Ten Commandments, and then (in all likelihood) dying unshriven, much like his father. He instructs Hamlet to take justice into his own hands — to be “scourge and minister” of Denmark, except he doesn’t use the word “justice,” only “revenge.” Maybe, to a king, these concepts are indistinguishable, but Hamlet is certainly perceptive enough to see the difference.
So, in Act 1, Scene 5, Hamlet is given more than just a mission; he is handed a trap, a paradox, a Catch-22. Disobeying his father would be wrong, but so is “murder most foul,” even in the best of cases. In this respect, it’s almost a relief to consider that the Ghost might be the devil. Taking Hamlet Sr. at his word puts extraordinary strain upon his sensitive young mind. No wonder the kid considers suicide.