In case you thought Hamlet wasn’t hilarious, Shakespeare threw in THIS gem of a scene, and I respect you guys too much to force you to wait while I type up some sort of compulsory introduction. So let’s get to it!
Right off the bat, Act 1, Scene 5 is tremendous. Enter GHOST is a stage direction that most things don’t have, and I think we are all poorer for it. The ghost beckons for Hamlet to follow and so he does, presumably because he has never seen a scary movie before in his life. He seems remarkably calm about this whole situation, actually. I haven’t set foot in my own basement in about five years because the lights flickered one time, so I’m pretty sure if a ghost ever even made eye contact with me, I’d set myself on fire right then and there. Hamlet, however, just rolls with it. Clearly, this is not his first ghost talking rodeo.
The ghost introduces himself as Hamlet’s father, but he doesn’t have long to chat; soon he must return to purgatory, which is where he lives now. He says he can’t tell Hamlet anything about “the secrets of his prison house” (ergo, purgatory), but if he could, he would tell him stories that would “HARROW UP THY SOUL” and “FREEZE THY BLOOD.”
(Sounds like a guy who really wants to tell us about purgatory. NOBODY CARES, HAMLET PRIME. LETS KEEP THE PLOT MOVING.)
Next, he says that his untimely death wasn’t at all what it seemed. He didn’t just stop one day, person-wise. He actually had some help, because his death was (ominous thunderclap) a murder. And not just any murder, but a “murder most foul.” Like, murder is always terrible, but of all the murders, this one was ESPECIALLY BAD.
GHOST: Everyone thought I got bit by a poisonous snake, but actually, I was killed. HAMLET: Yeah. Killed. By a snake. GHOST: No, I mean I was killed by a person. HAMLET: Oh. GHOST: Although I guess you could say I was killed by a snake. A snake by the name of CLAUDIUS. HAMLET: That’s your brother’s name, though. GHOST: It was my brother who killed me, Hamlet. HAMLET: I’m confused. Where was the snake? GHOST: I hate the way you are.
Also, you’re in a Shakespeare play, so get in line, buddy. Everyone is constantly getting poisoned. Who among us hasn’t been poisoned at least once?
Hamlet assures the ghost he will get his revenge ASAP, with “wings as swift as…the thoughts of love.” I’m not sure if this juxtaposition of love and death bodes well for Ophelia, but whatever, she’ll probably be fine.
His father tells him to get his revenge on Claudius however he wants—he doesn’t explicitly say to Saran Wrap the front door and take pictures, but I’m pretty sure it’s implied—and to leave his mother alone and let God sort her out. The ghost then leaves to toil away in the fires of purgatory (rude), and Hamlet vows revenge on his uncle for at least the third time in as many minutes. He curses that “smiling, damned villain,” and then he decides “villains can smile” is a good thing to remember so he writes this down in a notebook for future reference.
O 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’m sure it may be so in Denmark. (writes)
Horatio and Marcellus come running. They ask what happened, but Hamlet is like, “Nope, sorry, the ghost is already gone, and with it my ability to explain things.” At this point, I am going to remind you that Hamlet is a play. I know you know this, but it feels like important context given that, while Hamlet is swearing his friends to secrecy, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is lurking beneath the stage and screaming at everybody.
HAMLET: SWEAR TO ME YOU WON’T TELL ANYONE WHAT YOU SAW HERE TONIGHT. THIS IS AN EXTREMELY NORMAL REQUEST. MARCELLUS: Okay. HAMLET: SWEAR TO ME. MARCELLUS: We just did that. HAMLET: DO IT AGAIN. MARCELLUS: My lord? HAMLET: DID I STUTTER? I SAID SWEAR. THE GHOST, FROM THE DEPTHS OF HELL, VOICE MUFFLED: YOU HEARD THE MAN. SWEAR.
The Broadway hit Hamilton is amazing and I saw it live and I loved every single second of it, but “ghost yells ominous directives all the way from purgatory” might be the best theatrical staging choice of our time, check and mate. (Sorry, Lin-Manuel Miranda.)
Hamlet tells his friends not to worry if it seems like he’s boarding the crazy train to crazy town. For his vague and poorly explained plans to work, he must put on an “antic disposition.” Horatio and Marcellus are confused but they agree not to tell anyone any of this, for reasons that are unclear to me.
And that’s the end of Act 1! In the Choose Your Own Adventure game that is Hamlet’s life, I think “taking murder advice from a maybe ghost” is one of those things we’ll look back on and think, “Wow. So that may have been something resembling a mistake,” but I guess it’s too soon to know for sure.
Somewhere in there, Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Basically: “There’s more to life than just science and reason, and some things can’t be explained, YOU WITLESS SKEPTIC. Ghosts definitely exist. I spoke to one, and it told me things.” What persists throughout the play, however, is the question of certainty. What’s the deal with this ghost? Is it real? Is it reliable?
Right now, Hamlet says he’s only pretending to be crazy, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that he later blurs the line between sanity and actual madness.
Claudius is definitely the villain of this story, but would you call Hamlet the hero? In scene 5, he makes a lot of ambiguous remarks about villains in Denmark without actually singling out Claudius, which says to me that, to take his revenge, Hamlet feels he’s going to have to become something of a villain himself.