Our Hamlet plot summary continues with Act One, Scene Four, when it’s later that night, and Hamlet has joined Horatio and Marcellus on the battlements, waiting for the Ghost.
The Ghost doesn’t appear right away, but something else does: the sound of the king rousing and drinking, a custom Hamlet feels is “more honored in the breach than the observance” (I.iv.16), since it has cemented the Danes’ reputation as “drunkards” (I.iv.19) and have degraded their “achievements” (I.iv.21). After his long rant against the “dram of evil” (I.iv.36) that can kill “all the noble substance” (I.iv.37), the Ghost makes his appearance.
Hamlet immediately fears the apparition, calling for “angels and ministers of grace (to) defend us” (I.iv.39). He doesn’t know if the spirit is good or evil, “from heaven or … from hell” (I.iv.41), but despite this, he will call the Ghost, “Hamlet, // King, father, Dane” (I.iv. 44-5). He questions the apparition, calls for it to answer him. The Ghost remains silent but “beckons” (I.iv.58) for Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus plead with him not to follow the Ghost, fearing it might “deprive (Hamlet’s) sovereignty of reason // And draw (him) into madness” (I.iv.73-4). Hamlet struggles and breaks free from his partners, who are left at the end of the scene to proclaim, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.90).
The next scene follows Hamlet as he follows the Ghost. Alone with Hamlet, the Ghost is silent no more, telling the prince to “mark” (I.v.2) him. When Hamlet says that he is “bound to hear“ (I.v.6) what the Ghost has to say, the Ghost says that Hamlet will also be bound to “revenge, when (Hamlet) shalt hear” (I.v.7).
The Ghost reveals,
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
Trapped in purgatory, the Ghost cannot tell the living what he’s going through, but he tells Hamlet to listen, and to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.25). Who killed him? “The serpent that did sting (his) father’s life // Now wears his crown” (I.v.39-40). Claudius killed old Hamlet, if this Ghost is to be believed. Hamlet is apt to believe it, however, since his first words are “O my prophetic soul!” (I.v.40), as if to say “I knew it!”
Hamlet calls Claudius an
With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
Claudius has seduced Gertrude, his own brother’s sister (thus, the “incest”), with wit like witchcraft and gifts of a traitor (as killing one’s king is treason). The Ghost doesn’t have much positive to say about Gertrude who is only “seeming-virtuous.” Did the seduction and adultery happen before the murder? Was she somehow involved in the murder? If the Ghost knows, he isn’t revealing, saying only that young Hamlet’s revenge should be limited only to Claudius, “leav(ing) her to heaven” (86). He goes on at some length (and gruesome detail) describing his own murder before leaving Hamlet with an “Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me” (I.v.91).
Alone on stage, Hamlet ponders how he will remember the Ghost–even if he has to “wipe away all trivial fond records…from the table of (his) memory” (I.v.99, 98). But in the midst of obsessing over memory, his thinking turns on a dime from the ghost of his dead father (if that’s even what the Ghost is) to his very live mother… and her husband:
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
. . .
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word:
It is “Adieu, adieu, remember me.”
I have sworn’t.
Horatio and Marcellus return to find a now manic Hamlet, who tells them that what he’s seen is “wonderful” (I.v.118), but that he can’t tell them for fear they’ll “reveal it” (I.v.119) and not “be secret” (I.v.122). When Hamlet continues to ramble, cutting off their conversation with a statement that they should just shake hands then go their separate ways, Horatio comments that Hamlet speaks only “wild and whirling words” (I.v.133).
Hamlet tells them that “it is an honest ghost” (I.v.139), then asks them to “never make known what (they) have seen here tonight” (I.v.144). They say they won’t and when Hamlet asks them to swear upon his sword, the Ghost reappears, urging them to swear as well.
Now, I’m not so sure that Horatio and Marcellus see the Ghost this time. Horatio states that all of this is “wonderous strange” (I.v.167), but that could be referencing Hamlet’s continuing “wild and whirling words.” Even as he seemingly, joyously, talks to the air, he asks them to give no evidence of what is going on, even if Hamlet “put(s) an antic disposition on” (I.v.175).
When they finally swear, the Ghost disappears again (at least for Hamlet and us). As the trio leaves the scene (and act), Hamlet makes another understatement and classic quote: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite // That ever I was born to set it right” (I.v.191-2).
Act Two begins with Polonius giving Reynaldo “money and … notes” (II.i.1) to give to Laertes, who–you will remember–had left to return to school in France. As we usually don’t send notes and allowance the day after a person leaves, this is our first clue that time has passed. Act One took place over the course of a single day, but this act does not seem to follow immediately.
Polonius wants Reynaldo not only to give his son the cash, but to also “make inquire // Of (Laertes’) behavior” (II.i.4-5), by asking leading questions, implying that Laertes has had a history of “gaming…or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling // Drabbing” (II.i.24, 25-6). Even whoring (“drabbing”) is acceptable for Polonius as these activities “may seem the taints of liberty, // The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind” (II.i.32-3). The intention is to use the “bait of falsehood (to take) this carp of truth” (II.i.62). In Polonius’ mind, it’s fine to slander his own son to see if he’s actually doing something worse.
This whole conversation feels wrong, but it does set up two major motifs of the play: the concept of constant observance; and the idea of madness or the “fiery mind.” We don’t need to wait long after Reynaldo’s exit to see at least one of these concepts playing out already.
A distraught Ophelia enters with a tale of disheveled (jacket unbuttoned, no hat, stockings ungartered) and distracted Hamlet coming in “as if he had been loosed out of hell” (II.i.82). Both father and daughter wonder if this is Hamlet being “mad for (her) love” (II.i.84). As for as Polonius is concerned, her description of Hamlet,
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stayed he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And, with his head over his shoulder turned,
He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
For out o’ doors he went without their helps
And to the last bended their light on me.
is evidence of Hamlet suffering the “very ecstasy of love” (II.i.101). Time has passed: she has done as instructed in Act One, Scene Three: she has “repel(led) his letters and denied // His access to her” (II.i.108-9). Certain that this “hath made (Hamlet) mad” (II.i.109), Polonius decides to take her to Claudius to report the strangeness of Hamlet’s behavior and the seeming cause of it. And thus ends the first scene of the second act.