Act I, Scene v

Synopsis of Hamlet Act I scene v

The Ghost declares itself to be the spirit of Hamlet's father. Because he died before he could confess his sins and have them forgiven, he is suffering torments in purgatory (a place between heaven and hell).

He reveals that, in contrast to the accepted belief that he died after being bitten by a snake, he was actually murdered by Claudius, who poured poison into Old Hamlet's ear as he was sleeping in his garden.

He urges Hamlet to avenge his murder — but not to act against Gertrude, even though he sees her marriage to Claudius as incestuous. Hamlet vows to exact immediate vengeance on his villainous uncle.

Horatio and Marcellus, who have followed Hamlet, now arrive. Hamlet (urged on by the voice of the Ghost) makes them swear not to reveal, either directly or by hints, what they have seen. He tells them that he may decide to pretend to be mad.

Watch Act I, Scene v

Accompanying teaching resources

Commentary on Hamlet Act I scene v

The ceremony of Last RitesSulphurous and tormenting flames - these are the traditional torments of hell, but it is clear from his later comments that the Ghost is not in hell for eternity, but in purgatory. He died, as he later says, ‘Unhouseled', which means ‘Without having taken the sacrament of holy communion' (see Themes and significant ideas: Mass and holy communion) which was often given to people on their deathbed.

More on beliefs surrounding death: Catholics would have believed it necessary to make confession to a priest and receive the sacrament of extreme unction, whereas for Protestants an individual's trust in God's forgiveness, and clear conscience, was the vital factor.

Even though Old Hamlet had been a virtuous man, he was still guilty of sin (see Imagery and symbolism: The Fall and original sin and Themes and significant ideas: Mercy and forgiveness) and these sins must be ‘purged away'.

The fact that Claudius has killed his brother ‘with all (Old Hamlet's) imperfections on (his) head' makes the terrible crime of fratricide even worse.

Most unnatural murder - as the Ghost says, any murder is ‘unnatural', but this is particularly horrible as it is the killing of a brother. This would remind Shakespeare's audience of the first murder recorded in the Bible — the murder of Abel by his jealous brother Cain. See Genesis 4:8-11.

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is Abel thy brother?'
And he said, ‘I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?'
And he said, ‘What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now thou art cursed from the ground.' (Genesis 4:8-11 AV)

Claudius is himself aware of the ‘unnatural' nature of his crime when he speaks in Act III scene ii of ‘the primal eldest curse' on his deed. (See Imagery and symbolism: Cain and Abel.) The term ‘unnatural' would also have an added significance for Shakespeare's audience as it implied ‘acting against the laws of nature as laid down by God'. It is a very significant term for Shakespeare, particularly in Macbeth and King Lear.

Sweep to my revenge - in fact, Hamlet does nothing of the kind. Why Hamlet fails to act against Claudius is a question which has preoccupied critics for centuries.

Eve being tempted by the serpentIn my orchard ... The serpent that did sting thy father's life - the Ghost equates Claudius with the serpent which tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden and destroyed the innocence of mankind, making us mortal and subject to death. (See Imagery and symbolism: The Garden of Eden).

More on Eden imagery: Given this image-pattern, Gertrude would be seen as Eve, who succumbed to temptation and potentially ruined all humanity. (See Act I scene ii comment on ‘Frailty, thy name is woman' .)

The whole ear of Denmark … is abused - this is a pun, and a very important one. Not only has the ear of the King been ‘abused' by the poison poured into it, but the ears of the public throughout Denmark have been deceived by the false report of what happened to the King. The power of words, especially their power to hurt and deceive, is a highly significant theme of the play.

O my prophetic soul - Hamlet has, we gather, already suspected his uncle of some terrible evil. He has prophesied to himself (foreseen) that Claudius is a villain.

That incestuous, that adulterate beast - ‘incest' refers to sexual intercourse between people who, according to the laws of the Christian Church, are very closely related. (See Themes and significant ideas: Incest, for a comment on the ‘prohibited degrees of kinship'). For Shakespeare's audience this would have included Claudius and Gertrude: marriage between a man and his deceased brother's wife was forbidden in chapter 18 of Leviticus in the Old Testament.

‘You shall not have intercourse with your brother's wife, for that would be a disgrace to your brother' (Leviticus 18:8 AV)

It was precisely this relationship which Henry VIII cited as the reason why he should divorce Katharine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, the mother of Queen Elizabeth the First. (See Social/political context: The grounds for divorce).

More on incest: It is note-worthy that, in the play, no-one except Hamlet (and the Ghost) at the court see the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude as incestuous; does this suggest the court's moral corruption? Adultery is the unlawful sexual intercourse between a couple, at least one of whom is married to someone else. In the Bible this is forbidden by the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:14). (See also Themes and significant ideas: The Ten Commandments).

It is not clear in the play whether or not we should assume that Gertrude had been unfaithful to Old Hamlet before his death, or whether she was seduced by her brother-in-law when she was a widow (as in ‘The Mousetrap', the play Hamlet arranges to have performed in Act III).

Sleeping within my orchard - traditionally, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was an apple.

Sacrament of extreme unctionUnhouseled (without receiving the sacrament of the eucharist), disappointed (unprepared), unaneled (without receiving extreme unction), No reckoning made - Claudius killed Old Hamlet before he had time to prepare for death, through receiving anointing with oil in the sacrament of extreme unction (believed by Catholics to protect the soul from evil spirits and absolve it of minor sins) or be given the eucharist (communion) which was administered as sustenance for the journey of the soul and was considered a very important element in a ‘good death'.

The play assumes that this is a Christian world where sinners are judged by God and dealt with according to the ‘reckoning' of their sins.

The idea of a world where God dispenses justice and punishment after death is contradictory to a world where an individual decides on personal revenge; this dilemma is at the heart of the play.

Leave her to heaven - the Ghost asks that Hamlet allows Gertrude's conscience, and the laws of heaven, to judge her.

One may smile and smile and be a villain - Hamlet is aware that it is easily possible to pretend to be amiable — note his comment to his mother in Act I scene ii: ‘I know not seems' (see Themes and significant ideas: False appearances).

This fellow in the cellarage - on the Shakespearean stage, there would be a trapdoor down to the area beneath the platform. This would be used here for the Ghost's underground movement. (See The Theatre: Design of theatres).

To put an antic disposition on - Hamlet says that he may pretend to be mad. Does he pretend? Or does he really go mad? (See Characterisation: Hamlet).

O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right - in spite of his earlier vow to ‘sweep to my revenge', Hamlet now wishes that it were not his fate to have to avenge his father.

Investigating Hamlet Act I scene v
  • Hamlet is asked to take action against Claudius for his sins but to leave Gertrude to heaven.
    • Is there any contradiction in this?
  • Compare Hamlet's initial reaction to the Ghost's desire for vengeance, and his reluctance at the end of the scene:
    • How do we see this vacillation continuing throughout the play?
    • What might make Hamlet reluctant to kill Claudius?
  • Remind yourself of the structure of the Act 1:
    • Why did Shakespeare not suggest Claudius' guilt right at the start of the play?
    • Can you identify at which point in Hamlet we become certain that Claudius is guilty?
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