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‘What appears to be the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and the Ghost in this extract, and how does the language contribute to this effect?'


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Textual analysis

Hamlet Act I scene v

Speak; I am bound to hear.(1)(2)

So art thou to revenge (3) when thou shalt hear.(2)


I am thy(4) father's spirit,(5)(6)
Doom'd(7)(9) for a certain term to walk the night,(8)
And for the day(8) confined(9)(10) to fast in fires(10),
Till the foul(10)(32) crimes(9) done in my days of nature(35)
Are burnt(11) and purged(11)(12) away.(13) But that I am forbid(14)(15)
To tell the secrets of my prison-house(9),
I could a tale unfold whose lightest (16)word(17)
Would harrow (18)up thy soul, freeze (19)thy young blood,(20)
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start (21)from their spheres,
Thy knotted(22) and combined locks(22) to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.(23)
But this eternal(25) blazon(24) must not be
To ears(26) of flesh and blood(25). List, list, O, list!(26)
If (28)thou (28)didst ever thy dear (28)father love —

O God!(1) (29)(30)

Revenge his foul(31)(32) and most(31) unnatural (34)murder(33).


Murder most foul(31), as in the best it is;
But this most foul(31), strange and unnatural.(35)


  1. Hamlet is given very short, sharp phrases — which suggest his tension and, later, his shock.
  2. ‘Bound' suggests filial obligation — the Ghost imposes a duty of revenge on Hamlet.
  3. This is the first time the word ‘revenge' is used — it changes the whole direction of the play.
  4. The use of the intimate ‘thy' term suggests a close relationship.
  5. This line makes a clear assertion, indicating that there is no room for doubt.
  6. ‘Spirit' immediately brings us into the non-physical world, indicating that there is an existence after death.
  7. ‘Doom'd' comes on a strong beat, unusual at the start of an iambic line (see Shakespeare's Language: Blank verse, prose & rhyme), starts with a hard consonant and has a long vowel sound: all these features make this ominous word stand out for the audience.
  8. The contrasting terms ‘night' and ‘day' imply that the Ghost's punishment is, at the moment, unremitting.
  9. These terms are all to do with punishment — indicating that there is judgement and retribution after death for earthly sins.
  10. ‘Fast' and ‘fires' (together with the central sound in ‘confined' and ‘foul' on next line) all begin with ‘f'; this example of alliteration links these words in the audience's ears, accentuating their horror. The repeated ‘f' sound is almost onomatopoeiac, suggesting the rustling sound of flames.
  11. ‘Purged' indicates that the Ghost is confined in purgatory.
  12. ‘Burnt' and ‘purged' share the same vowel sound; this example of assonance links these words, both of which suggest the possibility of healing after corruption, and draws them more closely to our attention.
  13. The strong caesura (see Shakespeare's Language: Blank verse, prose & rhyme) here marks a significant pause before the word ‘But', after which the Ghost is to imply unspeakable horrors.
  14. The sense of the line runs on after the word ‘forbid' to the idea of terrible ‘secrets'; this example of enjambement links these two ideas in the audience's mind. Lines which end with enjambement, rather than being end-stopped, also create a more natural, and perhaps faster, speech-pattern.
  15. This is an especially long line, containing twelve rather than the usual ten syllables. This means that the whole word ‘forbid' — itself having a powerful meaning and ending with a hard sound on a strong beat — is particularly drawn to the audience's attention.
  16. ‘Lightest' is a superlative adjective, and ‘lightest word' being followed by ending with enjambement leads us directly on to its fatal consequences: ‘harrow up thy soul'.
  17. ‘Word' — the power of words is a strong and recurrent idea throughout the play.
  18. ‘Harrow' — a strong metaphor suggesting ploughing up, but for Shakespeare's audience this would also be linked with the idea, found in some apocryphal gospels, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, of the harrowing of hell — the belief that Christ released souls from hell after his death and before his resurrection.
  19. ‘Freeze' is an unusual word here as it contrasts strongly with the idea of the fires of hell and purgatory which the Ghost has already mentioned. ‘Freeze' also contains a long central vowel sound, which makes the word almost onomatopoeic. In addition, the importance of the word demands a strong beat where an iambic line would expect a weak one, adding to the impact of the sound.
  20. The whole line is balanced, pivoting around the caesura, with spiritual suffering described in the first half and bodily suffering in the second half.
  21. ‘Stars, start' — the use of both assonance and hard alliteration in these juxtaposed words adds to their sense of sharpness.
  22. The harsh sounds in ‘knotted' and ‘locks' underline the harshness of the secrets the Ghost is suggesting.
  23. This line contains the most unusual simile, which would surely be very memorable for a Shakespearean audience; a porcupine (‘porpentine') is an exotic animal which most would never have seen except as an heraldic device. Preceding the word with the term ‘fretful' adds to the extraordinary and memorable nature of the image, as does the use of the two-syllable ‘fretful' and the three-syllable word ‘porpentine' after a run of monosyllabic words.
  24. ‘Blazon' picks up the heraldic image associated with ‘porpentine', since a ‘blazon' is a coat of arms — or, and this is more its sense here, the description in heraldic language of the symbols on a coat of arms. The Ghost implies that merely words describing purgatory would be fatal to hear.
  25. Again, the Ghost contrasts the world of the spirit — eternity — with the earthly, human world.
  26. ‘Ears' — the idea of death entering via the ear foreshadows what the Ghost is about to reveal — the method by which he was murdered.
  27. Instead of the more common word ‘listen', Shakespeare chooses the shorter, sharper word ‘list', which is then repeated three times, adding to its impact. The use of three strong beats after a marked caesura adds to the impact of the Ghost's command.
  28. The use of the intimate address form ‘thou' and the adjective ‘dear' suggest that the Ghost knows that Hamlet greatly loved his father — but the line begins with ‘If' suggesting a different possibility; this draws a cry of grief as a response from Hamlet.
  29. Hamlet's agonised cry cuts off the line and thereby negates any possibility that he might not have loved his father.
  30. We know from Hamlet's first soliloquy (Act I scene ii) and his reference to God's commands (‘The Everlasting … canon') that this is a heartfelt cry and not a blasphemy.
  31. The triple repetition of ‘foul' and the superlative ‘most' underscores how appalling this crime is. In Act III scene iii Claudius himself uses the same term — ‘my foul murder'.
  32. It is ironic that earlier in this speech the Ghost has talked about his own sins as ‘foul crimes' for which he is being punished in purgatory, and that later he will ask Hamlet to leave Gertrude to heaven's judgement; yet here he asks Hamlet to act as human avenger against Claudius' ‘foul' crime.
  33. The line ends with the word ‘Murder', leaving it hanging in the air. Hamlet, and the audience, now know what Hamlet is being asked to revenge.
  34. Shakespeare gives Hamlet a one-word, two-syllable line instead of the usual ten syllables. The word ‘Murder!' is thus repeated and left to hang in the air even more strongly than the Ghost's use of it in the immediately preceding word.
  35. Earlier in the Ghost's speech he has used the phrase ‘days of nature' to mean ‘life on earth'. But the terms ‘natural' and ‘unnatural' frequently occur in the play to suggest ways in which humans should and should not behave to one another.

Sample essay answer

‘What appears to be the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and the Ghost in this extract, and how does the language contribute to this effect?'

Hamlet has already been prepared by Horatio and Marcellus for the appearance of his father's ghost, but the Ghost's refusal to speak in front of them means that, by this point, Hamlet is particularly tense and his nerves are on edge — which Shakespeare indicates by Hamlet's terse command to the Ghost to ‘Speak'.

The Ghost's reply changes the situation completely, putting upon Hamlet a strong filial obligation, saying that he is ‘bound' to ‘revenge'— but as yet Hamlet does not know what he is to revenge or why. Throughout his next speech the Ghost puts additional emotional pressure upon his son, for, without actually describing the torments of purgatory, he suggests his terrible suffering. The very fact that he is ‘forbid' to tell them — and the position of this word, at the end of a line following a strong caesura reinforces its power — adds to the suggestion of horrors. There is, in fact, a sort of emotional blackmail in the Ghost's dealings here with his son.

The Ghost begins by stressing that he is Hamlet's father, a relationship which he reinforces at the end of the speech, calling himself the Prince's ‘dear father'; throughout, he uses the intimate ‘thou' and ‘thy' form. We have earlier seen Hamlet reject Claudius' attempt to claim the role of a father, but there is no such rejection here, and indeed the mere suggestion by the Ghost that Hamlet might not feel close to him — ‘If ever thou didst thy dear father love …' brings an immediate interruption and cry of grief from Hamlet.

The Ghost delays revealing that he has been murdered, and throughout his speech concentrates on making his son aware of his father's torments, so that by the end Hamlet would be heartless if he showed no compassion and no desire to fulfil his father's will. Purgatory is seen as a ‘prison-house' to punish ‘foul crimes'. In contrast to the rest of the play, and in particular to Claudius' soliloquy later, there is no direct suggestion of the possibility of grace and forgiveness. The Ghost stresses that he has been ‘Doom'd' to suffer, and the opening hard consonant followed by the long vowel, as well as the placing of this word on an strong beat instead of the usual weak beat beginning an iambic line, makes ‘Doom'd' seem like a cry of horror.

The Ghost also stresses the ‘eternal' nature of his punishment; his sins may eventually be ‘purged away', but there is no indication of when this might be. As it is, his sufferings are unremitting: he has to ‘walk the night' and in the day is ‘confined to fast in fires' — the alliteration here having an almost onomatopoeic effect in recreating the rustle of flames. The assonance on the long vowel sound in ‘burnt' and ‘purged' also seems to suggest the length, as well as the painful nature, of his time in purgatory.

Following this first declaration of who he is and where he is ‘confined', the Ghost stops, and there is a very obvious caesura before the word ‘But'. Although in this context it means ‘except that', the word normally marks a contrast, and so here it accentuates the change to a slightly different but no less appalling topic: the fact that even to hear of the horrors he is suffering would be fatal to Hamlet.

Ironically, therefore, the very lack of description suggests more than its inclusion could do, and Hamlet's imagination is left to supply the terrible unspoken images. (The power of ‘words, words, words', spoken or withheld, is another significant idea throughout the play.)

Although the Ghost has said that he may not tell a word about his punishment, his use of the superlative adjective ‘lightest' implies the horrors he is withholding, as do the hard sounds in ‘stars start' and ‘knotted … locks'. In addition, he goes on to use extravagant images. ‘Harrow' is a dynamic verb suggesting violent overturning (from ploughing) and to Shakespeare's audience, who would know of Christ's ‘harrowing of hell', would inevitably summon up suggestions of hell and of dead souls. ‘Freeze', with its long vowel sound, and its contrast to the ‘fires' mentioned earlier, suggests a different kind of physical torment.

Indeed, physical and spiritual worlds are contrasted throughout the speech, perhaps to remind Hamlet (and the audience) of the dual nature of his father and of all humans, who have a corruptible flesh and eternal soul. ‘Spirit' contrasted with ‘days of nature', ‘thy soul ... thy young blood', contrasted in one balanced line, and ‘eternal ... Flesh and blood' all make the same point.

The final image used by the Ghost before his strong triple command to ‘List' (a contrast to Hamlet's earlier to the Ghost to ‘Speak') is the most extravagant, leading through monosyllables to a climax of polysyllabic words: Hamlet's hair would stand on end ‘Like quills upon the fretful porpentine'. For Shakespeare's audience, a porcupine would be a strange and extraordinary creature, usually only seen on heraldic devices — neatly linking with the Ghost's reference to an ‘eternal blazon'. This memorable image prepares Hamlet (and the audience) to hear of ‘strange' and indeed ‘unnatural' events, and the reference to ‘ears of flesh and blood' is a foreshadowing of what the Ghost is to reveal: the method of his murder.

The Ghost's reference to his son's love for his ‘dear father' is the final reminder of Hamlet's duty before the command ‘Revenge'. Even now the Ghost has other ways of stressing the importance of filial obligations: three times he declares that his death was not simply murder, but — using the superlative ‘most' (and contrasting it with ‘best') — was ‘most foul'. Later in the play, Claudius in soliloquy will use the same description of his crime, when he tries to repent. He knows that his ‘foul murder' of a brother has ‘the primal eldest curse upon't' and is, as the Ghost declares, ‘unnatural' — a key idea in the play.

Ironically, however, the Ghost has earlier referred to his own sins as ‘foul crimes'. The echo of this at the end of the Ghost's speech should surely make the audience aware that to call for personal, human revenge is, to say the least, odd when the Ghost is experiencing divine justice. This, combined with the way in which this first speech from the Ghost manipulates his son, making Hamlet feel pity and grief before he even knows what has happened to his father, may well make the audience suspicious and raise immediately in us the question that later occurs to Hamlet himself: is this an ‘honest ghost'?

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