Hamlet ~ Act I Scene IV
It is just past twelve and Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are awaiting the ghost, when they hear reveling from the castle. It is Claudius, drinking and partying, and while Hamlet explains to Horatio, it is their custom, he wishes they would not practice it because their drinking lessens their reputation in the eyes of other countries.
|Hamlet sees the ghost of his father (1843)
The Ghost appears and Hamlet asks why it walks the earth and what is its purpose. It beckons Hamlet to follow and, against both Horatio’s and Marcellus’ pleas, he complies, struggling with them and fending them off with threats and his sword. His friends lament his choice and Marcellus delivers the well-known line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” They follow the prince.
Horatio shows that he is possibly a foreigner by questioning the customs, yet it is not clear with what customs he is unfamiliar. It is certainly possible that the drinking and partying are Danish customs, yet they could also be court customs and Horatio’s social station is simply not high enough to be aware of them.
Hamlet certainly speaks to the ghost as if it were a ghost, even though it bears the shape and form of his father.
In this scene, we have the first echoing of the changes in Hamlet, bringing into question his sanity. Horatio speaks almost a prophecy:
|Hamlet Act I, Scene IV (1796)
source Wikimedia Commons
“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? Think of it.
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.”
Hamlet makes reference to his fate: “My fate cries out,”which echoes of Greek tragedy where the character is often at the mercy of the circumstance and is helpless to escape it.
And Marcellus delivers the well-known quote: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” So far we have a few things rotten: King Hamlet’s death, Claudius’ kingship, Gertrude and Claudius’ hasty marriage, a possible confrontation with Fortinbras, the appearance of the ghost, the questionable relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia ….. have I missed anything?