“King, Father, Royal Dane”? Hamlet’s Dubious Father

1.“Where  else in Shakespeare,” A.C. Bradley once asked, “is there anything like Hamlet’s adoration of his father? His words melt into music whenever he speaks of him.” Perhaps. But adoration seems not the word for Prince Hamlet’s feelings for his father, at least not in the word’s usual modern sense. At any rate, there’s little sign that the father and son had been close. When the Prince encounters his father’s Ghost, he greets him with a formulaic salutation – ‘King, father, royal Dane” – as if the Ghost’s status as father were itself but an honorific royal title. It may be, as Bradley insists, that the prince waxes lyrical whenever he has occasion to speak of his father’s high qualities, yet it’s all on that plane. There is nothing he says that involves any detail connected with Hamlet’s own past; nothing that seems to involve any memories of the prince’s childhood or upbringing. When this is noticed, it becomes impossible not to notice, too, how different is the response Hamlet has when met with another figure from out of his past – the king’s jester Yorick. “A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” Hamlet says, upon being told that the disinterred skull in his hands had been Yorick’s. “He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is… Here hung the lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.” The memory makes him uneasy – but that’s because it’s so vividly present to him, even now that the man is reduced to a fragment of bone. Nothing of the sort came to mind when he met with the Ghost of his father (even though the latter appeared to be in the flesh, fully clothed).

2. What sort of man had he been in his lifetime, this royal father whom Hamlet recalls so admiringly, though remotely?   The first (and nearly the only) information we’re given about the dead king is from a conversation in the opening scene between Horatio and the watchmen Marcellus and Bernardo. (This is just after the three have seen the king’s Ghost.) In response to a question about Denmark’s apparent state of preparation for war, Horatio tells of the late king’s slaying of Fortinbras, his Norwegian counterpart, when the two had arranged to fight one another in a contest of single combat. Horatio then goes on to explain that this Fortinbras, whom the elder Hamlet had slain, is survived by a son, also named Fortinbras; this son has lately been mustering men to invade, in the hope of recovering lands that his father had lost to Denmark in that contest. (From Horatio’s telling it isn’t yet clear that the younger Fortinbras is not Norway’s king, and nothing at all has been said at this point concerning the status of King Hamlet’s son. Only later does it emerge that in Norway and Denmark alike, the crown has somehow passed to the prior king’s brother.) In recounting the story of the late King Hamlet’s triumph over Fortinbras père, Horatio speaks of the victor as “valiant Hamlet / For so this side of our known world esteemed him. The same epithet, “valiant,” is used by the current king, Claudius, when he makes passing mention of the same event in a speech to the royal court.

All of this creates the impression that this triumph must have been recent enough to be fresh in memory. So does our learning that the king had been buried in the same suit of armour he had worn in that fight – the very armour that his Ghost now appears to be wearing. The impression is responsible for the critical commonplace that Shakespeare would have us infer that prince Hamlet’s father had been the consummate warrior-king, his reign – unlike that of his brother – an epoch of martial glory for Denmark. But that is to miss the significance of a detail that Shakespeare doesn’t let drop until late in the play, in Act V: King Hamlet’s triumph over Fortinbras had taken place in the same year as Prince Hamlet’s birth – which occurred thirty years prior to the time of the action of the play. (Yes, Hamlet is 30. His confidant Horatio must be at least a dozen years older than that, for he claims to have seen the king in his armour at the time he fought Fortinbras.) As King Hamlet had died less than two months before the time of the play, that means he had lived, on the throne, some three decades past the sole martial act — indeed, the only event of his reign – that anyone seems to recall with any distinctness.

Critics who cleave to the commonplace view tend to make much of tube contrast between the former king’s (supposed) warrior ethos and the present king’s penchant for drunken carousing – a “custom” his nephew the Prince roundly deplores (“More honoured in the breach than the observance,” he sniffs.). Yet Hamlet does not ever say that this “custom” was Claudius’ innovation; he implies just the opposite, in admitting that as a “native here,” he is himself “to the manner born.” True, nothing is said to link this particular custom with the prior king. But that is because there’s only one regular “custom” of the former king of which we’re apprized: his daily afternoon nap.

3. When Prince Hamlet first encounters the Ghost of his father, the recently-deceased king, the first thing he learns is his father’s   “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 washed away.” What are those “foul crimes” for which the Ghost must now suffer fiery purgation? The editors of all three of the modern critical editions of the play I’ve consulted are at pains to assure their readers that old King Hamlet’s sins can’t have been nearly so bad as all that; ’foul crimes’ is just an exaggerated way of referring to his everyday, venial sins. Allow me to note that there’s zero evidence in the text, one way or another evidence, regarding the gravity of the dead king’s sins. The only reason to think that those sins must have been fairly innocuous is that this seems to be the only way to make sense of how Shakespeare can have the Ghost then go on to imply that his murderous brother is to blame not only for taking his life, but also for his horrible post-mortem suffering, by depriving him of the chance to receive the sacrament of absolution.

This simply shows the extent to which even scholarly readers are disposed to treat Hamlet’s father with all the solemn reverence shown to him by his son. For there’s another, obvious way to account for what Shakespeare is doing, in having the Ghost blame his present condition on his murder. We’re being a given a clue to a character trait that it’s apparent throughout the Ghost’s colloquy with his son, though seldom remarked on: his egregious self-pity. There’s no way around this: it’s a shallow, and profoundly un-Christian idea to blame one’s failure to repent of one’s sins before death on the unexpected suddenness of one’s dying. (It won’t do to claim that Shakespeare would have taken on this notion as proper to the world of the play, on account of its medieval setting. In Henry V, probably written just a year or two before Hamlet, Shakespeare has another pre-Reformation king lucidly expose the fallacy in the notion.) It may or may not be the case that King Hamlet’s sins were but trivial; he’s the one who calls them foul crimes, and his impulse in doing so seems to be nothing more than the wish to elicit the pity of his son. (He’s forbidden from disclosing anything specific about the nature of his term in the purgatorial “prison-house,” so he wants at least to convey that he’s not getting cushy treatment.) It doesn’t occur to him that describing his sins in that way might implicate himself as responsible for what he’s now suffering; he seems not to see the connection.

The Ghost’s self-pity is part of his overall self-absorption. It’s for nobody’s sake but his own that he imposes on his son the duty of avenging his murder; the duty is demanded as the proof of the son’s love for him. He rages against his brother not only for taking his life, but also for (afterwards) stealing his crown (and his queen) – as if he hadn’t quite grasped that he couldn’t have remained king, now that he’s dead. Does it never occur to him that his son might have his own reasons for resenting the current occupant of the throne?

Or might it be that father and son are not speaking candidly, even then?

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