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Imagination and Evil Spirits in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

January 20th, 2011

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Around the late 1590s, Shakespeare penned the “most powerful and influential tragedy in the English language,” Hamlet. (“Hamlet”) Set in Denmark, this play tells the story of Prince Hamlet, who takes revenge on his uncle Claudius for murdering Hamlet’s father, taking over the throne, and marrying the Queen, Hamlet’s mother. But can it truly be summed up in one sentence? Throughout Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, an intense, deep course is charted; with supernatural elements, treachery, revenge, insanity, moral corruption, death, and victory. Woven together in beautiful language, it is a fascinating read. Samuel Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on Hamlet is one that truly explores this deepness and explains it in equally deep fashion. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he says, the balance between real and imaginary is disturbed: “his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities.” (Coleridge) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is an overbalance between the real and imaginary, towards the imaginary. This overbalance of the imaginative power is specially seen in the person of Hamlet, when an already-suspicious mind is met at an opportune moment by a Satanic spirit; then when his mind becomes warped, shaken by the supernatural apparition of his murdered father, and constantly occupied with shadows; and his clouded brain throws a mist over everything common-place.

In Shakespeare’s play, Prince Hamlet first appears on the scene with skeptical doubts about his new stepfather and many suspicions. His already doubting mind becomes completely shattered when his dead father’s ghost appears and warps his view of reality. He remains home after the funeral of his father, and begins to suspect his stepfather, King Claudius, thinking that Claudius is treating him far too personally, calling Hamlet his own son. “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” (I, ii, 65.) He also suspects his mother for marrying Claudius so soon after her own husband’s funeral: “That it should come to this! But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two: So excellent a king.” “Why, she would hang on him, As if increase of appetite had grown By what it fed on; and yet, within a month, Let me not think on’t: Frailty, thy name is woman! A little month…married with mine uncle, My father’s brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules.” He also notes the incestuous part of the marriage: Claudius married his sister-in-law, and the Queen, in marrying him, married her dead husband’s actual brother. (I, ii, 135-155) So far, we see that Hamlet has somewhat validated reasons for suspicion. Marriage of the dead King’s wife to the dead King’s brother not two months after the King’s death is indeed odd. However, objectively looking on things, this is no actual proof or reason for Hamlet’s final and ultimate belief, that King Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. So, when Prince Hamlet is finally met by the spirit who puts on the form of his dead father, a mind brooding with suspicion is a perfect fertile setting for the words of the ghost to settle well in.

Hamlet’s mind becomes shaken upon seeing the ghost, so much so that he threatened his friends with death when they tried to stop him, warning him away from the ghost. (I, iv, 85.) He is desperate to hear the words of the ghost, his mind thirsting for what he already has suspicions for in his mind. Upon the word revenge, and murder, he is aroused; when the ghost declares, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder;” so much so, that he immediately replies upon the spot, “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge.”

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