Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5 Summary & Quotes

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  • 0:02 Hamlet and the Ghost
  • 1:04 Murder Most Foul
  • 2:23 Hamlet and His Oath
  • 3:45 Quotes
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Act 1, Scene 5 of 'Hamlet' contains the fateful encounter of the prince of Denmark with his father's ghost. Significantly, it is unclear if the ghost's recounting of his own murder and his call for vengeance exist outside Hamlet's mind.

Hamlet and the Ghost

The first act of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, has its dramatic finale occur on the top of one of Elsinore's towers. In the previous scene, the ghost of the old king appears for the second time. This time, his still-grieving son, Hamlet, along with his best friend, Horatio, see the ghost. Everyone agrees that the appearance of the ghost is a bad omen. Horatio is worried that it might tempt his friend into madness. Despite the advice of the others, Hamlet follows his father's ghost alone.

The conversation between Hamlet and his father's ghost sets the events of the rest of the play in motion. Significantly, Shakespeare leaves the possibility open that the exchange might be imagined by Hamlet, whether an early manifestation of madness or an externalization of his worst fears. The structure of the scene is a masterpiece of suspenseful pacing. The opening of Act 1, Scene 5 makes clear that Hamlet is made nervous by the ghost, as well he might be! He demands that his father's ghost speak to him.

Murder Most Foul

Confirming his identity, the ghost describes the torments he undergoes in purgatory before begging Hamlet to avenge his murder (lines 14-31). Hamlet is profoundly moved and swears to do whatever the ghost requests, 'with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love' (lines 35-36). The prince's promise to act decisively and quickly is profoundly ironic in light of the rest of the play.

The ghost says that he was not bitten by a snake, as generally believed, but poisoned by his own brother while napping. Hamlet's uncle, barely two months after the king's death, has married Hamlet's mother. The ghost describes this as an action of incest and adultery, motivated by 'shameful lust,' offering a graphic description of the murder (lines 49-80). Worst of all, the king was deprived of any opportunity to confess his sins and receive the Last Rites before death. Last Rites are a Catholic sacrament that is done when someone dies to bless their way to Heaven, allowing them to spend no time suffering in Purgatory. In commanding Hamlet to avenge his murder, the ghost warns him: 'Taint not thy mind', foreshadowing the danger of madness (line 92). Foreshadowing is a literary device in which the author or playwright hints at what's to come.

Hamlet and His Oath

When the ghost disappears, Hamlet's distress is revealed in his broken language, with the smooth line rhythms divided into brief exclamations: 'O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? / And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart' (lines 99-100). Hamlet swears to banish everything from his mind except the ghost's command to remember and avenge him. It's implied that he seals this oath with his own blood.

Continuing the foreshadowing, Horatio is heard praying that Hamlet may be kept safe, mentally and physically, as he and Marcellus try to find the prince. Hamlet calls out to them, but their relief is short-lived. His responses to their questions about what the ghost said are increasingly feverish and paranoid. Horatio reproaches him: 'These are but wild and whirling words, my lord' (line 148).

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