Curiouser & Curiouser

Before I post on today’s reading, I want to follow up on something that’s bugging me: why is Hamlet’s father (the ghost, that is) consigned to suffer in purgatory?

I’ll lay off the Catholic thing, honest. It’s not to further that point that I bring this one up. It just struck me as I was driving around town yesterday that I’d never before read or watched the play with this particular twist examined (ah, the hazards of reading without secondary sources and an omnicient prof — sorry kids, that’s the Johnnie way).

We take it for granted that Hamlet’s father was unjustly murdered by an adulturous wife and a conniving brother. When the ghost appears, he appeals to his son to seek revenge for this nefarious betrayal.

We assume — or at least I do — that Hamlet is justified in taking up his father’s cause not only because of the nature of the crime, but because, in Hamlet’s own understanding, he holds his father in such high regard.

To wit:

HAMLET: My father — methinks I see my father.

HORATIO: I saw him once. A was a goodly king.

HAMLET: A was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall not look upon his like again.

Mind, I understand why the ghost of Hamlet’s betrayed father walks the earth seeking revenge. That has become (or forever was) a trope in literature that by now we utterly take for granted. Blame it on too many horror films.

But what I don’t understand, and what caused me to nearly get run over in traffic, is why that same ghost of such a goodly man would be suffering by day in a state of purgatory.

GHOST: I am thy father’s spirit,

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 purged away.

Come again?

What crimes? How can this be? Am I wrong to consider this an utter bombshell of a statement?

Is Shakespeare that good that he could twist a straightforward revenge thriller into such pretzled complexities that the son of the betrayed king is implored to avenge a murder that had been committed with cause?

OMG, maybe now I’m beginning to understand that it isn’t just that Shakespeare’s that good, but that I have been so utterly shallow and supperficial my whole life in my approach to his genius.

When we get to Romeo & Juliet this will come up again. I used to marvel how Romeo’s adoration of fair Rosalyn complicated his feelings for Juliet. No matter how much he cared for the latter, Romeo’s sincerity can never reach 100% after having so recently believed himself to have found “the one.” If just yesterday it was a rose by a different name, how can he be absolutely certain that Juliet is not, in fact, merely another who smells as sweet?

I used to think that Rosalyn was there merely to establish Romeo as a young Romantic who is in love with love itself. That this was how we could accept him and his Carpe Diem ziel.

And now this about Hamlet’s ghost. Maybe there’s a simple explanation that I’m missing. If you know of it, please feel free to enlighten in the comments.

Hamlet’s ghost in purgatory — good God, I feel utterly overwhelmed.

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