Hamlet's Dad

Picking up on something Main Man said in the “Did Gertrude Know?” thread, let me ask a followup question:

What do you think Hamlet’s relationship was with his father?

I bring this up because in one response MM asks, “why is Hamlet at Wittenberg if he is so close to his father (particularly at 30)? Could it be that Hamlet’s paternity could be in doubt?”  and then later he states, “He does want Hamlet to avenge “his death,” but I do not think they have a good relationship.”   I happen to agree.  I’ve always thought Hamlet’s father to be something of a scary man, a very imposing, warlike king.  Impressive to his subjects, certainly – but a loving, affectionate dad?  Maybe not so much.  So I think much of Hamlet’s hesitation comes out of a fear to acknowledge his true feelings about his dad.  He wants to be all Fortinbras, mobilizing armies in his quest for revenge, but he ends up more Laertes, saying the words and claiming that he’ll do whatever must be done, but then never going through with it.  (It’s always been my position that what causes Hamlet to finally act is vengeance over the death of his mother.)

9 thoughts on “Hamlet's Dad

  1. I am tremendously flattered to have inspired the question and thrilled to post first. I too think that Hamlet has a horrid relationship with his father. The longer I ponder the possibility of a long standing Gertrude and Claudius relationship, the more I think that it could be a possibility. In fact (in typical fashion this came into my head as I was typing here), if we accept the sexton’s comment that Prince Hamlet was born the day that King Hamlet defeated Fortinbras, one could build a case that Gertrude having a child during a time of war might be a tad suspect. Medieval campaigns certainly could last for extended periods of time. I also must confess that part of the fuel for this comes from my belief that the paternity of Shakespeare’s twins (Judith and Hamnet) might also be in doubt.

    Even without paternity doubts, though, wouldn’t every king want his son to be in the castle, learning how to rule? The fact that Hamlet is at Wittenberg and may have been there for a long time seems tremendously suspect to me. I also wonder if part of that stems from the fact that Hamlet likely would have been a terrible ruler. He is far too cerebral and out thinks himself most of the time.

    The final piece for me is that (as Duane discussed) Hamlet has more cause than anyone else in the play to take revenge and yet he can’t do it. Fortinbras has been plotting for years to exact his revenge. Laertes, whose father treats him horribly, rushes back from France to avenge his father’s death and nearly topples the Danish monarchy. Hamlet on the other hand talks for all of Act II, decisively decides to test the Ghost’s story with the play within the play, berates his girl friend, PASSES a chance to kill his father’s killer out of fear of sending him to heaven, yells at mom, and plays word games with the same aforementioned killer. One would think that somewhere in there he might find a moment to slay his uncle if he truly wanted to do it.

    Duane mentioned that he thinks Hamlet only acts because of his mother’s death. I would like to take that one further. I think that Hamlet only acts when it is his own life that is forfeit. When Gertrude is dying, he orders the doors shut, but it is only upon learning that he himself is poisoned and that Claudius is to blame that he finally attacks. I would also offer that this other more “rash” acts come when he himself is threatened – denigrating Ophelia when she returns his letters, stabbing the arras when Gertrude calls for help (“is it the king?” – who he JUST saw in the chapel praying?!?), jumping into Ophelia’s grave when he thinks Laertes is proclaiming that his own love is greater. In every situation Hamlet “acts” when it directly touches his own self interest.

  2. Wittenberg – strike any chords with anyone? (Touch of the Henry VI.s?) Knock on wood.

    If the ghost is the father – he wouldn’t be appearing to his son if his son were not his son … if you get what I mean.

  3. Back to what the ghost tells us …

    if it is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, it would suggest the ghost knows something – and that is that Hamlet both respected and loved his father … Hamlet is the one it appears too and so is the source of satisfaction;

    if it is a devil, it still knows that Hamlet must have loved his father and that this love could be the source of Hamlet’s downfall.

  4. It should be noted that the Ghost doesn’t necessarily ask Hamlet to avenge his death: his exact words are “Avenge thy father’s murther.” ie, Old Hamlet’s murder of Old Fortinbras in their duel vis a vis their sealed compact.

    The point seems to be that murder is murder whether it’s well-heralded by law and custom and fought by kings for the possession of land or not.

    Ultimately, when he finally acts, the unintended consequences of Hamlet’s actions leads to Denmark being restored to Young Fortinbras, just as the Ghost intended.

  5. In what version, Mitchell? In mine it says “Revenge thy father’s foul and most unnatural murder.” His victory over Old Fortinbras was neither foul nor unnatural.

    Not to mention he then goes on to explain to Hamlet all about “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown.” That’s pretty straightforward.

  6. I disagree. Killing a man in cold blood in a duel as an expression of avarice for land isn’t any less “foul” or “unnatural” than killing a man out of lust for his wife and kingdom.

    And law, heraldry and custom is as powerless to change that fact as Hamlet is to change the Everlasting’s canon fixed against self-slaughter, or to make the clouds appear any more like a whale to Polonius.

    That, I think, is Shakespeare’s point. And, yes, that was just my paraphrase.

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