Hamlet is typically seen as a study of father/son dynamics. You’ve got Hamlet avenging his father, Laertes/Polonius, Fortinbras, and his father. However, my interpretation of the play has always been more concerned with his relationship with his mother. “It’s oft been my contention that was ultimately spurs Hamlet to action is the death of his mother. “Mother, you have my father much offended,” might be my favorite line in the play. It truly captures his anguish at the position in which he finds himself. But when he tells Claudius, “Follow my mother,” what exactly is he thinking?
Follow My Mother
Recently, however, a different line caught my eye. In the final scene, when all is revealed, Hamlet knows that Claudius poisoned Gertrude. We’ll set aside for the moment the fact that Hamlet has also proven that Claudius murdered his father, too. Pouring poison down the dying king’s throat, Hamlet says, “Follow my mother.”
Here’s my question. Hamlet knows where his father is and why:
I am thy father’s spirit,Act I Scene v
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away.
Without a chance to confess his sins and cleanse his soul, Hamlet’s father doesn’t get his ticket into heaven. This is the whole issue of why he didn’t kill Claudius when he had the chance:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;Act III Scene iii
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Hamlet’s already made clear that he doesn’t think Claudius deserves to be sent to Heaven. So when he says, “Follow my mother,” where does Hamlet think his mother has gone? Does he believe that his mother’s sins have damned her?
Hamlet’s been concerned (some might say overly so) with Gertrude’s sinful behavior throughout the play. The word incestuous appears five times in the play (twice said by Hamlet’s father, three times by Hamlet). But when he confronts his mother in her bedroom, he still feels that there must be an opportunity for redemption because he tells her not to let the “bloat King tempt you to bed.”
Still, she’s sent to the undiscovered country with no opportunity to confess her sins, just like her first husband. Will she, too, be doomed to walk the night? Does this thought even cross Hamlet’s mind? The ghost did tell him, “Leave her to Heaven,” so she doesn’t get to escape judgment.
I don’t know if there is an answer. If I found a half dozen actors that have played Hamlet and asked them, they may never have thought of it. That’s part of the fun of Hamlet, that you can read it dozens of times and constantly find something new. Even researching this post, I found something else I’d never spotted before, which will probably become a new post on its own.