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ACT I, SCENE 5
The ghost and Hamlet are alone on a platform. As dawn is fast approaching, the ghost remarks that there is little time left before he will have to return to "sulphurous and tormenting flames." The apparition tells Hamlet that he is indeed the Ghost of King Hamlet. He tells the prince he is doomed to spend his days within the purgatorial fires of his prison and roam at nights until the "foul crimes" committed during his reign are avenged. The ghost then calls upon Hamlet to avenge his "most foul, strange and unnatural murder." Hamlet swears that he will, begging the ghost to tell him the name of his murderer. The ghost then tells Hamlet that the treacherous Claudius poured poison in his ear and killed him, depriving him of a last opportunity to confess his sins.
The news that his father had lost his life, his crown, and his wife to Claudius is shocking to Hamlet. The ghost exhorts Hamlet to take revenge and prevent the royal bed of Denmark from becoming "a couch for luxury and damned incest." Before leaving, the ghost warns Hamlet not to take any action against his mother. Instead, he implores the prince to leave her punishment in the hands of God and her conscience. The ghost then leaves with the words, "Adieu, adieu! Remember me!"
When Hamlet meets up with Horatio and Marcellus, he answers their questions evasively. He fears the disclosure of the ghost will get in the way of his quest to avenge his father, so he asks his friends to never reveal what has happened in any form. The voice of the ghost is heard from below the platform commanding the men to swear. Horatio and Marcellus take an oath upon Hamlet's sword. Hamlet then conceives his scheme of feigning madness while waiting for an opportune moment to confront Claudius. He asks his friends to swear that they will make no comment about his strange behavior should he choose to "put an antic disposition on" or act deranged. The ghost's voice is again heard, and the men swear not to reveal the reason for Hamlet's "madness". The troubled Hamlet thanks his friends, but he is very uncomfortable with the role of the avenger that has been thrust upon him. He laments, "The time is out of joint; O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!"
This important scene contains Hamlet's encounter with the ghost, in which the evils that direct the play are revealed. Hamlet is unsettled by the revelation of his father's murder and readily vows to act as the avenging son. The commands of the ghost direct the plot from this point on.
When Hamlet's dead father directs his son to avenge him of his foul and most unnatural murder, Hamlet's response shows determination to act and a curiosity to know all the facts surrounding the murder:
"Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift, As meditation or the thoughts of love May sweep to my revenge."
Hamlet's choice of image is significant here. A person who wants to take revenge rarely has "thoughts of love" and only concentrates upon thoughts of revenge; but Hamlet's thirst for revenge is immediate and deep. During the remainder of the play, his obsession with vengeance will overshadow all people and relationships the young prince holds dear, and his speech here is simply an ironic foreshadowing of that sad fact.
The ghost gives Hamlet the details of the horrible murder committed by Claudius. He explains that Claudius first won the love of Gertrude and then murdered the King by pouring the poisonous "juice of cursed hebona" into his ear. This poison invaded his defenseless body and "swift as quicksilver ... course [d] through the natural gates and alleys of the body." Both here and throughout the play rottenness and sickness are shown to invade and destroy everything good. Amazingly, the dead king wants Hamlet to spare Gertrude, leaving her to her own conscience and God's judgement. As the apparition departs, it warns Hamlet to remember its words. Totally shocked by the revelation, Hamlet wonders momentarily whether the ghost might be a devil that is tricking him; but he immediately dismisses any doubt, for he is certain he has talked with his dead father in his military attire. Horrified at the foul nature of Claudius' crime, he denounces both his mother and her new husband. He repeats the word "remember," spoken by the ghost, many times and swears to clear his mind of everything except for thoughts of revenge.
Hamlet assumes that he is the only person, apart from the ghost and Claudius, who knows about the terrible crime. In order to safeguard his secret, he even refuses to reveal the information to Horatio and Marcellus and makes them both swear that they will say nothing about the ghost; he wants nothing to jeopardize his plans for revenge. The oaths of Horatio and Marcellus are interrupted several times by the warnings from the ghostly voice coming from below, emphasizing the fact that the dead king has not gone to heaven, for he had no chance to confess his sins before he died.
Hamlet's decision to feign madness as a means of enacting his revenge is important. During the course of the play, his madness seems so genuine that one is made to wonder if it is really play-acting; certainly, the news that Hamlet has received about his father and his mother is enough to drive a son insane. As a result, the line between appearance and reality becomes notably blurred as the play progresses.