Shakespeare loves to explore the pernicious effects that parents have upon their children. Everywhere in his plays, parents have an unhealthy role in the lives of their children.
The Montagues want their son Romeo to draw a sword and carve Capulets up into pieces. The Capulets control and bully Juliet. When the chips are down, and Juliet reveals that she is married to the Montague that has killed her cousin, she falls to her knees before her father and cries, “Good father, I beseech you on my knees / Hear me with patience but to speak a word.” He responds to her desire: “Hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient / wretch!/ I tell thee what—get thee to church a Thursday / Or never after look me in the face.”
Despite the fact that she is already married to the man she loves, her father commands her to either marry Paris, or relinquish her role as his daughter. After the Nurse, the woman who has truly raised Juliet in her mother’s absence, begs with Capulet not “to rate her so,” Juliet’s father raises the threat of disinheritance to a terrible height. Either Juliet gets to a church to marry Paris or
Hang, beg, starve, die in the streets
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.
And even the Nurse, Juliet’s substitute mother, abandons her at the most critical moment in her life, telling her to ditch Romeo and marry Paris.
King Lear obviously treats his family like a tyrant. His children are subjects who must jockey for position and preferment in his court. The love challenge at the opening of the play derives from the sibling rivalry that he had unwittingly nurtured. As a result, he has been instrumental in turning his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, into the jealous and rapacious monsters that they are. Lear reaps what he has sown in his family as the two daughters have no problem in divesting their father of his kingly role, and dispatching with him as if he is a tedious old retiree who has become a burden to the family. As a result of Lear politicizing love in his own family, Cordelia becomes the pathetic figure, a vessel collecting all of the poison that the father had concocted.
Henry IV believes that his son Hal was born as a curse on his existence. He wishes that a fairy could have switched him at his birth with Hotspur, a man whose business is war. His father wants Hal to be a bloodthirsty warrior. There is no doubt in my mind that Hal fled the kingdom when his father deposed Richard II to seek out a different father figure in Falstaff. Yet, the influence of his father dominates as Hal grows in Eastcheap to become a far more subtle and craftier schemer—he has learned more than his father imagines how to be ruthlessly political. The father draws the son back to the kingdom and the dreadful destiny to wear his crown. Learning from his father how to wield authority—to “pluck” honor from the world as his father had deposed Richard II—Hal ascends to the thrown and “deposes” his loving friend Hal from his sphere of life.
Although critics tend to see Hamlet evolving out of Julius Caesar, I have always felt that its closer relative is Henry IV. In his ambivalent relationship between the two father figures in his life, Henry IV and Falstaff, Hal foreshadows Hamlet, whose soul is at the mercy in a struggle between the Ghost of his father and his uncle turned step-father, Claudius.
I have grown to believe that Act 1 of Hamlet revolves around that favorite high school theme everything is not what it seems. But in ways that are far different than the intrigue of court conspiracy that spurs the guards to believe that there is something rotten in Denmark and generates the cloak and dagger atmosphere of the play.
“In Act 1, the play spurs us to ask the plot driven questions, how did King Hamlet die? why is he reappearing as a ghost dressed in his armor? why did Gertrude marry his brother, Claudius, so quickly?
“But I don’t think Act 1 is primarily about the conspiracy in the Danish court, the preparation for Norway’s imminent invasion, and Hamlet’s struggle for political and divine justice. I believe that Shakespeare makes the first act quickly revolve around the young prince’s struggle to understand not only his relationship with his recently deceased father, but the various ‘fathers’ in his life. Hamlet has to read and interpret the identity of his father: King Hamlet? Father Hamlet? Dead Warrior? Dead Father? Taskmaster? And now he is further forced to interpret his new father: King Claudius? Uncle Claudius? Father Claudius? Murderer-Father-Claudius? Mother-Lover Father Claudius? Incestuous Father Claudius? Satyr? Perhaps, I dare say, Hero?
“Ultimately, I think that Hamlet struggles over which father is his Legitimate Father . . . his true Father. When Claudius turns to Hamlet after his address to the court, he says, ‘But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,’ Hamlet utters in an aside his first line of the play:
A little more than kin, and less than kind.
Right away, Hamlet feels urged to judge which father figure he owes allegiance and love . . . Look at how much is packed into this one short and sardonic line. Kin and kind come from the same root, meaning familiar, related by blood, kindred. At the same time that Hamlet says that Claudius is a little too close to home and he is not very nice—the double meaning of kind—he also claims he doubts his legitimacy to both fatherhood and the throne. The word ‘king’ comes from the word kin, as the ancient kings were the head of their family, or the clan.
“We are led to believe in the beginning that the protagonist—the good-guy, the hero—is the murdered father and king, a man for whom a dreadful injustice was committed and from whom was stolen a kingdom and a wife. We do not know that Claudius murdered King Hamlet until the end of the very long Act 1, and that delay allows Hamlet time to ponder the various fathers in his life based upon his own observation, his own feelings untainted by the Ghost’s visit. The tragedy and injustice of King Hamlet’s death, which Hamlet feels so horribly when we first meet him, incites from us innate sympathy. Of course Old King Hamlet was the good guy! Of course Claudius, Polonius and, to an extent, Gertrude are the bad guys! We root for Hamlet to rise up above the rabble, standing firm in his suspicions and recalcitrance, and to bring justice to the crimes committed—to save his father’s honor, to rescue his mother from the clutches of sin, and to put his house and his kingdom back in order.
“We have every reason to believe that we should sympathize with Hamlet’s grief and harshly judge Claudius and Gertrude’s apathy toward the recent death. Hamlet has been in grief over his father’s death for well over a month, and we stand behind his sorrowful defiance to wear black clothes for the duration. Hamlet’s grief inspires his mother’s concern, as she tells him, ‘Do not forever with thy vailed lids/Seek for thy noble father in the dust.’ But we cheer Hamlet on to stick up for his father, the good-guy, the fallen hero when he denies that death ‘seems’ common. We feel that Hamlet is justified to feel suicidal depression because of his mother’s lack of despair and her hasty marriage to Claudius. And we have every reason to hiss at Claudius when he responds to Hamlet’s grief with a lecture imploring him to get over his father’s death. ‘You must know your father lost a father/ That father lost, lost his,’ exhorting Hamlet to ‘throw to earth/This unprevailing woe, and think of us/As a father.’
“But what if those attractive and romantic values for which we cheer on Hamlet in Act 1—his moral reprehension, his piquant suspicion, his defiant sorrow and alienation from an odiously apathetic family and court—were not derived from any sense of injustice in his family in the way that the play leads us to believe?
“The only vision we have of Hamlet’s father is his Ghost, the foreboding remains of a battle weary figure whose ‘hour is almost come/When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames/Must render up myself.’ The Ghost hardly offers Hamlet or us a vision of a healthy or loving father, let alone a hero. What are all of those ‘foul crimes’ for which he had not the opportunity to repent? There is no warmth or love when Hamlet reunites with his resurrected father in the darkness and fog atop the ramparts of Elsinore in Act 1. Instead, the Ghost-Father conveys to his pained and bereaved son
a tale . . . whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine . . .
List, list, O list!/ If thou didst ever thy father love.
“ ‘O God!’ ” Hamlet cries. There is no ‘I love you’ on the lips of old King Hamlet. There is no fatherly concern for his son’s life. In Act V, Hamlet utters the only words of familial love in the entire play when he holds up the skull of his childhood court jester that the Gravedigger unearths while he is digging the grave for Ophelia.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft.
We do not usually carry with us an image of Hamlet laughing as he rides the back of a joyful man, engaged in one of a thousand playful romps. Instead, the Hamlet we know is a young man who has been asked to commit murder by a dead father.
“Hamlet must own his father’s past, to ‘revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.’ It’s a task which Hamlet must bear not only from that moment on, I believe, but from the moment he was born to live under a father who rode on his son’s back, and bore far more than a ‘thousand times’ the only thing he bequeathed his son: the burden of his own past, his ‘foul crimes,’ and the task to fulfill a destiny Hamlet does not want. Through the rest of the play, Hamlet must live out torn between eternal, heavenly contemplation and the swift and impulsive thrusting of a sword. ‘Haste me to know’t,’ he responds to his father’s demand for revenge,
that I with wings as swift
As meditation, or the thoughts of love
May sweep to my revenge.
“There are no ‘thoughts of love’ to engage Hamlet in ‘meditation’ in his relationship with his father. Here in a nutshell, I believe we have a paradigm of Hamlet’s struggle to fulfill the demands of his father. Angel-wings of meditation and thoughts of love coupled with the martial action to sweep and to do so hastily to get revenge. Hamlet responds with a grueling oxymoron. How can one have angelic meditation and thoughts of love and sweep to revenge at the same time?”
A student raises her hand. “Doesn’t Hamlet’s statement about revenge suggest how much he loves his father? Isn’t it a sign of great love for Hamlet to seek revenge for his father?”
“There is no love in revenge,” I say. “In drama, revenge always occurs in the context of tragedy because the tragic hero takes divine justice into his own hands. Once a human takes such punishment into his own hands, he has committed an act of hubris. But revenge also destroys the person who enacts it. Murder is murder, in any time and age.”