Examine the presentation of fathers in "Hamlet" with close reference to three key scenes.

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"Hamlet" Tom Spooner Examine the presentation of fathers in "Hamlet" with close reference to three key scenes: Claudius, Old Hamlet and Polonius are all fathers and the way in which each is presented by Shakespeare is quite different. On the surface, the play is a revenge tragedy in which a grieving son seeks to avenge the death of his murdered father. However I think it has been very cleverly crafted by Shakespeare around a bleak theme of appearance versus reality that explores the corrupt, sinister region of the human nature that is present beneath the surface of us all. Shakespeare's portrayal of many of the characters in the play and in particular of fathers is as both malevolent and egotistical. Claudius' hypocrisy masquerades as fatherly love and concern; Polonius' obsequiousness and search for position masquerades as service to the King, using his daughter as a pawn in the process; Old Hamlet's torment and manipulation of Hamlet's emotions is passed off as regaining his honour. On the surface fathers are presented by Shakespeare as having to be loved, honoured and obeyed almost without question. However the effect this has on their children is quite catastrophic leading to resentment, repression, bitterness, madness and eventually death. I will examine the way each of these characters is presented with close reference to Act 1 Scene II (Claudius), Act 1 Scene V (Old Hamlet)


It is asthough Shakespeare is drawing an analogy between the natural relations of a father and the established order of the state and between the more unnatural relations of step-father and the rotten state of Denmark. In Act 1 Sc.V, Old Hamlet speaks to Hamlet for the first time in the play. He is presented as a noble man, not seeking the pity of Hamlet but expecting him to listen to what it is he has to say "pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold." He uses ghastly imagery of Purgatory in order to ward off Hamlet from the same fate, which shows he cares for his son, even in death. However it could also be intended to evoke feelings of rage in Hamlet and stir him to take action. At the same time, he manipulates Hamlet to do his bidding, "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder." Old Hamlet's manipulation of his son's emotions and Hamlet's love and obedience for his deceased father are demonstrated when the ghost commands him to listen "List, list, O list! If though didst ever thy dear father love." Hamlet still lingers on the death of his father and the thought of his unnatural murder causes him to turn to revenge.


Following the murder of Polonius at the hands of Hamlet, Ophelia is driven to insanity by the death of her father and the realization that Hamlet no longer loves her. She walks about the castle, singing scraps of love-songs and handing out flowers, each a symbol of her lament. To Laertes she gives rosemary and pansies which are associated with remembrance and sorrow. They are given as a symbol of commemoration and sorrow for the loss of their father. The imagery used here by Shakespeare shows that both Ophelia and Laertes do love their father despite the manner in which he abused them. In discussing characterization, themes and Shakespeare's use of language it would appear that fathers are presented in a bad light. Shakespeare does not seem to have much sympathy with them and they are presented in such a way that their behaviour towards their children has devastating effects. There are however some redeeming features that shine through but generally speaking any apparent good qualities conceal obverse, ulterior motives and destructive forces. All three characters whether perpetrators or a victim, like Old Hamlet, are representative of the corrupting of the state of Denmark and the old order. At the same time they are indicative of the appearance versus reality theme and the masks that the human character will hide his darker side behind and what can happen if this side is allowed to prevail. Word Count: 2,226

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