An exploration of the ways Shakespeare presents father/son relationships in the play Hamlet.


Ideal paternal relationships are made up of loyalty and respect from both the father and the son. The two care for each other and those around them in their family.


In the play Hamlet, there are three father/son relationships. The first is between Old Hamlet, in the form of the ghost, and Young Hamlet. Another is between Polonius, the King’s adviser and Laertes. The last is between two Norwegians, Old Fortinbras and Young Fortinbras.


Father/son relationships are not a single family link in the play. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius has taken the crown by marrying his dead brother’s wife, Gertrude. Claudius is suspected of murder by his nephew. From Act One Claudius is trying to make Hamlet forget about his father so that he can take his place in every way, Claudius addresses Hamlet in front of the court as ‘my son’ (I.2.63). He tells Hamlet that he knew his father was going to die one day so why ‘take it to heart?’ (I.2.100). The audience may think that Claudius and his father did not have a conventional relationship and this is why he is acting like this, maybe he didn’t receive as much attention as Old Hamlet and is putting an end to his jealousy. The Norwegian uncle/nephew relationship is the same. Fortinbras’ uncle has succeeded the throne before him. The Norwegian uncle is against his nephew having an army. Both Hamlet and Fortinbras want revenge against their uncles for things they have done to their fathers, but of the two, only Fortinbras succeeds in getting the throne. Shakespeare is showing how habits between fathers and sons repeat themselves throughout the family to all the sons. Laertes and Polonius both share a like of over using words and exaggerating using hyperbole, he considers himself a ‘life-rendering pelican’ (IV.5.145) Shakespeare is showing how this hero is being arrogant and treats himself as god like to bring his father back to life. The brothers will have some of the same characteristics.


The fathers don’t acknowledge their relationships the same ways as the sons. The fathers do show that they care for their sons but not in as obvious a way as the sons. The fathers are subtle and use their actions rather than words. The Ghost is presented as choosing Hamlet to seek revenge on Claudius. The Ghost does see other men in the castle but does not speak to them. In Act I Scene 5 when Hamlet meets his father’s ghost he is put into a very vulnerable position by his father. Shakespeare uses persuasive language for the ghost, so that the character of Hamlet will obey his father’s wishes. Old Hamlet as the Ghost uses moral outrage to make Hamlet understand how he has been betrayed. Shakespeare has used pathos so that the audience can see that this character has been a victim and his is the one that is at the centre of the plot The Ghost says he is ‘doomed a certain term to walk the night’ (I.5.10) the audience can see the Ghost knew he had this misfortune in his future. In literature pathos is traditionally used with the heroes of the plot. Polonius shows that he cares for his son by giving him the freedom he wants. Laertes wants to go to France so that he can be independent away from home. Polonius encourages Laertes to go to France ‘my blessing with thee’ (I.3.57). Polonius is surprised that his son has not gone yet ‘yet here Laertes?’ (I.3.55). The audience know when he enters the scene that Polonius has tricked Laertes slightly, so the pathos is with the other tragic hero of the play. Fortinbras is like Laertes because his father also gives him the independence to take on the country of Denmark how he thinks he would succeed. From the audiences’ point of view they can see how Fortinbras is tricking the state of Denmark. Hamlet is different as he is wanting be looked after and doesn’t understand why at the age he is now, a fully grown adult, he is not the first of his parents priorities, Hamlet believes that ‘since frost itself doth actively burn’ (III.4.87-88), or that his mother’s passion for his