Friday, December 23, 2016

The Ghost of Hamlet's Father

In the past several days, I have been reading Shakespeare's Hamlet, not only to experience again the power of a creative genius of unequalled talent, but in order to reflect on the ghost of Hamlet's father, one of the characters in that play that has always fascinated me. Ever since I watched a film version of Hamlet, in which Laurence Olivier played the role of Hamlet, I have remembered the ghost of Hamlet's father. This was in 1971, when I was a student at Mkwawa High School, Tanzania.

The ghost's eerie appearances in that film, and his voice,  have continued to haunt me, so to speak. The encounters between the ghost and the sentries and between the ghost and Hamlet are among the most memorable moments in the play. I remember most of all the tale the ghost tells Hamlet which begins this way:

     I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.... (Act 1: Sc. V)

In subsequent years, reading Alex la Guma's novella, A Walk in the Night, set in apartheid South Africa, I encountered the ghost of Hamlet's father in a memorable way. One of the characters in this novella, Uncle Doughty, is an old, poor Irishman, who lives in a poverty-stricken place, "dying of alcoholism, diabetes and old age". We see him with Michael Adonis, a troubled black man, having an agitated conversation while drinking liquor. The topic of their conversation is life's troubles, and Michael Adonis thinks that, being a white man, Uncle Doughty cannot have troubles.

"Worry? Worry? the old man whined. We all got something to worry about." He mustered himself for a moment and shook a dried twig of a finger at Michael Adonis. "We all got our cross to bear. What's my white got to do with it? Here I am, in shit street, and does my white help? I used to be an actor. God bless my soul, I toured England and Australia with Dame Clara Bright. A great lady. A great actress she was." He began to weep, the tears spilling over the sagging rims of his eyes and he reached for the bottle again. "We're like Hamlet's father's ghost. I played the ghost of Hamlet's father once, London, it was."
   "You look like a blerry ghost, you spook," Michael Adonis said bitterly. He jerked the bottle from the old man's hand and tipped it to his mouth and took a long swallow, gagging and then belching as he took the neck from his lips. His head spun and he wanted to retch. (25)

Every time I teach A Walk in the Night, I point out the presence of the theme of the ghost of Hamlet's father as a clear example of the inter-textual dimension of this novel. I also invoke Richard Wright's Native Son, pointing out the striking similarity between the difficult living conditions of the people in the two novels and the suspenseful police pursuit of Bigger Thomas in Native Son and Michael Adonis in A Walk in the Night.

Contemplating the ghost theme in Hamlet and A Walk in the Night reveals interesting connections. I note, for example, how murder features in the two situations. The ghost of Hamlet's father tells Hamlet the story of his father's murder and urges him to take revenge. Uncle Doughty, the "ghost" in  A Walk in the Night, is eventually killed, accidentally, by Michael Adonis. The shock that Michael experiences as a result can be compared to the shock that Hamlet feels at the news of his father's murder. I wish I could write more, but this is a simple blog post, not a scholarly essay.

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