The play "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare contains a rich diversity of issues and relationships, some of the greatest of which concern those between father and son. These relationships, most notably those between Hamlet and the late King Hamlet, Fortinbras and Old Fortinbras, and Polonius and Laertes, demonstrate a number of significant, unique characteristics as well as several themes that are both timeless and universal.
The first evidence of father/son conversation occurs when the Ghost appears to Hamlet in Act One Scene V. The father's spirit imparts essential information to Hamlet about the circumstances of his treacherous murder at his brother's hands, which in turn precipitates Hamlet's long agonising and plotting. Despite the initial dramatic impact of Hamlet being addressed by a ghost, the conversation reveals that the relationship is effectively typical, in that the father enlightens and guides his son. However, it is also exemplary and exceptional in that the father chooses his son as his confidant, with a trust that extends beyond the grave and transcends death. The closeness of the relationship between Hamlet and his father also has an essential dramatic function. Hamlet's love leads him to swear absolute loyalty to his father's Ghost, thereby ensuring that he becomes the late King Hamlet's agent on earth for justice:
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain."
Act I, Scene V, 102-3
The absence of King Hamlet is, however, immediately problematic for his son. Firstly, Hamlet regards himself as, and is presented as, an incomplete man, almost another half of the dead king. He is often referred to as "youth" in the early Acts, and is socially regarded as a son above all else. It has also been suggested that the manifestation of King Hamlet's ghost is the result of Hamlet's own grief. This is an interesting perspective, as it implies that the internal workings of the son are overwhelming and that their bond is strong enough to change the fate of a nation. Furthermore, in constitutional terms Hamlet is left without a role: he is prince to the late King, yet has not succeeded him due to Gertrude's remarriage to Claudius. As such Hamlet has already been denied one aspect of completing the destiny that he believed was his to fulfil. This combined sense of disenfranchisement and displacement grows exponentially when he learns of the murder behind King Hamlet's death, developing further into feelings of worthlessness and guilt. By Act II, Scene i, he is frustrated and ashamed that he cannot act directly against Claudius:
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words."
Act II, Scene ii, 578-581
Hamlet's love and loyalty to his father is such that it significantly changes his psyche and motivates his actions for the remainder of the play, or to the end of his own life. In soliloquies such as that of Act III, Scene iii, he reveals tender concern for his father's soul, noting that since King Hamlet was murdered he was unable to confess himself to God before dying, an important religious rite of the period. This, along with the ghostly manifestation of King Hamlet, underlines the spiritual dimension of the father/son relationship, suggesting that the concerns are of divine and religious importance.
Hamlet's filial devotion is so great that he also grows increasingly disgusted with his mother, viewing her remarriage to his father's murderer as a complete betrayal. He feigns madness to courtiers and subjects, distancing himself from others. He also rejects Ophelia in his turmoil, pushing her away from the disaster and evil that surrounds the court of Denmark.
Despite his continued trust in Horatio, it is his relationship with his dead father which becomes by far the dominant relationship in the play.
Hamlet also takes an enormous pride in his ancestry, often referring to himself as King Hamlet's "sole son" and as "son of a king." Throughout the course of the play he increasingly defines his worthiness of this status by his ability to avenge his father. His existence is consumed by this definition and ultimately ended by it: the point in Act V at which he stabs treacherous Claudius, thereby finally becoming the worthy son, is swiftly followed by his own death. It is this moment of worthiness that is the apex of the father/son relationship, where the balance of nature and justice is restored.
Another princely son who is determined to avenge his father, a late king, is Fortinbras. The story of the Norwegian prince and his father runs parallel to that of the two Hamlets. In Act I, the audience learns of Old Fortinbras's death in combat with King Hamlet and the subsequent sworn retaliation of the former's son:
Of unimproved mettle hard and full
Shall] recover of us, by strong hand
And terms, compulsory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost;"
Act I, Scene i, 95-104
This prince is also acting under a sense of moral obligation to restore his father's kingdom and right the wrongs that he believes have been done to it. Fortinbras does not address the audience directly until Act V, where he utters the final lines of the play. Upon witnessing the slaughter that has occurred, he is moved, yet remains noble; his character is essentially symbolic of the direct and dutiful behaviour of an heir:
For me, with sorrow I embrace my future."
Act V, Scene ii, 380
His command that Hamlet's corpse should be borne "like a soldier" is apt: sons, princes and heirs were obliged to fight for the rights and concerns of their fathers and in doing so they often had to display the courage of a soldier.
It must be remembered that Old Fortinbras was killed by the late King Hamlet and that they were essentially enemies. This is of great significance, because far from being opposites, the two bereaved princes are shown to be exactly the same in their priorities. Both feel that their father's kingdoms have been wronged, both are prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to avenge their father's deaths, both are loyal to the end. In this manner, by making to warring father/son teams so similar, Shakespeare is emphasising the universal importance of these feelings.
Another interesting and textured father/son relationship is that of Polonius and Laertes. The dynamic of the relationship differs in that Polonius is alive and present on stage, and it is his concerns as a father that are demonstrated before those that Laertes has as a son. In Act I, Scene ii, Polonius famously offers Laertes a long list of good, fatherly advice:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,"
Act I, Scene ii, 75
This immediately places Laertes, who himself had been advising his sister Ophelia, in context as the more junior character. In Act I, Scene, Polonius soon shows himself to be attentively concerned about his son. Again, in the way he lists off his advice before Laertes departs on a journey, Polonius is shown to be a typical father, imparting wisdom to the son. However, he is soon shown to be interested in Laerte's welfare to the point of deviousness, as he instructs Reynaldo to engage in gossip in order to trace him. He is attempting to control events without Laertes knowledge, thereby asserting his paternal authority.
By Act IV, Scene V the balance is reversed through Polonius's death. Laertes enters bearing arms: like Fortinbras and Hamlet, he is prepared to fight for his father's sake:
Let come what comes; only I'll be reveng'd
Most thoroughly for my father."
Act IV, Scene V, 132-3
Compounded by Ophelia's madness, Laertes grief and anger becomes so intolerable…