Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Oresteia and a Question of Matricide

Froma I. Zeitlin

This essay is about Shakespeare’s Hamlet (first performed around 1601). It offers a response that is based on a Classicist’s (i.e. my) view of the play’s debt to Aeschylus’ Oresteia (first performed in 458 BC), and particularly, in the matter of matricide, the crime that Hamlet, although tempted, did not commit.[1]

 The challenge to look at Shakespeare’s Hamlet once more has proved to be far more arduous than I had anticipated. While every educated Anglophone was (or should be) acquainted with Hamlet, it is only with this current assignment and some due diligence that I discovered how much more there is to know and how contested some of the issues are – not least regarding the problem of succession in the play. Matters are more complicated by the fact that there exists not one but three versions of the play (called Q1, Q2, and F), with the result that every editor has had to grapple with textual variants, additions, or omissions. One can only agree with the assertion of the editor of the Arden Shakespeare when he states, “Few, I would imagine, would challenge the assertion that ‘Hamlet is the most problematic play ever written by Shakespeare or any other playwright’.”[2] Moreover, even a brief perusal of the critical tradition demonstrates that interpretation of the play is nothing if not an ever-shifting minefield of conjecture, counter-conjecture, and sometimes quite impressive flights of fancy.

Title-page of the Second Quarto of Hamlet (“Q2”, London, 1605).

For my part, I am hardly more than an amateur (in the true sense of the word) when it comes to Shakespeare in general, but, as a Classicist, I thought that given my extensive experience with Greek tragedy and myth, it might be possible to add something worthwhile to this discussion, given the common themes of intrafamilial violence that disturb a natural dynastic succession among the ruling elite, and the social, religious, and political unrest these engender in the body politic. But, I hasten to add, Hamlet far exceeds these prototypes (which I will discuss in more detail below), given its multiplication of characters, both major and minor, whether male or female, its various subplots, including assorted intrigues and deceptions, and above all, accidental chains of events and their unintended consequences, all in the name of dynastic succession.

Accordingly, in what follows I will first briefly address the problem of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek tragedy (but not in the spirit of Quellenforschung, or searching for his sources). Second, the close similarities between Hamlet and Greek tragic plots, especially that of the House of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Oresteia (as the chief inspiration), and the figure of Orestes, who when commanded by the god Apollo to avenge his father, Agamemnon, murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, along with her adulterous consort, Aegisthus.[3] Third, I focus on the theme of generational passage, that seems to me to underlie the entire constellation of events (as de Grazia also notes, albeit in a different vein) with respect to Hamlet and his failure to achieve an adult status as king and husband in his own right.[4]

Orestes killing Clytemnestra, etched by Jean Duplessi-Bertaux and engraved by Jean Baptiste Patas, 1792 (after a Roman bas-relief of the 2nd cent. AD, now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia).

Shakespeare and Greek tragedy

Although Ben Jonson in his encomium famously claimed that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” recent research has demonstrated that he must have indeed had substantially more than a passing acquaintance with both languages and literatures – as most recently argued in an Antigone article.[5] In any case, Jonson goes on specifically to name the three luminaries of Greek tragedy – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides – and he would summon them back to life again “to hear thy buskin tread/ and shake a stage.” “Triumph, my Britain,” Jonson continues, “thou has one to show/ To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.” In other words, the encomium to Shakespeare in good rhetorical fashion puts him in the ranks of the greatest Classical dramatists, only to place the bard above them all (“Leave thee alone for the comparison/ Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome/ Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.”).[6] However, we interpret Jonson’s hyperbole, it is significant that he articulates the relationship between Shakespearean drama and Greek tragedy, if not in specific influence, then in stature.

Shakespeare and Jonson in discussion at the Mermaid Tavern of Bread Street, Cheapside, London, woodcut by W. Thomas, 1864.

Hamlet and Orestes

I would not be the first by any means to see the parallels between Hamlet and Orestes, including not only Aeschylus’ great trilogy, the Oresteia (Agamemnon, Choephoroi or Libation Bearers, and Eumenides), but other variants in Sophocles and Euripides, whose plays (both called Electra after Orestes’ sister) focus only on the events in Aeschylus’ second play of the trilogy when Orestes, like Hamlet, is compelled to take center stage to avenge his father’s murder.

Let me briefly lay out the salient facts: Orestes, son of Agamemnon, king of Argos, provides the second act in the history of the family that began with the enmity of brothers (Atreus and Thyestes) in competition for the throne. Thyestes’ son, Aegisthus, in the absence of Agamemnon, who is leading the Greek forces in the Trojan War, suborns Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, and the two plot to kill Agamemnon upon his return. In the sequel Orestes returns to Argos at the god Apollo’s command to avenge his father’s death. Orestes’ dilemma is that in order to do so he must kill not only the usurper king, Aegisthus, but also his mother. This, albeit reluctantly, he finally does. Subsequently pursued by his mother’s avenging Furies, he is finally acquitted in a trial, presided over by the goddess Athena, an innovation that substitutes the rule of law for that of the familial vendetta.

Orestes pursued by Furies, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862 (Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, USA).

At first glance, then, we may note the similarities: intrafamilial violence involving murder, adultery, struggle for the kingship, warrior values (both Agamemnon and Hamlet I are successful in combat), and, above all, the demand for a son’s revenge, authored by supernatural authority (the god Apollo, Hamlet’s father’s ghost). In both, the personal and the political are deeply intertwined in questions that pertain to the individual, the family, and the state.

There are similarities too in dramatic structure: both are away when their father is murdered; both suffer bouts of madness, whether real or feigned, albeit for different reasons; both return from exile to exact revenge, and their arrival in both cases coincides with the performance of funeral rites gone awry. Finally, each is accompanied by a trusted friend (Horatio for Hamlet, Pylades for Orestes).[7] Other parallels can and have been adduced, but there are two major differences that I would like to explore in the remainder of this essay.

Hamlet and Horatio, Eugène Delacroix, 1839 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Hamlet: succession and matricide

In Orestes’ story, he is the undisputed heir to his father’s throne.[8] By returning from exile to exact revenge on his father’s murderers, he not only upholds family honor, but puts an end to the tyrannical rule of the usurper (Aegisthus) and secures a rightful place for himself in the succession as rightful owner of his patrimony.[9] No one need mourn the death of the queen’s new consort, Aegisthus, which is richly deserved. The heart of the story (and the dilemma) is that in order to avenge his father, he must kill not only the usurper but also his mother, and therein lie the moral and dramatic complications of such an unnatural deed, one which, in turn, will eventually lead me back to Hamlet.

The role of the mother in Hamlet is far more complex, both in the ambiguities surrounding her official position and in her relationship with her son and late husband. Both issues are crucial to the issue of succession in the first instance, and in Hamlet’s passage to adulthood in the second. In what follows, I will first address the theme of succession, and second, of what I see as Hamlet’s troubled relationships with the two women in his life: his mother, the queen, on the one hand, above whom the specter of a son’s potential deed of matricide hovers, and Ophelia, the would-be bride, on the other. Excessive sexuality and excessive virginity both have their parts to play as the tragedy unfolds.

Ophelia and Laertes, Benjamin West, 1792 (Cincinnati Art Museum, OH, USA).
  • Succession

Having labored hard and long over the issue of succession in Hamlet with attendant bibliography, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the question is never resolved. While Orestes’ position in the succession to the kingship, as described above, is clear, confusion reigns when it comes to Hamlet. In the first instance, there seems to be a dual system, often at odds with one another, which is difficult to simply explain away. By parliamentary law, it seems, Claudius is entitled to succeed his brother, even though the son might be expected to succeed his father. I am not convinced by di Grazia’s argument that “his father made no provision to secure the succession of his son against any contending claims that might legitimately arise in an elective monarchy.”[10] Unless this argument ex silentio can be bolstered by the absence of the ghost’s (or Hamlet’s) reference to the matter, on the one hand, and Claudius’ explicit reiteration that he appoints Hamlet his own successor, on the other, how can we assume this to be the case?[11] In the case of Fortinbras and Norway, however, although an uncle too succeeds his brother, it seems to have posed no untoward problems for the younger man (and nephew) – without, however, diminishing the young man’s ambitions (including the recovery of his father’s lands that were lost to Hamlet I in single combat and sealed with a compact).

Di Grazia goes even further to claim that “the brother [Claudius] brings more continuity than the son; he occupies the same throne and the same bed with the same wife and queen. At the same time, she admits the threat that Hamlet poses to the king, who first “puts him under surveillance when at court, and then when danger escalates and fears for his life, would have him extradited and then executed.”[12]

But there is another matter that di Grazia glosses over and which complicates matters still further. This is Claudius’ initial reference to Gertrude as “our sometime sister, now our queen/ Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state” (1.2.9). The term “jointress” has been much discussed; in the first instance, this neologism refers the status of Gertrude as entitled to her first husband’s property (and possible royal position). And although “jointress”, it is acknowledged, “could only mean a woman who is in joint possession,” it has also been denied that she could be considered a co-ruler.”[13] As Eggert remarks, however, this status “complicates the male-to-male succession to the crown that critics have assumed to be the case, whether the crown descends patrilineally, fraternally, or electorally.”[14] One could go further and see that the succession is dependent on the queen’s acquiescence in (if not embrace of) a replacement for her dead husband who would assume the kingship, and even so, it is not without opprobrium that she does so with an unseemly haste (not two months later). In so doing, Gertrude has proved faithless to both her former husband and her son, at least (and only) in their eyes. Hence, implicated as the queen is in the question of succession, a possible co-ruler like Clytemnestra, her situation is not without its ambiguities.

Hamlet and his mother, Eugène Delacroix, 1849 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).
  • Matricide

A second importance difference between Hamlet and Orestes is the question of matricide: enjoined upon one (Orestes) and expressly forbidden, not once but twice, to the other (Hamlet), although not without the son’s temptation to do the deed. Let us consider this matter further:

How guilty is Gertrude? And of what? The queen’s marriage to her husband’s brother is sanctioned by official parliament consent. But in other terms, it is deemed by her kinfolk as adultery, debauchery, and even incest (1.2.157; 1.5.83; 3.3.90; 5.2.235), and it is especially her sexuality that so riles the son as well as her possible collusion in her husband’s murder, or, at the very least, the betrayal of her initial marital bonds. (This is much of the substance of the play within a play: the queen “in second husband let me be accurst;/ None wed the second but who kill’d the first… A second time I kill my husband dead,/ When second husband kisses me in bed” (3.2.174-5, 179-80).[15]

This language of death and murder in the queen’s acquiescence to a second husband may be pure hyperbole, but I think it gives us a further clue to the entire question of an elided matricide – a deed that would put Hamlet in the same position as Orestes, the only possible prototype.[16] True, Hamlet’s grievances, like those of Orestes, focus on his mother’s improper sexual conduct and her lust for her lover that overrules her duties to her husband. But matricide is another thing altogether.

Orestes and Pylades disputing at the altar, Pieter Lastman, 1614 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands).

The temptation to matricide had already been anticipated by his father’s ghost in Act 1, who calls his wife that “seeming-virtuous queen”, but while he enjoins his son “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/ A couch for luxury and damned incest,” he explicitly commands his son “But howsomever thou pursuest this act,/ Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive/ against thy mother aught/ Leave her to heaven” (1.5.83-6). And when does the ghost appear again, if not to intercede at a crucial moment? That is at the close of the tormented bedroom scene with Gertrude, where while imploring his son “not to forget his purpose” (i.e. vengeance on Claudius), he bids Hamlet to comfort and protect his mother in order to further her repentance. Clearly, he too is concerned lest Hamlet go too far and embark on the dreaded deed.

Already, just before, when summoned to his mother’s closet after the aborted ending of the play he had staged in Act 3 (“to catch the conscience of the king”), the idea is in his mind only to be repressed:

Now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft! now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites. (3.2.381-8)

He will not, he claims, play the part of the Emperor Nero, who, as was claimed, murdered his mother. Instead, his weapon will be words, the daggers he will speak, to prevent what at this moment he desires, which is her death. And daggers they are, as the queen herself calls his furious words: “O, speak to me no more;/ These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears;/ No more, sweet Hamlet!” (3.4.94-6).

The Russian actors Vasili Kachalov (Hamlet) and Olga Knipper (Gertrude) in Edward Gordon Craig’s and Constantin Stanislavski’s Hamlet (1911)

Hamlet will not kill her with his own hands, as Orestes did in the case of Clytemnestra (who in the tragic theater – unlike in Homer’s Odyssey – is the prime instigator of her husband’s murder). No, not matricide, but in that same bedroom scene, Hamlet seems to come perilously close. However, it is staged, he threatens some physical violence against his mother – “sit you down, you shall not budge./ You go not till I set you up a glass/ Where you may see the inmost part of you.” (3.4.18-20). And she is terrified: “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?/ Help ho! (21-2). No wonder, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears again (3.4.103-37), invisible to all except Hamlet, to forestall such an action.[17] Nevertheless, the queen will die as a result of the unintended consequences of that cry for help and the fear she expresses that her son will murder her.

That cry takes an entirely different turn than it does in the second play of the Oresteia. Instead, it brings a response from Polonius, hidden behind the curtain to eavesdrop on the conversation, which in turn leads to his death by mistaken identity at Hamlet’s hands; this leads in turn to Laertes, in another father-son pair, who must seek vengeance for the murder (and unholy burial) of his father; and thence to his collusion in Claudius’ plot against Hamlet to use a poisoned sword. That sword in turn kills both himself and Hamlet, who, before dying, stabs the king, and the queen dies too, in a dreadful irony, having drunk the poisoned chalice that Claudius had prepared for Hamlet. Hamlet, for his part, passes on the throne to Fortinbras, another doublet of Hamlet (son-father-uncle) who will inherit both the throne of Denmark and recover the lands lost by his own father in his fateful (and fatal) duel with Hamlet’s father so many years before. The future of the state is assured but the family is no more. The role of Hamlet’s mother then, in the question of succession, whether as jointress or adulteress, is what, in my opinion, turns out to be the motor of the play and the prime cause of the complications regarding succession, her ultimate fate, and even more, the issue of generational passage.

Hamlet and the body of Polonius, lithograph by Eugène Delacroix, 1835.

Generational passage

The deaths of fathers follow a normal course of events: Not only “All lives must die/ Passing through nature to eternity” (1.2.71-2), as the queen says, but Claudius goes further in his sanctimonious (and for us, wholly ironic) way:

Our father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term.
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first course till he that died to-day,
“This must be so.”                                            (1.2.89-106)

It is a sign of unmanliness and ignorance, an offense against heaven and nature not to accept the ordinary sequence of life events and, by unduly mourning the past, to fail to look to the future.

Ophelia, engraving by Caroline Watson after Robert Edge Pine, 1784.

Regicide, of course, makes a mockery of such a normal state of affairs, but in considering the succession of sons to their fathers, the question of mothers enters into the generational game once again. For the queen’s tainted sexuality and transgressive consorting with her husband’s murderer finally interrupts that other sign of maturity, which is the consummation of matrimony and the responsibilities that go with it. Whereas Greek tragedy gives a feminine foil to the hero in the person of his sister, Electra, who stands by his side in every dramatic version and is equally intent on helping her brother’s vengeance, Hamlet goes in an entirely different direction and introduces a would-be bride, Ophelia. The subplot of this other family (Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia), in fact, may be said to drive the entire drama into its final desperate conclusion. The chain of circumstances that leads to the accidental killing of Polonius, which triggers in turn both Ophelia’s madness and Laertes’ pursuit of revenge, thereby allows the latter to fall in with Claudius’ scheme to dispose of Hamlet once and for all, and with it, assures the failure of sons to succeed their fathers and to make families of their own in a well-ordered society. Corruption, evil, debauchery, transgression, and treachery, yes: but it is finally this series of unfortunate accidents that doom them all: Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia too. As Horatio summarizes the plot at the end of the play: “Let me speak… how things came about… So you shall hear of carnal blood, and unnatural acts,/ of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,/ of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause,/ and in this upshot, purposes mistook,/ Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads” (5.2.385–90).[18]

The queen tries to console Hamlet, lithograph by Eugène Delacroix, 1834.

Laertes and Polonius’ misreading of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia rests on several suppositions: first, the claim that it is a mere dalliance, on the grounds that a marriage with her would be beneath his station (on the contrary, Gertrude, in mourning her death, had always thought she would be Hamlet’s wife, 5.1.237): second is Polonius’ error in attributing Hamlet’s madness to Ophelia’s rejection of Hamlet, at her kin’s earlier behest; and, finally, there is Polonius’ death as a result of his meddling once again in the affairs of others, leading to Ophelia’s madness and suicide. This sequence of events insures the failure of the young couple’s relationship within the larger orbit of what I have been calling generational passage. At the same time, Hamlet’s disgust with his mother leads him to declare “Frailty, thy name is woman,” (1.2.146), a generalization that can refer to all women, including Ophelia. “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.21) is meant as a renunciation of the feminine in general, which expresses the fear that women’s sexuality will inevitably ruin men. Laertes and Polonius, on the other hand, overly insist on Ophelia’s chastity (thus preventing her from her own passage to adulthood), while Hamlet, based on his experience of his own mother, renounces the one he loves to his everlasting regret, as he expresses it in the graveyard scene (5.1.236-9).[19] Starting with the first unnatural act – the kin murder of the elder Hamlet and its corollary in the suspicious marriage to a brother’s widow – the language of the play continually invokes the theme of nature versus unnature, whether in the pathetic fallacy of a sick and rotting landscape or in imagery of disease and corruption.

The death of Hamlet, lithograph by Eugène Delacroix, 1843.

In conclusion, the complexities of the relationships in Hamlet and its more intricate plotting go far beyond the more closely focused dramaturgy of Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, the paradigm of Orestes the matricide, and the only literary model, subtends, I argue, the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, precisely in its final negation.

There is obviously so much more that could be said with regard to this play, even on the question of succession. Recent more feminist-oriented criticism,[20] supplemented by new historicist research on issues of marriage, widowhood, and kingship, along with religious considerations, have shed new light on old problems. But in this brief encounter with a text, whose difficulties of interpretation in more than one domain elude definitive solutions, I hope that I may have contributed something to the general discussion.

Froma Zeitlin is Ewing Professor of Greek Language and Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University with emeritus status. Her interests extend from archaic and classical Greek texts (epic, drama) to the study of ancient prose fiction and other works of Greek literature under the Roman Empire. She is currently editing a collection of her essays, The Retrospective Muse, and working on a book, entitled The Visual Uncanny: Vision, Figuration, and Image in Ancient Greek Literary Culture.


1 When I was a member of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin in May 2013, I was invited to participate in a symposium, organized by Stephen Greenblatt, on the question of succession in Hamlet, viewed from many disciplinary perspectives. I gratefully salute the other members of Stephen Greenblatt’s group: Loraine Daston, Margretha di Grazia, Raghavendra Gadagkar, Bruce Kogut, Shakti Lamba, Franco Moretti, Meredith Reiches, Catherine Robson, David Sabean, and Amrita Shah.
2 H. Jenkins, The Arden Shakespeare: Hamlet (Methuen, London, 1982) 122, quoting Harry Levin. In addition to Jenkins I have used Philip Edwards, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge UP, 2003).
3 Freud’s inclusion of Oedipus as the underlying model does not convince me. I am not alone: see, e.g., M. Clark, “Suppose Freud had chosen Orestes instead,” Journal of Analytical Psychology 54 (2009) 233–52.
4 M. de Grazia, “Hamlet” Without Hamlet (Columbia UP, New York, 2009).
5 See especially the thorough discussion by A. Werth, “Shakespeare’s ‘Lesse Greek’,” Oxfordian 5 (2002) 10-29, and the specific follow up in E. Showerman, “Orestes and Hamlet: from myth to masterpiece, Part I,” Oxfordian 7 (2004) 89-114, and “The rediscovery of Shakespeare’s greater Greek, Oxfordian 27 (2015) 163-91. Also C. Burrow, Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (Oxford UP, 2013), and here on Antigone Tom Moran’s article “Shakespeare’s Latin and Greek”. The case in favor of the traditional reading relies on four arguments, as Showerman (2015) points out: 1. the enduring legacy of Jonson’s ironic reference to Shakespeare’s “lesse Greek”; 2. the limitations imposed by Shakespearean biography; 3. the deficiencies of a 16th-century English grammar school education in the Greek Classics; and 4. the dearth of editions of Greek dramas or Latin translations in England. He refutes these claims in the light of other Elizabethan evidence, along with several other scholars.
6 I omit his Latin forebears, notably Seneca the Younger, to whom many commentators ascribe more influence than I think necessary in Hamlet, although Roman references do abound in the play, especially to Vergil’s account of the murder of Priam by Pyrrhus (2.2.442–506) and, even more, the allusion to Nero as a matricide: “Let not ever/ The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom” (3.2.393-94), a reference that will be essential to my argument.
7 Dramaturgically speaking, it would be difficult not to see echoes of the opening scene in Aeschylus’ first play with the watchman on the roof of Agamemnon’s palace in the corresponding scene of the watchmen in Hamlet.
8 On Hamlet and Orestes, see Showerman (as n.1) and G. Murray, “Hamlet and Orestes: a study in traditional types.” Proceedings of the British Academy (1914) 1–24: Jan Kott, “Hamlet and Orestes” (tr. Boleslaw Taborski), Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America 82 (1967) 303–13; John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon (Oxford UP, 1996).
9 There are variants in both the theatrical and mythological traditions in which Orestes cannot finally reclaim his patrimony.
10 De Grazia (2009) 91.
11 By Hamlet’s much later explanation, Claudius “popp’d in between th’election and my hopes” (5.2.65) and “from a shelf the precious diadem stole/ And put it in his pocket –” (3.4.92-3).
12 De Grazia (2009) 88.
13 Jenkins ad loc.
14 K. Eggert, “Exclaiming against their own succession: queenship, genre, and what happens in Hamlet,” in Showing Like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakesepeare, and Milton (U. Penn Press, Philadelphia, 2000) 100–30.
15 I omit here the relevance of the recitation by Hamlet and the actors of the story of the Greek Pyrrhus, who kills Priam, the king of Troy, in bloody violence, but more to the point, concludes with the passionate grief of Hecuba, Priam’s wife (unlike Hamlet’s mother’s reaction to her husband’s death) (2.2.445-514). See further the detailed discussion of Jenkins (1982) at 478–9.
16 The only other matricide in Greek myth is that by Alcmeon, son of Amphiaraos, who enjoins his son to avenge his death caused by his wife, Eriphyle, who was bribed with a precious necklace to convince him to go to war against Thebes. But the story does not seem to have left literary representations and Eriphyle exercised no violence against her spouse.
17 And note that in contrast to Orestes’ (and Electra’s) futile efforts to raise the ghost of their father at his tomb (in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers) to aid them in the vengeance the god demanded of them, the apparition of Hamlet’s father at this moment of highest tension insists on protecting his wife from his son’s threats against her. But the fact that only Hamlet sees the ghost, thereby suggesting to his mother that he is mad, looks more like the appearance of the Erinyes, visible only to Orestes, the matricide, at the end of the play.
18 As Jenkins (ad loc.) points out, the last lines apply “specifically… to the final stratagems of Claudius and Laertes,” yet “this is, of course, a dominant motif of the play, particularly manifest elsewhere in the fates of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (cf. 3.4.208–9) and generally in the whole story of murder and revenge.”
19 Di Grazia recognizes the importance both of generation and the roles of the queen and Ophelia, but to my mind does not really link them together, despite her fine analysis of the rampant imagery of vegetation and its decay.
20 In addition to Eggert, see Lisa Jardine, “‘No offence i’ th’ world’: Hamlet and unlawful marriage,” in Uses of History: Marxism, Postmodernism and the Renaissance (F. Barker, P. Hulme, & M. Iversen (edd.), 123–39 (Manchester UP, 1991); Janet Adelman, “Man and wife is one flesh: Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body,” Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest,” (Routledge, Londn 1992) 11–37. See further bibliography with summaries here.