4 of Swords - Hamlet Sr.
Dramatis Personae: Hamlet Senior, the Ghost of Hamlet's father.
Text & Context: Whether King Hamlet's ghost is real or a figment of Hamlet's imagination is an open question, however his appearance to characters other than the prince suggests the former. Hamlet's own uncertainty over his father's veracity reflects the religious schism of the day - Protestant England of Elizabeth I had outlawed the Catholic notion of Purgatory, and yet as the ghost makes clear, he inhabits Purgatory. Protestantism, meantime, conceded the existence of ghosts, considering them demons sent from Hell to seduce humans into committing sins. This is reflected in Hamlet's Mousetrap stratagem, the success of which points to the ghost's probity. Herein lies a rub.
In Hamlet Senior may be seen Fortinbras Senior, icons of a time not yet out of joint; a bygone age of valour and nobility. In choosing his philosophical son to redress the wrongs done him, Hamlet Senior chooses possibly the least likely man to accomplish this in Denmark. "Now to my word!" Hamlet cries, putting up his tables, and proceeds to do nothing more than indulge in words, words, words. And yet, as the Mousetrap dumb-show alludes, the play's the thing. As circuitous, anti-intuitive, quiet as a mouse as it may be, perhaps the greatest play ever written is also the longest sustained and greatest conceivable act of revenge ever attained - a Trojan Horse; a sleeper; the word mightier than any sword. The rest, silence.
Subtext: There exists no evidence verifying Rowse's claim, 100 years after the fact, that Shakespeare played the ghost of Hamlet Senior. Rather it appears to be a Chinese Whisper of the author's role as ghost writer. Thomas Nashe mentions Hamlet in 1588 - William Shaxper of Stratford was 24, an unlikely age to play Hamlet Snr.; Edward de Vere, the author, was 38 and walked with a limp.
The names Hamlet calls his father's specter are jocular, and peculiar: "boy", homophone to Orlando's surname "Boys", and evocative of Oxford's Boys; "truepenny", perhaps a joke on de Vere's financial straights, his motto Nothing Truer than Truth, or pun on whom the play was truly penned by; "fellow in the cellarage", a convention-breaking reference to the area below the stage called a "cellar" as well as a drinking hole adjacent the Boar's Head frequented by the author [cf. Strange News, Nashe, his address to the Earl of Oxford: "To the most copious Carminist of our time, and famous persecutor of Priscian, his very friend, Master Apis lapis: Tho. Nashe wisheth new strings to his old tawny Purse, and all honourable increase of acquaintance in the Cellar"]. Hamlet's comment, "I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound", alludes to the annual thousand pound warrant Oxford received from Elizabeth's secret service for theatrical assets rendered to the Crown.
At the age of 20, recovering from an unknown illness in Windsor, the author reported being visited by the spirit of his step-father. Hamlet Senior in part represents the young Shakespeare's mentor and father figure, the Earl of Sussex, who, as he lay dying from an unspecified illness, warned the author about the Earl of Leicester: "beware of the Gypsy, for he will be too hard for you all, you know not the beast so well as I do". Leicester had a reputation as a poisoner and plundered roughly a third of the author's inheritance.
Hamlet's phrase "full of bread" (III.iii.80) concerning his father's death is lifted from Ezekiel 16:49 "Pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness"; this passage is marked in de Vere's personal Geneva Bible, owned today by the Folger Library.
Aside from allegory, the odd detail of poisoning by ear may be an allusion to Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, rumored to have been poisoned in the ear in 1538. Urbino appears as a character in Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, to which de Vere wrote the Latin preface in 1572. Similarly, de Vere wrote the 1573 preface and dedicatory poem to Jerome Cardano's Cardanus Comforte [full title: Cardanus Comforte translated into English and published by commandment of the right honorable Earl of Oxenford, Anno Domini 1573], generally recognized as "Hamlet's book".