Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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How Did King Hamlet Die

In Act I Scene 5 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, how does old King Hamlet's ghost describe his death?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Well, let us look at the actual text.  In this way, we can see the ghost's description of his death first proclaimed as "murder most foul."  First, the ghost sets the scene and gets right to the point.

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,(65)
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment ...

In this quotation, the ghost of Hamlet's father talks about napping among the fruit trees while Claudius appears with a particular poison (specifically "juice of cursed hebenon").  Claudius proceeds to pour the poison into the ghost's ears.  The ghost then goes on to describe the effect of the poison.

Swift as quicksilver, it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And, with a sudden vigour, it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood.

In other words, the blood that once easily ran through the body now becomes thick and, in doing so, kills Hamlet's father.  This happens quickly.  In fact, it happens in an "instant" and even before Hamlet's dad is able to wake up from his nap.  Further, the effects are described as leaving a "vile and loathsome crust" all over the body just like leprosy might leave.

In conclusion, it is in this way that Hamlet's father describes his murder to his son (who is still living) during Act 1.  In this way, the ghost sets Hamlet on a mission to avenge the murder.  An interesting side note is that scholars often debate as to whether the ghost is "honest" in its plans for Hamlet's welfare or whether the ghost is really plotting for Hamlet's own death all along.

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Michael Ugulini eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Old King Hamlet's ghost describes his death in Act I, Scene 5 of William Shakespeare's “Hamlet” by relating what really happened to him. This ghost reveals to Hamlet in Elsinore Castle that he is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or his spirit. He says that what he will tell Hamlet will cause Hamlet to seek revenge.

Hamlet’s father’s ghost says that Hamlet must, Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.” (Murder.) He says that it was a “…Murther most foul.”

These words awaken Hamlet to seek revenge. He wants to know the true story of his father’s death and then speedily exact the revenge his father’s ghost desires. The original story was that a serpent stung his father when he was sleeping in an orchard and this caused him to die. Therefore, the story was that he died a tragic death due to misfortune, not murder.

However, the truth is that his brother Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle), who now sits on the throne, was responsible for his death. Claudius came upon Hamlet’s father during the father’s customary sleep time in the orchard. Claudius used “juice of cursed hebona in a vial” and poured it into the ears of Hamlet’s father. This is what caused his death, contrary to what everyone was told in the kingdom.

This concoction curdled the healthy blood of King Hamlet and he died. So, King Hamlet’s ghost tells Hamlet that he died by his brother’s hand, which is treachery at its boldest. He deprived the King of his life, his queen, his crown, his kingdom, and his chance to repent of his sins and turn to a more righteous way of life before he died a physical death.

King Hamlet’s ghost says that he died with his sins still a part of him and unforgiven, with “No reckoning made….” This haunts him greatly and Claudius’ murderous actions are responsible for this, as he cut the King’s life short when he still had missions to accomplish and things to resolve in his life.

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Alec Cranford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The ghost of King Hamlet says that when he was napping in his orchard, Claudius, his brother, poured a "leperous distillment," or a poison, into his ear. The poison curdled his blood and caused his skin to develop horrible sores. So he died in his garden, hideously disfigured, a victim of his brother's treachery. This contradicts the story that spread after the king's death blaiming his death on a snake bite. Even more disturbing, he died without a chance to receive forgiveness for his sins, so his spirit is condemned to walk the earth at night and spend the day in purgatory until his sins are finally purged. 

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smfleming | Student

Due to his sins on Earth, the Ghost is doomed to roam the night and spend his days suffering in Purgatory. It is on one of these nights that the Ghost spins his woeful tale to Hamlet, a tale that will most certainly drive Hamlet to revenge.

It is revealed to Hamlet that the widely claimed story of his death is, in fact, false:

“So the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused” (1.5.43-45).

The Ghost’s death was most unpleasant. While sleeping in the orchard, his brother poured a poison in his ear, which quickly entered his bloodstream and spread throughout his body. This poison caused instant sores and scabs to appear on his body as that of a leper, “lazar-like.” In 1.5.71-73 the Ghost states,

“A most instant tetter barked about

Most lazer-like with vile and loathsome crust

All my smooth body.”

This metaphor brings about the image that the sores and scabs covering his body resembled the bark of a tree.

His death was so sudden, the Ghost was not able to participate in the last rites of a Christian as stated in 1.5.77-79:

“Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled

No reckoning made but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.”