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The irony here is that, for many of us who have read this play umpteen times, we have to return to long, long ago (to our very first reading of the play) to remember that ultimate suspense. Luckily, the universal Shakespeare is an excellent enough writer to succeed in bringing at least some of that suspense back for each subsequent reading.
For me there is no contest, the highest point of suspense is near the end of the duel. We know that the sword is tainted and that the pearl is poisoned. Both Hamlet and Laertes are scratched and Gertrude drinks from the cup! How (oh how!) will it end, allowing Hamlet to live up to the title of “tragic hero”! ?! The key is in Hamlet’s final revenge and Horatio’s “good night, sweet prince.” Ending with hope is always a plus.
Hamlet becomes very secretive when he sees his father's ghost. In Act 1, Scene 4, Hamlet and the night guardsmen see the ghost of King Hamlet. Horatio and Marcellus have seen the the ghost before. The suspense builds because the ghost has said nothing on the nights before when the guardsmen have seen it. On this night, Hamlet is with the night guardsmen, Horatio and Marcellus. The ghost insists that Hamlet follow it. The suspense builds for the reader as well as the characters. Marcellus fears that Hamlet will go with the ghost:
Look with what courteous action It waves you to a more private ground. But don’t go with it!Will Hamlet follow the ghost? What will the ghost have to say? These are all questions that cause the reader to be in suspense. Hamlet decides to follow the ghost:
If it will not speak, then I will follow it.Here, the reader is filled with great anticipation as to what the ghost has to say. When the ghost speaks, it is to say that he has been killed by the man who wears his crown: GHOST:
I find you ready, And if you were duller than the fat weed That rots itself in ease on the river bank, You wouldn’t move on this. Now, Hamlet, listen. The story goes that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent bit me. So the whole country of Denmark Is extremely abused by a lie about the Process of my death, but know, you noble youth, The serpent that poisoned and took your father's life Now wears his crown.
When Hamlet learns what his father's ghost has to say, Hamlet becomes very secretive. He orders that the night guardsmen keep the secret. Now, Hamlet is grief stricken. He now feels a responsibility to avenge his father's death. The reader begins to feel Hamlet's burden. The reader is in suspense as to whether or not Hamlet will follow through and kill his Uncle Claudius for murdering his father.
As the scenes unfold, the reader has sympathy for Hamlet. When he tries to avenge his father's death and accidentally kills Polonius, the suspense builds. The reader is concerned for Hamlet's safety. Will Claudius kill Hamlet before Hamlet can kill him? These are questions the reader ponders.
Another suspenseful moment is when Laertes and Hamlet fight. The reader is wondering who will win. Will Hamlet be killed before he can avenge his father's death. These are all moments of great suspense.
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