What atmosphere is established at the beginning of the first scene of Act I in Hamlet?Explain. ACT 1. SCENE 1

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Compared in its artistry to the stirring opening scene of Macbeth, Scene 1 of Act I of Hamlet generates a mystifying atmosphere as it opens in media res, then flashes back to the origin of King Hamlet's conflict, only to fast forward to what might occur, and, finally to return to the present. This movement of time with images of death hovering over each challenges the audience to focus carefully upon events as they must try to put clues together and predict what will happen.

It is with apprehension that Horatio speaks of King Hamlet's ghost as the "dreaded sight, twice seen" which is most foreboding; in fact, he alludes to it and the other visions "As harbingers preceding still the fates" since the ghost of King Hamlet is dressed in armor just as he was when he battled the Norwegian King Fortinbras and won his lands from him.  This "king that was and is the question of these wars" (1.1.125), is a warning figure of problems to come, Horatio believes, because the prince Fortinbras has built up troops of "lawless resolutes" and has ships built that he plans to regain this land that was forfeited.

With the introduction of the supernatural element of the ghost, as well as the flashbacks and fast forwards that forebode danger and unrest, the atmosphere is most unsettling for both audience and Hamlet, the "prince of hesitation," as critic Harold Bloom names him.   

janihash24 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Really, the opening scene of Hamlet is like a prototype for the beginning of a horror movie: it's night, the fog is so thick the soldiers can't recognize each other, and an air of foreboding and dread pervades the place. All this is preparing us for the appearance of the Ghost, which gives the audience both a tingle of anticipation, and a shiver of fear.

Horatio's initial skepticism ("Tush, tush, 'twill not appear"), is quickly dispelled, and he is as awed and, frankly, frightened as the sentries are, but, being well acquainted with the significance of omens, he is inclined to attribute the appearance of the specter to events happening in the country. When the Ghost reappears, and they try to halt it physically, and cannot, Horatio is ready to prepare his friend, Hamlet, for something that will challenge his beliefs and unsettle him even further.

All this is vital to establishing an atmosphere of unease, and a sense of being unable to grasp what is real and what is not.