What atmosphere is established at the beginning of act 1, scene 1 in Hamlet? Explain.

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Hamlet's opening scene establishes a foreboding atmosphere, rich with the supernatural. There's an element of mystery here, with Francisco on guard duty, and Bernardo appearing to relieve him. As Horatio and Marcellus arrive, the conversation turns towards the appearances of a ghost, only for the ghost himself to...

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Hamlet's opening scene establishes a foreboding atmosphere, rich with the supernatural. There's an element of mystery here, with Francisco on guard duty, and Bernardo appearing to relieve him. As Horatio and Marcellus arrive, the conversation turns towards the appearances of a ghost, only for the ghost himself to appear before them. The ghost is silent, and leaves shortly after. (Later in that same scene, the ghost will re-appear, and exit once again.)

At this point, most of the details concerning the ghost are a mystery. We know that this is the ghost is of the former king (or at least that the ghost takes on the appearance of the former king), and in the course of this scene, he is identified as an inauspicious omen for the future, but even so, there's a lot we don't yet know. Furthermore, the ghost's silence only intensifies that sense of mystery about the character, as well as his presence, as he looms within the scene.

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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.

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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.   

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