William Shakespeare provides considerable concrete information and numerous clues as to what happened in Elsinore in the months, weeks, and days preceding the beginning of the play’s action.
In act 1, scene 1, the audience learns that the former King Hamlet has died. This information is conveyed by two palace guards who discuss the apparition they saw the previous two nights, which strongly resembles the king. In the next scene, the brother of the late king, appears. From his speech, the audience learns that he has married King Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude. The identity of Prince Hamlet is established as the son of Hamlet Sr. and Gertrude. Furthermore, the prince did not inherit the throne; instead, Claudius, through his marriage, became king.
Young Hamlet, who had been studying in Germany, returned to Denmark after his father’s death. He deeply mourned his father and worried that his death was no accident. At various points in act 1, it is established that Hamlet’s grief continues to dominate his life and seems to have turned into the illness of melancholy (similar to modern-day depression). He became very angry with his mother, and as the play begins, he has not forgiven her for her quick remarriage.
Before Hamlet left for school, he had become romantically involved Ophelia, whose father is a high-level court advisor. It is possible that they had a sexual relationship and that Ophelia became pregnant. Hamlet’s melancholy has interfered with his ability to connect with her, and her father and brother have become opposed to their continuing as a couple.
The personal issues within the royal family have occurred within the context of ongoing political conflicts. Denmark and Norway have been at war, and the Danish forces have won some territory. The Danes are concerned that the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, will soon resume hostilities.