What is the prevailing atmosphere in act 1, scene 1 of Hamlet?

The atmosphere in act 1, scene 1 of Hamlet is one of suspense and tension. The setting of the castle's ramparts at night, the appearance of the ghost, and Horatio's discussion of omens contributes to the sense of mystery and unease. The fact that young Fortinbras is marching an army towards Denmark adds to the scene's tension. 

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An atmosphere of eerie foreboding and anxious unease permeates the first act of this play. The setting—the ramparts of the castle in the middle of the night—lends an eerie, Gothic backdrop to the scene, while the several appearances of the ghost bring the supernatural to the forefront.

The appearance of the ghost frightens Horatio and the guards. Horatio fears it is a bad omen, a sign that something terrible is about to happen. He states,

This bodes some strange eruption to our state.

To add to the strangely unsettled atmosphere, Horatio describes for the guards similar happenings before the death of Julius Caesar, saying that

the sheeted dead

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.

The eerie appearance of the silent ghost of the dead king is framed as a sign that there is some rupture in the ordered universe that is allowing the dead to escape their ordinary places. Horatio assumes that something is deeply wrong if this is occurring. Adding to the anxiety, the guards ask him about all the war preparations that have been going on night and day. Horatio explains that the young Fortinbras is marching with an army towards Denmark in the attempt to retake lands lost by his father to Denmark.

War is in the air, ghosts are on the loose: as an audience, we are primed to anticipate dark happenings.

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In the opening scene of Hamlet, Shakespeare establishes a tense, unsettling atmosphere as the two sentries stand guard outside Elsinore Castle on a dark, cold night. The presence of the sentries indicates the possibility of conflict, and the dark, uncomfortable setting contributes to the foreboding atmosphere. On the outskirts of Elsinore, the sentries are removed from society, which contributes an element of isolation to the setting. Marcellus and Horatio then appear and begin to discuss the ambiguous apparition that has been haunting the battlements. As Bernardo attempts to elaborate on the apparition, the Ghost appears but refuses to respond to Horatio's inquiries. The Ghost's appearance and silence add to the mysterious, unsettling atmosphere of the opening scene as the audience shares Horatio and Marcellus's concerns regarding its motivation.

In addition to the Ghost's appearance, Horatio voices his concerns regarding the state of Denmark and explains to Marcellus why they are standing guard and preparing for war. Horatio says that Fortinbras's son is planning an invasion and that Denmark’s soldiers are preparing to defend the country. Barnardo and Horatio also wonder whether the Ghost's appearance is associated with the impending military conflict, and Horatio mentions that similar omens appeared before Julius Caesar's assassination.

The Ghost reenters the scene and once again refuses to speak to Horatio, who is determined to inform Prince Hamlet about the enigmatic apparition. Overall, Shakespeare manages to cultivate an atmosphere of mystery, tension, and fear surrounding the dark setting, the enigmatic Ghost, and the impending military conflict. The audience is on edge and curious about the nature of the apparition and how the impending conflict will influence the play’s story line.

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In act one, scene one of Hamlet, Shakespeare goes through great lengths to establish an atmosphere of suspense. In the scene, Bernardo and Marcellus, two sentries, and Horatio, a scholar, have an encounter with a ghost. I mention their professions because Bernardo and Marcellus, being guards on duty, rely on their eyes and other senses to perceive the world around them. In a similar vein, Horatio, a well-versed and knowledgeable man, makes use of his experiences and deep knowledge to help guide him.

All three of these men at first disbelieve what has appeared before them. Bernardo and Marcellus need Horatio in order to confirm what their eyes have seen, and Horatio will "not let belief take hold of him" (1.1. ln. 29) until he's seen the ghost for himself. Upon seeing the apparition with his own eyes, Horatio is said to "tremble, and look pale" (1.1. ln. 64).

In addition to suspense established by a ghost story, this scene establishes two important, recurring elements in the play: the reliability of what our senses are telling us and the consequences of having an unexpected truth thrust upon us.

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While in his famous essay on the play T S Eliot describes Hamlet as “certainly an artistic failure” because of all of the confusion in it, he still considers the first scene of Hamlet more economical and effective than Shakespeare’s other plays because he creates his atmosphere in a mere 22 lines.  He identifies cold and fear (rather than suspense) as the prevailing atmosphere, accomplished by Barnardo, who nervously steals the sentry’s words; the setting of the midnight hour; Francisco saying “I am sick at heart”; the pace of the exchange between all four characters on stage; Horatio’s remark that only  “a piece of him” is present; and then finally Horatio’s question about the ghost, scarily referred to as “this thing’ (line 21).

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I would add that the suspenseful atmosphere in Act I.i also helps develop the existential theme that runs throughout the play.  The night guards do not trust their own eyes when they think they see a ghost; rather than trusting themselves they must call upon the scholar Horatio to verify their finding.  When Horatio sees the ghost as well, the guards take it as proof of the apparition.  Many Elizabethans believed that only a scholar could initiate discussion with a ghost, so it is puzzling to them that Horatio is unsuccessful in his efforts to speak to the apparition.  The guards assume that the apparition wishes to see Hamlet, who will surely have his own laundry list of questions about the ghost - questions which will drive the plot in the rest of Act I and much of Act II.

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The prevailing atmosphere would be one of suspense.  Shakespeare introduces the ghost immediately, and this ghost appears twice amidst discussions of why it has appeared and what it could possibly want.  The audience has a sense of the mystery along with the characters.  The scene also serves to introduce some characters and the conflict with Fortinbras.

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