What is the significance of the first line in Hamlet? In the beginning of the play, Barnardo asks, "Who's there?" Reading into it, what deeper meanings does it hold?

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The first line operates on several different levels. Dramatically, the line captures the attention of the audience, posing several questions. Firstly, who is the man speaking the line? He seems frightened, putting the audience on edge as well—they're wondering the same thing. This hooks the audience right away, giving them...

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The first line operates on several different levels. Dramatically, the line captures the attention of the audience, posing several questions. Firstly, who is the man speaking the line? He seems frightened, putting the audience on edge as well—they're wondering the same thing. This hooks the audience right away, giving them an unanswered question and creating intrigue.

Secondly, the question "Who's there?" also foreshadows the appearance of the ghost of King Hamlet and the ghost's ambivalent identity. No one—not the guards, not Hamlet, not the audience—ever really knows whether the ghost is truly the king's consciousness or a demon come to damn them.

The ambivalence extends to much of the play as well, which gives this brief opening line a great deal of power in hindsight. Like the guards in the opening scene, the audience is on edge as to what's going on in Denmark. Uncertainty about the ghost, the throne, the actions of Fortinbras, and the psychology of several of the characters permeates every scene of the play. Therefore, it's fitting that this most ambiguous of plays begins with a frightened man asking a question in the dark of night.

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A brief addition: since the plays were performed in daylight, the line begins the "suspension of  disbelief" by telling the audience that it is nighttime in the play's reality.

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Shakespeare's audiences were typically noisy, restless and unruly, especially those standing in the pit. He liked to catch their attention quickly and quiet them down with a dramatic opening. By having Barnardo ask "Who's there?" he suggests that there is some imminent danger which makes this sentinel especially tense and apprehensive. Francisco's reply also suggests danger and fear.

Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

These two sentinels are even frightened of each other. It turns out that there are two reasons for them to be especially wary. One is that there is some danger of an invasion by the army of Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. Denmark is on a warlike footing. The other reason is that these two men have seen a ghost on the previous night, and they are afraid it might come back again. As Bernardo is telling Horatio about their experience, the ghost actually does reappear. So the tension that is created by the opening line, "Who's there?" continues to escalate and to hold the audience in rapt attention. This preliminary dialogue before the ghost appears is effective because it helps to establish a mood of fear and also enables the audience to recognize the ghost as a ghost when it does appear.

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