Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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What is the technique used in and purpose of the opening scene of Hamlet?

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The first line of the play, "Who's there?"—spoken in a commanding voice by an armed guard on a raised platform—instantly grabs the audience's attention and piques their interest. As the scene unfolds, the characters on stage ask leading questions that, when answered, give the audience insight into the events that have happened before the play takes place:

BERNARDO: Have you had quiet guard
FRANCISCO: Not a mouse stirring. . . .
FRANCISCO: Stand, ho! Who is there?
[Enter Horatio and Marcellus]
HORATIO: Friends to this ground. . . .
What, is Horatio there?
HORATIO: A piece of him. . . .
MARCELLUS: What, has this thing appear'd again to-night? (1.1.10–28)

The audience is left to wonder: what "thing" has reappeared tonight? Marcellus calls it "this dreaded sight" and "this apparition." Just as Bernardo starts to explain what the "thing" is to Horatio (and to the audience), the "thing" actually appears:

MARCELLUS: Peace! break thee off! Look where it comes
BERNARDO: In the same...

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The play opens during a bitterly cold night watch outside of the royal Danish palace. There is a changing of the guards: Bernardo replaces Francisco. Soon two more characters arrive, Horatio and Marcellus. We learn that Bernardo and Marcellus, two soldiers, have witnessed an extraordinary sight on both of the previous nights’ watches: the ghost of the former King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, has appeared before them in full armor. On this third night, they’ve welcomed Horatio, a scholar and a skeptic who has just arrived in Denmark, to verify their ghost sighting. Horatio initially expresses doubt that the ghost will appear. Suddenly, it does. The two soldiers charge Horatio to speak to the ghost but he does not. The ghost disappears just as suddenly as it arrived.

Soon after the ghost’s disappearance, Marcellus asks the other two why there has been such a massive mobilization of Danish war forces recently. Horatio answers, saying that the Danish army is preparing for a possible invasion byFortinbras, Prince of Norway. We learn that Fortinbras’ father (also named Fortinbras), was killed many years before in single combat with Old Hamlet, the now-deceased king whose ghost we have just seen. Now that Old Hamlet has died, presumably weakening the Danes, there is a rumor that Fortinbras plans to invade Denmark and claim that lands that were forfeit after his father’s death.

After Horatio has finished explaining this political backstory, the ghost of Old Hamlet appears once more. This time Horatio does try to speak to the ghost. When the ghost remains silent, Horatio tells Marcellus and Bernardo to try to detain it; they strike at the ghost with their spears but jab only air. A rooster crows just as the ghost appears ready to reply to Horatio at last. This sound startles the ghost away. Horatio decides to tell Prince Hamlet, Old Hamlet’s son, about the apparition, and the others agree.