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In the first scene of Hamlet, we are told that a ghost of some sort may have been about on the walls of Elsinore Castle. It is not the terror of supernatural menace that serves as the mood at the play’s start; Hamlet is not a ghost or horror story. The initial exchange between Barnardo and Francisco, starting with the former’s ‘‘Who's there?’’ and the latter’s counter-question, ‘‘Nay, answer me, stand and unfold thyself,’’ establishes the dominant mood and one of the principal thematic strands of the play, uncertainty. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, the Bard discloses the dramatic situation with remarkable economy. In Hamlet, by contrast, we do not know what the conflict at hand is or whether there is, in fact, any conflict whatsoever. Nearly two hundred lines are spoken before reference is made to young Hamlet. We do not encounter the Danish prince until the play’s second scene and have no idea about why he is so sullen until the end of that scene. Uncertainty, as opposed to threat, is the salient feature of the play’s atmosphere from the very start, and it is with doubt and uncertainty that Hamlet grapples until the play’s conclusion.
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