What is the technique and purpose of the opening scene of "Hamlet"?
The opening scene sets the stage for the play. "Hamlet" is a tragedy and it opens with a scene that begins at midnight on a cold night. There is a changing of the guards, letting the viewer know that there is a high degree of security in the land (preparing the viewer for the invasion by Fortinbras later in the play). Marcellus and Horatio come into the scene and immediately Marcellus asks Bernardo if the "thing" has walked again this night. This sparks curiosity in the viewer and soon we learn that the "thing" is the ghost of the recently deceased king. Horatio doesn't believe the ghost exists until he sees it a few lines later. The play is filled with intrigue as Hamlet tries first to determine if the ghost is telling him the truth, then he tries to figure out how to fulfill the ghost's request. The intrigue of Claudius trying to get rid of Hamlet is present also. And continually, we see Fortinbras and wonder exactly what he's up to until the final scene of the play. The technique used in the opening scene is meant to arouse the viewer's curiosity and let the viewer know that this is a tragedy filled with supernatural beings and political intrigue.
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.