Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Barnardo, Francisco, and Marcellus: sentinels

Horatio: Hamlet’s close friend and confidante

Ghost: of Hamlet’s father, the former King of Denmark

Just after the striking of twelve, Francisco is relieved of his watch by Barnardo and Marcellus, who have entreated Horatio to stand with them this night to witness the reappearance of the dead king’s apparition. The Ghost appears and disappears twice but does not speak to the four, who decide to tell Hamlet in the morning. They note that a Ghost often portends grave events, and believe the King’s Ghost is related to the impending war with young Fortinbras of Norway, who seeks to regain the lands his late father lost in battle with the dead King of Denmark, Hamlet’s father.

The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears for the second time to Barnardo, Marcellus, and Francisco, who are this time accompanied by Horatio, Hamlet’s trusted friend and fellow student—perhaps his scholarly title lending credence to the apparition. When they persuade Hamlet to witness the sight, the third time is the charm; the heretofore silent Ghost speaks—but only to Hamlet, whom it has drawn apart, not to the others.

Thus begins one of the play’s recurrent motifs: indirection and deception. The various witnesses have different interpretations of the events. The officers assume “that this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch so like the King / That was and is the question of these wars” with young Fortinbras (109-11). Hamlet, however, learns that his father’s Ghost wants him, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love— / … [to] / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.23-25).