Hamlet Act I, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act I, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

Act I, Scene 1:

The play opens at midnight in Denmark as two sentries, Francisco and Barnardo, stand guard over Elsinore Castle. Barnardo has come to relieve Francisco of his watch, but they cannot quite see one another in the dark, causing Barnardo to call out, “Who’s there?” Francisco recognizes Barnardo’s voice and says he is glad to be going to bed after a chilly and uneasy shift. Before Francisco leaves, the pair is joined by Marcellus (a fellow guard) and Horatio (Prince Hamlet’s friend from school). Francisco leaves, and Marcellus explains that he has brought Horatio with him to witness an apparition—one that Barnardo and Marcellus claim to have seen the past two nights. Horatio is skeptical, but he patiently listens to Barnardo’s recollection of how the apparition appeared the previous night. Barnardo is interrupted, however, by the appearance of a ghost bearing a strong resemblance to the deceased King Hamlet. Astounded and terrified, Horatio begins questioning the ghost, but it disappears without responding. A pale and trembling Horatio admits that the ghost is indeed real and remarks that it was wearing King Hamlet’s battle armor. Horatio concludes that the appearance of the ghost signifies that something terrible is about to happen in Denmark. He mentions that Fortinbras, the former king of Norway, once arrogantly challenged King Hamlet to a one-on-one duel. King Hamlet killed Fortinbras and (as per the terms of the duel) claimed some of Norway’s land. Now, the late Fortinbras’s headstrong son—also named Fortinbras—is recruiting men to reclaim the lands his father lost to Denmark. Barnardo and Horatio wonder whether the ghost’s appearance has something to do with this pending military conflict, and Horatio notes that similar omens have appeared before other terrible events, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar. Suddenly, the ghost reappears, and Horatio again tries to speak with it. The ghost disappears, however, when a rooster crows to signal the dawn. Horatio says they should tell young Prince Hamlet about the king’s ghost, believing that the ghost will agree to speak to his son.

Act I, Scene 2:

The next morning, the new king of Denmark, Claudius, addresses his Council, accompanied by his new wife, Gertrude. Claudius—who is Prince Hamlet’s uncle—announces that even though the grief over his brother’s recent death is still fresh, he decided to marry his dead brother’s wife and make her his queen. He describes this as a time of mixed emotions (“In equal scale weighing delight and dole”) and thanks the Council for their advice. Switching topics, Claudius reveals that young Fortinbras has been calling for Denmark to surrender the lands lost by his father, the elder Fortinbras. Claudius explains that he will be entrusting Voltemand and Cornelius, his ambassadors to Norway, with a letter for Norway’s current king (Fortinbras’s uncle). In the letter, Claudius will inform the old and bedridden king of Fortinbras’s recent aggression and ask him to rein in his nephew. After Voltemand and Cornelius leave, Laertes , the son of one of Claudius’s top advisors, asks for permission to return to France, having come to Denmark for Claudius’s coronation. After granting permission to Laertes, Claudius turns to his nephew, Prince Hamlet, and asks why Hamlet is still so obviously mourning his father. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, urges Hamlet to “cast off” his sorrow, reminding him that everyone eventually dies. Hamlet replies that his grief runs so deep that his mournful appearance is but a poor reflection of his true sadness. Claudius steps in and tells Hamlet that while a son is expected to mourn his father to some extent, to mourn too much is stubborn, unreasonable, and unmanly. Claudius says he hopes Hamlet will shake off his grief and start to think of Claudius as a father, especially since Hamlet is next in line to take the throne. With this in mind, Claudius asks Hamlet...

(The entire section is 1,485 words.)