Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456
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.
Horatio begins questioning the ghost, but it disappears without responding. Pale and trembling, Horatio admits that the ghost is indeed real, noting that it wore King Hamlet’s battle armor. Horatio concludes that the appearance of the ghost signifies that something terrible is about to happen in Denmark. He recalls 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 once 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.
Now switching topics, Claudius reveals that young Fortinbras has been calling for Denmark to surrender the lands lost by his father. 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 not to return to school in Wittenburg, Germany. When Gertrude echoes her husband’s request for Hamlet to stay, he reluctantly agrees, and everyone exits except Hamlet.
Alone, Hamlet laments the fact that God has made suicide a sin, complaining that life feels cursed and pointless. He bemoans his mother’s decision to marry his uncle—a man Hamlet believes cannot compare to his father—so soon after King Hamlet’s death. Hamlet knows he mustn't voice his disapproval, even though keeping quiet is breaking his heart. He is interrupted by the arrival of Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo, who have come to tell him about King Hamlet’s ghost. Surprised, Hamlet agrees to try to meet the ghost later that night. After they leave, Hamlet declares that the presence of his father’s ghost makes him suspect “foul play.”
The first two scenes of Hamlet introduce the sense of unease and mystery that will pervade the rest of the play. The story begins on a dark, cold night—so dark, in fact, that Barnardo and Francisco cannot see one another. Protocol dictates that the guard on duty (Francisco) ask the relieving guard (Barnardo) to declare his identity. Barnardo’s breach of protocol in fearfully asking “Who’s there?” first bespeaks his nervous and uneasy state, suggesting from the very first line of the play that something is amiss in Elsinore. We soon learn that the guards have good reason to be on edge: the ghost of the recently deceased King Hamlet has begun to regularly appear at midnight—a time that is often associated with the supernatural. Horatio confirms that the ghost is an omen of something terrible to come: “But in the gross and scope of my opinion, / This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” The unease brought about by King Hamlet’s ghost echoes the uncertainty brought on by the recent changes at court. King Hamlet’s brother, Claudius, has assumed the throne and married his late brother’s wife and, in doing so, has upset the natural order of the court. The ghost of King Hamlet acts as both a symbol and a symptom of this disruption, foreshadowing that more chaos will follow.
The opening scenes also set up two of the play’s key themes: appearance versus reality and deception. With his polished speech at the beginning of scene 2, Claudius attempts to smooth over the major changes that have recently occurred in the royal family. Though Claudius claims to be grieving the death of his brother, the decision to almost immediately marry his brother’s wife is undeniably scandalous. Claudius callously remarks that Hamlet’s “unmanly grief” over the recent death of his father is unreasonable, suggesting that Claudius's own grief may not be sincere and leaving both Hamlet and the audience skeptical of his true motives.
The theme of appearance versus reality is underscored by Prince Hamlet’s behavior. While Claudius’s formal speech and superficially gracious language is meant to give the impression of a well-ordered court, Hamlet undermines Claudius’s dignified performance with double-entendre and sarcasm: “A little more than kin, and less than kind!” Throughout the play, Hamlet will often use sarcasm or satire to cut through the pretense and superficial pleasantries of others, as he does during the following exchange with his friend Horatio:
My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.
I prithee do not mock me, fellow student.
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.
Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.
Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Hamlet demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to false appearances in this scene. He assures his mother that he is truly grieving but also acknowledges that outward displays of sorrow—such as weeping, sighing, or wearing black—are a mere performance of grief that may or may not match what one truly feels inside. Hamlet is particularly critical of his mother, who he feels has acted falsely herself by transferring her love to Claudius so soon after the death of her beloved husband:
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman.
It is important to note, however, that Hamlet engages in deception as well. His soliloquy reveals that he strongly disapproves of his mother and uncle’s conduct, yet Hamlet knows that he must not reveal his true feelings: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” Throughout the play, false appearances and deception will continue to dominate interactions at Elsinore Castle, and uncertainty over what is real will eventually consume Prince Hamlet and those around him.
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