Hamlet - Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 1

Summary

On a gun platform atop the battlements of Castle Elsinore, Officer Barnardo arrives to relieve sentinel Francisco of his watch. Barnardo challenges Francisco to identify himself first, and the two exchange small talk about the weather. Francisco complains, “For this relief much thanks, ’tis bitter cold. / And I am sick at heart.”

Horatio and Marcellus enter and greet Francisco, identifying themselves as loyal Danish subjects, and Francisco exits. Marcellus asks Barnardo if he has seen “this thing,” “this apparition” tonight, and Barnardo assures him that he has seen nothing. Marcellus tells Barnardo that he has invited Horatio to see the Ghost himself, as he trusts Horatio to “approve our eyes and speak to it.” Horatio doubts the Ghost will appear, but listens intently as Barnardo prepares to retell the tale of the Ghost’s previous visitation.

Before Barnardo can say much, however, the Ghost appears, and Marcellus encourages Horatio to address the spirit. Horatio cannot deny that he, too, sees the Ghost. All three men agree that the Ghost is real; in fact, they recognize it as the “majesty of buried Denmark” — the recently dead King Hamlet. They entreat the Ghost to stay and talk, but it dissolves into the night.

Saying he would not believe had he not seen for himself, Horatio is astounded to have seen the Ghost of King Hamlet dressed in the armor he wore when he conquered old King Fortinbras and defeated the Poles. He finds the king’s dress ironic because, at that moment, young Fortinbras — the dead Norwegian king’s son and namesake — has just declared war on the Danes, seeking to avenge his father’s death and take back the land King Hamlet took from old Fortinbras. Because the Danes are preparing for war against the Norwegians, Barnardo wonders if the Ghost portends doom for the Danes. Horatio shudders, recalling the omens that warned Julius Caesar of his imminent demise.

The Ghost reappears, and Horatio entreats it to stay. The crowing cock trumpets the arrival of morning, however, and Horatio realizes that no erring spirit can stay out in the daylight; they watch the Ghost disappear into the dissolving darkness. Certain that they have seen the Ghost of King Hamlet, they decide to inform Prince Hamlet.

Analysis

The spooky cold that Francisco describes as he and Barnardo exchange posts thoroughly sets the mood of the play, which Yale Professor Maynard Mack describes as “mysterious and equivocal, a mixture of bright surfaces and dark forces where what seems both is and is not.”

This scene shows very clearly the problem of discerning between appearance and reality. The Ghost appears, but is it really there? If it is there, is it really a devil assuming the king’s regal shape and garments? Distinguishing between truth and illusion is the focal dilemma of Act I and will challenge Hamlet right up to the play’s turning point in Scene 4 of Act IV. Barnardo’s questioning of Francisco introduces the idea that Hamlet’s world is upside-down. Protocol dictates that Francisco should question the newcomer, but here the interloper questions the guard. Francisco’s response reinforces the sense of malaise. His “sickness at heart” prefigures the tension of the ensuing tragedy, while the changing of the guard mirrors the tenuousness of the political climate of Denmark — the transition from one king to another and the arrival of the Prince whose rightful place on the throne has been usurped.

In this first scene of Hamlet, Shakespeare introduces a set of mirrors that will pervade throughout. Fortinbras, a young man whose father has been defeated by a foe and whose obligation is to avenge that father’s death and reclaim the conquered properties, serves as a foil for Hamlet. Several characters will reflect Hamlet, but Fortinbras is the first to be named in the play in whom we see a likeness to the Prince of Denmark.

Fortinbras has another significance to the play. The first scene presages an important thematic thread in Hamlet, that the passing of the torch from old to young inevitably carries the duty of the young to live up to their elders’ expectations. A son must obey a father’s instruction, no matter how unreasonable the directive might seem — even if the directive necessitates murder, war, or mayhem. In Scene 1, Horatio explains that, because Young Fortinbras is bent on avenging his father’s defeat at Old King Hamlet’s hand, all of Denmark prepares for war. A single covenant inexorably propels the events of the play and is the medieval truth that rules Hamlet’s life.

Horatio’s fear of the Ghost mirrors the prevailing attitude toward witches and ghosts among Elizabethans and Jacobeans. Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed in ghosts and closely linked apparitions with their religious fears of the devil’s power and hell’s dominion on earth. Like witches, ghosts were believed to be agents of an afterlife; unlike witches, however, they were not universally dreaded. While witches always represent the devil, ghosts might actually represent the spirit of God. A ghost could represent angel or devil to the Shakespearean sensibility.

According to the religious precepts of the time, anyone seeing a ghost must identify the ghost’s purpose and form. A ghost could be: (1) a hallucination, which was dangerously apt to be engendered by the devil, (2) a restless spirit returned to perform a deed left undone in life, (3) a specter seen as a prediction or warning sent as a gift from God, (4) a spirit returned from beyond the grave by divine permission, or (5) a devil disguised as a dead person. Characters in Hamlet test each of these possibilities within the course of the play.

The dead king’s armor suggests that the Ghost could be a soldier returned to finish a job left undone, an omen for the troubled country he once ruled and a spirit roaming with divine permission. Horatio dwells on the idea of portents, thus shedding another light on the play to illuminate several other motifs.

Horatio’s worrying about the impending attack on Denmark by Fortinbras and his Norwegians reveals another of the many mirrors that layer the play. Fortinbras’ honor compels him to attack the established Danes in order to avenge his father, despite the fact that he lacks the funds to pay his warriors. Old Fortinbras and Young Fortinbras, Old Hamlet and Young Hamlet, and Old Polonius and Young Laertes continually exemplify Shakespeare’s preoccupation with filial duty and devotion.

Marcellus’ reference to Christianity establishes the very Christian context of Hamlet. Marcellus notes that the Ghost stalks away when Heaven is invoked, and also mentions Christmas and “our savior’s birth.” These comments clearly define the religious perspective of the characters in the play, which reflect Shakespeare’s own reputedly Catholic point of view.

Act I, Scene 1, introduces imagery suggesting that Elsinore is itself a prison where impending war and disaster are inevitable, that forces beyond human control threaten all hope of happiness or well-being.

Glossary

unfold yourself to make known or lay open to view, especially in stages or little by little.

most carefully upon your hour exactly when you were expected.

rivals associates or companions in some duty.

liegemen loyal subjects.

pole Polaris, the North Star, long used by navigators as a reliable point of reference.

scholar a person with the necessary knowledge of Latin to exorcise a spirit. This was a common Elizabethan belief.

mark take notice of; heed.

Norway king of Norway.

sledded Polacks the Polish army traveling on sleighs or sleds.

jump precisely.

gross and scope general meaning.

divide distinguish.

prick’d spurred or urged on

seized of put in legal possession of a feudal holding; assigned ownership.

moiety competent sufficient portion.

gaged pledged.

unimproved mettle untested strength, courage, or character

skirts the outer or bordering parts; outskirts, as of a city.

Shark’d gathered indiscriminately; got by fraud or strategems.

lawless resolutes desperadoes.

question subject.

mote speck of dust.

palmy flourishing.

sheeted shrouded.

moist star moon.

precurse sign, indication.

harbingers persons or things that come before to announce or give an indication of what follorws; heralds

partisan a broad-bladed weapon with a long shaft carried by foot soldiers, used especially in the 16ty century.

extravagant and erring vagrant and wandering (both used in their original Latin sense — a common device used by Shakespeare).

confine prison.

probation proof.

no fairy takes Medieval Europeans believed that fairies stole children.

russet Now, usually a reddish-brown color, but here the warm gray tone of homespun cloth.

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