Act I, Scene i

Synopsis of Hamlet Act I scene i

It is midnight at the royal castle of Elsinore in Denmark. Barnardo is on guard, outside in the darkness. He hears someone approach, and challenges the newcomer, Francisco, who has come to take over guard-duty. Then two other people arrive — Marcellus, another guard, and Horatio, who has newly arrived at the castle and who is a friend of Prince Hamlet.

We soon learn that the guards have twice seen a ‘dreaded sight', but that Horatio is sceptical, and thinks they have imagined it.

Ghost of Hamlet's fatherAt this stage the audience is not told the nature of this ‘sight', but suddenly a ghost appears; it is wearing armour and looks just like the old King, Prince Hamlet's father, who has recently died. This is the figure the guards have seen before, and even Horatio is compelled to admit that it is not a figment of imagination.

Horatio tries to speak to the Ghost but it will not respond and ‘stalks away'. The guards and Horatio discuss what this means. They wonder if it has something to do with the preparations for war which are going on in Denmark.

Horatio explains that Denmark may come under attack from Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, whose father was defeated in a duel by Old Hamlet many years before, losing lands in Norway which Prince Fortinbras wants to regain by force.

The ghost of Old Hamlet re-appears, but again, even though Horatio tries to get it to communicate with them, it will not respond. The cock crows (indicating that dawn is near) and the Ghost leaves. Horatio feels that the Ghost may speak to ‘young Hamlet', the son of the dead king, and they go to find him.

Commentary on Hamlet Act I scene i

Who's there? - This tells us that the scene is set in darkness; Barnardo cannot see Francisco. On the Elizabethan stage (see The Theatre: Design of theatres) plays were performed by natural light, and the playwright indicates by such lines what the audience needs to imagine.

Darkness also adds to the air of mystery and suspense that characterises this scene.

The play opens here with a question. There are numerous questions asked, and often unanswered, during the course of the play. This particular question is also significant in that it asks about identity — one of the important ideas that the play draws to our attention. (See Themes and significant ideas: Identity.)

This dreaded sight - The question of whether or not the Ghost is a devil sent to tempt him is one that will pre-occupy Hamlet for much of the play. (See the comments on Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement.)

Seen of us - The fact that the Ghost is seen simultaneously by more than one person is unique in Shakespeare.

More on the appearance of ghosts: Usually, as for example with the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth or that of Caesar in Julius Caesar, a ghost appears only to one person, usually its murderer, and could therefore be interpreted as being simply in the mind of the one who supposedly sees it. But the ghost of Old Hamlet is seen here by four people — it is therefore a ‘real' phenomenon.

Notice, however, that when the Ghost appears to Hamlet in Gertrude's chamber in Act III scene iv, Gertrude cannot see it.

Thou art a scholar - Possibly suggesting that Horatio should speak Latin, for centuries the language of the Roman Catholic Church (see Social/political context: The Catholic heritage) and believed to be effective in exorcising spirits.

Fortinbras - The name means ‘strong in arm'. Throughout the play, Shakespeare contrasts men of action (and actors) with thinkers and philosophers. (See Themes and significant ideas: False appearances) Fortinbras is one of three sons in the play who seek revenge, and it is he who is to rule in Denmark at the end of the play after the death of Prince Hamlet.

Saviour's birth - Marcellus associates dawn and the coming of light with Christmas, the time when the Christian Church celebrates the birth of Christ. This is a holy time when, says Marcellus, no evil spirits can harm mankind.

Here Shakespeare clearly sets the play in a Christian universe, which has important implications for ideas of vengeance and forgiveness. (See Themes and significant ideas: Vengeance; Mercy and forgiveness).

Investigating Hamlet Act I scene i

  • Analyse the language of the opening lines (to line 25):
    • How does Shakespeare create a sense of tension?
    • Why do you think he starts the play here, rather than with scene two?
  • Focus on the role of Horatio throughout this scene. What kind of man does he seem to be?
  • Make notes on the picture of Denmark that is drawn in this scene:
    • Why might Shakespeare wish to depict a country on the brink of war?