Hamlet: Act I, Scene i

BBC’s Dramatic Works of Shakespeare Collection
Image taken from Hyperion to a Satyr

Act I Scene i: 


Setting: Sentinels stand on the battlements of the castle

Characters

  • Barnardo, Marcellus, and Francisco of the King’s guard. 
  • Horatio, an educated gentleman, skeptical of ghosts, friend of Hamlet

Summary:

Twice recently, Barnardo and Marcellus have had their watch interrupted on the stroke of 1AM by an apparition in the form of the recently deceased King Hamlet. Fearing to speak to the ghost themselves, they had invited the skeptical scholar Horatio. Upon the tolling of the hour, the ghost appears, and Horatio calls out, charging it to speak. But the ghost stalks silently away. Our skeptical scholar (and therefore our audience) is now convinced that the ghost is not a fantasy. Aggrieved, Horatio suggests that the ghost is an ill omen. 

The three men then begin gossiping about an upcoming war, for which the ghost might be a portent. Thus, the audience is educated: Many years before, the late King Hamlet had slain in battle Fortinbras, the King of Norway. King Hamlet had confiscated some treasures and lands in that battle, which were given to young Hamlet upon his father’s death. The son of the late King Fortinbras, also named Fortinbras, has decided (after brooding for 30 years) to avenge his father’s death and seize the lands back from young Hamlet. He’s been gathering a band of misfits to wage war on Denmark. (This band of misfits apparently morphs into a well-organized army by the end of the play…nice to have footnotes to point out all the inconsistencies!) 

Gossip-fest complete, the ghost reappears and Horatio calls out, commanding it to speak. The ghost is about to answer when the cock crows. The ghost starts, and fades away as on a dreadful summons. Horatio decides that perhaps the ghost didn’t speak because it wants young Hamlet. The men resolve to tell Hamlet about the ghost.

My thoughts: Suspenseful first scene. I think it’s fascinating the way Shakespeare has managed to introduce several very important points into the scene, without distracting from the ghost. We now know that Horatio is a skeptical scholar, that the ghost is likely the spirit of the dead king, and that Denmark is about to be attacked by the vengeful young King of Norway. All that information flowed so smoothly into the dialog that the audience wouldn’t even realize they were being educated. I also like the suspense. What does the ghost want to say? We’ll have to wait and see.

See all my posts about Hamlet on my Hamlet Master Post.

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