Hamlet, Act I

In the first act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the scene is set. We meet the mournful young prince Hamlet who feels wronged by his mother’s hasty marriage to her deceased husband’s brother…and by their incessant partying in a time of sorrow. We meet Ophelia, admired by Hamlet, her brother Laertes and father Polonius. Finally, we are handed a juicy bit of gossip (adultery and murder!), which give Hamlet his excuse to vent his rage against the tyrant King Claudius. (For a more detailed summary, look below.)

This is my first time reading Hamlet since I was in high school, and I’m looking at it through very different eyes this time around. For instance, I’ve always been under the impression that Polonius was ridiculous. But this time, he appeared long-winded, but his advice seemed sound enough. Is he really ridiculous, or just verbose? I was gratified upon reading Harold Jenkins’ endnotes, where he suggests that Polonius was not meant to be ridiculous but paternal. Emphasizing Polonius’ fatherly relationship develops Laertes’ role as an avenger against Hamlet later in the play. 

A phrase that jumped out at me on this reading was when the ghost told Hamlet (I.v): “Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught.” Interesting. Because I recall Hamlet being very lusty in his anger against the Queen later in the play. Do I remember wrongly? Or is Hamlet disobeying the ghost? I will have to read on and see. Also, what did the ghost mean by “taint not thy mind”? Was the it admonishing Hamlet to keep his mind clear? Because Hamlet either feigns madness or actually goes mad later in the play. Again, did Hamlet disobey the ghost? 

The final thing that struck me in Act I was the questionable nature of the ghost. If Horatio (a clear-headed scholar) hadn’t believed in the ghost, I would suspect that Hamlet had hallucinated it in a fit of psychotic rage. Hamlet does incoherently rant during the scenes with the ghost. In his endnotes, Harold Jenkins suggests another alternative – perhaps Shakespeare meant the ghost to be a devil – an evil apparition sent to drive young Hamlet to vengeful madness. After all, the ghost has gone below stage, which represents Hell in classical theater. In a later scene (II.ii), Hamlet even questions the nature of the ghost: “The spirit that I have seen May be a devil.” However, based on all the swearing which closes Act I, Hamlet does seem to believe the ghost’s story, even if the ghost’s nature is questionable.

Perhaps I’ll be able to answer these questions as I read on…


Claudius and Gertrude
Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film

Act I, Scene ii: Only months after King Hamlet’s death, his brother Claudius has married the Queen, and wrested the throne Denmark. Claudius scolds Hamlet mourning the  dead King and then leaves to continue reveling in his new-found power. Left behind, Hamlet bemoans the disgraceful marriage…How could his mother have married so quickly? And to such a man?! Horatio then rushes in to tell Hamlet about the king’s ghost. Hamlet decides that he MUST see this for himself.

Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius
The Royal Shakespeare Production 2009
Directed by Gregory Doran

Act I, Scene iii: Ophelia believes that Hamlet loves her, but her brother Laertes and her father Polonius both caution her against the young prince. Laertes believes that Hamlet, as heir to the throne, will not choose Ophelia for future Queen. Polonius agrees. “Hamlet is young!” he says. “Don’t set your heart on him.” Despite her assertions that Hamlet is courting her in a gentlemanly manner, Ophelia agrees to be cautious. After a long-winded speech from Polonius, Laertes departs for France.

Plate XLIV from Volume II
Boydell’s Shakespeare Prints
Image taken from Emory’s Shakespeare Illustrated

Act I, Scene iv and v: It’s night, and Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are looking for the ghost. When the apparition appears, it beckons Hamlet to follow. Hamlet desperately tries to follow, while his friends hold him back. Finally, he orders them to let him be.

Once alone, the ghost demands that Hamlet avenge his death. But it admonishes: “Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught.” Hamlet swears to avenge his father’s death, and then forces Horatio and Marcellus swear an oath of silence.

2 thoughts on “Hamlet, Act I

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