Act I – Scene.i
On the battlements of Castle Elsinore, Bernardo arrives
to relieve Francisco of his watch. Horatio and Marcellus arrive and greet Francisco.
They talk of the ghost they have seen ‘this apparition’. Marcellus has invited Horatio to come and see the ghost for himself. Horatio doubts the men’s reports, but before Bernardo can reaffirm what he has seen, the ghost appears. Horatio admits that he can see the ghost himself and he recognizes it as the recently deceased King Hamlet. As quickly as it had appeared, the ghost disappears. Horatio is dumbstruck at the sight he has seen, the ghost of King Hamlet dressed in his armour that he wore when he conquered King Fortinbras of Norway.
Horatio thinks that there is a message here, for the Norwegian King’s son
has just declared war on the Danes. Bernardo wonders if the ghost signifies doom for the Danes in the forthcoming war with the Norwegians.
The ghost reappears and Horatio calls out for it to stay, but with the
coming of the dawn, the ghost disappears just as the darkness gives way to light.
They decide that Prince Hamlet should be informed.
This opening scene is full of atmosphere of thick mists and ghosts.
Shakespeare immediately sets the scene, which will be prevalent throughout
the whole play, which is concerned with what is truth and what is illusion.
The ghost appears, but is it really there?
Does it signify good, or is it the work of the devil?
These are the main criteria for the play right up until the end of Act IV.
In this first scene, Shakespeare introduces certain aspects of
duality. Fortinbras, whose father has been defeated, is obliged to obtain vengeance for his father’s death, and so declares war on Denmark. This will mirror Hamlet’s actions in the forthcoming
Another point that Shakespeare is clear to emphasize in these European
states is that a son must obey his father’s orders, no matter what is entailed, even if it means war, murder or chaos. Because of this threat from Norway, all Denmark is preparing for war.
The reader should remember that the Elizabethan audience believed in ghosts,
and normally they represent the spirit of God as opposed to witches, who were sent by the devil. The appearance of ghosts could convey a variety of meanings.
In this instance, the appearance of this particular ghost, dressed in his
armour signifies that he could be a soldier returning to complete a task.
There are clearly religious undertones in this play, and scholars argue
whether it represents Shakespeare’s own Roman Catholic point of view, and he uses Hamlet to express this in Protestant Elizabethan England.
The bulk of the play takes place within the walls of Elsinore Castle, which Hamlet later describes as a
prison. The walls of the castle will witness many cruel deeds, which will have a dramatic influence on all those contained within the walls.