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HAMLET: LITERATURE SUMMARY / ANALYSIS
SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1
The scene opens with the changing of the guard outside Elsinore, the royal residence and court of the King of Denmark. Francisco is on guard, but is very happy to relieved by Bernardo and Marcellus. All three guards discuss the ghost that they have seen on previous nights. Bernardo and Marcellus have brought along a friend, Horatio. Horatio is skeptical and believes the so-called ghost is a figment of the guards' imaginations.
The ghost soon appears and looks like the recently deceased king. Horatio is struck with fear and wonder. When he tries to question the ghost, the apparition flees. The once skeptical Horatio is now convinced of the ghost's existence and believes it is a "fair and warlike form" of the late Danish King Hamlet. The fact that the ghost is wearing the King's armor, used in the defeat of the King of Norway, makes Horatio think that the ghost must mean something bad for the entire state of Denmark. Marcellus tells Horatio that the ghost has appeared in the same manner for the past two nights.
Marcellus asks Horatio to explain why Claudius, the new king, has been mustering the military resources of the country with such haste. He also remarks that a general spirit of unease and unrest pervades the kingdom, especially in the wake of King Hamlet's death. Horatio seizes the moment to narrate some important information about the present state of Denmark. The dead King Hamlet had defeated and slain Fortinbras, King of Norway, in battle. In accordance with the victory, all the lands belonging to Norway were ceded to Denmark. King Hamlet's sudden death gave young Fortinbras, the late Norwegian king's son, the opportunity for revenge against Denmark. The Nordic prince has raised an army of "lawless resolutes" who are willing to fight only for food and water; their explicit purpose in attacking Denmark is to recover the lands lost by Fortinbras. For this reason, Denmark has been put on alert, including night watches of which all three men are now a part. Bernardo remarks that the appearance of the ghost is probably a warning about the military threat looming over the country. Horatio, however, sees the ghost as an omen of bad times ahead for Denmark; he reminds the others of the unnatural phenomena that preceded Julius Caesar's assassination.
In the meantime, the ghost appears again, and Horatio calls on the apparition to answer his questions for the sake of the fate of Denmark. The ghost, however, remains silent and then departs. Horatio then tries to restrain the ghost from leaving by striking it; still, it vanishes. Marcellus thinks that they have committed a grievous error in striking the ghost of the late king. Horatio remarks that the ghost had "started like a guilty thing/ Upon a fearful summons" at the crowing of the cock. He recalls that traditionally the crowing of the cock is believed to awake the god of day and serve as a warning to all preternatural and erring spirits that the time has come to return to their confines. As dawn breaks, Horatio and the two officers decide to share the events of the night with Prince Hamlet, the late king's son.
In the first scene, an atmosphere of darkness and foreboding is immediately established. The castle battlements, the eerie midnight darkness, and the "bitter cold" all create a sense of dread as the change of guard takes place and the soldiers talk in fearful tones about the ghostly figure that they have seen. The soldier on duty, Francisco, feels "sick at heart" and eagerly welcomes Bernardo, even though he admits that his has been a "quiet guard." Francisco's sickness cannot be attributed merely to the coldness of the winter night and gloom of the castle ramparts. Rather it gives imaginative expression to the rottenness in the state of Denmark. It is significant that the play does not open with the introduction of the protagonist but with the evocation of the atmosphere of evil into which he will come. That Hamlet is or will quickly become a tragedy is clear from the first moments. In fact, Shakespeare marvelously establishes the place and mood within the first twenty lines of the play.
The changing of the guard creates tension. As control is shifted from one guard to another, security is momentarily compromised; therefore, the play begins on a tenuous note of vulnerability that is filled with symbolism. The changing of the guard is a representation of the recent change to a new government in the state of Denmark. The ghost then appears to heighten the tension, especially since he is dressed in the armor of the dead king. Horatio is struck with fear and awe at the sight. He appropriately questions the ghost by asking, "What art thou that usurp'st this time of night, / Together with that fair and warlike form/ In which the majesty of buried Denmark/ Did sometime March?" Horatio's choice of words is intentional and foreshadows the fact that Claudius has usurped the throne from Hamlet. The play will be filled with the theme of usurpation and wrongful rule.
Horatio has been brought to Elsinore because he is a "scholar;" the guards hope that he will be able to communicate with the apparition when it appears. The ghost, however, remains silent, refusing to answer Horatio's questions; its mysterious silence and quick departure further darken the atmosphere of the opening scene of the play. Horatio's education and intelligence, though not helpful in communicating with the ghost, are useful in explaining some relevant background about Norway and Denmark that are necessary for understanding the play. After Horatio's brief exposition, the ghost returns.
There has been much discussion about the nature and significance of the ghost, especially since it appears in the opening scene of the play. It is essential to understand the Elizabethan theological position regarding the spirit-world in order to appreciate the playwright's choice of an apparition to introduce his work. The most prominent theory of Elizabethan society was that a ghost was simply an illusion or hallucination. Accordingly, Horatio at first refuses to believe there is a ghost and accuses the guards of fantasizing; however, when the ghost appears, this theory is immediately cast aside.
Additional Elizabethan theories were that ghosts return to fulfill some deed left unperformed in life and to make predictions about the future.
Appropriately, Horatio charges the ghost to reveal if there is "any good thing to be done" by his presence and asks the ghost whether it is "privy to thy country's fate." When Horatio explains to Marcellus and Bernardo that the current mobilization of the military in Denmark is due to the threat of a Norwegian attack, it seems to them a convincing reason for the ghost's nocturnal wandering on the streets of Denmark. They believe that the ghost is attempting to bear warnings, even though he does not speak.
There are other still other Elizabethan explanations about ghosts. Supposedly spirits return from the grave because of sins committed in life. Hence, Horatio exhorts the ghost to reveal if it has hidden "treasure in the womb of earth, / For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death." Still another explanation was that a ghost is just the devil in disguise. Appropriately, Horatio and the other soldiers at once think the ghost is diabolical in nature; it seems to prove its devilish origin when it stalks away as Horatio charges it to speak in the name of heaven. In the course of the play, even Hamlet expresses doubt about the veracity of the Ghost and considers the possibility that the Ghost is simply a devil setting about to cause trouble.
Dawn is traditionally a symbol of hope and renewal, of light replacing darkness. In Christian tradition, Jesus is called the Light of the World, who is brought forward to disperse the evil ways of man. The Christian references to heaven and Marcellus' speech about the bird of dawn that sings all night during Christmas reinforces the idea that there is hope for Denmark. The disappearance of the apparition at dawn emphasizes the idea that the ghost is dark and malevolent, driven out by brightness. The light of dawn at the end of a dark and frightening night also gives hope that things will get better in the state of Denmark after a dark and frightening period of history. Unfortunately, there will be much tragedy before normalcy returns.
One final note in this first scene concerns the Prince of Norway, son of the defeated Fortinbras. Young Fortinbras aspires to recover the lands and power lost by his father, but he has yet to prove his "mettle." Claudius, the new King of Denmark, however, takes young Fortinbras seriously and activates the Danish military and places night guards to watch for the enemy. Hamlet also has a respect for Fortinbras, and during the course of the play, he praises Fortinbras as his ideal. While Hamlet procrastinates about avenging his father's murder, Fortinbras determinedly marches forth to reclaim his father's kingdom. Fortinbras' character is driven by chivalric heroism and spurs Hamlet onward in his quest for revenge.