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William Shakespeare



The opening moments of Hamlet are among the most excitingly eerie in all drama. They establish at once the uneasiness, suspicion, and gloom that have pervaded Denmark since King Hamlet's death and Queen Gertrude's remarriage. The scene is the battlement or guard tower of Elsinore Castle at night. Barnardo, a guard, sees someone approaching, and calls out the customary challenge, "Who's there?" Barnardo is the relief guard, and the man actually on duty, Francisco, challenges him right back with, "Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself." Barnardo identifies himself, and as they converse you learn that Francisco's watch has been uneventful ("Not a mouse stirring"), that it is after midnight on a "bitter cold" night, and that Francisco is "sick at heart" for reasons he does not explain.


Almost every line in this tense, compact little exchange will have its echo later in the play. The confusion over who is on guard is like a miniature replica of the larger question: Who is ruling Denmark? "Long live the King!" is Barnardo's password, but the king is dead, and this irony hangs over the entire story. Francisco's heartsickness is another sign, the first of a series of references to sickness, disease, and corruption (the word literally means the rotting of flesh) that make up the play's most important pattern of images. Not only Francisco, but all of Denmark is sick.

The guards are joined by Barnardo's partner on duty, Marcellus, and by Horatio. Marcellus has invited Horatio to watch with them for the ghost they say they've seen twice. Horatio is skeptical, and sneers, "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear." They sit down while Barnardo launches into the story of how they saw the spirit last night, just as the clock struck one- and just as he says the words, the ghost appears, "In the same figure, like the King that's dead." Whether the ghost is a devil disguised as a dead man, or a spirit risen from the dead, is something you will have to wait to discover. Or is the ghost, as some critics have claimed, a mere hallucination, existing only in the minds of the characters? The ghost conveys by gesture that it has something to say, but when Horatio pleads with it to speak, it stalks away.

"Is not this something more than fantasy?" Barnardo asks, and the formerly skeptical Horatio is now forced to agree with Marcellus that there is indeed a ghost and that it does look like the late king-dressed as it is in the armor he wore in battle against Norway. In Horatio's opinion, this apparition "bodes some strange eruption to our state." This brings Marcellus to ask why the Danes are again making preparations for war. Horatio can tell him only what the rumor is: The late King Hamlet defeated Fortinbras of Norway and seized his lands. Young Fortinbras, hot-tempered like his father, is now scraping together a band of mercenaries to take back this fairly won territory. Marcellus thinks the ghost may be a good omen, but Horatio, who is "a scholar," reminds Marcellus that both earth and heaven showed omens of disaster in Rome before Julius Caesar's assassination:

The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets,

(lines 128-29)


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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