Hamlet

Hamlet Act 1, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

Read our modern English translation of this scene.
Summary
Analysis
Late at night, on the ramparts of Elsinore, Barnardo arrives to relieve his fellow sentinel Francisco of his post. As Barnardo approaches Francisco in the dark, both men are suspicious of one another, even though Francisco assures Barnardo his watch has been uneventful. As Francisco prepares to leave and go to bed, Barnardo urges him to tell Marcellus, another sentinel, and Horatio, a nobleman, to join him at his post. Right at that moment, Horatio and Marcellus arrive, announcing themselves as they enter as friends of Denmark and the king. They ask Francisco—slightly jealously—if he’s done for the night, then bid him goodbye as he exits.
From the very opening moments of the play, Shakespeare establishes an atmosphere of fear, distrust, and apprehension. It is clear that the nightly watch has become a fearsome endeavor, and that something—or someone—is frightening the very men charged with keeping Elsinore secure.
Themes
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
Marcellus and Horatio sleepily greet Barnardo before asking him if the “thing” has “appeared again.” Marcellus says that even though he and Barnardo have seen the “dreaded sight twice,” Horatio refuses to believe it’s real. Marcellus explains that’s why he’s brought Horatio along tonight—to see the “apparition” that has plagued the nightly watch. Horatio is skeptical that anything will appear, and so Barnardo begins telling him the story of the ghost. He has barely begun his tale when, surely enough, the ghost appears.
Hamlet is a play in which ghosts are real. By establishing that several characters can see the ghost, Shakespeare shows that it is not a figment of any one person’s imagination, and should be taken extremely seriously.
Themes
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
Marcellus and Barnardo marvel at the apparition, which is “in the same figure like the king that’s dead.” Marcellus urges Horatio, an educated “scholar” to speak to the ghost. Horatio confesses that he is full of “fear and wonder” as he gazes upon the ghost, which he, too, believes looks just like the dead King of Denmark. Horatio begins shouting at the apparition, demanding to know who—or what—it is, and ordering it to speak for itself. The ghost, however, begins moving away from the men wordlessly. Barnardo and Marcellus lament that Horatio has offended the ghost.
The fact that the ghost appears to be the recently-deceased King of Denmark is an ill portent—which all these men immediately recognize. In a world where the health of the country is tied to the health of its king, the appearance of an undead monarch predicts decay, unrest, and perhaps even evil at the heart of Denmark.
Themes
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
After the ghost exits, Barnardo remarks upon how pale Horatio looks, and asks the man if he’s all right. Horatio admits that he is shaken. He says that if he hadn’t seen the ghost with his own two eyes, he wouldn’t have believed it. He is mesmerized and perturbed by how much the ghost looks like the king—even down to his armor. Horatio says he believes the ghost’s appearance “bodes some strange eruption to our state.” In other words, he believes something bad is about to happen in Denmark.
Horatio’s reaction in this passage confirms that the ghost’s appearance bodes ill for the kingdom of Denmark. This scene foreshadows all the unrest—both spiritual and political—that will develop over the course of the play.
Themes
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
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Marcellus says he agrees with Horatio—he and the other sentinels have noticed how strict their schedule of nightly watches has become and have seen the forces within Elsinore building cannons, buying weapons, and readying ships. Horatio confesses that he has heard rumors swirling around the castle. He talks of how the deceased King Hamlet killed the King of Norway, Fortinbras, in a duel—which meant that, according to an agreement between the kings, Denmark absorbed certain Norwegian lands. Now, Horatio says, he has heard that Fortinbras’s son—also named Fortinbras—has gathered up an army and plans to sail for Denmark, retake his father’s lost lands, and restore glory to Norway. Horatio says that they should all take the portent of the ghost very seriously and heed its warnings.
Shakespeare introduces in this passage the struggle between Norway and Denmark—a struggle in which a son, determined to regain his father’s honor, sets in motion plans and actions to avenge him. Fortinbras’s journey seems to mirror the one being set up for Hamlet—but of course, as the play unfolds, Shakespeare will show how Hamlet’s approach to and perspective on revenge is much more complicated than young Fortinbras’s.
Themes
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Just then, the ghost reappears. As it heads for Horatio, Horatio orders it to stop. The ghost stops short and spreads his arms wide. Horatio begs the ghost to use its voice—if it has one—and warn them about what is to befall Denmark. He asks it to communicate any other unfinished business it might have, even if it’s not warning the men of war, so that they might help it achieve peace. A rooster crows, and Marcellus and Barnardo get worried that the approaching dawn will drive the ghost away. They talk about how they might stop the ghost from leaving, but their plans are no good—the ghost departs again.
Though the men are all afraid of the ghost—and what it might portend—Horatio knows that he must confront it head-on and accept its presence if he is to appease it. Horatio, like Fortinbras, is a man of action—and stands in stark contrast to the character of Hamlet, who struggles to take decisive action and ascertain what’s right.
Themes
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
All three men lament having lost the chance to communicate with the ghost. Horatio urges Marcellus and Barnardo to accompany him to Hamlet’s quarters to tell the prince of what they’ve seen. Though the ghost of King Hamlet would not talk to them, Horatio bets it will talk to its son.
Horatio knows he must get Hamlet involved if the ghost’s presence is to be resolved—but doesn’t know what kind of journey he’s setting his friend the prince on just yet.
Themes
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon