That night, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus stand on the ramparts of Elsinore in the bitter cold, waiting for the ghost to appear. Sounds of Claudius and his courtiers feasting and drinking merrily echo from inside the castle, and Hamlet tells his friends that Claudius’s constant revelry is “soil[ing]” Denmark’s reputation, blotting out all that is good in the country.
Hamlet’s suspicion and hatred of his uncle grow with each day as he bears witness to the king’s obnoxious revelry. It’s clear that Claudius has quickly gotten over the recent death of his brother, while Hamlet still mourns him sorrowfully.
The ghost suddenly appears, and Horatio urges Hamlet to address it. Hamlet begins speaking to the apparition, begging to know if it truly is the ghost of his father. He asks the ghost to tell him why it has chosen to leave its tomb and wander the grounds of Elsinore in full armor. In response, the ghost motions for Hamlet to follow it. Though Marcellus and Horatio urge Hamlet not to go with the ghost, Hamlet says he will follow it—he doesn’t value his life in the first place, he says, and thus has nothing to lose.
This passage introduces Hamlet’s seemingly suicidal bent. This casual disregard for his own life persists throughout the play as Hamlet contemplates suicide, risks execution, and engages in other reckless behaviors. It seems that losing his father has caused Hamlet to question the meaning of his own life, since even a powerful, beloved king can be unceremoniously killed.
Horatio begs Hamlet at length not to follow the ghost, as it may have devious designs on Hamlet’s life and might try to lead him into the sea. When Horatio and Marcellus try to physically restrain Hamlet, he orders them to unhand him—then draws his sword when they refuse to listen. He threatens to turn them into ghosts themselves if they don’t let him follow the apparition where it leads. Marcellus and Horatio stand down and let Hamlet follow the ghost away—but resolve to follow close behind just in case danger befalls their prince. Marcellus remarks that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Marcellus and Horatio are frightened of the ghost—they lack Hamlet’s disregard for his own life, and are actively worried about their friend getting into danger. The blindness and rage the ghost inspires in Hamlet furthers Marcellus’s belief that there is something very wrong not just within the royal family, but in the country as a whole.