Summary and Analysis of Act 1
The play opens during a bitterly cold night watch outside of the royal Danish palace.
There is a changing of the guards:
. Soon two more characters
. We learn that Bernardo and Marcellus, two soldiers, have
witnessed an extraordinary sight on both of the previous nights’ watches: the ghost of the former
King of Denmark, Old
, has appeared before them in full armor. On this third night,
they’ve welcomed Horatio, a scholar and a skeptic who has just arrived in Denmark, to verify
their ghost sighting. Horatio initially expresses doubt that the ghost will appear. Suddenly, it
does. The two soldiers charge Horatio to speak to the ghost but he does not. The ghost
disappears just as suddenly as it arrived.
Soon after the ghost’s disappearance, Marcellus asks the other two why there has been
such a massive mobilization of Danish war forces recently. Horatio answers, saying that the
Danish army is preparing for a possible invasion by
, Prince of Norway. We learn that
Fortinbras’ father (also named Fortinbras) was killed many years before in single combat with
, the now-deceased king whose ghost we have just seen. Now that Old Hamlet has
died, presumably weakening the Danes, there is a rumor that Fortinbras plans to invade
Denmark and claim that lands that were forfeit after his father’s death.
After Horatio has finished explaining this political backstory, the ghost of Old Hamlet
appears once more. This time Horatio does try to speak to the ghost. When the ghost remains
silent, Horatio tells Marcellus and Bernardo to try to detain it; they strike at the ghost with their
spears but jab only air. A rooster crows just as the ghost appears ready to reply to Horatio at last.
This sound startles the ghost away. Horatio decides to tell Prince Hamlet, Old Hamlet’s son,
about the apparition, and the others agree.
This scene begins at the court of
, the King and Queen of
Denmark. They have just been married. This marriage has followed quickly after the death of
the former King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, Claudius’ brother. Claudius addresses the quickness
of the marriage, representing himself as in mourning for a lost brother even as he is joyful for a
new wife, his one-time sister. Claudius also addresses the question of the young Fortinbras’
proposed invasion. He says that he has spoken to Fortinbras’ uncle, the King of Norway, who
has made Fortinbras promise to halt any plans to invade Denmark. Claudius sends
, two courtiers, to Norway to settle this business. Finally, Claudius turns to
the son of his trusted counselor,
. Laertes expresses a wish to return to France and
Claudius grants permission.
At this point, Prince Hamlet, who has been standing apart from the king’s audience this