Scene 1.1 - On the Night Watch, Outside the Royal Castle at Elsinore
The play opens with two sentinels (watchmen), Francisco and Barnardo, changing shifts at midnight. Francisco cannot see who is approaching in the darkness, so the opening moments are pregnant with tension until Barnardo identifies himself with "Long live the King," the night's watchword. Francisco reports that his shift has been extremely quiet and happily uneventful. As Barnardo relieves Francisco of his duty, Marcellus - another guard - arrives on the scene with Horatio. Horatio is the young Hamlet's confidant and has accompanied Marcellus at the latter's request to witness an apparition. Marcellus and Barnardo claim to have seen a ghost appear before their very eyes while on watch the two previous nights. The learned and rational Horatio has his doubts.
Frustrated by Horatio's skepticism, Marcellus is quite certain the ghost will appear again and prove that he and Barnardo are not merely seeing things. Horatio, ever incredulous, stops him short with a repeated denial that the ghost will grace them with its presence. Less persistent but more poetic than Marcellus, Barnardo tries his hand at convincing Horatio, hoping his words will do what Marcellus' blunt insistence could not. He has only just begun when the ghost suddenly materializes again before all three of them, taking on the figure of the former King of Denmark, Hamlet (Senior). Stunned, Horatio cannot believe his eyes. After charging the ghost to speak, without result, he trembles and turns pale while the silent ghost vanishes as swiftly as it came. Horatio readily admits that both the ghost's garb - the armor the King wore at combat with Norway - and the ghost's frown perfectly resemble those of Hamlet, the former King. This does not bode well for the state, Horatio further concedes. Marcellus wonders aloud how the ghost's appearance might be related to the fact everyone in Denmark is so busily at work, especially in shipyards and munitions factories, as if war were imminent. Horatio explains that not long ago King Hamlet had defeated Fortinbras of Norway in battle and thereby gained significant territory, lands which the nephew of Fortinbras (Prince of Norway) is presently scheming to regain. Thus the Kingdom of Denmark is understandably on high alert, as the routine chaos and instability following the death of a ruler (in this case, Hamlet) would be an ideal time to strike.
While likening the signs in the heavens preceding Julius Caesar's death to the present signs they are witnessing, Horatio is interrupted mid-thought by the reappearance of the ghost. He again addresses the ghost, begging it to speak, but once more the ghost quickly withdraws at the sound of a cock's crow. Bewildered but intrigued, Horatio convinces Marcellus and Barnardo that they should inform Hamlet of this ghost in the hopes it will speak to him.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7