Act I of Hamlet

In Act I of Hamlet, many different situations are introduced that will unfold as the play progresses. The first aspect of conflict that arises in the Act is that of the political differences between Denmark and Norway. We learn of this through Horatio, when he admits that the King ‘did slay this Fortinbras’. Throughout the first scene the audience get a great sense of tension. The language no only creates the impression of a bitterly cold night, but also ominously foreshadows one of the major themes of the entire play.

When Bernardo says ‘Long live the king! it is ironic because the king has just died and the entry of Horatio intensifies the already taut atmosphere. He informs us that King Hamlet has gained much land for his country, Denmark, and that the young Fortinbras is forming an army in order ‘to recover those foresaid lands so by his father lost’. There is a lot of tension between the two countries and Fortinbras clearly wishes to avenge his father’s death. In the opening of the play, there is a sense of unease and apprehension. Contrary to military practice, the new watchman, Berndardo, challenges Francisco, who should actually challenge him.

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The guards break convention, by suggesting fear, as they are both uneasy. Fransico describes himself to be ‘sick at heart’, implying that he is very anxious. The short sentences between the guards suggest that they are hurried, tense and on edge. This first conversation is very effective, as it clearly portrays the tension within Denmark as the citizens prepare for war. The two guards have invited Horatio to join them in observing and questioning what they have seen twice before on their sentry duty. It is the ghost of the late King Hamlet.

The guards refer to it as a ‘dreaded sight’, but Horatio who is a scholar and philosopher is sceptical of the guards’ ‘fantasy’. Horatio dismisses the possibility of seeing it himself and says that ’twill not appear’. The language used helps to emphasise the tension and allows the audience to get a real sense of fear from the guards. When young Hamlet’s father appears to him, as a ghost, he is dressed in the ‘very amour he had on when the ambitious Norway combated’. In this way Shakespeare continues to associate the old king with power and violence.

This medieval idea contrasts with young Hamlets beliefs, which are more renaissance. In his speech, the new king of Denmark, Claudius, talks of Fortinbras’ reasons for choosing to attack now. He suggests that Fortinbras has a ‘weak supposal of [Denmark’s] worth’ and consequently thinks that it is not a very powerful country. Claudius differs from his predecessor in that he clearly thinks more about his actions and is more politically minded. He decides to send over two ambassadors to Fortinbras’ uncle telling him ‘to suppress’ ‘his nephew’s purpose.

The new king is clearly a diplomat and contrasts with the old warrior king. This political conflict between the two countries has been extended into a more personal one between the citizens of Denmark. Both Marcellus and Horatio talk of people being very tense as they prepare for war and Horatio talks of the ‘post-haste and romage in the land’. The second scene introduces Hamlet and we learn that the play is also a personal tragedy, as Hamlet is mourning the death of his father.

The first part of the scene ends in turmoil, as the court departs to celebrate the countries victory, leaving Hamlet alone on the stage. This dramatic contrast is very effective. Hamlet’s soliloquy conveys his true feelings, as he laments his sad situation to the audience. The fragmented structure of his speech, which is continuously broken up with speech, reflects Hamlet’s tormented state of mind. His use of complicated language, such as ‘dexterity’ and ‘incestuous’ emphasises how disgusted he is with his uncle and mother.

Hamlet clearly admired his father a great deal and talks of him as an ‘excellent king’, ‘so loving to [his] mother’. He is also dressed in an ‘inky cloak’, showing that he is still mourning. There is a sense of desperation is Hamlet’s soliloquy as he uses phrases, like ‘O God! ‘ and ‘O fie’. He is clearly greatly affected by his father’s death and even considers suicide, pleading that ‘this too too solid flesh would melt’ In his soliloquy, the personal conflict between Hamlet and his mother is revealed very effectively.

Hamlet is disgusted with him mother, for marrying his uncle, and feels that she has moved on from his father’s death much too quickly. He talks of her as being lower than a beast, for even a beast ‘would have mourned longer’ than she did. The queen seems fairly unaffected by her husband’s death and harshly tells her son that ‘all that lives must die’. Hamlet’s uncle has married his mother very soon after his father’s death and he describes Claudius to be ‘no more like [his] father than [he] to Hercules, which indicates that he resents his uncle.

The queen’s ‘unrighteous tears’ suggest that she hasn’t been sincere in her grief for her husband, as does the fact that she married his brother with such ‘wicked speed’. The personal dispute between Hamlet and his uncle is portrayed very successfully in Act I. Claudius reveals very much about their conflict, in his speech. It is very structured and rehearsed, as he must deal with many things when addressing the court. He mentions the political clash between Denmark and Norway, as well as his brother’s death, his marriage and his accession.

The king’s prepared and formal speech differs greatly with Hamlet’s soliloquy, which is very emotional. Claudius inverts his language to control his emotions and talks of ‘one auspicious, and one dropping eye’. This contrasting language suggests that the king is being two-faced and ambiguous. Hamlet’s uncle refers to him as both his ‘cousin’ and his ‘son’, drawing attention to their different family connections. Hamlet clearly dislikes his uncle and talks about being ‘too much i’ the sun’. The play on the words ‘son’ and ‘sun’, suggests that he doesn’t appreciate being called his uncle’s son.

Claudius urges Hamlet to ‘throw to earth this unprevailing woe’, and he comes across very insensitive when he tells his nephew that ‘[his] father lost a father’ and ‘that father lost, lost his’. He clearly shows know understanding about the grief that Hamlet has and appears very ruthless in that he has obviously already forgotten his brother. The king tells Hamlet that to preserve his sorrows shows ‘obstinate condolement’ and ‘unmanly grief’. He also encourages Hamlet not to return to ‘school in Wittenberg’, but to remain in Denmark in the ‘comfort of [his] eye’.

This suggests that Claudius wants to keeps an eye on Hamlet, possibly because he is nervous after recently killing his brother who was also the king. On this suggestion Hamlet responds only to his mother and tells her that he will ‘in all [his] best’ obey her. This indicates that Hamlet doesn’t value his uncle’s opinions and dislikes the fact that Claudius feels he has authority over him. During the first Act of the Hamlet, Shakespeare introduces to the audience with an excellent use of language and dramatic action, to the personal and political conflicts that are to dominate the remainder of the play.