Throughout the opening scenes of ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare brings to our attention that the state of Denmark is deep in conflict, using many different techniques. The play begins on the gun platform at Elsinore Castle, just after midnight, on a cold and bitter night. The first line is ‘Who’s there? ‘ a question to establish a mood of anxiety and dread. Even now we can sense apprehension and tension in the air. The next few lines consist of abrupt, nervous exchanges between the guards, causing an atmosphere of anxiety and fear.
It is already clear to us that something is not right in the state of Denmark. This idea is reinforced when Francisco says he is ‘sick at heart’. The dramatic appearance of the ghost, bearing a striking resemblance to the dead King Hamlet, further indicates that something eerie is going on. Horatio, an educated scholar, is skeptical of the ghost’s appearance and this is shown when he says ‘tush tush t’will not appear’ and ’tis but our fantasy’. However, when he accepts he has seen the ghost he is ‘harrowed with fear and wonder’ and ‘trembles and looks pale’.
Shakespeare uses Horatio to represent the audience’s perspective throughout this scene and there is no doubt now of the ghost’s existence or its armed form; Horatio has confirmed this for us. The ghost appears in ‘warlike form’ and this suggests the conflict in Denmark is a political one. This concept is further displayed when Horatio says ‘this bodes some strange eruption to our state’. He sees the ghost as a dangerous premonition boding violence and turmoil in Denmark’s future, and compares it to the supernatural omens that foretold the death of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome.
Marcellus and Horatio then reveal the context in which the event of the ghost’s appearance has taken place. We learn that Denmark is preparing for war so desperately that the shipwrights ‘do not divide the Sunday from the week’. We are then told by Horatio that Fortinbras of Norway is threatening to invade, hoping to win back the land his father previously lost to King Hamlet. The second scene leads us to awareness that Denmark incorporates a personal conflict, in addition to the political one we have previously learnt about.
The scene takes place in the great hall at Elsinore castle, greatly contrasting with the first scene. The Danish court, surrounded by light and colour, is assembled in a mood of celebration. The scene is guided by the new King Claudius, brother of the dead King Hamlet, and we learn of his brother’s recent mysterious death and his even more recent marriage to his sister in law Gertrude. Claudius delivers a polished, well prepared and professional speech to the court. In fact, it is so carefully structured that it has evidently been rehearsed, perhaps covering up a troubled and uneasy mind.
Claudius frequently uses ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ throughout the speech, reminding us of his position as King, and also to gain support, including the state in all his affairs and thoughts. The speech also contains a series of beautifully poised oxymorons such as ‘a defeated joy’ and ‘one auspicious and one dropping eye’. The latter, proving he is a two faced man. He uses these oxymorons to cover up the negative issues, with positive ones, which in turn is perhaps covering up guilt and dishonesty. Claudius twice takes the opportunity to pay tribute to his brother which again suggests underlying guilt.
When the King addresses Hamlet, we can at once, sense Hamlet’s animosity towards him. His first line, spoken to the audience is ‘a little more than kin, and less than kind’, a bitter pun that shows us he is totally lacking in family feeling for Claudius and even considers Claudius from a different species to himself. He thinks he is ‘too much in the sun’, implying he does not want to be taking part in this celebratory event. The King tells Hamlet that death is ‘common’, ‘all that lives must die’ and ’tis a fault to nature’, insinuating Hamlet is mourning too excessively and should move on with his life.
This is strange as we would expect the brother and wife of the deceased to be mourning their loss too. Claudius tells Hamlet ‘you are the most immediate to our throne’, which is ironic because Hamlet would have been King, had Claudius not stolen the crown from him. We are surprised when the King requests that Hamlet stays in Denmark as we would expect him to want Hamlet out his way. However ‘in the cheer and comfort of our eyes’ suggests he wants to keep an eye on Hamlet, as he could be a threat if in Wittenberg. Also, Claudius may be saying this so it seems as if he has a close relationship with his new son.
When left alone, Shakespeare uses soliloquy to share Hamlet’s feelings with the audience. We can quickly see that Hamlet is in a state of mental distress, which is not surprising considering his family situation. His broken and disjointed speech shows his pain and confusion. It is fragmented, as he regularly gets distracted by disgust and anger, greatly contrasting with Claudius’ flowing speech. This helps us to see that Claudius is fake and wearing a mask, whereas Hamlet is being natural and honest with us. The disjointed rhythm and dislocated progress of his thoughts convey to us his inner turmoil.
The extent of his bewilderment is shown when he wishes suicide was not a mortal sin. We see his attitude towards his late father when he compares Claudius to him as a ‘Hyperion to a satyr’, suggesting his father is a hero and superhuman, whereas Claudius is evil. Hamlet also shares his anger and repugnance towards his mother with the lines ‘O, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets! ‘ and when he compares her to a beast. Hamlet’s soliloquy reveals Hamlets love and devotion for his father, and once we have witnessed this, we join him in his loathing for Claudius.
At the end of the scene, Horatio and Marcellus arrive at the castle to tell Hamlet about the ghost they have seen. Hamlet is intrigued and after asking a handful of questions, agrees to accompany them later that evening on their watch. Scene three introduces us to Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s lover, Ophelia. Laertes, her brother, demands that she ends her love affair with Hamlet as it is ‘not permanent, sweet or lasting’. Later in the scene, Polonius also instructs her to stay away from Hamlet.
This shows that the father and son do not trust Hamlet and perhaps dislike him, suggesting another sort of personal conflict within the play. Shakespeare includes this scene, not only to offer a less intense plot to the play, but to continue the theme of skepticism, dishonesty and hatred between different characters. Scene four is set on a cold, late night with the air ‘biting shrewdly’, establishing the atmosphere for what is about to happen. As expected, the ghost of the dead king appears which provokes Hamlet into a frenzy of questions, one being the question of whether the ghost is ‘a spirit of health’ or ‘blasts from hell’.
The ghost beckons for Hamlet to accompany him to somewhere where they can be alone, and Hamlet follows him, announcing that his ‘fate cries out’. At the end of the scene, Marcellus states that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’, bringing back the idea of political conflict to the audience. The final scene in act one incorporates Hamlet and the Ghost having a one on one conversation, revealing the truth behind the former King’s death and what he wants Hamlet to do about it.
The ghost introduces himself, confirming his identity, and then continues to dominate the scene. It tells Hamlet that his murder was “foul, strange and unnatural” and goes on to explain how it happened. We are shocked, angered and disgusted when we find out who the murderer is; ‘that incestuous, adulterate beast’. The ghost tells Hamlet to seek revenge on his uncle, and Hamlet readily commits himself to this act ‘with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love’.