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Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1

Page Index:
  • Enter Francisco at his post. Enter to him Barnardo, then Horatio and Marcellus.
  • Enter Ghost, then exit.
  • Re-enter Ghost.
  • Exit Ghost.
Enter Francisco at his post. Enter to him Barnardo, then Horatio and Marcellus:
The play opens in the dark and cold. Francisco is standing watch on the guard platform of the castle at Elsinore. In films, this place is usually depicted as being very high on the walls of the castle, with a view of the dark sea. Francisco isn't feeling well and it's very cold, so he's on edge.

Barnardo, who is to take Francisco's place, comes up onto the platform and looks around. He can't see anything clearly, or perhaps he's already looking for the Ghost, so he asks, Who's there?" (1.1.1). (His "Who's there?" is also thematic; throughout the play, there are questions about who is behind a curtain or who is behind a mask that is shown to the world.)

Francisco answers, "Nay, answer me" (1.1.2), meaning "I'm on guard here, and I get to ask the questions." Barnardo identifies himself, and Francisco is glad to see him, because "'Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart" (1.1.8-9).

As Francisco is leaving, Horatio and Marcellus come up onto the platform. Marcellus, like Barnardo, is a common soldier who has seen a ghost. Both of them want someone else to confirm that there is indeed a ghost, as any of us might want to do if we thought we had seen an alien from outer space. Tonight Marcellus and Barnardo have brought along Horatio, who is an educated gentleman, to see the ghost, too. They don't want to think that they are merely seeing things, but that is just what Horatio thinks; Marcellus says, "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy" (1.1.23).

Enter Ghost:
Marcellus and Barnardo are determined to persuade Horatio that they really have seen a ghost, and Horatio agrees to sit with them while Barnardo tells their story. They all sit down, and there's a moment of relaxation, but just as Barnardo is describing the exact moment they saw the ghost, the Ghost appears. It's a shock effect, similar to what movies aim at when they bring the villain through the window or out of the bathtub.

The Ghost looks like the king who just died, old Hamlet, the father of Hamlet. He is in armor and a horrifying figure. Horatio, whose doubts about the reality of the Ghost are now wiped away, says "it harrows me with fear and wonder" (1.1.44). Marcellus and Barnardo want Horatio to speak to the Ghost, and Horatio tries, asking the Ghost what it is, but the Ghost disappears.

Then the men try to figure out why the Ghost has appeared. Marcellus thinks it must have something to do with the preparations for war that are going on in Denmark. Horatio is able to fill him in on that: The dead King, old Hamlet, engaged in single combat with Fortinbras, King of Norway, killed him, and won certain lands in the battle. Now Fortinbras, son of the dead king, has "shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes" (1.1.98) to form an army of irregulars, so that he can win back the lands that his father lost. (This young Fortinbras is not King of Norway. His uncle is king, as Hamlet's uncle is now King of Denmark.)

Not only that, but Horatio adds that the appearance of the Ghost reminds him of what he has read about the portents in Rome, just before the assassination of Julius Caesar, when "The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets" (1.1.115-116).

Re-enter Ghost
Just as Horatio has reached the conclusion that the Ghost's appearance is an omen of some disaster for Denmark, it's here again. In an ambiguous gesture, the Ghost "spreads his arms," but Horatio commands it to stay and speak. The ghost lore of the time taught that ghosts come to warn the living of danger, or to tell the living of hidden treasure. Above all, ghosts come to urge the living to take an action that will help the ghost in its travels through the afterworld. Accordingly, Horatio first says, "If there be any good thing to be done / That may to thee do ease, and grace to me, / Speak to me" (1.1.130-132). Note Horatio's caution; he is willing to do something for the Ghost, but only a "good thing" that will do "grace to me."

Exit Ghost
The Ghost doesn't answer, and Horatio asks whether the Ghost has a warning about the "country's fate" or information about "treasure." Now it appears that the Ghost is about to speak, but then a cock crows, and the Ghost, "like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons," moves away. Then Horatio panics. He tells Marcellus to stop the Ghost, and Marcellus swings at it with his "partisan" ( a long-handled combination of a spear and an ax). But the Ghost is here, then there, then gone.

After the Ghost has disappeared, Marcellus is a little ashamed of what he has done, saying "We do it wrong, being so majestical, / To offer it the show of violence" (1.1.143-144).

The scene then lightens from night to dawn. Horatio reflects that the cock-crow frightened the Ghost away because no "erring spirit" can be abroad during the day, and Marcellus says that at Christmastide the cock crows all night long, so that even "the nights are wholesome." And then, in a beautiful image, it's dawn. Horatio says, "But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, / Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill" (1.1.166-167).

Finally, Horatio and Marcellus agree that "young Hamlet" should be told of all of this, for surely the Ghost will speak to him.