Hamlet begins simply enough–with question: “Who’s there?” (I.i.1). And if this was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, it might have been proceeded by the sound of knocking. But this is not a knock-knock joke, as the response is more than just a little paranoid: “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself” (I.i.2).
As it turns out, we the audience have happened upon two sentries, Barnardo and Francisco, the former coming to relieve the latter. These are men who are on-edge. Barnardo tells Francisco that if he sees Horatio and Marcellus, then he should send them to Barnardo; he doesn’t have to wait long… they arrive in the next line. Once Francisco has left the stage, Horatio give some inkling why the guards are nervous: “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” (I.i.21).
Thing? Appeared? Night? Nope, not a knock-knock joke.
It gets a little more paranormal when Marcellus tells Barnardo that whatever they’ve seen (“twice” [I.i.25]!), Horatio believes it’s a “fantasy” (I.i.23). Marcellus also says that “if again this apparition come, // (Horatio) may approve our eyes and speak to it” (I.i.28-9); not only is Horatio there to confirm what they’ve seen but to speak to the apparition as well… not that Horatio believes it will appear. But before Barnardo can recount their seeing of apparition the night before, the Ghost appears. And it’s not just any ghost, but one “in the same figure like the king that’s dead” (I.i.41).
Say what? Horatio is filled “with fear and wonder” (I.i.44), but despite this, Horatio–to the urging of the guards–speaks to it, demanding that it speak to him. The Ghost, however, “stalks away… offended” (I.i.50), at least according to the reports of Barnardo and Marcellus.
Horatio has to admit that he “might not this believe” (I.i.56) this if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, saying that the Ghost was wearing the same armor as when the old King fought “the ambitious (King of) Norway” (I.i.61)–but more about him later. And in an understatement that can be filed under “Kidding (comma) No” he states, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (I.i.69).
And we learn from Marcellus that their paranoid watch is not just because of the Ghost, but because the nation seems to be getting onto a war footing, with “daily cast of brazen cannon // And foreign mart for implements of war” (I.i.73-4), with the shipwrights working seven days a week. But why?
Horatio has the answer or at least “the whisper” (I.i.80) of rumor, but first he delivers some back-story: The old king (whom the Ghost resembled) had been challenged by King Fortinbras of Norway, and “did slay this Fortinbras” (I.i.86) and “took all those his lands” (I.i.88). But old Hamlet (and it’s only in this speech do we hear the name for the first time) gave back a portion to Fortinbras’ inheritors. Only now young Fortinbras, with “a list of lawless resolutes” (I.i.98) has been making incursions into Denmark “to recover of us by strong hands…those foresaid lands // So by his father lost” (I.i.102, 103-4). And it’s this that Horatio believes is the reason behind the watch and the wartime preparations.
Barnardo suggests that this might be the reason behind the “portentous” (I.i.109) appearance of the Ghost as well. Horatio doesn’t refute this, recounting how “graves stood tenantless” (I.i.115) the night before Julius Caesar was killed. And as if on cue, the Ghost appears again. Again, Horatio orders it to speak. When it doesn’t, Marcellus asks if he should “strike it with (his) partisan” (I.i.140), and Horatio gives the order. But the Ghost exits, and Marcellus immediately regrets “the show of violence” (I.i.144).
Horatio decides that they should tell “young Hamlet” (I.i.170) what they’ve seen because “this spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him” (I.i.171). Why does Horatio make this assumption? Because the Ghost would recognize his own son? Who knows. Regardless, Marcellus thinks he “know(s) // Where we shall find (Hamlet) most convenient” (I.i.174-5). Which makes for a nice segue into the next scene.
However, before we go there, let’s think about this… We’ve seen a Ghost of the dead King Hamlet. The play is about “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” Why isn’t he King of Denmark? We’re about to find out…
Act One, Scene Two begins with the stage direction calling for the entrance of the King of Denmark and others. The king is not Hamlet, but rather Claudius. Who? What? His first words offer some clarification: “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death // The memory be green” (I.ii.1-2). So Claudius is Hamlet’s brother. But given his repetitious use of the “our” adjective pronoun (our dear brother, our hearts, our whole kingdom, ourselves), he’s certainly king now, especially since he refers to Gertrude as “our sometime sister, now our queen” (I.ii.8). Claudius is King, and not only did he take the throne but also the royal bed (and its spousal occupant).
Claudius mentions young Fortinbras’ “pester(ing)” (I.ii.22) and demands of surrender of the lands his father had lost to Claudius’ brother. Claudius dismisses Fortinbras’ delusion of “a weak supposal of (Claudius’) worth” (I.ii.18) and thinking that “by our late dear brother’s death // Our state to be disjoint and out of frame” (I.ii.19-20) with a condescending “So much for him” (I.ii.25). He goes on to speak of the note written to the King of Norway, the “uncle of young Fortinbras” (I.ii.28) to “suppress” (I.ii.30) the young man’s actions. And the king sends two emissaries to deliver the letter.
And here we’ve got to wonder about the rules of succession. In both countries, the younger brother of the deceased king ascends to the throne BEFORE the king’s own son? Hmmmmm…
Claudius then turns his attention to a young man named Laertes, who has “some suit” (I.ii.43) to request, one that looks to be granted easily. Why? Because (to use Yoda-like syntax) important is to “the throne of Denmark” (I.ii.49) is Laertes’ father. Laertes wants to return to France now that he has “show(n) (his) duty in Claudius’ coronation” (I.ii.53). And once Polonius has stated his willingness to let his son go, Claudius approves the request.
Then–and only then–does Claudius turn his attention to his “cousin Hamlet, and (his) son” (I.ii.64). It is understandable, this need to discuss foreign policy before Hamlet… but Laertes? You can understand the bitterness behind Hamlet’s first line: “A little more than kin, and less than kind!” (I.ii.65). Claudius wants to know why Hamlet is moping (“How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” [I.ii.66]). His mother, too, wants him to “cast (his) nighted color off” (I.ii.68). Hamlet is depressed, and he feels he has reason to be: “I have that within which passes show” (I.ii.85).
At this point, Claudius has heard enough. Though he begins sympathetically, saying “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, // To give these mourning duties to your father” (I.ii.87-8), his tone quickly changes, as he states this mourning is simple, then “stubborn” (I.ii.94), then “unmanly” (I.ii.94), then finally “absurd” (I.ii.103). Instead, Claudius says Hamlet should “think of us // As of a father” (I.ii.107-8) as the king announces that Hamlet is “the most immediate to our throne” (I.ii.109), next in line. And while Claudius is willing to allow Laertes to return to France, Hamlet’s return to “school in Wittenberg // (would be) most retrograde to our desire” (I.ii.113-4), and is refused.
Everyone else leaves, and we get our first soliloquy of the play. Hamlet wishes to be dead, and “that the Everlasting had not fixed // His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (I.ii.131-2) or suicide. We learn that his father is “but two months dead” (I.ii.138), maybe even less. He remembers how his mother loved and doted on his father, and “yet within a month” (I.ii.145) had married Claudius. Hamlet feels it is “most wicked speed” (I.ii.156).
Our trio from the first scene–Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo–arrive and Hamlet greets his friend from Wittenberg, asking him why he’s in Elsinore. When Horatio says that it was for old Hamlet’s funeral, Hamlet sarcastically replies, saying it was for his “mother’s wedding” (I.ii.178). After they talk of Hamlet’s father, Horatio broaches the subject of the Ghost.
Hamlet questions them hard. Satisfied with their answers, he decides to join them in their watch that night, and “if it assume (his) noble father’s person, // (He’ll) speak to it though hell itself should gape” (I.ii.244-5). Sounds like Horatio was right in his assumption at the end of the first scene.
In Act One, Scene Three, we find Laertes readying to leave for France, giving his sister Ophelia advice about Hamlet. He states that she should think that any of Hamlet’s declarations of love are “trifling of his favor, // … a fashion and a toy in blood” (I.iii.5-6) because as a prince, Hamlet cannot choose a wife for himself, as “on his choice depends // The safety and health of this whole state” (I.iii.19-20). He warns her, then, to maintain her virtue. She promises to do so, but only if Laertes will do the same, and not act “like a puffed and reckless libertine” (I.iii.48) himself.
Before Laertes can exit, their father Polonius arrives for some final advice to his son. Some of the advice is good, other pieces laughably bad. But exit Laertes does, leaving Polonius and Ophelia to continue her and her brother’s discussion of Hamlet and love. If Laertes’ warnings were pragmatic and caring, her father’s are condescending and bordering on cruel:
- “Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl” (I.iii.100)
- “Tender yourself more dearly // Or … you’ll tender me a fool” (I.iii.106-7, 108)
- comparing Hamlet’s words to “springes to catch woodcocks” (I.iii.114)
Finally telling her,
Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
And at the end of the scene, Ophelia can only promise to obey. Thus, ends the first part of the Hamlet plot summary.