To What Extent is Act One an Effective Opening to Hamlet?
The play Hamlet written by William Shakespeare is set in the late sixteenth century. Most scenes take place in the grounds of the Danish castle at Elsinore. The story begins almost immediately with a brief yet abrupt five scene act entailing the state of affairs within the Court of Denmark. Each scene contributes to the overall exposition significantly and Act One effectively captures the interest of the audience, introduces the key characters, establishes the conflicts and creates and maintains the dominant atmosphere of the play. Act One Scene One instantly sets the atmosphere and mood for the rest of the play. The atmosphere is one of dark battlements, and nervous sentries, which catches the audience’s attention right away .The play starts off with a question “Who’s there?” This immediately creates a mysterious, uneasy atmosphere which the audience can clearly pick up and is able to establish a clear understanding of events to come. This scene effectively sets a strong mood for the events to come, gives important background information, and introduces the main characters. The first Act proves to be a vital element to understanding the play. One important task it serves is to determine the mood of the play. From the beginning of the scene, the reader is aware of the atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty lingering in the air. When the audience are first introduced to the main characters outside the castle, they are suspiciously asking each other to identify themselves. Everyone seems to be on edge from the start, as if anticipating something. Another factor that reveals a mood of suspicion and caution is how the night is dark, the air is chilling, and the characters speak of "the bitter cold," This evokes a mood of apprehension and mystery. At one point, Francisco ends his watch thankfully because, "he is sick at heart,” which gives a sense of relief. Shortly after the atmosphere is created, the reader is introduced to the idea of a ghost, which sets a mood of dread and a disturbing atmosphere. The men speak of the ghost with great fear, and are very apprehensive to witness it again. This establishes the situation with Fortinbras and the appearances of the mysterious Ghost as points of interest and future conflict. It contributes the mood and setting to the dominant atmosphere of tragedy within the play. . This provides one of the high points of the scene, along with this; Shakespeare presents the audience with information, regarding the military preparations in Denmark. All of this provides for a dark, mysterious atmosphere, where the audience wants to know more.
Shakespeare continues to establish the atmosphere in Scene Three. In this scene, an atmosphere of a different kind is created. This scene is a family scene, in which brotherly, and fatherly advice creates an ambience quite different from that of the appearance of the ghost and the problems of Hamlet and his relatives. This creates an atmosphere of love, and betrayal, whereby Ophelia is forced to obey her father Polonius, and is told to be careful with Hamlet, as he is a prince, and will not look to marry just anyone, such as herself. Shakespeare continues to develop atmosphere throughout the act. It is clear that there is conflict between the royal family. As Claudius took over the throne after King Hamlet died and married his wife, Hamlet has not learnt to accept this. Both Claudius and Gertrude have not got any sympathy for Hamlet’s grief towards his father’s death. “Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted colour off,” This quotation shows that Gertrude wants Hamlet to accept the situation and to come out of his gloom. As an audience this could be perceived as selfish and unloving which causes a dramatic affect on the family as a whole. Shortly after Hamlet leaves to follow the ghost, Marcellus and Horatio both feel that Hamlet should not be left alone with the ghost. They are anxious and terrified of the ghost and do not want Hamlet to follow it “You shall not go, my lord.” They show their admirable towards Hamlet as they are scared for him to go with the ghost. Even though Hamlet directed them not to follow him Marcellus feels that it wouldn’t be right if they didn’t follow him because “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Many things are rotten in the state of Denmark, and images of decay, corruption, and rottenness are common throughout the first act. In this act, most of the corruption has originated from the royalty, and the royalty is directly connected to well being of the state of Denmark. The quotation sums up the whole situation so far which clearly portrays the play is not going to have a happy ending, perceiving it as a tragedy. Shakespeare establishes the atmosphere by introducing the main characters. Hamlet being the main character is portrayed as self- dramatic who is suffering. Shakespeare uses soliloquy so Hamlet can share with the audience feelings he would not vocalize in public. As this is also our first major opportunity to form our impressions of Hamlet, his personality and nature are strongly reflected in this particular section of the text, almost as an introduction. He is still mourning over his father’s death and makes it clear that he is unhappy about the marriage between his mother and uncle. “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.” This shows that he is most definitely not enjoying life and shows his depression by wanting to die. Or that everlasting had not fix’d, His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!.
This shows just how vulnerable and weak Hamlet is. It creates an atmosphere and emotionally attaches the audience to Hamlet.
All throughout act one, Hamlet's dead father's ghost keeps appearing, but does not speak until scene five, where it tells his death, and to kill his uncle Claudius. This describes Claudius' character, of a cold blooded murderer, and leaves a vivid picture of what the ghost of King Hamlet, looks like, as a supernatural being. Claudius appears to be confident and strong minded; he presents himself as having no sense of shame that seems incredibly manipulative. The old King Hamlet was apparently a stern warrior, but Claudius is a corrupt politician whose main weapon is his ability to manipulate others through his skillful use of language.
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word:
O heavy burthen!
Claudius lies to everyone about the murder of Hamlet's father. He expresses guilt over his deception in an aside. Throughout the play, Gertrude is not only one of the most significant characters but the centre of various controversies. In general, she brings up numerous questions within the audience as she is driven by her endless need to fulfil her desire for affection. Did she love Claudius, or did she marry him simply to keep her high station in Denmark? Gertrude fails to show love for Hamlet, she has not got any sympathy for his grief, and she certainly is not grieving for the late king. “Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,” this quotation shows her selfish side and that she is slightly cold hearted towards her son. At times it seems that her grace and charm are her only characteristics, and her reliance on men appears to be her sole way of capitalizing on her abilities. Polonius is a strong but caring father; his eccentricities are tolerated by his children.Throughout the play, nearly every major conflict is driven by Polonius's constant forays involving his misguided over protectiveness of his children. Unfortunately, he chooses to use deceit and spying in order to benefit for his children. Polonius’s daughter Ophelia is a sweet and innocent young girl, who obeys her father and her brother, Laertes. Dependent on men to tell her how to behave, she gives in to Polonius’s schemes to spy on Hamlet. She is incapable of defending herself, but through her timid responses we see clearly her intense suffering Laertes serves to contrast Hamlet’s character through interactions with Ophelia and dealing with loss and revenge. Throughout act I.iii they talk of her relationship with Hamlet where he tells her Hamlet’s “...will is not his own. For he himself is subject to his birth.” He truly loves his sister and wants to protect her warning her to stay “…in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire.” It is evident that Laertes is protective over her sister and wants the best for her which gives the audience a good impression of him. Both Prince Fortinbras and Laertes are foils for Hamlet because they are everything Hamlet is not. Both Fortinbras and Laertes also need to avenge their fathers: Fortinbras because his father was killed by Hamlet's father, Laertes because Hamlet murdered his father. Fortinbras tries to wage a war against Denmark, while Laertes runs home from Paris to stage a revolution in his dead father's honor. There is a contrast between the two families. The royal family show conflict within the family which shows an unhealthy relationship in contrast to Polonius’ family whom seem to have a healthy and respectful relationship. Shakespeare develops several plots in act one of Hamlet. The main three are: revenge, love, and contrast. Immediately we are introduced to a key event in the play. The Ghost’s appearance and news of his death is the center of the play. The plot of revenge first takes place here as Hamlet promises his Father to revenge his murder but he laments the responsibility he now bears. The ghost is an issue as it reflects all sorts of issues, its’ a symbol of everything that is going wrong. It represents all problems and indicates a family, court and state are facing problems. This causes a much more dramatic atmosphere and way of the audience becoming aware of what is happening and the anticipation of what is going to happen. Towards the end of Act One Scene Five, the ghost repeats several times “swear” this enhances the atmosphere into a much more dramatic and interesting plot. The audience feel that Hamlet will take revenge in his conversation with the ghost; however it does seem difficult for him. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right.” This sets the scene for the rest of the play as the audience will now be anticipating what will happen. Claudius, in contrast to King Hamlet, is more a "lover than a fighter." King Hamlet was a warrior king who probably would have gone to war against Norway. Claudius sends a letter to Fortinbras which is less impressive than the late King and gives evidence of a different style of leadership which portrays him as being less successful. The impression the audience gets of Hamlet’s feelings towards his Mother and Claudius is immediately shown as he replies to Claudius saying “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” This shows that Hamlet agrees they are related but Claudius is seen as less than family to him. This almost certainly shows from the very beginning that he is bitter towards Claudius and gives the audience a feeling that something bad is going to happen as there is so much hatred towards him. In Act One, Shakespeare combines atmosphere, development of character, plot structure, and madness, in order to set the stage for the rest of the play to come. Act one is an exceptional introductory act, in that it provides enough information to enable the audience to understand the situation, and to keep them interested. In five short scenes, Shakespeare introduces seven important characters, including the ghost of King Hamlet. He has also made the audience aware of the domestic situation of the royal family, and has made the audience realise that this is a play of revenge. Shakespeare writes act one of Hamlet in such a way, that it captures the audience’s attention. The play finishes up with all the main characters dead, due to conspiracy behind characters backs, that, only the audience knew about. This in turn with deception created a perfect atmosphere of tension, expectancy and anxiety.
[ 1 ]. ‘William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Surrey, Thomas Nelson & Sons ltd, 1997) II.1 [ 2 ]. Hamlet, II.8
[ 3 ]. Hamlet, II.9
[ 4 ]. Hamlet III.68
[ 5 ]. Hamlet IV.79
[ 6 ]. Hamlet IV.90
[ 7 ]. Hamlet I.ii.131
[ 8 ]. Hamlet III.i.51
[ 9 ]. Hamlet I.II.69
[ 10 ]. Hamlet I.iii.17
[ 11 ]. Hamlet I.iii.34
[ 12 ]. Hamlet.II.V.196