Act 1

Act I: Scene 1

The play begins with a question, “Who’s there?” spoken by the reliever of the watch, Barnardo; this is followed by a refusal to answer the question, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself,” spoken by the watchman on duty, Francisco. They are sentinels of Elsinore, the Danish king’s castle, lost in the wintry fog that has descended upon the ramparts. The inability to discern the identity of one another indicates the direction of the play and one of the major themes of Hamlet, the problem of identity: Who and what am I? Francisco’s imperative, “Unfold yourself,” is addressed to Barnardo but may as well be addressed to the drama itself.

Francisco is troubled. First, he comments on the bitterness of the cold, and then he observes that he is “sick at heart.” There is nothing out of the ordinary about the first comment, but the second gives voice to the gloom that has enshrouded Denmark. The peculiar conditions of this gloom are not specified by Francisco, but the sickness at his heart anticipates the overall sickness (or “rottenness,” as it is later called by Marcellus) at the heart of the Danish state.

Barnardo assumes the watch and is joined by Marcellus (another soldier) and Horatio, classmate and friend of Prince Hamlet. Horatio asks whether “this thing” has appeared again tonight. He is referring, of course, to the alleged ghost, which the soldiers have previously sighted twice. Horatio is skeptical of the supernatural and is only in attendance because Marcellus has invited him to stand watch so that he may see “the thing” with his own eyes and believe their story.

Barnardo tells Horatio that they have seen the ghost twice already. As he recounts the first sighting, the very ghost suddenly appears before them. The three are struck with fear. They observe that the ghost has the “figure of the King that’s dead.” Horatio charges the ghost to speak, but it departs. Horatio swears by...

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Essays About Hamlet