Synopsis and Commentary

Act I

The Ghost of the old king of Denmark appears to the guards on watch at the castle of Elsinore on a bitter winter’s night. It vanishes without speaking so the guards resolve to tell Hamlet, the dead king’s son. Meanwhile at the Court of Denmark, the pomp and ceremony contrasts strongly with the eerie gloom of the first scene and the Queen is celebrating her recent marriage to her late husband’s brother, Claudius. State business continues: Claudius gives permission for Polonius’ son, Laertes, to return to Paris; letters are sent to the old King of Norway regarding an invasion from Fortinbras. The King and Queen implore Hamlet to cease grieving for his father but Hamlet remains alone and deep in his thoughts. His first words stress the ambiguous relationship within the family: "a little more than kin, and less than kind" (I.ii.60). Immediately his depth of feeling sets him apart from the others and the fact that these words are spoken aside (to himself/ the audience) shows that Hamlet’s world is one that depends on solipsism and thought before or in preference to action. He is a performer from the outset: his very first utterance is a pun and serves to prepare us for his cloak of multi-layered riddling. The concentration in this scene is on role playing or "actions that a man might play" (I.ii.84). The guards interrupt Hamlet soliloquising on the weakness of women and his hatred of his stepfather when they arrive at Court to tell Hamlet about the sighting of his dead father. Hamlet is determined to talk to the ghost and to ascertain why unrest in the state of Denmark causes the ghost to remain in purgatory. This fast and simple line interchange between Hamlet and his old friend Horatio heightens the atmosphere. A scene between Laertes and his sister Ophelia shows us a united family, which is soon to be disrupted by Hamlet’s divided Before he leaves for France, Laertes warns his sister Ophelia of the dangers of Hamlet’s love for her. Polonius, always puffed up with pride and words of ‘wisdom’, warns Laertes against the vices that will tempt him in foreign lands and instructs Ophelia to reject any romantic advances that Hamlet makes towards her. Ophelia is seen as an innocent object that is being corrupted by the sexual advances of Hamlet: "A violet in the youth of primy nature" (I.iii.7).

Hamlet sees the ghost of his father. The ghost reveals that his own brother killed him: while the king was sleeping in his garden, Claudius poured a fatal potion in his ear. The Ghost, in a parallel to the serpent and the apple in the Garden of Eden, exposes Hamlet to a unique view of the world that cannot be erased. The "unnatural" aspect of the crime is paid particular emphasis, as this was a very strong concept to the Elizabethans and one that circles Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially King Lear, like a mantra.

The fact that the Ghost refers to the alleged relationship between Claudius and Gertrude in the past tense suggests that Gertrude was having an affair with Claudius behind the king’s back: "O, Hamlet what a falling-off was there!" (I.v.47). Hamlet is directed to revenge the crime without harming his mother:

"But, however thou pursuest this act,

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive

Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven

And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge

To prick and sting her."


Hamlet tells the guards of his discovery and warns them that in reaction to a time that is "out of joint" (I.v.189), he will adopt an "antic disposition" (i.e. he will feign madness) and they must promise not to reveal his secret.

Act II

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