The opening scene in a Shakespearean play usually introduces the area of concern that the play addresses. In Hamlet, the opening scene dramatically evokes the mystery world we are all in, the thinly veiled situation of every man, caught between the mundane world of the senses and the wider spiritual world just a shade beyond. We are treading on a divide, stranded on a wall separating the seen and the vast unseen. On the bleak battlements of a cold windswept night, the setting of the opening scene, we may be keenly aware of the divide. This mystery world is the play’s area of concern.
The exposition in Shakespeare’s plays also sets the tone and mood of the play. In Hamlet, it evokes an aura of mystery and a confrontation with the unknown. From the beginning, this sense of suspense and underlying mystery pervades the entire play.
The action begins at midnight, on the stark platform of the castle wall.
Barnardo Who’s there?
Francisco Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold1 yourself.
Barnardo Long live the King!
Significantly, Barnardo, the relieving guard, wrongly issues the first challenge, suggesting an atmosphere of mistrust.
Francisco You come most carefully upon your hour.
Barnardo ‘Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
Francisco For this relief, much thanks. ‘Tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
In a few lines, Shakespeare brilliantly establishes the tone of uncertainty and apprehension, and he maintains this tone throughout the play.
Barnardo Have you had quiet guard?
Francisco Not a mouse stirring.
Barnardo Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals2 of my watch, bid them make haste.
Francisco I think I hear them.
Soon, Horatio and Marcellus arrive at the battlements; Francisco exits, leaving Barnardo at the watch.
Marcellus Holla, Barnardo!
Barnardo Say, what, is Horatio there?
Horatio A piece of him.
Horatio means that he is here only half willingly. We soon find out why, and the sense of premonition deepens when we learn of the appearance of an apparition, a contact with the beyond.
Barnardo Welcome, Horatio. Welcome, good Marcellus.
Horatio What, has this thing appeared again tonight?
Barnardo I have seen nothing.
Marcellus Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us.
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve3 our eyes and speak to it.
Horatio Tush, tush, ’twill not appear.
Horatio’s response on being told of the apparition is typical of many people when confronted with suggestions of the beyond. He dismisses it as impossible. Yet he is here to see the apparition for himself if it does appear.
To fully appreciate the play, we should place ourselves in the same situation and open our minds to the possibilities of the unknown, the world beyond the mundane one limited by our sensory perception and our scientific apparatus. We must realize that it is presumptuous to assume that our senses and our machines can detect everything.
Barnardo Sit down awhile,
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story,
What we two nights have seen.
Horatio Well, sit we down.
And let us hear Barnardo speak of this.
Barnardo Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole,4
Had made his course t’illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one –
Now, the actual apparition suddenly appears.
Marcellus Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.
Barnardo In the same figure like the King that’s dead.
Marcellus Thou art a scholar. Speak to it, Horatio.
Barnardo Looks it not like the King? Mark it, Horatio.
Horatio Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder.
On the urging of Barnardo and Marcellus, Horatio questions the apparition.
Horatio What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
To which the majesty of buried Denmark5
Did sometimes march? By heaven, I charge thee speak.
Marcellus It is offended.
Barnardo See, it stalks away.
Horatio Stay, speak, speak, I charge thee speak!
The nature of the ghost is important in the play. Horatio questions its identity, an issue that also concerns Hamlet later. More crucial to the theme of the play, however, is whether the ghost holds any moral or spiritual authority. This is made clear subsequently.
After the ghost’s appearance, the guards ask Horatio the reason for the war preparations; his answer introduces the first of the four parallel actions in the play. The former king of Norway, Fortinbras, had been killed by Hamlet’s father in single matched combat, and had also forfeited lands to the conqueror under the terms of a formal agreement. Now his son is the first character in the play who seeks to avenge a father’s death.
Horatio Now sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved6 mettle, hot and full,
Hath in the skirts7 of Norway here and there
Sharked up8 a list of lawless resolutes
For food and diet to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in’t;9 which is no other,
As it doth well appear unto our state,
But to recover of us by strong hand
And terms compulsatory those foresaid lands
So by his father lost.
Three more characters face the same situation of having a father killed: Hamlet himself, Laertes, and Pyrrhus (portrayed in a speech by Hamlet and one of the traveling players). Parallel action is one of the main methods employed in Renaissance drama to project a theme and its meaning through contrast and analogy. It enriches and generalizes the issue in question. In Hamlet, we have four parallel actions on one theme – the theme of revenge.
The talk of war and the preparations for it deepen the sense of apprehension in this opening scene. Horatio adds to it further with allusions of other portents and omens:
Horatio A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters10 in the sun; and the moist star,11
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,12
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.
This passage is a reference by Shakespeare to his other play, Julius Caesar, which appeared close to the time of Hamlet. He mentions Julius Caesar again in Act III, Scene 2, in the dialogue between Hamlet and Polonius, and yet again in Act V, Scene 1, at the graveyard scene. Shakespeare has a reason for reminding us of this other play, for the message in Julius Caesar, dramatically depicted in the nature of the storm, also appears as an issue in Hamlet. Let us digress briefly for a closer look at the crucial message in Julius Caesar.
One of the main protagonists in Julius Caesar is Brutus. He is the dramatic hero of the play, portrayed as noble throughout. His admirable qualities are summed up at the end of the play:
Antony This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.13
His life was gentle,14 and the elements
So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’
Yet Brutus, with his noble mind and honest motives, still makes the fatal error of collaborating in the assassination of Caesar. How does he go wrong, and where is his error? In the answer lies the central message of the play, and, characteristically, Shakespeare does not state it blatantly. Instead, he portrays it in a way that leaves a lasting vivid impression.
The dramatic image in Julius Caesar comes in the form of the fearsome storm, replete with supernatural omens, the night before Caesar’s assassination. It rages through three scenes of the play and the players graphically describe it:
Casca Are you not mov’d, when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O, Cicero,
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived15 the knotty oaks; and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with16 the threat’ning clouds:
But never till tonight, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.
In such a storm, we can only watch the raging elements in helpless awe and feel the presence of the transcendent beyond in the universal vastness and power. Yet Brutus ignores it; instead, he agonizes in a purely intellectual debate on his course of action when, in the dark of night, he struggles to read from a piece of paper deviously planted by Cassius to influence his decision:
Brutus The exhalations17 whizzing in the air
Give so much light that I may read by them.
Brutus ignores the meteors and the raging heavens, and ironically uses the light from the sky to focus instead on intellectually working out his course of action. This is the dramatic image of his error. He ignores the spiritual and the mystical and does not align himself with the divine laws of the universe. We may say, in the manner of Lao Tzu, that he heeds not the Tao and does not flow with it. The divine influence in his being is missing in his decision-making. In a matter of such moral significance as murder, it is a tragic error. Keep this in mind, for a similar theme occurs in Hamlet.
We return now to the opening scene in Hamlet, where amid the bleak battlements of the castle wall, Horatio tells us that similar omens have appeared in Denmark.
Horatio And even the like precurse18 of feared events,
As harbingers19 preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen20 coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.
Now the ghost reappears, and Horatio again attempts to learn from it.
Horatio Stay, illusion:
If thou hast any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me.
If there be any good thing to be done
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me;
If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid,
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it. Stay and speak! [The cock crows]
Stop it, Marcellus.
Horatio prefaces each question with a condition that the answer be beneficial. He is unsure, as we should also be, whether any counsel from the ghost will be sound or ill advised. What happens next suggests that we should indeed be wary of the ghost’s words. At the crowing of the cock, it leaves hurriedly without speaking; Horatio explains:
Horatio And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day, and at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th’extravagant and erring21 spirit hies
To his confine; and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.22
There should be little doubt, then, that the ghost is no angel, and his advice must also be suspect. Shakespeare stresses this crucial point here and again in Scenes 2 and 5. Marcellus now reinforces the point:
Marcellus It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst23 that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,24
No fairy takes,25 nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.
Horatio So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But look, the morn in russet26 mantle clad
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.
Break we our watch up, and by my advice
Let us impart what we have seen tonight
Unto young Hamlet; for upon my life
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Dawn breaks and the opening scene ends with the three men resolving to recount their night’s experience to Hamlet. We have witnessed an evocation of man’s spiritual state, a state of being stranded on a divide between the mundane world and the great beyond. On the stark platform of a castle wall on a cold bleak night, we have experienced a confrontation with the profound, a confrontation with the ultimate mystery – the mystery of death and the beyond. This mystical world on the narrow divide between the mundane and the spiritual, combined with the issue of confronting the profound, is the play’s central concern.
The next scene presents another encounter with the profound, that concerning death, an encounter from which, in real life, we cannot hope to escape.
1 unfold identify
2 rivals partners
3 approve corroborate
4 pole Pole star
5 buried Denmark the buried King of Denmark
6 unimproved undisciplined
7 skirts borders
8 sharked up gathered up indiscriminately
9 hath a stomach in’t requires courage
10 disasters ominous signs
11 moist star moon
12 Neptune’s empire stands the seas depend
13 made one of them joined the conspirators
14 gentle noble
15 rived split
16 exalted with elevated to
17 exhalations meteors
18 precurse advance warning
19 harbingers forerunners
20 omen calamity portended
21 extravagant and erring wandering out of bounds
22 probation proof
23 ‘gainst just before
24 strike exert evil influence
25 takes bewitches
26 russet coarse reddish-brown cloth