When I read the opening act I was immediately struck by the atmospheric ambience. It is night and the changing of the castle guards has just taken place at Elsinore. Marcellus informs Horatio of the apparition of the ghost that has appeared two nights in a row to them. He speaks of it as the ‘dreaded sight’. His use of the adjective ‘dreaded’ I felt was particularly effective as it conjures up a sense of foreboding and unease. This sense of foreboding is intensified as we are told that it comes ‘In the same figure, like the King that’s dead’. I thought this was very disconcerting as I started to wonder why it was significant that this ghost looked like the dead king. This growing sense of unease intensifies as the ghost remains silent and ‘stalks away’. The verb ‘stalks’ is significant here as it has connotations of sneakiness and impeding on someone’s privacy. Why do we have a surreptitious ghost? Horatio described how ‘it started like a guilty thing’. This all accentuated the sense of mystery and foreboding.
For me, I was intrigued as to why the ghost remained silent and my curiosity was further piqued. This awful sense of foreboding finds expression in Horatio’s prophetic words ‘This bodes some strange eruption to our state’. I think this is very clever of Shakespeare because the viewer/reader is speculating so much as to why the ghost of a dead king would be appearing and yet he makes us wait another three scenes for the reappearance of the Ghost and his heavy imposition on his bewildered son, prince Hamlet.
The opening scene serves to introduce us the play’s main characters. We are able to glean important insights into their characters, the way they think and the motivation behind the way they act. For instance, we are introduce to Claudius, the play’s villain. However, Claudius is presented to us in an intriguing manner. My first impression of him is a favourable one. He comes across as affable and good-natured, eager to please: ‘What wouldst thou beg, Laertes, that shall not be my offer, not thy asking?’ He strikes me as being a very diplomatic and competent leader in that he diffuses the situation with the tempestuous ‘hot and full, of unimproved mettle’ Fortinbras. His devotion to Gertrude is sincere as he describes her as ‘th’ imperial jointress’ or his co-ruler. He strikes me as a genial character, gracious to all and eager to please and placate.
However as this act progress, we are made aware of his corruption and duplicity of character. The Ghost’s startling revelation shatters our respect and good opinion of Claudius in the most dramatic manner. The Ghost delineates how Claudius ‘stole with juice of cursed hebona in a vial, and in the porches of [his] ear did pour the leperous distilment’. It is as the Ghost describes it: ‘foul, strange and unnatural’. The serpentine imagery further underscores his malignity: ‘The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown’.
We are also introduced to the characters of Polonius and Laertes. Both of these characters I felt were cut from the same cloth so to speak. Both were sententious hypocrites. We see this in relation to their dealings with Ophelia. Both father and son lecture Ophelia on her dealings with Prince Hamlet. I for one couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Ophelia having to put up with these two. However in many respects, these characters are reflective of the cultural context of the time. The play is set in a patriarchal era wherein men were dominant and women were seen as subservient. Women were expected to comply with the demands and wishes of their male counterparts be it their fathers, brothers or husbands. Initially when I was introduced to Ophelia I thought she came across as a weak ineffectual character who was overly submissive to her father. I felt I couldn’t relate to her. However, when I considered the cultural context of the era, I realised that Ophelia is more of a victim to be pitied than condemned.
Another important aspect of the opening act is the introduction of themes. In Act One Scene Five we are made aware that this is a revenge play. The Ghost makes it clear to Hamlet of his wishes. He wants Hamlet to ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder’. Regicide has been committed. It is the most heinous of crimes: ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is, but this most foul, strange and unnatural’. An Elizabethan audience would have viewed the king as God’s representative on earth. To kill a king was seen as an act of blasphemy, an affront to God. This is a complete violation of the natural moral order and it is implied that the repercussions will be grave. Claudius is a usurper. He has no legal or moral entitlement to the crown. He is the ‘serpent’ who now wears the crown of Denmark. Consequently, Denmark is polluted and hence Shakespeare’s adroit use of putrescent imagery. Denmark is ‘rankly abused’. It has become a ‘couch of luxury and damned incest’. This violation of the natural order is underscored by the emphatic reference to things being ‘foul’ or ‘rank’. It is as Marcellus proclaims it: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.
The debauchery of Claudius will percolate down into the body politic. All of Denmark is thus polluted. Denmark is in a state of disarray. Corruption permeates the Danish court. The scene is set and the audience is enthralled. Hamlet as the play’s noble prince, malcontent and revenger must seek to purge Denmark of satyr that is Claudius. However, the drama that Hamlet’s quest elicits is further accentuated by Hamlet’s growing sense of confusion as he vacillates from resolution (he promises to ‘sweep to my revenge’) to wishing he was never born so that he would never have had to fulfil such a monumental task as killing someone (‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’). Hamlet is tortured in term of his fulfilling his filial obligation towards his father and being true to himself.
In conclusion Act One is of rudimental importance as it lays the foundations of what is to come.