Barnardo and Francisco are the first two characters to enter the play. They can’t see each other because of the weather conditions (it is night time/dark), and Francisco demands that Barnardo identify himself before he lets his guard down. Barnardo says “Long live the king!” and Francisco relaxes. Barnardo and Francisco are both guards, and Barnardo has shown up to relieve Francisco of his post. Francisco is naturally thankful, as he mentions,
For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
As Barnardo and Francisco are saying farewell, Barnardo asks Francisco to tell Horatio and Marcellus to hurry up, if he sees them, but just at that moment, Horatio and Marcellus enter the scene. Because it’s dark and the guards are tense, Francisco yells at them, telling them to identify themselves. Horatio and Marcellus reveal their identities by mentioning their allegiance to Denmark
Friends to this ground
And liegemen to the Dane.
which allows Francisco to lower his defences once again, and he leaves the scene.
We get a strong sense of darkness from these first few interactions, and from the setting itself. Francisco is clearly spooked out by everything around him, and his fatigue makes us, the audience, want to empathize with how dark and exhausting the circumstances are. The scene takes place at night and it’s difficult for the characters to even recognize the other characters who enter the scene. This forces the characters to demand that they identify themselves, and here we see that Francisco is only ever relieved by another’s response if it includes some mention of Denmark or the King. This is interesting because we immediately get a sense of nationalism and global scale to the play. From this first part of the scene alone, we might already begin to suspect that political pressures of a national scale may pressure the characters in this play.
Once Francisco leaves, Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio begin an interesting discussion about something that’s been concerning them. According to Marcellus, an apparition/ghost has appeared twice to Marcellus and Barnardo already. The guards try to convince Horatio that this ghost is real, but Horatio does not believe them. As Barnardo is in the middle of explaining that him and Marcellus saw the ghost around the same time last night, the ghost actually appears to the three men, and this time, they acknowledge the ghost’s likeness to the recently deceased King of Denmark. Marcellus and Barnardo urge Horatio to speak to the ghost, since Horatio is a scholar/academic, but the ghost simply disappears when Horatio speaks to it.
After the ghost’s disappearance, Horatio changes his attitude about the ghost completely. He has changed from a person who scoffed at Marcellus and Barnardo’s belief in the ghost to a person who is trying to figure out what the ghost could represent and the science behind it. Horatio mentions that this probably means something bad for Denmark, and Marcellus adds to this conversation by mentioning how all the guard’s night duties have increased, and how the shipbuilders have been working without taking any breaks (even weekends) to make ships of war.
Horatio explains that this hard work in apparent preparation for war may be because of something that happened before King Hamlet (former King of Denmark) passed away. You see, King Hamlet and King Fortinbras, King of Norway, had a kind of duel. They agreed, with legal terms set, that the winner of the duel would get to take the other’s lands, and King Hamlet won. However, rumors say that King Fortinbras’ son, Fortinbras (yes, they have the same name), is preparing to avenge his father by attacking Denmark. These rumours are why, according to Horatio and Marcellus, Denmark has been preparing for war. Barnardo chimes in to say that the ghost that looks like the late King Hamlet is probably appearing to them because he feels guilty for causing this preparation for war in the first place.
While Marcellus’ speculations of the ghost’s motives and reasons for appearance are related to the military busy-ness of the country, Barnardo’s speculations are more spiritual and related to the late King’s actions themselves. However, just as Horatio supported and expanded on Marcellus’ reasons, Horatio also supports and expands on Barnardo’s comparatively spiritual commentary - Horatio cites a story of spiritual terrors that sacked the Roman empire just before Julius Caesar’s assasination, and says that similar omens are currently ailing Denmark.
Once again, the ghost appears and this time, Horatio is more prepared to speak to it. Horatio demands that the ghost speak, but at the crowing of a rooster, the ghost begins to disappear. Horatio demands that Marcellus try to prevent the ghost from leaving, but Marcellus fail to do so. The three men discuss the significance of the crowing of the rooster, and how it awakens the god of day, sending all ghosts back to their hiding spots during the day. At the end of this rather superstitious and spiritual conversation, Horatio convinces the guards that they ought to tell Hamlet about the events of the night.
The dialogue and the overall tone of conversation before and after the appearance of the ghost are nearly total opposites. The skeptical and rational Horatio changes/develops from a person who would never believe in a ghost to a person who suddenly has respect for the spiritual realm. This helps us, as an audience, accept that the ghost is not just a figment of the men’s imaginations, but is actually real and has influence and ties to the physical world. After all, if a scholar changes their mind from a skeptic to a believer, we are more inclined to respect the scholar’s rational opinions than the words of those who are less educated.
The acceptance of the ghost as a real entity is further strengthened by the differing evidence that Barnardo and Marcellus present to Horatio - While Marcellus brings up present-day events and stories of the recent political circumstances (lines 81-90), Barnardo comments on the ghost’s apparent representation of the late King.
In the same figure like the King that’s dead.
Barnardo also brings up a point that confirms for us, as an audience, the ghost’s actual existence.
It was about to speak when the cock crew.
This line spurs further expansion by Marcellus and Horatio (below), who essentially confirm that, in addition to the earlier speculation on the ghost’s relationships to Denmark’s preparations for war and likelihood of connection to the late King Hamlet, the ghost is a supernatural entity, possibly stuck in a space between earth and the afterlife due to some unfinished business.
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.
So have I heard and do in part believe it.
There are many different versions of Shakespeare’s works throughout the world, and different versions sometimes interpret dialogue line numbers differently. At Nerdstudy, we follow the Folger version of Shakespeare’s works, which may be different from the version you are using. Always make sure that you refer to your instructor’s recommendations about which version of the play you’re using in class and whether they will grade you based on accuracy of line numbers for essays, tests, and assignments. Folger Digital Texts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.