Hamlet: Act 1 Scene 1 - Summary

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Hamlet: Act 1 Scene 1 - Notes

Contextual info:

  • Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1 involves Francisco, Barnardo, Marcellus, Horatio, and a Ghost who looks like the late King Hamlet
  • The scene takes place at Elsinore Castle in Denmark near midnight

Plot Summary:

  • This scene introduces some important contextual information to give us an idea of the mood and tone of the play
  • The scene mostly focuses on Barnardo, Marcellus, Horatio, and a Ghost that looks like the King of Denmark who recently died (King Hamlet)
  • In the beginning, Horatio doubts the existence of the ghost, but once it appears, Horatio accepts it as a real entity, and begins to think about why it has appeared
  • Horatio explains that before King Hamlet of Denmark died, the King had a sort of duel with King Fortinbras of Norway, and won
  • The agreement between the kings was that whoever should win the duel would take the loser’s lands - so King Hamlet of Denmark acquired the lands of King Fortinbras of Norway
  • Horatio also explains that Fortinbras, King Fortinbras’ son is rumored to be plotting a revenge scheme against Denmark to take back his father’s lands
  • The ghost doesn’t say a word in this scene, even when Horatio tries to speak to it
  • At the end of the scene, Horatio convinces Barnardo and Marcellus that they should go tell Hamlet, the late King Hamlet’s son and the main protagonist of the play, about the appearance of the Ghost

Detailed Breakdown

Part 1: Introduction to Francisco, Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio

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.

Part 1: Analysis

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.

Part 2: The ghost appears, Horatio’s doubts are cleared, and we get insight into the political backdrop of the 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.

Part 2: Analysis

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.


Are the line numbers different in your book? Here’s why:

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.

As of Act 1 Scene 1, which characters (although not an exhaustive list) did not appear in the play yet?

Hamlet and Ophelia
Horatio and Marcellus
Marcellus and Barnardo
The Ghost and Horatio
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When Horatio sees the Ghost, he realizes that the ghost looks like which of the following people?

Prince Hamlet
Himself (Horatio)
King Hamlet (Prince Hamlet's dead father)
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In Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1, which of the guards/sentries are present at the end of the scene?

Barnardo and Francisco
Francisco and Marcellus
Barnardo and Marcellus
Francisco, Barnardo, and Marcellus
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In Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1, Marcellus mentions that the country is in a state of unrest and preparation for war and Horatio says that this is happening because:

King Hamlet killed King Fortinbras, but Fortinbras’ son, Fortinbras, is rumored to be planning a revenge attack on Denmark
King Hamlet killed King Norway, but Norway’s son, Fortinbras, is rumored to be planning a revenge attack on Denmark
King Hamlet killed King Norway, but Norway’s son, Norway, is rumored to be planning a revenge attack on Denmark
King Hamlet of Denmark killed King Fortinras of Norway and unlawfully stole all his lands, and King Fortinbras’ son, Fortinbras, is rumored to be planning a revenge attack on Denmark
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In Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1, the ghost, who has some remarkable similarities to the late King Hamlet, does what in this scene?

Appears to Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio, to get their cooperation in bringing Prince Hamlet, the late King’s son
Appears to Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio, to enlist their help in taking revenge against Fortinbras of Norway, who is planning an attack against Denmark
Appears to Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio, to enlist their help in finding peace by performing a spiritual ritual that would let him ascend into Heavens
Appears to Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio, but doesn’t ask for their help or cooperation through any dialogue
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In Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1, which of the three men attempt to speak to the ghost and why?

Horatio attempts to speak to the ghost because Barnardo urges him to do so
Horatio attempts to speak to the ghost because Marcellus urges him to do so
Barnardo attempts to speak to the ghost because Horatio urges him to do so
Marcellus attempts to speak to the ghost because Barnardo urges him to do so
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What does Horatio believe the significance of King Hamlet’s ghost to be?

He believes it is a sign of prosperity
He believes it is a sign of trouble
He believes it is a sign that the castle is haunted
He believes it is a sign that Prince Hamlet is cursed
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What is the significance of the crowing of the rooster?

The crowing signifies that morning has arrived, warding off spirits
The crowing signifies that a rooster has been slaughtered
The crowing signifies that the rooster can see the ghost of King Hamlet
It has no significance at all
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