Sc. 1, Lines 148–181

Sc. 1, Lines 148–181: What is the purpose of the first scene? What ideas does Shakespeare want the audience to understand before meeting the main characters? As the scene draws to a close, what does Horatio say that he and the guards should do next and why? Given how Scene 1 closes, predict what might happen in Act II.

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After Horatio has finished explaining the political backstory, the ghost of Old Hamlet appears once more. This time Horatio does try to speak to the ghost. When the ghost remains silent, Horatio tells Marcellus and Bernardo to try to detain it; they strike at the ghost with their spears but jab only air. A rooster crows just as the ghost appears ready to reply to Horatio at last. This sound startles the ghost away. Horatio decides to tell Prince Hamlet, Old Hamlet’s son, about the apparition, and the others agree.

The first scene of the play, like most every scene of the play, is very well known, and very puzzling. Without explaining his reasons in detail, T.S. Eliot once declared the first lines of the play to be the best lines in English. He and many other critics have found this scene to be a microcosm of the whole play, as it were. Shakespeare uses many deceptively simple rhetorical tricks to introduce some of the major themes and concerns that he follows through to the play’s end.

For example, in a play that contains many of the most famous, most unanswerable questions ever expressed, whether literal questions (“To be or not to be”) or interpretive questions of motivation (“Why doesn’t Hamlet just kill Claudius straight away?”), it is remarkable that Shakespeare begins Hamlet with a question, “Who’s there?” Who’s there, indeed.... On one level, this is a simple question, one that is asked every day in the most innocuous contexts. But on a deeper level (and everything in this play is richly rewarding on a deeper level) it is one of the basic questions of philosophy. Who is there? Who are we? What is man? Who is Hamlet? What is Hamlet? In this most philosophical of plays, we begin with a moment of covert philosophy, a question simple on the surface, but profound when pressed; and the first scene continues this focus on questioning, giving us question after question. Horatio, the quintessential scholar, skeptical and empirical, begins by questioning the reality of the ghost; eventually, he is exhorted to “question” the ghost in a more literal way – to ask the ghost questions. In general, then, the first scene takes us from the no-nonsense world outside the theater, the world of Horatio and his doubts, to the magical, metaphysical, ultra-theatrical world ofHamlet. We may bring certainties to the play, but we are encouraged almost immediately to abandon them.

Thus before we have even seen Hamlet (the younger Hamlet, that is) we are deeply mired in the play’s dubious, spectral atmosphere.