The first act seems dominated by the Ghost. He appears in three of the five scenes, and is discussed in one more.
As has been often noted, the first line of the play is a question, though just a challenge by the guard coming on duty to the one he’s replacing. There are a few puzzling comments that suggest unease among the soldiers. Francisco says he is “sick at heart” in addition to being cold. Horatio says that “a piece of him” is present when Barnardo asks if he’s there. That may be just a joke — though what does it mean? — but suggests his disquiet. Horatio describes the reasons for the warlike preparations that they’re all aware of, but we don’t hear any more of the slaying of old Fortinbras by Hamlet’s father in a single combat and the seizure of some Norwegian territory by the Danish state, at least until the very end when young Fortinbras suddenly enters to seize the now empty throne.
In fact, the political background is conspicuous by its absence in the play as it unfolds. Old Hamlet is not concerned by it, but by his murder by his brother. The political situation comes up when Claudius dispatches Cornelius and Voltemand to old Norway to encourage him to rein in young Fortinbras, but this is very quickly dealt with. There will be a scene when Hamlet sees
Fortinbras leading an army to capture some paltry bit of territory, but his concern is the oddness of the endeavor.
But the appearance of the Ghost and its refusal to speak puts a sense of strangeness and dread around the court scene that follows. Claudius gives a very public sort of accounting for what must be troubling people, his sudden marriage to the queen of the old king, whom he calls his “dear brother,” and the formulations, “mirth in funeral” and “dirge in marriage” — mirth and dirge seem almost to rhyme — seem disquieting. Clearly, Hamlet is dressed in mourning, perhaps the only one, because the Queen encourages him to “cast his nightly color off.” (I can never read this line without remembering the line in Branagh’s film, “In the Deep Midwinter,” in which the character who’s playing the Queen says she’s always afraid she’ll say “cast thy colored nighty off.”) Hamlet insists that the appearance of mourning may not distinguish him, but he has that within which passes such show. Claudius’ speech reproving Hamlet shows a monumental insensitivity to his mourning, but suggests as well a political divide between them. Hamlet agrees not to go back to Wittenberg, but in deference to his mother. But then Claudius’ declaring that his celebratory drinking will be underscored by cannons going off suggests more of the impropriety of “mirth in funeral.” What kind of guy wants to have a cannon shot off when he drinks, especially when his brother has just died?
But then Hamlet’s first soliloquy surprises by its opening, that he wishes his mourning, oddly called his “sullied flesh,” would simply cause his death or that he could kill himself. The death of a father would surely cause sadness, maybe depression, but such a yearning for death is extreme. But that extremity comes from his mother’s immediate marriage to her brother-in-law.
And now perhaps we begin to see the reason for the unease expressed by the soldiers. Hamlet speaks of “incestuous sheets.” Is it incestuous? The immediate marriage does suggest previous adultery.
Hamlet’s immediate cheering up when he sees Horatio and the other two is striking. Right away he makes a joke of the marriage: it was thrift so that the funeral baked meats could serve as cold leftovers for the wedding. But then he immediately indicates the pain it caused, but in the odd idea that he would rather wish to see his dearest foe in heaven than that day of marriage. Then there’s quick dialogue as Horatio recounts the appearance of the Ghost and Hamlet quizzes him on it. When the others leave, Hamlet confesses his suspicion of foul play. But why? Does the hasty marriage suggest that to him?
Scene 3 advances the sense of divisive relations in the court. Laertes is concerned by apparent courting of his sister by Hamlet, and after Laertes leaves, their father reiterates that, eventually forbidding Ophelia to see Hamlet. Okay, Hamlet is an unhappy, depressed young man, but why should he be so mistrusted? There is his political status and the position this puts his potential marriage in. But is this sufficient for their mistrust? Polonius’ characterization is expressed by his beginning to hurry Laertes’ departure, then detaining him with a barrage of good but conventional advice. We may suspect that his warning about Hamlet is part of this conventional caution.
The next two scenes seem almost part of the same scene, in which Hamlet confronts the Ghost and the Ghost commits him to revenge. Tucked into the beginning is Hamlet’s response to Horatio’s surprise at the cannons going off: it’s Claudius’ drinking custom and confirms our sense that this is an odd and maybe egomaniac practice. But then it leads Hamlet to describe what may seem almost an account of tragic flaw. Is that what this is? What does he mean by it?
When the Ghost appears, Hamlet seems elated, excited almost beyond control. It may be this that leads his friends to try to restrain him from following the Ghost. But follow he does, and the Ghost assures him that he is the Ghost of his father and that he’s suffering in purgatory. So it’s not a Protestant ghost. What the Ghost describes is both the horror of his suffering and the horror of his murder. There’s no possibility but that this would create an extreme response in Hamlet, and it not only confirms Hamlet’s darkest thoughts but stirs an even greater horror at the physical effects of his murder.
So what are we to make of the Ghost’s concluding words: “But howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/ Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven.” What is “this act”? Do we notice that the Ghost doesn’t actually say that Hamlet should kill Claudius? We assume that’s what he means. But the Ghost is not a damned spirit and enjoins him not to taint his own mind, which surely must occur if he assassinates his uncle. And how could he spare his mother if he kills her husband? Is Hamlet’s mind already to some degree tainted? Could the Ghost not have tainted his mind in all the language about purgatorial suffering and the horror of his murder and the betrayal by his mother?
Is this a revenge play? What could the revenge be?
Understandably, Hamlet doesn’t want his friends to speak of the encounter with the Ghost. They of course did not hear what the Ghost spoke, and Hamlet tells them only that it was an “honest”
ghost. But maybe the oddest thing at the end of the scene is the movement of the Ghost as he insists the friends swear never to reveal the event. Hamlet, or the actor playing him, speaks of the Ghost as “truepenny”, as “this fellow in the cellerage,” that is, under the stage. The reference to the theater is very strange.
I don’t think I noticed before how long the first act is, more than 850 lines. Having come to Hamlet from several other Shakespeare plays, I am struck with how much richer and more complex it is. By the end of Act 1 there are several centers of interest besides the Ghost, and we are thinking about Hamlet in relation to three other young men, Horatio, Fortinbras, and Laertes, who are not just foils but, at least in the case of the latter two, constitute subplots that closely parallel the main plot. Horatio and Hamlet are fellow students at Wittenberg, but Hamlet’s imagination is more wide ranging than the skeptical Horation with his “philosophy.” Laertes, like Hamlet, asks for permission to return to his life abroad; and like Hamlet is spied on by his “father.” “Young Fortinbras,” like “Young Hamlet,” has lost his royal father, and Norway, like Denmark, is now ruled by his uncle. Already in Act 1 Hamlet is invited, and we too are invited, to consider the relationship between thought, word, and act that becomes all-important later: “a will not his own,” “act of fear,” “actions that a man might play.”
You’re right about the dominant presence of the Ghost in Act 1. Wasn’t it Maynard Mack who drew attention to the first line, and suggested that the play, “in the interrogative mood,” is preoccupied (“Who’s there?) with questions of identity?
You suggest that the “political background” of the play is conspicuous by its absence. Here I disagree. What struck me this time is that this is very much a play about “the state” of Denmark, and about royal rule and succession in the kingdom. Who is the real king? The third line is “Long live the king!” — which is a little creepy when the dead king seems to be alive. “The King that’s dead” (1.1.41) even suggests that though he is dead he is still the king. At 1.2. 191 Horatio refers to “the king your father.” And Hamlet addresses the Ghost as “King, father, royal Dane” (1.4.45). Who is “the Dane” (1.1.15) to whom the soldiers are liegeman. Claudius declares that he is “the Dane” (1.2.44), and later Hamlet will declare that he is “Hamlet the Dane.”
Why was Old Hamlet succeeded by his brother and not by his son? The Ghost is said to be a “usurper” (1.1.47), but soon enough we think of Claudius as the usurper. Claudius seems not to have any children of his own, even though in public he refers to Hamlet as his “son” (1.1.64) — later in talking to Gertrude he says Hamlet is “your son.” It’s interesting that Claudius says “my cousin Hamlet, and my son,” but not “. . . my son, and heir.” A few lines later Hamlet is “Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son” (1.2.117), but again not “heir.” At the end of the play Hamlet is remembered as one who, had he been “put on [the throne] . . . would have proved most royal.” As early as 1.3 Laertes , in warning Ophelia off of Hamlet, seems to think of Hamlet as royal: on his choice of wife “depends/ The safety and health of this whole state” (1.3.21). Is there a buried parallel between the “o’erhasty” Claudius-Gertrude marriage, and Polonius’s concern about an ill-advised (and “o’erhasty”?) Hamlet-Ophelia marriage?
Relations with Norway also seem prominent in Act 1, and in Act 2. Soldiers are standing watch because Denmark guard against war with “ambitious Norway.” The Ghost may have something to do with an upcoming war (1.1.108). Fortinbras seeks to regain land that Norway lost to Denmark in an earlier war. The Ghost is thought to bode some eruption to “our state” (1.1.69). Claudius publicly declares that Denmark is a “warlike state” (1.2.9). In the end, this will prove to be the case: the royal family of Denmark is wiped out, and Claudius will be succeeded by the foreigner Fortinbras.
You are right that the politics of the play, both domestic and foreign, recede as we get into Act 2, but I think they are always there, in the background, and reemerge at the end. There is something “rotten” at the core of the state, which makes the state all the more vulnerable to foreign conquest.
In 1.2 it’s notable that Claudius, to give him credit, decides to negotiate with Norway rather than go to war. And his negotiation proves very successful, as we find out in Act 2. You’re right that Claudius is “insensitive” to Hamlet’s situation in his big speech in 1.2, but it’s a public address, designed to consolidate his power as the new king, and, because delivered in public, is perhaps appropriately larded with commonplaces about sons losing fathers. What I find interesting is that Claudius speaks to Laertes before he speaks to Hamlet. Maybe that’s to set up the sharp contrast between the situation of the two young men: Claudius gives Laertes permission to return to France but denies Hamlet permission to return to Wittenberg.
In his soliloquy Hamlet is distressed by his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. But I don’t think he gives any sign that he fears foul play or suspects an affair between Claudius and Gertrude. The sheets are “incestuous” because marriage to your dead husband’s brother was thought by some to be too close. The Ghost does not accused Gertrude of complicity or of adultery. Hamlet seems shocked when the Ghost tells him of “murder,” but at some level he knew something was wrong: “O, my prophetic soul.”
I had not noticed before that Hamlet saying he will write down the Ghost’s words in his “tables” parallels the scene in which Polonius delivers the kind of commonplaces to Laertes that are typically found in one’s “tables.”
Why is Horatio so late in arriving in Denmark for old Hamlet’s funeral?
Is it odd that Hamlet confers with Horatio, Marcellus, and the others about the Ghost, suggesting that he will work with them, but then declares, at the end of the act, that “I was born to set it right”?
At the end of the act Hamlet tells his friends that he will put on an “antic disposition,” but they already think he was acting strangely with his “wild and whirling words” (1.5.133) and behaving in an “antic” manner with the “old mole” in “the cellarage.” This is perhaps the first of several moments when we wonder whether Hamlet is in fact mad or just pretending to be mad.