‘Hamlet’: What Does the Opening Scene Disclose?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The first scene of every play by Shakespeare conveys something special. But Hamlet is the one with the most intriguing opening scene. The characters say something that has a very deep meaning. But how can it be understood?

A painting from 1875, showing actors before the staging of 'Hamlet'.
There is a pattern to Shakespeare’s opening scenes, and Hamlet is the best tragedy to study this. (Image: Władysław Czachórski/Public domain)

In all the tragedies written by Shakespeare, the first scenes are always deceptive. The title characters are never seen in the opening scenes of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and even Hamlet. Othello is introduced in the second scene while Macbeth comes in the third scene, and Romeo does not appear until the 150 lines of the first scene are completed. Even the introduction of main characters in Hamlet is deferred. It appears that the introduction of the main characters is delayed until something has been completed. But what is that thing?

There is definitely a pattern in this. Shakespeare wants to do something in his opening scenes. To understand what is happening in these plays, the first scenes of these tragedies must be understood. And Hamlet is the best tragedy to study this. It is important to have a special focus on the construction, dynamics, and action in the opening scene with other characters. This is one of the greatest first scenes in any drama in the world. And think of it—this is even before Hamlet enters. So, what happens in the first scene of this most famous play?

The Opening Scene in Hamlet

The opening line by the characters in Hamlet is, “Who’s there?”This itself is a great question in the context of the play and the western literature. This is also a question of identity asking, “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” And the answer only increases the puzzle when it is said, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” The answer to the question of identity is declined. But then it is asked again in a more interesting way, as “unfold yourself”. This almost suggests opening oneself up, taking out one’s identity, and showing it to the world.

Remember that later in the third act Hamlet opposes when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to do exactly this to him. He says to them, “You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” This is the same idea as “stand and unfold yourself”. Nobody in this play knows who anybody really is and definitely not about themselves. And this is conveyed in the first two lines of the play itself.

Why are these two characters reluctant to disclose themselves? Actually, they are the guards of the castle on the ramparts late at night. It has just struck midnight. Soon, the mood is set as cautious, apprehensive, and frightened. “You come most carefully upon your hour,” one says. “For this relief much thanks,” says the other. “’Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart.”

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Horatio—Hamlet’s friend

But why are they so disturbed? What are they worried about? Soon, two more characters enter the scene. One more guard and a gentleman named Horatio. The mystery begins to be described when they ask a question. The question is posed by Horatio, “What, has this thing appear’d again tonight?” It turns out that they are being haunted by a ghost—twice they have seen “this apparition come,” and they’ve brought Horatio so that an educated gentleman can confirm what they have seen and tell them what to do.

This is a photograph of Edwin Booth playing Hamlet, circa 1870.
Hamlet has a probing mind that inspires him to think deeply about the mysteries that are explored in the play. (Image: J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. / Public domain)

And just when they start to describe to Horatio what they have seen, the ghost itself emerges all of a sudden. But this is no ordinary ghost, it looks exactly like the king who has just died and it is scary. Horatio exclaims, “It harrows me with fear and wonder.” They try to ask a question to the ghost but it moves away leaving them shaken. Horatio, the educated, doubting, and intelligent man is the most shaken. Bernardo asks him, “How now, Horatio? You tremble and look pale / Is not something more than fantasy?” This is an example of an embedded stage direction. The words, “You tremble and look pale” gives a clue to the actor about his response to the ghost he has just seen and what it has done to him.

Horatio, the doubter that he is, then says, “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of my own eyes.” He needs that confirmation of the senses to take him to the place of belief.

For Horatio’s friend Hamlet this much is not sufficient. Hamlet, too, will see the ghost and speak with it. He will not believe even the experience of his senses. Hamlet is not satisfied with the proof that satisfies others and this is the main aspect of his character. His probing mind, active wisdom, and his exhortation of full truth always inspires him to go deeper into those mysteries that are explored by him as well as by his play. When Hamlet is seen in contradiction to the other characters like rational Horatio in this opening scene, it is understood what makes him so amazing. But some would argue that it was this very characteristic that led him to his doom—this inability to stop constant questioning.

Learn more about how to approach a single dramatic scene.

Understanding the First Scene

This is the title page of Hamlet printed in 1605.
“Who’s there?” is the opening line by Hamlet characters and is itself a great question in the context of the play. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Coming back to the opening scene, what would people generally do on seeing a ghost on the castle walls after midnight? But contrary to that, these characters start talking about politics which seems odd. However, Horatio has a suspicion that the appearance of the dead king in full armor is a sign of some unusual outbreak in the state.

Now, when guards start talking to each other, we learn that they are put on duty every night because there is a build-up of arms and cannons in the castle. Just like in preparation for war. But the reason of this build-up is not clear. So they ask Horatio to tell them about these developments, and he gives a long explanation of how the old King Hamlet, whose ghost they’ve just seen, defeated the king of Norway and got much land from him. Now this dead king’s son, Fortinbras, is preparing an army to march against the new king of Denmark and get those lands back.

Fortinbras is a key character throughout the play—he only appears twice, and speaks little, but he stands as a kind of contrast or comparison to Prince Hamlet. Fortinbras is almost wholly a man of action, one who does his deeds without thinking too long on the event; whereas Hamlet is certainly someone who is greatly troubled by action and must continually think through anything he does.

So this first scene already sets up an overarching contrast in the play between the man of action and the man of thought, and even if Hamlet himself ultimately eludes these easy characterizations, nevertheless this is a key contest throughout the play.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Common Questions about the opening scene in Hamlet

Q: Who are the pivotal characters in Hamlet?

The three main characters in the play are:
Hamlet—He is the protagonist and the prince of Denmark.
Claudius—He is Hamlet’s uncle and the antagonist. He is the new king of Denmark.
Gertrude—She is the queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother, who has recently married his uncle Claudius.

Q: How does Hamlet’s character impact the play?

As the play progresses, Hamlet’s internal struggles get deeper which in turn puts Elsinore in more turbulence. Further, his revulsion toward his mother turns into a full-blown anti-feminism that contributes to Ophelia’s eventual death.

Q: What is Hamlet’s most terrible shortcoming?

Hamlet’s most terrible shortcoming is his inability to take decisions. Being not able to decide on his suicide and delaying killing his uncle are both examples of his indecisiveness.

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