Hamlet, Act 1

January 13, 2011

Hamlet is, both by popular opinion and my own personal one, Shakespeare’s best play. For a reason largely inexplicable to me, Hamlet is fascinating, haunting, and magical in a way that other plays are not. It is with a sense of awe and appreciation, therefore, that I indulge in reading The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark yet again.

The first act of Hamlet begins as two sentinels guarding the Danish palace hear, yet again, a noise that startles them. The fright turns out to be the specter of the previous king of Denmark, Hamlet, who is believed to have been bitten by a snake and killed as a result of the poisoning. Though the poltergeist has appeared for three nights in a row, it refuses to speak and disappears as quickly as it arrives, bewildering its witnesses. The sentinels decide to inform Prince Hamlet, the late king’s son, about the apparition.

Meanwhile, Prince Hamlet is brooding over his father’s death, as the Prince believed his father to be a just and admirable king. Prince Hamlet is particularly perturbed by the rapidity with which his mother, Queen Gertrude, remarried. In a mere month after the king’s death, Gertrude married Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother, and already shares a bed with him, much to the dismay of Hamlet, who finds his mother’s actions lascivious and disrespectful. Hamlet gives beautiful speeches from his very first appearance in the play, and his suicidal tendencies are made known early when he vocalizes his wish that his flesh would simply melt away or that suicide were not an unholy act.

In a new scene, Laertes, brother to Ophelia and son of Polonius, informs Ophelia not to indulge in Hamlet’s romantic requests, saying that Hamlet is but youthful and brimming with desire, all of which¬†can expire at any moment. Polonius, Ophelia’s father, extends a similar warning to her against Hamlet. Ophelia obliges them both by acquiescing with their commands.

The scene ends when Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, is beckoned away by that ghost, and is then told that the “snake bite” that killed his father was actually a malicious poisoning by Claudius. Prince Hamlet returns to his friends, informs them of the awful truth, and the three of them swear never to reveal what they learned that night.

In this act, Shakespeare sets up some fascinating plots. As a reader, we already identify with Hamlet because of the raw depth of the inner psychology to which we are granted dramatic access and view. We begin to imagine to what extent Hamlet was courting and flirting with Ophelia before the action of the play, just as we imagine what Gertrude’s relationship with the late king was like. The play begins brilliantly.