Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Dramatic Effectiveness of 'Hamlet' Act 1, Scene 1


The first scene of Hamlet introduces a number of the play’s central themes, including death, revenge, war, and uncertainty. Because the play begins in medias res, the scene is used to familiarise the audience with the conditions, relationships, and sensibilities of the world in which the play is set, while also fashioning the play’s overall atmosphere and tension. Shakespeare does this very effectively through the presentation of the characters’ uncertainty and fear, the description of the supernatural ghost, and the prophetic implications that this appearance may have.

The play begins with the question, “Who’s there?” which immediately suggests that it will be a play riddled with uncertainty and anxiety. The confrontation that then ensues between Barnardo and Francisco, neither knowing whether to trust the other (Francisco: “Nay answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” / Barnardo: “Long live the king!”) accentuates this uneasy atmosphere. The exclamation “Long live the king!” is clearly used as a password, and it shows that the two guards are suspicious of each other and are reluctant to give themselves away. We soon learn that it is midnight, thus explaining the characters’ inability to recognise one another, that it is “bitter cold,” and that the two men are both sentinels on guard. The fact that there has been “Not a mouse stirring” is somewhat ominous, suggesting that tonight is an unusually quiet night. Immediately the audience begin to question why there are guards at midnight and why they might feel so threatened. Moreover, the use of short, half-length lines clearly demonstrates their fear: 
FRANCISCO:                                      … Stand ho! Who is there?
HORATIO: Friends to this ground.
MARCELLUS:                        And liegemen to the Dane.
FRANCISCO: Give you good night.
MARCELLUS:                                        Oh farewell honest soldier…

The repeated exclamations and questions create a sense of urgency and angst. Francisco tells Barnardo that he is “sick at heart”, and indeed Horatio makes the slightly sardonic jest that only “a piece of him” is there, both implying that something is not quite right. This mood of uncertainty is made all the more real by the ominous references to “this thing” appearing and “this dreaded sight”. The introduction of the supernatural so early on in the play draws the audience in, and indeed their ignorance of what this apparition might be increases the tension. Barnardo and Marcellus both explain that they have seen “this apparition come” twice, thus making their story more believable. However, the audience is more inclined to believe Horatio, who is sceptical, at least until the ghost actually appears. In this way, the audience too are put in the dark and made ignorant, just like the guards. The opening of the scene effectively introduces the conditions of the play (we very quickly learn that we are in an unstable monarchy and that there has been a supernatural occurrence) and absorbs the audience into the plot.

The appearance of the ghost increases this tension. It is almost as if the mere retelling of the ghost’s appearance (“Marcellus and myself, / The bell then beating one -”) brings it back. Marcellus exclaims: “Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again,” anxiously interrupting Barnardo’s already rather fearful tale. The fact that Barnardo says that the ghost looks “like the king that’s dead” suggests that he still sees Hamlet Senior as the rightful king. Moreover, the audience can now infer the possible reason for the guards’ anxiety: the king has recently been replaced, and thus there is uncertainty about the future of the state. Horatio exhibits reverence to the old king in his phrase: “with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march…” Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1602, just after Queen Elizabeth came into power. Thus, the play can be seen as a response to the uncertainty felt during the transfer of power and the immense change experienced by the state. Their respect for the old King Hamlet is made clear through Horatio’s saying: “our valiant Hamlet - / For so this side of our wolrd esteemed him.” Indeed, this reference to another world is very ominous. Horatio, upon seeing the ghost, is harrowed “with fear and wonder”. Again, the audience relates to him, since they too have never seen the ghost. The fact that even the “scholar”, who was originally pessimistic, is struck to the core by fear insinuates how haunting the experience is. He admits:
“Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.”

This reinforces the fact that the ghost is not a simple fantasy, but is a real apparition. Barnardo and Marcellus’s anxiety is again evident from their short and broken lines: ‘“It would be spoke to.” / “Question it Horatio.”’ Horatio too is scared, but he is also keen to discover the ghost’s reasons for appearing to them: “Stay! Speak, speak, I charge thee speak!” Later on he repeats “Speak to me,” a number of times, and it is as if his voice is echoing through the darkness. The ghost is referred to by Horatio as an “illusion” and “it”. The ghost’s lack of a sex makes it seem even more otherworldly and fearful. The characters’ terrified reactions to the ghost are unsurprising, and the tension created by the uncertainty of the scene seizes the audience’s attention.

The guards, horrified by the ghost, suggest that this apparition may be some sort of omen. Indeed, the fact that the ghost is wearing armour (“With martial stalk” and “this portentous figure / Comes arméd through our watch,”) could be prophesising the imminence of war and danger in Denmark. Horatio says, with a certain fear and unease (“In what particular thought to work I know not,”) that the appearance of the ghost “bodes some strange eruption to our state.” The guards believe that the ghost appears to tell them something, or to settle some matter unsolved in his lifetime. The repeated ‘s’ sound in Horatio’s words serve to make his prophesy more fearful to the audience. Marcellus then describes Denmark’s preparations for war, the “daily cast of brazen cannon” and the “foreign mart for implements of war”. He questions why Denmark is overcome with haste and why the night has been made “joint-labourer with the day”. Horatio explains the history of wars in Denmark, while also introducing the theme of revenge: young Fortinbras wishes to regain “those foresaid lands / So by his father lost”. Moreover, Horatio makes reference to the murder of Julius Caesar, possibly implying that the death of King Hamlet was not as natural as is supposed. He then compares the ghost to the “prologue” or prophesy of the “omen coming on”. His anxiety about his country’s future is evident in his entreaties: “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, / Which happily foreknowing may avoid, / Oh speak.” These repeated references to the state’s fate and security, and indeed the allusions of prophesy, add tension to the scene and successfully prepare the audience for the events that follow.

The tension that has been built up throughout this chilling scene is then steadily released with the metaphorical narration of the awaking of “the god of day”. Marcellus also describes the season of Christmas “Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,” and when “The nights are wholesome”. This depiction leads to a gradual relaxation of the tension, and indeed Horatio replaces the figure of the walking ghost with a description of “the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” This comes as a pleasant relief for the audience, who up until this point have been, like the characters on stage, unsure and afraid. The guards then plan to tell Hamlet of what they have seen, and this again prepares the audience for other parts of the play, and they question what the outcome might be. Thus, we can tell from the first scene that this play will be about suspicion, ignorance, insecurity, murder, and revenge. This is achieved through the fearful and supernatural atmosphere created, the tensions introduced, and the prophesies of Horatio and Marcellus.

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