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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT I, SCENE I

As Horatio's speech comes to its climax of horror and foreboding, the ghost appears again, spreading its arms in an ominous gesture. This time Horatio is calmer, and he challenges the ghost to explain why it has appeared: for the sake of something left unfinished; to warn the country of approaching danger; or to point the way to buried treasure. Just as the ghost seems about to speak, a rooster crows, indicating that dawn is near, and the ghost vanishes. As the sun rises, Horatio proposes that young Hamlet, the dead king's son, be told about the ghost, because "This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him." Marcellus agrees, adding that he knows exactly where the young prince will be.


NOTE: Apart from its thrills and the beauty of its poetry, this scene is important for establishing the overall situation and particularly the character of Horatio, who will serve as a trusted friend and a sounding board for Hamlet all through the play. Think through the sequence of Horatio's actions and responses in the scene. Notice how he displays first skepticism, then fright, then bravery, then his knowledge of court affairs, then his education, and finally, in his description of dawn, his cultured eloquence. Notice also the way the play's story is magnified in importance as the scene goes on, like a photograph widening its perspective. What begins as the tension of two soldiers on a cold night has by the end of the scene broadened to include not only a whole nation, but also its place in the world.

Shakespeare believed in a view of the universe that we now commonly refer to as the Great Chain of Being; in this view there is a natural order and harmony to life, and every living thing from the smallest insect up to the angels in heaven has a fixed place in it. If one element gets out of place, the chain is broken and the harmony disrupted; consequently, omens in the skies, or ghosts on earth, signal that some disruption is going on. After Horatio's speech about ancient Rome we are prepared for a series of images that will link night and omens to the story of Hamlet, and make an ongoing comparison between the distant, starry heavens and the squalid urgency of life on earth. The mention of Julius Caesar's assassination juxtaposed with the appearance of the ghost gives us a clue as to what this disruption may be.

To cite one small example of the thoroughness with which Shakespeare prepares the way for his story, notice that Barnardo, telling Horatio the story, casually uses the phrase, "Let us once again assail your ears." You will very shortly learn of another character whose ears have been assailed, in a more dangerous and less metaphorical way, with tragic results.  

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