Scene by Scene
"Revenge should know no bounds." -- Claudius
Hamlet, our hero, is the son of the previous king of Denmark, also named Hamlet ("Old Hamlet", "Hamlet Senior" as we'd say), who has died less than two months ago. Hamlet remembers his father as an all-around good guy, and as a tender husband who would even make a special effort to shield his wife's face from the cold Danish wind. The day Hamlet was born, Old Hamlet settled a land dispute by killing the King of Norway in personal combat.
How old is Hamlet? We have contradictory information. The gravedigger mentions that Hamlet is thirty years old, and that the jester with whom Hamlet played as a child, has been dead for twenty-three years. An thirty-year-old man might still be a college student. However, Ophelia is unmarried in an era when girls usually married in their teens, and several characters refer to Hamlet's "youth". So we might prefer to think that Hamlet is in his late teens or early twenties. And many people have seen Hamlet's bitter, sullen outlook at the beginning of the play as typical of youth. You'll need to decide that one for yourself. (I think "thirty" might be a mistake for "twenty". Richard Burbage, who played Hamlet first, was older than twenty, and perhaps the editor thought "twenty" must be wrong. You decide.)
Hamlet was a college student at Wittenberg when his father died. (Of course the historical Hamlet, who lived around 700, could not have attended Wittenberg, founded in 1502). The monarchy went to his father's brother, Claudius. (Shakespeare and the other characters just call him "King".) Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, married Claudius within less than a month.
Old Hamlet died during his after-lunch nap in his garden. The public was told that Old Hamlet died of snakebite. The truth is that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet by pouring poison in his ear. Old Hamlet died fast but gruesomely.
The ghost describes the king's seduction of the queen (the "garbage" passage) just prior to describing the actual murder, and this makes the most sense if the queen actually committed adultery before the murder, and that the affair was its actual motive. Even in our "modern" age, if a twenty-plus-year marriage ends with the sudden death of one partner, and the survivor remarries four weeks later, I'd believe that there had probably been an adulterous affair. And everybody at the Danish court must have thought the same thing. If you don't know this, you're naive. But it's not clear that Gertrude actually knew a murder was committed, and we never get proof that anyone else knew for certain, either. But everybody must have been suspicious. And nobody was saying anything.
Young Hamlet is very well-liked. He is a soldier, a scholar, and a diplomat. We learn that he's "the glass of fashion and the mould of form", i.e., the young man that everybody else tried to imitate. He's also "loved of the distracted multitude", i.e., the ordinary people like him, and if anything were to happen to him, there would be riots.
Exactly why Claudius rather than Hamlet succeeded Old Hamlet is not explained. Hamlet refers (V.ii) to "the election", i.e., the choosing of a new king by a vote of a small number of warlords (as in ). (By Shakespeare time, it was the Danish royal family that voted.) Interestingly, the Norwegian king is also succeeded by his brother, rather than by his own infant son Fortinbras.
Or the royal title may have gone to Claudius simply because he married the royal widow, who he calls "our imperial jointress". Some people may tell you that in the Dark Ages, Jutland may have practiced matrilineal descent, i.e., a society in which family identity and inheritance is passed through the female line. Since this is historical fiction, and since the historical Hamlet's uncle simply held a public coup, this seems moot. Matrilineal descent is known among some primitive people in our own century, and is attested to by ancient writers on various cultures. The advantage of this system is that the best men tend to get picked for hereditary positions of power. With male-line succession, the old king is followed by his oldest son, who may be stupid and get himself killed quickly. Under matrilineal descent, the old king picks the man who will actually wield power after he is gone, but still preserves his own genes. In spite of what anybody else may tell you, we know of no human culture in which the men, who are physically stronger and do the fighting, let the women make the laws and the big decisions (a ). You may decide this is unfortunate.
A real anthropologist, at U. Wash., points out that its checks-and-balances system made the Iroquois government the "closest thing to a matriarchy ever described".
The play opens on the battlements of the castle. It's midnight. (Shakespeare anachronistically says "'Tis now struck twelve.") Francisco has been keeping watch, and Bernardo comes to relieve him. Neither man recognizes the other in the darkness, and each issues a tense challenge. Francisco remarks, "It's bitter cold... and I am sick at heart." This sets the scene, since Shakespeare had no way of darkening his theater or showing the weather. The fact that each guard suspects the other of being an intruder indicates all is not well, even though Francisco does not say why he is "sick at heart".
Francisco leaves, and Marcellus arrives to share Bernardo's watch. Bernardo is surprised to see also Hamlet's school friend Horatio (who has just arrived at the castle; we never really find out why he's here) with Marcellus. Marcellus and Bernardo think they have twice seen the ghost of "Old Hamlet". Horatio is skeptical. The ghost appears, the men agree it looks like the old king, and Horatio (who is a "scholar" and thus knows something of the paranormal) tries to talk to it. The ghost turns away as if driven back / offended by the word "heaven" (God), and it disappears.
The men talk about Old Hamlet. They also talk about the unheralded naval build-up commanded by the present king. This is in response to an expected military invasion by the Norwegian prince Fortinbras, who wishes to regain the territories lost by his father's death. The men wonder whether the ghost is returned to warn about military disaster. The ghost reappears. The men try to talk to it to find out what it wants. They try to strike it. It looks like it is about to speak, but suddenly a rooster crows (the signal of morning) and the ghost fades away. (As usual, Shakespeare is telescoping time.) Marcellus relates a beautiful legend that during the Christmas season, roosters might crow through the night, keeping the dark powers at bay.
Claudius holds court. This is apparently his first public meeting since becoming king. Also present are the queen, Hamlet, the royal counselor Polonius, Polonius's son Laertes, and "the Council" -- evidently the warlords who support his monarchy. Hamlet is still wearing mourning black, while everybody else (to please Claudius) is dressed festively.
Claudius wants to show what a good leader he is. He begins by talking about the mix of sorrow for his brother's death, and joy in his new marriage. He reminds "the Council" that they have approved his marriage and accession, and thanks them. Claudius announces that Fortinbras of Norway is raising an army to try to take back the land his father lost to Old Hamlet. Claudius emphasizes that Fortinbras can't win militarily. Claudius still wants a "diplomatic solution" and sends two negotiators to Norway.
Next, Laertes asks permission to return to France. The king calls on Polonius. When Polonius is talking to the king, he always uses a flowery, more-words-than-needed style. Polonius can be played either for humor, or as a sinister old man. Either fits nicely with the play's theme of phoniness. Polonius says he is agreeable, and the king gives permission. This was rehearsed, and Claudius is taking advantage of the opportunity to look reasonable, especially because he is about to deal with Hamlet, who wants to return to college.
Claudius calls Hamlet "cousin" (i.e., close relative) and "son" (stepson), and asks why he is still sad. Hamlet puns. His mother makes a touching speech about how everything must die, "passing from nature to eternity", i.e., a better afterlife. She asks him why he is still acting ("seems") sad. Hamlet replied he's not acting, just showing how he really feels. Claudius makes a very nice speech, asks that Hamlet stay at the court, and reaffirms that Hamlet is heir to his property and throne. Hamlet's mother adds a nice comment, and Hamlet agrees to stay. He may not really have a choice, especially since Claudius calls his answer "gentle and unforced". Does Claudius really care about Hamlet? Maybe. The meeting is over, and Claudius announces there will be a party, at which he'll have the guards shoot off a cannon every time he finishes a drink.
Hamlet is left alone. He talks to himself / the audience. Today's movie directors would use voice-overs for such speeches ("soliloques" if they are long and the speaker is alone, "asides" if they are short and there are other folks on stage.) He talks about losing interest in life and how upset he is by his mother's remarriage and its implications. (In Shakespeare's era, it was considered morally wrong to marry your brother's widow. Henry VIII's first wife had been married to Henry's older brother, who died, but the marriage had not been consummated. This puzzle sparked the English reformation.) Hamlet is trapped in a situation where things are obviously very wrong. Like other people at such times, Hamlet wishes God hadn't forbidden suicide. Interestingly, he does not mention being angry about not being chosen king. Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo come in. Hamlet is surprised to see his school buddy. Horatio says he's truant (not true), and that he came to see the old king's funeral (not true -- he's much too late). Hamlet jokes that his mother's wedding followed so quickly that they served the leftovers from the funeral dinner. (I think Horatio probably came to Elsinore out of concern for Hamlet, spoke with the guards first, and was invited at once to see the ghost. Some guys don't say to another guy, "I came to see YOU" even when it's obvious.) You'll need to decide what Hamlet means when he says that he sees his father "in his mind's eye". Sometimes, bereaved people notice their eyes fooling them -- shadows forming themselves in the mind into an image of the deceased. Other mourners report even more vivid experiences, which they do recognize to be tricks of perception. Or perhaps Hamlet is simply thinking a lot about his father, or holding onto his good memories. The friends tell Hamlet about the ghost. Hamlet asks what the ghost looked like -- skin color and beard colors -- and agrees they match his father. Hamlet asks the men to keep this a secret and to let him join them the next night, hoping the ghost will return and talk. Afterwards he says he suspects foul play. Everybody else probably does, too, even without any ghost.
Laertes says goodbye to Ophelia, his sister. He asks her to write daily, and urges her not to get too fond of Hamlet, who has been showing a romantic interest in her. At considerable length, he explains how Hamlet will not be able to marry beneath his station, and explicitly tells her not to have sex ("your chaste treasure open") with him. Ophelia seems to be the passive sort, but she has enough spunk to urge him to live clean too, and not be a hypocrite. Laertes suddenly realizes he has to leave quickly (uh huh).
Polonius comes in and lays some famous fatherly advice on Laertes. It's today's self-centered worldly wisdom. "Listen closely, and say less than you know. Think before you act. Don't be cold, but don't be too friendly. Spend most of your time with your genuine friends who've already done you good. Choose your battles carefully, and fight hard. Dress for success. Don't loan or borrow money. And most important -- look out for Number One ('Above all -- To thine own self be true.')"
When Laertes leaves, Polonius questions Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet. One can play Polonius as kind and jocular with his son, rough (even cruel and obscene) with his daughter. He calls her naïve, orders her not even to talk to Hamlet, and demands to see his love letters to her. Contemporary readers who are puzzled by this should remember that in Hamlet's era (and Shakespeare's), a father would probably get less money from his future son-in-law if his daughter was not a virgin. Polonius, of course, pretends he cares only about Ophelia's well-being.