Dramatis Personae


Claudius, King of Denmark
Hamlet, son to the late, and nephew to the present king
Polonius, Lord Chamberlain
Horatio, friend to Hamlet
aertes, son to Polonius
Voltimand, Cornelius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Orsic, A Gentleman, courtiers
A Priest
Marcellus, Barnardo, officers
Francisco, a soldier
Reynaldo, servant to Polonius
Two Clowns, grave-diggers
Fortinbras, Prince of Norway
A Captain
English Ambassadors
Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and mother to Hamlet
Ophelia, daughter to Polonius
Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, Messengers, and other Attendants
Ghost of Hamlet's Father


 Scene: Denmark

SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the castle. FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO

The play begins on a castle platform, and it is immediately apparent that there is a great deal of tension in the atmosphere:

Who's there?
Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

Long live the king!


You come most carefully upon your hour.

'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.

For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.

Have you had quiet guard?

Not a mouse stirring.

Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.

I think I hear them. Stand, ho! Who's there?

If we remember that in Shakespeare’s time this play would have been enacted during the daylight hours, it is essential that he establish very quickly an atmosphere of gloom, tension and menace through some well-considered language.  Through the dialogue, we know that it is the ‘witching hour’ of midnight and very cold, yet those two facts do not explain the clipped challenge that Bernardo, the relief guard, issues to Francisco, who is about to end his watch.  As well, we should be struck by the fact that it is Francisco’s relief who initiates the challenge, not Francisco himself, which would be the normal and expected protocol, thereby subtly introducing the notion that things are anything but normal this night.  As well, the departing guard reveals that he is “sick at heart” despite ‘not a mouse stirring’ under his watch.  So in about a dozen lines, the playwright has set his hook into his audience, with much more to come.



Friends to this ground.

And liegemen to the Dane.

Give you good night.
O, farewell, honest soldier:
Who hath relieved you?

Bernardo has my place.
Give you good night.


Holla! Bernardo!

What, is Horatio there?

A piece of him.

Welcome, Horatio: welcome, good Marcellus.
What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?

I have seen nothing.

Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.

Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.

Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.
Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--


This dialogue, still for the most part very brief and tense, serves to deepen the menace and establish something important about Horatio.  Shakespeare’s diction, including reference to “this thing,” “this dreaded sight,” and “this apparition” builds suspense, as we still have no idea what terrible thing is being alluded to, and Horatio’s dismissive “Tush, tush, 'twill not appear,” serves to establish him as a skeptic, clearly set apart from the others.  It is a skepticism that is about to be severely challenged.


Enter Ghost

Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!

In the same figure, like the king that's dead.

Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.

Looks it not like the king? mark it, Horatio.

Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder.

Horatio’s response tells us that this thing is nothing to be trifled with.


It would be spoke to.

Question it, Horatio.

What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak!

It is offended.

See, it stalks away!

Stay! speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!

Exit Ghost

'Tis gone, and will not answer.


Horatio is established as a scholar in his first encounter with the ghost, as Marcellus looks to him for leadership in the situation; presumably Horatio knows Latin, something that would be instrumental in any kind of exorcism.  As well, we learn that it has the appearance of the late King of Denmark, but as will soon become apparent, that appearance doesn’t prove its identity.


How now, Horatio! you tremble and look pale:
Is not this something more than fantasy?
What think you on't?

Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.

Is it not like the king?

As thou art to thyself:
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
'Tis strange.

Thus twice before, and jump at this dead hour,
With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch.

In what particular thought to work I know not;
But in the gross and scope of my opinion,
This bodes some strange eruption to our state.


The above conversation illustrates the impact this apparition has had on Horatio, whose witness is intended to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that this thing is real and not the product of overactive imaginations.  As well, the military prowess of the late King is established as Horatio reflects on how the ghost’s appearance mirrors his image.  Whatever it is, Horatio concludes, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.”  In other words, its appearance must be an indication of something of grave importance to the country.

What follows next is exposition, information of events that occurred before the play’s beginning that will become very important as events progress.


Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who is't that can inform me?

That can I;
At least, the whisper goes so. Our last king,
Whose image even but now appear'd to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick'd on by a most emulate pride,
Dared to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet--
For so this side of our known world esteem'd him--
Did slay this Fortinbras; who by a seal'd compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return'd
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design'd,
His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in't; which is no other--
As it doth well appear unto our state--
But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost: and this, I take it,
Is the main motive of our preparations,
The source of this our watch and the chief head
Of this post-haste and romage in the land.

I think it be no other but e'en so:
Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch; so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars.


A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.--
But soft, behold! lo, where it comes again!


While it may seem strange that the guards do not seem to have any notion why weapons of war are being assembled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it falls to Horatio to explain what happened some 30 years previously, when King Hamlet and the King of Norway, Fortinbras, entered into a form of hand to hand combat, arrangements being made beforehand for the victor to receive some lands held by the loser.  King Hamlet slew Fortinbras in the contest, and as a result acquired certain Norwegian lands which the late King’s nephew, also named Fortinbras, is now seeking to reacquire by threatening war with Denmark.  This introduces what is called the Norwegian or Fortinbras subplot, about which more will be said later.  Horatio speculates that this impending war is the reason for the ghost’s appearance.

The latter’s allusion to the strange events that preceded the assassination of Julius Caesar, which Shakespeare included in his play of the same name, all suggest a break in the natural order of things.  Just as it was reported that there were strange sights in the sky and that the dead arose from their graves prior to the Caesar’s murder, Horatio is implying that the appearance of the apparition is indicative of something of similar magnitude.

Re-enter Ghost

I'll cross it, though it blast me. Stay, illusion!
If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,
Speak to me:
If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me,
Speak to me:

Cock crows

If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, O, speak!
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it: stay, and speak! Stop it, Marcellus.

Shall I strike at it with my partisan?

Do, if it will not stand.

'Tis here!

'Tis here!

'Tis gone!

Exit Ghost

We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence;
For it is, as the air, invulnerable,
And our vain blows malicious mockery.

It was about to speak, when the cock crew.

And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,
As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?

Let's do't, I pray; and I this morning know
Where we shall find him most conveniently.


All of the above dialogue serves to demonstrate the ambiguity of the ghost in the minds of Horatio and the others.  On the one hand, they entertain the notion as would the Elizabethans watching the play that the ghost may be what it looks like, the late King Hamlet.  On the other hand, it could be a spirit, either good or evil, masquerading in the guise of Hamlet.  The fact that Horatio does not treat the spectral visitor with deferential respect but rather challenges it rather harshly speaks to this ambiguity.  Its disappearance upon the crowing of the cock, the harbinger of dawn, also adds credence to the possibility that the ghost is an evil spirit.  They decide to tell the late king’s son, Prince Hamlet, about the apparition, which prepares us for our introduction to the melancholy prince in the next scene.


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