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Summary Act I

SCENE 1

Characters: Francisco--soldier; Bernardo--officer; Marcellus--officer; Horatio--Hamlet's friend and Wittenberg schoolmate; ghost--the spirit of Hamlet's murdered father who is the rightful king of Denmark

We are on the platform of Elsinore castle, in the dead of night, with Francisco, a soldier, who is standing guard, when he is relieved by Bernardo, an officer. It isn’t long before Bernardo is joined by his fellow officer, Marcellus, who has brought with him Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, who doubts that the castle is haunted by a ghost as the officers claim. Bernardo begins to relate the marvel anew when the ghost, in the likeness of Denmark’s former king, appears and just as quickly vanishes. Horatio speculates as to the meaning of the ghost with respect to Denmark’s fate when the ghost reappears, makes as if to disclose a secret, only to disappear with the crowing of a rooster. The three men resolve to inform Prince Hamlet of their strange and ominous encounter as the morning dawns in Denmark.

SCENE 2

Additional characters: Claudius--Hamlet's uncle and current king of Denmark; Cornelius and Voltemand--courtiers; Gertrude--queen of Denmark and Hamlet's mother who is newly wedded to Claudius; Hamlet--the prince of Denmark; Polonius--Lord Chamberlain; Laertes--Polonius' son and a favorite of Claudius

Having discharged Cornelius and Voltemand, his couriers, on a diplomatic mission to Norway (to curb the warlike posturing of Norway‘s nephew Fortinbras), King Claudius attends to domestic affairs; namely, giving Laertes, a youth Claudius is sympathetic to, his blessing and permission to leave for France and persuading Hamlet to stay in Elsinore as opposed to letting him return to Wittenberg where he is a student. On both counts, King Claudius gets his way and to show his pleasure he orders preparations be made for a bout of drinking and celebration later that night. Alone, still unable to come to terms with his mother’s second marriage (to his uncle, a.k.a. King Claudius), Hamlet broods and curses his fate only to be interrupted by Horatio, his friend, and the officers Marcellus and Bernardo. They exchange pleasantries and then Horatio tells Hamlet of the marvel he had witnessed: namely of the ghost and of the ghost’s likeness to Hamlet’s deceased father. The officers corroborate the incredible story. Thrilled, Hamlet resolves to see the ghost for himself. He tells his friends to keep the matter a secret and that he will join them, at the platform, later that night, when the ghost is wont to walk.


SCENE 3

Additional character(s): Ophelia--Laertes' brother, Polonius' daughter, and Hamlet's love interest

Laertes is about to depart for France. Before he departs he counsels Ophelia, his sister, to be wary of Hamlet’s romantic advances, arguing that Ophelia may be giving Hamlet’s words too much credence on account of Hamlet’s lofty status (Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, after all). Ophelia retorts that Laertes ought not to preach virtue while being a libertine himself. They part when their father, Polonius, scolds Laertes for delaying his departure, which departure Polonius then proceeds to delay himself with a sermon concerning the proper conduct and deportment that a man ought to be mindful of when abroad. By and by, Laertes departs but the preaching continues as Polonius ferrets out what was said between brother and sister. Polonius then picks up right where Laertes had left off. Indeed, Polonius takes the preaching up a notch, forbidding his daughter henceforth to talk, much less to meet, with Hamlet, likening Hamlet’s advances as a trap to cage unwary prey.


SCENE 4

At around midnight, Hamlet joins Horatio and Marcellus on the castle platform when, within the castle, trumpets sound, signifying the start of the drinking and banqueting that King Claudius had earlier made the night’s agenda. Hamlet repudiates the celebration, calling it an indulgence that discredits Denmark in the eyes of other nations. He meditates upon nature of evil, of how a physical defect can inexplicably be its cause when the ghost appears. Hamlet addresses it, calling it King, Father, Royal Dane. The ghost beckons Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus dissuade Hamlet, going so far as to bodily restrain the prince. Hamlet frees himself and warns Horatio and Marcellus to desist lest they suffer his wrath. Hamlet follows the ghost.


SCENE 5

Having followed the ghost to a remote part of the castle platform, Hamlet demands the ghost to reveal its mystery. The ghost obliges and Hamlet is amazed, shocked, and vindicated to learn that he is to avenge the ghost. He learns that the ghost is his father’s murdered spirit which is in a state of unrest and that his uncle is the cause. As dawn approaches, the ghost reminds Hamlet to exact vengeance on Claudius but to spare his mother, to let heaven (or guilt and conscience) avenge Gertrude. Meanwhile, Horatio and Marcellus look for Hamlet and when they find him they are dying to know what had passed between Hamlet and the ghost. Hamlet refuses to tell and moreover he demands that they swear by his sword not to reveal what they have seen and heard tonight. The ghost echoes Hamlet’s demand and Horatio and Marcellus swear that they will not tell.

William Shakespeare