The first scene of Act One in the play ‘Hamlet’ begins on a cold, dark winter’s night outside Elsinore Castle in Denmark. As the scene takes place at night, the stage is pitch black with only the guards’ lit lanterns giving light. Francisco’s cautious response to a stranger (Barnado) in the dark, ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself’ creates a tense atmosphere. His next statement ‘tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart’; a sign of low spirits, tells the audience that something is not right in Denmark. However, Shakespeare does not reveal yet the reason of it thus leaving his audience in suspense.
As the scene moves on, the audience is introduced to one of the major characters of the play, Horatio. He is brought to join the watch by Marcellus, being told that both Barnado and Marcellus have seen a ghost but Horatio is skeptical and believes it to be ‘tis but our fantasy’. Just as Barnado is about to ‘speak of this’ and dive into the details, the Ghost appears ‘in the same figure like the King that’s dead’. The supernatural appearance of a ghost further indicates to the audience that something wrong is happening in Denmark.
The fact that the Ghost takes the form of the dead King, ‘the majesty of buried Denmark’ shows that this issue is related to the King’s death and that it has cast a shadow over the country and messed with the balance of nature in Denmark. Horatio who sees the Ghost for the first time is left to worry about the future of Denmark. He sees its apparition as an omen for the fate that is going to fall upon the country and uses analogies ‘in the most high and palmy state of Rome’ whereby natural warnings such as ‘stars with trains of fire and dews of blood’ were apparent before Julius Caesar was murdered.
For a moment there, Horatio takes a superstitious view to the Ghost’s appearance, which is ironic as he is presented at the beginning of the scene to be rational minded. The fact that the Ghost ‘started like a guilty thing’ when the cock crows (an indication of the arrival of Day) leaves the audience confused about the Ghost’s intentions. As it takes the form of the dead King, it is assumed that he does not mean any harm. On the other hand, its tendency to appear only in the dark and flee from light gives the impression that it is of evil entities.
Despite being a well-read scholar, Horatio who initially did not believe Marcellus and Barnado’s claims of having seen a ghost, comes to believe them when ‘without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes’ he sees the Ghost for himself. Shakespeare uses a skeptical scholar like Horatio instead of superstitious common guards to establish the Ghost’s existence to the audience as a way to gain the their sense of belief. He does so as it gives a greater impact as well as leaves the audience to wonder about the eventual happening of events throughout the play.
Horatio relates these preparations to the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras’ intentions of gaining back ‘those foresaid lands / So by his father lost’ as ‘the main motive of our preparations’. This is used to represent the unstable political conditions even in England where the death of a King or Queen may lead to highly chaotic situations where the fight for power is a constant battle. At the same time, the audience is also left to wonder if a successor has taken over the throne after the death of the King.