Act 1 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is regarded as one of the greatest plays ever written in English, and it sets the stage for the events that unfold throughout the play. This act establishes the central conflict and introduces the main characters, as well as laying the groundwork for the themes and motifs that will be explored throughout the play.
We will provide a summary of Act 1 as well as an analysis of its significance in understanding the play as a whole in this article. Act 1 sets the stage for the play’s exploration of revenge, betrayal, and the difference between appearance and reality, beginning with the appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost and ending with Prince Hamlet’s descent into madness.
Characters in Act 1
- Bernardo – a guard who first sees the ghost of King Hamlet
- Francisco – another guard on duty with Bernardo
- Horatio – Prince Hamlet’s best friend and confidant, joins Bernardo and Francisco to see the ghost
- Marcellus – another guard who joins Bernardo, Francisco, and Horatio to see the ghost
- King Claudius – the new king of Denmark and stepfather of Prince Hamlet, he marries Queen Gertrude shortly after King Hamlet’s death
- Queen Gertrude – the widow of King Hamlet, she marries King Claudius shortly after King Hamlet’s death
- Prince Hamlet – the protagonist of the play, the son of King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude, he is deeply troubled by his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage
- Ghost of King Hamlet – the ghost of Prince Hamlet’s father, who reveals to Prince Hamlet the truth of his murder
- Polonius – an advisor to King Claudius
- Reynaldo – Polonius’s servant, who is sent to France to spy on Laertes
- Laertes – Polonius’s son, who is in France at the time of Act 1
It’s worth mentioning that, Ophelia is not present in Act 1 but she will be introduced in Act 2 as Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s love interest.
Hamlet Act 1 by Shakespeare Summary
- Scene 1: The guards and Horatio see King Hamlet’s ghost – Bernardo, Francisco, and Marcellus are on duty at Elsinore Castle when they see King Hamlet’s ghost, who was recently murdered. Prince Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, joins them to see the ghost. The guards and Horatio are terrified by the ghost’s appearance and decide to inform Prince Hamlet when he returns to Elsinore.
- Scene 2: King Claudius and Queen Gertrude lament the death of King Hamlet and announce their engagement. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude hold a court session in which they express their grief over King Hamlet’s death and announce their marriage. When Prince Hamlet arrives at court, he expresses his displeasure with the marriage. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude attempt to console Prince Hamlet, but he is distraught and flees the court.
- Scene 3: Prince Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, and learns the truth about his death – Prince Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, who reveals the truth about his father’s murder. King Hamlet informs Prince Hamlet that King Claudius murdered him by pouring poison into his ear while he was sleeping. Prince Hamlet is taken aback and vows to avenge his father’s death.
- Scene 4: Polonius instructs Reynaldo on how to spy on Laertes, his son, who is in France – Polonius instructs Reynaldo on how to spy on Laertes, his son, who is in France. Reynaldo is to investigate Laertes’ actions and report back to Polonius.
- Scene 5: Prince Hamlet pretends to be insane to conceal his true intentions – Prince Hamlet is concerned that King Claudius will suspect him of plotting against him, so he pretends to be insane to conceal his true intentions. He behaves erratically and speaks nonsense in front of his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, to convince them that he is insane.
Analysis of Act 1
The Appearance vs Reality motif
Act 1 explores the theme of appearance vs reality through the actions and dialogue of the characters. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude appear to be mourning King Hamlet’s death and attempting to console Prince Hamlet, but in reality, they have moved on quickly and remarried. Prince Hamlet appears insane, but he is feigning insanity to conceal his true intentions of avenging his father’s death. This motif establishes the tone for the play’s examination of the gap between what is seen and what is true.
King Hamlet’s Ghost
In the play, the ghost of King Hamlet is a significant symbol. It symbolizes the past and the unresolved issues that haunt the present. The appearance of the ghost also represents the guilt and moral ambiguity surrounding King Claudius’ actions. It also acts as a springboard for Prince Hamlet’s actions throughout the play.
Prince Hamlet’s descent into madness
Throughout the play, Prince Hamlet’s descent into madness is a gradual process. Act 1 implies that he is deeply troubled by his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. He pretends to be insane in order to conceal his true intentions from King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, but as the play progresses, his insanity becomes more genuine. This descent into insanity is the result of his inability to cope with the events that have occurred, as well as his desire for vengeance.
The theme of vengeance is introduced in Act 1 by the ghost’s revelation of King Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet’s vow to avenge his father’s death. The play investigates the consequences of seeking vengeance, as well as the moral ambiguity of vengeance and its impact on the characters.
Act 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet introduces the major characters and their relationships, as well as the play’s central themes and motifs. The motif of appearance vs. reality sets the stage for the play’s exploration of the difference between what is seen and what is true, while King Hamlet’s ghost represents the past and unresolved issues.
Throughout the play, Prince Hamlet’s descent into madness is gradual, and the theme of vengeance is introduced through his vow to avenge his father’s death. The play delves into the ramifications and moral ambiguity of seeking vengeance. Act 1 sets the tone for the rest of the play, leaving the audience eagerly anticipating what will happen next.
Click here to read our summary and analysis of Hamlet Act 2!