'Hamlet' Act 1 Summary, Scene by Scene

The Characters, Setting, Plot, and Tone of Shakespeare's Masterpiece

The sighting of the ghost is reported to Hamlet
Photo © NYPL Digital Gallery

This Act 1 summary of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" sets the stage with the characters, setting, plot, and tone of this five-act tragedy. The play opens on the ramparts of Elsinore Castle in Denmark during a changing of the guard. The old king, Hamlet's father, has died; the king's brother, Claudius, has replaced him, stealing Hamlet's rightful place on the throne, and married Hamlet's mother.

The previous two nights, the guards had seen a silent ghost resembling Hamlet's dead father. They ask Hamlet's friend Horatio to watch on the third night, and he sees the ghost. Horatio convinces Hamlet to watch the next night. Hamlet confronts his father's ghost, who tells him that Claudius murdered him. The dreary tone and harsh setting contrasting with the revelry within the castle foretell the tragedy to come.

Act 1, Scene 1

On a bleak, frigid night, the guards, Francisco and Bernardo, tell Horatio, a friend of Hamlet, about the ghost they had seen that resembles Hamlet's father. They convince Horatio to join them and attempt to talk with the ghost if it reappears. Horatio scoffs at the talk of a ghost but agrees to wait. As they begin describing what they saw, the ghost appears.

Horatio can't get it to speak but promises to tell Hamlet about the specter. The darkness and cold, coupled with the apparition, set a dire tone of calamity and dread for the remainder of the play.

Act 1, Scene 2

The scene opens in contrast to the previous one as King Claudius celebrates his recent wedding to Gertrude in a bright, joyous castle room surrounded by courtiers. A brooding Hamlet sits outside the action. It is two months since his father's death, and his widow has already married his brother.

The king discusses a possible war and agrees to let Laertes, son of the king's lord chamberlain, Polonius, leave court and return to school. Recognizing that Hamlet is upset, he tries to make amends, urging Hamlet to abandon mourning and stay in Denmark instead of returning to school. Hamlet agrees to stay.

Everyone but Hamlet leaves.He delivers a soliloquy expressing his anger, depression, and disgust for what he considers incest between the new king and his mother. The guards and Horatio enter and tell Hamlet about the ghost, He agrees to join them that night to watch for another appearance.

When Claudius scolds Hamlet for his continued mourning, referring to his "stubbornness" and "unmanly grief," Shakespeare sets him up as an antagonist to Hamlet, who is unmoved by the king's words. The king's criticism of Hamlet—"A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, An understanding simple and unschooled"—implies that he believes Hamlet is unprepared to be king and is his attempt to justify his usurpation of the throne.

Act 1, Scene 3

Laertes says goodbye to his sister, Ophelia, whom we learn has been seeing Hamlet. He warns her that Hamlet, still in line to be king, will always put the kingdom before her.

Polonius enters and lectures his son on how to conduct himself at school, advising him to treat his friends well, listen more than talk, dress well but not too well, avoid lending money. and "to thine own self be true." Then he, too, warns Ophelia about Hamlet. She promises not to see him.

Polonius' advice to Laertes seems rote, relying on aphorisms regarding appearances rather than offering honest advice to a son. With Ophelia, he is more concerned that she bring honor and wealth to the family than about her own desires. Ophelia, as an obedient daughter of the time, agrees to spurn Hamlet. Polonius' treatment of his children continues a theme of generational conflict.

Act 1, Scene 4

That night, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus, one of the guards who had seen the ghost, wait outside on another cold night. The miserable weather is juxtaposed again with revelry from the castle, which Hamlet criticizes as excessive and damaging to Danes' reputation for drunkenness.

The ghost appears and beckons Hamlet. Marcellus and Horatio try to prevent him from following, agreeing with Hamlet that it might bring "airs from heaven or blasts from hell." Hamlet breaks free and follows the ghost. His accomplices follow him.

This scene contrasts Hamlet's father, the good king, with Claudius as a drunken reveler and adulterer, and plays on the conflict between image and reality. Claudius appears more suspicious and foreboding than a ghost.

Act 1, Scene 5

The ghost tells Hamlet that he is Hamlet's father and was murdered by Claudius, who put poison in the napping king's ear. The ghost asks Hamlet to revenge his "most foul, strange, and unnatural murder," and Hamlet agrees without hesitation.

The ghost also tells Hamlet that his mother was adulterous with Claudius before the old king died. He makes Hamlet promise that he won't seek revenge on his mother but let her be judged by God. As dawn breaks, the ghost leaves.

Hamlet swears he will do what the ghost asks and avenge his father's murder. Horatio and Marcellus find him, and Hamlet asks them to swear not to reveal anything of the ghost. When they hesitate, the ghost calls from below, demanding they swear. They do. Hamlet warns them that he will pretend to be crazy until he can exact vengeance.

The old king's murder creates sympathy for the ghost rather than fear or revulsion, and his mother's adultery tips the scales against her. Hamlet has no choice but to kill the new king, establishing a conflict between his sense of honor and his Christian faith.

Key Takeaways

Act 1 establishes these plot points:

  • The new king, Hamlet's uncle, murdered Hamlet's father.
  • His father's ghost appears to him to describe the murder and charge Hamlet with seeking revenge.
  • Hamlet's mother committed adultery with Claudius before her husband's death and married Claudius with "unseemly" haste.
  • The ghost says Hamlet should let God punish his mother.
  • Hamlet will pretend to be crazy will he exacts vengeance.

Act 1 establishes these tones and themes:

  • A sense of dread and tragedy is almost palpable.
  • A conflict between honor and morality is established.
  • Another conflict appears between appearance and reality.
  • The antagonism between Claudius and Hamlet is part of a generational conflict reflected in Polonius and his children.

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