"Hamlet" Act 1 Guide: Scene by Scene

The Main Events in the First Act of "Hamlet"

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

William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is a play with five acts and is his longest play. This powerful tragedy was not only popular during his lifetime, but it also remains one of the most-performed today.

"Hamlet" Act 1

The play is set in Elsinore castle in Denmark, soon after the death of King Hamlet. Here is a synopsis of the action in the first act of "Hamlet," scene by scene.

Scene 1: Platform Outside Castle Elsinore

Francisco, Barnardo, Horatio, and Marcellus are guarding the castle. A ghost appears dressed in armor resembling Hamlet the King (Hamlet’s father), who recently died. The men try to encourage the ghost to speak its purpose, but it does not. They decide to inform Prince Hamlet about the strange event.

Scene 2: State Room in the Castle

Claudius is the new King of Denmark. He explains that after the death of his brother, he has taken over the throne and married King Hamlet’s recently widowed wife, Gertrude. Claudius, Gertrude, and elderly advisor Polonius speak of young Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, who has written to him demanding the land that King Hamlet won from Fortinbras’ father.

It is evident that Hamlet disapproves of Claudius. Hamlet explains that mourning for his father is normal, implying that everyone else has gotten over his death too quickly. This is a pointed remark to his mother who has married her dead husband’s brother only a month after his death. In his (most famous) soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates suicide, "To be, or not to be." He explains his disgust for his mother’s actions but understands that he must hold his tongue. Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo tell Hamlet about the apparition.

Scene 3: Polonius' House

Polonius' son Laertes is leaving for France and he receives a great deal of long-winded advice from his father. He warns his sister, Ophelia, that Hamlet’s love for her may be fleeting and inconstant. Polonius enters to bid farewell to his son and wants to know what they were discussing. Polonius also suggests that Hamlet’s professed love for her may not be genuine.

Scene 4: Platform Outside Castle Elsinore

Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are looking for the ghost. As midnight comes, the ghost appears to them. Horatio and Marcellus cannot discourage Hamlet from following the ghost and consider the specter to be a bad omen for Denmark. This scene kick-starts the main story that drives "Hamlet."

Scene 5: Another Part of the Platform Outside Castle Elsinore

The ghost explains to Hamlet that he is the spirit of his father who cannot rest until revenge is taken upon his murderer. It is revealed that Claudius poured poison into the King’s ear while he was sleeping. The ghost also tells Hamlet not to punish his mother. Horatio and Marcellus enter and Hamlet makes them swear on his sword to keep his confidence before he explains that Claudius is a villain. The ghost's voice joins in to urge them to "Swear." Hamlet tells them he may act mad as he pursues his vengeance on his uncle.