Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act I, Scene 1

I'd like to begin by stating right out that despite the fact that I call myself Hamlette, I'm not an expert on Hamlet.  I'm not going to be able to answer every question people have on the text.  There are things in this play I don't get yet.  

Every time I read the play, or watch it, I learn new things about it.  New ways of looking at a character or scene, new readings of a line or two, new angles to consider.  I hope to learn new things from all of you participants too, because I'm sure you're going to have insights that are wildly different from mine, which is what I love best about read-alongs.

The copy I'm using is the one pictured here.  It takes its text from the Second Quarto, so if you're reading one based on the First Quarto, we might have some textual differences, just so you know.  I haven't read this edition before, but I love that it's a trade paperback instead of pocket, and there's LOTS of room for me to write notes.

I'll be quoting two books a lot during this read-along:  John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet by Richard L. Sterne and Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom.  They both have some amazing insights into this play that I want to share.  I've spent the last couple weeks re-reading them and taking notes.

Also, I'm not going to mark spoilers.  Anywhere.  Ever.  I assume you are at least familiar with the play's plot.  

So, on to the discussion!  Sorry for all those preliminaries.

The play opens with a couple of soldiers, Bernardo and Francisco, switching places.  A changing of the guard, no big deal, or so it would seem.  But everyone seems to be on edge, right from Bernardo's initial "Who's there?" and Francisco's rejoinder, "Nay, answer me.  Stand and unfold yourself."  It's pretty logical for the guy already on guard to do the whole "Halt!  Who goes there?" routine to someone approaching him, but for the guy coming to relieve him to also ask for identification... these guys are uneasy and being over-cautious as a result.  Francisco also says he is "sick at heart" (9), but we the audience don't know why.  He doesn't seem to have seen any ghosts like Marcellus and Bernardo -- he's just uneasy and unhappy.  Already we have a sense of impending doom, don't we?

And then, of course, the Ghost arrives.  According to Bloom, Shakespeare himself played the Ghost and the Player King (p. 4), which I find intriguing.  I don't know how many other characters Shakespeare played in his own productions, but in this, he played both of Hamlet's father-figures -- the ghost of his father, and an older adult man he clearly reveres and wants to learn from.  Just something to think about.

Anyway, isn't the Ghost is mysterious at this point?  He's showing up here, somewhere outside the castle where no one hangs out except some soldiers.  He's not imparting any messages.  What's the point of going to all the trouble of coming back from the dead if you're not going to do or say anything?  And why not appear directly to the person you want to talk to?  It's like he wants Hamlet to have to decide to come to him, to want to know what's wrong.  That's my take, anyway.

I find it interesting that Hamlet's not in this first scene, but Horatio is.  In fact, Horatio basically bookends this play, doesn't he?  He's the only character who's in both the first and last scenes.  I like how Bloom puts it, that in a way, "we are Horatio, Hamlet's perpetual audience" (p. 14).  Horatio sometimes gets portrayed as very boring, which I dislike -- he's a wonderful guy, so loyal and intelligent.  Always watching, observing, thinking.  Very much an audience, but very much not boring.

Gielgud says, "At the beginning of this scene Horatio is trying to be calm, but I think that underneath he's terrified and anxious" (p. 24).  I agree -- he's trying to pooh-pooh this whole ghost thing, but he also seems uneasy.  He's being skeptical, a good scholar not believing something he can't see or explain, but he comes outside in the wee small hours of the morning to see what's going on.  Hamlet doesn't seem to know Horatio is here, so he must have only just arrived, tired from a long trip from Germany, but willing to accompany two low-level soldiers on a quest to see a ghost.  And then when he does see it, he says, "it harrows me with fear and wonder" (46).  Not surprise, wonder.  As if he'd half believed them all along.

Oddly, though Horatio seems to have only just arrived in Elsinore, he knows more about what's going on in Denmark than Marcellus, a Danish soldier.  What's up with that, other than a convenient way for Shakespeare to catch the audience up on the political situation in the story?  I'm not sure.

Okay, that's all I've got for today.

Favorite Lines:

"A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye" (114).

"But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, 
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill"  (168-69).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Have you read Hamlet before, or seen it performed?

Why do you think the Ghost appears over and over to these guards, but won't talk to them?


  1. Consider the differences between Catholic, Protestant, and secular notions of ghosts in Shakespeare's England; those differences matter a great deal because the audiences cared little about Denmark in the past but a lot about their lives in England.

    1. RT, there's an awesome book called Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt that really digs into the background of the ghost, of Catholicism vs. Protestantism in Shakespeare's time, and what the behavior of the ghost may tell us about Shakespeare's own religious beliefs. (Greenblatt concludes Shxpr was a closet Catholic.) It's pretty fascinating stuff.

  2. I love Hamlet! I read it for the first time in high school- grade 12 English class- and have read it several times since. Sadly, I've never seen a live performance of the play, but have watched both Mel Gibson's and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlets.
    I'm not sure why Hamlet's dad wouldn't speak to Horatio and the others. I can understand him only wanting to confide in his son, but they could have gotten Hamlet Jr. there sooner if Hamlet Sr. had simply asked for him. Maybe he was sulking? After all, getting poison poured in your ear while taking a nap is kind of an ignominious way to go, especially for a mighty king. :)

    1. Lynn, I love that you love it! And Branagh and Gibson are 2 of my 4 absolute favorite versions. Gibson's was the first I saw, which makes me love it so much still.

      Your sulking-over-getting-ignominiously-poisoned theory makes me grin :-D

  3. Some cultures have different beliefs about ghost; the appearance, the nature, etc. It appeared that the ghost wanted to talk directly to Hamlet, but maybe it couldn't just pass to his room or simply enter the castle. I remember some stories about ghost that can only enter a house if it's permitted by the inhabitants. Just my guess.

    1. Bzee, that's interesting! Rather like vampire lore that says vampires can't enter without being invited.

  4. This looks like it's going to be awesome - and lots of fun! (If such a dark story can be termed as 'fun'. ;)) I might get behind a bit, but whenever I do read each scene, I'll comment back on the specific post with me [perhaps not very scholarly] thoughts.


    1. Eva, yes! I consider Hamlet enjoyable, even fun. It is tragic, yes, but I don't find it depressing -- I find it cathartic and uplifting.

      And don't worry about getting "behind." This is not school. Also, I'm still participating in that read-along of The Silmarillion and am currently 2 months "behind." In fact, it actually ended back in August, but I'm still puttering along, with about 50 pages left to go. So I am much farther "behind" than you are ever likely to get!

      Looking forward to your thoughts :-)

    2. *reads Act 1, Scene 1*

      Shakespeare is something, isn't he? I think the only two complete plays I've read of his are Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth (both of which blew me away), so I'm looking forward to expanding my repertoire. And Hamlet starts out well, I'd say, with the ghost and all. (By the way, I'm glad I have your notes to follow, mainly for the plot's sake, because all the Old English language trips me up/distracts me from what's going on at times. That's why I love the Folger editions.)

      All I have to say so far is that I think I'm really going to enjoy this. :)

    3. Eva, how funny is this? Macbeth and R&J are two of my least-favorite Shakespeare plays. I do want to see the new Michael Fassbender version of M, though, as maybe if I see it performed I will like it better. I know I liked both The Tempest and Twelfth Night better on stage than on paper.

      Anyway, I do understand why some people think Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written all the plays attributed to him, because the breadth of man's genius and imagination is staggering, isn't it?

      Several people who expressed interest in the read-along said they had little or no experience reading Shakespeare, so I figured a bit of recap of each scene would be in order, simply because sometimes it's hard to see the story for the words, as it were. My edition has tons of notes translating idioms and words and even explaining concepts sometimes. Indispensable.

      I definitely hope you enjoy this! :-)

  5. This is going to be fun. :)

    I do love how, from the very first line, that atmosphere of tension and suspicion is already there. It almost envelops you and stays with you till the very end of the play. I think that's awesome.

    About Horatio, I always got the feeling too that he was trying to be cool, but not really succeeding. I think he feels that, as a well-educated man, he should have a level head in all situations, and compared to many of the other people in this play, he does: but in this one instance, he can't help but be a bit frightened. Whenever I read the part where he tries to speak to the ghost, I always imagine him stuttering and his voice shaking, an attempt made all the more pathetic because he so wants to appear in control.

    As for the part about Horatio knowing more about the political climate in Denmark than Marcellus, I suppose Horatio's being so close to Hamlet might have to do with it. Maybe he learned things from him that were meant to be kept secret in the court? Then again, his saying “the whisper goes so” seems to indicate that he heard it gossiped around. I'm not really sure about this one.

    To answer your question, I've only read Hamlet once before and I have never seen it performed. Not even in a movie. I've heard lots of great things about the Kenneth Branagh version, but loving classic movies as I do, I'm pretty of eager to see Laurence Olivier's version too.

    In trying to answer your question about why the ghost wouldn't talk during his first two appearances, I ended up with another question: how do we know that it's really Hamlet's father and not something else? The Protestants of Shakespeare's day taught that what people thought were ghosts were actually demons sent to trick them. Since Hamlet obeying the ghost's orders results in the downfall of him and several other people, I wonder if the ghost isn't like Hecate in Macbeth, a malevolent spirit quietly steering the hero toward his downfall? Just a thought.

    And I apologize for making you wade through this insanely long comment. I really like Hamlet discussions. :-)


    1. Hanna, I love your long comment! I love deep, detailed discussions of Hamlet, teasing nuances out of the text. This delights me.

      I have only seen Olivier's version once, and I didn't love it, but I would like to give it another try some time. I disagree with his fundamental supposition that it's a play about someone who can't make up his mind -- I don't think that's Hamlet's problem at all, but I really should give it a second chance.

      Branagh's version is lush and enthralling, and I definitely recommend it. It's one of my 4 favorites (the others being Gibson, Hawke, and Burton, all of which I also recommend).

      I think the question of whether or not the Ghost is "a spirit of health or goblin damned" is a pretty central one to the play. Hamlet himself isn't sure, and we'll deal with this question a lot throughout this read-along. I think Shakespeare was definitely playing to his audience with it -- Protestants don't believe in Purgatory, and that's where the Ghost is supposed to have come from, but if Purgatory doesn't exist, then what is this and where is it from?

      Now I can't find/remember where, but I just read that probably the reason that the guards brought Horatio "the scholar" to talk to the ghost was because as a learned man he would know Latin, and therefore maybe be able to ward off a demon if demon it was.

      And yes. Although Hamlet does seek out "proof" of his uncle's guilt, ultimately it seems to be the ghost that plants the seeds of doubt in his mind. What kind of father, even one unjustly slain, would urge his son to such actions? We'll start really digging into that in the next scene.

  6. Ah, I'd forgotten this was starting so soon! I'm just getting over a nasty cold and have four other books going, but I would like to pull out my copy of the play (okay, my Kindle) and tag along, even if I'm a little late commenting.

    1. Elisabeth, there is no such thing as late to any read-along I host. I tend to stomp along at a pretty fierce pace sometimes, and I have zero problem with people catching up as they can.

      I hope you feel better soon! So far this autumn we haven't had any actual colds, and I'm praying that continues a while, as last fall and winter we seemed to have someone sick constantly.

  7. I've never seen or read Hamlet before, which really seems kind of ridiculous to me. And I temporarily forgot about this read-along, so I was very happy to find that I already had a copy laying around and ready to go! :D It's interesting of course, since I like Shakespeare, and never read this before, but it's particularly nice to read your insights along with it! This is gonna be fun. :) I know it's a serious play, but I have to say I thought Marcellus saying "It is offended" about the ghost was funny. Is that allowed? ;)

    1. Sarah, I'm so excited that you're joining in! All these people experiencing this play for the first time -- it's enough to make me get a little emotional. In a good way!

      I'm really hoping that my comments, and the things I share, will be helpful and not overwhelming to those here who aren't as familiar with the text and story -- I tend to get a little over-enthusiastic sometimes, I'm afraid.

      And laughing is not allowed -- it's encouraged! Shakespeare is deeply funny, and there are laugh-out-loud moments even in Hamlet. His word-play is always hilarious, and Hamlet himself has a sharp, sometimes savage wit.

    2. Aww. :)

      No, seriously, it's definitely a good thing. Not at all overwhelming, and definitely helpful!

      Okay, good. ;) Cause I love Shakespeare's style of humor, but it did cross my mind that this one maybe wasn't supposed to have any comedy at all. That would be silly though; his humor is just too good!

  8. I'm so excited for this read-a-long!
    I have never read Hamlet before, and I only know a little bit about the play. After not seeing Hamlet in the first scene, I am very curious to what he will be like in the second scene.

    1. Ekaterina, ooooh, another new-to-the-play participant! Quite cool. I'll be interested to hear what you think of Hamlet in scene 2 :-)

  9. The opening of this play is just plain awesome! I think I've read about 10 Shakespeare plays so far and 'Hamlet' has my favourite opening out of any of them (closely followed by the opening of 'Macbeth'). Shakespeare just so masterfully creates this wonderfully eerie and tension-filled atmosphere and - gah! Shakespeare you genius you!

    Wow, I'd read somewhere that Shakespeare dabbled in acting for a while when he first moved to London but I'd heard no idea that he played the ghost in this play!

    I didn't take much of an interest in any of the secondary characters when I first read the play - I was pretty much only interested in Hamlet - but actually Horatio *is* pretty cool in this scene. I love how brave he is when he stands in front of the ghost and I find his line about there being only "a piece of him" very interesting. Sadly my edition doesn't talk about that line at all and I don't know what to make of it. Any suggestions?

    I love Barnardo's line "When yond same star that's westward from the pole had made his course t'illume that part of Heaven where now it burns..." (I.36-27) I just think it's a beautiful turn of phrase.

    I'm not too sure why the ghost doesn't speak to Horatio and the guards here either. It does speak to them later on of course when he tells them to "Swear!" Maybe we can put this down to Shakespeare simply trying to create more mystery and drama?

    I've read 'Hamlet' once before at university and I've seen the 2009 adaptation starring David Tennant and the 1990 adaptation starring Mel Gibson. I adore the 2009 version but I hate the 1990 film (I'm really sorry about that!) I haven't seen the Kenneth Branagh version yet but I really want to.

    1. Hannah, yes, it's such a superb way to set the atmosphere and tone for the play, isn't it?

      I believe Shakespeare continued to act with the King's Men company pretty steadily, in smaller roles, while he was also writing. But I didn't realize until Bloom's book that we knew what roles he sometimes took.

      I actually like Horatio as a character better than Hamlet sometimes. And I'm exceedingly fond of Laertes.

      On Horatio's line, "A piece of him," my edition suggests perhaps he holds out his hand to shake there. I've also thought it might be a play on the word "peace," that Horatio comes in peace.

      The Gibson version does adhere to the Oedipal interpretation more than I would like. I know quite a few people who don't like it -- it's okay. I do like the Tennant quite well, and I think Patrick Stewart is the best Claudius I've ever seen.

    2. When reading the play it sounds as if Horatio is meant to be sensible and intelligent. I really like him!

      The Oedipal theory really puts me off. I don't see any evidence for it except Freud's odd take on things. I feel that Freud sees more ghosts than Hamlet!

      That's wonderful that you like Patrick Stewart. That was the one production I've seen and I just loved it. Derek Jacobi was superb as well.

    3. Cleopatra, I'm not a huge fan of the Oedipal theory either. Olivier's delved into that a bit too, IIRC.

      The version I was talking about Patrick Stewart in is the 2009 version with David Tennant as Hamlet. I think you might be referring to the 1980 version, where Stewart is also Claudius, but Derek Jacobi is Hamlet. I have only seen a smidgen of that, but I just got it from the library this weekend, so hope to watch all of it this week!

    4. Hamlette, yes, the opening is indeed most superb :D

      I'll have to do more research into the roles that Shakespeare played then. That's absolutely fascinating.

      Ah, okay! That line of Horatio's is actually kind of funny then :)

      Yes, that was *exactly* the problem that I had the Gibson version! I hate the Oedipal interpretation of 'Hamlet' and boy does that version play it up! That bedroom scene between Gertrude and Hamlet was shot almost like a rape scene. Hamlet was actually dry humping his mother at one point! It was horrrrrible! :( And I didn't like Mel Gibson as Hamlet either. I did really like Nathaniel Parker's Laertes and Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia in that version though.

    5. Hannah, yes, word play is everywhere in this play (and all of Shakespeare), and we'll be coming up on some sections that have not only double meanings, but triple meanings. Heady stuff.

      I like Gibson as Hamlet, and HBC as Ophelia, but I'm not a big fan of Nathaniel Parker as Laertes. I'm really picky about my Laerteses, though.

    6. Fair enough! Also, I know you got to see Jude Law's Hamlet production on Broadway (so jealous!) and I'm curious to know where that comes in on your ranking of Hamlet productions/adaptations?

    7. Hannah, that one was right near the top, and Jude's Hamlet ranks up there with Burton's and Branagh's, IMHO. It devastates me that they didn't film it and release it to DVD, because I would love to watch it over and over. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was Ophelia, and also quite good. I can't think at the moment who played Horatio, but he was wonderful. (And hot, at least as viewed from way up in the balcony.)

      I think I'll do a post during this read-along of all the versions I've seen and a little bit of what I like or don't like about them. Might have to be more than one post. I should get working on that.

    8. I know, it's so frustrating! If I had the power to time travel I think I'd just go back and watch old Broadway and West End productions! There are at least 3 productions of 'Hamlet' alone that I'd love to see: the Jude Law/Gugu Mbatha-Raw version that you saw, the Ben Whishaw version at the Old Vic, and the Daniel Day Lewis/Judi Dench version from the 1980s. *sigh*

      And I'd love to read that post! Or posts! :)

    9. Oh, I'd go back farther yet and see John Gielgud. I've got the recording he did, which is stunning, but I'm sure it's nothing compared to seeing him on stage. Sigh. A time travel machine dedicated solely to seeing various productions of Hamlet -- I'm all over that idea.

      I spent more than an hour working on that post tonight, but it's definitely going to take me quite a while to finish. I think I'll hold off on posting it until the end of next week, after I get to see Cumberbatch.

  10. I have really been looking forward to this read-along! This is my first time reading Hamlet, and I think this is the best possible forum for it!!
    I like that you describe each scene so thoroughly - going through your notes I can see I missed a lot of the subtext, but then again I spent most of the reading trying to understand the general meaning.
    I think the opening scene is very quick to draw the audience in, with the talk and introduction of the ghost so quickly - it sure lets us know something big is coming.

    1. Rose, I'm glad you're joining us! And I'm glad my scene recap helped you -- I'll continue doing that, I think.

      I'm really excited by how many first-time reads are going on with this! Very cool.

  11. I'm so happy to be finally beginning! And you are an expert, whether you admit it or not. You've read the play enough, AND other commentaries, AND have a passion for it, so that, in my books, denotes an expert. But I agree, experts don't know everything and how sad would that be because it would leave nothing else to discover. :-)

    Here is my first post:

    I too wondered, if the Ghost wanted to speak with Hamlet, why didn't he just appear to him? He chose the sentinels and to be dressing in battle costume. So I don't think we have to doubt that the Ghost was there, the question is why was he there and what was he trying to communicate? By his appearance, he seems to be addressing the possible conflict with Fortinbras (or the former one) which then makes us wonder if it's Hamlet who imagines the information about the king's death, who is responsible, etc. I'll have to keep my deep-reading antennae in operation in the upcoming scenes!

    I also liked the cock crowing part ---- BETRAYAL ---- that was the first word that leapt to mind. I'm so excited to read on.

    1. Cleopatra, YES! I'm really happy we're starting at last. But I'm also glad I pushed it back from this summer, because now I have lots of energy and enthusiasm for it that I didn't have then.

      I wouldn't say I'm an expert. But I would say I'm a Hamlet afficianado. You're right, I've read it a dozen times, I've seen 10 or 11 different productions, and I keep studying it because it fascinates me so much. And I really learn new things about it all the time! I imagine I'll still be learning about it when I'm 80, because there's So Much Here.

      Having multiple people see the Ghost before Hamlet ever does definitely makes me believe it's really there. Whether it's an honest spirit or a demon, and what it's intentions are -- that's less clear, and purposely so.

      AWESOME relating of the cock crowing to the idea of betrayal (I assume you're referring to Peter denying Christ 3 times before the cock crowed). I hadn't thought of that, ever! So look -- I just learned another cool nuance tonight. Thank you! I hope to read your post this evening yet, but it might have to wait for tomorrow.

    2. I really have enjoyed your take on things because I find you sensible. I don't find all the "experts" sensible ...... sometimes they are too speculative and modern for my tastes.

      I'm so glad I could add something to your knowledge, since you're adding so much to mine. I'm loving this read-along!

    3. Cleopatra, you have just given me very high praise indeed. I highly prize sensibleness.

  12. HORATIO! OK... now you know where my heart is, & I'll promise not to do it again! Regarding how much Horatio and Marcellus know and when they know it, I think Marcellus knew very little then or even very late into the play. He is a soldier, his loyalty is to the king, even if he suspects something is wrong. I've working on a novella of Horatio's life before and after Hamlet's death. I'll try to be specific :^) so everyone isn't saying, "huh? Where does it say that?"

    Horatio & Hamlet are extremely trusting of each other. I read it & read, eventually deciding that Horatio, who calls himself "more an antique Roman than a Dane" is probably Venetian, schooled in his younger years by a home tutor in Stoic philosopy.That accounts for his initial doubt that there's a ghost hanging around. But he & Marcellus hear the ghost, which calls, "swear!" That quote comes almost at the end, but no-spoilers til then.

    When does Hamlet confide in Horatio? Sooner rather later, but even atthat I've heard variations. One prof insists that even by the Play,within the Play Horatio is doubtful. His "I did see it,"of the king's behavior is (poof) simply an attempt to soothe Hamlet's manic behavior. This prof also contends that Hamlet has no real mental illness or suicidal ideation - yet he asserts soliliquies are of necessity true, because no one can lie to himself. And if I remember my numbers, there are 7 of 8 soliloquies referring to illness or suicide.

    Finally, making up from my imagination: The two friends have roomed together in the loft of a tavern. During a break in school,Hamlet takes Horatio home to meet his family, or more likely Ophelia! At a small 2 family dinner (Hamlet's & Polonius', including Laertes, also on break from school) Horatio gets a chance to spend time with everyone. He is a little impressed by the company. Which reminds me - I have seen Horatio played in rags because Hamlet makes reference to him being poor. OGG, a beggar doesn't attend University! He is of the merchant class, and comfortably well off though not royally rich. I'm still debating whether the family is wine importers, book binders, or glass workers.


    1. Kelda, I'm so glad we've figured out a way for you to comment on this :-) Not that we haven't discussed this play a billion times over the past decade, but it never grows old. We never run out of things to say.

      I love your imaginings :-) It's precisely the sort of background storytelling I love to make up myself.

      I think Hamlet definitely has some level of mental disturbance, and different productions go with different levels. Having not history with mental problems myself, I am not necessarily the best judge of this :-)


What do you think?

Comments on old posts are always welcome!

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)