Well, here he is at last: Hamlet himself. And don't worry, there won't be many more scenes without him. This isn't just Shakespeare's longest play (running about 4,000 lines), but Hamlet is the biggest role in any single Shakespearean play -- about 1,500 lines in an uncut version. Chatty fellow.
Random cool thing I want to quick share with you: a stick figure dramatis personae for this play, if you want help remembering who all these people are. It's from a wonderful Shakespearean comic blog, Peace, Good Tickle-Brain. I'm going to be linking to some of their Hamlet-related posts now and then.
There's SO MUCH going on in this scene, isn't there? First, we learn all about how Hamlet's dad died recently (aka King Hamlet, aka the Ghost), and in a very short period of time, Hamlet's mom Gertrude married her dead husband's brother, Claudius. And now Claudius has been proclaimed King of Denmark. Not Prince Hamlet, who probably would have been crowned if Claudius hadn't sidled into the throne that way.
Now, before I dig into the text, I want to share a little background stuff from my edition, which was edited by Jeff Dolven. Your copy might have similar info, or even different info -- feel free to discuss! Anyway, my copy says, "Denmark, unlike England, was an elective monarchy. Young Hamlet is treated throughout the play as the likely next king, but there is no violation of Danish law or custom in the fact that Claudius follows his brother on the throne; he was presumably elected by the nobles to the role" (p. 62). I didn't know that before, so I find that pretty fascinating.
Also, my copy's notes say that "English law prohibited marriage between a man and his brother's wife, viewing such a marriage as technically incestuous... Under Germanic law, however, it was not uncommon for a new king to marry the former king's widow" (p. 62). So Shakespeare and his audience would see Gertrude and Claudius' marriage as incestuous, which means Hamlet does too because Shakespeare and his audience expect him to. But everyone else in Elsinore in the play seems to be fairly cool with it, which this would explain.
(BTW, you do all know that Shakespeare didn't entirely make this story up, right? It's based on a Scandinavian legend, which you can read about here on Wikipedia. He did change a lot about it, though.)
Okay, so anyway, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude are hanging out with their courtiers, dealing with some political stuff like this Fortinbras guy and young Laertes, both of whom get used as foils for Hamlet throughout the play. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras' dad was the king and has died, and his uncle is controlling him. He wants to march through Denmark with his army to get to Poland, but Claudius suspects him of duplicity. Laertes is the son of chief courtier/advisor Polonius, and he wants to go back to Paris, where he was presumably attending a university the way Hamlet had been at university in Wittenberg, Germany. Claudius tells Laertes he can go, but he makes Hamlet stay, which he says is because Gertrude doesn't want him to leave. This makes Hamlet grumpy, because the whole my-mom-married-my-uncle-right-after-my-dad-died situation has upset him. A lot. Claudius wants us all to get over King Hamlet's death already, wants to forget about it, but he can't because Hamlet is hanging around in his black mourning clothes looking mopey all the time.
Now, at this point, I don't think Hamlet suspects that his uncle killed his father, do you? He's bored and annoyed and grieved, not so much angry, I think. He spends most of his "too, too sallied/sullied/solid flesh" soliloquy freaking out that his mom has married his uncle and forgotten all about his father. That's what's bugging him: that no one besides himself seems to care that his father is dead. He doesn't like Claudius, but it's because he cheated him out of the kingship and is sleeping with his mother, and is trying to make everyone forget about King Hamlet, that's all. As Sir John Gielgud put it, "He's down -- a very sad boy, but not morose" (p. 23, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet). Also, he's stuck here and can't put any of this behind him because Claudius just said he can't go back to school.
Right, so then Horatio and the two soldiers show up. I love the meeting between Horatio and Hamlet here -- Horatio seems to know Hamlet very well, doesn't he? He approaches him quietly, I think, expecting that if Hamlet is alone, he's probably lost in thought, and Horatio doesn't want to startle him. He's not all loud and, "Hey, Hamlet, buddy! How's it going?" He says a very noncommittal thing: "Hail to your lordship" (160). And Hamlet, who has definitely been lost in thought, for a minute doesn't recognize him. He just says the equivalent of "How're you?" And then bam! He realizes it's Horatio, and is all happy to see a friend. Finally someone he can confide in!
So I've always had a little bit of a difficulty figuring Horatio's history out (and so have other people), because in Scene 1 he recognizes the Ghost as looking just like King Hamlet and seems to know quite a bit about him, but then here he says, "I saw him once" (186). But then he says, "I knew your father; These hands are not more like" (212-13). So I've always been like, "Which is it? Had he met him often enough to know him pretty well by sight, or had he only seen him once?" But just today, a couple of alternative readings came to me, and I want to lay them on you and see what you think. When Horatio says, "I saw him once," is he trying to clue Hamlet in that he's seen him once recently? And when he says, "I knew your father," by "knew" does he mean "recognized" him? What do you think -- do either/both of those make sense, and make the question of "how often has Horatio hung out at Elsinore?" kind of go away?
"A little more than kin, and less than kind" (65).
"I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe' (85-86).
"Oh, that this too, too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew" (129-30)(I love the wordplay here, with "a dew" sounding like "adieu.")
"How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (133-34)
"But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue" (159).
"He wore his beaver up" (229). (I like this line because of this comic.)
More Possible Discussion Questions:
I ran across this new-to-me idea in Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom. He suggests, "Is there an anxiety that Hamlet actually my be Claudius's son, since he cannot know for certain exactly when what he regards as adultery and incest began between Claudius and Gertrude?" (p. 7-8). What do you think?
I'm a little bit sorry that this post has gotten REALLY LONG, but at the same time, I have so much to say that these posts are probably just going to be massive. Is that okay with everyone? Or would you rather I break up long stuff like this into a couple posts?