Understanding Hamlet: Hamlet Scene Summaries, Act I

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Act I, Scene I

One night on the battlements, Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo see the ghost of King Hamlet, wearing battle armor. Although the ghost does not speak to them, they decide to tell Prince Hamlet of the apparition. Horatio and the officers discuss the fact that Prince Fortinbras of Norway is on his way to Denmark to avenge his father’s death at the hands of King Hamlet. Although King Hamlet has recently died, Fortinbras wants to take back the land that King Hamlet won from his father.

Act I, Scene II

Queen Gertrude and her new husband, Claudius, meet with the council, including Hamlet. Claudius reveals that his brother (King Hamlet) has died recently, and that he (Claudius) married his brother’s wife (Queen Gertrude) soon afterwards. He sends two council members to tell Prince Fortinbras’s uncle, the new king of Norway, about the fact that Prince Fortinbras is on his way to Denmark with his legions. Claudius also gives Laertes permission to return to France to continue his schooling.

Claudius then turns to Hamlet and asks him why he seems so sullen recently. Hamlet acts scornfully toward both Claudius and Gertrude, mocking their concern and revealing only that he is mourning his father. Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet not to return to Wittenberg, where he had been studying before his father’s death. Hamlet agrees, and the King and Queen leave him alone with his thoughts. Hamlet’s first soliloquy follows, in which he bemoans both his mother’s hasty remarriage and the fact that he cannot commit suicide.

Horatio enters, and Hamlet converses with him as an old friend. Horatio reveals to Hamlet that he saw his father’s ghost, and Hamlet asks him several questions about what the ghost was like. They decide that Hamlet will join them that night on the watch so that he will be able to speak to the ghost.

Act I, Scene III

In their father Polonius’s house, Laertes advises his sister, Ophelia, not to take Hamlet’s love too seriously. He reminds her that Hamlet is Prince of Denmark and must marry based on the well-being of the country. Polonius then enters and gives Laertes advice about living in Paris. Laertes agrees to his advices and takes leave of his father and sister, reminding Ophelia of their conversation about Hamlet. After he leaves, Polonius asks Ophelia which conversation he was referring to, and Ophelia explains that it was “something touching the Lord Hamlet.” She admits that he has shown affection to her recently, and Polonius maintains that Hamlet’s words were spoken in the passion of the moment and mean nothing. He instructs Ophelia to have nothing more to do with Hamlet, and she agrees.

Act I, Scene IV

Hamlet goes with Horatio and Marcellus to the battlements of the castle so that he can speak with his father’s ghost. He complains about the fact that Claudius is becoming drunk tonight, which makes all Danes look like drunkards. Suddenly, the ghost appears and gestures for Hamlet to follow it. Hamlet follows, although Horatio and Marcellus warn him not to. They follow Hamlet as he accompanies the ghost.

Act I, Scene V

The ghost is in a hurry to finish speaking to Hamlet before sunrise. It begs Hamlet to avenge his murder, revealing to him that Claudius did, in fact, kill him. The ghost bemoans the fact that Claudius first stole the love of the queen, and then poured poison into his ear while he slept. Because the king was killed in his sleep, he did not have a chance to repent his sins before dying, and therefore he must wallow in purgatory. Before the ghost leaves, it beseeches that Hamlet not “taint his mind” against his mother, Queen Gertrude, or take any negative action toward her. When Hamlet is left alone, he bemoans his father’s fate. He then swears Horatio and Marcellus to secrecy several times, and the ghost’s voice commands them to swear.

This post is part of the series: Hamlet Scene Summaries

Reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet and can’t understand a word? These Hamlet scene summaries make Shakespeare easy to understand as you make your way through the book, page by page. Includes summaries for Acts I-V.

  1. Hamlet Scene Summaries: Act I