Within the first scene of ‘Hamlet’ the reader is immediately made aware that something is ‘rotten in the state of Denmark’. The first insinuation of this is shown as Barnardo opens the play with the question ‘Who’s there?’, this confuses the reader as Francisco is actually on guard, therefore it should be him asking the question. Within the next fifteen lines we see another three questions which suggests the anxiety and vulnerability of the characters. The question also appears to be very abrupt which would have shocked the audience and been very effective in engaging them into the play to find out what is happening.
Shakespeare wrote the play to be performed on a stage in broad daylight, therefore it would have been much more complicated to set the scene he intended. ”tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed’ is the first indication of the time scale; this is also included within the first piece of poetry within the play. This is also considered to be witching hour which engages the audience as to why the play is being set at this time of night and why the characters appear to be on edge. Following this Francisco states ”tis bitter cold’ which sets a powerful atmosphere and reinforces the idea that something is not right within Denmark.
Horatio is the next character to be introduced within the play. ‘He may approve our eyes and speak to it’ suggests the level of hierarchy within the characters. With Horatio being a well educated man it seems that only he is trustworthy enough to witness ‘this thing’. This idea is reinforced when Horatio repeats Barnardo’s phrase ‘sit we down’ suggesting that it is only his words that are significant. Horatio appears to be the most stable of the characters, although he is only a minor character he is loyal and plays the role of stabilizing the play.
When the ghost enters he disrupts the flow of speech emphasizing the fact that fragmentation always occurs, which also reflects the idea that something is not right. Horatio then appears to be called upon by the other soldiers to speak to the ghost, it appears almost as if they are not worthy of speaking to something so significant.
A recurring image within the first act is the idea of the Holy Trinity and things occurring three times. An example of this is the ghost appearing three times, this suggests the religious undertones within the play that were present at the time when the play was written. Another example of this is when the ghost first appears and Horatio challenges it with three formal questions; ‘What art thou that usurpest this time of night?’, ‘In which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee, speak.’
The play appears to increase and decrease in pace throughout the first act. This therefore grabs the attention of the audience and heightens their sense of excitement before going back to a state of equilibrium. The purpose of this is to keep the audience engaged with the play and shock them with something to keep them ‘on the edge of their seat’ whilst also giving them time inbetween to make sense of what they have just seen and relate it to the rest of the play. The structure of the first act throughout appears to be fragmented and then contrastingly calm. This creates a fluctuating tone and engages the audience by making them anxious and also catches their attention as it is not something they would have been expecting.