Act 1, Scene 1 Hamlet opens with the sentry, Francisco, keeping watch over the castle at Elsinore. He is relieved by Barnardo, who is joined shortly by Horatio and Marcellus. Barnardo and Marcellus reveal that they have witnessed an apparition:
Marcellus. Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
and will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us (1.1.23-25).
The Ghost of the late king of Denmark appears and promptly withdraws into the night. Horatio recognizes the armour covering the Ghost and remarks that it is the very armour that the King wore "when he the ambitious Norway combated" (1.1.61). Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio suspect that the appearance of the ghostly King is an ominous message to all of Denmark, as they prepare for war with Norway. Horatio pleads with the apparition to reveal its intentions:
If thou hast any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me,
If there be any good thing to be done
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me,
If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
(Which happily forknowing may avoid)
O, speak! (1.1.127-35).
The Ghost, however, refuses to speak, and disappears as the cock crows. Horatio decides to tell Prince Hamlet all that has transpired, for he knows that the Ghost will only reveal his purpose to his son.
Act 1, Scene 2
The scene opens with King Claudius of Denmark giving a magnificently ostentatious speech on the death of his brother and his marriage to Queen Gertrude, his sister-in-law and Hamlet's mother. Claudius dispatches two of his courtiers, Cornelius and Voltimand, to Norway as peacekeepers, and he grants Laertes, who has come to Denmark specifically for the coronation of Claudius, permission to return to his studies in France. With such matters attended to, Claudius focuses on his troublesome nephew. He commends Hamlet on the length and severity of his mourning, but insists that his "unmanly" grief must come to an end. He reassures Hamlet that his father lost a father, and his father before him, and so on. He implores Hamlet not to return to his studies in Wittenberg, but to remain in Denmark to fulfill his role of courtier, cousin, and son. Gertrude also pleads with Hamlet to stay, and calmly, he agrees: "I shall in all my best obey you, madam" (1.2.120). Satisfied with Hamlet's answer, the royal couple leave the room. Hamlet is left alone to expound his consuming rage and disgust at his mother for her incestuous marriage to Claudius, within a month of his father's death:
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer, --married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married; O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
Hamlet is interrupted gratefully by Horatio, along with Barnardo and Marcellus. They tell him that the Ghost of his father has appeared on the castle wall, and Hamlet is at first shocked and disturbed: "Indeed, indeed, sirs, but this troubles me" (1.2.223). The three further describe the Ghost to Hamlet -- his silvered beard, his pale and sorrowful countenance, his full body armour -- and, with excitement Hamlet agrees to meet them on the platform, "twixt eleven and twelve".
Act 1, Scene 3
Laertes, who is about to leave for France, warns his sister, Ophelia, that Hamlet's love for her will undoubtedly not last. He will be the next king, and as such his wants must yield to the demands and interests of the citizens of Denmark. When it is no longer convenient or appropriate for Hamlet to love her, Laertes cautions, he will cast her aside. Ophelia defends Hamlet and Laertes lovingly responds "O, fear me not" (1.2.57). Their father, Polonius, enters the room and agrees that Ophelia has been seeing far too much of Hamlet. He begins a rant on the state of young men's morality, insisting that passion causes them to make false vows. He forbids Ophelia from seeing Hamlet again, and she respectfully obeys.
Act 1, Scene 4
Shortly before midnight, Hamlet meets Horatio on the battlements of the castle. They wait together in the darkness. From below they hear the sound of the men in the castle laughing and dancing riotously; the King draining his "draughts of Rhenish down". Hamlet explains to Horatio his dislike of such drunken behaviour. To Hamlet, drinking to excess has ruined the whole nation, which is known as a land full of drunken swines abroad. It takes away the country's accomplishments and renders men weak and corrupt. Then Horatio spots the Ghost approaching. Hamlet calls out to the Ghost and it beckons Hamlet to leave with it "as if it some impartment did desire" (1.4.67) to Hamlet alone. Despite the pleading of Horatio and Marcellus, who are afraid that the apparition might be an evil entity in disguise, Hamlet agrees to follow the Ghost and the two figures disappear into the dark.
Act 1, Scene 5
Hamlet will go no further with the Ghost and demands it speak at once. The Ghost tells Hamlet that the hour is approaching when it must return to the tormenting flames of purgatory and it reveals the hideous and demented truth to an anguished Hamlet, on the verge of hysteria throughout the conversation. The Ghost is indeed the spirit of Hamlet's father, and he has not died, but has been murdered, poisoned by his own brother, Claudius. The Ghost disappears, leaving Hamlet horrified and enraged. "O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!" (1.5.106). Hamlet is not yet sure how he will carry out his revenge, but he vows to think about nothing else until Claudius has suffered for his betrayal. Amidst the echoing cries of the Ghost rising from beneath the earth, Hamlet insists Horatio and Marcellus swear that they will not reveal to anyone the events of that night. Upon Hamlet's sword the two take their oath, assuring him that they will remain silent. Hamlet then calls to his father's spirit "rest, rest" (I.V.179), and the scene and entire act closes with the lines that encapsulate Hamlet's whole tragedy:
With all my love I do commend me to you,
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack: Let us go together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right! (1.5.181-88)
Act 2, Scene 1
Act 2 opens in a room in Polonius' house, two months after Hamlet has seen his father's ghost. Polonius is making arrangements to send his servant, Reynaldo, to Paris to spy on Laertes. Polonius justifies his actions by arguing that he is only concerned for the well-being of his son, so far away from home. The frightened Ophelia rushes into the room to tell her father that Hamlet came to see her while she was sewing, and that it had been a terrifying experience:
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac'd,
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd and down-gyved to his ancle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors... (2.1.77-83).
Polonius at once assumes that the loss of Ophelia's affections has driven Hamlet insane. He expresses regret that he ever asked his daughter to behave so heartlessly toward the love-sick prince, and he decides the King must know that Hamlet has gone mad.
Act 2, Scene 2
King Claudius has noticed Hamlet's strange behaviour even before old Polonius can tell his tale. Claudius has summoned two of Hamlet's classmates at Wittenberg -- Guildenstern and Rosencrantz -- hoping that they will be able to uncover what has sparked such a transformation in Hamlet. The two leave to seek out the Prince and Polonius is granted license to speak before the King and Queen. He begins a tiresome explanation of his theories about the nature of Hamlet's madness, and produces a love letter that Hamlet has sent to Ophelia. The Queen believes Polonius is probably right, and she knows that her hasty marriage and the death of Hamlet's father have also been responsible for his dramatic change in behaviour. In the midst of the discussion, the King receives good news from his messengers, Voltimand and Cornelius, back from Norway. They inform him that the King of Norway has decided to redirect his attack toward Poland, if the Norwegian army is granted safe passage through Denmark. Happy with the news, the King turns again to Polonius, and, after more tedious pontificating by the old man, the King agrees to eavesdrop on Hamlet when he next visits Ophelia.
Polonius sees Hamlet approaching and he advises the King and Queen to leave him alone with the Prince. Hamlet does speak with Polonius, but his answers are nonsensical and rude; due not only to his desire to perpetuate his facade as a madman, but also to his utter lack of regard for Polonius, whom he sees as a "great baby". After a few moments, Polonius gives up, convinced that Hamlet's babbling is a result of his insanity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter the room and Hamlet greets them with excitement. Hamlet makes the two admit that they are spies of the King and then gives them an answer to the burning question: the trouble is, simply put, melancholia. Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that the players will be there soon, and when they do arrive, Hamlet greets them enthusiastically and asks the First Player to recite a scene from a story about the Trojan War. Hamlet is so moved that he asks the First Player to stop speaking and also to perform a play in front of the court that evening. The play will be The Murder of Gonzago, and Hamlet will intermittently add dialogue that he himself will write. Polonius leads Rozencrantz and Guildenstern away, and Hamlet is left alone, safe to reveal his secret anguish:
...Am I a coward,
Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face,
Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter...(2.2.571-579).
Hamlet still cannot decide what is true or untrue; right or wrong. Is the Ghost an evil spirit? Is it tempting the Prince to orchestrate his own demise? Hamlet must be sure of his uncle's guilt before seeking revenge. His plan is to reenact the murder of his father during the production of The Murder of Gonzago. If Claudius turns pale, Hamlet will have his proof:
The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king (2.2.606-07).