Hamlet opens with two Sentinels, Barnado and Francisco, whispering in an agitated, clandestine manner. The first two lines involve both refusing to even divulge their names, “Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself,” showing immediately that there is little trust in this scene. They speak in quick, colloquial lines, such as “He.” and “’tis bitter cold,” which signify an urgency and pace. The audience are immediately intrigued by this, as they are wondering that could make them behave in such a way. Marcellus, a soldier, soon asks, “has this thing appeared again tonight?” which raises the question of what “the thing” is. Marcellus then shares his theories about it, “Horatio says ‘tis but our fantasy” before Horatio shushes him, at the fear it will not appear. This continues to build anticipation for “the thing,” and words like “dreaded” and “this apparition” are used to describe it, which builds feelings of dread in the audience.
When the Ghost appears, the scene would be very dramatically impactful, especially when it is revealed that it is “like the King that is dead.” A dead king, especially in the time that the play was written, 1602, would raise further questions, one being: did he die or was he killed? The likely answer is that he was murdered, and this in itself adds mystery and horror to the already exciting plot.
The sentinels speak using some evocative, strong imagery, such as “he sledded the angry poleaxe on the ice” and “this bodes some strange eruption.” There are imageries of death in their language which causes horror. This is suitable to the scene, as we have just discovered that the king is dead, and the city is in uproar. Marcellus questions this, “Why such shipwrights, whose sore tasks does not divide the Sunday from the week.” From this, we learn that it is not just the sentinels that are feeling agitated and worried, but the city in general, which again creates thrill as well as perplexity as to why.
Another emotion felt by the audience in this scene would be fear. The appearance of the ghost would be frightening, especially as he is the powerful figure of the King. It would be a big shock to discover that the king is dead. However, the ghost of the King remains silent, and the sentinels wonder what the king wants, “What art thou that usurpest this time of night?” as does the audience. Ghosts are stereotypically scary, trouble-causing things, but this ghost is different, as he appears and reappears without appearing to do anything, which will perhaps confuse the audience about his intentions, and whether he really is a ghost, or just “something more than fantasy”.
As confusion would be present in the audience now, Shakespeare places Horatio to explain what he knows, so that the background of the play, as well information about the setting can be imparted. It is revealed why the sentinels were previously in such a hurry, and it involves a character called Fortinbras wanting to reclaim the land that the ghost, Hamlet won. This adds a new layer to the plot.
The ghost re-enters, and when Horatio re-addresses it, he is more forceful than he previously was, showing that he is very involved with the ghost, and wants to know what it wants. This reflects the feelings of the audience, and Horatio spreads his arms to physically block the ghost, trapping it, and shifting the power. Before, the ghost had the power, as the men feared him, but as Horatio speaks more boldly he shows he does not fear the ghost. He talks to the ghost, asking it to speak, and the phrases “speak to me”, “oh speak!” and “speak of it” are all used, showing the urgency felt by the men. This urgency is sensed, and adds to the overall tension of the scene.
The cock crows, signalling morning, and the ghost drifts away without having had spoken, which leaves the scene on a cliff-hanger with many unanswered questions. Before the scene ends, a younger Hamlet is spoken of, and, he, being the titular character, is very important. The sentinels echo this, “For, upon my life, the spirit dumb to us, we will speak to him,” and the audience anticipate the appearance of him eagerly. This opens the door to the next scene, and closes a very thrilling and impactful one.