How does Shakespeare create an effective opening to Hamlet? Essay
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The key purpose with the opening of any piece of literature is to entice and enthral the reader and obviously Shakespeare having the fame and staggering success that he has had, must be well aware of this. If questions are left in the readers mind once reading the opening to this script or watching the play, they engage the audience as they want these questions answered and believe that as the play unfolds they will be. The attitudes and values of the characters that are introduced in the first act contribute greatly to the sense of suspense the audience feels.
Shakespeare begins the play with the entry of two minor characters ‘two Sentinels’. By doing this the audience only get a second hand taste of what the key themes are going to be later on in the play. There is no omniscient feel to this first act, only an air of mystery. The very first line spoken by Barnardo, ‘Who’s there? ‘ even creates this sense of unknowing, and also implies that the Sentinels are on edge for some reason and perhaps even frightened.
This question is then repeated by the second sentinel, Francisco, as Horatio and Marcellus answer.
Again the ambiguity of the question, ‘has this thing appear’d again tonight? ‘ creates mystery and a feel of foreboding. A ghost then appears and it is absolutely clear that the sentinels are immensely frightened, ‘tremble and look pale’. The Ghost then disappears without speaking, despite Horatio’s efforts, ‘I charge thee speak’. This allows the audience to wonder what this Ghost has come to tell the Sentinels and as the characters discuss the Ghost, both the audience and characters are as bewildered at this entry of this supernatural being.
When the ghost reappears it is hopeful that it will speak, however at the exact point it appears it is about to, Shakespeare again dangles the carrot under the audiences nose as a cock crows disrupting the Ghost and causing it to instantaneously disappear. The anonymity of the Ghost appearing in the first act instigates the audience to speculate over the significance of the Ghost and the anonymity of its appearance. Furthermore the appearance of the Ghost allows the audience to realise the importance of Horatio within the play, he is an educated ‘scholar’ who is clearly respected by the sentinels.
However at this point it is unclear to the audience the reason for which he will play a key role in the play. Carrying on from this the setting in which this first scene is set also adds to the sense of unknowing and mystery. The scene is set outside the castle of Elsinore on a gun-platform; this suggests to the audience even at this early stage that war or battles will be present later on in the play as castles are built solely for the purposes of protect in conflict.
It is also dark and night, this adds to the fear of the sentinels as they cannot see who it is that approaches them. This is clear with the opening line ‘Who’s there? ‘ spoken by Barnardo. Furthermore perhaps the dark night setting is intentional pathetic fallacy by Shakespeare, as the characters and even the audiences’ unknowing towards the Ghost is mirrored by the way in which the characters cannot see clearly and have to ask of who approaches them.
This pathetic fallacy is carried on into the ending of the scene, as the cock crows and it becomes morning the sense of fear leaves the sentinels, this is shown with the semantic fields used in their speech, of ‘love’ and ‘life’. Although much is still unknown when this first scene ends many themes are vaguely introduced to the audience. Death is clearly evident with the spontaneous appearances and disappearances of the Ghost. There is a semantic field of death running throughout the dialogue, Shakespeare uses descriptive words like ‘look pale’, and also ‘dead hour’.
This adds to the audiences feeling of unease as well as illustrating the characters. Also the old King Hamlet is said to be similar to the Ghost in appearance, this is a way of Shakespeare indirectly introducing the theme of the death of the King, and also as the death is obviously fresh in the mind of the sentinels and Horatio so it seems to be the case that this will be an avid theme within the play. Barnardo states when the Ghost first appears that it is ‘In the same figure as like the King that is dead’.
Another key theme that is introduced is war, this is introduced through the setting itself as I have already mentioned, but also through the discussion of the guards and Horatio proceeding the departure of the Ghost. The Ghost was wearing the ‘armour he (the dead King) had on when he th’ ambitious Norway combated’. Suggesting perhaps there is still conflict going on, but Shakespeare is clever as he never explicitly lets the audience know what is going on in this first scene, grabbing their attention and interesting them further in what is commencing in the play.
This first scene finishes with Horatio and the guards going to impart their news of the Ghost onto ‘young Hamlet’. This shows a great respect for Hamlet, it also implies that Hamlet is the King as the audience have previously been told that ‘Old King Hamlet’ has died. This is rather ironic as later the audience come to find out that in fact it is young Hamlet’s uncle that is now become King through an unconventional marriage. So putting this into perspective this could imply that some subjects, such as Horatio slightly resent the marriage of the Queen to Hamlets uncle.
I conclude that this is an extremely effective opening written by Shakespeare as it constantly engages the audience, and makes the audience feel a need to know more of what the play is about. Intro 1para (this one) on characters DONE 1 para on setting DONE 1 para on themes introduced… war, death, and mentions old king hamlet-suggesting he has only died recently as still fresh in minds. 1 para on lang n dramatic techniques Conc.