“Shakespeare’s aim in Act 1 is to establish Hamlet firmly as the pivotal character in the play” What do you see as the importance of Act 1? Shakespeare does use Act 1 to introduce some important political and personal issues and themes to the audience. It is important that these are established in the first act so that the audience are aware not only of the political state of Denmark but also the state of the personal affairs of the main characters of the play.
There is a lot of evidence to support this first statement concerning political themes and issues.
The state of Denmark is immediately established as an unhealthy political body. This is commented upon by many characters, either directly ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ or as part of a general feeling of unwell ‘I am sick at heart. ‘ This theme of political malaise is also shown through the behaviour of the King and Queen. According to Hamlet, they drink so much that other countries ‘clepe [them] drunkards.
‘ Drinking alcohol excessively is unhealthy for the body and as Claudius and Gertrude represent the body politic of Denmark, this shows another sign of malaise and weakness of Denmark politically.
The actions of the King and Queen offer another political issue as Claudius is not the rightful king of Denmark. He has usurped the rightful King by murder and has therefore gone against the will of God and only tragedy and ruin can come from the rein of this immoral king. We also learn in this act that Claudius is a hypocrite, Hamlet calls him ‘smiling damned villain,’ and he proves himself to be an untrustworthy king. This is also shown through the behaviour of the citizens as the audience immediately get a strong sense of mistrust and unease from the first scene as there are cries of
‘Who’s there? ‘ ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself’ The presence of a ghost also reflects a sense of unease as Old Hamlet is stuck in purgatory and therefore cannot rest. Not only are political themes addressed in the first act but current political issues are raised as well. Shakespeare uses Claudius’ speech to update the audience on what is going on in Denmark. We understand there is a threat from Fortinbras who is seeking revenge against Denmark, but whether or not this is a serious threat we cannot tell as the King is not trustworthy.
He makes the threat seem small and insignificant but other characters talk of ‘preparation’ that point towards what would seem to be a war or some form of military action. An imminent war also supports the theme of political unrest and uncertainty. Personal issues and themes are raised as well in the first act. The most intriguing being the issue of Hamlet’s personal wellbeing. From the beginning he appears to be a very troubled individual, he starts his opening soliloquy with the line ‘o that this too too sallied flesh would melt’ showing an incline towards suicidal feelings and depression-not without just cause though.
He exists within a dysfunctional family unit and has just suffered the loss of his father for whom only he appears to be grieving for. He says in this act ‘I do not set my life at a pin’s fee’ showing he has no value upon his own life. This points towards self destructive behaviour and as we learn he must seek to avenge his father’s murder, we wonder to what extremes he will go to. In this act we are also introduced to a lot of different characters and the relationships they have with each other. There is the forbidden, but passionate relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia.
As to the nature of the relationship it appears that it is doomed as her brother and her father warn her against it. This could be because they know the intensity of it as her father talks about ‘when the blood burns’ and ‘blazes. ‘ It could be because Hamlet is a unpredictable character ‘a puffed and reckless libertine’ and heir to the throne, and Ophelia is somewhat nai?? ve ‘you speak like a green girl’ and therefore susceptible to him. It raises the issue and theme of love but at the same time tragedy as it appears doomed from the beginning.
Another destructive relationship we see in Act 1 is that between Claudius and Gertrude. Together they are a pair of traitors, Hamlet calls Gertrude ‘o most pernicious woman’ and Claudius is referred to, by Old Hamlet as ‘that incestuous, that adulterous beast. ‘ Through their relationship the theme of betrayal is portrayed as they have both betrayed Old Hamlet by murdering him and through ‘damned incest. ‘ As a result of this we learn of Hamlet’s broken relationship with his mother and the forced, false relationship with Claudius which reflects the on-going theme of appearance versus reality.
There is also the personal issue of brotherly betrayal and going against nature, as it is described as ‘unnatural,’ which is reminiscent of the biblical story of Cane and Abel. And also the devoted relationship between Hamlet and his father which is put to the test as Old Hamlet requests that Hamlet avenge his death. At first Hamlet is eager to do this ‘Haste me to know’t that I with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love may sweep to my revenge’ but later views it as more of a burden ‘The time is out of joint; O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’ but nevertheless feels it is his duty to his father.
A similar devotion, tinged with sadness and disappointment is the relationship between Old Hamlet and Gertrude. Although it seems Gertrude has forgotten about Old Hamlet ‘within a month, ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, she married’ it seems that Old Hamlet still has affections for her. He warns Hamlet ‘taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught’ showing that he does not wish Hamlet to hurt or alter his attitude towards his mother is his quest for revenge.
Yet his disappointment and hurt is clear as he calls her ‘my most seeming-virtuous Queen. ‘ In support of the second statement, Shakespeare also uses Act 1 to establish Hamlet firmly as the pivotal character in the play. He is immediately established as the character who has the ability to drive the plot. He is entrusted with a mission from his dead father and the audience are left at the end of Act1, anticipating what he will do. What happens in the rest of the play largely depends on Hamlet’s actions.
He is the only character so far that the ghost talks to, which shows that Hamlet is an important character and a pivot in the play around which the plot and characters revolve. Not only is Hamlet central to the plot of the play, Shakespeare also uses him to characterise many themes and issues as he is an intriguing character with an added depth that other characters do not have, which is created through Shakespeare’s use of soliloquies. In act1 alone he has two soliloquies, which permit the audience insight into his personality and innermost thoughts.
Yet despite this he still unreliable as he proves to be a mentally unstable character and his actions still provoke many questions. Through this, the theme of appearance versus reality and acting are explored through the character of Hamlet. His supposed ill mental health also represents the theme of sickness and disease that has already been established as a main theme, and of course the theme of madness. Hamlet is singled out through the use of visuals as well as he is the only one on stage wearing black while Claudius is giving his uplifting, motivating speech ‘Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted colour off.
‘ This is to reflect Hamlet as being alone in his grief and mourning for his father which also raises the issue of family relationships. The fact that he is the true heir to the throne, and the rightful King of Denmark now that his father is dead, also puts Hamlet at the forefront of the play He is automatically in the centre of many themes that surround this issue of betrayal and revenge. Many relationships centre around Hamlet as well, as depicted in the earlier argument, and sub plots arise from this, for example the ‘forbidden love’ of Hamlet and Ophelia.
I think the importance of Act 1 is summarised by both these statements. Political and personal themes and issues are raised and affirmed and so is the character of Hamlet. Shakespeare does this to introduce the tragic tone of the play and introduce important issues and themes. The main plot of revenge is also established in Act 1, as are the sub plots like the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet and the threat of war or attack from Fortinbras. Characters are established and now that the audience are aware of all this, they are able to follow the action that ensues in the remainder of the play.