On a gun platform atop the battlements of Castle Elsinore, Officer Barnardo arrives to relieve sentinel Francisco of his watch. Barnardo challenges Francisco to identify himself first, and the two exchange small talk about the weather. Francisco complains, "For this relief much thanks, 'tis bitter cold. / And I am sick at heart."
Horatio and Marcellus enter and greet Francisco, identifying themselves as loyal Danish subjects, and Francisco exits. Marcellus asks Barnardo if he has seen "this thing," "this apparition" tonight, and Barnardo assures him that he has seen nothing. Marcellus tells Barnardo that he has invited Horatio to see the Ghost himself, as he trusts Horatio to "approve our eyes and speak to it." Horatio doubts the Ghost will appear, but listens intently as Barnardo prepares to retell the tale of the Ghost's previous visitation.
Before Barnardo can say much, however, the Ghost appears, and Marcellus encourages Horatio to address the spirit. Horatio cannot deny that he, too, sees the Ghost. All three men agree that the Ghost is real; in fact, they recognize it as the "majesty of buried Denmark" — the recently dead King Hamlet. They entreat the Ghost to stay and talk, but it dissolves into the night.
Saying he would not believe had he not seen for himself, Horatio is astounded to have seen the Ghost of King Hamlet dressed in the armor he wore when he conquered old King Fortinbras and defeated the Poles. He finds the king's dress ironic because, at that moment, young Fortinbras — the dead Norwegian king's son and namesake — has just declared war on the Danes, seeking to avenge his father's death and take back the land King Hamlet took from old Fortinbras. Because the Danes are preparing for war against the Norwegians, Barnardo wonders if the Ghost portends doom for the Danes. Horatio shudders, recalling the omens that warned Julius Caesar of his imminent demise.
The Ghost reappears, and Horatio entreats it to stay. The crowing cock trumpets the arrival of morning, however, and Horatio realizes that no erring spirit can stay out in the daylight; they watch the Ghost disappear into the dissolving darkness. Certain that they have seen the Ghost of King Hamlet, they decide to inform Prince Hamlet.
The spooky cold that Francisco describes as he and Barnardo exchange posts thoroughly sets the mood of the play, which Yale Professor Maynard Mack describes as "mysterious and equivocal, a mixture of bright surfaces and dark forces where what seems both is and is not."
This scene shows very clearly the problem of discerning between appearance and reality. The Ghost appears, but is it really there? If it is there, is it really a devil assuming the king's regal shape and garments? Distinguishing between truth and illusion is the focal dilemma of Act I and will challenge Hamlet right up to the play's turning point in Scene 4 of Act IV. Barnardo's questioning of Francisco introduces the idea that Hamlet's world is upside-down. Protocol dictates that Francisco should question the newcomer, but here the interloper questions the guard. Francisco's response reinforces the sense of malaise. His "sickness at heart" prefigures the tension of the ensuing tragedy, while the changing of the guard mirrors the tenuousness of the political climate of Denmark — the transition from one king to another and the arrival of the Prince whose rightful place on the throne has been usurped.
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