In this first scene of Hamlet, Shakespeare introduces a set of mirrors that will pervade throughout. Fortinbras, a young man whose father has been defeated by a foe and whose obligation is to avenge that father's death and reclaim the conquered properties, serves as a foil for Hamlet. Several characters will reflect Hamlet, but Fortinbras is the first to be named in the play in whom we see a likeness to the Prince of Denmark.
Fortinbras has another significance to the play. The first scene presages an important thematic thread in Hamlet, that the passing of the torch from old to young inevitably carries the duty of the young to live up to their elders' expectations. A son must obey a father's instruction, no matter how unreasonable the directive might seem — even if the directive necessitates murder, war, or mayhem. In Scene 1, Horatio explains that, because Young Fortinbras is bent on avenging his father's defeat at Old King Hamlet's hand, all of Denmark prepares for war. A single covenant inexorably propels the events of the play and is the medieval truth that rules Hamlet's life.
Horatio's fear of the Ghost mirrors the prevailing attitude toward witches and ghosts among Elizabethans and Jacobeans. Shakespeare's contemporaries believed in ghosts and closely linked apparitions with their religious fears of the devil's power and hell's dominion on earth. Like witches, ghosts were believed to be agents of an afterlife; unlike witches, however, they were not universally dreaded. While witches always represent the devil, ghosts might actually represent the spirit of God. A ghost could represent angel or devil to the Shakespearean sensibility.
According to the religious precepts of the time, anyone seeing a ghost must identify the ghost's purpose and form. A ghost could be: (1) a hallucination, which was dangerously apt to be engendered by the devil, (2) a restless spirit returned to perform a deed left undone in life, (3) a specter seen as a prediction or warning sent as a gift from God, (4) a spirit returned from beyond the grave by divine permission, or (5) a devil disguised as a dead person. Characters in Hamlet test each of these possibilities within the course of the play.
The dead king's armor suggests that the Ghost could be a soldier returned to finish a job left undone, an omen for the troubled country he once ruled and a spirit roaming with divine permission. Horatio dwells on the idea of portents, thus shedding another light on the play to illuminate several other motifs.
Horatio's worrying about the impending attack on Denmark by Fortinbras and his Norwegians reveals another of the many mirrors that layer the play. Fortinbras' honor compels him to attack the established Danes in order to avenge his father, despite the fact that he lacks the funds to pay his warriors. Old Fortinbras and Young Fortinbras, Old Hamlet and Young Hamlet, and Old Polonius and Young Laertes continually exemplify Shakespeare's preoccupation with filial duty and devotion.
Marcellus' reference to Christianity establishes the very Christian context of Hamlet. Marcellus notes that the Ghost stalks away when Heaven is invoked, and also mentions Christmas and "our savior's birth." These comments clearly define the religious perspective of the characters in the play, which reflect Shakespeare's own reputedly Catholic point of view.
Act I, Scene 1, introduces imagery suggesting that Elsinore is itself a prison where impending war and disaster are inevitable, that forces beyond human control threaten all hope of happiness or well-being.
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