In a trumpet flourish, Claudius, the new King of Denmark, and his wife Gertrude enter their stateroom in the company of various courtiers, including Prince Hamlet, Claudius' aide Polonius, Polonius' son Laertes, and the ambasadors to Norway Voltemand and Cornelius. Claudius explains that he and Gertrude have chosen to marry immediately after his brother's death because, in light of the encroaching Danish army, the court could not afford excessive grief lest young Fortinbras mistake their mourning for weakness. He dispatches Voltemand and Cornelius to inform young Fortinbras' uncle of the young man's campaign against the Danes. As Claudius is himself, Fortinbras' uncle is brother to the recently dead king and currently controls the throne. Claudius hopes that the old man has the power to stop Fortinbras from carrying out his mission.
Claudius then turns his attention to Laertes, who petitions the King for permission to return to school in France. Claudius confers with Polonius who answers verbosely that he consents to Laertes' wish.
Having dismissed Laertes, the King and Queen both notice Hamlet's dark demeanor, and Hamlet sneers at the King's loving posture. Gertrude and Claudius encourage him to cease grieving and to get on with life. Gertrude asks Hamlet why he seems so particularly affected by his father's death, and Hamlet snaps at her that, unlike his mother and her husband, he has no pretenses. "Seems, Madam? Nay, it is." Hamlet accuses Gertrude of pretending grief and rejoicing in the old king's death. Claudius reminds Hamlet that he is next in line to the throne, and asks him not to return to school in Wittenberg, a request that Gertrude reiterates. Hamlet acquiesces without enthusiasm. Satisfied that they have had their way, Claudius and Gertrude leave Hamlet to his own thoughts.
In his first soliloquy, Hamlet bemoans the fact that he cannot commit suicide. He wishes that his physical self might just cease to exist, "melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew." He complains that his religion prohibits suicide and claims that he would sooner die than continue watching his mother engage in her vile incest. These thoughts torment him, but he knows that he can't speak them aloud to anyone.
Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo enter, and Hamlet, unguarded with Horatio as with no one else, snidely jokes that King Claudius has sought to save money by using the funeral refreshments to feed his wedding guests. He tells Horatio that his father's memory haunts him. Horatio seizes the opportunity to tell Hamlet about his encounter with the Ghost of the old king. Hamlet agrees to watch that night in case the Ghost walks again.
It is significant that Claudius admonishes Hamlet as he addresses him for the first time in the play. Claudius is clearly the antagonist, and he begins his hour upon the stage in a blatantly adversarial role. Were Claudius' demeanor not enough to tell the audience that the two are rivals, Hamlet underscores the discomfort of their relationship by asserting his disgust for the man with his own opening statement.
The key words that exemplify the critical purpose of this scene include "show," "seem," and "play." Cornelius and Voltemand say they will "show our duty." Laertes "came to Denmark to show" his allegiance to King Claudius. Gertrude asks Hamlet, in reference to his "nighted color," "Why seems it so particular with thee?" Hamlet responds to her question by using the word "seems" twice in a single sentence, and he says he cannot pretend, but rather, must be what he is. He then goes on to say that the moods and shapes of grief are true for him. Though his emotions may seem to be those of an actor, he is not acting. Everything in this scene points to the challenge of discerning appearance from reality, a challenge that becomes more pronounced when Horatio tells Hamlet about the appearance of the Ghost.
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