Hamlet: Act I

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13351

In one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, a young prince seeks to avenge his father's death. Explore several well-known speeches as well as how important theatrical design elements are in a play!


Literary Studies, Theatrical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

Watch this short clip of Act 1, Scene 1 of a production of Hamlet directed by Gregory Doran for a BBC film adaptation. In this version, the elder Hamlet's ghost looks just like an ordinary man, but the security camera shots are included to show that only his ghost is actually there.

Doran Hamlet Act 1 Scene 1 Ghost Scene from Rachel Hammond:

Image - Video

In live performances, the fact that the elder Hamlet is only a spirit has been portrayed many ways, but it is imperative that the audience understands he is a ghost.

While you read Act 1 of Hamlet, think about how you would convey that the elder Hamlet is a ghost.

In this series of Related Lessons, found in the right-hand sidebar, you will study William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, more commonly known simply as Hamlet.

You will need a copy of the play to read as you complete each lesson. If you do not have a copy, you may use William Shakespeare's Hamlet courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library.

It is important to note that modern versions of this play use Arabic numerals to note the different acts and scenes (Act 3, Scene 2). If you cite the play in an essay or paper, you would do the same and include the lines (3.2.10-13).

Sometimes, particularly in older versions, you may see the use of Roman numerals (Act III, Scene ii).

Let's get started!

Act 1 of the play introduces us to most of the characters and sets up the central conflict: Hamlet's father has been murdered.

Let's explore this act scene by scene, diving into some of the characters and speeches along the way.

Act 1, Scene 1

This scene communicates two important pieces of information. One, that King Hamlet has died and his ghost is visiting the night watchmen; and two, that Fortinbras of Norway is scheming to take back Denmark.

Interestingly, we do not meet the protagonist in this first scene, but we do meet two other important characters, Horatio and King Hamlet's ghost.

  • Describe your first impressions of Horatio. How does he differ from the other men in the scene?
  • How does Shakespeare establish the importance of King Hamlet without writing lines for him in the first scene? What do other characters say about King Hamlet that informs our understanding of him?

One of the more confusing things for a modern reader to understand is the use of 'Hamlet' and 'Fortinbras' for both the young princes of Norway and Denmark and their fathers.

Think of these not as the characters' given names, but as titles that apply to both father and son. A prince or king during this time period would have been known as and referred to by his title rather than his first name.

  • With this in mind, translate Horatio's speech into your own words to describe the conflict with Fortinbras. Who killed who, and what is the younger Fortinbras doing now?

Act 1, Scene 2

In this scene, we finally meet the Hamlet around whom our story centers. First, however, we hear a lengthy speech from Claudius, the new King of Denmark and the late King Hamlet's brother.

  • What is your first impression of Claudius in this scene?
  • Claudius has married his late brother's widow and Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. How does he speak about their union in his first speech? Why does he use phrases like "defeated joy" (1.2.10) and "mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage" (1.2.12)?

When we first hear Hamlet speak, he refers to Claudius as "little more than kin and less than kind" (1.2.67), acknowledging that Claudius is both his uncle and his stepfather.

We also find out that Hamlet is still in mourning for his father, though his mother and the king encourage him to stop and be merry.

  • What are your first impressions of Hamlet?
  • How does Hamlet feel about Claudius? How does that differ from the way he feels about his father?

Hamlet's speech that begins with "O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt" (1.2.133) is the first of many soliloquies for this character.

A soliloquy is a device in a play where a character delivers a speech that is not directed at any other character on stage.

In some productions, the actor engages with the audience in these speeches. In other productions, the character talks to themselves in the soliloquy and does not acknowledge the audience.

  • Translate Hamlet's first soliloquy into your own words, looking up any words you don't know to assist you.
  • After the soliloquy, Horatio and Marcellus inform Hamlet that his father's ghost has appeared. What is Hamlet's reaction?

Act 1, Scene 3

The focus shifts to Laertes, who is leaving for Paris and saying goodbye to his father and sister, Polonius and Ophelia.

  • Who is giving advice to whom in this scene, and what does that say about the power structure of the family?
  • What do we learn about the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia in this scene? What do Laertes and Polonius seem to think of Hamlet?

Polonius delivers one of the most quoted lines of the play in his speech to Laertes: "This above all: to thine own self be true" (1.3.84).

  • Read the entire speech and make a list of the pieces of advice Polonius gives to Laertes in your own words.

Act 1, Scene 4

This scene is very similar to the first one with the men sitting in the night to wait for the king's ghost. This time, however, Hamlet joins them and encounters the ghost of his father, who beckons to him.

  • Why do Hamlet's friends try to stop him from following the ghost?
  • How does Hamlet eventually win the argument over whether he should go?

Act 1, Scene 5

Hamlet converses with his father's ghost, who tells his son that he did not die of a snake bite as the people have been told, but of poison given to him by Claudius.

  • Because his death was so quick, King Hamlet was not able to take his last rites and so was unable to enter heaven. How does he describe the afterlife that he faces?
  • What does King Hamlet want his son to do to Claudius? What does he want him to do to Gertrude?

When his father leaves, Hamlet delivers his second soliloquy, vowing revenge on Claudius and raging against both his uncle and his mother.

  • How does the tone of this soliloquy differ from the first?

Move on to the Got It? section to practice interpreting Shakespeare's language!

Image - Button Next

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.