Hamlet Essay: Analysis of The First Line of The Play

Essay about the importance of the first line of Hamlet

Hamlet is regularly analyzed by thousands of scholars and students in all parts of the globe. The famous quotation “to be or not to be” is known almost to everyone. However, the first line of the play also has a huge potential for interpretation. The essay focuses on deep observation of the role of this phrase in the play. 

The primary meaning of the first line

The research shows that it is a rare fact when the first line has such a big structural and emotional meaning. Generally, it is not common for the plays of his period. Evidently, the author usually begins his plays with neutral phrases. However, in this case he has a reason to start the play with special method of storytelling. A close look at the play illustrates that in the first line of the secondary characters Bernardo asks “Who is there?”. This phrase seems to be common. However, it had a big influence on the perception of the play.

Thus, the first reason of its importance is that William Shakespeare’s audiences were typically restless, noisy, and unruly, particularly those standing in the pit. It was hard to catch their attention. Furthermore, many of them were quite uneducated. It means that the beginning must be understandable, clear, and exciting. Therefore, the author liked to catch their attention and quiet them down with a specific dramatic opening. By having Bernardo ask “Who is there?” he suggests that there could be some imminent danger, which makes him especially tense and apprehensive. On the other hand, Francisco’s reply also brings the feeling of danger and fear. As a result, it is possible to understand that these two sentinels are even seriously frightened of each other. Later, it turns out that there are few reasons for them to worry. The first is that there is some danger of a military invasion by the army of Prince of Norway, Fortinbras. It means that Denmark is on a warlike footing. The second reason is that these two men saw a ghost on the previous night. Therefore, they are afraid it could come back again. When Bernardo tells Horatio about their freighting experience, the ghost does reappear. Thus, the tension, which is created by the opening line, continues to constantly escalate and to hold the viewers in rapt attention. Furthermore, this preliminary dialogue is effective because it helps to establish a specific mood of fear and enables the audience to understand the ghost as a ghost when it appears.

It is important to highlight that the breaches of context and of expectation seem to be something of a running theme in play. It happens all the way from the opening line to the last lines of Hamlet, in which Fortinbras effectively argues: “If we were on a battlefield, this kind of brutality would make sense, but we’re in a royal court, so it’s kind of nuts”. Needless to say that Fortinbras’ final appearance relates to the play’s first line. Thus, he could be arguably the “who” in the question. It happens because the reason the sentries are on watch is that they are worried about Fortinbras’ armies. It means that the ghost’s visitation in this scene is quite important but secondary source of anxiety. Moreover, the opening exchange between the two characters is the first of many “doublings” in Hamlet, which change from lines like “To be or not to be” and “Look upon this picture and on this” to the play’s joke on the interchangeability of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.

The role of uncertainty

The current research shows that William Shakespeare adds to the uncertainty of the first phrase by having Bernardo offer the challenge. The audience is not sure who is actually on duty, or who is there. Thus, two actors enter from the opposite sides of the big stage. As a result, the initial impression is that the first who has to speak is the guard. However, this perception is false. The audience is immediately introduced to the theme of reality and image. It means that one component of this method of storytelling is the theme of stagecraft. This aspect also plays a big role in the creating of the mystic atmosphere. Needless to say that the plays of William Shakespeare have a huge influence on the imagination of the audience. They create some specific atmosphere of Middle Ages, historic battles, love stories, and human tragedies. Therefore, the phrase influences the mind on the sensual level. It brings the feeling of alert and inner danger. Without any doubts, this feeling is common to the character of Hamlet. It means that the author achieves the aim of making the audience feel like the main character does.


Taking everything into account, it is possible to conclude that the first line in the play has a huge role in understanding of the text. It is essential to mention that the question is posed to the audience as much as it is posed to all the actors on stage. Thus, William Shakespeare has tightly linked the first line of the play to the end theme. It means that there is a circularity in the play. Furthermore, the author brilliantly describes the atmosphere of this time with this phrase.

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