- The Elsinore castle is a very symbolic setting, introducing dark imagery suggesting that the castle is a virtual prison where death and strife are inescapable and past human control. The cold, gloomy setting further heralds the tragic events to occur later.
- The North Star or “pole” star’s repeated appearance with the ghost of King Hamlet represents the slain monarch’s continual struggle for retribution. The North Star’s appearance also emphasizes the former king’s importance as the true (as in ‘true north’), rightful monarch who could provide direction for his people and see the truth of the matter, in contrast with the shallow and misguided figure of Claudius.
- King Hamlet’s armor, which appeared just as it had in battle, suggests a divine purpose for the ghost. The ghost’s appearance alone is a powerful symbol, which Horatio believes “bodes some strange eruption to our state” (1.1.80). The king’s troubled ghost, a “portentous figure” (1.1.121), walks the walls of Elsinore in hopes of warning the others of impending doom and corruption.
- The “bird of dawning” (1.1.175) or c*ck is also symbolic in this scene. The crowing of the c*ck, the disappearance of the ghost, and coming of morning end the introduction and lead to the main action of the play. The c*ck’s crow marks a transition to the light of day, where, ironically, nothing is apparent.
- Claudius’ presentation of a paper containing “dilated articles” (1.2.38) to Voltemand and Cornelius (ambassadors to Denmark) is symbolic, as all of Shakespeare’s letters are. Claudius’ weak attempt to stop young Fortinbras’ advance through the old, “impotent and bedrid” (1.2.29) Norway is clearly shown in this scene.
- The apparent insensitivity and condescension of Claudius toward Hamlet reveals Claudius’ dark and cruel nature. His sharp criticism of Hamlet’s grief only makes his character seem unable to empathize with others and reveals his selfish nature. Claudius’ character, disguised as a noble king, represents the evil and corruption of Shakespeare’s political world.
- Hamlet’s dark joke that the leftovers from his father’s funeral “Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (1.2.188) creates a powerful image in the reader’s (or listener’s) mind. Things that appear celebratory or positive (like Gertrude and Claudius’ marriage) often have a dark and twisted side, and are almost never as they seem.
- Hamlet’s brooding and suspicion also signify that a serious injustice has occurred. His remark at the end of scene two is especially symbolic in its prediction of eventual divine justice, where “Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (1.2.279-281).
- Ophelia’s subdued frustration with her father and brother’s condemnation of Hamlet’s love is representative of unfair societal values/gender bias in Shakespeare’s time. In his portrayal of Ophelia, Shakespeare seems sympathetic to Ophelia’s forbidden love and understanding of women’s frustration with their perceived inferiority to men.
- Ophelia mentions a symbolic, metaphorical key to her brother Laertes in this line: “’Tis in my memory locked / And you yourself shall keep the key of it” (1.3.92-93). This ‘key’ is very important for Ophelia’s mindset and represents her strong bond with Laertes.
- The somewhat inaccurate stereotype of the Danes as drunkards, which Hamlet bemoans at the beginning of scene four, further suggests that nothing is quite as it seems and that the judgment of others does not always reflect the truth.
- This particular quote by Hamlet references this fault, but also applies to the rest of the play and is symbolic of human faults in general: “The dram of evil / Doth all the noble substance of a doubt / To his own scandal” (1.4.39-41).
- The moon is worth mentioning here, as it is repeatedly referenced in other scenes. The moon is an ever-present witness to the otherworldly events that occur throughout the play and is symbolic by nature. Astrological events tied to the moon, including eclipses and tides, are mentioned.
- Horatio’s character uses significant imagery in his dialogue. In this instance, he highlights the recurring themes of madness, desperation, and suicide in Shakespeare’s tragedies by imploring Hamlet not to follow the ghost. Horatio gives Hamlet this chilling warning: “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord? / Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea, / And there assume some other horrible form / Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness? Think of it. / The very place puts toys of desperation, / Without more motive, into every brain / That looks so many fathoms to the sea / And hears it roar beneath” (1.4.77-86). The ghost’s legitimacy is questioned and remains uncertain for much of the play.
- Hamlet’s judgment can be also be examined as a symbolic feature of the play: Is he hallucinating or just paranoid of Claudius’ actions? Horatio remarks that Hamlet “waxes desperate with imagination” (1.4.97). Here, Horatio’s concern for his friend Hamlet is also evident.
- The metaphor of the serpent is introduced in this scene, where Claudius is compared to a deadly snake that killed King Hamlet: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (1.546-47).
- The deceased king’s orchard is also a powerful symbol: one associated with peace, life, and tranquility, but twisted into one of death and deceit.
- The poison itself is also a recurring symbol in Hamlet and a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Poisoning someone is a cowardly way to commit murder, one reserved only for the most depraved and wicked characters. Claudius’ thirst for power tempted him to commit an unthinkable sin. He performed regicide, the ultimate crime, in a despicable and cruel manner that left King Hamlet “unhouseled, disappointed, [and] unaneled” (1.5.84).
- Another important symbol in this scene is Hamlet’s sword, by which an oath is sworn to keep Hamlet’s conversation with his father’s ghost a secret, lest it cause disorder in the kingdom. The sword, a powerful weapon with a cross-shaped hilt, is an appropriate object on which to swear an oath.
Cite this article as: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team), "Symbolism in Act One of Shakespeare’s Hamlet," in SchoolWorkHelper, 2019, https://schoolworkhelper.net/symbolism-in-act-one-of-shakespeares-hamlet/.