The Opening of Hamlet is, at best, superfluous and little more than a distraction from the play. Alternatively, the opening scenes are masterfully written and central to what are the most important issues in the play. Which of these viewpoints do u agree with? Discuss both in detail, suggesting what you think about the opening of Hamlet. In order to successfully answer the question we must firstly clarify the texts that will be used to make our analysis. In this case, the opening scene of Hamlet is integral to the question, so we will look into detail at the opening scene of the play.
The opening of a play is generally constructed to outline the major themes existing in the play and to introduce characters. By referring to the opening as ‘superfluous’ we are trying to examine the usefulness of it and whether or not it is required at all. It can be suggested that the opening to Hamlet is a ‘distraction’ from the actual plot. By using Horatio to tell the story of “Fortinbras” and “valiant Hamlet”, it is acceptable to say that Shakespeare was wasting time, as this has no actual relevance to the main story.
The line “When he th’ambitious Norway combated” spoken by Horatio is the opening of an entirely different story than the story of the play. This can create the idea that this opening is not relevant to the story, as Shakespeare isn’t introducing the plot to Hamlet, but instead to an entirely different play. However, some may argue that the introduction of the characters, ‘old’ Fortinbras and “valiant Hamlet”, is central to the theme of usurpation.
This can be seen from the use of an epithet before the older Hamlet’s name, ‘valiant’, this is a trait of the typical revenge hero and by including this; Shakespeare is revealing that this role has been usurped by the younger Hamlet. A structuralist would bring forth the argument that the opening scene is integral to some of the most important issues in the play, this again being justified by the reappearing theme of usurpation. We can gather this from the description of ‘hot and full’ young Fortinbras and how he is compared with ‘young’ Hamlet.
This portrayal of Fortinbras is that of a revenge hero, which in this play he is. The plain description of Hamlet is a signal to the audience or reader that he is attempting to assume the role in which only Fortinbras is fit to play, a structuralist may believe that this is the primary function of the opening scene. To reinforce the idea that Fortinbras is a fighter, Shakespeare uses the way in which Horatio tells the story to display Fortinbras as a vengeful war hero. An example of this is “But to recover of us by strong hand”.
Here, Horatio is telling us that young Fortinbras wants to take back from young Hamlet, what is meant to be his own. The use of the words “strong hand” builds on the idea that Fortinbras possesses a superior strength than that of Hamlet. Alternatively, others may view the idea of including these themes in the introduction as pointless, as they could carry the same impact later on in the play. Another purpose of the opening scene could have been the means to introduce the feeling of tension into the play. Tension is present in the script from the first line, “Who’s there? this gives the feeling of uncertainty and creates immediate suspense as we anticipate the identity of the character that has just arrived.
The use of hendiadys also creates a form of tension among both the characters and the audience, “It harrows me with fear and wonder”, this creates a picture of someone who is unsure about what lays ahead, in this case Horatio is referring to the presence of Hamlet’s ghost. An alternative viewpoint may argue that the theme of tension is not central to the plot and therefore cannot be thought of as accountable when trying to justify whether or not the opening scene is of any relevance at all to the story.
The opening of the play also acts as a ‘catch-up’ segment, rather than a distraction from the plot. The use of Horatio’s story can be interpreted as this, as it brings the audience’s knowledge of the past to the same level as the characters in the scene. The story told, is the past of what will be the sub-plot in the play. This sub-plot becomes more and more central to the main plot as the play proceeds. The audience begins to realise that this is the purpose of the sub-plot as they learn that young Fortinbras seeks revenge against Denmark, for the loss of his land and the death of his Father.
A war with the means to ‘recover’ what was taken from Fortinbras, is foretold in the line “So by his father lost. And this, I take it, is the main motive of our preparations”. From this we can understand that they are preparing for a war, and this adds to the previous theme of tension and suspense. Alternatively, it can be suggested that Shakespeare could have introduced his sub-plot without using the opening scene to do so. This is down to the fact that the sub-plot shares the same themes as the main plot, and so could have been introduced later on in the play.
In conclusion, it can be said that the entire opening scene could have been cut out from the play, without sabotaging or sacrificing the way in which the play is acted out, and without compromising the effectiveness of the major themes, such as usurpation and tension. It can also be suggested that act one scene two could have been a very appropriate opening to the play, as it carries all the same themes, with the addition of having all relevance to the main and sub-plots.