Hamlet is considered as one of the most famous of Shakespeare's tragedies, and the opening scene promises just this. The play opens in the middle of action with a question, "Who's there?"(1:1:1) This seems a rather odd line to open a play with, especially as there is no introduction or initial explanation as to what the play Hamlet is to be about. However, what this line does symbolise is the uneasy atmosphere into which the audience is lead and the sense of dread and foreboding that the characters feel towards an, as yet, undisclosed event. "Who's there?" (1:1:1) Is not a statement made by someone at ease and comfortable in a situation, and the fact that it is a question that needs to be asked, imparts the feeling of unease to the audience. This statement also reflects a sense of fear and anxiety. The sentinel (Barnardo) is not sure who or what to expect, and this establishes one of the dominant moods and principal themes of the play; uncertainty. .
The characters in this opening scene are not major characters in the play, and the audience is not sure with whom to identify. At this stage, there is no clear direction to the play, and the audience is given no real insight into what the play will be about. There has been no mention of Hamlet, who he is, and why a play has been written about him. This provides a sense of disorientation. The audience does not know where this scene is leading, something unusual for a Shakespeare play. For example, works such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth open to introductions or to scenes in which the principal character is directly involved. This is very different for Hamlet, and this perhaps reflects the character of Hamlet himself, and the way in which he attempts to find his own sense of direction from confusion.
The opening scene acts as a form of miniature play, which introduces many of the questions and issues that will be dealt with through the progression of the play.