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Although Denmark defeated Norway, and the Norwegian throne fell to King Fortinbras's infirm brother, Denmark fears that an invasion led by the dead Norwegian king's son, Prince Fortinbras, is imminent.
On a cold night on the ramparts of Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, the sentries Bernardo and Marcellus and Hamlet's friend Horatio encounter a ghost that looks like the late King Hamlet.
The royal couple has requested that the students investigate the cause of Hamlet's mood and behavior.
Additional news requires that Polonius wait to be heard: messengers from Norway inform Claudius that the King of Norway has rebuked Prince Fortinbras for attempting to re-fight his father's battles.
They vow to tell Prince Hamlet what they have witnessed.
As the court gathers the next day, while King Claudius and Queen Gertrude discuss affairs of state with their elderly adviser Polonius, Hamlet looks on glumly.
The forces that Fortinbras had conscripted to march against Denmark will instead be sent against Poland, though they will pass through a portion of Denmark to get there.
Soon thereafter, Ophelia rushes to her father, telling him that Hamlet arrived at her door the prior night half-undressed and behaving crazily.
Polonius's daughter, Ophelia, admits her interest in Hamlet, but both Polonius and Laertes warn her against seeking the prince's attention.
That night on the rampart, the ghost appears to Hamlet, telling the prince that he was murdered by Claudius and demanding that Hamlet avenge him. The prince confides to Horatio and the sentries that from now on he plans to "put an antic disposition on," or act as though he has gone mad, and forces them to swear to keep his plans for revenge secret.
After the court exits, Hamlet despairs of his father's death and his mother's hasty remarriage.
Learning of the ghost from Horatio, Hamlet resolves to see it himself.He almost certainly wrote his version of the title role for his fellow actor, Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of Shakespeare's time.