Because my neighborhood theatre www.gashakespeare.org/ is doing Hamlet, we’ll make a few random observations about Hamlet in the next few weeks.
If you have not ever run up against the story of the melancholy Dane or need a refresher, here’s the setting for the first act.
Hamlet, King of Denmark and father of our hero Hamlet, has suddenly (and somewhat mysteriously) died while taking his customary afternoon nap in the orchard. His wife Gertrude so quickly marries the dead king’s brother, Claudius, that young Hamlet can complain – no doubt with some exaggeration – that the meats served at the funeral dinner could be served up cold at the marriage feast. “Thrift,” says Hamlet to his visiting friend Horatio.
Young Hamlet is more than ordinarily distressed by the sudden death of the father he loved and revered; he is outraged by his mother’s remarriage, an act he considers shamefully sudden, grossly disrespectful, and vaguely incestuous. (To what extent young Hamlet feels dispossessed of his rightful inheritance by a mother who should have spent the rest of her days in a respectful and reserved celibacy, you’ll have to work out yourself by reading the play – something which is a serious undertaking … My vote – I cannot resist – is that Hamlet doesn’t care at all about his own personal advancement. Although…)
The above-mentioned Horatio, a fellow student of Hamlet’s at the University in Wittenberg, has occupied himself meeting people at court, including some night watchmen who tell him that they have seen a ghost, the very picture of the dead King Hamlet. Horatio, himself the very modern and skeptical late fourteenth century student, dismisses their story, but agrees to come see for himself.
Now in act 1 scene1 between lines 20 and 80 Horatio does something very ordinary: he changes his mind. Watch the simplicity with Shakespeare carries this off. I’ll set off in bold red the lines that track the change, in blue italics the comments of others about Horatio.
Horatio and the guard Marcellus meet Barnardo who has been on watch. Here’s the text:
20 BARNARDO Welcome Horatio, welcome good Marcellus.
MARCELLUS What, has this thing appeared again tonight?
BARNARDO I have seen nothing.
MARCELLUS Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us.
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That if again this apparition come
He may approve our eyes, and speak to it.
HORATIO Tush, tush, ’twill not appear.
30 BARNARDO Sit down awhile,
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story,
What we two nights have seen.
HORATIO Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Barnardo speak of this.
BARNARDO Last night of all,
When yon same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course t’illumine that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one –
MARCELLUS Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.
BARNARDO In the same figure like the king that’s dead.
MARCELLUS Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio.
BARNARDO Looks it not like the King? Mark it, Horatio.
HORATIO Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder.
BARNARDO It would be spoke to.
MARCELLUS Question it, Horatio.
HORATIO What art thou that ursurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven, I charge thee, speak.
MARCELLUS It is offended
50 BARNARDO See, it stalks away.
HORATIO Stay, Speak, Speak. I charge thee speak.
MARCELLUS Tis gone and will not answer.
BARNARDO How now Horatio? You tremble and look pale.
Is not this something more than fantasy?
What think you on’t?
HORATIO Before my God, I might not this believe
Without sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.
MARCELLUS Is it not like the king?
59 HORATIO As thou art to thyself …
65 MARCELLUS Thus twice before, and jump at this dead hour,
With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch.
HORATIO In what particular thought to work I know not,
But in the gross and scope of mine opinion
This bodes some strange eruption to our state…