Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Act I Scene 1

Our play begins with the text. Act 1 Scene 1 is often shortened, directors cutting out Horatio's delivery of the play's historical context, even if it means Fortinbras' arrival at the end comes out of nowhere. I prefer to think of it as building suspense for the appearance of the Ghost. But let's get into the words, Shakespeare's in italics.

SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the castle.

FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO
BERNARDO: Who's there?

Really, that's the whole question of the play. Hamlet is a play about playwriting, about one character's creation of himself as a character, and so the first words (which I always find significant in Shakespeare, even when they're this innocuous) ask the same question the audience is always asking as actors cross the stage. Who's that? Who is this about? And in terms of the rest of the play, it is Hamlet asking himself who he is and who others are (loyal or not?).

FRANCISCO: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
BERNARDO: Long live the king!
FRANCISCO: Bernardo?
FRANCISCO: You come most carefully upon your hour.
BERNARDO: 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
FRANCISCO: For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
BERNARDO: Have you had quiet guard?
FRANCISCO: Not a mouse stirring.
BERNARDO: Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
FRANCISCO: I think I hear them. Stand, ho! Who's there?


HORATIO: Friends to this ground.
MARCELLUS: And liegemen to the Dane.
FRANCISCO: Give you good night.
MARCELLUS: O, farewell, honest soldier:
Who hath relieved you?
FRANCISCO: Bernardo has my place.
Give you good night.

MARCELLUS: Holla! Bernardo!
What, is Horatio there?
HORATIO: A piece of him.

I like this line. Horatio is an incomplete character without Hamlet. He is the title character's satellite, and without him here, only a piece of him appears. From his point of view, it may be his way of saying that he remains unconvinced of the Ghost's existence, not going into it with both feet.

BERNARDO: Welcome, Horatio: welcome, good Marcellus.
MARCELLUS: What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
BERNARDO: 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.
BERNARDO: Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.
HORATIO: Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
BERNARDO: Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--

Enter Ghost

It's classic show, don't tell. One of the challenges of directing Hamlet is what to do with the Ghost. How supernatural is he? How do you make him appear? And how does this first appearance tie in which his others, especially the problematic one in Gertrude's chamber? If anyone and everyone can see the Ghost here, why can't Gertrude see him later? A director cannot simply decide the Ghost is a figment of Hamlet's imagination, not without some major cuts. So looking at this scene in films, we'll certainly take note of the effect created by the Ghost's appearance.

MARCELLUS: Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!
BERNARDO: In the same figure, like the king that's dead.
MARCELLUS: Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
BERNARDO: Looks it not like the king? mark it, Horatio.
HORATIO: Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder.
BERNARDO: It would be spoke to.
MARCELLUS: Question it, Horatio.
HORATIO: What art thou that usurp'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.
BERNARDO: See, it stalks away!
HORATIO: Stay! speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!

Exit Ghost

MARCELLUS: 'Tis gone, and will not answer.
BERNARDO: 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 the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.

In Horatio, we find an outline for Hamlet, linked as they are by both friendship and a similar education. He prefigures here Hamlet's attitude towards the Ghost, the murder, everything. Doubt is the scholar's perview. Let's call it true skepticism. Reducing Horatio to a bit part, as some versions have done actually impairs our understanding of the lead.

MARCELLUS: Is it not like the king?

Note the leitmotif of dead things being LIKE the king. Claudius as faux-king is its metaphorical expression, but in tragedy, characters doomed to die can easily be referenced as dead already. When Hamlet dies at the end, it is only after the mantle of leadership has already passed onto him.

HORATIO: As thou art to thyself:
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
'Tis strange.
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 my opinion,
This bodes some strange eruption to our state.
Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who is't that can inform me?
HORATIO: That can I;
At least, the whisper goes so. Our last king,
Whose image even but now appear'd to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick'd on by a most emulate pride,
Dared to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet--
For so this side of our known world esteem'd him--
Did slay this Fortinbras; who by a seal'd compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return'd
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design'd,
His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in't; which is no other--
As it doth well appear unto our state--
But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost: and this, I take it,
Is the main motive of our preparations,
The source of this our watch and the chief head
Of this post-haste and romage in the land.
BERNARDO: I think it be no other but e'en so:
Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch; so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars.

Usually the first big cut made to the play, this last speech nevertheless serves a function. Not only does it make us wait for the Ghost's second appearance, but it tells us who this Ghost IS, building his legend and thus Hamlet's worthiness as royal successor. If the State is a reflection of its leader (which it always is in Shakespeare), then the preparations for war are very much relevant to the idea of an unstable Denmark... and an unstable king? (See the next 15 lines.) We can understand why film makers would want to cut this expository speech out.

HORATIO: A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.--
But soft, behold! lo, where it comes again!

Re-enter Ghost

I'll cross it, though it blast me. Stay, illusion!
If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,
Speak to me:
If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me,
Speak to me:

Cock crows

The play starts around midnight, the Ghost appears around 1h, and now the cock crows already. Theatrical convention, sure, but time speeding by like this is a sign of Denmark being "out of joint". Maybe this is how Hamlet can be 30 and still a student. Is this something a film could play with visually?

If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, O, speak!
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it: stay, and speak! Stop it, Marcellus.
MARCELLUS: Shall I strike at it with my partisan?
HORATIO: Do, if it will not stand.
BERNARDO: 'Tis here!
HORATIO: 'Tis here!
MARCELLUS: 'Tis gone!

Exit Ghost

We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence;
For it is, as the air, invulnerable,
And our vain blows malicious mockery.
BERNARDO: It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
HORATIO: And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.
MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

A favorite speech of mine. I guess Hamlet doesn't take place at Christmas.

HORATIO: So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,
As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?
MARCELLUS: Let's do't, I pray; and I this morning know
Where we shall find him most conveniently.


Some directors will want to use the trio's retelling of these events in Scene 2 to eliminate the scene entirely, perhaps flashing back to them. If so, how do you effectively start the play? The wedding scene works, but it doesn't have the tension inherent in Scene 1's opening words.

Next: We really get into it with Brannagh's version of Act I Scene 1.


snell said...

Of course, this is also where you could start my rather diseased conspiracy reading of the play, wherein Horatio is the secret Iago of the piece, setting things in motion so the entire ruling family is wiped out, leaving the field clear for his secret master, young Fortinbras. There's a reason Horatio is the last man standing, and gets to give his version of events to everyone...

Somewhat more seriously, Horatio's "I do in part believe it" at the end echoes his ealier "a piece of him." Which is interesting, as after his earlier speeches citing evil portents and pagan gods, it's a Christian fable that draws out his doubt again. That ties into my second (and much more serious) reading of the play...

Siskoid said...

It's a funny interpretation, though yeah, not really supported by the text EXCEPT insofar as Horatio may be the author. (Except that Hamlet is the author... I'll stick with Bloom on this one.)

And yes, very astute reading of Horatio as the "antique Roman" is ready to believe stories of ghosts walking Ancient Rome, but not a Christian fable. I can't wait to hear that second reading of yours.

Michael May said...

"When Hamlet dies at the end..."

Wait? What? SPOILER!


ticknart said...

"MARCELLUS: Is it not like the king?

Note the leitmotif of dead things being LIKE the king. Claudius as faux-king is its metaphorical expression, but in tragedy, characters doomed to die can easily be referenced as dead already."

So, are you saying that Marcellus is comparing the ghost to Claudius and not King Hamlet?

I've always read that line as referring to the king being the one who just died and never, until this moment, even considered it representing Claudius.

Siskoid said...

I think I was merely making a point about the phrase. Dead thing = King (Hamlet Sr.), but since there are stagings where the same actor plays both Claudius and the Ghost (the latest Tennant run, for example), the connection has been made.

Siskoid said...

And since they are brothers, one would tend to look like the other.