I wrote a few weeks back that I would try my hand at some detailed analysis. Here it is – Act 1 scene 1 of Hamlet. Not all of it just the opening few lines. I don’t pretend that would I am doing here is original, but I enjoyed it, and that after all is the point of the blog.
SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the castle.
FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO
Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
Enter HORATIO and 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.
Note the stage direction does not say “Night”. Staging a scene as happening at night would be hard in any event, so the fact it is dark – and cold – has to be conveyed by the actors’ lines. Of course they could just say “Isn’t it dark tonight?” but the method Shakespeare chose to convey this scene does much more. He builds the suspense through the sentries’ nervousness. As these are military men they do not reveal their anxiety directly, but it nevertheless emerges through the staccato dialogue.
Bernardo asks “Who’s there?”He is entering the castle ramparts looking for Francisco, to relieve him from his watch, ergo he is not the sentry, yet he is so jumpy that he challenges him – rather than the other way round as you would expect (ie “Who goes there?”). He has a particular reason to be nervous.
The person he is approaching is known to him (as we find out in a few lines) so he cannot see him clearly, or at all. So it is dark.
Equally Francisco, who is due to be relieved by Bernardo, and should be expecting him, doesn’t say “It’s me” but challenges his challenger – “Answer me”. He appears to be able to see B because he tells him to “stand and unfold”; ie “stand still, and reveal who you are”. This is an instruction, not a question. Again, it must be dark to cause all this ambiguity about identity, a theme which repeats very quickly when the ghost of the old king appears, and then often thereafter throughout the play. An alternative, simpler reading is that F is simply doing his job – as the sentry it is for him to challenge B, not the other way round. But it is clear from subsequent lines that F does not immediately recognise B – it is a genuine challenge, not just for the sake of form.
F’s reply is a line of blank verse, leaving the “Who’s there?” a truncated section of verse, suggesting a pause between the question and the answer – building the suspense.
As a way of identifying oneself this is a curious method – just about anyone could say this, it’s not a password, and doesn’t tell the person addressed who you are. But of course it is ironic – the King just deceased did not live long, nor will his successor.
F still can’t see B clearly – have they been approaching one another, or has B kept still as instructed, and F approached? But he appears to recognise him either by his emerging form, or perhaps his voice. This is the first use of B’s name – previously he has been (to the audience) soldier/watchman “A”.
This comment confirms that F expected B at this time – so why (the audience is invited to ask) was he so uncertain as to who was approaching? Was this just soldierly caution, or something more…? F again speaks in a line of blank verse. So far all the exchanges have been very short – B’s next line is the longest yet.
I confess I am uncertain how to read this line. A castle would have clock towers chiming the hour, so F would know that it is now “struck twelve”. The fact he has not heard the chime of midnight might suggest that the sensory deprivation of the scene is intense. Another simpler reading is that this is just a reply to the previous line – I am here because it is 12. This is another line of verse, with F’s name now confirmed.
The play’s first much quoted line – the first of many of course. As well as being dark – we now know it is just past midnight – and the soldiers being very nervous, we are told much more here. First, it is bitter cold, which piles on the atmosphere, and second that for some reason, as yet unexplained, F is “sick at heart”. The lines are gradually lengthening, and the verse is forming with the second line of this sentence being completed by B’s reply, thus linking the two lines aurally despite the apparent disjunction.
Instead of asking why, what’s up?, B simply asks “Have things been quiet?” This is a strange response – when someone tells you they are sick at heart, a strong expression, you usually ask why. But of course B knows why, and his question goes straight to the cause of F’s distress.
Again the lines lengthen, very gradually. It is noticeable that one watchman/sentry is replaced by three – again a sign that the passing of midnight means they expect something to happen. B urges F to ask H & M to hurry – but we are not told why.
“Who’s there?” Francisco’s turn to ask this, even though he is no longer the sentry on duty. H’s response is less indirect than F’s, and M’s response tells us we are in Denmark. H and M speak in two halves of a line of verse.
F has not introduced or identified himself to H & M; but they can tell he has been relieved from his post. So he must have left it and moved across stage, without saying farewell to B.
F tells H & M that he has been relieved by B, and leaves.
M calls out to B even though they are both on the same stage – by now we can tell how dark it is, notwithstanding any torches.
B calls out to H and once he has replied welcomes both H and M – suggesting he has moved across the stage or they have moved together, and can now see one another.
Why “a piece of him”? Perhaps suggesting he has come with his scepticism but without his belief (in ghosts). A jocular reply.
We move closer to a revelation of what has been making the guards so nervous, and F sick at heart – a thing which appears.
B has seen nothing, but he has only been on watch for a few minutes. But he only says he has seen nothing, not that nothing has been seen.
The mystery slowly unfolds further, and is finally revealed. This thing becomes a “dreaded sight” and finally, an “apparition”. M reveals the thing has been seen “of us” twice before. The longest lines thus far, introducing the ghost to the audience. But H is not there simply as a witness – and therefore shown to be someone with a certain status (It must be true of H has seen it) but also someone who is educated and level headed enough to engage the apparition and speak to it. He immediately demonstrates his scepticism – it will “not appear”. Of course, it does.