Here we have “one line” of shared blank verse — that is, five iambs that happen to be split up between three lines of dialogue. New readers of Shakespeare often get confused when they see lines pushed forward across the page like this, and most editors don’t bother to explain. None of the contemporary texts (Q1, Q2, or F1) used this editing technique, so in fact, it’s only thanks to modern editors that we’d consider this a line of verse at all. Most likely, in my opinion, Shakespeare wrote three lines of prose that just happened to add up to ten syllables. Does it matter? Sort of, depending on the actors and director; but I’ll get into the quandary of shared lines some other time.
Here, Barnardo is responding to fellow sentinel Francisco’s demand that he “unfold” or identify himself. He chooses not to identify himself by name, although clearly that would have done the trick. Instead, he speaks what every interpreter I’ve encountered takes to be a passphrase. It makes sense, I suppose, that watchmen on the dark and misty battlements of Elsinore would choose a code, something they could use to identify each other when exactly this sort of encounter occurs. Bardnardo’s use of the phrase probably isn’t enough to tell Francisco who, exactly, is speaking; Elsinore is a big place, they’d have lots of guards, and they’d all need the same pre-arranged passphrase. But we can assume that, by this point, Francisco either recognizes Barnardo’s voice, or approaches enough to make out his face in the shadows — or else he figures out what he should have realized to begin with, namely that his watch is over, and his replacement has arrived.
Since all of this usually plays out very quickly on stage, it’s unlikely that the audience will read very much into the meaning of the phrase, “Long live the King.” In fact, I sort of wonder if they’ll even get the implication that it’s a pre-arranged code. The actors could emphasize this (Bardnardo’s delivery could slow down, becoming slightly mechanical; Francisco could nod to himself, or even repeat the phrase under his breath before speaking his next line), but lingering here would deflate the energy of the scene. Most productions just breeze past it, aiming for the far more intimate and atmospheric lines to come:
And fair enough; “Long live the King” is an astonishingly boring passphrase. Neither Shakespeare nor the Captain of the Guard seems to have been trying very hard. In fact, the phrase would have been so common in Shakespeare’s time that it almost loses any clandestine cachet; it’s almost like making your code, “Don’t kill me.”
Think about it: you are charged with protecting the King’s home from invaders. All who dwell within the castle are, by implication, “friends to this ground” and “liegemen to the Dane” (these are the words used by Horatio and Marcellus, when they arrive 10 lines from now. They don’t even bother with the passphrase). If you spot a potential regicide sneaking about near the parapets and you ask them to identify themselves, how likely is it they will answer “Down with the King!”?
No commentator I’ve read has bothered to inquire why the Danish Royal Guard employs such a lousy passphrase. Instead, they linger on the delicious irony of the choice — because, as we all know, there is a dead King floating around. It almost begs the question, why would the guards choose “Long live the King” if they know that the previous King is haunting the area? Wouldn’t he find the phrase just the least bit offensive?
I’m getting cheeky, here, but I do think there is another explanation. “Long live the King” would be a terrible passphrase, regardless of whether there were undead Kings in the proximity. But what if it’s not the passphrase? For me, the first two lines of the play establish a mood of tightly-wound dread, so much so that these soldiers are liable to forget their roles, or the faces of their friends. Is it not too great a stretch from there to assume that Barnardo also forgets what he is supposed to say when confronted upon the battlements?
Barnardo starts the scene in terror. “Who’s there?” is not the question he asks when he’s doing his job, it’s the question he asks a shadow in the darkness who may be a ghost, or worse. He’s still in this frisson of fear when Francisco asks him for the passphrase…and it doesn’t come to him. He can’t even remember his own name, to say, “Friend, it’s me, Barnardo.” And so, sensing he’s probably about to get stabbed by an equally paranoid watchman, he reverts to the Elizabethan shorthand for “Don’t kill me” — namely, “Long live the King!”
There’s no evidence for any of this, but I’m not necessarily angling for “what Shakespeare intended” here, so much as “what could work,” and I think it’s actually quite playable. Barnardo doesn’t need to pause overmuch, just stumble or drawl a bit at the start of his line, suggesting fear and desperation. Likewise, Francisco can proceed directly into his response — “Barnardo?” — because, even by the time he’s finished his first line, he probably has started to clue in. Best of all is Barnardo’s one-word confirmation, “He,” which can be pure relief — I know who you are, I know who I am, we’re both friends and nobody here is a ghost.
To Tweak or Not To Tweak? Whether you take the passphrase as legit or not, there seems no reason to alter it in production. The only tiny change one might make for a modern ear would be the final word, “He,” which is an unfamiliar way to confirm your identity. “Yes” seems a bit too stolid in this context, but “yeah” is too casual, and “yea” or “ay” just take us back into archaisms. Best leave it be.
- What would be a better phrase for the occasion? Pick your favourite line from anywhere else in the play and drop it in, just to see how it would sound as a code.