Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 4-5

Elsinore by Marc Nelson

Elsinore by Marc Nelson

FRANCISCO: You come most carefully upon your hour.

BARNARDO: ‘Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.

With the intensified confusion and fear of the first 3 lines diffused, Francisco speaks the first line which could be considered casual, or at least professional. It is also Shakespeare’s first expository line, unless we feel that Barnardo’s name is important (it isn’t). The exposition jammed into this line is as follows: 1) We are both soldiers; 2) I’ve had the first watch, and you have the second; and 3) You’re on time.

I’ve already talked about the implications of Point 2, as applied retroactively to Barnardo’s challenge of Francisco. Point 1 can be visually established through the use of set, costumes and props; modern-dress productions of Hamlet might dress F & B as Secret Service agents, for instance. So that leaves Point #3 — Barnardo’s punctuality — as the only heavy-lifting this line really needs to do. And Barnardo’s line, of course, tells us that we’re beginning the play in the witching hour (cue wolf howl in the distance).

The Arden Edition’s note interprets this line to mean: “You are very punctual.” Then the editor comments, “This is sometimes spoken reprovingly, as if Barnardo is only just on time.” Barnardo’s reply would seem to undermine this, though, unless the shift change is absurdly scheduled for 12:01am. If, on the other hand, Francisco is being sarcastic, then Barnardo’s reply reads more as a defense, as in:

FRANCISCO: Nice of you to show up on time.

BARNARDO: I’m, like, one minute late. Gimme a break.

Either reading places a disproportionate amount of attention on the punch-clock, especially given how edgy both soldiers were mere seconds ago. Playing the moment for blue-collar laughs seems inappropriate, given how sombre the tone is about to get (“‘Tis bitter cold / And I am sick at heart.”). And I think it misses a lot of the ambiguity packed into the word “carefully.” Here are some of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “careful,” all of which have examples running up to Shakespeare’s generation:

  1. Full of grief, mournful, sorrowful; also (as of cries) expressing sorrow.
  2. Full of care, trouble, anxiety, or concern; anxious, troubled, solicitous, concerned.
  3. Causing trouble or fear, dreadful.
  4. Fraught or attended with sorrow, trouble, or anxiety.

So even though it seems to refer to Barnardo’s punctuality, “carefully” may be Francisco’s way of interpreting Barnardo’s mood–or even a chiding comment upon Barnardo’s recent act of hair-trigger preemptive guardsmanship.

Choosing a different meaning for a well-established word like this can be a challenge. Modern audiences only interpret “carefully” to mean one thing, so how can an actor expect to apply archaic meanings and still be understood? In this case, for the actor playing Francisco, the key would be a slight emphasis upon the “care” in “carefully,” which could defamiliarize the word, and make it function in one of two new contexts:

  1. If Francisco is commiserating with Barnardo (ie. “You seem freaked out, like all of us”), then “care” could reflect that compassion in a way that helps to deflate the tension of their first exchange. This is like the Queen in Richard II: “O, full of careful business are his looks!” (2.2.1072).
  2. If Francisco is chiding Barnardo, then “care” receives a wry, judgmental sort of tone, echoing Sir Toby Belch’s line in Twelfth Night, “I am sure care’s an enemy to life” (1.3.116).

In or Out? Were I opting to keep this scene in my production, I would still consider cutting these lines. Modern audiences either know the context already, and are anticipating the Ghost’s appearance (in which case, the sooner, the better), or else they’re so ignorant of Elizabethan Drama that a line about midnight is not going to serve effectively as foreshadowing. We certainly don’t need to know Francisco’s name (Q1 doesn’t even give him one), or whether or not Barnardo is a punctual sort of guard.

To Tweak or Not To Tweak? Given my gymnastics around “carefully,” it might seem counter-productive to suggest changing it, but to a modern ear, “diligently” or “fretfully” might work better, depending on which interpretation you’ve chosen. But “carefully” isn’t exactly obscure, either, so adaptors wishing to minimize their monkeying with the script were best to leave it where it lies.


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