Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Line 41

HopkinsPriestMARCELLUS:Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.

At this point, your humble author reveals how rusty his research skills have become.

Although I read Hamlet on my own in Grade 10, I didn’t study it until Grade 11. My teacher, Robin Carson, was enormously knowledgeable and articulate, to the point that I can still remember several of his line readings, observations, and theories about the play. With this line of Marcellus, Mr. Carson drove home the fact that Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience had their own distinct set of ideological assumptions about ghosts and learning and, well, everything.

“Why would they ask Horatio to address the Ghost?” Asked Mr. Carson, “Why did they bring him along in the first place?” Knowing that none of the awkward geniuses in his English AP class could have the answers, Carson offered them up himself: “Horatio is a scholar; even though he is merely a student, he carries authority in the form of book-learning, so he could verify what they’ve already seen.” Then, addressing the first question, he added, “Besides, everybody knows that ghosts only speak Latin.”

The Third Edition Arden notes confirm that Marcellus is making “conventional assumptions that (a) the ghost cannot speak until spoken to, and (b) an educated man — perhaps one who speaks Latin — will be better equipped to make this attempt” (Thompson and Taylor 152). Unusually for the Arden, this note does not cite any sources. Noticing this, I began to question the conventional assumption made about Marcellus’s conventional assumption; where did Arden and Mr. Carson get their insight into Elizabethan superstitions?

It’s not that I doubt either source, least of all because they volunteer exactly the same information. The Arden Third Edition wasn’t published back when I took Mr. Carson’s class, and I doubt that Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor consulted Mr. Carson when they edited their book (although they should have). But I’m still curious about how the superstition was documented, and whether there was any scholarly speculation as to how it came about. Elizabethan common sense (“Everybody knows that ghosts only speak Latin”) has become 21st century dogma (“Everybody knows that everybody knew that ghosts only spoke Latin”).

A decade ago, when I was writing my MA thesis, I probably had the research mojo necessary to follow this thread to its source. Nowadays, if the Arden doesn’t have the answer, I head over to JSTOR’s Understanding Shakespeare database — which is, incidentally, the exact sort of electronic resource I was speculating about in my MA thesis, so three cheers for my decade-old prognostications. Understanding Shakespeare, currently in Beta, offers a dozen plays with line-by-line bibliographies. Click on any line by Hamlet, and the site tells you which digitized scholarly articles (JSTOR contains thousands) offer commentary on that particular line. You’ll need a university membership to access most of the articles, but once you’ve got that, you’re pretty much set.

Except, in this case…not so much. Marcellus’s line has 10 documented articles liked to it. Some are by renowned Shakespeare scholars, including Stephen Greenblatt’s “What is the History of Literature?” and Margreta de Grazia’s “Teleology, Delay, and the ‘Old Mole.'” One is by the inscrutable Shakespeare of post-structuralism himself, Jacques Derrida (“Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”). By hovering over the magnifying glass icon beside each title, you get the page from each article that specifically quotes the line.

  1. Stephen Greenblatt invokes the line as an invitation for modern scholars to speak to the ghosts of literary figures past.
  2. Christopher Warley’s “Specters of Horatio” quotes Greenblatt, and likewise employs the line allegorically to critique assumptions about contemporary scholarship.
  3. Derrida confoundingly predicts a scholar of the future who, like Horatio, has the power to speak to ghosts.
  4. de Grazia offers a clue when she points out that “Latin was used” by priests “to exorcise ghosts,” but mostly she is riffing on Derrida.
  5. Mariana Valverde (“Deconstructive Marxism”) is only interested in Derrida.
  6. Robert C. Evans mentions the line in passing while trying to establish bromance between Marcellus and Barnardo in “Friendship in Hamlet.”
  7. Peter Alexander, in a 1950 Review of English Studies article, frets about line breaks and scansion in current editing practices.
  8. Edward Bliss Reed, writing about “The College Element in Hamlet” in 1909, inquires about inconsistencies in Horatio’s biography (Scholar? Soldier? Both?), but doesn’t comment on Marcellus’s assumption.
  9. And “Back Matter,” is an advertisement by John Hopkins University Press which uses the quote to laud its latest publications.

That leaves H.A. Watt’s 1925 article, “Plautus and Shakespeare,” which analyzes the debt Comedy of Errors owes to Menaechmi. Watt’s comment anticipates de Grazia’s comment, but expands it in a somewhat helpful manner:

The Elizabethans believed that ghosts and evil spirits, like the one which was thought to have possessed Antipholus of Ephesus, could be exorcised by conjurations in Latin. “Thou art a scholar,” said Marcellus, the soldier, when the  ghost appeared, “speak to it, Horatius,” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1).
Even if we overlook the fact that Watt gets Horatio’s name wrong, we still can’t give this comment any more credence than the note in Arden, since yet again, there is no evidence about Elizabethan beliefs. Between de Grazia and Watt, I can accept that, sure, priests did most of the exorcising, and yes, they’d probably have used Latin…but is Marcellus really so uneducated that he equates “priest” with “scholar” (or “exorcise” with “speak”)? There is no indication elsewhere in the scene that Horatio is supposed to be able to banish the ghost, and when he does speak to it (1.145-48), there’s nothing of the exorcist about his line of questioning.
So Understanding Shakespeare was insightful, but didn’t answer my question. I can vaguely see where my next steps should lead — history and folklore research with an Elizabethan focus — but my rusty tools feel leaden in my unpracticed hands, so at this point, I find myself instead throwing them (my hands) into the air.
For the actors in this scene, my limited research might still present some useful, if unconventional, approaches to playing the scene. Horatio would, in fact, look pretty bad-ass if he whipped out a Bible and a crucifix at this point. And why not translate Horatio’s lines into Latin? The questions he asks do not get answered until Act 1, Scene 5 anyway — and doesn’t a little bit of Latin always serve to spice up a ghost story? That’s my assumption.

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