Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Line 42

"Statue King Hamlet" by Marc Nelson

“Statue King Hamlet” by Marc Nelson

BARNARDO: Looks it not like the king? Mark it, Horatio.

Here we go again: two lines ago, Barnardo pointed out to Horatio (or, more importantly, to the audience) that the Ghost resembles “the King that’s dead.” And a whopping one line ago, Marcellus urged, “speak to it, Horatio.” The latter is not quite the same instruction as “mark it,” which means “look at,” not “speak to.” But you can’t help but feel a bit of repetition creeping in here. Nor is it quite finished, since two lines later, both soldiers share a most redundant line:

BERNARDO:  It would be spoke to.

MARCELLUS:                                 Speak to it, Horatio.

Why all the repetition? I know Will wasn’t thinking 400 years down the road, about the hapless blogger, desperately straining to come up with things to say about each and every line of Hamlet. But surely one of his actors must have spoken up on the second day of rehearsal, to the effect of: “Oy, Will, this bloody play’s five hours long. Any reason you got us sayin’ the same bloody lines over and over again?”

Yet I can think of two reasons for the repetitions here, and the fact could easily have both been Will’s motivation blows my mind. First, repetition probably WAS necessary this early in the play. Audiences at the Globe Theatre were surely an unruly bunch — talking and shopping and relieving themselves in the corners — and, even when a play opens with a ghost, for god’s sake, you still couldn’t count on everyone hearing each line. The “speak to it” stuff might not be the most important lines in the scene, but if I had to choose one single datum of information from 1.1 of Hamlet that qualifies as “worth repeating,” it would be the fact that GHOST = OLD KING.

Even for audience members who are paying close attention, these repeated lines have a significant effect. I’ve said many times that I strongly feel the dominant tone of 1.1 should be fear, and nothing says “panic” like mindless babble. Even though Marcellus and Barnardo have both seen the Ghost already, they are reduced almost to children when it manifests again. They can collect themselves enough to figure out what to say, but they are too scared to remember that they just said it a second ago.

Actors could also play the soldiers as simply insistent; this works especially well for Marcellus, who repeats the exact phrase “Speak to it, Horatio” (except maybe he doesn’t — but we’ll get to that soon enough). But I’d argue that insistence still stems from fear, because the soldiers want Horatio to deal with this creature that keeps terrorizing them nightly.

So, repetition can be a good thing. And, to assuage the actors (not that any actor every honestly complained about having too many lines!), old Will probably recommended that they all be uttered very rapidly, not only to illustrate all that fear and urgency, but also to contrast with Horatio’s next line — one of my favourites in Act 1, Scene 1. Stay tuned!



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