Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 1-2

"Who's There" by Marc Nelson

“Who’s There” by Marc Nelson

BERNARDO: Who’s there?

FRANCISCO: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

While nowhere near as famous as the first lines of Romeo & Juliet (“Two houses, both alike in dignity…”), Henry V (“O for a muse of fire”), or Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), the first line of Hamlet has a power and a lure that is augmented by its directness. This play is not exactly known for its brevity, yet here we have a line that, according to some scholars, resonates throughout all of Hamlet, establishing with two sharp syllables a funhouse labyrinth of questions and fractured identities.

And of course, in typical Hamlet faction, the question is answered with another question. “Who are you?” “No, who are you?” In Slings and Arrows, Paul Gross’s character, the mad director Geoffrey Tennant, describes Hamlet as “the world’s longest knock-knock joke.” If that’s true, these two speakers are not in on the joke. They fumble the setup and the punchline gets lost in Denmark’s quagmire of questions.

The thing I love most about this moment is its tension. When played onstage, uninitiated audience members have no context for the exchange; they don’t know why these two guards are so on-edge that they question each other as if they are the enemy. Some productions add a bit of slapstick, with two buffoonish guards backing slowly into each other and then speaking in unison. But if Act 1, Scene 1 is to be played straight, then the tension of this moment needs to stop mere inches away from accidental death. Give the soldiers polearms, and you can have them at each other’s throats, even from opposite ends of the stage.

In Q1’s text, the exchange is subtly but significantly different:

1 SENTINEL: Stand, who is that?

BARNARDO: ‘Tis I.

In this version, Francisco becomes an anonymous guard (although they are both nameless on stage until someone mentions their names), and instead of asking back as in Q2 and F1, the respondent answers honestly, if vaguely, when challenged. But there’s another shift, and I think it’s the most significant. Read a bit further into the Q2 version, and see if you can spot it:

BERNARDO: Who’s there?

FRANCISCO: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.

BARNARDO: Long live the King.

FRANCISCO: Barnardo?

BARNARDO: He.

FRANCISCO: You come most carefully upon your hour.

Q1 skips most of these lines, going straight to the First Sentinel’s “O you come most carefully upon your watch.” A quick comparison suggests the two versions are substantially the same. But look at who starts the dialogue in each case.

In Q2/F1, it is Barnardo, the guard arriving to relieve Franscisco, who asks the first question. Barnardo isn’t even on duty yet, and he is already calling out shadows in the night. Is he a keener? Maybe, but he should still recognize Francisco, even at a distance. The two know each other by name, and Barnardo is actively searching for Francisco when he enters the stage. Yet he jumps the gun by calling to him, forcing Francisco to challenge him back.

Is this just bad guardsmanship? In an opening scene played for laughs, maybe. But I think Shakespeare’s intent was to show ordinary men already stretched to their psychological limits. There have been ghost sightings for the past two nights, and these guys are freaking out. Long before we know the answers to basic questions like who, where, or even what, we get a strong, clear sense of how to play an opening scene that culminates with a supernatural apparition.

  • In or Out? In my tentative plans for producing the play, I currently plan to cut 1.1 altogether. I’ll explain why sometime later on. But even so, it would be so nice to find a way to include the first line anyway. Maybe, like Peter Brook (in his 2000 adaptation), I’ll end the play with it, instead.
  • To Tweak or Not To Tweak? These lines are in plain, accessible English, except maybe for the phrase “unfold yourself,” which is “the first of the play’s many metaphors from clothing (Arden 147.n2).” But I wouldn’t change “unfold,” even if it’s a bit odd to a modern ear, since Francisco’s intent can be made abundantly clear through delivery and gesture.

Questions:

  1. Do you disagree with my inclination to play the scene “straight”? Have you seen a better approach?
  2. Lighting this scene is often a challenge: it needs to look dark enough that the soldiers can’t see each other’s faces, yet light enough that the audience can see. How would you illuminate the scene — with a general cool wash to suggest night? With isolated pools of light? Or with some other technique? (Remember to go easy on the fog effects!)
  3. Some productions have Barnardo deliver his first line partly out, to the audience. Should the play acknowledge the audience this early, or wait until 1.2, when Hamlet starts to soliloquize?

More Reading About 1.1.1-2:

“Who Knows Who Knows Who’s There?: An Epistemology of Hamlet,” Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004), Steve Roth.

Hamlet, Pt. 3: “Who’s There?”, Writing and Ruminating, Kelly R. Fineman.

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