Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 12-13

not-a-mouse-stirring

“Not a Mouse Stirring” by Marc Nelson.

Enter HORATIO and MARCELLUS.

FRANCISCO: I think I hear them. Stand, ho! Who is there?

HORATIO: Friends to this ground.

MARCELLUS:                                  And liegemen to the Dane.

A moment ago, Barnardo supplied the audience with two new names, and speak of the devil, they appear — either a split second before Francisco hears them, or else (in Q1) a split second after Sentinel 1 (aka Francisco) says “See, who goes there?” Using hearing instead of sight affords more flexibility of staging, and potentially foreshadows an evocative contrast with the Ghost, who seems to glide onstage in eerie silence.

Francisco challenges the new arrivals, despite Barnardo’s announcement of their imminent arrival. He’s more on the ball than he was a minute ago, when Barnardo challenged him; perhaps he is being overcautious now, to account for his gaffe.

Now, their replies are interesting. A moment ago, Barnardo seemed to provide Francisco with a pre-arranged passphrase: “Long live the King.” What are we to make of the fact that neither Horatio nor Marcellus seem to know the code? Horatio, we can excuse, since it is not his job — besides which, he will soon give off the strong impression that he is here against his will, although his recalcitrance really shouldn’t extend to ignoring a passphrase whose delivery might keep him from getting poleaxed.

But Marcellus (whose name is Latin for “soldier”) has no such excuse. “Liegemen to the Dane” means that he and Horatio are loyal to the King of Denmark — but it’s still not the right phrase, unless it is the actual passphrase, and Barnardo, in his earlier panic, managed to convey the sentiment but not the words.

It’s still a lousy password, though. In fact, it’s all vague and inconsistent enough to make me want to dismiss the notion of passwords altogether. I’m not aware of any scholarship on the use of passwords in Elizabethan England; even if they were a common tool for separating friend and foe, it seems dubious that Shakespeare’s audience would automatically recognize these phrases as such, unless the actors were advised to deliver them in a very stilted manner (or hastily checking their cheat-sheets for that evening’s shift).

If passwords are not part of this scene, then what are we to make of all this mutual reassurance of loyalties? Three answers occur, and I think all three can apply simultaneously. First, on the level of surface dialogue and intention, “Long live the King” are “liegemen to the Dane” are short-hand for “we’re all friends here,” which is clearly important to the soldiers at a time when there might be an enemy in their midst–even a metaphysical one, as the Ghost may be.

Second, the soldiers are establishing a subconscious motif through their use of the words “King” and “Dane.” Ostensibly, they are referring to the current King of Denmark, Claudius. But their thoughts are preoccupied with the former King — he to whom they swore allegiance for 30 years or more. There is a grim psychological truth in repeatedly naming the one thing you don’t want to confront.

Third, although this scene is mostly about a ghost, it also touches upon Denmark’s preparations for war. In about 60 lines, Marcellus will ask

Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war; (1.1.70-74)

For Marcellus, the first question (“Why are we up here?”) folds naturally into the second (“Why are we making new cannons and buying artillery?”). It is only then the audience realizes that the sentinels’ postings are, themselves, unusual. As Horatio explains, the watch has been increased because of political tensions between Denmark and Norway.

So all of their “Long live the King” talk may be the soldiers’ way of articulating their slowly dawning realization that war is on the horizon. And at the same time, it is Shakespeare’s way of seeding the earliest moments of this scene with political overtones, to make the later change of subject feel a little bit less awkward.

To Tweak or Not To Tweak? “Friends to this ground” is a metonymic phrase, associating “ground” with “country.” It’s tricky for a modern ear to make those sorts of quick connections, even if they take them for granted in other contexts (“Our home and native land”). And “liegemen,” while not totally archaic, relies on the audience’s familiarity with the word “liege,” which more people probably know from Monty Python and the Holy Grail than common usage. Finally, there is the “Dane” problem, which will come up often. Do modern audiences know that Danish people are called “Danes”? Do they know that Denmark’s head of state used to be referred to as the Dane (or sometimes even just “Denmark”)?

There are a few onstage emendations that could clear these problems up; for example:

HORATIO: Friends to this land.

MARCELLUS:                                  And loyal to the King.

Those solutions keep the rhythm of the shared line, and manage to approximate the vowel sounds by moving the low “ou” of “ground” over to the “oh” in “loyal.” I even quite like the new alliteration between “land” and “loyal.”

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