Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 14-16

Photograph from one of Shackleton's expeditions to the Antarctic.

Photograph from one of Shackleton’s expeditions to the Antarctic.

FRANCISCO: Give you good night.

MARCELLUS:O, farewell, honest soldier; who hath relieved you?

FRANCISCO: Bernardo has my place. Give you good night.  Exit.

Nothing very spectacular here. Shakespeare is revving up his Revolving Door, the staging technique that kept his big, bare stage feeling busy and populated. Two characters just entered, so it’s time for someone else to leave. Francisco exits, having spoken eight lines, and never to return again. We will remember him as a nervous soldier, but ultimately very polite, since two of his eight lines are spent saying “good night.”

Marcellus calls him “honest” here, but I don’t feel that word carries any of the extra weight that it does when applied, for instance, to Iago in Othello. On the other hand, the word isn’t merely there to make the line scan. In fact, even though line 16 happens to have ten syllables, there’s otherwise very little here that makes me think Shakespeare was bothering to write in blank verse. That will change very soon, when the scene’s subject matter more explicitly shifts towards the Ghost. But for now, these are just workaday soldiers saying soldiery things.

How many soldiers? We began with one, then added another, then added one more, along with Horatio, a civilian. Strangely, one text (Q2) says “O, farewell, honest soldiers” instead of “soldier” — this, despite the fact that only one lone soldier exits. It’s probably just a typographical error, or possibly an error in the manuscript that got corrected in the First Folio. Yet, for no good reason, it reminds me of a verse in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land–or, more specifically, to Eliot’s note about the verse, which follows it below:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

“The following lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.”

A suitable error, then; in a stage moment which still reverberates with the tension, fear, and mystery of the play’s opening lines, Marcellus makes the same mistake as Shackleton’s explorers, counting one more soldier than the number we can see onstage. Whether a mere psychological effect or a heralding to the scene’s imminent supernatural visitor, it has the potential to startle. I wonder if any production of Hamlet has ever snuck the Ghost onstage this early?

EDIT: Thinking more about Francisco’s repetition of the phrase “good night,” I realized what a remarkable motif it is. “Good night” is uttered 15 times in Hamlet. Maybe that’s not so unusual, for a phrase as commonplace as that. But what stands out for me is the density with which the phrase is clustered together:

  1. Here, in 1.1, Francisco says it twice in a row.
  2. In 3.4, Hamlet says good night to his mother three times in one monologue (3.4.2650-2583), and then twice more in another speech moments later (3.4.2507-2622).
  3. Ophelia says/sings the phrase four times in a row at 4.5.2930.

That accounts for every occurrence of the phrase but the most famous of all, “Good night, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (5.2.4021-4022), a line which often becomes the final utterance of the play, if Fortinbras’s entrance is cut.

So, instead of peppering the entire play with the phrase, the way Shakespeare often does with an important motif, he has it repeated intensely at three completely different moments, and then reused forcefully at the play’s thematic finale. I have no idea what it means, but it reminds me of a symphony that, wisely, only trots out the big kettle drums once per movement. I’ll keep an eye on the motif as I go, and see if other explanations occur to me.

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