One of the things I love most about Shakespeare is his instinct for when to use flowering, grandiose imagery, and when to keep things arrestingly ordinary. These lines, which scan like normal prose despite editors’ attempts to squeeze them into pentameter, evoke the paradoxical beauty of two workaday soldiers trying to express complex, even ineffable feelings.
In line 6, Francisco thanks Barnardo for relieving him — that is, for just doing his job. It’s a very Canadian thing to do, incidentally. Even more Canadian is his next observation: “it’s cold out.” Both statements are unnecessary in all respects except for helping the audience to catch up. That is, Francisco doesn’t need to tell Barnardo how cold it is, but Shakespeare might want to tell the audience.
(Aside #1: having seen a few performances at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, I always find it fascinating how audiences respond to any halfway fitting line about the weather. If it is a cold day in the open-air theatre, then audiences would laugh sympathetically at Francisco’s line, as if to say, “Wow, that Shakespeare, he can even predict the weather 400 years from now!”)
So, in effect, the guards are making small talk. As well they should: they are on edge because of all the recent ghostly visitations, plus they’ve just scared the bejeezus out of each other. This is how manly men diffuse such tension: they joke or complain. The phrase “bitter cold” may be a Shakespeare original, but the metaphor has a mundanity that suggests Francisco is not trying to be clever or evocative, he just hates winter in Denmark.
(Aside #2: scholars would dearly love to be able to assign a specific season to Hamlet, but apart from these sorts of oblique references to the weather, there isn’t much to go on. Shakespeare is wise not to set the play on a specific date, as he is otherwise obliged to do with a historical play like Julius Caesar. If he sensed at all that he had a hit on his hands, he would have striven for universality, so that his company of actors could revive the play periodically throughout the year.)
Yet, after this scrap of water-cooler talk, Francisco adds a half-line that seems to shift the mood. “Sick at heart,” like “bitter cold,” is no show-stopping metaphor; the notion of a “sick heart” appears in the Bible, and other languages use similar idioms (for example, in French, “mal au coeur” means “sick to one’s stomach”). Once again, Francisco isn’t trying to impress anyone — but he is admitting to feeling something more profound, and more difficult to pin down, than frosty ears.
The Arden note for this line says “Francisco’s ‘sickness’ is not explained, unless by the subsequent discussion of the ghost.” One might be reminded of Antonio, at the opening of The Merchant of Venice, sighing, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” But Antonio goes on at length about his melancholy, and his friends submit various theories about its cause, whereas Francisco lets the phrase lie, and Barnardo does not pick it up.
Or does he? It seems safe to assume the Arden’s guess is right, and Francisco’s heartsickness (or maybe nausea, to borrow from the French a bit) arises from the fact that he’s been stuck out here, alone, basically killing time until a ghost arrives. The Ghost has manifested for the past two nights, so it stands to reason it will show up again. If Francisco happened to hear the bell toll midnight, then he knows it’s exactly the time for a ghost to show up. His relief is genuine, but he can’t help but share the deeper feeling of dread with which he has been struggling.
Barnardo doesn’t need a map; he knows the feeling Francisco is referring to, and he knows its cause. And so he asks, perhaps in a low tone, “Have you had quiet guard?” — an optimistic inversion of the question he really wants to ask, which is, “Did you see that…thing again?”
And both guards might share some relief when Francisco says no. “Not a mouse stirring” is the third workaday image in as many lines; not quite a metaphor, but we might call it litotes, or understatement to emphasize a point. Perhaps there is room for Francisco to laugh at himself a bit on this line — another thing guys do when starting to verge upon emotional honesty — because, as both men know, they are so tense that even a mouse on the battlements would probably cause them to raise the alarm.
This is one of three references to mice in Hamlet (the others are 3.2.2131 and 3.4.2586) — not quite enough to call it a motif, in a play of this size. But it might be worth tossing the mice in with other nocturnal or subterranean crawly things, especially insofar as such creatures bear a close association with churchyards and decay. We’ll call it the “creepycrawly” motif for now.
How Many Hamlets? These three lines do not appear at all in the First Quarto (Q1), but they are identical in Q2 and F1.
In or Out? If I were keeping 1.1 in my adaptation, I’d certainly keep these lines, although I might move the latter two a bit later in the scene, after Marcellus and Horatio have entered. As we’ll see, there is a redundant Q&A about the ghost (lines 20-21) which lacks the imagery of “not a mouse stirring.”
To Tweak or Not To Tweak? The images in these lines are beautifully accessible, and even the archaic phrasing of lines like “For this relief much thanks” and “Have you had quiet guard?” seem pretty straightforward, although my Bard-attunded ear is not always the best judge.