Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 9-11

BARNARDO: Well, goodnight.

If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,

The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.

Barnardo wraps up a very modern-feeling exchange with Francisco by offering the most modern of all farewells: “goodnight,” a phrase so understated in this heavily fraught context that it might almost draw a laugh from the audience. And his final comment to Francisco — “bid them make haste” — returns us to the urgency and uncertainty of the scene’s earliest lines.

For modern viewers, it’s hard to imagine how Shakespeare’s original audiences might have reacted to all this ambiguous tension. I think, right around this point, the oblique references would have begun to get a bit tiresome. Clever Bard, then, to bring some new characters onstage in just a few seconds. There are still about 15 lines to go before someone uses the word “apparition” to indicate that there is a ghost nearby, but the momentary arrival of Horatio and Marcellus will rejuvenate the scene, making the mystery fresh while at the same time seeming to offer new answers. A spectator’s running commentary might sound something like, “Well, there’s clearly something weird going on, but these two chumps don’t seem like they’re going to tell us what it is. Oh, good, here are some new voices…”

In expository terms, this line anticipates the arrival of Horatio and Marcellus, both of whom are more important that Francisco and Barnardo (who only appear in this scene), and one of whom (Horatio) is an important character throughout the play. If you know Shakespeare, you know he prefers the slow roll-out of his major characters. I can only think of one tragedy which begins with a central character onstage (I’ll leave you to guess which one I’m thinking of); mostly, the slow reveal seems like it’s meant to be part of the fun. Again, the spectator’s monologue: “Ooh, which one of them is Hamlet? Is this one? No, the guy called him Barnardo. Plus they’re obviously not princes. Ooh, who are these two, now? Is that nicely dressed guy Hamlet? Maybe they’re waiting for Hamlet?” And so on.

The only other observation I have about these transitional lines involves the word “rivals.” We are clearly meant to interpret it to mean “partners,” but that’s almost the opposite meaning we’re accustomed to. This awkward 180-degree shift in meaning happens rarely in Shakespeare, but I can think of at least one more case in this play alone (in 1.4, when Hamlet says, “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me,” where “lets” means “stops”).

More awkward is the fact that Shakespeare gives “rival” its more common meaning in other plays (for instance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.157: ” You both are rivals, and love Hermia: And now both rivals to mock Helena” — although arguably the second use of the word there aims more at Barnardo’s meaning). In fact, the OED definition associated with this particular meaning of “rival” — “a person having the same objective as another, an associate” — is described as “obscure and rare,” and has exactly one example listed. Yup, it’s this line.

Here is a moment when the How Many Hamlets? puzzle pays off. Two versions of the text, Q2 and F1, use the word “rivals” here, but Q1, the so-called “Bad Quarto,” uses the word “partners.” Q1 also drops “Well, goodnight” along with the entire previous exchange, and it reverses Marcellus’s and Horatio’s names for some reason. But the resourceful director will know what to cherry-pick from Q1 here: “partners” is far more natural to the modern ear than “rivals.” Sometimes ambiguity or double-meanings are essential, but in this case, I don’t think the line loses anything through clarity.

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3 thoughts on “Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 9-11

    1. admin says:

      Not the play I was thinking of, since Richard III is usually classified as a history, not a tragedy (though structurally it works both ways).

      My mind went to Othello, which begins with the entrance of Iago, the play’s malevolent dynamo. But even then, it’s not his play, as much as he might wish it were.

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