MARCELLUS: Peace, break thee off, look where it comes again.
Although from my perspective, it’s been a month and a half since the line-by-line analysis of Hamlet began, only 38 lines have been spoken on stage prior to the entrance of the main attraction, ie. Hamlet, Sr. (deceased). In Q1, the number of lines is even smaller — only 29 lines, which in a fleet production would probably take less than two minutes to deliver.
Even two minutes of stage time is an eternity if you’re not filling it well, but I trust that, if nothing else, my analysis is working to demonstrate that even the mundane lines of Hamlet are hardly wasted time. But a few Shakespeare plays come blasting out of the cannon even faster: Richard III does not begin with action (and its ghosts don’t materialize until Act 5), but it has the audience in a chokehold right from the first utterance of the charismatic Duke of Gloucester: “Now is the winter of our discontent…” And few plays could claim a curtain-raiser as hair-raising as the first scene of Macbeth, which plunges the viewer instantly into the play’s harrowing supernatural darkness with thunder, lightning, and three Weird Sisters uttering (distinctly un-Shakespearean) incantations to the elements.
Other authors dispensed with the suspense and opened with the ghost. Most notably, Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy begins with a soliloquy delivered by the ghost of Andrea, a Spanish officer who died at the hands of a Portuguese rival. Andrea serves as a chorus throughout the play, and he is joined by the personification of Revenge — a throwback to the Medieval Morality plays that frequently made use of allegorical characters such as Lust, Ambition, Good Deeds, and so on. Shakespeare has deliberately broken from the more antique traditions of onstage ghosting (as I’ll discuss in more detail soon), and the 38 pre-Ghost lines serve as both a game for the audience (“when is he coming?”) and a signal that this won’t be your grandmother’s stage spectre. Whereas the Ghost of Andrea never shuts up, Hamlet Sr.’s Ghost seems unusually, chillingly mum.
How should the Ghost enter? The lines seem to demand that the audience see him moments before Barnardo does (since Barnardo is telling a story), and perhaps even before Marcellus or Horatio spot him. If the stage is mostly dark, then a risky but effective staging technique would involve having the Ghost emerge, or seem to materialize, out of the shadows. If that’s not feasible (either due to the size or configuration of your theatre environment, or due to limited lighting capabilities — or because the costume designer settled on bright white armour or something), then the next best bet involves the classic misdirect: make the audience look left while the Ghost slips on right. Shakespeare seems to have provided for this when he has Barnardo gesture up, towards the stars.
Modern staging techniques afford other options. Even in the Globe, it would have been possible to bring the Ghost in from behind the audience; nowadays, a lot of theatres provide for plenty of hidey-holes or emergency exits around the auditorium, providing places from which a well-concealed actor can startle the audience by appearing up close and personal. Or else productions might use all types of technology, from smoke machines to video projections, to make the embodied actor seem a bit more incorporeal by association. These tricks date back over a century, and while they don’t necessarily get more complex or impressive, they can bring a freshness to the scene which audiences appreciate.
On the other hand, you could argue that a stern, silent ghost doesn’t need to rely on bells and whistles. And it’s certainly a risk that some of these techniques could backfire, bringing an audience out the moment. But then, what is “the moment” all about? Elizabethan audiences may have believed in ghosts, so they could suspend their disbelief a bit more readily than our modern, agnostic spectators. In neither case do we assume that the figure entering the stage is a real ghost; it is always going to be an actor performing a role.
So ultimately, it falls back upon the other performers — Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio — to sell us on the ghost’s authenticity. They have spent 38 lines, give or take, creating an aura of menace; so when the Ghost enters, we look to their response, not to the Ghost himself, in search of an appropriate emotion. Marcellus’s line begins this process, though only in the broadest strokes. “Peace” and “break thee off” are redundant, but the words themselves are loaded with harsh plosives (“p” and “b” and “k”) and shrieking vowels (“ee” and “ay” and “ee” again). And “look where it comes again” chillingly returns the Ghost to its former, formless status — not an “apparition,” but merely an “it” — like the “thing” alluded to a few lines back.