This terse exchange serves as a real introduction to Horatio, distinguishing him instantly from the soldiers — who are, let’s face it, fairly flat and interchangeable characters. His acerbic reply falls into the “ask a stupid question” category, since Barnardo was, after all, the character who asked after Horatio 7 lines earlier, and who, like Francisco, has presumably already satisfied himself that these newcomers are true “friends to this ground,” as Horatio says. The Arden notes are very forgiving about Barnardo’s question: “It is presumed that Barnardo cannot see Horatio in the darkness.” How dark can a stage actually be without being, y’know…dark?
The Arden also offers up a pair of explanations for Horatio’s reply: “Horatio offers his hand as a literal piece or perhaps he implies that the cold night has reduced him to shrunken fragment of his real self.” Although the first explanation would associate his line with the “hands” motif of the play (let’s call it the “pickers and stealers” motif), I have trouble reconciling it with my overall image of the scene. The cold, haunted battlements are no place for formalities; instead of shaking hands, just do your job, soldiers!
Explanation number two is more evocative by far. It gives Horatio the first fresh, meaty metaphor of the play — although we might have another metonymy here, and if you’re puzzled by my continued use of that word, here’s an explanation. Or maybe synecdoche is a better fit than metonymy. Or maybe just shut up and enjoy the play.
Here’s a third reading of Horatio’s laconic line. Yes, he hates the cold, but more importantly, he doesn’t need to be out here in it like the soldiers. He’s been persuaded to join the ghost hunt, but as his subsequent lines reveal (“Tush, tush, ’twill not appear”), he thinks it’s a waste of his time. So perhaps “A piece of him” is metaphorically indicative of Horatio’s level of commitment to the entire project. He’s only as here as he absolutely needs to be.
In modern language, we talk a lot about “giving 100%” to an endeavour. So a contemporary idiom that mirrors Horatio’s line might read something like, “I’m here. I’m givin’ ten per cent.”
One objection to this line reading is that irony is not Horatio’s strong suit, so it would be out of character for him to greet someone with a smart-ass remark. And that’s true, except I would argue that, in this scene, Horatio is also working overtime as a foil for Hamlet, whom we have not yet met. He reacts to the Ghost much as Hamlet will do, daring to speak to it and even urging the soldiers to pursue it. And, as Act 1, Scene 2 will amply demonstrate, Hamlet is the undisputed master of the withering one-liner.
So maybe “A piece of him” is meant to be a piece of Hamlet in a scene which doesn’t even get around to mentioning the Prince 3 until lines before the end. One can almost imagine Horatio thinking, “Man, if Hamlet were here, he would have some nasty things to say about this.”
How Many Hamlets? These lines appear almost identically in all three texts. The only variation is Q1, which deletes the word “what” from Barnardo’s line, “Say, what, is Horatio there?” This is an excellent mini-cut; not only does it make for better scansion in the shared verse line, but it also handily avoids the phrase “Say what?” which modern ears are bound to find too vernacular, thus creating an unearned laugh at an awkward moment. Audience should be listening closely right now–the beans are about to start spilling.