Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 22-24

MarcellusHoratio2MARCELLUS: Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,

And will not let belief take hold of him

Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:

These are the first three lines of a seven-line verse speech — the longest single bit of dialogue thus far in Hamlet. Go, Marcellus!

It’s also the point at which Shakespeare slowly, confidently starts opening his magnificent verbal bag of tricks. So far, we’ve run into a couple of workaday idioms and some deliberately elliptical language designed to foster suspense, but none of the motif-based figurative flourishes that make Will’s works, and Hamlet in particular, breathtaking to speak or to hear. Yet something is coiling up to strike, here, in these deceptively simple lines.

Speak these lines aloud. Do it a few times, so the words start to lose their meanings, becoming a progression of sounds. Listen to when the sounds echo and reflect each other. “‘Tis,” “but” and “fantasy” share a plosive t which gets repeated twice in the next line (“let” and “take”), and thrice in line 24 (“Touching,” “sight,” and “twice” — some actors might elide those last two t sounds into one, although they shouldn’t). The fricative f in “fantasy” finds its echo at the end of “belief,” linking two of the keywords together. Then “sight” seems to invert the two latter consonant sounds in “fantasy,” t and s, continuing a chain of meanings. “Fantasy,” “belief,” and “sight” are heralds of one of the play’s most important thematic motifs, appearance vs. reality.

A second motif is also striking up, after one potential overture implied by Horatio’s line, “A piece of him.” “Take hold” and “Touching” come close together, and feel linked through sound as well as meaning. These words inaugurate the play’s pickers and stealers motif — the phrase is stolen, appropriately, from Hamlet, who in 3.2.327 uses it to denigrate his own too too sullied hands. Here, Marcellus uses the concrete diction of hands and touching to discuss intangible matters of belief.

Specifically, he is discussing belief in ghosts, which are themselves intangible. I think “take hold of” and “touching” are both invoked to give the Ghost a sense of weight, narratively speaking. In a way, Marcellus is admitting and clarifying why he and the other guards are acting so skittish: they have all been taken hold of by the Ghost’s prior visitations.

If I were coaching Marcellus on these lines, I’d tell him that phrase contains far more dread than the more conventional word, “dreaded.” Even the word “Touching” seems to demand emphasis, particularly since it demands a trochaic beat (not iambic, as normal), breaking the smooth verse rhythm of the past two lines. Trochees are like a skipped heartbeat; Marcellus’s heart skips as he inadvertently imagines Horatio (or himself) touching the Ghost.

To Tweak or Not To Tweak? While they are far from the most obscure lines in the play (or even the scene), there’s always a risk when metaphoric language creeps in that modern audiences will tune out. Line 22 is very plain, with “fantasy” requiring no explanation (though the Arden insists on glossing with with “imagination”). But do we, in the 21st century, still talk about belief “taking hold” of us? Do we colloquially use “touching” as a means to link ideas, or has “touching on” replaced it (as in, “touching on what Scott was writing about on his blog, I think that…”). If these usages are unfamiliar, then the motif-braiding I just described will surely be lost in a modern audience’s attempts to simply understand what’s going on.

Here are two humble suggestions for minor edits that would (a) stick close to the original verse rhythm and (b) keep the lines’ motifs intact, while hopefully clarifying the lines.

  1. For “And will not let belief,” insert “And won’t let our belief.” The contraction isn’t common to Shakespeare, but modern ears will be gratified by a more obvious contrast between “our belief” on the one hand, and “him” on the other. If an actor emphasizes this antithesis, then “take hold of” makes sense as a transitive verb.
  2. For “Touching this dreaded sight,” insert “Touching upon this sight.” This one is more of a trade-off, since “dreaded” is a lovely word; but, as I said earlier, it doesn’t contribute much to the poetry, and an actor should be able to paint the word “sight” with enough vocal dread to get the same effect.

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