With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
There are lots of textual details to explore here — the presence or absence of a comma after “With us,” for instance, which could alter an actor’s delivery significantly — but the meat in these lines is all condensed into one word: “apparition.” Here, at last, is our first explicit reference to the play’s supernatural catalyst.
The word “apparition” derives from the Latin apparere, “to appear.” It has the same etymology as “appearance,” and can essentially serve as its synonym, but since its earliest recorded uses, “apparition” has the connotation of something that appears in a startling or unexpected way. It also comes fraught with astrological or metaphysical implications. An “apparition” is an appearance that changes everything.
The OED’s first recorded example of the word is from Thomas More’s writings, around 1522: “The apparicion of a very ghost.” In Holinshed’s Chronicles (one of Shakespeare’s favourite sources), the word is less closely tied to ghosts, but still carries the weight of something uncanny: “To looke for some strange apparition or vision in the aire.” And Shakespeare himself used the word 13 times, 12 of which refer to something supernatural or otherworldly, and 10 of which refer explicitly to ghosts.
So, when Marcellus says “this apparition,” there would not be much doubt in the audience’s minds that he is talking about a phantom. The only other possible explanation would be some astrological event — a reading which could be supported by the previous line’s “watch the minutes of the night,” and which gets taken up again shortly when Barnardo describes “yond same star that’s westward from the pole.” But would an astrological event evoke the sense of dread that pervades this scene? Would Marcellus (or Horatio) use the word “thing” to refer to a comet?
As always, it’s hard to place ourselves among the Elizabethan spectators. And that makes it equally difficult to guess Shakespeare’s intentions. But we do have some evidence that the basic elements of Hamlet were at least somewhat familiar to Globe audiences, owing to an earlier play that told the same story. We know this because of a piece of writing in 1596 (at least 7 years before Shakespeare’s Hamlet) that describes “the ghost which cried so miserably at the theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Most scholars interpret this as a sort of primitive meme — a cultural reference so well-known that anyone in London would know it. In other words, Hamlet and ghosts were connected in the public’s consciousness way before Marcellus opens his mouth.
So why not just use the word “ghost?” Why all this beating around the bush? I like to think that Shakespeare is, by this time, playing a game with his audience. Assuming they knew that Hamlet features a ghost — that perhaps it is the only thing some people know about the story by this time — then Shakespeare is teasing out what the audience already knows. When Marcellus says “thing,” the audience enjoys the game of filling in the blank. When he uses the somewhat ambiguous word “apparition,” they nod and nudge each other, knowing they are getting closer to the big reveal. A savvy audience might even laugh when, in response to Marcellus’s lines, Horatio says, “Tush, tush, ’twill not appear.”
Because clearly, Horatio hasn’t seen this play before.