Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 30-34

BERNARDO:                                   Sit down awhile,
And let us once again assail your ears
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.

HORATIO:                               Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.

The two words most likely to confuse modern audiences are “assail” and “fortified,” are also the first two examples of the play’s military motif. Shakespeare squeezes the words in here via metaphor, laying the groundwork for the extended discussion of Denmark’s military preparations which arises, sort of a propos of nothing, at 1.1.69. More immediate, perhaps, is the appearance of the Ghost himself (only 5 lines away!), whose military appearance could arguably be foreshadowed here. Either way, it’s a fine example of Shakespeare’s image braiding — weaving multiple motifs together until they seem inseparable — but I’m not sure it’s essential to the scene, and as always, I’m inclined to opt for accessibility whenever I can.

But there is another nitpicky objection to these lines, if you’ll permit me. Barnardo is explicit that the explanation is coming to Horatio “once again,” which makes sense, since otherwise why would Horatio even be here? Horatio’s reply — “let us hear Barnardo speak of this” — seems almost like a wink to the audience, hanging the proverbial lampshade upon the unnecessary exposition to follow.

Or is it? The trope of the redundant expositor is one Shakespeare has used himself on numerous occasions, but in Hamlet he subverts it. Just as Barnardo is about to tell two other characters exactly the same thing he has already told them (and, in Marcellus’s case, the same thing he himself has seen)…the Ghost interrupts him, rendering the exposition moot. The Ghost might as well enter with a sign around its neck reading, “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Clever, Will, but not exceedingly clever. The third issue here is Shakespeare’s talking blocking — an action he includes within the dialogue itself, in order to remind the actors what they ought to be doing on stage. “Sit we down,” says Barnardo, and Horatio replies, “Well, sit we down.” Now, arguably, they might not get the chance to sit down, since the Ghost is about to enter, but I rather think the repetition is a cue. Shakespeare probably wanted his characters seated because it’s more dramatic to watch them leap to their feet when confronted with the Ghost.

So, what’s the problem with that? Two of these three characters are guards; one of them, Barnardo, is explicitly on guard duty. Yet he is the one who suggests taking a load off in order to tell a story that he’s told at least once already. This objection, coupled with the practical concern of finding a place on the battlements set for them to sit, puts me strongly in favour of chopping these lines.

Admittedly, it would be awkward and unintentionally comical to go directly from Horatio’s “Tush, tush, ’twill not appear” to the Ghost’s entrance. But there’s a strong argument to be made for skipping straight to Barnardo’s explanatory lines (1.1.34-38), which are more fittingly interrupted by the Ghost. Horatio’s skepticism could easily prompt Barnardo to launch directly into his tale, as if to say, “No, look, it really did happen!” It even scans!

HORATIO: Tush, tush, ’twill not appear.

BERNARDO:                                               Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,–

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