Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 34-37

The canopy, or "heavens," at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

The canopy, or “heavens,” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

BARNARDO: Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course t’illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns…

I’m splitting Barnardo’s brief narrative into two parts so I can linger on the astronomical implications. Barnardo’s first line, “last night of all,” probably just means “only last night,” though to a modern ear, it does have a sort of apocalyptic connotation. It could be confusing, although Marcellus has just alluded twice to the fact that he and Barnardo have “two nights seen” a ghost, so it should follow logically from that statement that Barnardo is referring to last night’s apparition.

As a guard in a time before watches, Barnardo has two ways to tell time: the castle bells that toll the hour, and the movement of the stars. Although the bells are a more reliable means for a sentinel to tell time, Shakespeare has Barnardo poetically begin his report with a reference to the heavens, and only secondarily refer to “the bell then beating one” (1.1.38).

And let’s be clear: Barnardo is delivering a report, not just telling a tale. It’s important that Horatio believe him, and so he’s going to be as accurate as possible, to help quell the scholar’s skepticism. He lacks physical evidence that the ghost exists, and his eyewitness evidence is dubious. Likewise his earwitness evidence that the castle bell had recently struck one. So, instead of grasping at intangible exhibits, Barnardo reaches for something that he can, at least, point to right here and now: a single star, just west of “the pole” or Polaris, the unmoving North Star.

What would an actor point to, in this moment? In Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, an actor would have had two choices: first, he could point up and out the open-roofed theatre, towards the actual sky. This is certainly what most actors would have done when referring to the sun, the sky, the weather, etc. It was, after all, right over the audience’s heads. But Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the daytime, when the sun could provide natural illumination. Would the “star” reference have been as effective in mid-day?

Pointing to option number two, then, might have been more effective: the canopy above the Globe’s stage, which was literally called “the heavens.” A trap-door in the centre led to a winch, which could be used to lower actors (usually playing gods) onto the stage. But more importantly for this moment, the heavens were brightly painted with constellations and zodiac symbols. Those stars were always “burning” directly above the actors, so they could reliably use them in moments such as this, to create the illusion of a star-spangled nighttime even on a bright, sunny afternoon.

The Arden notes reveal that some scholars, predictably, have argued that Shakespeare was thinking of a specific star when he wrote these lines: “he might be alluding to the supernova in Casseiopeia which was first seen in Wittenberg in 1572 and also discovered independently by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.” These connections are enticing, but I don’t see any value in them when it comes to producing the play. How would any audience, including Shakespeare’s own, have known which star Barnardo was pointing to?

No, these lines are not an invitation to unscramble an astronomical puzzle. They are, however, a fabulous ruse to draw the audience’s eyes up…up…away from the stage…to admire the painted canopy just long enough for the Ghost to slip onstage unnoticed. Good show, Shakespeare.

To Tweak or Not to Tweak? Changing “last night of all” to “last night” wouldn’t interfere with the blank verse, since that line is apparently a short line (that is, its four syllables stand alone, rather than forming part of a full iambic pentameter line). Short lines usually signify a pause either before or after the line; I would coach Barnardo to take the pause between “last night” and “When yond same star,” so he can take a moment to search for the star. This could also lend an emphasis to the word “yond” (you’d say it like “aha!”), since otherwise it’s an easy word to de-emphasize, despite its placement in the iamb.

The other archaism here is “illume,” and apparently it’s a Shakespearean coinage which never caught on. Shakespeare apparently liked playing with this word, since he famously coined another variant, “relume,” in 5.2 of Othello. The Folio text is a bit different here, reading “Had made his course to illumine that part of heaven,” but even if you elide “heaven” to a single syllable, that’s still twelve syllables — too long for a blank verse line. In any case, I don’t think “illumine” is any better than “illume” — to get a clear modern resonance, you need “illuminate,” and there just isn’t enough room unless you make a more radical change, like: “Had made his course t’illuminate that spot / Where now it burns…”

I kind of like that, actually — the short “o” in “spot” has some assonance with “yond” in the line before it, plus you get the two hard “t”s at the end of “illuminate” and “spot” — but I’m not going to include this scene in my production, so I’ll leave that choice for some other director to make.

Maybe next time on Maple Danish, I’ll actually get around to talking about why I’m cutting 1.1. It would be a fun way to build some suspense for what’s about to happen next in “Line by Line…” [cue dramatic musical sting!]



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