Line by Line: Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 50-51

The Ghost in Olivier's 1948 film of Hamlet.

The Ghost in Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet.

HORATIO: Stay! speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!

Exit Ghost.

MARCELLUS: ‘Tis gone, and will not answer.

With this post, I have managed to make my way through 50 lines of Hamlet. But this is not an occasion for celebrating; I just need to tuck my head down and keep analyzing, if I’m ever going to make it to 150, or 1,500. The finish line is impossibly distant.

Just a quick report today, then. Horatio repeats his earlier injunction to the Ghost, including the same word, “charge.” For someone who supposedly possesses a lot of book-smarts on the subject of the supernatural, Horatio is making a poor show. In his defense, he is harrowed, but it’s still Rhetoric 101 that if one tactic doesn’t work to needle your opponent, you should try something else.

Marcellus’s line once again functions as a sort of verbal stage direction, the kind which often helps Shakespeare’s editors to know when to insert stage directions indicating exits. In this case, though, the original versions of the script all include an explicit stage direction, although they are all a bit different. “Exit Ghost” is from Q2, whereas the First Folio reads “Exit the Ghost” — the kind of textual difference so minor and irrelevant, it’s almost embarrassing to bring it up. Its chief value is not insight into the play, but insight into the printing process; editors and typesetters in Shakespeare’s day did whatever they liked with scripts, and especially with stage directions. Nothing’s sacred.

In the First Quarto, two lines very much like these ones do appear (Horatio repeats “by heaven,” and Marcellus says “makes no answer” instead of “will not answer”), but according to the stage directions, the Ghost is already off stage. In Q1, the stage direction occurs between Marcellus’s “It is offended” and Barnardo’s “See, it stalks away” — which is a much more logical place to indicate an exit, since Barnardo’s line comments directly upon that act. It’s also a good reminder that exiting a stage takes time — the Ghost might conceivably still be exiting by the end of Marcellus’s last line, above.

One prevalent theory about the First Quarto is that it came from a direct observer of the Globe’s production. It would seem to be a daunting task for a spectator, scribbling down (or memorizing?) an entire play, but Elizabethans were supposedly good at “conning” speeches, so who knows? Another theory is that the actor who played Marcellus dictated the script to a compositor, according to his best memory of the scenes (scholars accuse Marcellus of this because the scenes where he appears are closest to the Q2 version). In either case, seeing “Exit Ghost” a few lines earlier in Q1 should be a reliable indicator of original stage practice. It’s nice to have access to an accurate Ghost Tracker.


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