The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0559 Thursday, 18 September 2008
From: Conrad Cook <
Date: Monday, 15 Sep 2008 12:36:33 -0400
Subject: Hamlet I.i.1 - An Emphasis on Character
>After Francisco admits that he's been out
>there alone in the cold (indeed, for a playwright who's capable of extravagance
>in stage directions like "enter the whole army", isn't it curious that Francisco
>is the only guard on duty for Elsinore Castle?), and he's "sick at heart,"
>Barnardo addresses this poor young recruit with greater respect (could he be
>sick at seeing a ghost?), as he asks the question, in different words, but with
>fear again, "Have you had quiet guard?" Francisco, who detects and mocks
>Barnardo's fear, replies condescendingly, "Not a mouse stirring." Barnardo
>regains his composure, but still lends Francisco the respect of an equal,
>addressing him as "you," again, but seeming desperate for company to avoid the
>lone watch, in wishing Marcellus and Horatio to make haste (of course, it could
>be because he wouldn't want them to miss the ghost). Francisco cuts him some
>slack and tells him (and verifies, in proper guardly way) that they're here now
I look at that passage with an eye to the structural associations found
throughout the play. An easily explained interpretation is Horatio's "High and
palmy state of Rome:" which I regard as a reference to the Roman salute which
Hitler would later co-opt. It's not meant to be carried out in the action, or
even understood consciously: but it is a structural reflection and presentiment
of Horatio's later claim to be "more an ancient Roman than a Dane."
I agree with your point that HoRATIO is not just a stoic but a rationalist, and
that there are therefore more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in
his philosophy. Applying a similar kind of reasoning, we find the others in
this scene are FRANCisco, BARNardo, and MARCellus:
Since Mars is the Roman god of War, we can suppose that Marcellus represents war;
Since farming is linked repeatedly in the play with peace and death (which are
closely associated), it's a reasonable inference that Barnardo represents peace:
Therefore, Horatio, or a "piece" of him, joins the boundaries of the
civilization which are well-guarded by War and Peace, perhaps in a
representation of the Pax Romana, which ancient Rome arrived at through war;
Since France is the place that Laertes spends most of the play, attending
university, whoring, and fighting over tennis, and due to a broad cluster of
associations there isn't space to go into here, it seems that just as Denmark
represents the world (both being prisons), France strangely represents Heaven.
Fransciso, then, is the divine guard over the world which becomes sick at heart
and gives way to Peace and War, who will be confronted with, and helpless
before, the specter of the good King's murder.
"Not a mouse stirring," is significant because Hamlet chastises Gertrude not to
permit Claudius to call her his mouse and tempt her to bed; she apparently
disobeys this injunction (it's never made explicit) and Claudius inadvertently
kills her (the bed/peace/death link again);
Hamlet also renames _The Murder of Gonzago_ _The Mousetrap_, intending it to
allow him to trap and kill Claudius, but through his own error he follows
through by killing Polonius -- calling as he does, "A rat!" After which,
Polonius does not stir.
And so on: chasing down the associations in this way is, in my opinion, the
only way to really make headway with this play.
Shakespeare has the wrong guard challenge the other, with "Who goes there?"
specifically because it doesn't quite make sense. There's a disconnect: it's
similar to the inward jarring sensation one gets when Horatio says, "A piece of
him." You're not sure quite what to do with these statements, and the
subsequent dialogue smooths over the incongruity -- sort of. There's a
lingering feeling of not-quite-ness, and a building habit of letting go of
things that don't add up, which are superlatively useful to Shakespeare's
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the opinions
expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the editor assumes no
responsibility for them.