The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0565 Tuesday, 23 September 2008
From: Cynthia Franks <
Date: Friday, 19 Sep 2008 00:02:12 -0400
Subject: 19.0559 Hamlet I.i.1 - An Emphasis on Character
Comment: Re: SHK 19.0559 Hamlet I.i.1 - An Emphasis on Character
I've been following this thread about the opening scene of Hamlet very carefully
and thought I'd chime in with my very simplistic two cents because, speaking as
a playwright, I think it is one of the most brilliant openings of a play ever
written. Many very valid points have been made that I have found fascinating and
illuminating. But the mark of a great dramatist is 'simple and clear,' and this
opening is that in spades.
"Who's there?" What a great opening line. It states the dramatic question right
out of the gate. Who's there? That question rings through every scene. People
hiding behind curtains, Hamlet never knowing who's spying on him, and ghosts
lurking in every corner. Who is there? Devil, angel, friend or fiend? The
audience probably cannot see Barnado and Francisco that well, but can hear them
and are thinking in that moment, "Who is it?" No sooner do they do that when a
voice parrot's them, "Who's there?" In that one phrase, Shakespeare asks the
dramatic question of the entire play, sets us up to unravel the mystery of who's
there and starts us thinking who is there? God, devil, friend or fiend? At the
very end of the play who's there? It's brilliant! It's the simple words of great
resonance that all we playwrights search for.
I've always saw the seen this way. Barnado can't see Franciso clearly; only in
shadow and wants to be certain he's not the ghost, so he says, "Who's there?"
Francisco hearing the noise, but not the words and thinking it may be the ghost,
asks him to identify himself knowing the ghost won't or can't speak. Barnado
gives the standard reply or code the watch uses. I've always took, "You come
most carefully upon your hour." To mean, "I was wondering where you've been?"
and "Tis now struck twelve," to mean, 'I'm not late." The angry retort, "Get
thee to bed, Francisco," is there to allow the actor to express the tension
Barnado feels of having to be there alone at that hour with a ghost wondering
around. Francisco says he understands by saying how relieved he is to see
Barnado and being able to leave. Barnardo, not wanting to be left alone, keeps
Francisco from leaving by continuing the conversation.
I've always thought the reason for the small guard was because there wasn't an
eminent threat and everyone else was partying with the king.
For me the best analysis of Hamlet is in the book," Backwards and Forwards" by
David Ball. He starts with the pile of bodies at the end and works backwards to
find out how, dramatically, they had to end-up where they fell.
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