I'd like to begin by stating right out that despite the fact that I call myself Hamlette, I'm not an expert on Hamlet. I'm not going to be able to answer every question people have on the text. There are things in this play I don't get yet.
Every time I read the play, or watch it, I learn new things about it. New ways of looking at a character or scene, new readings of a line or two, new angles to consider. I hope to learn new things from all of you participants too, because I'm sure you're going to have insights that are wildly different from mine, which is what I love best about read-alongs.
The copy I'm using is the one pictured here. It takes its text from the Second Quarto, so if you're reading one based on the First Quarto, we might have some textual differences, just so you know. I haven't read this edition before, but I love that it's a trade paperback instead of pocket, and there's LOTS of room for me to write notes.
I'll be quoting two books a lot during this read-along: John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet by Richard L. Sterne and Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom. They both have some amazing insights into this play that I want to share. I've spent the last couple weeks re-reading them and taking notes.
Also, I'm not going to mark spoilers. Anywhere. Ever. I assume you are at least familiar with the play's plot.
So, on to the discussion! Sorry for all those preliminaries.
The play opens with a couple of soldiers, Bernardo and Francisco, switching places. A changing of the guard, no big deal, or so it would seem. But everyone seems to be on edge, right from Bernardo's initial "Who's there?" and Francisco's rejoinder, "Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself." It's pretty logical for the guy already on guard to do the whole "Halt! Who goes there?" routine to someone approaching him, but for the guy coming to relieve him to also ask for identification... these guys are uneasy and being over-cautious as a result. Francisco also says he is "sick at heart" (9), but we the audience don't know why. He doesn't seem to have seen any ghosts like Marcellus and Bernardo -- he's just uneasy and unhappy. Already we have a sense of impending doom, don't we?
And then, of course, the Ghost arrives. According to Bloom, Shakespeare himself played the Ghost and the Player King (p. 4), which I find intriguing. I don't know how many other characters Shakespeare played in his own productions, but in this, he played both of Hamlet's father-figures -- the ghost of his father, and an older adult man he clearly reveres and wants to learn from. Just something to think about.
Anyway, isn't the Ghost is mysterious at this point? He's showing up here, somewhere outside the castle where no one hangs out except some soldiers. He's not imparting any messages. What's the point of going to all the trouble of coming back from the dead if you're not going to do or say anything? And why not appear directly to the person you want to talk to? It's like he wants Hamlet to have to decide to come to him, to want to know what's wrong. That's my take, anyway.
I find it interesting that Hamlet's not in this first scene, but Horatio is. In fact, Horatio basically bookends this play, doesn't he? He's the only character who's in both the first and last scenes. I like how Bloom puts it, that in a way, "we are Horatio, Hamlet's perpetual audience" (p. 14). Horatio sometimes gets portrayed as very boring, which I dislike -- he's a wonderful guy, so loyal and intelligent. Always watching, observing, thinking. Very much an audience, but very much not boring.
Gielgud says, "At the beginning of this scene Horatio is trying to be calm, but I think that underneath he's terrified and anxious" (p. 24). I agree -- he's trying to pooh-pooh this whole ghost thing, but he also seems uneasy. He's being skeptical, a good scholar not believing something he can't see or explain, but he comes outside in the wee small hours of the morning to see what's going on. Hamlet doesn't seem to know Horatio is here, so he must have only just arrived, tired from a long trip from Germany, but willing to accompany two low-level soldiers on a quest to see a ghost. And then when he does see it, he says, "it harrows me with fear and wonder" (46). Not surprise, wonder. As if he'd half believed them all along.
Oddly, though Horatio seems to have only just arrived in Elsinore, he knows more about what's going on in Denmark than Marcellus, a Danish soldier. What's up with that, other than a convenient way for Shakespeare to catch the audience up on the political situation in the story? I'm not sure.
Okay, that's all I've got for today.
"A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye" (114).
"But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill" (168-69).
Possible Discussion Questions:
Have you read Hamlet before, or seen it performed?
Why do you think the Ghost appears over and over to these guards, but won't talk to them?