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William Shakespeare





    The three soldiers of the Danish King's Guard are all ordinary, honest men, all suffering in their own way from the sight of the ghost, and from the mysterious air of gloom that has settled on Denmark with King Hamlet's death. Marcellus is apparently of slightly higher rank than Francisco and Barnardo (also spelled Bernardo); he is on sociable terms with Hamlet and up to date on his whereabouts. Both he and Barnardo are articulate officers of an elite guard rather than common soldiers. Barnardo is more bluntly straightforward but not less intelligent. Marcellus' belief in ghosts, like his religious faith, is balanced against his honest practicality. His assumption that there is a logical reason for every phenomenon makes him similar in character to the captain of Fortinbras' army, who speaks bluntly to Hamlet about the valuelessness of the land they are marching to conquer; possibly the same actor played both parts.


    The two characters usually- and mistakenly- designated as "First and Second Gravedigger" are a comedy act, the company's resident low comedian and his straight man, identified in early editions of the play as "Clown" and "Other." Although in many Elizabethan plays the material performed by clowns is irrelevant to and detachable from the story (since they traditionally "worked up" their own material), Shakespeare always took unusual pains to make them an organic part of the larger work. The role he creates here for the clown is a comic contradiction in terms- a cheerful gravedigger. His robust good spirits, talkativeness, and a love of argument are all amusingly inappropriate to the cemetery where he works, and are balanced by his democratically stoic sense that everyone is equal because we all come to the same end. Isn't that exactly how you might expect human life to look from a gravedigger's point of view? This simple workingman's philosophy is elegantly balanced, at exactly the right point in the action, against the complexity of Hamlet's soul-searching. The gravedigger's companion, though often erroneously played as an apprentice or younger work partner, is a warden or church official in charge of the placement of graves in the churchyard. He does not argue with the clown for the simple reason that, as he is finally forced to admit, he agrees with him.


    Typically for professionals at work, these actors say virtually nothing that is not connected with their job, and are resolutely uninvolved with the events at court. What you learn from them is chiefly how Hamlet feels about them. As you might expect from a prince who is himself the hero of a play (at a time when the growth of Puritanism was causing constant protest against the dangerous influence of theaters in London), Hamlet is an enthusiast and a friend, one who believes deeply in the theater's importance to society and who has many objections to performers who don't live up to his high ideals for the art. From Hamlet's friendly greeting, especially as contrasted with his reserve toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you can see that Hamlet is extremely fond of this particular company of actors; he is an aficionado of their less successful plays and twice addresses the player king as "old friend."


    Being a noble in attendance at a Renaissance court meant a variety of things. It meant a formal skill at elegant conversation, bearing, and dress; training in such gentlemanly activities as riding and swordsmanship on the one hand, music and writing poetry on the other. It meant the ability to use these skills in the service of the king, on matters ranging from international diplomacy to minor errands about the court such as the errand on which Osric is sent to Hamlet. And it meant the cunning to use the same skills for one's own advancement in the royal favor, which could mean titles, decorations, and large grants of land or sums of money if one were successful. Osric is a courtier who is preoccupied with formal behavior. It is clear from Hamlet's comments, and from Osric's failure to perceive that he is being mocked, that he is little more than a foppish, gesticulating fool. (Compare his manner to the dignified bearing of the anonymous lord who comes to Hamlet immediately after Osric has left; the lord carries out his mission with a minimum of fuss in barely a quarter of the time it takes Osric to deliver a simple challenge to a fencing match.) Some critics have tried to read into Osric's presence the notion that Claudius' court is pretentious and decadent, but this is an exaggeration of both his foppishness and his importance. Courtiers were under no obligation to behave elegantly; they were members of a hereditary aristocracy and largely did as they pleased, which is precisely why displays of elegant manners and fine speaking were so valued by monarchs. Consequently, every court had its Osrics, and they turn up regularly in Elizabethan plays. It could more likely be considered a measure of Claudius' good sense that he confined the trivial Osric to domestic errands and sent a reliable, well-spoken man like Voltemand on ambassadorial missions. From Voltemand's brief report on his meeting with the king of Norway you can infer that he (and presumably the silent Cornelius as well) is an efficient, intelligent person of dignified bearing, just the sort a king can trust to get the business done. You get a glimpse of how such a man is molded, and of the kinds of backstairs business he might have to meddle in, from the little scene between Polonius and Reynaldo (presumably a young courtier in training). While sending him on a simple errand to bring money and letters to Laertes in Paris, Polonius teaches the boy to find out how Laertes is behaving by spreading mild slanders about him. Reynaldo is an alert and eager student.


    Stage tradition has made this "churlish priest" an unpleasant character. What his two brief speeches portray is a somewhat snobbish professional, compelled under political pressure to perform a task he regards as distasteful and improper. The only surprising part is that he is so outspoken in the presence of the king and queen, possibly from a wish to underline the extent to which he is protected by the church from their taking action against him.


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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