- MARCELLUS, BARNARDO, AND FRANCISCO
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.
- THE PLAYERS
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
- OSRIC, REYNALDO, VOLTEMAND, AND CORNELIUS
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.
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