At a guard post of the King of Denmark’s castle at Elsinore, Francisco stood guard. The time was midnight, and the weather was cold.
Barnardo walked over to Francisco and asked, “Who’s there?”
Francisco replied, “No, you answer me. I am the sentinel. Stand still, and identify yourself.”
“Long live the King!” Barnardo replied. This was enough to show that he was a friend and not an enemy.
“Are you Barnardo?” Francisco asked.
“I am he.”
“You have come very promptly at your appointed time to relieve me.”
“The bell just now struck twelve,” Barnardo said. “Go to bed, Francisco.”
“For this relief, much thanks. It is bitterly cold, and I am sick at heart.”
“Have you had a quiet guard?”
“Not even a mouse is stirring.”
“Well, good night. If you meet Horatio and Marcellus, the partners of my watch, tell them to come quickly.”
“I think I hear them,” Francisco said. “Stop! Who’s there?”
Horatio and Marcellus walked over to the two guards.
Horatio, who was a friend to Prince Hamlet, answered Francisco’s question: “Friends to this country.”
Marcellus added, “And loyal liegemen to the King of Denmark.”
“May God give you a good night,” Francisco said.
“Farewell, honest soldier,” Marcellus said, and then he asked, “Who has relieved you?”
“Barnardo is taking my place. May God give you a good night.”
Marcellus called, “Hey! Barnardo!”
Barnardo replied, “Hello. Is Horatio there?”
Horatio replied, “Here is a piece of him,” and then he stuck out his hand to shake hands with Barnardo.
“Welcome, Horatio,” Barnardo said. “Welcome, good Marcellus.”
“Has this thing appeared again tonight?” Marcellus asked.
“I have seen nothing.”
“Horatio says it is only our fantasy,” Marcellus said. “He will not believe that this dreaded sight, which we have seen twice, is real. Therefore, I have entreated him to come along with us to watch all through this night. That way, if this apparition comes again, he may see it with his own eyes and speak to it.”
“Tush, tush,” Horatio said. “It will not appear.”
“Sit down awhile,” Barnardo replied, “and let us once again assail your ears, which are so fortified against and disbelieving of our story about what we have seen during two nights.”
“Well, let us sit down,” Horatio said, “and let us hear Barnardo tell his story.”
“Last night, when the yonder same star that’s west of the Pole Star had made its course to illuminate that part of the night sky where now it burns, Marcellus and I, the bell then striking one — ”
The ghost walked onto the scene.
“Quiet! Stop talking!” Marcellus said. “Look there! Here it comes again!”
“The ghost has the same shape it had,” Barnardo said. “It looks exactly like King Hamlet, the King who is dead.”
“You are a scholar,” Marcellus said. “Speak to it, Horatio.”
As a scholar, Horatio knew the proper Latin words to use to ward off the ghost if it turned out to be malevolent.
“Doesn’t it look like the late King?” Barnardo asked. “Look at it closely, Horatio.”
“It looks very much like the late King,” Horatio said. “This sight harrows me with fear and wonder. It is as if my skin were being raked with a harrow.”
“The ghost wants to be spoken to,” Barnardo said.
Ghosts cannot speak until after they are spoken to.
“Question it, Horatio,” Marcellus said.
Horatio asked the ghost, “What are you that is usurping this time of night, and is usurping that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of the buried King of Denmark did sometimes march? By Heaven, I order you to speak!”
Marcellus said, “The ghost is offended and does not speak.”
“Look!” Barnardo said. “It is stalking away!”
“Stay!” Horatio shouted. “Speak, speak! I order you to speak!”
The ghost stalked out of sight.
“It is gone,” Marcellus said, “and it will not answer you.”
“What now, Horatio!” Barnardo said. “You tremble and look pale. Isn’t this something more than fantasy? What do you think about it?”
“Before my God, I would not believe this without my having seen it with the sensible and true evidence of my own eyes,” Horatio said.
“Didn’t it resemble the late King Hamlet?” Marcellus asked.
“It resembles the late King just as much as you resemble yourself,” Horatio replied. “The ghost was wearing the very same armor that the late King was wearing when he combatted the ambitious King of Norway. The ghost frowned exactly the same way the late King frowned when once, in an angry and physical argument, he smote the Polish soldiers who were crossing the ice on their sleds. It is strange.”
“Twice before, and exactly at this dead, dark, and dreary hour,” Marcellus said, “the ghost has walked with a martial stride during our watch.”
“I do not know what exactly to think,” Horatio said, “but in general my opinion is that this ghost is a sign of some strange and violent disturbance coming to our state.”
“Please, sit down, and tell me, he who knows,” Marcellus said, “why each night the citizens of our country toil in a strict and most observant watch. Also tell me why bronze cannon are cast each day and why implements of war are being purchased in foreign marketplaces. Why have shipwrights been drafted to do their work every day with no Sabbath as a day of rest? What is the meaning of all this? What is so important that this sweaty haste results in such work being done both during the night and during the day? Who can tell me this?”
“I can,” Horatio replied. “Our last King, the late King Hamlet, whose image just now appeared to us, was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway and his competitive pride challenged to a combat. Our valiant King Hamlet — this side of our known world knew him to be valiant — slew this Fortinbras in that combat.
“By a sealed and legal agreement, well ratified by law and the code of heraldry, Fortinbras forfeited, with his life, all the lands that he personally possessed to the conqueror.
“Our King Hamlet had likewise risked some of his personally owned lands, enough to equal the amount of land waged by Fortinbras. If Fortinbras had defeated and killed King Hamlet, Fortinbras would have acquired those lands. Instead, King Hamlet defeated and killed Fortinbras, thereby acquiring the lands that Fortinbras had wagered. All of this was in accordance to the legal contract that the two men had made.
“King Hamlet died and left those lands he had won to his son, Prince Hamlet. Old Fortinbras had wagered all his lands, and so he had no lands to leave to his son, young Fortinbras.
“Now, sir, young Fortinbras, who is hot and full of undisciplined and unrestrained mettle, has in the outskirts of Norway here and there sharked up a list of lawless reprobates, indiscriminately adding them to his army the way that a shark indiscriminately adds fish to its belly. These landless and lawless reprobates will serve as the food that propels some enterprise that has a stomach in it — the enterprise needs these soldiers the way that a stomach needs food.
“That enterprise is no other than — as is well evident to our country — to take from us, by force and compulsion, those lands lost by his father, the elder Fortinbras.
“This, I take it, is the main reason for our preparations, the cause of this our watch and the fountain-head of this furious activity and turmoil in the land.”
“I think that what you have said is correct,” Barnardo said. “It is appropriate that this portentous figure — this ghost — comes armed during our watch; the ghost is very much like the late King who was and is the cause of these wars.”
“This sight of the ghost troubles the mind’s eye,” Horatio said. “In the most high and flourishing state of Rome, a little before the very mighty Julius Caesar fell, the graves stood open without their tenants and the dead, wrapped in sheets, squeaked and gibbered in the Roman streets. They were deadly portents just like meteors that trail trains of fire, dews of blood, and threatening signs in the Sun. In addition, the Moon, that moist planet that has power over the empire of Neptune, Roman King of the Seas, because it controls the tides, was almost completely blotted out because of an eclipse — it seemed as if it were the Day of Judgment.
“These same portents that foretold the assassination of Julius Caesar, these same portents that are precursors of fierce events, these same portents that are harbingers that always precede calamities and are prologue to a coming disaster — Heaven and Earth have joined together to show these same portents to Denmark and to the Danes.”
Horatio looked up and said, “But wait — look! Look, the ghost is coming here again!”
The ghost stalked closer to the three men.
“I’ll cross its path even though it blasts and destroys me,” Horatio said.
He said to the ghost, “Stay, illusion! If you can make any sound, if you can use your voice, speak to me. If I can do any good thing that will bring ease to you and honor to me, speak to me.”
The ghost opened its mouth, but a rooster — aka a cock — crowed.
Copyright by Brice D. bruce
Note: The above is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here: