Emoticons and unnecessary scenes

I’ve embarked upon a minor project to get rid of some of the Shakespeare editions I seldom or never use by copying my teaching notes into the editions I use on a regular basis. (I’ve acquired a lot of editions that I wouldn’t otherwise have purchased in the course of teaching various Shakespeare classes.) This project is occasionally mortifying, because my teaching notes can sometimes veer into the ridiculous. For example, I drew a starry-eyed emoticon (*_*) in the margins of one copy of Hamlet, instead of, you know, proper words. Because I am a grownup and a scholar.

What caused such an ignominious descent into emoticons? This exchange in 1.2, when Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo approach Hamlet with the news that his father’s armor-clad ghost is wandering the parapets of Elsinore:


Armed, say you?


Armed, my lord.


From top to toe?


My lord, from head to foot.


Then saw you not his face.


O yes, my lord, he wore his beaver up. (1.2.225-228)

This may seem like a strange passage to go starry-eyed over, especially as it follows fairly close on the heels of Hamlet’s tortured first soliloquy, the first of the play’s sustained glimpses into Hamlet’s mind. This exchange is, by contrast, prosaic, even unnecessary. As it happens, though, that’s precisely why I love it – because it doesn’t need to be there, and yet there it is. We’ve already heard from Horatio that the ghost is “Armed at point, exactly cap-a-pie” (1.2.199), so in addition to being unnecessary, the exchange verges on the redundant – although it does provide a helpful gloss on “cap-a-pie” for those of us who need one. But if that’s the reason for the passage’s existence, why do we need both “From top to toe” and “from head to foot,” when some other expression of confirmation on the part of Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo would suffice? The nitpicky insistence on exactly how much armor the ghost is wearing starts to feel a little bit ludicrous.

But then comes the next line: “Then saw you not his face.” And this is where the starry eyes come in. Suddenly, instead of telling us about the ghost’s armor, the exchange is telling us something about Hamlet: it’s showing us his quick wit, his need to interrogate even the most innocuous facts for inconsistencies. And his line has the potential to be an accusation: you’re lying, it says; I don’t trust you. (I think the rapidity of the exchange contributes to that sense.) But even if we see it as a question – see the note about punctuation, below – it still shows us that Hamlet cannot simply accept what he’s told, can’t turn off his thinking self, even for a moment. The first soliloquy shows us what Hamlet’s mind is like in extremis, under the pressure of extraordinary passions; this odd, unnecessary exchange shows us the everyday workings of his intellect.

(There’s another one of these unnecessary passages in this scene, when Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo start arguing about the length of time the ghost was visible for: Horatio says that the ghost stayed “While one with moderate haste might tell a hundred,” causing Marcellus and Barnardo to cry out, “Longer, longer.” Horatio then responds, “Not when I saw’t” [1.2.236-8].  Since we have only seen the ghost once so far, with Horatio, there’s no inconsistency for the audience in the two appearances of the apparition, and no particular reason to draw our attention to one. The sole function of this little argument, as far as I can see, is to provide the kind of extraneous detail that refers us to a world beyond the immediacy of the scene: things happen even when we don’t see them.)

Text: Hamlet, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006).

A note on punctuation: The line “Then saw you not his face” ends in a question mark in the First Quarto and the Folio, but with a period in the Second Quarto. Since I like the idea of this line as accusation rather than question, I prefer the Second Quarto’s rendition.


2 responses to “Emoticons and unnecessary scenes

  1. Oh, I love this post. And this is exactly the sort of commentary I wish I had nearby while reading Shakespeare, because I would ordinarily breeze past a scene like this without thinking twice about it.

    • Thank you!

      There’s a lot going on in Shakespeare that it’s easy to overlook, especially on a first read. The thing about Shakespeare, I think, is how seldom we get to *reread* it. (Unless you’re teaching it, of course.) In classes, anyway, it’s difficult to build that re-encounter with the text into the course – unless you sacrifice coverage, which is not always a bad sacrifice to make. But I think we’re all probably better rereaders than readers; we just don’t always get a chance to practice it.

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