Dr Daniel Swift – 10 Mins On…Hamlet

Dr Daniel Swift – 10 Mins On…Hamlet


>>Daniel Swift: Hello, My name is Daniel
Swift and I’m a senior lecturer of English at New College of The Humanities and this is
10 minutes on Hamlet. Even the title 10 minutes on Hamlet is ridiculous. It’s impossible to say anything about this
extraordinarily dense play in such a short amount of time, so what I want to do instead
with the time we have is concentrate only on the first 10 lines and to do that I’ve
asked a couple of my students to help.>>Who’s there?>>Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.>>Long live the King!>>Barnardo?>>He.>>You come most carefully upon your hour.>>’Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.>>For this relief much thanks. ‘Tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.>>Have you had quiet quard?>>Not a mouse stirring.>>Well, good night. If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus, The
rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.>>I think I hear them.>>Everything we need to know about the play
is established in this opening. When we go to the theatre, this is an obvious
point to make, we allow ourselves to be transported somewhere else. What these opening lines need to do and I
think that they do do with great efficiency, is transport us somewhere very different. We’re told an enormous amount of physical
information in this opening. We’re told firstly that this place, this country,
that’s on stage here before us, is a monarchy. One of the characters says: “God save the
King.” And not only is it a monarchy, it’s an unstable
monarchy. Since the two characters we’re seeing are
guards of some kinds, they’re soldiers guarding the castle, so we’re being told that this is a
potentially, slightly unstable political system. Where we are is crucial. We’re not inside a castle, we’re not with
the king in the centre of power, but nor are we far from it. Again, these are guards or sentries or attendants
of some kind and they’re on the edge of the castle. Traditionally, in staging this, they’re placed
on the castle walls or just outside the castle. Tragedies always take place in that kind of
edge space between two things, so close to a centre of power, close to a city, but not
quite inside it. We’re being told, beyond this political information,
we’re being told physical information about stuff like time of day and time of year. One of the characters says they’re cold and
it’s a passing line. I think it resonates through much of the rest
of the play which is very interested in discomfort of various kinds, but one of the characters
crucially mentions this. I’ll come back to why that’s important. We’re also told the time of day. They mention twelve o’clock. That could be noon or it could be twelve o’
clock at night. One of the other characters says: “Goodnight
you”, so we know it’s twelve o’clock at night. Even more specifically than that we know it’s
just about to be twelve o’clock or it’s just been twelve o’clock. There’s some confusion between these two characters
about exactly what the time is. Shakespeare very, very rarely mentions the
time. He’s not interested in particular times of
day. In this play, this close to the beginning,
not only is the specific time being mentioned, there’s a confusion about it. That will enormously matter. There’s one more thing we’re being told here,
in terms of this kind of physical information, which is that the two men we’re starting with
are of a particular social class. They are guards, the sentries, the night watchmen,
whatever we might call them, they are noticeably working men, men performing a role of some
kind, men guarding the castle. So traditionally, conventionally tragedies
which are stories about kings and noble men and great warriors in this case begins with
characters who are just outside power, are just on the edge of something. All of that physical information, about who
these men are, about where they are, about what kind of country this is, about what kind
of day this is, all of that stuff is established very, very quickly at the beginning. But there’s also a secondary range of information
that’s being given to us in this beginning, which is to do with perhaps the sensibility
of the place that we’re in. It’s not quite the same as the physical circumstances,
but it’s connected. I’m struck firstly that all of these exchanges,
that are going on here, are questions and those questions go unanswered. So these two men are nervous in some way. Something is going wrong, something is potentially
dangerous here. We will learn subsequently what that is. There’s a ghost, so they are understandably
nervous, but at his moment we’re being shown the worry of this, the slight anxiety of this. That connects to the second important thing
I think we’re being shown here, which is that these are soldiers, the night watchmen. They’re supposed to be brave men, but they
seem scared to me and not only do they seem scared, they seem in some way anxious or concerned
with their souls. One of the characters says:”‘Tis cold”, which
is a statement of the physical situation, but moves immediately on to say: “and I am
sick at heart.” He’s speaking there about his emotions, about
his feelings, about what is going on, so there’s a way in which these two sentries, these two
night watchmen or guards are sensitive, reflective, almost poetic men. We’re told that there’s not even a mouse stirring,
so these are men who engage in, who indulge in poetry. I’m not suggesting that soldiers or night
watchmen should not be poetic, but that there’s a sense here of men who are slightly out of
place. That’s gonna be crucial in this play. The feeling of people performing a role that
they don’t entirely fit or belong in. There’s a third range of information that
we’re also being given in this opening, which is that it’s established for us and very clearly
that it’s midnight, more or less, it’s night time in a cold, northern place. The first performance of Hamlet is uncertain
in the date. There’s been a huge amount of work by theatre
historians to work out when it was and what seems most likely, and what seems very convincing
is that it was 1601 in London, late Autumn, outdoors in The Globe Theatre, and the time
of day would have been about half past two or three o’clock in the afternoon. The play would have to have been performed
by daylight, because there are no electric lights. This is an open-air theatre, so as we’re sitting
there in the warm sunshine, I think we can imagine late summer in London, we see two
characters talking about being cold and two characters speaking about it being so dark
that they can’t recognize each other. I think we are confronted with a kind of fictionality
that we accept implicitly when we go to the theatre, but is here very, very, very explicit. We’re forced to forget that we’re standing
in the daylight on the warmth. We’re forced to accept that we’re standing
in the cold and darkness, so we accept the truth of what’s going on on stage more really
and more powerfully than truth of our own feelings and sensations at that moment. There’s a reason why we do this. It’s partly, because when we go to the theatre
we enter into a kind of contract. We suspend our disbelief. We don’t say: hang on, those are just two
actors, or hang on it’s daylight they should be able to recognize each other. We accept that there is some kind of other
information being given to us by the play and that might have a truth of its own. Crucially, in this play these two man know
something that we don’t. They know who they are, so Francisco and Barnardo
don’t recognize each other, but they do know each other. We conversely as the audience can see their
faces, but we don’t know them, so we have to accept for a moment their ignorance or
their lack of knowledge over our knowledge. This establishes something crucial about the
play and everything else that we see in the play will build upon these ideas of people
being out of place, people playing the wrong role and the kind of uncertainty about identity,
perhaps an uncertainty that can only be solved by accepting a kind of ignorance. There’s one more thing to say about this opening. I’ve already suggested to you that it’s very,
very rich and dense with the kind of material that establishes almost everything that’s
gonna happen in the play, but crucially, the opening withholds one thing from us and that
one thing is Hamlet himself. He’s not mentioned here, he’s not present. The character, who the play is named after,
the character who the whole play will circle around, is crucially withheld from us at this
beginning. So, even for or all the richness and density
of what we are told, there’s one other missing or absent thing here at this beginning. I think crucially the opening forces us to
wonder where is he at this point, why are we still waiting for him to turn up? Let’s hear the two actors read the opening
once more.>>Who’s there?>>Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself. >>Long live the king!>>Barnardo?>>He.>>You come most carefully upon your hour.>>’Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.>>For this relief much thanks. ‘Tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.>>Have you had quiet quard?>>Not a mouse stirring.>>Well, good night. If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus, The
rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.>>I think I hear them.

1 thought on “Dr Daniel Swift – 10 Mins On…Hamlet

  1. While that is a pretty interesting analysis, I do have to wonder how much of it is purely reflective. That is to say, you are only able to read so much into those ten opening lines because you already know what is to follow. There is something to be said for setting the mood, which the scene does well (cold, dark, guards, apprehension). What you might interpret as fear ("sick at heart") I see as more of a sadness. Of course, both fear and sadness could equally apply to the ghost of these characters' recently passed king roaming the grounds. But that statement is also reflective. You could argue that these lines were not written in a vacuum, and should be considered in the context of the play in its entirety. Which I would say is a valid statement, but also runs counter to your claim that "everything we need to know… is established in this opening." Whether these lines actually give us an outline for future events, or you can glean the depth of context you propose, I'm skeptical. Also, it is noticeable that the readers mechanically rattle off the lines in the first go, and actually act them out in the second. The analysis would have stood more on its merit if the execution had not changed.

    That said, this video was interesting and has made me ponder some things I have not thought about in a long time. For that I'm appreciative, and I will definitely check out the other "10 Mins On…" videos.

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