Sovereignty and selfhood in ‘Hamlet’: Act I, Scene 1.
In ‘Unfold Yourself’, Theophilus Kwek explores the idea of liminality in Hamlet. Physical boundaries become associated with social inclusion or exclusion and individuals living on the periphery. We unfold here the compromised comfort of familiar, established binaries, and are urged to confront the question: do ‘the lines we are tempted to draw…suffice for the realities of this world?’
The opening scene of Hamlet often gets short shrift. Shrouded in cloud and gloom, and played by four peripheral characters, it seems no more than a precursor to the visual feast and star-studded cast of the next. Yet it is here, on the windy walls of Elsinore, that Shakespeare chooses to introduce his greatest play, and what happens here has several implications for what unfolds within.
In the ancient practice of ‘beating the bounds’ – which continues today in some English cities – the younger members of a community would follow their elders around the parish boundaries, to learn the lay of their land and their rights of inheritance or tenancy. In addition to geographical borders, this was how the invisible edges of society were committed to folk memory, and handed down from one generation to the next. Every child growing up in a parish knew who belonged, and who did not.
Hamlet begins with Bernardo and Francisco challenging each other on the city-walls. “Who’s there?” asks Bernardo, attempting to ascertain if the approaching figure is friend or foe. Though the bounds of the city are known, the loyalties of those walking on its fringes are unclear. This starts a motif that runs through the entire play. Though Hamlet, as a court drama, revolves chiefly around those at the centre of power, it can be read as a play about those on the edges, at home in no man’s land.
The elder Hamlet, who has earned glory at home through his conquests on foreign ground – having “smote the sledded Polacks on the ice” – reappears as a ghost, “doom’d for a certain term” to the twilight of purgatory. Both Claudius and Gertrude hover between guilt and innocence, while the younger Hamlet slips from method to madness, as one “between earth and heaven”. Even Fortinbras, described in this first scene as a source of unrest in “the skirts of Norway”, brings the play to its conclusion by arriving with other foreigners (the English ambassadors) in the heart of Denmark.
This scene sets the stage for such liminal characters by examining what happens at the city’s edge. We have already seen how Bernardo tries to test Francisco’s loyalty. Bernardo confirms his own identity by proclaiming “long live the king”; subsequently, Horatio and Marcellus do the same by pronouncing themselves “friends to this ground” and “liegemen to the Dane”. In all these cases the men align their identities wholly with their political loyalties. Yet Francisco has asked Bernardo to “unfold” himself, and other, less obvious aspects of the soldiers’ selves are revealed in their actions.
Bernardo approaches “most carefully upon (his) hour” – a mark of prudence and responsibility – and throughout the scene, all four are cautious and courteous in equal measure. Though Horatio is singled out as the “scholar” among them, all speak in the polished metre of the court, indistinguishable from the nobles who appear later. And when the ghost of their former king appears on the ramparts, they are respectful, then brave, aware of its bearing on the country’s fate and theirs.
These men may be immigrants or mercenaries. Shakespeare never tells us as much, but their names are Italian, not Danish, and we know Europe saw extensive migration in his day. Through their dutiful conduct, however, they prove themselves to be “honest soldiers”, and “good friends” of Hamlet both in terms of moral “goodness”, and personal loyalty to the embattled prince. As the sins of the court are later revealed, it is these men, set on the walls, who are found to be most loyal; Horatio alone survives to the end and is the only one who can “truly deliver” all that has happened.
What happens outside Elsinore in this first scene is significant to our understanding of the rest of the play because the kingdom, in Hamlet, is the self writ large. The court is repeatedly associated with the body of the king: in the same way that poison spreads through the “natural gates and alleys” of the elder Hamlet’s body, corruption is said to spread through Elsinore from the “particular fault” of Claudius’ excesses. The younger Hamlet is described within the first act by Laertes as a “head” which must follow the “voice and yielding” of the body which is the state, while Hamlet comes to lament how a nation’s army (“twenty thousand men…of such mass and charge”) can “go to their graves like beds” on the foolish word of a prince. The still bodies in the final scene, carried out on Fortinbras’ command, symbolize the demise of a body politic, and pave the way for a transfer of sovereignty.
Since the nation’s boundaries, then, are analogous to the self’s, Shakespeare seems to be making two important comments through the workings of Act I, Scene 1. First, despite the characters’ best efforts, the boundaries of their identities are porous, just as Elsinore – on heightened guard – admits external incursions and treachery from within. Hamlet’s studied efforts to be “mad in craft” become less and less distinguishable from insanity, while Claudius’ rare moment of conscience reveals an inner battle between greed and guilt. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain between truth and treason, while the enemy Fortinbras gains “rights of memory” and rightfully ascends the throne. A complex national boundary becomes a metaphor for the complex identities of the characters we meet.
Second, with the appearance of the ghost, we learn of another realm at work which defies the binary divisions of the boundaries we know. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is, at the same time, a king – and thus the personification of Denmark itself – as well as an intruder. It is at once dead, and vividly alive; an “honest ghost”, and yet the bearer of ill tidings, inciting murder. Throughout the play, Shakespeare subverts the idea that the lines we are tempted to draw between reality and imagination, fate and intention, or truth and falsehood, suffice for the realities of this world. And like honest Horatio, perhaps, we are prompted to consider if there are “more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.
THEOPHILIUS KWEK studied Hamlet for his ‘A’ Levels in 2012. He has published two volumes of poetry, ‘They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue’ (2011) and Circle Line (2013), and is President of the Oxford University Poetry Society.
Photo credit: Leonard Yip