An Angel Appears to the Shepherds: A Spirit Appears to the Watch Guard
Here’s one of Shakespeare’s many heavily disguised ‘epiphanies’. If indeed Hamlet is a telling of the Christ story through the eyes of Jesus himself, then we’d expect to find hidden an unequivocal, confirmatory way sign slipped in early in Act I. The Gospel of Luke begins with the angel appearing to the shepherds, announcing the coming of the Messiah. It would be great if there were a Shakespeare-style motif of this showing up in Hamlet.
Consider this: the dark, eerie opening scene has guards standing late-night watch over the good folk of Elsinore. In particular, they say they’re looking out for the return of young Fortinbras, coming to reclaim lands lost to Old Norway by Old King Hamlet and to avenge the killing of his father. A spirit appears and scares the heaven and earth out of the guards. As the cock crows, the spirit disappears. As the sounds of the cock fade out, the signs of deeply encrypted biblical symbols fade in. The guards are talking about two things: Christmas — the coming of the saviour. And the crowing of the cock! Although omitted from all productions I’ve seen, we, the audience should hear a cock crow twice — as if we’re being called to awaken, or perhaps even indited for denying the Christ.
So, here we have it. Instead of Luke’s shepherds outside the city of David, terrified by a visiting angel while watching over their flocks by night, we have the castle guards outside the city of Elsinore terrified by a visiting spirit while watching over their folks by night. Act I Scene I could well be then a mirror image, a sublime biblical motif of nothing less than what the Christians call the Annunciation of the Shepherds.
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