Iago, Othello (2.3)
“First place,” “first glance,” "first" anything"—birthday, date, car, taste of pomegranate—is “first and foremost.” In other words that embody firstness: we forefront priorities—primarily prize what’s premium. Once there is that first mark on a blank page, the paper is forever transformed. First impressions last.
This is especially true in reading literature. Let's take Horatio's first word in Hamlet: “Friends” is Horatio’s first word Hamlet. Throughout the play, he is, scene after scene, Hamlet’s only and most abiding friend. Using the concept of friendship as our first-word point of entry—we can read Hamlet through the character of Horatio. We can characterize Horatio either deductively—identify core characteristics of friendship and find examples of them in Horatio’s words and actions. Or, we can interpret inductively—discern what friendship means by describing Horatio’s character as he moves through the play. The most interesting interpretations combine both a deductive and an inductive approach.
For those who prefer to interpret Horatio deductively, it’s helpful to find what experts have to say about friendship. In his book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, Geoffrey Greif identifies four levels of friends: must, trust, just, and rust. The must friend is the go-to guy for all things earth-shattering. The trust friend is less close than the must. The just friend is just that—a casual acquaintance. The rust friend floats in and out of the relationship. Which kind of friend might Horatio be, and what’s our proof?
When, at the beginning of the play, Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father, he is the one who says
Let us impart what we have seen tonight
Unto young Hamlet; for upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him. (1.1.175-6)
A just or rust friend might run away both from the ghost and having to “get involved.” A trust friend might be hesitant to get involved. But must friend identifies the crisis, is aware of the context, informs his friend, and “has his back,” as they say. The bearer of bad news is always at risk of the receiver’s reaction. But Horatio will go boldly to his friend’s side.
In the one expression “upon my life,” we can see how much Horatio would risk to empower his friend with information. Note, as well, that Horatio does not say I will impart what I have seen tonight. Horatio speaks in terms of us and we. He is a man who values connection. He doesn’t say “Go tell him” or “I will tell him,” he says “Let us”—collaborative, respectful, inviting.
And so we would proceed, seeking out scenes that either include or refer to Horatio, and considering each as proof or disproof of Horatio’s friendship. We would apply Greif’s categories, deductively; and articulate, inductively, the various traits of friendship Horatio displays. We might ask the question: “Is Hamlet a friend to himself?” We might compare and contrast how others treat Hamlet. When we arrived at the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we would further appreciate, because of their treachery, what a courageous friend Horatio is, in contrast. In most productions of Hamlet, Hamlet dies in his arms at the end of the play. How much more poignant and meaningful becomes Horatio’s final address to Hamlet because of our close attention to the course of their friendship:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! (5.2.361-2)
Notice that he uses thee and thy, instead of you and yours. Originally, the form you instead of thou was used by the elite English to align them with the fashionable French tu and vous. It was distancing and asserted power positions above inferiors. Thee and thy were more intimate uses of the second person pronoun, as would be used in prayers. In our time, philosopher Martin Buber used the more archaic thou to distinguish a reverent from a casual regard for another. Interesting, especially in this context, is that those who practice Quakerism use the thee, thy, thou, thine form address during meetings, and call themselves “The Friends.”
Because of the nature of interpretation and Shakespeare’s genius, first words will dependably clue us into his characters. Horatio would never begin with I, as Katharina does in The Taming of the Shrew, nor would she be prompted to start with “Friends.” And that makes sense. Traditionally, readers have interpreted Katharina as the shrew of the play (for an alternate reading, check out the Titles chapter on pages #-#). “Shrew,” when designating a person, means ‘violent, scolding, argumentative.’ Such a person would be self-centered, self-satisfied, selfish—all about “I” instead, as in the case of Horatio, “we.”
When we trace Katharina through the first couple of scenes, we see her displaying what doctors Leonard C. Groopman and Arnold M. Cooper call “narcissistic personality disorder.” Conducting a brief search, we find that the symptoms of this disorder include these:
- requires constant attention and admiration
- calculating and manipulative
- has no empathy for others
- expects special treatment
In 1.1, father Bapista calls Bianca, Katharina’s sister, “good,” and “my girl.” As we learned in the chapter on Rhythm, how a line varies from the classic ten syllable iambic pentameter is meaningful. Katharina hesitates before she delivers these words, starting with a seven-syllable line:
A pretty peat! It is best
Put finger in the eye, an she knew why. (1.1. 78-9)
We can read that hesitation as proof of Katharina’s envy. She feels slighted, and is calculating how to strike back at her father and sister. Even without knowing what “peat” means, we can already discern the ‘scratch her eyes out’ violence of “put finger in the eye.” A quick dictionary check tells us that, in this context, “peat” means ‘a merry young girl’ and that “an” means ‘if.’ Katharina’s remark is sarcastic, devoid of empathy, angry that Bianca has their father’s affection. In 2.1, Katharina ties up her sisters hands—in a gesture of bondage—and interrogates her as if Bianca were a criminal. And does not relent when her sister pleads
Good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself,
To make a bondmaid and a slave of me. (1-2)
In her book Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality, Elsa F. Ronningstam articulates the painful shame and insecurity that underlies the narcissist’s bravado. In the rest of the play, we will see Petruchio humiliate, starve, isolate, and shame Katharina—thus reducing her to her underlying insecurities. In the chapter on Dismounts, we will ask whether Katharina is ultimately tamed.
How do first words affect your life experiences? How can focus on first words enrich your literary experiences?