Bernardo is one of the Danish army sentinels. He is the first character who speaks in the play.
Bernardo approaches the sentinel Francisco at the beginning of the play, to relieve him, at midnight. When Bernardo sees a human shape ahead of him in the darkness, a shape he does not yet recognize as Francisco, he stops and calls out, to begin the play dialogue.
Bernardo must be of high enough rank to be entrusted with important duty; the sentinel duty is quite important because the country is facing an apparent military threat. However, Bernardo is not of high enough rank to escape the unpleasantness, and danger, of a nighttime assignment. (It is dangerous: should the Norwegian army attack in the early hours, the sentinels could be the first Danes to die.) In modern terms, Bernardo could be anything from a corporal to a lieutenant, with the higher rank indicated. It would make sense for him to be a lieutenant, with that much command authority, so in the event of attack he could muster and lead troops himself, while the higher, general officers are roused.
Only Bernardo and Marcellus have seen the Ghost so far. That's clear in the fact that Francisco leaves, which he would not do had he seen the Ghost, or knew of it. Then, if even their fellow sentinel Francisco doesn't know, Bernardo and Marcellus must have been keeping their knowledge of the Ghost to themselves, except for Horatio. We understand from that, that Bernardo can be trusted to keep his mouth shut, as Hamlet requests in Scene 2.
Bernardo is not present when Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus go to the platform to see the Ghost in Scene 4. His absence has a ready explanation, because of the cannons being fired to accompany Claudius's drinking. Personnel are needed to man those cannons, and since Bernardo is already on nighttime duty, he would be a natural choice for reassignment. We can take it, then, he got reassigned to cannon duty, much to his disappointment.
- Costume - military. He's apparently subordinate to Marcellus, so Bernardo probably should not be quite as well armored as Marcellus. He should probably carry a partisan, as does Marcellus.
The name, Bernardo, is not at all Danish. It can be viewed as either Italianate or Spanish. It probably carried over from an older source play, set in Italy, that contributed to Shakespeare's Hamlet. Shakespeare probably kept the name because researching correct Danish names was more trouble than it was worth, for this character who is not of importance to later events. Also, since Hamlet is a "mad" play, there's a kind of appropriateness for a Danish character to "madly" have a name associated with a different country, which leaves even less reason for Shakespeare to have changed it.
In the First Quarto publication, 1603, the character corresponding to Bernardo is given only the numeral 2 as a speech prefix. (However, the name Bernardo does still appear in the dialogue.) The reason for the numerical speech prefix is probably that the playing company for whom the First Quarto was printed intended to change the name, but had not yet decided on a replacement, (nor had they yet made the corresponding change to the dialogue.)
Significant lines spoken by Bernardo:
- Who's there? - the first line of the play.
- Long live the King! - the first line directly relevant to the Duty Theme.
Themes and Motifs
Those most immediately relevant to Bernardo's character and dialogue:
Duty, omen, proof, secrecy.
Bernardo's duty is to the King and to guard the Castle. He has the proof of his own eyes that the Ghost does appear, and he participates in the discussion of whether the Ghost is an omen. The importance of secrecy to his character is explicit when Hamlet, in Scene 2, asks him and the others to keep silent about the Ghost.
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