Marcellus is one of the Danish army sentinels. Indications are that he's a captain of the guard.
In Marcellus's first line in the play, he announces himself as one of the "liegemen to the Dane," that is, a man bound in service to the King of Denmark (which is Claudius.) He is a man who knows his duty, a fact which is significant for the subsequent events.
Marcellus is apparently a captain of the guard. His rank is indicated by the fact that he takes responsibility for Horatio's presence at a military guard position, meaning Marcellus has some command authority, to bend the rules. Normally, a civilian such as Horatio would not be permitted there. Further, Marcellus is the one who knows where to find Hamlet in Scene 2, implying he knows the guard assignments for the royalty.
He is also devout, which is shown when he spontaneously speaks of the Christmas season, in Scene 1. Further, he is a man of action, as shown when he insists on following Hamlet at the end of Scene 4 when Horatio hesitates.
In sum, Marcellus is a man dutiful and devout, and a man of action, a classic soldier.
- Costume - military. He should be costumed as an officer, probably a captain of the guard. He must carry a partisan, since it's explicitly stated in the dialogue.
The name, Marcellus, is not Danish, it's Roman. (Shakespeare's original audience at the Globe Theater probably cared not at all whether the character names were authentically Danish.) The name may have been suggested by certain facts in the biography of Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a famous general of ancient Rome. Marcus Claudius Marcellus is included in Plutarch's Parallel Lives.
In the biography of Marcus Claudius Marcellus we find:
- He was a military man, certainly, and the character Marcellus in Hamlet is a military man (although not a general, apparently.)
- The name Claudius appears in the historical Marcellus's full name, as it also appears in Hamlet (as the name of the King.)
- A single combat. The historical Marcellus fought a famous single combat against a Gallic king. So, we have the concept of a king in a single combat, which matches the concept of King Hamlet participating in the single combat Horatio describes in Scene 1 while Marcellus is present.
- Notable armor. As a spoil of his victory in the single combat, Marcus Claudius Marcellus won the Gallic king's armor. Since the Ghost in Hamlet is in armor, there is an "armor" connection in concept.
- Marcus Claudius Marcellus was awarded the position of "augur," an interpreter of omens. The question of whether the Ghost is an omen is discussed by the men, including Marcellus, in Scene 1 of Hamlet.
- The historical Marcellus was called by Plutarch the "Sword of Rome," which connects to the Sword Motif in Hamlet.
So, comparing the biography of the historical Marcellus with Hamlet we find the common concepts of 1) the military, 2) the name Claudius, 3) a single combat 4) involving a king, 5) notable armor, and 6) augury/omens. It's enough to be suggestive.
A further contributor to Shakespeare's use of the name Marcellus may have been the Theater of Marcellus in Rome, which was named for Marcus Marcellus, a nephew of Emperor Augustus. Julius Caesar cleared space to build the theatre in the city. Thus the name "Marcellus" is famously associated with theater, which alone could be reason enough to use the name for a character on stage.
So, during researches for his earlier plays, particularly Julius Caesar, Shakespeare may have encountered in the historical Marcellus several points of interest that connect with concepts in Hamlet, and which thereby suggested the name, Marcellus, as suitable for one of the military characters.
Significant lines spoken by Marcellus:
- Scene 1#017 - And liegemen to the Dane. - his first line is an affirmation of his loyalty to Claudius, a point that proves significant.
- Scene 1#185 - I this morning know / Where we shall find [Hamlet]... - The fact of Marcellus leading the way is important to the action when Hamlet and Horatio meet.
- Scene 2#219 - upon the platform where we watch. - Important in identifying the settings of Scene 1 and Scene 4.
- Scene 4#064 - Look with what courteous action... - Important to playing the Ghost correctly.
- Scene 4#099 - Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. - One of the play's famous, often-quoted lines.
Themes and Motifs
Those most immediately relevant to Marcellus's character and dialogue:
Duty is the Theme most important for him. Duty is what motivated Marcellus to lead the way to Hamlet, to tell Hamlet about the Ghost. Would duty also motivate Marcellus, "liegeman to the Dane," to inform Claudius if Marcellus knew of a threat to the King's life?
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