We shall know by this fellow: the players cannot
keep counsel; they'll tell all.
Will he tell us what this show meant?
Ay, or any show that you'll show him: be not you
ashamed to show, he'll not shame to tell you what it means.
You are naught, you are naught: I'll mark the play.
For us, and for our tragedy,
Here stooping to your clemency,
We beg your hearing patiently.
Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?
'Tis brief, my lord.
As woman's love.
Enter two Players, King and Queen
Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round
Neptune's salt wash and Tellus' orbed ground,
And thirty dozen moons with borrow'd sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been,
Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands
Unite commutual in most sacred bands.
The Dumb Show was quite enough of an introduction for this play, and so a second intro happens in the form of a prologue. Most famous from plays like Romeo and Juliet and Henry V (in which it’s performed by the ‘Chorus’) a prologue is a simple introduction to the story of a play. Here it is comically short, and Hamlet mocks its brevity.
Phoebus was one of the most common epithets given to the god Apollo. It means “bright”. Apollo was one of the most important gods of the ancient world - so important that his name did not change in the transfer of names between Greek and Roman worship. (He is the only god whose name was never changed.) As Bright Apollo, he is associated with the Sun, and here the word Phoebus alone stands for him in his chariot, blazing across the sky.
Known in Greek as Poseidon, Neptune was the god of the sea. His salt wash, therefore, is the ocean.
Less well-known than the ideas of gods of the sea or the sky, or indeed even Gaia, mother earth, Tellus (fully titled Tellus Mater) is a personification of the Earth. The combination between Neptune and Tellus is a very poetic way of describing planet earth - water and land.
Early in the play there are references to stars and cosmic events and (perhaps) the trials of European astronomers who were trying to prove that the earth was round and not flat. Shakespeare’s theatre was called The Globe, and so we can maybe assume that he was aware that the planet is not a disc. In this little segment of the text it’s fascinating that he combines the imagery of the ancient world (Phoebus, Neptune, Tellus) with the idea of the sun going around the earth over the course of the year. Obviously this is easy to overlook, but it’s an intriguing idea.