Duels in Hamlet

Hamlet Duel (1996)

Though Shakespeare’s Hamlet is very much the story of a renaissance prince, it’s important to remember that the play’s sources date back to the Dark Ages. The anonymous “UR-Hamlet,” (later published in the early 1590s ), is based on an ancient legend about a prince who fights to the death to revenge his father’s murder. Shakespeare’s adaptation still contains a nod to this ancient culture that praised and highly ritualized the concept of judicial combat.


Back in Anglo-Saxon times, private disputes, (such as the murder of one’s father) could be settled through means of a duel. In this period, England was occupied by the Danes, (which we would now call Vikings), and several Viking practices of judicial combat survive. For example, the Hólmgangan, an elaborate duel between two people who fight within the perimeter of a cloak.

At the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the revenge cycle between Hamlet, Leartes, and Fortinbras, comes to a close using a duel. Hamlet has murdered Leartes’ father but Hamlet did not intentionally kill him. This kind of legal dispute would certainly have been settled with a duel in Saxon times. This is one reason why Leartes scorns Hamlet’s offer of forgiveness at the beginning of the scene, and instead trusts in the outcome of the fight to prove his cause. Hamlet and Leartes begin fighting officially under the terms of a friendly fencing match, but it becomes clear early on that at least in the mind of Leartes, this is actually a blood-combat. He is demanding blood for the death of his father, as the Danes would have done during the Anglo Saxon times when Shakespeare’s source play of Hamlet was written.

What happens in the fight

Olivier’s Sword Fight in Act V, Scene iii (1948).

The sword fight at the end of Hamlet is surprising in many ways. First of all, it is much more choreographed than many of Shakespeare’s other fights which are usually dramatized on the page very simply with two words: “They fight.” In Hamlet by contrast, Shakespeare has a series of important and descriptive stage directions. Furthermore, the fight is divided into three distinct bouts or phrases, or if you like “mini fights.” Below is the full text of the fight. I shall then explain what happens in each phrase.

PHrase One


Shakespeare it very clear that Hamlet gets a normal fencing rapier, while Leartes gets a sharp one, they fight one fencing bout where Hamlet scores a point. This is the most “sportsman like” part of the fight:

Enter King, Queen, Laertes, Osric, and Lords, with other

Attendants with foils and gauntlets.

A table and flagons of wine on it.

Claudius. Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me.
[The King puts Laertes' hand into Hamlet's.]

Hamlet. Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong;
But pardon't, as you are a gentleman.
Laertes. I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive in this case should stir me most
To my revenge. But till that time
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it.3890
Hamlet. I embrace it freely,
And will this brother's wager frankly play.
Give us the foils. Come on.
Laertes. Come, one for me.
Hamlet. I'll be your foil, Laertes. In mine ignorance3895
Your skill shall, like a star i' th' darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.
Laertes. You mock me, sir.
Hamlet. No, by this hand.
Claudius. Give them the foils, young Osric. Cousin Hamlet,3900
You know the wager?
Hamlet. Very well, my lord.
Your Grace has laid the odds o' th' weaker side.
Claudius. I do not fear it, I have seen you both;
But since he is better'd, we have therefore odds.3905
Laertes. This is too heavy; let me see another.
Hamlet. This likes me well. These foils have all a length?
They Prepare to play.

Osric. Ay, my good lord.
Claudius. Set me the stoups of wine upon that table.3910
If Hamlet give the first or second hit,
Or quit in answer of the third exchange,
Let all the battlements their ordnance fire;
The King shall drink to Hamlet's better breath,
And in the cup an union shall he throw3915
Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark's crown have worn. Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth,3920
'Now the King drinks to Hamlet.' Come, begin.
And you the judges, bear a wary eye.
Hamlet. Come on, sir.
Laertes. Come, my lord. They play.
Hamlet. One.3925
Laertes. No.
Hamlet. Judgment!
Osric. A hit, a very palpable hit.
Laertes. Well, again!
Claudius. Stay, give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;3930
Here's to thy health.
[Drum; trumpets sound; a piece goes off [within].]
Give him the cup.
Hamlet. I'll play this bout first; set it by awhile.

Phrase Two

Mel Gibson in “Hamlet” (1990)
  • Claudius. Come. [They play.] Another hit. What say you?3935
  • LaertesA touch, a touch; I do confess’t.
  • ClaudiusOur son shall win.
  • GertrudeHe’s fat, and scant of breath.
    Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows.
    The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.3940
  • HamletGood madam!
  • ClaudiusGertrude, do not drink.
  • GertrudeI will, my lord; I pray you pardon me. Drinks.
  • Claudius[aside] It is the poison’d cup; it is too late.
  • HamletI dare not drink yet, madam; by-and-by.3945
  • GertrudeCome, let me wipe thy face.
  • LaertesMy lord, I’ll hit him now.
  • ClaudiusI do not think’t.
  • Laertes[aside] And yet it is almost against my conscience.

Again, Hamlet gets the upper hand and scores a point. While his mother is celebrating his victory, she accidently drinks the poisoned cup that Claudius meant for Hamlet. Now Claudius is enraged, Laertes is angry because of losing the first two bouts, and Hamlet is blissfully unaware that he is in mortal danger.

Phrase Three

When Hamlet isn’t expecting it, Leartes wounds him with the poisoned sword. From there, the fight degenerates into a violent, bloody mess where Hamlet disarms Laertes, then stabs Leartes. After this, the Queen dies, and Hamlet kills Claudius:

  • HamletCome for the third, Laertes! You but dally.3950
    Pray you pass with your best violence;
    I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
  • LaertesSay you so? Come on. Play.
  • OsricNothing neither way.
  • LaertesHave at you now!3955

[Laertes wounds Hamlet; then] in scuffling, they change rapiers, [and Hamlet wounds Laertes].

  • ClaudiusPart them! They are incens’d.
  • HamletNay come! again! The Queen falls.
  • OsricLook to the Queen there, ho!
  • HoratioThey bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?3960
  • OsricHow is’t, Laertes?
  • LaertesWhy, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric.I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.
  • HamletHow does the Queen?
  • ClaudiusShe sounds to see them bleed.
  • GertrudeNo, no! the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet!3965
    The drink, the drink! I am poison’d. [Dies.]
  • HamletO villany! Ho! let the door be lock’d.
    Treachery! Seek it out.

[Laertes falls.]

  • LaertesIt is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain;3970
    No medicine in the world can do thee good.
    In thee there is not half an hour of life.
    The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
    Unbated and envenom’d. The foul practice
    Hath turn’d itself on me. Lo, here I lie,3975
    Never to rise again. Thy mother’s poison’d.
    I can no more. The King, the King’s to blame.
  • HamletThe point envenom’d too?
    Then, venom, to thy work. Hurts the King.
  • AllTreason! treason!3980
  • ClaudiusO, yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.
  • HamletHere, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane,
    Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?
    Follow my mother. King dies.

God’s providence in Hamlet (or lack therEof)

It is telling that everyone dies in this scene, which indicates that the concept of providence seems somewhat ambiguous in this scene- yes, Claudius dies but so does Hamlet. In addition, Leartes dies justly for his own treachery as he claims, but he also tries to avoid damnation. Leartes is guilty of treason for killing Hamlet, but Hamlet is guilty of killing an old man and a young maid, so Leartes asks God to forgive Hamlet for two murders, while he has only committed one. Providence doesn’t seem clear which crimes are worse. Further, Providence fails to reveal the guilt or innocence of Queen Gertrude- did she know her second husband murdered her first? Did she support Hamlet’s banishment? Did she know the cup was poisoned, and is therefore guilty of suicide, or was she ignorant and punished by fate for her adultery and incest? Knowing the conventions of judicial combat help the reader understand the compex world of Hamlet, a world devoid of easy answers.

How Would I Stage the Fight?

Phrase 1
I want the two combatants to start en guarde, their blades touching, then there will be a series of attacks on the blade.
Hamlet will advance and attack the low line of Leartes’ sword
Hamlet will advance and attack the high line of Leartes’ sword
Leartes will advance and beat attack the high line of Hamlet’s sword
Leartes will advance and attack the low line of Hamlet’s sword

Hamlet performs a bind on Leartes’ sword, sending it off on a diagonal high line.
Hamlet attacks Leartes leg and Leartes will react in mild pain.

Phrase 2
Leartes is no longer fighting in polite manner, so this will be the real fight where he’s actually going for targets
Hamlet and Leartes come together and bow,
Both go into en guarde and Osric signals the start of the fight.
Hamlet attacks Leartes’ blade high
Leartes attacks Hamlet’s blade low
Leartes suddenly does a moulinet and attacks Hamlet’s right arm. Hamlet does a pass back and parries 3
Leartes attacks Hamlet’s Left Arm. Hamlet does another pass back and parries 4
Leartes cuts for Hamlet’s head. Hamlet passes back and does a hanging parry 6, which causes the sword to slide off.
Hamlet ripostes, slips around Leartes’ ________side, and thrusts offline in suppination. He then flicks the sword, hiting the back of Leartes’ knee.
Phrase 3
Concern- you need to have enough space for Hamlet to chase Leartes DS, and for Leartes to slice Hamlet with the forte of his sword.
Before the bout is supposed to start, Hamlet walks toward the sword, point down to Leartes US L or USR
“I am afeard you make a wanton of me”
Leartes: “You mock me sir!”
Hamlet: “No, by this hand”
Hamlet presents his hand. Leartes places his sword on it, and slices it
Leartes gives Hamlet a stomach punch
Hamlet falls to his knees dropping the sword. If necessary, Hamlet can pull out a blood pack to put on his hand.

Leartes points his blade above Hamlet’s head, then brings it back, preparing to strike off Hamlet’s head.
Leartes: “Have at you now”
Hamlet ducks to the right, with his leg extended.
Leartes Passes forward, trips on Hamlet’s leg. Hamlet does a slip and goes behind Leartes’ back.
Hamlet rabbit punches Leartes on the back, picks up Leartes’ sword, noticing the blood on it
Leartes slowly rises, then notices Hamlet with his sword, he quickly grabs Hamlet’s weapon
Hamlet shoves Leartes DS into a corp a corp, then traps Leartes’ blade
The two push each other for a while

Osric: “Nothing Neither way”
Hamlet pushes Leartes downstage, then slices him across the back.
Leartes stops DS, and falls to the ground

Murder of Claudius
If Claudius is standing, we can have Horatio grab the king around the neck, Hamlet places the sword across Claudius’ stomach, and slices him.
If Claudius is seated, Hamlet picks up the goblet with one hand, slices the king’s leg, then, (after establishing a good distance), Hamlet points the blade off line, just left of Claudius’ neck. Hamlet is giving Claudius a choice- drink or be stabbed. When Claudius chooses to drink, either Hamlet or Horatio can give him the cup. If Horatio gives it to Claudius, it might give him the idea to die later.

Sources:

Sources-

  1. Ur- Hamlet
  2. Lear source- Hollinshed’s Chronicles
  3. Holm ganner
  4. JSTOR
  5. Dr. Cole
  6. Bf paper on duels
  7. Tony Robinson’s Crime and Punishment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yz9VLkNHJU&feature=youtu.be
  8. Truth Of the Swordhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFL2ghH0RLs
  9. Secrets Of the VIking Sword http://youtu.be/nXbLyVpWsVM
  10. Ancient Inventions- War and Conflict http://youtu.be/IuyztjReB6A
  11. Terry Jones- Barbarians (the Savage Celts) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSuizSkHpxI
  12.  Joe Martinez book

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to do some stage combat of your own, sign up for one of my stage combat classes on Outschool.com!

Title image for my Stage Combat Course

Heaven and Hell through Shakespeare’s Eyes

Since Easter, and Passover are coming up, (and we are already in the middle of Rhamadan), I thought I’d examine Shakespeare’s depiction of other worlds both celestial and infernal. As the quote above says, philosophers and poets often wonder what greets us in the hereafter, so let me be your guide through Shakespeare’s poetic renderings of heaven and he’ll, accompanied by some gorgeous artwork from HC Selous, William Blake, and others.

The whitewashed images of Shakespeare’s childhood

Fisher, Thomas (1781? -1836), “Chapel of the Trinity at Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire” [1804?]. ART Vol. d58 nos.1, 3.

Shakespeare was no doubt interested in religion. He quotes from and alludes to the Bible many times in his plays. More importantly, he lived in a time when the national religion changed three times in just 4 years! When Henry VIII changed England to a protestant country, the religious identity of England completely changed:

This change was not just felt in monestaries, but in all English churches. King Henry decreed that certain Catholic traditions like Purgatory, indulgences, and praying to saints were idolatrous, and were therefore banned in the Church of England. So, when Shakespeare’s father was called to destroy the “idolatrous” images of the Last Judgement in the Guild Chapel of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, he had no choice but to comply. If you click on the link below, you can see a detailed description of the images that Shakespeare no doubt knew well in his family’s church, until his father was forced to literally whitewash them.

https://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/exhibition/exhibition/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel/object/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel-thomas-fishers-lithograph-of-the-doom-painting

Purgatory and the harrowing of hell

Like the images on the Stratford Guild chapel, the ideas of Catholic England didn’t disappear, they were merely hidden from view. Shakespeare refers to these Catholic ideas many times in his plays, especially in Hamlet, a play where a young scholar, who goes to the same school as Martin Luther, is wrestling with the idea of whether the ghost he has seen is a real ghost from purgatory, or a demon from hell, (as protestant churches preached in Shakespeare’s life).

I’ve written before that the ghost of Hamlet’s father teases us with the possibility that he might be a soul in purgatory, the Catholic afterlife realm for those not evil enough for Hell, nor good enough for Heaven. At the height of their powers, monks and bishops sold prayers called indulgences that supposedly allowed a soul’s loved ones to buy them time out of purgatory, thus making them able to ascend to Heaven quicker. The image above is an illustration from Purgatorio, part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he visits the soul of
Buonconte da Montefeltro, who is languishing because he doesn’t yet have the strength to get out of purgatory and enter Heaven.

Of course, the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I abolished indulgences and proclaimed that purgatory itself didn’t exist, but ideas can’t die, and I feel that Shakespeare was at least inspired by the notion of purgatory, even if he didn’t believe in it himself.

“It Harrows me with fear and wonder.”

(Horatio) Hamlet, Act I, Scene i.

Lucifer and the vice of kings

As a young boy, William Shakespeare was entertained by medieval Mystery plays; amateur theater pieces performed by local artisans that dramatized great stories from the Bible. We know this because he refers to many of the characters in these mystery plays in his own work, especially the villains. King Herod is mentioned in Hamlet and many other plays in and many of Shakespeare’s villains seem to be inspired by the biblical Lucifer, as portrayed in Medieval Mystery Plays.

In this short video of the Yorkshire Mystery play “The Rise and Fall of Lucifer,” we see God (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart), creating Lucifer as a beautiful angel, who then, dissatisfied with his place in God’s kingdom, is transformed into an ugly devil. At first, Lucifer mourns losing his place in Paradise, but then finds comfort by becomming God’s great antagonist.

Compare this character arc with Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester, who also blames his unhappiness on God, (since he feels his disability and deformity are a result of God’s curse). Richard is angry with God, nature, and society, so he wages against them all to become king.

“Then since the heavens hath shaped my body so, let Hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.”

Richard of Gloucester, Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene i.

“All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.”

Lucifer― John Milton, Paradise Lost

Journeys into Hell

ClaudioAy, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!

—Measure For Measure, Act III, Scene i

Inferno: Traitors
José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), Charon’s Boat

“Methought I crossed the meloncholy flood with that grim ferryman the poets write of, into the kingdom of perpetual night.”

— Richard III, Act I, Scene iv.
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! - Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene iii.

Sources:

https://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/exhibition/exhibition/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel/object/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel-thomas-fishers-lithograph-of-the-doom-painting

https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Idolatry:_Icons_and_Iconoclasm



Roman Women Week!

Since International Women’s Day is tomorrow, I’m devoting this week to talking about the awesome female characters in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: Titus, Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus

First, here’s my post and an accompanying podcast on Roman women, which includes an analysis of Lavinia, Portia, Valumnia, and Cleopatra:

Here’s a fascinating video about the lives of Roman girls:

And here’s a special section about Cleopatra:

Comedy sketches about Cleopatra from “Horrible Histories” BBC, 2015.
cleopatra facts infographics in 2021 | Cleopatra facts, Ancient history  facts, Cleopatra history
A Lady-Gaga-esque song about Cleopatra from “Horrible Histories,” 2014
Infographic from an article about Cleopatra’s beauty regimen. Source: http://socialdiary.pk/

New Outschool Course: Christmas For William Shakespeare

Title card for my new online course, What Was Christmas Like For William Shakespeare?
The goal of this class is to learn about both Shakespeare and the Elizabethan period through the lens of Christmas. I will begin by asking the class "What traditions do you think of when you think of Christmas?  We will then contrast the traditions of Christmas from the 17th century and now, including a brief period when Christmas itself was illegal.

 Once I have contextualized this period, we will then go through the plot, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s most famous Christmas play- “Twelfth Night.”


Slideshare presentation I made about the play Twelfth Night
The class will include videos, multimedia presentations, virtual tours, interactive quizzes, and online activities. The students will play games inspired by real Elizabethan Christmas traditions, get some festive recipes, and learn what it was like to be an actor in Shakespeare's company, when they performed "Twelfth Night" and other plays before Queen Elizabeth and King James.

The Plot of Macbeth

This video is part of my Outschool course “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I use it to explain the plot of the play before playing a game and an escape room to test the student’s knowledge. Let me know in the comments what you think of it, and if you like it, please consider signing up for the course on Outschool.com

What Does Shakespeare Say About Ireland 🇮🇪?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The Emerald Isle has long been a source of illumination for poet’s pens and Shakespeare was no exception. The Bard of Avon is indebted to Mother Ireland not only for the inspiration he took, but sadly for the pain he gave her back.

None of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Ireland, but he freely adapted elements from Irish folklore. English poet Edmund Spencer visited Ireland in the 1590s and adapted the folklore he picked up into his opera The Fairy Queen, which Shakespeare adapted into A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Irish created and continue to tell many of the fairy legends and stories that we retell and adapt today. If you go to Lullymore park in Ireland, you can see a place that is essentially a “Fairy preserve.”

Types of fairies you can “spot” at the Lullymore Park in Ireland:

The old stories tell that Fairies are magical creatures who live in hollow places in the earth. Some are benevolent and help give rain and pleasant weather to the Earth, Like the king and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania:

And the mazed world,
By their [the tides] increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

— Titania, (Queen of the Faries), A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II, Scene i.

Titania in this speech shows great concern for nature, humanity, and the planet. She believes it is the responsibility of fairies, particularly herself and her husband Oberon, to control the elements and keep humans and fairies safe. Some fairies, however, are cruel and enjoy playing tricks on mortals, just like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet.

.

This is a short analysis I created of the tricks Puck plays on people in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as part of my acting course on Ouschool.com. Note the different ways Puck is portrayed in photos as a satyr, a rotund elf, and sometimes as an almost- demon like figure.

Cringe-worthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s only Irish character, captain mcmorris in “Henry V”

When Shakespeare is racially insensitive towards people of color, the cringe-worthy writing is mercifully few and far between. With the exception of Aaron the Moor and Don Armada, there are only a few sporadic derogatory references to non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Sadly though, Shakespeare might have permanently harmed the Irish through his character the Irish captain Macmorris in Henry the Fifth, his only Irish character.

According to The Irish Times, there is a longstanding stereotype that still exists in the British Isles that Irish people are violent, short-tempered, and essentially savages and Shakespeare might have invented this stereotype (or at least popularized it) when he wrote this scene from Henry the Fifth, Act III, Scene ii:

FLUELLEN
To the mines! tell you the duke, it is not so good
to come to the mines; for, look you, the mines is
not according to the disciplines of the war: the
concavities of it is not sufficient; for, look you,
the athversary, you may discuss unto the duke, look
you, is digt himself four yard under the
countermines: by Cheshu, I think a' will plough up
all, if there is not better directions.
GOWER
The Duke of Gloucester, to whom the order of the
siege is given, is altogether directed by an
Irishman, a very valiant gentleman, i' faith.
FLUELLEN
It is Captain Macmorris, is it not?
GOWER
I think it be.
FLUELLEN
By Cheshu, he is an ass, as in the world: I will
verify as much in his beard: be has no more
directions in the true disciplines of the wars, look
you, of the Roman disciplines, than is a puppy-dog.
Enter MACMORRIS and Captain JAMY
GOWER
Here a' comes; and the Scots captain, Captain Jamy, with him.
FLUELLEN
Captain Jamy is a marvellous falourous gentleman,
that is certain; and of great expedition and
knowledge in th' aunchient wars, upon my particular
knowledge of his directions: by Cheshu, he will
maintain his argument as well as any military man in
the world, in the disciplines of the pristine wars
of the Romans.
JAMY
I say gud-day, Captain Fluellen.
FLUELLEN
God-den to your worship, good Captain James.
GOWER
How now, Captain Macmorris! have you quit the
mines? have the pioneers given o'er?
MACMORRIS
By Chrish, la! tish ill done: the work ish give
over, the trompet sound the retreat. By my hand, I
swear, and my father's soul, the work ish ill done;
it ish give over: I would have blowed up the town, so
Chrish save me, la! in an hour: O, tish ill done,
tish ill done; by my hand, tish ill done!
FLUELLEN
Captain Macmorris, I beseech you now, will you
voutsafe me, look you, a few disputations with you,
as partly touching or concerning the disciplines of
the war, the Roman wars, in the way of argument,
look you, and friendly communication; partly to
satisfy my opinion, and partly for the satisfaction,
look you, of my mind, as touching the direction of
the military discipline; that is the point.
JAMY
It sall be vary gud, gud feith, gud captains bath:
and I sall quit you with gud leve, as I may pick
occasion; that sall I, marry.
MACMORRIS
It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save me: the
day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the
king, and the dukes: it is no time to discourse. The
town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the
breach; and we talk, and, be Chrish, do nothing:
'tis shame for us all: so God sa' me, 'tis shame to
stand still; it is shame, by my hand: and there is
throats to be cut, and works to be done; and there
ish nothing done, so Chrish sa' me, la!
JAMY
By the mess, ere theise eyes of mine take themselves
to slomber, ay'll de gud service, or ay'll lig i'
the grund for it; ay, or go to death; and ay'll pay
't as valourously as I may, that sall I suerly do,
that is the breff and the long. Marry, I wad full
fain hear some question 'tween you tway.
FLUELLEN
Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your
correction, there is not many of your nation--
MACMORRIS
Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain,
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish
my nation? Who talks of my nation?
FLUELLEN
Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is
meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think
you do not use me with that affability as in
discretion you ought to use me, look you: being as
good a man as yourself, both in the disciplines of
war, and in the derivation of my birth, and in
other particularities.
MACMORRIS
I do not know you so good a man as myself: so
Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.
GOWER
Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other.
JAMY
A! that's a foul fault.
A parley sounded
GOWER
The town sounds a parley.
FLUELLEN
Captain Macmorris, when there is more better
opportunity to be required, look you, I will be so
bold as to tell you I know the disciplines of war;
and there is an end.
Exeunt

Irish History and Shakespeare: The tempestous relationship between england and Ireland

The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,

Henry V, Act V Chorus

National Portrait Gallery painting of Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Wikimedia Commons.
Robert Devereax, 2nd Earl of Essex (National Portrait Gallery)
Hugh, O’Neill, Earl of Tyronne

James Shapiro in his excellent book, A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599, posits that contemporary affairs in Ireland might have inspired some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays in including Richard II, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. In 1594 the Earl of Tyrone began a rebellion in Ireland against the English, and in 1599, Queen Elizabeth dispatched the ambitious and chivalrous Earl of Essex to quell it. As you can see in the quote above, Shakespeare mentions Essex’s fight in his play of Henry V, which probably premiered at around the same time Essex was in Ireland.

The audience may have been watching Henry conquer France, but many would have been thinking about Elizabeth’s struggle to conquer Ireland.

BBC Radio 4 Extra – Shakespeare’s Restless World, Ireland: Failures in the Present – Transcript – Shakespeare’s Restless World – Programme 7

Though King Henry successfully conquered and united England and France, Essex failed spectacularly, and Elizabeth was deeply embarrassed by the whole scenario. She was also deeply alarmed by the popularity of Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard II, which shows onstage the deposing and killing of a king who had no children and failed to quell a rebellion in Ireland.

Elizabeth was worried about her subjects but she was also very worried about Essex overseas. Everyone, (including Shakespeare), remembered that 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar went from him the Senate’s Consul General to dictator by amassing an army, then threatening to invade Rome under the pretense of helping to quell a foreign invasion. Caesar made his name by subjugating tribes in Gaul (modern-day France), and the Senate was worried that he would come home and use his army for a military coup. Look at the expressions on the faces of Cicero and Brutus when they see Caesar coming home in triumph in this scene from the HBO series Rome.

Elizabeth repeatedly attempted to curb Essex’s power while he was fighting in Ireland; she refused to give the Earl more troops for fear that he might be staging a potential coup. Her fears would later be proven right when in 1602, Essex attempted to head a rebellion and take the Crown for himself, but not before one of Essex’s friends commissioned Shakespeare’s company to portray the deposing and killing of King Richard II. Essex was trying to turn himself from a failed Henry V to a victorious Henry IV, and his queen into Richard II.

Left- deposition form the interrogation of Augustine Phillips, one of the actors in Shakespeare’s company about his company’s potential involvement with the Essex rebellion. Right- the hanging of Cinna the poet from Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare might have been inspired to write Julius Caesar after being an unwitting pawn in the political drama between Essex and the queen, and might have even created the character of Cinna the Poet as an analog for Shakespeare himself. In the play, Cinna the poet is mistaken for one of the conspirators by an angry mob and is murdered in the street. Perhaps Shakespeare created Cinna the Poet as a way of coping with the fear he must have had that people might mistake him for a radical, after his play Richard II briefly made him a walking target for those opposed to Essex’s rebellion. In any case, Julius Caesar eloquently documents the kind of anxiety of not knowing who could be trusted when it comes to politics, whether it be a populist warrior like Julius Caesar or Essex, or the Queen, privy council, or indeed Roman senate, and the whole thing started from a failed attempt to quell a rebellion in Ireland.

In summation, even though Shakespeare sets no plays in Ireland, Irish history and Irish culture are everywhere in his plays. England and Ireland are I are indeed separate islands but the cultural exchange between England and Ireland has inspired Shakespeare and many other great writers for centuries. After all Shakespeare’s most famous honorific, ‘the Bard of Avon’ comes from an ancient Irish tradition of semi-mystical poets, who in Irish folklore, were able to see the future and glimpse worlds that are unseen to ordinary mortals. What Shakespeare really felt about Ireland we don’t know but we do him but he does owe the Irish people a lot of thanks, and on this  Saint Patrick’s day, I honor their contribution to him and to him all the world

References:

Shapiro, James. A Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599. Chapter 6: Things Dying and Things Reborn.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3fLDRSY7r9rJhrVFWy99Mly/transcript-shakespeares-restless-world-programme-7

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/theatre-arts/is-shakespeare-responsible-for-the-stage-irishman-34638347.html

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/what-ish-my-nation-shakespeare-s-irish-connections-1.2619173

How did Shakespeare Celebrate Halloween?

Let me begin by admitting that this post was harder to write than my Christmas post because pre Christian traditions are harder to pin down. In addition, to give you my standard disclaimer, I don’t believe it’s really possible to definitively know how or if Shakespeare celebrated Halloween, but since the history of Halloween is long and fascinating, and since Shakespeare’s plays influenced that history, I feel it’s worth exploring.

Part I: Origins of Halloween

Almost every culture on Earth has a middle fall celebration that calls to mind the bounty of the harvest, and the inevitable approach of winter. Most of our Halloween traditions are based on the ancient European festival of Samhuin.

What is Samhuin?

Over 2,000 years ago, the Celts inhabited much of the British Isles. They believed in many gods and spirits that controlled nature and the seasons. To thank the gods for the harvest the Celts gave them offerings like apples, and threw parties to celebrate the gods’ bounty.

When the Romans conquered the Celts, they co-opted some of their religious practices. For instance the tradition of giving apples as offerings to the Roman goddess Pomona. This tradition of course, evolved into our modern Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples. Honoring the harvest also went hand in hand with darker traditions; ones inspired by fear of death, decay, and evil spirits.

With the Sun dying and the Earth growing cold in late October, cultures like the Celts and the Romans feared that evil fairies and ghosts could cross over into our world. In particular the Celts believed that around the night of October 31st, the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest.

Samhuinn was a liminal time between our world and the Otherworld. It’s a night when the souls of dead loved ones as well as spirits and fairies – the aos sí in Irish mythology and aes sídhe or sìth in Scottish mythology – could come through to visit. Deceased family members were honoured with seats at the evening feast, and offerings of milk and baked goods were left at the front door for the Fairies. Source: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/edinburghs-samhuinn-fire-festival-and-the-origins-of-halloween/

At some point people decided to dress up as the spirits to ward them off, and this evolved into our modern day trick or treating.

These traditions did not die once England became Christian, (after it was conquered by the Romans), they simply translated into a different form. Halloween actually translates as “All Hallows Eve, a Catholic celebration of of dressing up as pagan spirits and giving offerings of the harvest to honor Catholic saints as well as departed love ones.

Part II: What might Shakespeare have done?

Although Shakespeare never directly mentions Halloween, he lived in a world that kept many of these folk traditions alive. Shakespeare was the grandson of a farmer and his father was a devout Catholic, so he probably was brought up in these ancient Halloween traditions. He probably would have attended some kind of harvest festival to celebrate the bounty of the summer, and might have put food out for his departed family members.

Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou, cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his ‘cuckold’ horns as he returns to his kingdom in the otherworld. On the Isle of Man in the Irish sea, the Manx celebrate Hop-tu-Naa, which is a celebration of the original New Year’s Eve and children dress as scary beings, carry turnips and go from home to home asking for sweets or money. Source: https://theancientweb.com/2010/10/the-origins-of-halloween-part-1/

Call me a softie but I really like the idea of Shakespeare baking treats like soul cakes for neighborhood kids or telling scary stories about a bonfire. The kornigou is more commonly known as the Soul Cake, and it’s still popular today. It’s even been immortalized in song: https://youtu.be/j35dvmdse9k You can even make it yourself: www.cardamomdaysfood.com/recipe/soul-cakes/

Another tradition was dancing around ancient Celtic burial mounds. According to tradition, these mounds were home to spirits and Fairies, and could be portals to the land of the dead. In Irish folklore, poets and storytellers had the power to pass between these two realms. Maybe Shakespeare himself visited such a mound in his youth and was inspired to write about the fairy queen Titania and the hobgoblin Robin Goodfellow. Archeologists are still learning about these ancient mounds today:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/researchers-analyze-burial-ancient-celtic-prince-180963515

https://youtu.be/gnFv0D

Theater

The most tantalizing ancient Halloween tradition is mumming, a kind of amateur theater practiced by the ancient Celts. Like modern Sunday school plays the plays were a religious ritual designed goal to honor the gods and the harvest.

Mumming, a type of folk play, was used to tell traditional Samhuinn stories about battles or the winter goddess Cailleach (meaning “old hag”), who began winter by washing her hair in the whirlpool of Corryvreck.

For a modern example of this of these traditions you can look at the Edinburgh fire festival which preserves the kind of mumming that the Celts might have done on Samhuin and Shakespeare might have seen. It’s highly ritualistic, immersive, and the characters have spooky similarities to some of Shakespeare’s plays.

To give you an idea of how mumming might have influenced Shakespeare, watch this trailer for the 2017 Edinburgh Fire Festival:

What you can see in the trailer:

1. Keening- the wild women screaming as a way to lament, honor, and guide the dead. Characters like Constance in King John have many similar qualities.

2. The fight between the Summer King and the Winter Lord. Many Celtic stories dramatize the change of seasons from summer to winter as a battle. Even the duel between King Arthur and his young son Mordred could be seen in this context. In another interesting interpretation, Jennifer Lee Carroll in her book Haunt Me Still, interprets this mummers play as a pagan retelling of the story of Macbeth.

3. You can see brightly colored figures some designed to honor the changing of the seasons, and wild, animalistic people, presumably playing the roles of the Fairies, goblins, or other creatures that appear on Samhuin. It’s not much of a stretch to see these figures as the Fairies of Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the witches of Macbeth.

Part III: What did Shakespeare mention about Halloween?

Ghosts appear in five of Shakespeare’s plays. We see reference to all kinds of Fairies, goblins, and spirits and even a couple times people dressing up to ward off evil. In Titus Andronicus, the queen of the Goths disguises herself and her sons as spirits of revenge and go to Titus’ house to torment him, and then the old man Titus tricking them into coming to his house, where he takes his revenge.

One Shakespeare play that I think perfectly encapsulates the Halloween traditions of the English countryside is Merry Wives Of Windsor, specifically the scene in which Falstaff is tormented by a ghost story.

In the play, the fat, drunk knight Sir John Falstaff has been trying to seduce two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Page devises a plan to scare and humiliate Falstaff, by dressing up her husband as the terrifying ghost of Herne the Hunter:

• 4.4 MISTRESS PAGE

• There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,

Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;

And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle

And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain

In a most hideous and dreadful manner:

You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know

The superstitious idle-headed eld

Received and did deliver to our age

This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.

Herne the Hunter is a real medieval legend about a man who was hanged for poaching deer in Windsor park and now haunts the forest with horns on his head. Not only does Master Ford dress as Herne, The witty housewives dress the neighborhood children like Fairies and instruct them to pinch the fat knight and burn him with lit candles. Essentially this scene is a Shakespearean trick or treating moment with a ghost story to boot. Plus as Mistress Page mentioned, the ghost haunts Windsor towards the the oncoming of Winter, so it’s not entirely unlikely that it would be that this scene was originally played around the time of Halloween.

How did Shakespeare contribute?

Scholars describe Shakespeare’s mind like a magpie, taking myths, legends, history, and books to come up with his own plays. As you have seen, the ancient traditions of Halloween had a powerful effect on Shakespeare’s plays. But, did he contribute to those traditions himself? I would say yes in a big way. First of all the image of Hamlet holding a skull has inspired many other Halloween images:

David Tennant in Hamlet, RSC 2008

Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993.

But I think Shakespeare’s greatest contribution to how we celebrate Halloween are centered within the witches of Macbeth.

Though Shakespeare by no means invented the concept of witchcraft, he did popularize the idea of the wicked witch, and helped form our modern view of what a witch is. The image he created in Macbeth

As you’ve seen, Shakespeare conjured the witches in Macbeth by infusing Celtic traditions like the wise woman with her chants and her cauldron, and infused her with the 17th century fear of witchcraft. Remember that Shakespeare’s patron King James was terrified of witchcraft and believed that he might be targeted by demonic forces. Shakespeare masterfully created some frightening witches that inspire Macbeth to do some terrible deeds, but adamantly deny that any harm will come to the English king, prophesying his bloodline will “Stretch out to the crack of doom.”

More than that, I would argue that the modern wicked witch would be all but silent without Shakespeare. When you think of what a witch might say, besides a series of high pitched cackling, what do you think of? Probably you think of this:

Or this:

Shakespeare’s bizarre and cryptic language helped inspire countless other interpretations of witches, and thus, a way for audiences to deal with the temptations that lurk in our hearts.

In conclusion, we don’t know how Shakespeare celebrated Halloween or even if he did to begin with; Halloween and Shakespeare’s life are both frought with mystery and legend, but one thing is dead certain; Halloween would not be the same without him. He absorbed the ancient rituals of the Celts and Romans and crafted some modern Halloween ideas and images that endure to this day.

Sources

https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Halloween/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/15169373

http://m.ncregister.com/daily-news/ghosts-and-the-catholic-church-pointing-to-the-permanence-of-the-soul


Thanks very much for reading! If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my new “Macbeth” online class via Outschool.com. One really fun part of the class will be an escape room where you use your knowledge of Macbeth to escape a cursed castle: