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For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v. In this speech, Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits to make her cold and remorseless, so that she can convince her husband to kill the king, and take the throne.
Lady Macbeth. The raven himself is hoarse That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements. Come, you spirits390 That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature395 Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,400 And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry ‘Hold, hold!’ Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, Lines 388-403.
The Given Circumstances
Lady Macbeth has just received a letter from her husband. That letter informs her the witches prophesied he would be king. Soon after she’s finished reading it, another messenger, (hoarse and out of breath), tells her that King Duncan will be staying at her castle tonight! Lady Macbeth immediately sees this as the perfect opportunity to make her husband king, by plotting to murder Duncan as he sleeps under her roof.
I’ve seen at least six productions of “Macbeth” and when it comes to this scene I think the main interpretations I see are either that Lady Macbeth is gleefully evil, or highly sexual. While it is true that she is praying to dark spirits, and her language when she speaks to Macbeth is sexually charged, I feel that these are not the only options when playing this character.
I love the regal poise of Francis in this 2021 movie. She is utterly in control and has absolutely no qualms about murder. I get the sense that she’s more praying to Mercury to get her to speak daggers to her husband, instead of to Lucifer to help her use one. She even has knives coming out of her ears (look at those earings!) This Lady Macbeth doesn’t seem evil in the sense of a cartoon villain. She’s just a woman in a violent society who believes that regicide is an acceptable way to sieze power. I think in this world, might makes right.
By contrast, Judy Dench in the 1979 RSC production is also very human. Her spirits are like… well spirits. You get the sense that she’s taking a swig of liquid courage to get her to go through with these actions which SHE KNOWS ARE WRONG.
Ravens in Greek and Norse myths were birds of prophecy and associated with the goddess of magic, Hecate (who appears in the play in Act IV). Ravens often appeared to announce deaths or execution. The speech is also full of imagery that rejects traditionally ‘feminine’ virtues. Lady Macbeth seems to associate womanhood with kindness, mercy, pity, and remorse and thus attempts to shed her femininity to accomplish her cruel objective of killing Duncan.
The Rauen himselfe is hoarse, That croakes the fatall entrance of Duncan Vnder my Battlements. Come you Spirits, That tend on mortall thoughts, vnsex me here, And fill me from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full Of direst Crueltie: make thick my blood, Stop vp th'accesse, and passage to Remorse, That no compunctious visitings of Nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keepe peace betweene Th'effect, and hit. Come to my Womans Brests, And take my Milke for Gall, you murth'ring Ministers, Where-euer, in your sightlesse substances, You wait on Natures Mischiefe. Come thick Night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoake of Hell, That my keene Knife see not the Wound it makes, Nor Heauen peepe through the Blanket of the darke, To cry, hold, hold. Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, First Folio Reprint from Internet Shakespeare Editions.
It’s interesting to note that (in the First Folio text) this speech is only three sentences long. It is a constant build up of energy with only three stops. In addition, Shakespeare puts the most important words, at the end of each line. Almost every line ends with something Lady M wants to kill, such as Duncan, or wants to kill within herself (peace, remorse, nature, Woman(hood). The verse also has commands strewn about in the beginnings and ends of lines. The question is, how confident does Lady Macbeth feel while giving them?
Questions to consider
One of the biggest questions I have with this play is why Lady Macbeth and her husband want to be king and queen anyway? After all, Shakespeare has written plenty of plays that detail how hard and stressful (uneasy) it is to be king. Plus, Macbeth is already a trusted lord and friend of the king, why would he want to damn himself to get a job he knows isn’t his to take? I think that, especially now in the 21st century, it’s very important to have a coherent motive for why the Macbeths are willing to kill for the crown.
Looking over the text, my actress sensed a deep loneliness in Lady Macbeth and a haunted feeling that makes her seem desperate to change her life. I thought about how insomnia and paranoid fears are repeated motifs in the play, as well as character traits found in both Macbeth and later Lady Macbeth. Then I thought- Macbeth is a soldier; his wife has probably had to spend years wondering if he is going to come home and imagining what kind of terrible death he might suffer on the battlefield While the king sits safely at home. Perhaps she sees killing the king as a form of revenge for all the fear and sleepless nights she’s experienced, and an attempt to protect her husband from war, by safely placing him on the throne. Maybe she sees this as the only way to make sure her beloved husband never dies in battle. Therefore, instead of watching an evil woman become more evil, you’re watching a good woman, (with good intentions), damn herself for love, which I would argue is a much more active and dynamic choice.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is an age old tale. Like Cinderella it has been reinterpreted throughout time and in many different cultures. Here are a few interesting highlights in the old legend and how it got to Shakespeare in the 1600s.
The Princess Who Loved Her Father More Than Salt
This is an old folktale from my favorite podcast, Journey With Story, which starts with the Cordelia/ Lear plot of a foolish king who banishes his honest daughter. Then through extraordinary circumstances it becomes a Cinderella story. I think at some point these two stories were one and the same until they diverged and one became a story about an absent father and a wicked stepmother, while the other became about a wicked father and a dead mother.
The ancient ballad of King Leir, which helped inspire Shakespeare. It serves as a cautionary tale against flattery, and it places equal blame on Lear and his daughters:
And calling to remembrance then His youngest daughters words, That said the duty of a child Was all that love affords: But doubting to repair to her, Whom he had banish'd so, Grew frantick mad; for in his mind He bore the wounds of woe:
Which made him rend his milk-white locks, And tresses from his head, And all with blood bestain his cheeks, With age and honour spread. To hills and woods and watry founts He made his hourly moan, Till hills and woods and sensless things, Did seem to sigh and groan.
Even thus possest with discontents, He passed o're to France, In hopes from fair Cordelia there, To find some gentler chance; Most virtuous dame! which when she heard, Of this her father's grief, As duty bound, she quickly sent Him comfort and relief
The characters of Gloucester and his children, Kent, and the Fool are absent in this ballad, but unlike the fairy tale above, both Lear and Cordelia die in each other’s arms.
The Annonymous History of King Leir, (first published c. 1594)
This play was written for Shakespeare’s rival acting company The Queen’s Men around 1590). Since the Queen was patronizing the company, most of their plays were government-funded propeganda. For instance, it was the Queen’s men who first did a tragedy of the wicked King Richard III.
If you watch the first 20 minutes of the documentary above, you will see that Wood and many other scholars believe Shakespeare must have worked for the Queen’s men, or at least performed their scripts, since they did their own versions of King Lear, Richard III, King John, and Henry V.
However Shakespeare got a hold of The Queen’s Men’s scripts, he didn’t adhere to them rigidly. Their King Lear follows the fairy-tale / history format of having Cordelia be banished, disguise herself as a peasant (like Cap ‘O Rushes in the earlier version), and eventually she is restored to her rightful place. Shakespeare’s version must have been a MASSIVE shock to anyone who read these old tales and ballads. In Shakespeare’s version, everyone dies and there is no guarantee that the kingdom will survive. Every other tragedy ends with a new king or emperor to take over the kingdom but Lear leaves the audience with a sense of apocolypse; that Lear’s madness and Edmund’s machinations have doomed England and all these characters’ lives will be erased by Time.
As pessimistic as Shakespeare’s Lear is, it does seem more true to life than the previous versions. Perhaps this is because of a legal case from 1603 that might have inspired Shakespear to adapt the story: In 1603, two daughters tried to have their father declared insane. By an astonishing coincidence, the third daughter, who protested, happened to be named Cordelia! Perhaps Shakespeare, (who had three children and was preparing to retire), might have been inspired by this case and worried he might suffer the same fate.
Stagecraft has a fascinating and interesting history. The way we portray spectacle on stage has changed a lot since the advent of television and movies, which utilize computers and animatronics, etc. to create impossible things that could never be is shown live. In a way, the pre-recorded nature of film and TV gives theater practitioners an advantage because the more clever they are with their stagecraft, the more impressive it is for the simple fact that it is live- happening right now in front of an audience.
What I want to do with this post is to speculate whether, with the technology of the time, if Shakespeare could have used some kind of visual spectacle to portray otherworldly creatures, such as the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth
The conventional wisdom
Most books I’ve read on Elizabethan stagecraft say that the theaters of this era were very minimalistic in design. They had trap doors, they had galleries, they had a primitive flying rig, and they had music and some simple sound effects, but most of the experience was watching the actors, their costumes, their bodies, and hearing their voices hence ‘audience’- audio, “To hear.”
We are told there wasn’t much visual representation of spectacle and fantasy on Shakespeare’s stage, which which is is odd because there are some pretty fantastical elements in his plays, especially Hamlet and Macbeth, where the former calls for a ghost and the latter calls for a ghost, witches, and a literal goddess to appear on stage. How may one ask, was this achieved back in Shakespeare’s day, the late 1590s and the early 1600s? The conventional wisdom is that the ghosts in Hamlet and the ghost in Macbeth came through a trap door in the stage known as Hell.
If you’re you go to the Globe now you can see this actual trap door being used. It used a primitive pully system to open up in the middle of the floor. The ghost would ascend to the stage through a small step ladder. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is described as wearing a suit of armor and being very pale. Banquo’s ghost is described as having long hair dappled with blood.
Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet in Macbeth’s honor. Based on this hypothesis it’s likely that a banqueting table was brought out into the middle of a stage to conceal the ghost, to make it more of a surprise when it ascends onstage through the trap door, but the effect to modern taste would be rather dull. However impressive the performance, this cannot stand up to the stunning nature of visual effects using computer technology, motion capture, et cetera. I wanted to see if there are any Elizabethan theatrical illusions that would still have been accessible to Shakespeare back in the 1590s.
Idea #1: A Smoke-monster ghost?
My research began with this video from the YouTube History Channel Atun-Shei Films, where the author traces the history of film, (both as photography and film as a projection). He cites at the start, an incident in 1536 where a supposed necromancer appeared to conjure a ghost for an unsuspecting rube. According to The Lives Of the Necromancers, the solution was achieved by creating huge clouds of smoke within the theater space, (which was the Colosseum) and then using a primitive camera obscure to project a frightening image Into this space.
Camera Obscura is a term is it Latin for dark chamber the principal had been discovered for century had existed for centuries bit is for centuries but only in the 1530s this was the 1st recorded example of it being used to create a theatrical illusion.
The question is, could Shakespeare’s company have performed the same illusion with the technology of the day? Honestly, I find it rather unlikely that Shakespeare’s audience would’ve put up with huge clouds of smoke in a wooden amphitheater. Still, the fact remains that primitive projection technology existed back in Shakespeare’s day, which means a director could reasonably implement it in a production of Hamlet or Macbeth, even under the constraints of Original Practices.
So the question remains, is there a visually striking way to represent the ghosts that could actually work in Shakespeare’s theater. My first idea is…
Idea 1: Glow In the Dark Paint
Glow-in-the-dark paint wasn’t invented until 1908, but there are some rocks that naturally glow such as hackmanite and phosphorus.
Theoretically, Shakespeare’s company could have crushed this rock into a powder and made it into a paint that glowed onstage. There is precedent for this- in The Hound Of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes discovers that the terrifying ghost-hound is merely a large dog painted with phosphorescent paint:
In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was lying stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of the two–gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed with fire. I placed my hand upon the glowing muzzle, and as I held them up my own fingers smouldered and gleamed in the darkness.
“Phosphorus,” I said.
“A cunning preparation of it,” said Holmes, sniffing at the dead animal.
Doyle, Part IV.
Though this paint would potentially make a terrifying effect, this would be impossible at an outdoor theater during the day. This makes it unlikely that Shakespeare used glow-in-the-dark paint at the Globe, as most of the performances took place in the afternoon. That said, both Hamlet and were written just at the point in which Shakespeare’s company was in the process of acquiring an indoor theater, the Blackfriars.
The Blackfriars and Shakespeare’s stagecraft
Almost all of these ideas would depend on Shakespeare having access to a theatre in which he could control the lighting. As you can see, the Blackfriars was lit with candles and its indoor nature meant that performances weren’t dependent on sunlight. Greg Doran, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has theorized in the past that maybe while his company was preparing to move into the Blackfriars, Shakespeare was changing his material to make it both literally and figuratively darker.
In the reconstructed Blackfriars, (where I studied and interned for three years), there is a trap-door and flying rig like the Globe, so the conventional trap-door ghost can and has been utilized there. I would also argue that in the Blackfriars unlike the Globe, there was a chance for more variety of theatrical illusions- perhaps a smoke projection, magic lantern, or even…
Idea 3: A Pepper’s ghost
A Peppers Ghost is a stage illusion that dates back to the 19th century. It uses the principle of refracted light to project the image of a ghost on top of a piece of glass. This image will appear translucent and could be very impressive to an audience at the Blackfriars! As you can see in the diagram below, the actor could be under the stage in the trap door standing in front of a mirror, and the glass sheet could be used to project his image to the audience. The only concern would be that this could limit the blocking of the other actors, and it might not make the ghost visible to the audience members in the upper galleries, but it would still be an impressive visual effect that uses scientific principles known in the 17th century.
Pepper’s Ghost illusions are still used frequently in theme parks, trade shows, and concerts where singers interact with “holograms.” As a special Halloween treat, (or trick as the case may be), I’ve included a video that will allow you to make your own Pepper’s ghost at home. If you choose to make one, leave me a comment!
So, in conclusion, though we are taught that Shakespeare’s theater often reveled in simplistic theatrical designs, I personally think that there is more room to explore low-tech theatrical illusions like these, especially at companies like the Globe Theater and the American Shakespeare Company, which pride themselves on using Shakespeare’s original staging practices. Live theater has dodged giving up its ghost for 2,000 years by exploring the limits of live theater through movement, voice, story, music, and yes spectacle. I think theater practitioners, even Original Practitioners should keep innovating new kinds of spectacular means to keep creating fresh interpretations of Shakespeare, that still keep within the spirit of the play’s original time and place.
Bonus: If you want to learn more about the stage illusions of Shakespeare’s company, click here to listen to That Shakespeare Life Podcast with Cassidy Cash. In this episode, she interviews theater professor Frank Mohler, who describes how thunder and flying effects were done in the 17th century, using records of the period, and his own experimentation.
This book Demonology influenced Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet in ways I’ll get into later. It was written by King James himself, and it takes the form of a dialogue, that is, an intellectual conversation where the concept of witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy, etc is explained, debated, and questioned between two imaginary people.
In the video, Youtuber Andrew Rakich, known for his history series, Checkmate Linconites, (where he plays two characters who argue about the Civil War from a Union and Confederate perspective) has done a dramatic reading of the whole book in the accent of 1600s England. It’s part audio book, part history lesson, part linguistics lesson, and all great!
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
Just like in Dr. Faustus, James theorizes that the Devil lets all so-called sorcerers and necromancers believe they have power over him, to deceive them later.
For as the humor of Melancholie in the selfe is blacke, heauie and terrene, so are the symptomes thereof, in any persones that are subject therevnto, leannes, palenes, desire of solitude: and if they come to the highest degree therof, mere folie and Manie:
This passage echoes Hamlet’s description of his own meloncholy, and his fear that The Devil might be trying to use his melocholy to conjure up his father in order to damn him:
The spirit that I have seen 600May be the devil, and the devil hath power 601To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps 602Out of my weakness and my melancholy, 603As he is very potent with such spirits,
603. As . . . spirits: i.e., because he has great influence on those who have a temperament such as mine. 604Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
604. Abuses: deludes. If the Ghost is deceiving Hamlet about King Claudius’ guilt, and Hamlet kills him, Hamlet would be a murderer, and therefore damned. 605More relative than this: the play’s the thing 606Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, reprinted from Shakespeare Navigators.com.
For that is the difference betuixt Gods myracles and the Deuils, God is a creator, what he makes appeare in miracle, it is so in effect. As Moyses rod being casten downe, was no doubt turned in a natural Serpent: [pg 023]where as the Deuill (as Gods Ape) counterfetting that by his Magicians, maid their wandes to appeare so, onelie to mennes outward senses: as kythed in effect by their being deuoured by the other. For it is no wonder, that the Deuill may delude our senses, since we see by common proofe, that simple juglars will make an hundreth thinges seeme both to our eies and eares otherwaies then they are. Now as to the Magicians parte of the contract, it is in a word that thing, which I said before, the Deuill hunts for in all men.
Demonology, Chapter 6, p. 23
It’s very useful to conceptualize what the early Jacobeans thought the difference was between God and the Devil, and thus the difference between divine miracles and hellish charms. In James’ eyes, all magic and demonic arts were mere illusions, designed to play upon men’s senses and draw the intended victim into the Devil’s power. Obviously, since all of theater rests upon such illusion, it’s no wonder Shakespeare portrays magic onstage in his most popular works. In particular, this passage calls to mind the magic of Prospero, who is able to conjure spirits fo a while, but they all eventually dissolve:
146. mov’d sort: troubled state. 147As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir. 148Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
148. revels: festivity, entertainment. 149As I foretold you, were all spirits and 150Are melted into air, into thin air: 151And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
151. baseless fabric: structure without a physical foundation. 152The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 153The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
153. the great globe itself: all the world, [and the theater] >>> 154Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
154. all which it inherit: all who live on it. 155And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
155. insubstantial: without material substance. 156Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
156. rack: wisp of cloud driven before the wind. 157As dreams are made on, and our little life 158Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest, Act IV, Scene i.
For although, as none can be schollers in a schole, & not be subject to the master thereof: so none can studie and put in practize (for studie the alone, and knowledge, is more perilous nor offensiue; and it is the practise only that makes the greatnes of the offence.) the cirkles and art of Magie, without committing an horrible defection from God: And yet as they that reades and learnes their rudiments, are not the more subject to anie schoole-master, if it please not their parentes to put them to the schoole thereafter; So they who ignorantly proues these practicques, which I cal the deuilles rudiments, vnknowing them to be baites, casten out by him, for trapping such as God will permit to fall in his hands: This kinde of folkes I saie, no doubt, ar to be judged the best of, in respect they vse no invocation nor help of him (by their knowledge at least) in these turnes, and so haue neuer entred themselues in Sathans seruice; Yet to speake truely for my owne part (I speake but for my selfe) I desire not to make so neere riding: For in my opinion our enemie is ouer craftie, and we ouer weake (except the greater grace of God) to assay such hazards, wherein he preases to trap vs.
Demonology Chapter 5, page 15.
It almost seems in this passage that James is covering his tracks against any detractors who might be wondering if he himself might be damned for knowing so much about witchcraft. Accordingly, he asserts that the knowledge of witchcraft is perfectly lawful, it’s the practice that damns the scholar.
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
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.
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.
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.
Claudius. Come. [They play.] Another hit. What say you?3935
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.
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:
Hamlet. Come for the third, Laertes! You but dally.3950 Pray you pass with your best violence; I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
Gertrude. No, no! the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet!3965 The drink, the drink! I am poison’d. [Dies.]
Hamlet. O villany! Ho! let the door be lock’d. Treachery! Seek it out.
Laertes. It 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.
Hamlet. The point envenom’d too? Then, venom, to thy work. Hurts the King.
Claudius. O, yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.
Hamlet. Here, 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.
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
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.
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.”
Claudio. Ay, 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
“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.
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.