Close Reading: “Oh That This Too Too Solid Flesh”

I’m helping to coach an actor who’s doing Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Act I, “O that this too, too, solid flesh.”

The text of the speech

Hamlet. O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month-
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears- why she, even she
(O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer) married with my uncle;
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!
Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, lines 332-363.

Given Circumstances

This is the first time Hamlet really speaks. He’s extremely tight-lipped to Claudius and his mother, and for good reason: he just witnessed his father die under mysterious circumstances, his mother remarried, his school year canceled, and himself proclaimed heir to the throne. All of this happened within a month! It’s very hard to process this kind of massive shift in your life, so Hamlet waits until he is alone.

The speech is full of distrust for his uncle, contempt for his mother, and deep starry-eyed mourning for his father. Hamlet compares his father to Hyperion, the Greek Titan who ruled the Sun- a being who inspired awe and terror. He then contrasts that with Claudius whom he compares to a satyr- an old, half-goat man who is horny in more ways than one. Hamlet clearly doesn’t like or trust his uncle and is disgusted by the notion that he is now Hamlet’s stepfather.

How does Hamlet feel about himself? Well, the text is somewhat ambiguous. The soliloquy’s first line might be saying that Hamlet wants to melt away into air, but it could just as easily apply to the Ghost (who is still on Hamlet’s mind), Claudius (who he hates), or Gertrude (whom he’s disgusted at because she’s sleeping with his uncle). We don’t have a clear picture yet how Hamlet feels about himself in this moment, but we do know that his world is shattered and is no longer as happy as it once was:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.

Act I, Scene ii, Line 336.

Verse

Analysis of the verse of Hamlet’s 1.2 Soliloquy. Note the trochaic meter in the first 3 lines.

As I often say, verse is the heartbeat of a character, and as Hamlet says, his own heart is broken so his verse is very irregular. Ideas spill over into multiple lines instead of tight, 10-syllable lines. In the excellent book, “Speak the Speech”, Rhona Silverbush and Sami Plotkin comb the speech for clues in the verse that suggest Hamlet’s fragile emotional state:

The piece is riddled with starts and stops mid line, sentence fragments, and [self] interruptions, which underscore Hamlet’s extreme agitation.

Excerpt from “Speak the Speech” by By Rhona SilverbushSami Plotkin · 2002

In the picture below, you can see how Hamlet often inverts his lines from Iambic to Trochaic (emphasis on the odd beats, rather than the even beats):

Dive into melancholy with Hamlet's "O That this too too solid flesh speech."

It’s up to the actor to decide which emotions Hamlet is showing and how this effects his breath, voice, and physicality, but the structure of the verse, the punctuation, and the flow of the thoughts gives him or her clues to play with, as you can see in this video with RSC actor Pappa Essiedu:

Imagery

Ambiguity and textual choices

Hamlet is a play that is all about the ambiguities that plague us as we go through life and its title character is constantly second-guessing, third-guessing, and fourth-guessing himself. In this speech, there are questions that the actor must decide for him/herself, because Hamlet and Shakespeare leave them open:

  1. Whose flesh is solid? His father’s? His own? The world? Claudius?
  2. Is it solid or sullied? There are three different versions of the text and they spell it two different ways: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM44beLnqTQ&feature=emb_imp_woyt
  3. What does it mean to “possess it merely?”
  4. Does Hamlet really believe that his father was so much better than Claudius, or is he lying to himself?
  5. Why is Hamlet so angry at his mother, as opposed to Claudius?
  6. Do you believe, (as Freud did), that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex?
  7. When he says “Break my heart,” is that a command, like Kent in King Lear? Or is it a promise, “My heart will break because I must hold my tongue?”

Interpretations

Interactive website version:

https://myshakespeare.com/hamlet/act-1-scene-2

If you liked this analysis, you might want to sign up for my acting class or acting course on Outschool.com, link below:

Www.outschool.comhttp://www.outschool.com

Is “The Lion King Hamlet?

Educators love to compare Shakespeare to classic Disney, myself included. After all, both Shakespeare and Walt Disney were popular entertainers who adapted classic stories into new forms for larger audiences.

You can make a pretty strong case that Hamlet is “The Lion King” from these narrative similarities:

Infographic of Lion King similarities from Daily Infographic.com

It’s also true that, when the story artists at Disney decided to make the villain Mufasa’s brother, they noted the parallels to Shakespeare as the film was being written:

https://collider.com/the-lion-king-hamlet-connection-explained/

Then again, there are some critics who say the play more closely resembles other Shakespeare plays.

And the legal argument that Shakespeare’s descendants could make for plagiarism are pretty weak:

So, let me know in the comments whether you agree Hamlet is Lion King or another play:

Mystery Science Theatre 3000: Hamlet

If you’ve never seen the show

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been on the air for over 20 years. The show originally aired in 1988 on KTMA TV in Eden Prairie MN. Since then it’s spawned over 13 seasons, (still going strong on Netflix), a huge cult following, and countless parodies in many versions of pop culture.The premise is that three guys watch bad movies and make sarcastic comments about the acting, sets, costumes, etc. The show thrives on meta-commentary, obscure references, and satirizing anything and anyone.

Crow T. Robot (Bill Corbit) trying to play the ghost of Mike’s father (Michael J. Nelson)

Full circle for the show

Kevin Murphy (right), as Fortinbras, who makes a brief appearance at the end of the episode, along with Bill Corbit and Mary Jo Pehl.

Kevin Murphy, one of the show’s creators actually had reservations of even doing the episode, as he is a big Shakespeare fan. This makes sense as I would argue that the very premise of the show lies in Shakespeare, and in particular, Hamlet. As I said in the last paragraph, the show thrives on reference humor, meta-commentary, and satire, and one person who loves that kind of humor is in fact, Shakespeare’s own drama critic- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

In Act III, Scene ii of Hamlet, there is a play within a play, where Hamlet sits back and makes sarcastic comments about how bad the production is:

Enter Prologue.

Hamlet. We shall know by this fellow. The players cannot keep counsel;
they’ll tell all.
Ophelia. Will he tell us what this show meant?2035
Hamlet. Ay, or any show that you’ll show him. Be not you asham’d to
show, he’ll not shame to tell you what it means.
Ophelia. You are naught, you are naught! I’ll mark the play.
Pro. For us, and for our tragedy,
Here stooping to your clemency,
We beg your hearing patiently. [Exit.]
Hamlet. Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?
Ophelia. ‘Tis brief, my lord.
Hamlet. As woman’s love.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii

If Hamlet had two robot companions, he’d essentially be doing an episode of the show!

Begin Murderer! Pox! Leave thy damnable faces and begin!

Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.

So it’s an interesting kind of irony that after 13 years, MST3K finally got around to review the very source of their humor. Not only is Hamlet highly meta and satirical, Many educators, myself included, say that teaching Shakespeare with a healthy dose of irreverence is a good way to draw in new students and get them interested in the play:

Mystery Science Theater 3000’s “Hamlet ” episode reveals a common reaction to Hamlet that often goes unspoken by high school and college students too afraid to sound anti-intellectual. Despite this irreverent tone, however, this unique appropriation of Shakespeare adds to our understanding of a play that today very few read and even fewer see performed. As an author who reveled in making serious, yet sometimes playful, fun at human weakness, I think this respectful irreverence would have delighted the Bard were able to see it.

Dan Mills. “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Shakespeare, and Postmodern Canonization,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 17.2 (2015): 206-227.

3. Divisive episode

Poster for "Hamlet" 1961, starring Maxamillian Schell.
Original film artwork for “Hamlet”, 1961

This episode is somewhat controversial among the MST3K fandom. While almost everyone agrees it was a good idea for Mike and the bots to do Shakespeare, many fans question the choice to do this Shakespeare. The 1961 film was produced for German TV, and starred Maximillian Schell, (who would later win an Oscar for his performance in “Judgement at Nuremberg).”

First of all, the film is very slow and badly paced with no distinctive production choices. The sets and costumes are generic, (except for the Liberace-looking ghost), and the cinematography is competent but dull. Finally it’s Hamlet; the play that even Mike Nelson called “The greatest work of fiction ever written.” Even with the dreary set, the bad dubbing, and nonexistent pacing, it’s still a good story with magnificent dialogue, and the cast is still pretty good. Perhaps the ultimate backhanded compliment Mike Nelson and company could have handled is that even the worst production of Hamlet is very difficult to riff. Still, when the jokes land, they hit extremely well. Here are some of my favorites:

C’mon, man. We’ve seen like eight ghosts, none of ’em have been even close to my dad.
MIKE NELSON

Rap artist, The Notorious K.I.N.G.”

Hamlet: To die: to sleep.
Crow: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing right now, Bub.

Hamlet: TO BE OR NOT TO BE…. and lose the name of action.

Mike: So I’m a chicken for not stabbing myself—that’s all you needed to say!

[Having stabbed an intruder behind Gertrude’s tapestry, Hamlet discovers it is not the King, but Polonius.]
Hamlet: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool!
Crow [as Polonius]: Oh, right, it’s my fault you killed me.

My reaction

On the one hand, it’s great to watch the MST3K guys look at a piece of classic theater, especially since the show owes a lot to Shakespeare. That said, they never acknowledge this, not even during the play within a play scene. In addition, the critics are right that the film is so dreary it’s hard to make fun of. I would love to see how the bots and Mike riff on Branaugh or Gibson! Finally, maybe part of the problem was that Hamlet has already been riffed and mocked before. As the clip above from The Reduced Shakespeare Company shows, gently ribbing on the plot and characters of Hamlet has been done before. Once something becomes famous as the best or the worst, it becomes a target for mockery. I was hoping that my favorite riffers would have more fun riffing on the play that helped create their art form. That said, this show is a classic comedy series, and this episode always makes me smile.

Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet

It’s hard for me to be objective about this film. I watched it when I was 16, and it started my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare. For the vast majority of people, I feel this movie will not appeal- it’s Shakespeare, it’s set in the past, and it’s FOUR HOURS LONG! That said, I ADORE this movie, and I probably always will.

The Concept

There is a long tradition of actors directing and starring in Hamlet from Irving to Garrick to Olivier and Guilgud. It’s very much an actor’s play and since the lead part also orchestrates much of the action, it’s understandable that he or she would also want to direct.

Once Kenneth Branaugh started filming this film, he had already played the part onstage and as a radio play. Branaugh’s director, Derek Jacobi, was himself a celebrated and acclaimed Hamlet of the 1970s, and Branaugh would later cast him as Claudius in the film. So, once he approached making the film, Branaugh had lots of experience behind him.

Clip from the documentary “Discovering Hamlet” which shows the whole process of Branaugh’s 1990 production, directed by Derek Jacobi.

Much like Antony Sher, Branaugh was aware that any film he made, would probably be compared to Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film. Sir Laurence’s film was dark, gothic, focused on dark, Freudian psychological disorders, and was mostly a star vehicle for Olivier himself.

Short review of Olivier’s Hamlet, (1948).

Branaugh’s concept was to do an inverse of Olivier- his castle Elsinore is bright, more modern, set in a sort of Napoleonic era, with cannons, muskets, and soldiers with mutton chops. While Oliver’s film was a contemplative look at the protagonist’s mind, Branaugh’s film focuses on intrigue and court drama. One of my favorite features of the film is Branaugh’s use of a hall of doors that contain two-way mirrors. In this castle, you never know who’s watching you.

Original theatrical trailer

The setting

While most of the castle was shot at Shepperdon Studious in England, Branaugh filmed most of the exterior shots at Blenheim Palace, the home of the Duke of Marlborough, and Sir Winston Churchill:

https://virtual.blenheimpalace.com/

The Plot Of the Play

https://study.com/academy/lesson/shakespeares-hamlet-character-analysis-description.html

The Controversy- the longest Hamlet ever filmed

Unlike every other Shakespeare movie, Branaugh chose not to cut a single line of Hamlet, which is why his version is four hours long. He chose to use the text of the second Quarto of 1603, the longest edition of the play.

https://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/playhamlet.html

I am deeply conflicted about this choice. On the one hand, the long run time makes it nearly impossible to show the whole movie in a classroom or a theater. On the other time, like Gone With the Wind or Dr. Zhivago, what Branaugh has done is created an epic full of lush settings, gorgeous music, and incredible performances that will at least always be remembered as an incredible artistic achievement.

The Cast

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest part and has 40% of the dialogue, which means Branaugh has the majority of the screen time. Yet, Branaugh isn’t the biggest star in the film. His casting choices emphasize the notion that, since anyone can enjoy Shakespeare, anyone can perform it too. With only two exceptions, I love every performance in the film. Here are some of my favorites:

Nicholas Farrell as Horatio

Nicholas Farell as Horatio

Horatio is a rather thankless part, since mostly what he does is give Hamlet someone to talk to. In one production I saw, they did away with the part entirely and made the audience Horatio. That said, Farell does a beautiful job portraying Horatio’s patience, boundless empathy, and his slow discovery of these “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.” Just watch how heartbroken he is as he watches Hamlet slowly die:

Clip of Nick Farell as Horatio from Act V, Scene iii of Hamlet.
Brian Blessed as “The Ghost”

Brian Blessed As “The Ghost”

As I said in my review of “Henry V,” Branaugh usually assigns the core of his cast to his Renaissance Acting Troupe. Accordingly, Branagh cast Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Brian already is a physically imposing man (he’s actually climbed Mount Everest), and we see through flashbacks that when he was alive, the former king was a powerful, warlike ruler, yet tender to his wife and son.

As the ghost, however, Blessed seems shaken to his core, which might be due to the pain he suffered as a result of the murder, or (as I mentioned in my Shakespeare On Ghosts Post), he might also suffer in the afterlife because Claudius killed him while he was sleeping. Seeing such a powerful man worn to a whisper and full of pain and fear, is a great way to spur Hamlet to his revenge.

Charlton HEston as the player king

When the company of players arrive in the middle of Act II, Scene ii, Hamlet is filled with joy and treats the Player KIng like an old friend and surrogate father. I’ve seen productions where the same actor plays the Ghost and the Player King, which helps drive this point home.

In the play, the Player King inspires Hamlet with a passionate speech. Hamlet at first muses how, while the Player is able to conjure emotion and tears when talking about the fictional Queen Hecuba, Hamlet has done nothing yet to revenge the Ghost. Then, thinking about the Player’s performance gives Hamlet the idea to stage a play-within-a-play, to test whether or not Claudius is guilty:

About, my brain! Hum, I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene1665
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ, I'll have these Players
Play something like the murther of my father1670
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course. Act II, Scene ii, lines 1663-1674

With all this in mind, The Player King is very important to Hamlet’s journey and Heston’s mighty delivery is inspiring and full of passion.

Robin Williams as osric

Robin Williams as Osric

It seems like an insane idea; cast a stand-up comedian in a Shakespeare movie? Yet, in fact, the late Robin Williams was a classically-trained actor and studied at New York’s Julliard academy, so he must have done Shakespeare in the past.

Branaugh clearly loved working with Williams. Not only did he keep all of Osric’s lines (like all the other lines in the play), Branaugh gave Williams more to do, making him basically a second Horatio who cares for Laertes in the final act of the play.

Usually Osric is played as a classist-joke. He’s a sychophant, a social climber who, because he wasn’t born a noble, the nobles treat him as a suck-up and a fool. Williams gives Osric much more warmth and depth, in addition to his manic charm. Branaugh even gives him a tragic death, to make him stand out even more!

Kate Winslet as Ophelia

Five film versions of Ophelia compilation.

I summarize Ms. Winslet’s performance in one word: Heartbreaking. In Oliver’s version, she seems like an airhead, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the part as sort of a rebellious teenager. Winslet’s performance is just as if not even more tragic than Branaugh’s and it is truly heartbreaking to see her journey.

In the 1990 stage production of Hamlet, Jacobi decided to turn “To Be Or Not To Be” from a soliloquy into a speech that Hamlet says to Ophelia, which then plants into her mind the ideas of madness and suicide that she herself follows to their tragic conclusion. In Branaugh’s film, it seems very clear that he gave Winslet that same direction, (even though the speech is filmed like a soliloquy). Before “To Be” and the subsequent “Get Thee to A Nunnery” scene, Winslet’s Ophelia is happy, sweet, obedient to the men in her life, but still her own person. We see in flashbacks her sneaking off to be with Hamlet and she seems to enjoy her secret romance (probably Branaugh pulled some ideas from her role in Titanic too). But Polonius and Laertes shut her down at every turn and keep her from being with Hamlet. Winslet shows beautifully Ophelia’s struggle to be an obedient daughter and Hamlet’s girlfriend.

In the “Get Thee To a Nunnery Scene,” it’s not clear whether Hamlet knows he’s being watched (at first), so when he speaks to her gently, he might be trying to get her to leave to protect her. But once Polonius audibly closes a door, Hamlet is full of mysogynistic fury. Again, he might be playing mad in order to deceive Claudius and Polonius, or he might be genuinely mad at Ophelia for going along with this attempt to spy on him, but in any case, It certainly breaks her heart, and Winslet plays that heartbreak with a great deal of skill and passion.

Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger

Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger

Again, it seems bizarre to cast an American comedian as a Shakespearean character, but Crystal did a great job making this 400 year old comic bit seem like he wrote it himself! Plus, Crystal listens very quietly and attentively during the “Alas Poor Yorrick” speech, and doesn’t pull focus.

Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet

Even though this was a four-hour Shakespeare movie of a play I had not yet read, at 16 I was hooked by Branaugh’s performance. Like Olivier before him, Branaugh knows Shakespeare’s reputation as being boring and out-of-touch, so his film is full of violence, sex, and manic energy. This also comes across in his own performance. Branaugh lost weight and dyed his hair to appear younger and attractive (since he knows Hamlet is supposed to be just out of college). He fills the mad scenes with a dark and silly sense of humor, and he plays the angst of Hamlet in Act One very much like a grieving teenager, lashing out at his stepfather and his mother.

That said, Branaugh is also capable of great depth and gravitas in the soliloquies. I particularly love his delivery of “How All Occasions Do Inform Against Me…” soliloquy in Act IV.

The long tracking shot makes it look like Hamlet is expanding his worldview as he contemplates his role in the play, after failing to avenge his father’s death. It’s almost like this young man is growing up in the course of the movie; from a confused and angsty little rich kid, to a man who would make a good king if his life wasn’t tragically cut short.

For a more sober audience, Branaugh’s energy could probably be seen as annoying and lacking subtlety, but for 16 year old me- I ate it right up.

Notable Moments

  1. Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be Or Not To Be.” Every actor who takes on Hamlet frets over the problem of how to make this speech engaging and fresh. Fortunately, Branaugh did a great job of staging and delivering this speech for the screen. He uses the two-way mirrors brilliantly creating an atmosphere of suspense where Claudius and Polonius are watching this speech, but it’s not quite clear whether Hamlet knows they’re there. His delivery is hushed but intense. It seems like he’s trying to unnerve Claudius without letting him know Hamlet plans to murder him. Everything from the performance, to the filming, to the setting is iconic, and no matter what people think of the film, this version of the speech should be remembered as an achievement in and of itself.

2. Kate Winslet In “The Mad Scene” Just as “To Be Or Not To Be” is the test for any Hamlet, Ophelia’s greatest challenge is the Mad Scene, Act IV, Scene v. After her brother leaves, and her boyfriend is banished for murdering her father, Ophelia has nothing left to lose, except her mind. Many actresses play the mad scene as a chance for Ophelia to let loose, and explode with all the pent-up emotions she’s been repressing- rage, sexual desire, grief, etc. Winslet plays all of them and is very distinct when and why they hit. She refuses to let the men in the court touch her, except for Laertes, and seems disgusted by Claudius. With her brother, she seems to regress into a childlike state, pretending to hold flowers to give to him. The only lucid moment she has is when she quotes songs (simmilar to the Fool in King Lear), where she expresses sorrow that Hamlet abandoned her, grief for her father, and a nihilistic sadness that her life no longer matters, much like the frustration Hamlet expresses in “To Be Or Not to Be.”

Kate Winslet in the mad scene, (Act IV, v)

3. All of Act II, Scene ii. I found myself rewatching this scene, the longest scene in the play. It’s the scene where Polonius claims Hamlet is mad for Ophelia’s love, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spy on Hamlet, the Player King delivers his aforementioned speech, and Hamlet has his “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy.

Every performance is fast-paced and entertaining. Even Don Warrington, as the often-cut character of Voltimand, who only gives one long speech about how Fortinbras is totally NOT GOING TO INVADE DENMARK, captivated my ear with his beautiful voice. The drama keeps coming as new characters keep coming in and interacting with Hamlet, and his mood changes drastically throughout the scene; he’s silly and condescending to Polonius, jovial to the players, guarded and brooding to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and tortured and full of grief and remorse once he’s finally alone.

Branaugh actually starts the soliloquy with Hamlet taking a series of huge, heaving breaths as if performing for all of these people is truly exhausting. It’s almost like a movie within a movie, and everyone is wonderful in it.

4. The Duel As I detailed in my post on the duel at the end of Hamlet, there are three separate bouts which each have a different feeling- ranging from a sporting fencing match to a deadly blood combat. Branaugh shows the character shift of the duel incredibly well, with his use of music, choreography, and costume. First, the combatants meet before the king, dressed in their white fencing uniforms. Their fight is quick and agressive, but not yet tense or lethal. Then, once Gertrude takes the poisoned cup, the action stops. Claudius is frozen and his voice is only a whisper. Laertes starts to ramp up the tension as he prepares to really attack Hamlet, which he does by slashing his uncovered shoulder!

The climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes, with Hamlet, finally taking revenge on Claudius (Derek Jacobi).

From this moment in the duel, all Hell brakes loose. Branaugh chases Michael Maloney all around the castle, not stopping until he grabs Laertes’ sword. Meanwhile, Osric shouts for help as Gertrude is dying near the throne. A string quartet ramps the music up up to a wild, whilrling low-pitched tremulo, with the violins playing pizzicato on top. Plucking their strings like the lethal poison that plucks all the characters’ lives.

My Reaction

Even though this film is long, I adore every scene. Branaugh’s boundless energy and endless love of Shakespeare translate through his direction and performance. At the same time, he lets the other actors shine and takes to heart the lessons of Olivier, Gielgud, Jakobi, and others to create a Hamlet that is epic in scale, beautiful to the eye, and timeless in its handling of the material. Clearly, Branaugh wanted this film to be his masterpiece, and whether you like it or not, it certainly is that.

My advice is If you choose to watch it yourself, read a summary of the play first, then watch the film. Also, take some breaks in between the scenes and watch it in chunks. I actually taped it off of live TV so I could watch it in segments.

If you like this analysis, you might be interested in signing up for my Outschool Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I also have a class on Shakespeare’s writing where I analyze “To Be Or Not to Be:”

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

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