Thursday, June 03, 2010

Hamlet, part 5 - the Body Count

Death is one of the major themes in Hamlet. I find it interesting that most of the deaths were not anticipated by the characters – kinda notable in an age when warfare was common. And given that Hamlet spends most of the play deciding to kill Claudius and Claudius spends it thinking Hamlet might be out to get him, it's kind of funny that Claudius doesn't truly see it coming until it's there (since he's so smug that he thinks Laertes has it all under control and that will be that).

Want to test your knowledge of who dies and how? You can always take this quiz.

Meanwhile, nearly all the main players die except Horatio. I figured I'd tackle them in order of death.

How do they all die? Let me count the ways:

1. King Hamlet: murdered prior to the start of the play by Claudius through the cunning use of poison in the ear. In real life (to the extent that the play is based in fact, after all), the brother stabbed King Hamlet and there were witnesses. Shakespeare's decision to switch up the mode of death accomplishes two things:

  a) It shows that Shakespeare was familiar with the latest scientific discoveries of his time.
  (Check out this New York Times article from 1982 for further details.) and

  b) It makes the means of death less obvious, thereby creating some doubt in Hamlet's mind as to whether the
  ghost is truthful or a liar, and as to whether Claudius could have commited "murther most foul".

Since King Hamlet had not made his final confession before his untimely death, his soul is doomed to purgatory, or so his spirit intimates in Act I.

2. Polonius: stabbed by Hamlet because he thought it was Claudius. Not that Hamlet had any love for Polonius, but neither did he have it in for him. Hamlet "lugs the guts" from the chamber and stashes it in a stairwell. Polonius is buried in "hugger-mugger", a term encompassing both notions of secrecy and of confusion or muddle. We must assume that Polonius can't go straight to heaven, either.

3. Ophelia: drowned. Not of her own volition, really, so it's not technically a suicide, but when she fell in the water, she didn't try to save herself, either; hence, the church's quarrel with burying her in sacred ground, and the conversation between the gravediggers about what does and does not constitute a drowning by suicide. If she truly wanted to die and ended up dead, then she would never, ever get to heaven (under the Elizabethan understanding of things). Poor Ophelia was so terribly depressed, what with Hamlet forsaking her and her father dying and Laertes skipping about Paris and all, that she probably didn't have the energy to fight the current. To say nothing of the weight of her robes/gown/whatever. Or the fact that noblewomen in Denmark might not have been taught to swim back then. I could go on, but I won't.

4. Rosencrantz & Guildstern: executed in England as a favor to Denmark. The English court thinks they're responding to a request from Claudius, but it's Hamlet who signed their death warrant, assisted by his father's ring (which bore the requisite seal). Hamlet doesn't feel any remorse for these deaths, since he's all Hammurabi about it (kind of "an eye for an eye", even though it's a two for one exchange).

5. Gertrude: poisoned by Claudius. Who intended to poison Hamlet, but Gertrude drank from the chalice from the palace – or was it the vessel with the pestle? In any event, poisoned. Was it murder or suicide, though? Well – it depends. In some productions, as in the Tennant/Stewart version, it's clear that Gertrude knows the cup is poisoned and drinks it anyhow – so it's a knowing death, and therefore suicide. In other productions, she seems unaware, so it would be homicide. It's one of the decisions that is usually made by the actor (probably in conjunction with the director).

6. Claudius: stabbed or knicked with a poisoned blade and forced to drink poison by Hamlet. Because poisoning him twice is what he deserves for his earlier poisonings. Or something. Call it regicide, call it homicide. Or, in the case of Patrick Stewart's performance, one might call it suicide. Fascinating what difference a shrug makes, is it not?

7. Laertes: stabbed or cut with his own poisoned blade. He manages to die more quickly than Hamlet, despite having been cut second. Go figure. He absolves Hamlet of any responsibility for his death or for that of Polonius, and disclaims responsibility for Hamlet's death, putting all three of those deaths on Claudius's tab.

8. Hamlet: poisoned by Laertes at Claudius's bidding, since Laertes lets himself be talked into cheating by using a sharp fencing foil rather than one with a blunt end.

That is a total of nine deaths. The only main character left standing at the end is Horatio, who is usually seen sitting on the ground, cradling Hamlet's corpse, so technically, he's not standing. He is, however, talked out of killing himself by Hamlet prior to Hamlet's final sleep.

For those interested in the final talley, that is a total of
  1 drowning
  2 beheadings
  1 simple stabbing
  2 simple poisonings and
  3 aggravated stabbings (poisoned blade - with bonus "guzzle some poison" action for Claudius)

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