I. Introduction: The significance of the chosen scene
1. What happens in the play – an outline
2. What happens in the scene?
a. Explicit Action
b. Implicit Action
3. What does the scene reveal?
II. Reception history
III. Critical Analysis
a. Poison, corruption & disease
b. Body, parts & function
c. Nature, elements & cosmos
IV. Theoretical approach
V. Performance as interpretation
1. Bush and Blair
I. Introduction: The significance of the chosen scene
1. What happens in the play?
In the beginning of the playHamletby William Shakespeare Claudius has obtained the crown of Denmark by secretly poisoning the king, his brother. Then he marries Gertrude, wife of the old king and mother of Hamlet. A ghost, in the shape of the dead king appears, unfolds the crime of Claudius and commands Hamlet to revenge his murder. This theme of revenge is repeated in different circumstances by different players. Also Laertes, son of the killed Polonius, has a pronounced desire for revenge. After leading a “rebellion” to the Castle of Elsinore he is engaged by Claudius into a plot of murdering Hamlet secretly with the help of poison. They succeed to revenge themselves upon Hamlet, but it also leads to their own destruction.
2. What happens in the scene?
a) explicit action
Claudius gives reasons why he didn’t take action against Hamlet. A messenger arrives with a letter from Hamlet, which says that he is back, naked. Laertes sees his revenge taking shape and opens his mind of the kings plan to kill Hamlet and have it look like an accident: They arrange a challenge match between Hamlet and Laertes.
b) implicit action
Claudius has converted a rebel into an ally only by the power of his words and uses him, and his desire for vengeance, for his own intents. Together they are creating another performance in the play, with themselves as actors, choosing their properties: a poisoned sword, a poisoned drink and an unbated rapier. They are together planning their own death, and giving Hamlet the possibility to take revenge.
3. What does the scene reveal?
This scene shows once again Claudius’s ability to take decisions and to act like a brilliant politician. Before this scene, Claudius is nearly always shown behind the mask of a nice, smiling person, but in this scene his real being is explicitly revealed (B.O. States, 1992).
While planning his revenge the audience sees Laertes for the first time breaking the rules of honor, by “ignoring the honorable code of conduct which was supposed to govern the art of fencing” (Nigel Alexander, 1971, p. 24).
II. Reception history
This reception history talks about different aspects of Claudius style in Hamlet, especially in IV. vii. . This exemplary study refers to the works of Una Ellis-Fermor, “Frontiers of Drama” (1948); to Maurice Charneys “Style in Hamlet” (1969) and to Wolfgang Clemens “The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery” (1977).
In her work, Una Ellis-Fermor examines Claudius’s speech and comes to the conclusion that the “imagery of Claudius’s public speech differs from that of his speech in private,” (p.88, l.18). Furthermore she points out that on formal situations Claudius uses to be simple but efficient in his style and that the imagery he uses is “drawn from everyday life” (p.88, l. 23). She intimates that there are exceptions, e.g. in IV, vii, where Claudius looses himself “in words” (p.88, Footer) when persuading Laertes in lines 18-21. This “public speech” (p.89, Footer) differs from the others and is “a delicate indication of the fumbling uncertainty of his mind” (p.89, Footer).
Maurice Charney does not argue in her favor, when he says that Claudius “alternates between two styles” (p. 221, l. 10) and that his style can change from an imperial way to a much simpler way very quickly (p. 223), not depending on whether his speech is public or private. He comments, and that also opposes Ellis-Fermors aspects, that in IV, vii Claudius’s diction is rather private or familiar (p. 223, l. 8) than global. He supports the aspect with Claudius’ overdone repetition of Laertes name (p. 223). In my opinion, Charney is on solid ground with his point of view. Claudius manages very well to use the language to his own favor, and that he wouldn’t loose himself in words as Ellis-Fermor declares. I agree with Charney that especially in this scene Claudius has, from a rhetorical point of view, one of his great moments. In Charneys’ point of view, the similes in the lines 18-21 are well chosen to show how useless the effort (on going to a public count) would be (p. 230). Wolfgang Clemen would agree with that: his work states that Claudius’s speeches seem to be studied and that they give the impression of having been previously prepared. To a certain degree I go along with them, but I differ in opinion in those specific lines, where Claudius implicitly says, his private love to Gertrude presides over political affairs – the order of his “two special reasons” is crucial. Further on he commits political suicide saying that he is inapt to win through the general genders wishes. (Nigel Alexander, 1971, p.175)
III. Critical Analysis
The imagery can help to prepare the audience for coming events and it accompanies the dramatic action. As W. Clemen’s points out “the work of the mature Shakespeare” is of a “more subtle and indirect method” (1977, p. 90). Moreover he speaks about a “double meaning of images” (p. 91), wherein the words on one hand refer to the momentary situation, and on the other hand point beyond this moment to other issues of the play. Furthermore it is important to visualize that Shakespeare had an audience consisting of different social and cultural levels, and he had to satisfy them all in one single play. The imagery is an important instrument to reach different kind of people.
The multifarious imagery of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is here focused on a few important aspects of the imagery in IV, vii.
a) Poison, corruption & disease
Poison is one of the leading imageries in “Hamlet”. The play begins with the act of murdering the king, by dropping poison in his ear. This poisoned drop, this “dram of evil” (W. Clemen, 1977, p.115), diffuses itself in the whole body of the king, in the whole state of Denmark, through every main character of the play – until it kills the king, the state of Denmark (Denmark will be ruled by the foreigner Fornibras, V,ii) and the main characters. The play starts and ends with poison. Especially in scene IV, vii poison plays an important role: Claudius poisons Laertes with his plan to murder Hamlet; he “injects” him the idea, that he only really loved his father if he takes revenge on Hamlet. Claudius flatters Laertes with the report the Frenchman gave him, which did Hamlet really “envenom” (l. 103) with envy. The word “venom” in “envenom”, reveals the importance of poison in Claudius state of mind. For him everything started and ends with poison. Once poisoned, the dram of evil spreads independently in Laertes body – he develops his own ideas: he will “anoint [his] sword”, with “an unction of a mountebank”. Claudius continues that idea, and proposes to prepare a poisoned “chalice for the nonce” (l.159), if Hamlet escapes Laertes “venom’d stuck” (l. 160).
The imagery, especially of the word “venom” in Claudius speeches, makes sense: according to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1989) “venom” is a “poisonous fluid of certain snakes [...] injected by a bite”. Claudius injected his brother, like a snake, poison in his ear, “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown.” (I. v., l. 38f.). Claudius’ secret is implicitly unfolded by the imagery of his words.
The process of poisoning, on the other hand, is like a hidden disease, an ulcer “infecting and fatally eating away the whole body”, entailing the “corruption of land and people” (W. Clemen, 1977, p.113). Disease and corruption are bound up with each other, as an ulcer works like an inner corruption of the body, which “lives within the very flame of love” (W. Clemen, 1977, p.115). Claudius is once again the main user of these images he adds to the image of corruption an additional image of illness “growing to a pleurisy” (l.116) which “dies in his own too-much” (l. 117), the antithesis of “a spendthrift sigh / That hurts by easing.” (l.121 f). Then he compares Hamlet with an “ulcer” (l.122 f). Once again, Laertes gets infected by Claudius blight dreaming of galling Hamlet slightly (l. 146), bringing him to death with that.
b) Body, parts & function
As the Elizabethan psychology believed man is composed of three parts: body, soul and spirit. The body is moved by the soul, the soul works through the spirit, and the spirit makes life possible (Anderson, R. Leila, 1966, p.9 sq). But, the body is not only the “vehicle for the soul” (Hunt, 1992, p. 169); on the other hand it gives men a material life, an outer appearance.
The king himself has two bodies, which are his own body and another one “equivalent to the corporate of his nation” (Hunt, 1992, p. 170). In scene IV.vii Claudius “lives” and acts mainly through his personal body. When he hopes that their plan will “fit us to our shape”, he refers to his private body, to his private plan to kill Hamlet. Moreover the king admits in this scene, implicitly, that he is not able to govern Denmark (l. 9-24), that his body-politic does not work, it is like his real body “f(l)at and dull” (l.31). Furthermore he is just giving up in a particular sense his political-body, because he starts to feel that he is not a legitimate king, and that it does not appertain to him to govern the state or take action against movements from the general gender. The king is not with the body (he feels unable to manage it), the body is not with the king (the general gender would not obey him).
Because of that, and because his own deeds have captured him, he does not take action against Hamlet by himself, but sends Laertes to do that. When, or if, he murdered Hamlet, he would free Claudius from his bounds and give him back his political body. He would be no longer a “king of nothing”; he would be back in his body-politic and would be able to govern Denmark.
Laertes, on the other hand, is more or less split into parts, he is not seen as a complete body, but as a “sum of parts” (l. 72). The king reduces him to certain parts which are useful for him. Leartes agrees with the king’s plans if he “might be the organ” (l. 68), the king assents to Laertes wish and says that he will only use one part of him (l. 73). The scene shows the body as a form that gives human being a “place to be”. A person can consist of one or more bodies, like Claudius, and the body can also be a composition of different parts, as illustrated in Laertes.
c) Nature, elements & cosmos
Characters reveal in their description of nature often their inner state of mind (W. H. Clemen, 1951, p.95), as it is in real life: the interpretation of the world depends on the way you see it. The characters feel related to nature, elements and cosmos, and interact with it to describe their feelings. Claudius expresses his triangular relationship to Gertrude and Hamlet with a description of cosmic arrangement: “as the star moves not but in his sphere” (l. 15). He has to accept Hamlet, because Gertrude depends so much on him, Claudius has to obey that (cosmic) order. Goethe noted the cooperation of nature and elements in the play and declared that they are like characters on stage, playing their own roles (in “Shakespeare und kein Ende” cited in Clemen, 1951, p. 94). Claudius says that his arrows are “too slightly timber’d for so loud a wind” (l. 22); he does not connect the picture of the loud wind with “as” or “like” as it would be usual with metaphors. Such abstractions, or man’s awareness of limitations as of time and love are discussed in Claudius’s speech in line 110 ff. Claudius is aware of the fact that time can be a limit for love, he has seen it with his own eyes: Gertrud’s love for old Hamlet died, as the time –only a short time- passed by, she soon married Claudius and then gave him all her loving. The “spark and fire” (l. 112) of her love was clearly qualified by time.
IV. Theoretical Approach
The chosen scene can be understood and acceded from a different point of view, in particular from a sexual interpretation.
Claudius is supplying Laertes wants in IV.vii
The act of “love” begins with a slow, coquettish prelude. Claudius wants to be put in Laertes “heart for friend” (l. 2) and undresses Laertes by starting preparations to unfold him his primary plan of Hamlets execution (l. 30-35). After the interruption of the messenger Claudius immediately continues the foreplay, asking Laertes what “naked” could mean, and if he can help him with that (l. 50). Laertes reacts, feeling warm in his heart (l. 54) and Claudius starts “handling” the problem. First he makes sure that Laertes really wants to be contented, “will you beruled (ruler)by me?” (l. 57), and with his rather ambiguous “work him to an exploit” (l. 63) he promises Laertes, on a second level, a lucrative moment if he accepts to be ruled. Laertes wants to be the “organ” (l. 68) and the King starts the intimate act: he lauds Laertes’ “sum of parts” (l. 72), he praises Laertes, and his organs, to the skies, his “rapier most especial” (l. 97) by commenting him what the Frenchman said and creates a kind of pleasant pression in Laertes. The clasp of Claudius’s hand pleases Laertes so much, that he does not want to go “out of this” (l.105). Now Claudius receives Laertes’ full attention, and is able to manipulate him completely, as Laertes would do everything the king desires if he only continued his “works to an exploit”. Claudius talks about murdering Hamlet, as an act of love (l. 109), he expresses how time can rule the “flame of love” (l. 113), and only if Laertes is really able to love, able to live the “spark and fire” (l.112) of love he can be the organ of Claudius’s ruling. Laertes is not rational any more, the flame of love heats his parts, he drifts in Claudius’ sexual act and gets his erection by promising “to cut his [Hamlet’s] throat i’th’ church.”(l. 125). The aftermath, which is at the same time the prelude to the real act of love, starts. Laertes loves his father, that is the reason for his vengeance, and this is planned now. Claudius spoils Laertes, reminding him of what the Frenchman said (l. 132), and that with a “sword unbated” [=erected “sword”] (l. 136) he could “requite him [Hamlet] for [his] father” (l.139). Laertes will “anoint [his] sword”, he has yet prepared that (l. 140), and will “gall him [Hamlet] slightly” (l. 146) with it. Claudius proposes an alternative plan, if that did “blast in proof” [blast = explosion] (l. 152), if Laertes is too fast “hot and dry” (l.156) in his motion. The men are interrupted by the queen.
The rhythm of the scene proceeds at first cautiously and delicate, it begins with its pression very slightly till it lulls the whole rhythm. After that the beats seem to be pushed faster and faster till its climax, the discharge of pressure, to start again slowly to build up a new composition of slight pressure.
V. Performance as interpretation
1) Bush and Blair
On this work the Bush-Blair performance will be treated only in form of a little insight. The military imagery establishes an important point of view in the play, so we felt very much reminded on the importance of military action for George W. Bush. Laertes in his role of the willing instrument of Claudius guided our thought to Tony Blair, the henchman of Bush. The accent in this performance is clearly laid on the speech, where we had no difficulties to change the words to the contemporary situation.
For this scene the bathtub is chosen as the main spot to show explicitly the intimacy between Claudius and Leartes. The bathtub, wherein people use to stay naked, implies a high status of privacy. That’s why the messenger first wants to deliver the queen’s letter to Laertes, thinking he must be the queen; after he notices it is Laertes he quickly turns away, ashamed. The bathtub is important to have the possibility to show the king naked, this scenario implies that the king’s regalia are nothing but a ridiculous mask, sustained by his kingly ropes and behaviorism. Claudius who has two bodies, acts in this scene mainly through his personal body: he takes off his kingly clothing and with this his responsibility for the state. We have him still wearing his crown, to emphasize his absurd intent to hold onto his dignity, in a situation where he is bringing himself about ruin. While reading the letter from Hamlet he touches his crown, making sure it is still on his head near his “kingly eyes” (l. 44). Furthermore the image of two men sitting in a bathtub together lead me to the idea of the homoerotic approach (see IV) of this scene, this imagery is also supported by expressions in the speech of Laertes and Claudius signalized especially by ambiguous expressions like “rapier” or “sword”. In order to signalize the imminent relationship between the two men, we made them have much body contact. The men touching each other begins gently, the touch is hinted and still shy, as in the beginning, where the king asks Leartes not to break his sleeps for that. With the ongoing scene the body contact gets surer, in the “if it be so” part of the scene, the king comes very near to Laertes speaking into his ear and giving him a massage with his hole body action. This part should show the homoerotic aspect of the scene, and the manipulation the king applies through it. The body contact has reached his first height, and slows down again, in order to start carefully again to create a new, even stronger pressure: the king asks if Laertes father was dear to him, touching his head in a decretive and at the same time gentle way, then he start to touch his arm, holds his hand, he blusters into this with his entire body so that Laertes is pulled into this flow of feelings and they both push each other to the next maximum of feelings, where they both seem to share the same thoughts. The rising begins with the king telling “there lives within the very flame of love...” and has its climax in Laertes promise “to cut his throat i´th´ church”. In order to show the kings ability to manipulate Laertes we made him wash Laertes head, Laertes is getting in trance with that and starts to say what the king, as per the original text, is supposed to say. At the end of the scene Claudius and Laertes are double-performing: they act like two men sitting in the bathtub planning an assassination, and, at the same time they are performing their future plans with gestures. This is, in order to show that they are creating their own performance in the play. They will perform the anointing of Laertes’ sword, he will gall Hamlet slightly with that and the king will prepare the “chalice for the nonce” (l.159).
Laertes dies in the end of the scene, by drinking from the poisoned chalice, in order to hint at the fact that he will be destroyed by his own weapons, even though the chalice is not what kills him in the end of the whole play.
After having treated this scene intensively, I recognized that it is indeed very important for the whole play. For the first time the real being of both characters is revealed, their masks of politeness and loyalty are taken off, as also their clothes in the bathtub. In the chosen scene the two men are not only planning their own death and the destiny of Hamlet, they are also creating the end of the whole play. On the one hand it is really interesting, how the strings of the action come together and go apart again in this scene, and on the other hand to think about to which extent Claudius holds the reins of the whole play. The power of words used by Shakespeare, and their ambiguity, impressed me very much. The different ways he offers to interpret the play, by understanding this scene is exciting.
Shakespeare, William.Hamlet. UK: Methuen & CO. Ltd, 1997 (1982).
Shakespeare, William.Hamlet. VI, vii. Modified by Carsten Krumdiek, Christina Meuser, Maxi Neissner und Stephanie Koenen. January 2004.
Alexander, Nigel.Poison, Play and Duel: A Study in Hamlet. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
Anderson, R. Leila.Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare’sPlays. New York:
Russel & Russel, 1966.
Charney, Maurice.Style in Hamlet. Princeton: University Press, 1969.
Clemen, Wolfgang H.The development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. London:
Methuen & CO LTD, 1977.
Cowie, A P.Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989 (1948).
Ellis-Fermor, Una.The frontiers of Drama. London: Methuen, 1948.
Hunt, John. 1992. “A Thing of Nothing: The Catastrophic Body in ‘Hamlet’.” In: Coyle,
Martin. Hamlet. Basingstoke: Macmillan. 168 – 173.
States, Bert O.Hamlet and theConcept of Characters. London: The John Hopkins
University Press, 1992.
Wilson, Dover.What happens in Hamlet. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.