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Selection 4


William Shakespeare's

 The Tragedy of Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark


(Act 5, Scene 2 [final act & scene])

Significance: Tragedy Modernizes with climactic spectacle,
and perhaps some genre-mixing with
(revenge narrative accomplished, but at cost of hero's life)

[stage directions] and [interpretive notes] are added throughout)

Instructor's note: Aristotle (Poetics 6g) described spectacle as "the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry," of all tragedy's parts, and Greek tragedy generally measured spectacle in small doses.

In Elizabethan England, however, a new sub-genre of tragedy became popular: "the revenge tragedy," in which characters fought, murdered, or tortured each other onstage. Hamlet is not simply a revenge tragedy, but much of its plot concerns vengeance for his father's death, and the final act of the play features considerable spectacle in the form of sword-fighting and several characters killing each other directly in front of the audience.

As tragedy modernizes, it relaxes somewhat its prohibition on spectacle, but in other modern tragedies spectacle is still carefully managed so as not to overwhelm the intellectual or spiritual aspects of the play. (The correlation is that, the more special effects a movie has, usually the dumber it is.)

The Tragedy of Hamlet as a "revenge tragedy" may also mix the narrative genres of tragedy and romance, since revenge missions are usually romance narratives (e.g., martial arts movies, vigilante movies, many westerns). However, Hamlet remains mostly a tragedy because the hero and other non-villainous characters die, in contrast to standard romance narratives in which the bad guys are gunned down or otherwise vanquished and the good guy rides or flies off untouched and still dudely.

from Act V, scene 2

[Enter King, Queen, Laertes, Lords, Osric, and Attendants with foils &c.]   [foils = fencing swords]

King: 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.
This presence knows, and you must needs have heard,
How I am punish'd with sore distraction.
What I have done
That might your nature, honour, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purpos'd evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o'er the house
And hurt my brother.

Laertes: I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most
To my revenge. But in my terms of honour
I stand aloof; and will no reconcilement
Till by some elder masters of known honour
I have a voice and precedent of peace
To keep my name ungor'd. But till that time                      [ungor'd = clean]
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it.

Hamlet: I embrace it freely;
And will this brother's wager frankly play.—
Give us the foils; come on.                               [foils = fencing swords]

Laertes: Come, one for me.

Hamlet: I'll be your foil, Laertes; in mine ignorance    [foil = pun: foil as opposite]
Your skill shall, like a star in the darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.

Laertes: You mock me, sir.

Hamlet: No, by this hand.

King: Give them the foils, young Osric. Cousin Hamlet,
You know the wager?

Hamlet: Very well, my lord;
Your grace has laid the odds o' the weaker side.

King: I do not fear it; I have seen you both;
But since he's better'd, we have therefore odds.

Laertes: This is too heavy, let me see another.

Hamlet: This likes me well. These foils have all a length?

[They prepare to play.]   [play = fence with swords]

Osric: Ay, my good lord.

King: Set me the stoups of wine upon that table,—
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 throw,
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 heavens to earth,
'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.] [play = fence with swords]               [spectacle]

Hamlet: One.

Laertes: No.

Hamlet: Judgment!

Osric: A hit, a very palpable hit.

Laertes: Well;—again.

King: Stay, give me drink.—Hamlet, this pearl is thine;
Here's to thy health.—

[Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within.]      [spectacle]

Give him the cup.

Hamlet: I'll play this bout first; set it by awhile.—
Come.—Another hit; what say you?

[They play.]                             [spectacle]

Laertes: A touch, a touch, I do confess.

King: Our son shall win.

Queen: He's fat, and scant of breath.—
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows:
The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

Hamlet: Good madam!

King: Gertrude, do not drink.

Queen: I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.

King: [Aside.] It is the poison'd cup; it is too late.

Hamlet: I dare not drink yet, madam; by-and-by.

Queen: Come, let me wipe thy face.

Laertes: My lord, I'll hit him now.

King: I do not think't.

Laertes: [Aside.] And yet 'tis almost 'gainst my conscience.

Hamlet: Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you pass with your best violence:
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.

Laertes: Say you so? come on.

[They play.]                                           [spectacle] 

Osric: Nothing, neither way.

Laertes: Have at you now!

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

King: Part them; they are incens'd.

Hamlet: Nay, come again!

[The Queen falls.]                                        [spectacle; i.e., the queen dies on-stage rather than off-stage as in Greek tragedy]

Osric: Look to the queen there, ho!

Horatio: They bleed on both sides.—How is it, my lord?

Osric: How is't, Laertes?

Laertes: Why, as a woodcock to my own springe, Osric;      [like a bird caught in my own trap]
I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.

Hamlet: How does the Queen?

King: She swoons to see them bleed.

Queen: No, no! the drink, the drink!—O my dear Hamlet!—
The drink, the drink!—I am poison'd.


Hamlet: O villainy!—Ho! let the door be lock'd:
Treachery! seek it out.

[Laertes falls.]                            [spectacle]

Laertes: It is here, Hamlet: Hamlet, thou art slain;
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,
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.

[Stabs the King.]                                 [spectacle]

Osric and Lords: Treason! treason!

King: O, yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.

Hamlet: Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion.—Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.

[King dies.]

Laertes: He is justly serv'd;
It is a poison temper'd by himself.—
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:   [tragedy distributes moral blame or guilt instead of isolating it to a single villain]
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me!


Hamlet: Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee.—
I am dead, Horatio.—Wretched queen, adieu!—
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time,—as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest,—O, I could tell you,—
But let it be.—Horatio, I am dead;
Thou liv'st; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.

Horatio: Never believe it:
I am more an antique Roman than a Dane.—
Here's yet some liquor left.

Hamlet: As thou'rt a man,
Give me the cup; let go; by heaven, I'll have't.—
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.—

[March afar off, and shot within.]

What warlike noise is this?

Osric: Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland,
To the ambassadors of England gives
This warlike volley.

Hamlet: O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited.—the rest is silence.


Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!        [transcendent conclusion akin to romance narrative]
Why does the drum come hither?

[March within.]

[Enter Fortinbras, the English Ambassadors, and others.]

Fortinbras: Where is this sight?

Horatio: What is it you will see?
If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.

Fortinbras: This quarry cries on havoc.—O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?

First Ambassador: The sight is dismal;
And our affairs from England come too late:
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,
To tell him his commandment is fulfill'd
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Where should we have our thanks?

Horatio: Not from his mouth,
Had it the ability of life to thank you:
He never gave commandment for their death.
But since, so jump upon this bloody question,
You from the Polack wars, and you from England,
Are here arriv'd, give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' heads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

Fortinbras: Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience.
For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune:
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now, to claim my vantage doth invite me.

Horatio: Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more:
But let this same be presently perform'd,
Even while men's minds are wild: lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.

Fortinbras: Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov'd most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.—
Take up the bodies.—Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

[A dead march.]

[Exeunt, bearing off the dead bodies; after the which a peal of ordnance is shot off.] [peal of ordnance = salute of artillery]

[Instructor's note: To conclude the tragic narrative, "everyone dies" is the standard description of Hamlet, but the appearance of Fortinbras restores order, justice, and peace, as in the conclusion to the Oresteia or Oedipus at Colonus: "The tragic narrative concludes with resolution of the problem and restoration of justice, often accompanied by the death, banishment, or quieting of the tragic hero." (Genres)]

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