The Tragedy of King Lethal: A Play
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And it gave him an excuse to repeat some of those funny lines from the first film too! It stems from the misguided belief of studio executives that a supporting role or scenario or cameo that goes down well with the audience in one film will enrich and enhance a sequel if it is repeated, no matter how poorly it is shoehorned in. This makes me happy!
Said character is saying the same thing they always say. This also makes me happy! My experience of watching this film has been enhanced! Sure, they write in a tenuous connection to the bad guy he met him at a party with a monkey but Leo is in no way necessary to the plot. More to the point, his presence makes no sense whatsoever; Lethal Weapon 2 established him as an irritating guy who our leads only spent time with because he was a babysitting assignment forced upon them.
The sequel upped the humour substantially and, for the most part, was successful. Lethal Weapon 3? Not so much…. The opening car chase in Lethal Weapon 2 , for example, is absolute joy because the dialogue is as good as the delivery; Lethal Weapon 3 struggles noticeably in comparison.
Take the entirely pointless scene in which Martin gets Roger to inadvertently kick over a water cooler and embarrass himself in front of the precinct. Firstly: another example of Riggs being a dick, but secondly: not particularly funny. The real problem, though, is that the humour in the previous two films always felt natural and unforced — a glib line, a cynical reaction, or a joke between friends. Action cinema in the 80s and 90s featured heroes killing a lot of people — predominantly bad guys, but people nonetheless.
At one point late in the movie, Roger kills another one, but this one he recognises. He starts losing it as it dawns on him that his latest victim is a friend of his teenage son. You fleetingly wonder if the film is going to do something pretty brave for a movie of its type: by putting a name and a young face to one of the disposable bad guys that action heroes slaughter so indiscriminately, is the Lethal Weapon franchise about to question the merits of such a homicidal response to crime?
No, it was the people who put the gun in his hand.
Roger comes to this epiphany while drunk on his boat. It starts off about the shooting, but then Riggs interrupts his crying, grieving partner and yells at him for selfishly wanting to retire seriously, what a dick. Unlike Hobbes, Shakespeare had no ethical, political or philosophical system of his own to advance, but Hamlet indicates that he came to find humanist moral philosophy deficient in the face of human experience as he observed it.
Mercifully, the biographical question of quite why Shakespeare should have developed such a view before writing Hamlet in or just after is beyond the scope of this book. Proud delusions of anthropocentricity were to be checked accordingly. While in character, an actor is indeed a model of constant decorum. What Brutus forgets is that after the performance is over, an actor sheds his mask before going on to play other roles.
In due course, the conspirators will fail precisely because they do not match the dexterity or art with which Antony is able to employ differing rhetorical personae. When manoeuvring Achilles into the field against the Trojans, Ulysses has recourse to the same ideas:. Achilles, his vanity piqued, is powerless. He resolves to take up arms anew. The plot of Measure for Measure is likewise set in motion by unease with the performance of publicly sanctioned roles.
His lines are inadvertently prophetic.
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As he finds his new role irreconcilable with his Roman past, he casts it off—with fatal consequences. Although Hamlet never so directly indexes the civic personae , the play is little short of obsessed with the outline and implications of the Ciceronian model. For instance, when Claudius has summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he speaks of. Claudius is always attuned to the expectations and assumptions of his onstage audience, and is expert at framing his thoughts within received and reassuringly familiar terms of reference.
This takes us to the heart of an essential difficulty in interpreting the De officiis. For Cicero there could be no awkwardness here, as these differing aspects of honestas were two sides of the same coin and could not exist independently of the other; for ethics to attain any virtue at all, they had to be public, and publicly acknowledged. But in a Christian world, things were different. Here, the maintenance of inward virtue could be conceived of as its own reward, vouchsafed by the watchful eye of God. Accordingly, and just as Machiavelli recommends in his Il Principe, the appearance of virtue is exploited to manipulative ends by ambitious and powerful men like Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet.
But in Hamlet , such exploitations are also the province of the weak, the clueless, and the vacillating. Once the persona has been admitted as the currency of moral virtue, then public recognition or acceptance determines how that virtue is to be valued. If not encumbered with this set of theological baggage, Hamlet certainly has a share in this hostility. Such an approach has much to recommend it, not least in pushing back against the ideologically interpellated subject that became an article of faith for an earlier critical generation.
Just as blood circulated around the human body long before William Harvey drew attention to the fact in , so various forms of interiority or selfhood may have existed before being theorized in the long eighteenth century. But from the perspective of one setting out to study Hamlet , the categories of inwardness and interiority are beset with an insuperable difficulty—albeit one that gives us occasion further to refine our understanding of individuality within the play.
Such readings are not common currency within Hamlet criticism, and are unlikely to win universal assent; they will be more fully elaborated below. And, furthermore, that discussing it need not involve the retrojection of Romantic, Freudian, or any other kinds of individuality onto a period in which they would scarcely have been comprehensible. Well, yes. Hamlet would nevertheless be among the dullest of plays if that were all. Rather, he adverts to the reassuring circularity, not to say complacency, of Ciceronian moral theory.
Cicero and long experience make Polonius confident that he understands. As it happens, Shakespeare reveals that his certainties are far more than comically misplaced. Before the play is over, they undo him and his family alike. Hamlet is in the midst of belittling a creature who is unctuous, dim, and excessively eager to please; who is at court on account of his landed birth rather than his talents, and from whom Hamlet takes pleasure in distinguishing himself thereby assuaging any anxieties he might have that, after returning unexpectedly from England, his own place in Denmark is anything but merited.
Now, his use of the commonplace quickly becomes starker. If one only comes to know oneself by observing others and only comes to know others by appreciating oneself, how to begin? It can be tempting to see something of the sort dramatized in Hamlet , most particularly in Hamlet himself. They think that they are following nature by taking on one role or another, but they are in reality playing parts in the drama of their mutual destruction. Perhaps, but this surveillance is a symptom, not a cause. It belongs to a cascade of inset plays, of which the Mousetrap is only the most obvious.
Hamlet, for instance, observes those observing his antic disposition with the same attentiveness that he does those observing his adaptation of the Murder of Gonzago. They confirm that one can only act, only fabricate, only pretend to be oneself. Two comparisons may be helpful in locating this reading of the play more distinctly. Who knows whether I feed not my mind with higher thoughts?
Truly, as I know not all the particularities, so yet I see the bounds of all these knowledges; but the workings of the mind I find much more infinite than can be led unto by the eye, or imagined by any that distract their thoughts without themselves. And in such contemplation, or as I think more excellent, I enjoy my solitarines, and my solitariness perchance is the nurse of these contemplations. A second and equally instructive point of comparison is provided by a writer with whom Shakespeare is often said to have much in common—the French essayist Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne.
Human nature was too unstable and too varied to be categorised according to the personae of civic doctrine. The essayist is another persona that Hamlet attempts to put on, and that does not fit him. Where Montaigne bears with himself tolerantly and amusedly, secure in the belief that he makes sense however obscurely through his Essais and before his God, Hamlet is rash, angry, impatient, and reluctant to ask himself even the most elementary questions.
But in Hamlet , the structural irony also takes on moral, political, philosophical, and poetic casts. There is a double standard here, but it does not belong to Hamlet alone any more than it centres on the status of cosmetics or feminine virtue. The young prince, unlike his uncle, is unable or unwilling to register in himself the corruption that he diagnoses in others. Things appear to exist, but as it is impossible to say what they are, their reality cannot be taken for granted. Maybe so, but neither Hamlet nor Hamlet can describe or define them. Hamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity.
In each case, it discovers nothing of significance there. He is instead the finely drawn embodiment of a moral order that is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. The scene is littered with corpses. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. The underlying causes of these tragic effects are destined to remain hidden. And yet precisely because this version of events proves so acceptable to Fortinbras, it might arouse suspicion in us.
Something else is wrong, and that something else implicates Fortinbras and his vanquished father—just as it does, say, the University of Wittenberg and the pliant king of England. Deferential, politic, cautious, and rhetorically meticulous, he bears the hallmarks of a Polonius in the making. Eric Mallin, James Shapiro, and many others have convincingly situated Hamlet within the unease that suffused British political life as the Elizabethan age—and the Tudor dynasty—came to its inexorable but uncertain end.
Such approaches are illuminating, especially when they resist the temptation to sift the play for nuggets of political allegory. Their compass is nevertheless too narrow: Hamlet is engaged with much more than the exigencies of local politics, however climactic they must have seemed to many of those caught up in them. These included resistance theory, monarchomachism, and republicanism, along with claims for popular sovereignty and the redistribution of wealth. At times of political, cultural, moral, and intellectual flux, the poet or historian can better affirm the passing of the old order than identify, isolate, or endorse the characteristics of the new.
Shakespeare understood this, and drew back from the vatic, programmatic, or celebratory just as determinedly as he disavowed the reactionary or didactic. He could see as clearly as someone like Hobbes that there was a problem, but unlike Hobbes or a poet like Milton, he did not think that he had the answer—and did not believe that it was his responsibility to provide one. Rather, and to adapt a line of Matthew Arnold, the design of the present work is to establish Hamlet as a play that depicts—with varying degrees of sympathy, impatience, and horror—the experience of being confined to the darkened space between two moral and cultural worldviews: one dead, the other powerless to be born.
One a ghost, the other as yet confined to fantasy.
Although the play has no hunting scene, it is full of traps, nets, lures, bait, archery, falconry, the trail, and the chase. In Hamlet , hunting performs a related function. It collapses the distinctions that its dramatis personae would establish between themselves; the principal players unwittingly, and often simultaneously, serve as both hunter and prey. As we shall see, a hunter relies on cunning, duplicity, trickery, close observation, guileful anticipation, and on many occasions devastating force.
There is clear bond between the two, but this bond is not predicated of the honestas or decorum championed by Ciceronian moral philosophy.
Shakespeare enlists them to represent a vision of human existence in which appetite, expediency, and opportunism are all: when engaged in venatorial pursuits, the ontological distinctiveness of humankind becomes effaced, if not dissipated. Inexplicably, they find themselves trapped—sequestered from one another and from the world at large. In Hamlet , Shakespeare uses the hunt to similar ends. He transforms it into a paradox through which to emblematize fear and helpless disconnection.
In so doing, it makes liberal use of early modern sporting handbooks. However, in reconstructing the language and practices of the hunt, this custom is as honoured in the breach as in the observance. I make use of them where necessary. The discourse of the hunt thus established, the focus of this chapter turns to the ways in which this body of knowledge can be put to critical use. A key point of reference is the humanist debate on the suitability of hunting for the virtuous man; for Erasmus and More, hunting was bestial and thus a threat to human dignity.
From here, I conclude by reading the cynegetic paradigm of Hamlet against the natura and fortuna of Senecan revenge tragedy, and propose that as the hunt governs the way in which the cast of Hamlet interact with one another, Shakespeare uses it to expose the dangerously illusory foundations on which humanist moral philosophy was constructed. When Fortinbras enters at the end of Act 5, he is confronted by the corpses of Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet.
The young Prince of Norway may not be much of a thinker, but his choice of language is revealing. First, it is a highly ritualised selection of parts from the deer, served to reward the hounds involved in the chase. Second, it came to signify any pile or collection of deer carcasses or remains gathered up after the hunt. It is the second sense that is foremost here, as it usually is for Shakespeare. The metaphor, with its charge of threatening hostility, was one to which Shakespeare was drawn frequently.
They cry like hounds whose noses have led them away from the true object of their pursuit, and whose master has failed to put them back on track. Deferring for a moment the question of quite why Fortinbras makes this claim, the point to stress is that he veers into the stylistic vice of catachresis in the course of making it.
He botches his hunting metaphor while striving for solemnly elevated rhetorical affect. Had Death been killing the Danish aristocracy for a feast, no matter how indulgent, he would not have been guilty of havocking them; if he is guilty of havocking them, he would have killed far more than he needed for his feast. This is not a matter of terminological or semantic nicety. Through it, Shakespeare illustrates that Fortinbras, like the noble Danes he is about to supplant, is delineated by his staginess. He is concerned only with the impact of his words and actions. Their resonance does not merit a second thought.
What of that impact? He does not know how or why things have come to pass as they have, and is unaware that Hamlet has nominated him for the election. It is, however, possible that he has heard something of the discord between Hamlet and Claudius, and he intuits that in the absence of any princely rivals, his plans to remove the Danish royal family and to install himself on the Danish throne may well be realised without further force or bluster. Note that the first time we hear of him, Fortinbras is likened to one of the most alarming of Shakespearean predators, the shark [1.
Constrained by ambition into adopting an elevated and respectful mode of speech, Fortinbras strips human agency from the catastrophic spectacle before him. Doing so erects a buffer between its victims and the personal or political conflicts that may have brought it about. For all Fortinbras knows, the stories behind the deaths of Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, and Laertes might implicate him or otherwise weaken his claim. Much better to keep people looking elsewhere. There is a double incongruity here: his rhetoric clunks, but is at the same time superfluous—or, rather, supererogatory.
Horatio and the English Ambassador immediately reveal that Fortinbras has no cause for concern, and the next we hear from him, he boldly lays claim to the throne. The fates that overtake the dramatis personae of Hamlet are demonstrably not the work of vexed gods, angels of death, or even theologically confounding ghosts. It is instead the product of individual actions—actions that are starkly indexed by the discourse of the hunt. Unerringly labile though he may be, Laertes knows that his question is rhetorical. He already has his answer.
The fixation with the language and assumptions of the hunt thus begins to resemble the discourses of ambition, honour, anger, fear, courtship, solicitousness, obedience, friendship, or pliancy that feature prominently elsewhere in the play: two parts palliative, two parts diversion, one part ruse.
What makes hunting different is that Shakespeare uses it to suggest an underlying vision of nature untamed by moral order. Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, and Laertes use the hunt to express what they take to be their agency, right, and ability to move others. Even as they move to hunt down their enemies, they ensure their own victimhood and destruction. He might just as easily be describing life at the mouth of the Baltic. After the English Ambassador has imparted his news about the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio responds to Fortinbras with the introduction to an oration that he does not get to complete before the action comes to a close, and in which he puts tragic agency back within the province of the human:.
Fifty lines earlier, the fatally wounded Laertes makes a cognate claim in cognate terms. A spring was a basic of fowling device, fit for capturing the least demanding of birds—such as the proverbially unintelligent woodcock—in order to put food on the table. Of course, the reason that Shakespeare has Laertes adopt such an unlikely frame of reference is that it recalls a warning given by Polonius at the outset of the play.
Whatever her true feelings might be, she obeys as a daughter. Returning to Laertes caught in his own spring, we can now better discern how and why his remarks matter. This, however, is not all. He knows he has besmirched his name, and that he will be seen to have besmirched his name by his peers. He therefore goes through the motions of repentance in the Polonian idiom familiar to him.
He clutches at expiation. Hamlet agrees, and takes it as his prompt for killing Claudius. To thine own self be true? Not stylistically, and not even at the moment of death. The first is to offer a reminder that after the deaths of Claudius and Hamlet, the kingdom passes into the hands of a balefully imperceptive militarist, one who—full of passionate intensity—has successfully slouched his way towards his object of desire. The second is to emphasise that, even as his characters strive for magnanimity or redemption, Shakespeare does not allow them to assume moral responsibility for their motives or their actions.
Perhaps so, but Hamlet is manifestly cut from different and more finely woven cloth than his impetuous rivals, Fortinbras and Laertes. Does he have any part in the discourse of hunting? The immediate aftermath of his encounter with the Ghost is an excellent place to probe this question further. There is recognition that the Ghost is a potentially compromising ally here, to be sure, just as there is that physical infirmity can stand in the way of revenge. Even so, Hamlet is determined that neither bodily weakness nor religious scrupulosity will impede his pursuit of vengeance.
In coupling his hounds, the principal responsibility of the early modern huntsman was to pair them off carefully, placing inexperienced hounds with veterans, and ensuring that male dogs were not placed together lest they should fight. They will range together until they locate the trace of their prey, then strike without mercy. Manifestly, Hamlet knows how to talk the talk. To take one prominently normative example, Thomas Elyot praised hunting on the grounds that.
The privileged social position enjoyed by hunting and falconry, along with the sheer amount of time spent engaging in them, has been amply supported by the researches of modern historians. That is, young hawks, taken from their nest or eyrie—easier to train than adult hawks taken in the wild, but less hardy and courageous.
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A little later, Hamlet himself makes use of specialist language drawn from falconry. These lines have vexed many commentators on the play, but their obscurity need not defy comprehension. Herons were a favourite form of avian prey throughout the medieval and early modern periods. See figure 3. Further reference to falconry allows for his metaphor to be unpacked in more detail. Bear with me. The second is that the season for hunting the heron comprised only the autumn and winter months; furthermore, and like all forms of falconry, early modern heron hunting generally took place during the morning.
It is winter in Elsinore, and December when Hamlet meets his classmates. Hamlet thus only professes insanity to the extent that the falconer suffers from sun blindness—which is to say, only in particular circumstances. Raptors moult during the summer months, and the falconer must confine them while waiting for them to grow new feathers—whereupon they can be flown again, and a new season can begin.
Envisioning them as a cast of hawks to his heron, Hamlet reassures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he will not take away the status they enjoy in virtue of continuing to be flown against him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should proceed with caution. Obvious or not, this line is hard to gloss. Admirable though the French were thought to be in matters of practical falconry, they were regarded as a nation of austringers, and appear to have been disdained accordingly; they allowed their hawks to hunt virtually any bird that crossed their paths, not just established prey like herons, cranes, ducks, partridges, and pigeons.
Hamlet makes no attempt to apportion praise or blame to the French falconers. Instead, prompted by the earlier talk of moulting, eyases, hawks, and handsaws, he uses them as an analogue for a certain promiscuity of taste. The dogs of a blind hare courser would have run at whatever caught their attention, and he would require great good luck for them to catch his desired prey. The reading is nicely reinforced by Q1.
Once the Players return to the stage with their recorders, something changes. Hamlet turns accusatory:. O, the recorders. Let me see one. Further, it provided an efficient method of poaching. Moreover, in giving Hamlet a gallery to play to, their arrival gives him ample reason to discard the comparative tameness with which he has been handling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Why should he do so with further reference to the hunt? One burden of this chapter is to suggest that no further explanation is necessary: hunting language is simply one of the media through which Hamlet thinks.
I would nonetheless like to suggest that sight of the recorders is a significant detail. One would use the birdcall to entice the prey close by, and then surprise it with a net or else encourage it to land on a branch smeared in birdlime—a lethally glutinous substance considered towards the end of this chapter. Gascoigne also saw the merit of calls in hunting deer, and when in John Bate published the first full account of such devices in English, he included varieties to attract the stag, hare, fox, and hedgehog.
As for the flatterers that belong to Princes courts, they play by their lords and masters, as those fowlers do, who catch their birds by a pipe counterfeiting their voices; for even so they, to winde and insinuate themselves into the favour of kings and princes, doe resemble them for all the world, and by this devise entrap and deceive them. In expressing his suspicions so directly, and in insisting that only he is competent to govern himself or the recorder, Hamlet means to suggest to his former friends that they have no chance of taking him through either their guile or their force of will.
He has seen them coming. Maybe so, but it is intriguing to speculate what the players make of his exchange with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or of his exchange with Polonius on the shapes in clouds that follows it. After their aborted performance, they are perhaps keeping their heads down in the hope of being paid before continuing on their way; they must nevertheless be bewildered. Horatio also remains onstage for the duration of the exchanges between Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius as he has been for almost the entirety of the scene. He too elects to say nothing.
When first deciding to stage a version of The Murder of Gonzago , Hamlet pauses to explain himself:. This is the sense in which Shakespeare usually uses the verb.
He can then seize upon them and obtain the revenge demanded by the Ghost. Urging Horatio to observe Claudius closely, Hamlet continues that. It is another venatorial term of art, denoting the act of dislodging a fox from its burrow prior to either pursuing or trapping it. Once in the open, the fox would either be trapped in nets and killed without ceremony often by clubbing or run to its death by hounds. Tacitus had made it plain that politics are the province of bait, traps, and snares, and if playing the fox sometimes involved simulating virtue or breaking a vow, such was the nature of prudent statecraft.
Oliver St John was none of these things. Further, the notion that Claudius should be hunted and caught like vermin is one to which he soon returns.
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The notion of a mouse hunt might seem parodic, but the trapping of mice and rats was as much a part of early modern hunting as the pursuit of larger vermin like foxes. Another good example is the magnificent woodcut frontispiece that is reproduced in figure 5: here, mouse trapping takes its place alongside almost every conceivable sort of early modern hunting, fishing, and fowling. Polonius calls off the performance, and Hamlet begins to exult. And yet Hamlet has a problem: Claudius has departed the scene and thereby escaped the trap that had been laid for him.
As it happens, Hamlet is unperturbed. He transforms Claudius from a fox or a mouse into a deer. These were reserved for the chase, though the season for this elite form of hunting was restricted to the summer. For the most part, the injuries sustained in this process would not result in instant death. First, while Hamlet elevates Claudius within the venatorial order of things by imagining him as a deer rather than a fox or a mouse or a woodcock, he still views his uncle as a lesser sort of beast.
Not a hart, and not fully regal. Not only is he pleased to have started or roused Claudius through the Mousetrap , but he believes that he has wounded him. Claudius may have fled, but he can be tracked without much further ado before being dispatched in the appropriate fashion.
All the same, his principal sense relates to Claudius. As discussed above, Hamlet takes exception to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pursuing him like birds of prey or drive hunters with nets. Here, Lorenzo ruminates on the importance of scheming at one remove—and of being able to manipulate his confederate, Balthazar, into conducting dishonourable business on his behalf:.
Claudius is never so crudely explicit in his strategizing, but he and Lorenzo have learned from the same master. In this regard, however, their efforts are overshadowed by those of a courtier who is older and pushier by far, and who becomes convinced that he can give Claudius and Gertrude the intelligence they desire. But beshrew my jealousy! In so doing, he imagines himself as a hunting dog that has exceeded the relevant terrain in seeking the scent of a deer or hare. Edward Topsell elaborates in helpfully comparable terms.
Although generally efficient, this manner of proceeding was not always effective, especially if the prey had adopted the precaution of doubling back on itself to confuse its pursuers. The hounds would then try to locate the scent closer by. Slightly less than a hundred lines later, he comes to the point. Polonius need only find and establish the proofs that would elevate his conjecture beyond mere plausibility. He is bullish:. To deliver these lines as she does demands nerve: she gives every impression of believing that it was Hamlet who had suddenly refused to see her; that it has been she who has been suffering the pangs of unexplained rejection.
This deliberate tactlessness is designed as an amatory provocation, but instead it generates rage—and could perhaps be counted on to tax the good graces of a lover who had not already fixated on feminine weakness and inconstancy. But here there is no resolution, no witty payoff. The outcome, by any reckoning, is a disaster. In another work, Wilson elaborates on this process of search and discovery through a metaphor common to many humanist educational handbooks. For when thei see the ground beaten flatte round about, and faire to the sighte: thei have a narrow gesse by al likelihode that the hare was there a litle before.
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Likewise the Huntesman in huntyng the foxe, wil soone espie when he seeth a hole, whether it be a foxe borough, or not. So he that will take profite in this parte of Logique, must be like a hunter, and learne by labour to knowe the boroughes. For these places bee nothing elles, but covertes or boroughes, wherein if any one searche diligentlie, he maie finde game at pleasure. These take the form of a set of questions through which to frame the attributes of the case before formulating arguments about it, and are usually though by no means always seven in number: who, what, where, with what help, why, how, and when.
They were useful in three only tangentially related areas: in establishing proofs; in determining decorum , or the appropriate style and tone in which to address a particular audience; and in structuring and making vivid a rhetorical narration. To put it differently, Polonius has a hypothesis that following the trail of the circumstances might enable him to prove right, but before they can do so, he needs to unearth more information. Hamlet, pursuing an agenda of his own, fails to oblige him with it. He hopes to learn enough to stand up his hypothesis from observing another staged interview, this time between Hamlet and his mother 3.
Although he does not yet have an explanatory theory of his own, Claudius knows better. One final point on Polonius the avowedly politic huntsman. As such, he typifies an order of moral turpitude that extends far beyond the complexities attendant on what, after Kantorowicz, might be thought of as the two bodies inhabited by Hamlet and the Danish royal family. Polonius imagines himself set apart by wiliness, experience, and commitment to the greater good. Shakespeare thus crafts a play world in which hunter and prey are interchangeable, and in which the art of hunting carries little trace of the nobility claimed for it by Gascoigne.
However, as Claus Uhlig established some time ago, these lines have an intellectual and cultural genealogy that goes far beyond the imponderables of Shakespearean biography. For one prominent if, in this respect, marginal group of moralizing humanists, the hunt pandered to the worst and most destructive instincts of humankind. For as touchyng the death of a deare, or other wilde beast, ye know your selves, what ceremonies they use about the same. Every poore man maie cutte out an oxe, or a shepe, wheras suche venaison maie not be dismembred but of a gentilman: who bareheadded, and set on knees, with a knife prepared proprely to that use, for every kynde of knife is not allowable also with certaine iestures, cuttes a sunder certaine partes of the wildbeast, in a certaine order verie circumstantly.
So therfore wheras these hunters through continuall chasyng and eatyng of theyr venerie, gaine nothyng, but in a maner dooe them selfes also degenerate into wilde and salvage propretees, ye maie see yet, how through this errour of mine, thei repute theyr lyves ledde in more than princely pleasure. Worse than bestial, in fact. For Lucretius, the venatorial lifestyle was an expression of the human condition before the advent of domesticity, language, and civilisation: primitive, but very far from innocent.
It was an all but feral community of appetitive violence, with human beings competing against one another and the animals on whom they preyed—whose flesh they ate for nutrition, whose skins they wore to ward off the cold, and whose superior vision allowed them to hunt their human predators by night. Only with the passage of time would humankind, by stages, assume the characteristics with which to distinguish itself from the rest of the animal world.
Its appetites, variously hypostatised, remain. At the turn of the sixteenth century, the Lucretian vision was vividly adapted by the Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo, principally in his companion pieces The Hunt and Return from the Hunt. The first of these see figure 7 shows a hunting landscape in which human and animal predation, and vulnerability, is indistinguishable. In the centre left, a man wearing a lion skin grapples with a bear attacking a lion attacking a bear; the look of helpless terror on his face suggests that he is set to join the corpse on the lower right hand side of the painting, replete with a slashed throat and defensive wounds to his arms.
Others, following John of Salisbury, worked biblical variations on the theme. Although Oppian was untroubled by the moral or existential status of hunting, he viewed it in related terms. Although Gascoigne frequently evinces pity for the animals pursued in the hunt, such ambiguities do not suit his purpose.
The Noble Arte avoids them accordingly. As this second example intimates, Shakespeare had a firm grasp on the centrality of cunning to the hunt, on both literal and metaphorical levels. But compare Angelo and Troilus, who both turn to venatorial cunning in flattering themselves that they are set apart from the everyday appetites that drive their worlds. Hamlet declines to take the drink for the time being. They play another round and Hamlet again wins a point. Hamlet and Laertes have a third pass which ends in a draw. After this pass, while Hamlet is unguarded, Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned rapier.
He wounds Laertes with it. Just then, the queen collapses. She declares that she has been poisoned by the drink and then dies. Hamlet asks for the treachery to be found out and Laertes confesses the plan hatched by the king and he. He says that they are both inevitably going to die, having been wounded by the poisoned blade. Hamlet takes the envenomed sword and wounds Claudius, then forces the king to drink from his poisoned cup. Claudius dies.
Hamlet, knowing that he is about to die also, asks Horatio to explain this bloody spectacle to the confused onlookers. Horatio, on the contrary, wishes to die with his friend, but Hamlet convinces him to live a while and clear his name. Hamlet declares that Fortinbras should become King of Denmark. A flourish is heard and Osric brings news that Fortinbras has arrived from his victory in Poland with ambassadors from England.
Fortinbras enters the court only to find four noble bodies sprawled out on the floor. The ambassadors from England enter with news that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been killed. Horatio explains that Claudius would not have welcomed this news even if he had been living to receive it. He orders that the royal bodies be taken up. Fortinbras agrees to hear it. He adds that, given the death of the Danish royalty, he will now pursue his own claims to the throne. Some soldiers take up his body and bear it from the stage. No surprise, this final Act of Hamlet is as mysterious, ambiguous, and controversial as those that precede it.
Indeed, in Act Five Hamlet kills Claudius — finally. But he does so in such a roundabout, half-cocked, off-hand way, we wonder whether this really counts as revenge. The death of Claudius certainly lacks the poetic justice that vengeance seems to require. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia.
The earlier part of the play, including the role of the ghost in giving the death of Claudius a moral shape, seems to have been forgotten. Hamlet seems to bring the drama to a close almost accidentally, and Johnson accuses Shakespeare on these grounds of dramatic clumsiness and moral ineptitude. He seems to have grown bored with his own play, in other words, and shrugs off its generic requirements. By the final Act, it seems as though the playwright has finally given up trying to tie his hero down to conventions.
Hamlet has forced Hamlet off the rails, taken it from a simple and predictable genre play to something inscrutable, massively significant, and, for lack of a better term, post -theatrical. Meanwhile, in between the two major events of Act Five the burial of Ophelia and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes , Shakespeare includes several very famous setpieces. The variety of his curiosity is matched by depth of penetration.