The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare

The Phoenix and the Turtle

I drew The Phoenix and the Turtle, a poem by William Shakespeare, for my Deal Me In Challenge, and after reading it, I’m so confused.  Fortunately, I pulled up an article on it which said it is one of the more confusing poems in English literature, so I feel a little better.  But only a little.  Let’s see what I can discover about it ……

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The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

“A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we heart it cry.
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain.”

In a quest to focus on my Shakespeare Project for 2017, I’m reading through some of the plays following the schedule of the A Bard a Month group on Goodreads.  They have The Comedy of Errors listed as the first play of Williams Shakespeare yet my The Life and Works of William Shakespeare has it listed as the 5th.  From the evidence, the only thing that’s certain is that no one knows for sure, right?  In any case, it definitely shows in its structure and method a rather simple presentation of a budding farce that nevertheless manages to capture the audience’s interest and tickle their humour.

The play appears to be dated somewhere between 1589-1591.  It did not appear in Quarto form but made its first appearance in the Folio of 1623 and the first documented performance in the Gesta Grayorum was at Gray’s Inn on December 28, 1594.  In dating this play, the rhyme scheme is also of assistance, and classical allusions, fantastic imagery, wire-drawn wit, conceits and puns abound as in earlier plays.  The action occurs within a single day, and the buttressing of dual improbabilities in the duplication of the twin masters and servants, the romantic tension of the parties, and the blending of tragedy and comedy bring some complexity to this unseasoned work.  Resembling Plautus’ play, Menæchmi, portraying whimsical confusion and mistakes involving twins of Syracuse, The Comedy of Errors may also have the basis in another drama, The Historie of Error, performed in 1577-78, although the parallels are certainly less apparent.

source Wikimedia Commons

A trader from Syracuse, Egeon, is apprehended in the port city of Ephesus.  As the law forbids either inhabitant from entering the other’s city, Egeon is sentenced to death unless someone is found to provide the fine of one thousand marks.  In despair, he reveals to the Duke of Ephesus that thirty-three years ago in a storm at sea, he was separated from his wife, one of his twin sons, and one of his two twin servants; he and one son were picked up by a Corinthian ship and his wife, his other son and the other servant by an Epidaurian ship.  The years pass as Egeus grieves the loss, renaming his remaining son Antipholus after his lost son and the servant, Dromio, after the lost servant.  Now, against all statues, he is here in Ephesus to discover the fate of the missing part of his family.

Without a friend in the city, Egeon’s fate seems certain, but his son, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio, turn up in Ephesus unbeknownst to him, also looking for his missing brother as he has been searching for seven years.  And lo, the missing Antipholus of Ephesus indeed resides in the city with his servant, Dromio, and thence the “errors” begin, causing a rollicking adventure of humour and suspense. Adriana chastizes her husband, but why does he not appear to know her?  Lady Luciana, her sister, is horrified by the advances of her brother-in-law.  A gold chain ordered by Antipholus of Epheus, mistakenly ends up in the hands of his brother and accusations, threats and recriminations follow.  An abbey becomes a refuge, yet who exactly is the regal abbess, and will Egeon eventually be saved and the family reunited?

A Scene from The Comedy of Errors
Thomas Stothard
source ArtUK

In spite of all my questions, there wasn’t much mystery to the play, but while hilarity is perceived by the audience who can regularly guess at the outcomes of situations, the characters themselves are often in states of anguish, irritation, despair, and confusion, not at all comedic from their point of view.  The well-crafted tension between these two aspects of the play gives us a glimmer of promise for Shakespeare’s later works and taste of his genius to come …..

Further reading:

Henry V by William Shakespeare

“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

Written in the Second Period of Shakespeare’s development, Henry V is the eighth of his dramas, and part of the Henriad, his historical tetralogy which also includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2.  The play is thought to be composed late in 1598, as it was produced between March 17 and September 28th of 1599.

The earliest known volume is the first Quarto printed in 1600, which was followed by Q2 and Q3, reprints of the first edition, published in 1602 and 1608 respectively.  The first Folio edition differs extensively from the Quartos, as it is twice the length of the latter, which omits the first scenes of Acts I and III, the second scene of Act IV, the choruses and the epilogue, as well as some of the characters.  Prose is also transformed into metrical form, it can only be supposed to effect an increased length of the play.

King Henry V
source Wikipedia

Set in 1415, immediately before and after the events at the Battle of Agincourt during the 100 years war, Shakespeare appears to have deviated from his promise at the end of the play, Henry IV, Part 2, where he assured a reappearance of the bumbling, comedic Falstaff.  Instead, the play echoes of tones of impressive military management versus French incompetence, and a king who is lauded as a hero.  The play shows technical weakness with an awkward chorus who speaks a prologue explaining the upcoming scenes in the drama, however with the sources drawn upon (Holinshed’s Chronicle and an old play, The Famous Victories of Henry V) and his own additions, Shakespeare has shown a legitimate constancy.

With very little constructive plot, the play ties in various episodes in Henry V’s leadership role before and after the Battle of Agincourt. As it begins, Henry appeals to the Archbishop of Cantebury as to whether he is justified in his claim of the French crown.  Supported by his conscience, he feels a duty towards his French subjects, but the French king has another view of the matter.  When the French ambassador turns up in the English court with an insulting gift of tennis balls from the king’s son, the Dauphin, Henry is incensed, but manages to keep control of his temper.

“We are glad the dauphin is so pleasant with us.
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.  
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chaces ……”

Henry will:

“…….. dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea strike the Dauphin blind to look on us,
But all this lies within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal.”

Yet soon after this honourable rhetoric is delivered, he learns that his friend, Lord Scroop and two lords, Cambridge and Grey, are plotting his demise and the king is forced to dispatch them in an execution.  The injection of this betrayal is quickly presented and appears awkward and unconnected with the whole, but it does afford us some insight into Henry’s character and the historical situation.

Henry V Discovering the Conspirators
Henry Fuseli
source ArtUK

The scenes move from England, to an English camp in Harfleur, to the French camp, contrasting English courage, fortitude and skill to the French forces and strength which threaten their much smaller contingent, but exemplify a bombastic and almost bumbling French confidence of an easy victory, that is obviously misplaced.  The eve before the battle, Henry is represented as not only a capable king, but as a man of the people, as he walks among them in disguise, learning of their thoughts and opinions of the coming war.  His responsibilities rest heavy on his shoulders and he asks God for strength in arms and His favour, in spite of the fault of his father’s taking of Richard II’s crown.  With the French more than confident in their strength of arms, and the English somewhat dismayed by their lack of soldiers in comparison, the battle begins.  With some of Shakespeare’s trademark humour, the fighting continues until the English, against the odds, claim victory and peace is negotiated.  Henry then woos Princess Katherine, daughter of the French king, bringing together the two countries with the bonds of love.

Lewis Waller as Henry V
Arthur Hacker
source ArtUK

As for characters in this drama, the principle one is certainly Henry V.  Henry’s motivations for ruling France do not lie in personal, monetary or territorial gain, but in a sacred trust for which he feels responsible.  He shows a marked similarity to his father, Henry IV, both sewing their wild oats when young, but extirpating their follies and irresponsibilities in time of need of their country.  Both become strong, forceful kings with a material sense of duty, to both God and their kingdom, and who successfully protect English identity and sovereignty.  Even in presenting the English forces, there is a unity in their soldiers as we are introduced to Captain Jamy, a Scot, Captain Macmorris, an Irishman, and Fluellen, a Welshman.

My enjoyment of the play somewhat fluctuated throughout my reading.  While it has a simple charm about it and Shakespeare’s heroic rhetoric draws the reader in, it is obviously not as clever, or elaborately structured as many of his other plays.  The reader can admire and rejoice in the honourable and admirable traits of the English king, the incarnation of England itself, but there is a definite lack of density and richness that imbues his other plays.  Nevertheless, it is enjoyable in its own right and a fine ending to the Henriad.

Further reading:

A Lover’s Complaint by William Shakespeare

From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story from a sistering vale,
My spirits t’attend this double voice accorded,
And down laid to list the sad-tuned tale;
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale,
Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain,
Storming her world with sorrow’s wind and rain


This “fickle maid” relates her story, a story of love unrequited, but as she describes her inner conflict, we receive a vision of the maid, no longer young:


“Whereupon the thought might think sometime it saw
The carcass of a beauty spent and done;
Time had not scythed all that youth begun,
Nor youth all quit; but, spite of heaven’s fell rage,
Some beauty peept through lattice of sear’d age.”


Crying despondently and wiping her eyes with a handkerchief, the maid tells a respectable man, who is grazing his cattle nearby, of her troubles.


“Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power;
I might as yet have been a spreading flower, 
Fresh to myself, if I had self-applied
Love to myself, and to no love beside.”


She fell in love with a young man with a silken tongue and enchanting brown curls, who stole her heart in spite of other more questionable qualities.


“His qualities were beauteous as his form,
For maiden-tongued he was, and thereof free;
Yet, if men moved him, was he such a storm
As oft twixt May and April to see,
When winds breathe sweet, unruly though they be.
His rudeness so with his authorized youth
Did livery falseness in a pride of truth.”


She “gave him all my flower,” without being demanding of him like others.  She claimed that “mine honour shielded” but she became an “amorous spoil.” Even though she knew of his other women, of his “foul beguiling” and of his illegitimate children, still she is taken in by his false charm.  Yet, in spite of this sorrow that is a burden to her heart, she claims that she would be captivated by him all over again.


O, that infected moisture of his eyes,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy  lungs bestow’d,
O, all that borrow’d motion seeming ow’d,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
And new pervert a reconciled maid.


Young Woman in a Straw Hat (1901)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
source Wikiart

Popular in medieval and renaissance times, this “complaint poem” is written in rhyme royal (ababbcc), with seven lines per stanza in iambic pentameter, which I just encountered while recently reading The Brubury Tales (in The Feet’s Prologue), a take on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  Because this style was unusual for Shakespeare, some critics question his authorship, yet there are parts of the poem that certainly echo of Shakespeare, and coincidentially the first stanza is very close to the first stanza of The Rape of Lucrece.

As for figures of speech, the following are included in the poem:  alliteration, anaphora, hyperbole, metaphor, paradox, personification and simile.  Could I identify them all on the first read?  No, but that means that I’ll have to read The Lover’s Complaint again!

Deal Me In Challenge #4 




The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

“To be or not to be, that is the question …….”

First publish around 1602 (although a working copy is thought to have been in use in 1601), Hamlet has come down to us in two forms. Issued in 1603, a corrupt or crude and probably pirated copy called the “First Quarto” (Q1) was produced, then in 1604 a more complete and artistically styled “Second Quarto” (Q2) followed.  It is supposed that the errors in Q1, complete with pretentious and often meaningless rhetoric, spurred Shakespeare and his company to press for a more complete and credible version.  Surprisingly, Hamlet was never performed or printed in its entirety during Shakespeare’s lifetime and the copies we read today are a compilation of Q2 and the 1623 Folio edition.  In spite of the errors and incompleteness of the play, there is little doubt that it is Shakespeare’s as it was performed by his own acting company. The evidence of the dating of the play is quite fascinating, as it not only uses clues from registries, but clues imbedded within the play to events that happened in 1601 and 1600. Shakespeare actuates very detailed detective work.

Portrait of Hamlet (c.1864)
William Morris Hunt
source Wikimedia Commons

The legend of Hamlet goes back centuries, dating to around the Scandinavian sagas.  It was familiar to the people of Iceland in the 10th century, although Shakespeare possibly drew from Histories Tragiques (1559-70) by Francis de Belleforest, relating tragic stories of great kings and queens whose lives had been ravaged by love or ambition.  A second hypothesis is that Shakespeare revived an extant version of a play by Thomas Kyd, revising this earlier piece to become the Second Quarto (Q2), and then afterward rewriting the complete acting text and play, which then became the basis for the Folio of 1623.  With regard to the first hypothesis, the similarity of the stories are too apparent to be coincidental, but there are differences in names and some differences in narrative that indicate Shakespeare was intent on making the play his own.

Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice hosted a Hamlet Read-Along beginning in October and set a very leisurely pace, which was wonderful as it allowed me to dig very deeply into the play.  My scene-by-scene postings were as follows:

Act I :   Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV,  Scene V
Act II:   Scene I,  Scene II
Act III:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV
Act IV:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IVScene V,  Scene VI,  Scene VII
Act V:   Scene I,  Scene II


The Young Lord Hamlet (1867)
Philip Hermogenes Calderon
source Wikimedia Commons

The play itself begins in Denmark at Elsinore castle where two soldiers see a ghost on the ramparts.  It is the ghost of the newly dead King Hamlet and immediately they inform his son, Hamlet, of the apparition.  Horatio, his friend, keeps watch with him the following night, whereupon the ghost claims to his son that he has been murdered by his own brother, the new king, Claudius.  To add insult to injury, Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, an outrage that can hardly be borne by Hamlet.  Yet questions pile upon Hamlet, enough to smother.  Was the ghost truly there, and if so, was it really his father?  Revenge was called for but how could the deed be done, and was he justified in taking a life?  His father’s life was cut short “in the blossoms of his sin”, but if he dispatched Claudius in his guilty state, would not their deaths become parallel?

Hamlet encountering the Ghost (1768-69)
Benjamin Wilson
source Wikimedia Commons

The contrary questions paralyze Hamlet into a mire of inaction.  He then works out a contrary persona, playing at an odd type of insanity, yet often dispensing insightful, sharp and clear rhetoric to torment Claudius into confusion.  Is Hamlet as dangerous as Claudius believes or is he merely an innocent victim of the circumstances, grief-stricken over the death of his father?  After Hamlet unwittingly commits the murder of Polonius, the advisor of Claudius, he forces the hand of the new king who sends him to England, with the intent of extinguishing any threat to his kingdom.  Yet Hamlet has also injured the mind of one once dearest to him, Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, and her decent into madness colours the kingdom with further calamity. Upon Hamlet’s return, the culmination of this revenge tragedy is set into motion. Will Claudius’ plotting bring him success?  Can Laertes avenge his father, Polonius’, murder, and will Hamlet’s revenge bring him the peace he seems to seek?

You can see throughout the play the emphasis on action vs. inaction, words vs. action, thoughts vs. action, etc.  While Hamlet bemoans his inability to act to avenge his father’s death, on the surface seeming cowardly and ineffective, the actuality is quite the opposite.  All throughout the play, Hamlet uses thoughts and words to manipulate his enemy.  His thoughts, though he bemoans them, actually have more of an effect than he imagines, controlling certain small acts in a very effective manner.  His act of insanity twists Claudius into a Gordian knot of uncertainty, his letters announcing his return to Denmark pushing Claudius to drastic action. Thoughts and words appear to be more important and certainly more effective than action, torturing his enemy to the very limits of his endurance.  While it’s demonstrated in the play that revenge only brings suffering, is there a underlying theme that words can be more effective than action?

Ophelia (1863)
Arthur Hughes
source Wikiart

While the cultural precepts of the Danish society in Hamlet seem to support the desire for revenge, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have viewed the thirst for vengeance as primitive, and perhaps rather shocking. There is evidence throughout the play that revenge brings only suffering and death to those involved.  Fortinbras, the heir of the Danish kingdom at the end of the play, calls for all the noblemen to hear the story of Hamlet:

”                                    Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience ……”

He wants the nobles of the kingdom to attend to this tragedy and learn from it. Horatio responds:

“But let this same be presently performed,
Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.”

Hamlet does get a hero’s remembrance, but the deaths, suffering and pain caused by his vengeful actions, and those of others, are strongly emphasized.

There is a question throughout the play of Hamlet’s sanity.  Is he truly mad, or is it simply an act produced to set a trap for the murderer of his father?  I tend to think the latter, but Shakespeare appears to quite closely link insanity with revenge, perhaps alluding to the fact that vengeance has a detrimental effect on our minds, distorting perceptions to bring about a type of madness.  Hamlet is playing at being mad, but madness also plays with him, his malevolent sentiments poisoning his very psyche, and modifying his entire moral perspective.  The whole character of Hamlet is played out in the agonizing conflict within his mind.  Mad he is, and mad he is not, perhaps making him at once to be and not to be.




Hamlet ~ Act V Scene II (the end)

Hamlet, Horatio and Osric (1830)
H.C. Selous

Hamlet  ~~  Act V  Scene II

Ah ha!  Hamlet reveals to Horatio that on his way to England, he discovered one night upon opening the sealed directive to the English king, that Claudius had plotted his murder.  Covertly, he replaces his name on the letters with those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and reseals them with his father’s old seal.  It appears that Hamlet has no regrets, except perhaps in his treatment of Laertes, as he sees Laertes as a mirror image of himself.

Madness (1883)
Odilon Redon
source Wikiart

A young courtier, Osric, enters and announces a request from Claudius for Hamlet to spar with Laertes using swords, but not before much circumlocution and apparently senseless bantering between Hamlet and the courtier.  Hamlet reveals to Horatio that he expects to emerge the winner, but still he has a unsettled feeling.

The King and Queen enter with Laertes and entourage. Hamlet makes an apology to Laertes, blaming his madness for his actions, whereupon Laertes proclaims that he will not accept the apology upon his honour until a higher council has advised him, but he will accept Hamlet’s love.

Before they begin, Claudius announces that he will drink each time Hamlet scores a hit and will drop a precious pearl into the cup.  Hmmm, we can only imagine what the “pearl” will be.  They begin, yet Hamlet refuses to drink from the cup, claiming that he wants to finish the match.  Gertrude, however, drinks before anyone can stop her and the tragedy is underway.  After Hamlet scores two hits, Laertes decides to deal the fateful stroke but guilt nearly stays his hand.  However, Laertes scores a hit, then they scuffle, somehow the rapiers are exchanged and Hamlet wounds Laertes.  The queen collapses from the poisoned drink and likewise, immediately afterward, Laertes announces that he has been slain by his own treachery.  He tells Hamlet that he, too, has only an half hour to live, implicating Claudius in the murderous plot.  Hamlet then both skewers Claudius and forces him to drink the poison, thereby killing him with his own poisonous “union”.  Laertes requests Hamlet’s forgiveness as he dies.  Yet the drama is yet to abate.  Horatio, claiming he is more Roman than Dane, attempts to follow Hamlet to the grave, but his friend stays his hand.  He needs Horatio alive so his story can be told, otherwise who is to really know the truth of the plotting and machinations.  Horatio is to revel the implications of the “rottenness” in Denmark.  With his “dying voice”, Hamlet passes the crown to Fortinbras who arrives to witness the carnage.  The English ambassador announces that Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are dead but wonders who will receive the news.  Horatio begins his promise to Hamlet:

“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 forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads.  All this can I
Truly deliver.”

Fortinbras will call the nobles to audience to hear of these deeds and Horatio urges:

“But let the same be presently performed
Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.”

The trust must be told before more unwitting tragedy unfolds.  Hamlet is born away like a soldier, with honour and respectful words from Fortinbras.

Prince Hamlet kills King Claudius
Gustave Moreau
source Wikiart


In the last scene it appeared that the returned Hamlet was a different Hamlet than had left Denmark, and this scene confirms it.  Hamlet begins to act, but act with reason and deliberation.

Hamlet’s Death
Eugène Delacroix
source Wikimedia Commons

Osric’s behaviour towards Hamlet is suspect.  He agrees with everything Hamlet says as if he’s trying to placate him.  Hamlet must know that Claudius’ machinations are behind his behaviour.  The Prince appears to know that the confrontation with Claudius is coming to a head. However, Osric also defies Hamlet in refusing to put on his hat when requested.  Really?  Defy the Prince of Denmark?  Is this an indication of Hamlet’s loss of power?

Again, instead of being wholly fixated on revenge, Hamlet shows concern for others, regretting his behaviour toward Laertes and wishing for a reconciliation.

There are a number of questions this scene brings up which will perhaps remain unanswered.  Does Hamlet really believe that he is/was mad?  Does Gertrude drink the poison unknowingly or not?  Does Claudius make a true effort to stop her drinking?  Does Hamlet suspect about the poisoned drink?

Initially all three characters, Fortinbras, Hamlet and Laertes are united by the deaths of their fathers and a thirst for revenge; at the end of the play they are united by a goodwill towards each other, and perhaps a realization that revenge only brings catastrophe and tumult into lives, and in this case, a kingdom.  The latter point is amplified by Horatio at the end, where he appears to want to educate the influential masses, using Hamlet as an example. Revenge is like a poison and kills those who come in contact with it.

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~ Act V Scene I

Hamlet  ~~  Act V  Scene I

Hamlet and the Gravediggers
Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret
source Wikimedia Commons

And we begin with a little levity topped with introspection.  The scene changes, quite surprisingly, to a cemetery where two grave diggers are acting the parts of fools.  One is musing that permission was given to bury Ophelia in the graveyeard, only because she was nobility (normally, under Catholic law, suicides could not be buried on holy ground). They banter some more until Hamlet and Horatio arrive and Hamlet is disturbed by the disrespectful treatment that the bones of the dead are receiving as the gravedigger digs.  He muses about mortality and that death knows no class or boundaries, treating all in the same manner.  Death, in her universality, has no respect for rank or class, as a leader such as Ceasar or Alexander the Great can turn to dust and end up being used to plug barrels.

The King and Queen arrive on the scene, and both the reader and Hamlet learn that it is Ophelia’s funeral procession.  Hamlet is shocked at first, yet bursts into the ceremony in his grief, almost defying anyone to question his love for her.  When he departs, Claudius reminds Laertes of their plans for Hamlet’s demise.

Eugène Delacroix
source Wikimedia Commons


With regard to Hamlet’s contemplation on mortality, will the nothingness of death prompt him to revenge, in effect, spurring him to action in life?

The most poignant lines in the play come right before Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave in his grief:

”                       What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers?  This is I,
Hamlet the Dane.”

Which brings us to the big question:  did Hamlet really love Ophelia, and can we can determine the answer from what we’ve gathered so far during the play?  I believe that his love was real — there’s no good reason to disbelieve his claim here.  Yet why did he treat her so dismally earlier on in the play?  I tend to think that Hamlet was so consumed with the task of revenging his father that the only benefit he saw in the people around him was how they could help him achieve that goal.  In his thirst for revenge, Hamlet lost his humanity and in this scene we see a little of its return.  We see it even before Ophelia’s burial scene, in the sensitivity he shows towards the mishandling of the bones and skulls in the graveyard.  Yet this scene could also be a foreshadowing of his own death, and perhaps the sympathy we see from Hamlet is directed only towards himself.  Ah, Shakespeare, you tie us in mental knots once again!

Hamlet and the Gravedigger (1873-74)
Camille Cordot
source Wikiart

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene VII

Hamlet  ~~  Act IV  Scene VII

Konstantin Makovsky
source Wikiart

Claudius appears to have placated Laertes, but then a messenger arrives with the letters from Hamlet. Once again, Claudius is befuddled.  What could his letter mean?  Hamlet claims that he is returning alone. Is he lying?  Is it another trick? Laertes has no insight to add but Claudius first ensures his loyalty against his young enemy. Claudius has heard it bandied about that Laertes is a master swordsman.  Using quite masterful manipulation of Laertes’ grief, Claudius urges him to challenge Hamlet to a sword fight.  Not only does Laertes agree, he reveals that he will put poison on the end of his sword, so that even a little scratch, will kill Hamlet.  Claudius approves the plan but he is hesitant.  It must be done in a way that leaves no doubt of Hamlet’s death.  If the sword doesn’t do the job, he will have a poison drink ready for Hamlet.

Their plans are interrupted by Gertrude, who hurries in to announce the death of poor Ophelia.  In her muddled madness, Ophelia wandered down to the brook, making wreaths of flowers.  When she tried to climb out on a branch to hang her garland, the limb gave way and she fell into the brook.  She sang lovely old hymns as her garments dragged her down to her death.

Laertes is once again grief-stricken and Claudius follows him to try to moderate his actions.

Ophelia (1852)
John Everett Millais
source Wikiart


Again Hamlet keeps Claudius on his toes.  The king must be in agony wondering what he will do next.  Claudius also spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to sooth Laertes’ wrath, aiming it in the appropriate direction, and ensuring his loyalty to the crown.  Using serpentine manipulation, he almost taunts Laertes, bringing up words vs. deeds and action vs. inaction.  I almost get the feeling that Claudius is getting desperate.  He already has Hamlet to deal with and another young man out of his control is certainly, at the least, worrisome.  Remember, the people are presently calling for Laertes as king.  Claudius’ hold on his power is tenuous at best.

I kind of liked Laertes before these last few scenes, but recently he’s showed himself to be a hot-head, easily manipulated, and perhaps not too bright. While it is understandable that he wishes to avenge his father’s death, his plan for Hamlet’s demise is rather dishonourable.

And, ah, the death of Ophelia, made more poignant by her singing and the symbols of flowers.  It’s as if she’s making wreaths for her own grave before her death actually occurs.  Does this emphasize her aloneness ….. with her father dead, she only has her brother, and in her madness is truly isolated.

Ophelia (c. 1900)
Gaston Bussiere
source Wikimedia Commons

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene VI

Attack by Pirates (1880)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikiart

Hamlet  ~~  Act IV  Scene VI

A sailor arrives in Denmark and speaks with Horatio.  He hands over a letter from Hamlet and other letters for the King.  The letter reveals that the ship was attacked by pirates on its way to England and somehow Hamlet ended up as their only prisoner.  Hamlet urges Horatio to come to him immediately as he has amazing things to tell him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are headed to England.

Horatio rushes to deliver the letters so he can set off to find Hamlet directly.

Combat naval, ou un navire maltais attaqué par des pirates algériens

Phillipe-Jacques de Loutherbourg


Okay, this is interesting.  Hamlet has been abducted by pirates.  He is the only prisoner.  I have a hard time believing that the Prince of Denmark is the only one taken by the pirates, unless he put himself in a position to be taken.   He must know that he would be safe if he could get Claudius to pay for his release.  And in reality, he is only going from being a prisoner in one camp, to being a prisoner in another.  His actions are brilliant, and once again, he keeps Claudius on his toes, always unsure of Hamlet’s actions, and now even his whereabouts.  Hamlet may have been lamenting his inaction in previous scenes, but the torture of uncertainty that he is putting Claudius through must be excruciating.  Is his inaction more effective than action?

Hamlet Read-Along Posts

Hamlet ~ Act IV Scene V

Ophelia Before the King and Queen (1792)
Benjamin West
source Wikimedia Commons

Hamlet  ~~  Act IV  Scene V

Wow, does the painting above truly highlight Ophelia’s madness, or what?  But I’m getting ahead of myself ……..  However, not too much ahead because the second person in this scene, in the third line, a gentleman speaking to Gertrude, announces Ophelia’s madness.  However, in this unsettled state of Denmark, people are listening to Ophelia’s babbling and drawing conclusions from it.  Horatio suggests that it might be wise to speak with her to learn of the danger of her condition.  While waiting, Gertrude perhaps gives the first sight of guilt in her actions, referring to her sin.  However, she shows compassion for the poor girl’s plight as Ophelia spews drivel about tombs and Valentine’s Day and lost virginity.

The First Madness of Ophelia (1864)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikiart

Claudius is affected by Ophelia’s madness, but also makes reference to unrest and strife in his kingdom due to his hastily burying Polonius without a state funeral. He also reveals that Laertes has secretly returned from France and his good sense is being poisoned by gossip.  He’s concerned that Laertes will place the blame on him.  Poor, poor, Claudius ……… (gag!)

A messenger arrives, announcing that the people are shouting for Laertes as king.  The doors break open and Laertes arrives, angry in his grief and looking for revenge. He demands to know what happened to his father, but Claudius does not tell him, choosing instead to try to bring him to sense and emphasize his friendship with him and his father. Ophelia interrupts their discourse, and Laertes’ grief increases as he witnesses the result of her broken mind.  Claudius attempts to join him in his sorrow, but suggests he bring his wisest friends to judge on Claudius’ guilt or innocence.

“And where the offense is, let the great ax fall.”


I was somewhat disappointed that the reader is rather whacked over the head with Ophelia’s madness.  There is no prelude, no leading up to it, no real example of excess paternal devotion that may make the outcome truly believable.  I believe it because I’ve been whacked with it, but for no other reason.

Ophelia (1888)
Marcus Stone
source Wikimedia Commons

Has anyone ever speculated about Ophelia’s story of the girl who loses her virginity to a man, and then the man refuses to marry her?  I was wondering if it had anything to do with her relationship with Hamlet, but really it’s not clear — you’d probably have to employ rampant speculation here.  I also wondered if the lost of virginity might simply echo of the loss of Ophelia’s innocence, in her belief that the world is good.  She has not only lost her love (Hamlet), she has now lost her father forever.  Her character has always come across as sweet, simple and uncomplicated.  These tragedies in her life, coming so close together are just too much for her to bear.

Laertes is a mirror of Hamlet when he says:

“That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries “Cuckold!” to my father, brands the “harlot”
Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brow
Of my true mother.”

He is not his father’s son until he avenges his death.  Hmmm ….. Hamlet all over again ……

Ophelia is speaking nonsense but we do get sense from her when she gives Gertrude fennel and columbines to signify adultery and to Claudius rue for repentance.  Again, we have a foil in Ophelia’s madness to Hamlet’s.  She is truly mad and sometimes speaks sense, and his madness is a pretense (so far) impregnated with sense.  As Laertes notes about his sister: “A document in madness.  Thoughts and remembrance fitted.”

Is anyone else truly flabbergasted by the complete political ineptitude of Claudius?  He kills the first King, acts too hastily in marrying Gertrude, does not deal with Hamlet and perhaps acts too hastily in sending him away, which unsettles the populous, and NOW he has buried Polonius hastily without the proper ceremonies and trappings.  What was he thinking?  Not only does he make mistakes, he makes them again and again and again, apparently not learning anything from the previous ones.  Sigh!  I can’t imagine what blunder he’s going to make next!

Hamlet Read-Along Posts