Hamlet Nov 2011
For 411-odd years Hamlet has managed to catch Laertes in Laertes’ own springe thousands of times. Over these four centuries (and counting) shifting tastes and tempers among critics, producers, and audiences, as Willard Farnham has pointed out, 1 have not diminished the hold Hamlet and Hamlet have on us. This is clearly so even while the cultural territory we cede to Hamlet and Hamlet has enlarged, continuing to grow broader and broader in our emergent 21st Century world culture. Meantime each passing age hopes that their broadened view may mean, as Farnham writes, “also a new depth.” 2
Certainly over the ages myriad ways of dealing with the problem of Hamlet and the problems of Hamlet have emerged. However and with equal certainty, as those ways have accumulated, as their simple span has increased, they have only sometimes meant a new depth.
What holds true for the play and the character holds true for their parts—including the Act V fight in Hamlet. There are myriad ways to approach the Hamlet fight but, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, the best such efforts can hope for is be wrong in new ways.
The pages that follow outline an approach to the Act V fight used in a particular production of Hamlet.3 Beyond the drive to be, at least, wrong in new ways, the following pages seek first to expand approaches to the Act V fight into the 21st Century’s expanded understanding of Renaissance martial arts. This effort aligns a current line of Renaissance studies—the study of Western martial arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance—with Shakespeare studies in general and with Hamlet studies in particular. What follows then seeks to find a renewed objective correlative—again to be “wrong” at least in new ways—that could make the fight a “thing” of significance that manages to be accessible to a twenty-first century audience. The last is the main thorn in a thorny problem and it is the central point of this article.
As Jay T. Anglin put it,
. . . both the challenge and the resulting contest embody strains of significance largely inaccessible to a twentieth-century audience. . . . the cultural context . . . is difficult indeed to recover, for the history of the arts of defense remains a neglected area in Renaissance studies.4
Anglin’s success in chipping away some of the neglect notwithstanding, it does not follow that renewed study alone, by scholars, of the arts of Renaissance defense can recover, for an audience, the lost strains of significance embodied in Hamlet’s fight with Laertes. That salvage operation must be undertaken by theatre practitioners and balanced with aesthetics, practical studies, and academic scholarship.
Certainly, in the twenty-seven years since Anglin’s plea, new paths into the art, history, and practice of swordsmanship have been opened into expansive new territories. But outside of the territory set aside by the specialist, the perspective of Anglin’s audience member is now not simply confused by lack of information but confused by the glut of infotainment, containing as it does some good, some bad, and a whole lot that is neutral. The 21st Century cultural context, then, embodies strains of significance over accessible to 21st Century audiences. It follows that this huge span, in a cultural context that seems to value span over depth, has complicated the search for depth in any new staging of Hamlet and in the staging of swordplay in general.
In fact, the history of the Western arts of defense is no longer a neglected area in Renaissance studies. In fact, such studies have literally exploded. Argument about the meaning of the word “foil” is now little more than of passing interest to someone about to stage the Hamlet fight. Hamlet fight directors have bigger fish to fry in bigger and better fry pans; fight directors no longer need to rely on so called classical fencing or generic ideas of stage combat swordplay5. Paddy Crean6 and the various stage combat societies revolutionized the art and craft of theatrical fencing by emphasizing safety and theatricality but that revolution is now eight decades old. Crean’s staging of actual techniques was essentially Victorian, relying upon Victorian notions of swordplay as “attack-parry-riposte” in its content. The works of Edgerton Castle, Alfred Hutton, and Carl Thimm,7 whose prejudice for “modern” fencing (still sanctified with the appellation “classical”) no longer need be the sole intermediaries of our understanding of historical European swordplay and its application to staging depictions of swordplay.
For, research in the field of historical European martial arts has raced far ahead of the practical application of such research to staged swordplay. The breadth of research in the arts of defense of the Middle Ages and Renaissance is now no more than a mouse click away. That span may, however rarely, also lead to a degree of depth.
One deep and wide source, the premiere organization of this movement, the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts, includes virtually every known treatise or book on swordsmanship from 1295 to 1715 on their web site.8 The depth of that research is also remarkable. Translation and explication of these once forgotten works has exploded into a publishing renaissance. This new breadth and depth of study has fed upon and fed in turn the living history movement.9 That movement’s great joy in living history, in interpretation-in-action of history, wherever the history of swords and swordsmanship has been a focus for its members, has resulted in the flourishing of schools and teachers of historical Western martial arts. It is now possible and practical to study and practice reconstructed systems of European swordplay10 often just as vibrantly alive and factually real as the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu11 of Japan.
What follows recounts one effort—by no means presumed to be final or definitive—to create, in the Act V Hamlet fight, a renewed objective correlative which may recover some portion of Anglin’s “strains of significance.” With stage combat principles of safety and theatricality (and aesthetics, of course) taken for granted, the paper dips into the current explosion in Renaissance martial studies to identify a specific historical correlative-context for the fight. Out of that context-correlative, a specific form, content, and style immerges, suggesting the power of the search for such a specific objective correlative to move beyond the generic or clichéd in stage combat in general. As a final note, in seeking another, admittedly fanciful and speculative correlate between Shakespeare’s imagination and the real world, the paper looks at the venom of the Blue Ringed Octopus as a candidate for Laertes’ treacherous venom.
The Form of the Fight: Playing a Prize
The fighting in Hamlet and As You Like It, unlike all the other fights in Shakespeare, are public sportive contests. These kinds of public contest were common to the country fairs and town squares of Shakespeare’s England and the inn yards and theatres of his London. These, especially the type represented in Hamlet, were very popular forms of public entertainment in active competition, as Shakespeare no doubt knew full well, with playwrights, plays, and players.
Hamlet is not a duelist—a term he would, like any good Wittenberg humanist, no doubt find distasteful. Claudius and Laertes do not challenge Hamlet to a duel. Duels were neither sporting contests nor staged as public entertainments. Nigel Alexander inadvertently made and confused the case against the idea of the fight as a duel when he wrote, back in 1971, “The most important thing about the fight between Hamlet and Laertes is that it is not, in the strict sense, a duel. . . . It is . . . a judicial encounter or trial by battle. . . . it is an affair of honour and therefore a duel.”12 The problem for Alexander and for many critics is that the fight is only a duel in the loosest sense and Hamlet only a duelist metaphorically.13 The fight, incidentally, is emphatically also not a trial by battle, also if speaking strictly, but only symbolically, meta-theatrically, and metaphorically.
The distinction between literal and metaphorical duelling is an important one. For one thing being a duelist of words and therefore ideas elevates Hamlet to the role of humanist-hero. This elevation seems precisely the point. Literal duelists—regardless of the code of honor so laboriously overwriting what is essentially still vendetta—are morally, at the very least, suspect in a way that Hamlet is not and cannot ever be.
First in Italy, the term duello came to have associations with the idealization of non-military personal combat through ideals of honor. These ideals of honor overlayed and attempted to mitigate against—morally and ethically—what was essentially street fighting in cities populated and governed by the rise and growth of the middle classes.
Touchstone parodies the duello ideals in all their self-conscious exactitude in AYLI, indirectly suggesting that Shakespeare was at least familiar with Italian fencing master and author Vincentio Saviolo.14 Not only is Saviolo’s 1595 treatise the first rapier and dagger manual in English, its second half is a detailed codification of matters of honor associated with the duello.
Laertes, duped by Claudius (claiming sympathy with Laertes’ desire for patricide revenge, himself guilty of fratricide), confounds the duello tradition with the secret vendetta demonized by the code of the duello, itself an attempt to sanctify brawling. Laertes strikes, thus, a bad bargain between his public image—his honor—and his private need for revenge. Laertes is something of a rabble rouser (Act IV, Scene 5) and, if Polonius’ suspicions (Act I, Scene 1) are to be taken seriously, a “drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling” duelist. Hamlet is not. Laertes’ challenge precisely avoids making Hamlet one. The fight’s form—precisely in not being a duel—allows Hamlet to “win” the fight, beat Laertes on Laertes’ terms, and still succumb to both the plot against his life and Shakespeare’s tragic form. Freed from associations with duels and dueling, Hamlet remains the Wittenberg intellectual, eternally poised between medieval and Renaissance moralities and motivations—precisely because of the form of the Act V fight. In spite of the fight, within the form established by Shakespeare through Claudius, he retains his humanist stature partly through “art and exercise in [his] defense.” For in humanist terms swordplay as art and exercise stands superior to mere fighting.
Claudius elevates the fight above dueling when he invites Hamlet to participate in a sporting competition in a form similar to “playing a prize.” This form of public contest of skill had been around since Henry VIII and was no doubt familiar to the citizens of Shakespeare’s London. Partly arising from social pressures related to the gentrification of the growing urban middle class and partly from fitful cultural pressures to tame and civilize dueling—which the duello code had failed to finally elevate from street fighting and tavern brawls—the playing of prizes had begun to absorb some of the reckless street violence of the duel.
Shakespeare uses the word “play” in Hamlet thirty-five times, more than anywhere else in the canon. He never once uses any form of the word “duel.” In Hamlet, nine of those thirty-five times he uses the word “play” in the sense of a sportive competition or of practice sparring with weapons, as opposed to life-and-death fighting.
This is the usage formalized in official documents of The London Masters of Defense. Henry VIII granted a charter to The Corporation of Masters of the Noble Science of Defense in 1540.15 In effect a labor union, the guild thus held a virtual monopoly over armed and unarmed self-defense instruction in and around London. The Corporation, following the format of scholarly colleges of the age, established four levels of study: scholar, free-scholar, provost, and master. When ready to advance to the next grade, the student would fight a series of test bouts called “playing the prize.” Time and place for a prize playing was determined and notices called bills of challenge were posted advertising the event and inviting public attendance. Whenever possible, prizes were played in playhouses or adapted spaces where it was easier to collect the admission charges—often paying off better than plays. According to Herbert Berry’s detailed study of the Sloan Manuscript 2530, from 1575 to 1590 at least thirty-nine prizes were played in London. At least thirty-seven of these prizes were played in playhouses or places that were soon to become playhouses.16
Rules for prizes—many to do with safety—were established by the guild and enforced through fines and other sanctions. Unlike a duel, the participants were not trying to kill, maim, or wound one another but the fights were not mere displays or exhibitions either. They were free-sparring practices just earnest enough to properly evaluate the players and entertain the public. Fighting at full speed, probably without protective armor other than gloves and heavy doublets, even with rules about controlling the force of blows, and using only padded or rebated weapons, the bouts could—as Laertes should know—sometimes be bloody, but never lethal. Players could—and did on occasion—“bleed on both sides.”
Claudius and Laertes initiate their plot with a wager—horridly out of place in a duel. Playing a prize on the other hand, as a form of public contest, invites wagering. According to Osric, Laertes’ wager is “six French rapiers and poniards, with their assigns, as girdle, hangers and so.” Claudius has put up “six Barbary horses,” a kingly bet indeed and perhaps meant to suggest Laertes’ French ostentation but certainly not the sort of bet usually associated with a middle class, prize-playing-type fight. Yet, the fact of the wager is essential to the form of the fight and, if the King is right and Hamlet cannot “choose but fall,” essential to the plot.
The actual terms of the wager have been the cause of much discussion. The King bets that Laertes will score no more than seven hits on Hamlet in a set of twelve “passes.” Laertes, says the King’s wager, will not beat Hamlet by more than three hits. This is similar to the way the guild handled the playing of prizes—a player could “pass” his prize fight without necessarily outscoring his challengers. Laertes must score eight to win. Hamlet only needs to score five to win the wager. “He” (Laertes, not Claudius), reports Osric, went one better and “laid on twelve for nine.” In other words, Laertes responded to the King’s bet by making a counter-bet. In Laertes’ new bet he has upped the odds to the effect that Hamlet can “win” (the wager if not the fight) with only four hits. Laertes will hit Hamlet, he says, at least nine times out of twelve; all Hamlet must do is hit Laertes four times and the wager goes to Claudius—Hamlet (recall that Hamlet is fighting for Claudius who made the wager.) This is designed, perhaps, to make it harder for Hamlet to refuse the challenge and further puff up whatever envy Hamlet may experience.
It seems to me that this helps make sense—from the perspectives of Hamlet, Horatio, the Queen , and the court—of the King’s “If Hamlet make the first or second hit . . .” pledge. If Laertes has hit Hamlet three times at the beginning of the match Hamlet’s odds of winning are much deminished. If Hamlet takes the first, second, or third hit he is still in good shape for getting three more. Meanwhile of course Claudius wants to make sure that the plot succeeds in assassinating Hamlet. If Hamlet gets the first hit the plot is already in danger of failing. In other words it is that first hit that Claudius knows is all important—if Laertes hits Hamlet in the first bout it is all over . . . if not . . . the King will act.
The Content of the Fight: Rapier and Dagger
First and second quartos and the folio edition of Hamlet all agree that Laertes’ “masterly report” was for his “rapier most especially” and that his “weapon” is rapier and dagger. This is the only play in which Shakespeare is so specific regarding weapons.17
Just as a modern fencing match with epee can be a potent “thing” in a contemporized setting, rapier and dagger became a complex and compelling objective correlative, a “thing” of significance in our production. Even though audiences will have mixed understandings of the literal archaeology of the rapier, the “thing in itself” (to misappropriate Kant) has significance beyond mere literal knowledge. It has a look and feel specific and particular, it is used in specific and particular ways, and it, thus, makes meaning as objective correlative.
Now, in Shakespeare’s day (and communicable, albeit indirectly, to a twenty-first century audience), audiences likely associated rapiers and rapier fighting with all things foreign and exotic since the most famed rapier teachers were Italian. Just at the time when the middle classes in England were founding fighting guilds—more or less divorced from the traditional role of the military—the rapier, a continental invention from decades earlier and clearly designed for civilians to kill each other with, was just beginning its popular ascendency in England. Where the London Masters charged a few pence for lessons, Italian rapier teachers charged hundreds of pounds!
Etymology is here suggestive: Shakespeare used the word “rapier” (counting “rapier’s” and “rapiers”) a total of 35 times in his entire corpus. In contrast, Shakespeare uses “sword” 379 times, “swords” 71 times, and “sword’s” three times! The phrase “rapier and dagger” is first found in English (O.E.D.) in 1571. Now, a probable root of the term rapier is the Spanish ropera. That word comes from ropa, or elegant dress. Thus, an espada ropera in Spanish is a "dress sword" in English—meaning both a sword for civilian wear as well as a fashionable accessory which would eventually be associated with aristocratic fashion. These are not battlefield weapons, in other words, but weapons first of the street and then of the court. Shakespeare specifically and precisely makes Laertes’ “weapon” rapier and dagger, an “aristocratic” choice, especially when practiced as passtime and exercise. In contrast, both Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch use the vernacular “tuck”, an Anglicization of the French estoc.
Other etymologies of rapier suggest that it comes from older words meaning a “rasp” or a “poker.” “Rapier” in Elizabethan usage may be, thus, a jingoistic and derogatory pun on a rasp or poker for use in the “foyning” style of fighting in civil brawls and street fights.
Since the form of our fight was to be a sporting contest the rapiers and daggers used were likely to have been specially designed and made for “playing.” A well-made rapier blade was too expensive to be simply blunted on a grinding wheel. Shakespeare uses the term “foil” in Hamlet six of the eight times he ever uses it in the corpus. This may suggest that the weapons for use in the contest are specially made for competition. They might be more flexible than “real” rapiers and would, of course, have no edge or only a very rounded, bated or rebated edge.
Even with such a foil, a weapon designed to replace the “real” rapier with something marginally safer, a relatively light blow to the head, for instance, could cause a lot of bleeding and bruises and scratches were not at all uncommon in prize playing. If the courtiers see Hamlet bleeding, they need not automatically suspect Laertes of any intentional breach of correct conduct or practice. Accidental deaths did occasionally occur and Hamlet’s might well be counted among these unhappy accidents.
But such an “accident” is not as easily arranged as might at first be imagined. Laertes could (and certainly has over his 411 years) scratch Hamlet with a sharp rapier point since openly stabbing him seems far too obvious. But such an improperly rebated rapier-foil is far too likely to be noticed by Hamlet or someone in the court in the first place. A rapier, blunted or sharp, used at all well concentrates its thrusting power into a very small area at the tip of a long, narrow, relatively stiff blade. Injuries to the eyes, mouth, and genitals were not uncommon even in well-played prizes. Reliable safety therefore requires a sizable ball or button-cap to cover that tip.18 Hamlet may in fact, as Claudius claims, be “remiss, most generous and free from all contriving,” but it is hard to believe that he is that remiss or that no one else in the court notices that Laertes’ sword possesses no such button.
Given the danger inherent in attempting to sneak a sharply pointed rapier into a public contest, Laertes’ rapier-foil must be, if it is to have a reasonable chance to escape detection, secretly edged instead. Laertes could well arrange to have his blade ground to just a shallow bevel, just a slightly sharp corner—maybe just up from the hilt where it would be easier to hide—just an inch or two, a fraction of the total length. Such an edge could, with relative ease, cut Hamlet and, at the same time, not seem suspicious. After all, Laertes says that he need only “scratch” or “gall” the victim with his venom and the victim will die.
The Style of the Fight: Salvator Fabris and Henry de Sainct-Didier
In his book, The Art of the Foil, Luigi Barbasetti (1859-1948) writes that Italian fencing master Salvator Fabris (1544-1618) “was the fencing master of the King of Denmark and even, it would seem, of Shakespeare. He is supposed to have suggested the technique of the assault, which occurs in the fourth act [sic] of Hamlet.” 19
Further evidence supporting Barbasetti’s story may be lacking but the facts behind the story make it tantalizing since they confirm relationships between Salvator Fabris (a contemporary master teacher of rapier-based fencing), Denmark (Shakespeare’s setting) and Elizabethan and Jacobian England (Shakespeare’s culture and society), if not directly to Shakespeare and Hamlet.
Tommaso Leoni, in the introduction to his 2005 translation of Salvator Fabris’ treatise20 writes
The extraordinary success Fabris enjoyed during his lifetime is evidenced by many factors. Apart from the fact that one of the most competitive monarchs of the time retained him as a teacher until old age, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest what legendary status Fabris had achieved by the time he died.21
Leoni lists the official day of mourning proclaimed for Maestro Fabris in Padua on the day of his funeral, a statue of the Maestro erected in Padua, the praise of other famous Maestros during and after Fabris’ long career, the popularity of his book in being continuously republished for over a century, accusations against other Maestro of plagiarism of the book, the Shakespeare story related by Barbasetti, and Fabris’ knighthood in the Order of the Seven Hearts.
Leoni goes on to ask why and how it is that Salvator Fabris—and by extension all the old fencing masters—has been more or less forgotten until recently.
Given Fabris’ tremendous (and amply documented) popularity during the heyday of the rapier, it is somewhat puzzling to see how . . . he and his teachings have been forgotten or misunderstood in the last two centuries. This is in part due to the persuasive Victorian mentality of looking at history through a Darwinian prism: ancient things are by definition less evolved . . . In truth, such a mentality accounts for the poor treatment that every Renaissance master has received until very recently. But Fabris had two aggravating circumstances. The first was that his stances do not bear any resemblance to Classical fencing . . . [such that] early fencing historians [Victorians all] superficially dismissed [Fabris] as eccentric . . . The second . . . is that, unlike other texts, Fabris cannot be read and understood in a few hours . . .”22
According to Leoni, Fabris’ book is “arguably the most authoritative Italian rapier treatise of 17th century Europe . . . as valuable to the modern rapier student and researcher as it was for the late-Renaissance gentleman and fencing scholar.”23 The book is exhaustive, clearly organized and explained, and the plates themselves are striking and beautiful. The illustrations are doubly so for Hamlet’s twenty-first century sake precisely in that they do not “bear any resemblance to Classical fencing” and thus can free him from generic and clichéd theatrical rapier and dagger fencing. With safety-first always in mind, a fight resulting from close reading and application of the book might thus be authentic and specific in ways which Shakespeare and Fabris might well have approved.
Salvator Fabris was born near Padua, Italy, in 1544. His swordsmanship, especially with the rapier, earned him first fame, then fortune, then a knighthood, and finally, royal patronage. Leoni sums up Fabris’ style as “dynamic, athletic, strikingly baroque, and as effective as only a truly refined [Western martial] art can be.”24
In the 1570’s Leoni tentatively places Fabris in France—thus, associating Fabris with our Laertes. “Although the mention of an Italian Fabrice by Saint Didier (1573) constitutes tenuous evidence at best,”25 the association with Henry de Sainct-Didier may further define Laertes’ style of rapier and dagger as Franco-Italian and both related to and distinct from Hamlet’s.
In the 1590’s, Fabris was employed by Johan Frederick, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp and Archbishop of Bremen. Then, in 1601, he was appointed royal fencing master by Duke Frederick’s cousin, King Christian IV of Denmark. While in King Christian’s service, Fabris wrote Lo Schermo, overro Scienza d’Arme. King Christian sponsored the initial publication, even putting his court painter, Jan Halbeeck, at Fabris’ disposal to create the illustrations. In 1606, the work was published commercially and was many-times re-issued until 1713. The book was well known all over Europe and in England. He was brother-in-law to James I and he often visited his sister in England where his carousing with James became infamous. 26 The Maestro’s renown across Europe, his royal Danish patronage with connections to the English monarchy via those patrons, and his authorship of the most exhaustive, popular, and influential rapier treatise in history made him an authority and celebrity that Shakespeare might have known and consulted.27 Our fight would be staged in Fabris’ style.
Fabris’ book is organized into two parts and is far too complex and detailed to succumb to an easy summary. The first section of Book I deals with theory and establishes the basic principles of Fabris’ style. For instance, Laertes and Hamlet should not spend a lot of effort in the cut. As Salvator Fabris states it,
In all respects thrusting is more advantageous and deadlier than cutting. With a thrust, it is easier to strike quicker and from farther away, and to recover afterwards. Thrusting is a most excellent and elegant attack, since it embodies all the subtleties of fencing. Cutting, instead . . . involves two rather long motions. Anyway, I wish to write no more on this than the necessary admonishments I have already presented, expanding instead on what is more technically complex, subtle and profitable.28
But Laertes cutting Hamlet rather than simply stabbing him adds an interesting staging problem. A solution to this problem is to rely on Laertes statement that he will “scratch” or “gall” Hamlet. Laertes may execute, almost casually, a minor cut to Hamlet’s ankle or arm during a break in the action and before the line “have at you now.” The line can hide Laertes’ cheat by simply seeming to invite Hamlet back into the fight. Laertes hopes to hide his “cheat” if not from Hamlet then from the court-audience.29
The second book illustrates, with twenty engraved plates, the four guards or hand positions and their uses, variations of those, tactics associated with each, and actions of attack and defense with them. Actors playing Laertes and Hamlet need know only the basics of Fabris’ theory in support of the illustration of the action of the fight and can rely almost completely on exhaustive use of these beautiful illustrations. Theory is of interest only in so far as it could be enacted in tactics, technique, and mechanics actable on stage.
That Hamlet has studied his Fabris, given the popularity of Fabris’ book, his fame all over Europe, and the social position of the Italian fencing masters, is not difficult to imagine. More to the point from an audience point of view, Hamlet is a prince of Denmark and Fabris was well known as the Fencing Master to King Christian of Denmark. An audience need not know much at all materially about Fabris to make the leap of association to the character Hamlet.
Regarding Laertes on the other hand, only in the latter 17th and 18th Centuries do French fencers take over the predominance of what later became “classical” fencing. Meanwhile, Laertes could have studied under the first Frenchman to publish a fencing manual, Henry de Sainct-Didier. His manual, with the longwinded title, rendered here in English, Treatise containing the secrets of the first book on the sword alone, mother of all weapons, which are epée dagger, cappe, targe, buckler, shield, two-handed sword & two swords, with pictures, including the handweapons for defence and attack, and thrusts that can be made both attacking and defending, very useful & profitable for the nobility and adherents of Mars: refined by art, order and practice, is today widely regarded as largely dirivitive of the previous Italian fencing master’s works. So, it may be useful to study Sainct-Didier in his 2009 English translation30 but the work bears no resemblance in scope or thoroughness to Fabris’ and will not add much to our concept of a style for Laertes.
The matter of Laertes’ unguent remains to be considered. The matter may be engaged with a bit of fancy welded, as in the Shakespeare-Fabris connection reported by Barbosetti, with simple facts. Laertes hedges his bet with venom. Laertes’ “unguent” must work by injection and be lethal within twenty minutes at the most. Since Laertes mountebank does not have access to twenty-first century chemistry, his poisons must come from plants and his venoms from animals. All the most toxic venoms come from New World animals. Europeans were trading in goods from the New World by the mid-1500s. Found in the warm seas of Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan, the saliva of the Blue Ringed Octopus contains substances 10,000 times more toxic than potassium cyanide. Hapalochlaena species can deliver an intramuscular injection by biting with its parrot-like beak and flooding the wound with its highly evolved saliva. This “injection” can and often does begin to cause paralysis in humans within a few minutes. Symptoms include nausea, vision loss and blindness, loss of senses, loss of motor skills, and, finally and fatally, respiratory arrest. When mixed with an inert unguent to make it thick and sticky the venom of the Blue Ringed Octopus would work in the way imagined.
That Shakespeare might never have known anything at all about Blue Ringed Octopi venom does not in the least diminish the role of such fanciful speculation in creating objective correlatives for production and reading of the play. Likewise Salvator Fabris, William Shakespeare, and Hamlet need never have encountered one another for them to be remarkably well-suited. Although Shakespeare the historical man may never have studied or read or perused Fabris’ famous treatise there is no reason why current interpreters of Hamlet cannot use the book to inspire and support a renewed approach to the Act V fight, itself a renewed objective correlative of potential significance to a 21st Century audience, and one more in line with current tastes and trends in research and production and in reading and viewing.
1 Willard Farnham, ed. “Introduction,” The Pelican Shakespeare; Hamlet (New York: New York, 1970) 14-15. All text references to Hamlet are taken from this edition.
3 My taking the fight directing reins for my university’s coming production of Hamlet has been the main impetus for this article: Hamlet, dir. Kenneth L. Stilson, writ. William Shakespeare, pro. Southeast Missouri State University Dept. of Theatre and Dance, Nov. 9-13, 2011.
4 Jay P. Anglin, “The Schools of Defense in Elizabethan London,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3 (Autumn, 1984): 58.
5 The Society of American Fight Directors does not claim to teach rapier and dagger as historical martial art . The Society rightly teaches actor safety and production-aimed combat theatricality with a lesser emphasis on what might be termed historical authenticity.
6 Maestro Patrick "Paddy" Crean, 1910 – 2003; called the father of stage combat, Maestro Crean served as Errol Flynn's choreographer and stunt double, arranged fights for such legends as Sir John Geilgud and Sir Alec Guinness, and was directly involved in the formation of organizations devoted to stage combat in both Europe and North America. Maestro Crean and his immediate followers did their work so well that the art of staging fights, at least in live theatrics, has not changed much since in 100 years; classical fencing is the still the primary root.
7 Hutton, Alfred. Old Sword Play: [the Systems of Fence in Vogue during the XVIth, XVIIth, and XVIIIth Centuries ; with Lessons Arranged from the Works of Various Ancient Masters]. Uckfield, East Sussex, England: Naval & Military, 2010. Print. Castle, Egerton. Schools and Masters of Fence, from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century. London: Armes and Armour, 1969. Print. Thim, Carl. Comprehensive Bibliography of Fencing and Dueling. Print.
8 ARMA was founded by John Clements as the Historical Armed Combat Association in 1992 and went on line in 1996. According to their web site, “The ARMA’s efforts are directed toward resurrecting and recreating a legitimate craft of European fighting skills in a manner that is historically valid and martially sound.”
9 The Society for Creative Anachronism was founded in 1966 and now boasts 60,000 members worldwide. Civil War reenactment groups and Colonial groups abound in the U.S.A. In Europe Celts, Romans, Vikings, and such tight foci as Norman Knights flourish.
10 With ARMA for instance.
11 The oldest, extant Japanese martial art (founded in the 15th Century and practiced ever since) is truly “martial” in that it deals with weapons and tactics useful to soldiers in wars. Karate-do is not martial in that limiting sense.
12 Nigel Alexander. Poison, Play, and Duel; a Study in Hamlet (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1971) 52. Print.
13 Sheldon P. Zittner nicely pits Hamlet’s role as metaphorical duelist against his character as humanist anti-duelist in his essay “Hamlet Duelist.” Joseph G. Price, ed. Hamlet: Critical Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986) 123-143.
14 Saviolo, Vincentio. Vincentio Saviolo His Practice. In Two Bookes. The First Intreating of the Use of the Rapier and Dagger. The Second of Honour and Honourable Quarrels. London: J. Wolfe, 1595. Print.
15 My discussion on the playing of prizes in Shakespeare’s London has relied very much upon the 1984 Jay P. Anglin article mentioned above and upon Herbert Berry, The Noble Science: a Study and Transcripition of Sloane Ms. 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, Temp. Henry VIII to 1590. Newark (N.J.): University of Delaware, 1991. Print.
16 Berry, page 5
17 There are of course myriad reasons to ignore this textual fact just as there are myriad ways to approach the fight itself; expense, tastes, directorial concept, and so on.
18 Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge University, 1959. Print.
Wilson argues against the historical presence of buttons for rapiers but current researchers disagree. Swetnam, Joseph. The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence. Being the First of Any English-mans Invention, Which Professed the Sayd Science ... London: [N. Okes], 1617. Print.
Swetnam espoused the use of specially designed rapiers that were bated and had buttons "about the bigness of two pence" attached to the points. The buttons were covered with a stuffed leather ball about the size of a tennis ball "lest someone should lose an eie." Personal experience leads me to the strong belief that some sort of protective button was in wide use in prizes played in Shakespeare’s day.
19 Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil; with a Short History of Fencing (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1932) 248. Barbasetti calls the fight an “academic assault” erroneously, I think, conflating the German mensur tradition with Shakespeare and Hamlet. He also gets the act wrong.
20 Leoni, Tommaso, trans. Art of Dueling; Savator Fabris’ rapier fencing treatise of 1606. Highland Village, Texas: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005. Print.
21 Leoni xix.
22 Leoni xx
23 Leoni, 10
24 Leoni, xxv.
25 Leoni, xviii.
26 This carousing of the Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp family and their disputes over Norway and Denmark may have partly inspired Shakespeare’s vison of Hamlet’s world.
27 It has been long assumed that Shakespeare’s actors staged their own fights based on their own skills and knowledge. The Barbasetti story—as well as the prominence of fencing masters in London during Shakespeare’s day—certainly challenges that notion.
28 Leoni, 10.
29 Required disclaimer: there are myriad ways to do all this . . . this is just one.
30 Robert Preston Hyatt and Devin Wilson, trans. The Single Sword of Henry de Sainct-Didier ( Boulder, Colorado : Paladin Press, 2009).