I’m not sure if it could be seen as an excuse – but both of these deaths that Hamlet is responsible for were kind of accidents.
I mean, Polonius, sure, Hamlet meant to kill SOMEONE but he didn’t mean for it to be Polonius. Truth is, he didn’t check, though. He just ran his sword through the arras to catch the “rat” and catch him he did. It just wasn’t the rat he meant to catch. He’s still guilty for killing Polonius but he didn’t mean to. As for Laertes, Hamlet had no idea about the poison on the sword so when he cut Laertes with that unbated sword, he just thought he was returning cut for cut, slice for slice. He did not think he was killing Laertes. Would he have done it if he’d known? Hard to say. If he was mad enough, he might have. He got worked up enough to attack Laertes in Ophelia’s grave the day before so I wouldn’t put it past him. But as it stands, as it happened, Hamlet killed Laertes by accident, thinking he was only wounding him.
Laertes, on the other hand, very much intended to kill Hamlet and thereby, in a sense, accidentally kills himself, using Hamlet as his accidental murder instrument. Maybe the scales are even, though, because Hamlet killed two of Laertes’ family without intention and Laertes killed Hamlet, killed one, with intention. Do two without intention equal one with?
I like this framing of forgiveness as an exchange. Usually, of course, we like to beat the drum of forgiveness being a thing one does for one’s self. The common wisdom is that it doesn’t matter if I get anything in return from the person who wronged me – the benefit will be for myself in forgiving them.
But of course it will feel better if it is an equal exchange. I can forgive you this if you forgive me that.
And here, we have an interesting exchange where Laertes is offering forgiveness for two bodies to Hamlet’s one.
Does Laertes get what he’s asking for here? He doesn’t get it in words. Hamlet doesn’t apologize, ask for Laertes’ forgiveness or respond to Laertes at all until it is too late and Laertes is dead. It’s possible the exchange is understood by a physical gesture or contact – but there are no words for it.
I’m fairly certain that Laertes doesn’t mean this literally. I think he means it as a kind of expression of karma – that he mixed the poison that killed him, he set himself up. But given Claudius’ proclivity for poisoning people, I am still very much enamored of the image of him in a lab, mixing up compounds and trying them on small animals, just like the Queen in Cymbeline.
He might not be mixing these compounds himself. Maybe, like the Queen in Cymbeline, he has a helpful assistant who brings poisons for his collection. This strikes me as fairly risky, however. If you’re going to commit regicide, you probably don’t want someone who knows you bought king killing drugs because he sold them to you.
I suppose Claudius could have disguised himself to visit the apothecary or just visited apothecaries around the world in places no one would recognize him.
My favorite method of procurement, though, is Claudius mixing his poisons himself – the literal meaning of this line.
For a guy with a reputation as a hothead, Laertes comes around to this conclusion rather quickly. I’m actually curious about what changes Laertes’ mind about Claudius. It happens so fast. He’s getting twinges of conscience and then once he kills Hamlet, it’s like he starts to see more clearly. It could be the clarifying process of death, I suppose. In seeing his end so soon ahead of him, perhaps it all falls into place. Or is there something that Claudius does or does not do that makes it obvious to Laertes? Letting Gertrude die is one thing but Laertes is as aware as the king of that fact, as it is happening, and he is still ready to do the king’s bidding. So I don’t think it’s Gertrude’s death that shifts his opinion of the king. I wonder if there’s a way in the fight that the king could be seen as responsible for Laertes’ death as well. Like – once Laertes has struck Hamlet and it should be over, Claudius lets it continue and while Laertes is looking to the king for support, Hamlet seizes the moment to strike back. That is, is there a way to show the moment when the king loses Laertes’ loyalty. The king is likely to be just as happy to have Laertes killed as the rest. Laertes is, after all, the key witness to this plot that has killed the Queen and Prince of Denmark. It would be convenient for Claudius if he were also dead after this fight.
It could, of course, just be Laertes’ conscience kicking in at the end of his life that has him give up the king but…there could be more.
There’s a book that hinges on this line. I think it’s William Ball’s Backwards and Forwards but it could also be referenced in The Actor and the Target. The sense of it is that this line is the one that finally allows Hamlet to pull the trigger on killing Claudius. He’s been carefully trying to test the ghost’s theories, looking for the right moment but it is this evidence from Laertes that opens the door to direct action – to running a sword through him, not to mention forcing the king to drink poison.
It is the trigger line the whole play hinges on.
And yet I’d put money on the probability of some productions cutting it. Because everyone’s likely to cut everything at some point or another. I’m sure there have even been productions that cut the hot speeches. The one I saw most recently just did without the “how all occasions” speech, not to mention the entire Fortinbras plot. And most of the opening scene. Which was the gravest error, I thought. Graver even than cutting the Second Gravedigger.
I’d like for Gertrude to come back to life at this point and just sit up and say,
“I JUST said that. Like literally moments ago. I said, “I am poison’d.”
Can’t a woman even report her own death without having her words spoken and then taken more seriously by a man? I mean, what else do I need to say? Run a blood test; it will ALSO confirm that I am poisoned just like I said before. But you need it confirmed by this guy? This unreliable narrator here who has done such things as a) stage a coup in which he broke open doors b) jump in his sister’s grave c) whatever mischief he got up to in France and now d) this using an unbated and unvenomed sword in a friendly duel to kill the prince of Denmark and my son.
It’s a good thing I’m dead because I don’t think I could live like this anymore.”
Laertes, Drama Queen!
Except, of course, he’s right.
He’ll live long enough to ask forgiveness and then that’s it for Laertes.
It is such a beautifully dramatic line – but if I said it, like, in literally any context, it would be ridiculous. Even if I said it on my actual deathbed. But Laertes can get away with it.
This makes me think of the fact that guns are most dangerous for the people who own them. If you own a gun, you yourself are the person most likely to be injured or killed by it – followed closely by others who live with the gun. The person most likely to be killed with a deadly weapon is the owner of that deadly weapon – either by accident or by suicide. Foul practices do tend to turn themselves on their authors, too.
Before this scene, “treacherous” only appears once in the play (as one of Hamlet’s descriptors of Claudius in the rogue and peasant slave speech). But in this scene, treachery is introduced and then repeated several times. Laertes introduces it in acknowledging his ill deeds, Hamlet picks it up regarding Gertrude’s poisoning, and Laertes returns to it here with the sword. While all three instances refer to the same moments really – each treacherous mention refers to a different thing or person. Laertes relates to the treachery as his, Hamlet responds to a general treachery and now Laertes places the treachery on the sword.
Why does Hamlet last so much longer than Laertes?
(I mean, aside from dramatic necessity, of course.)
They wound each other at approximately the same time – though, Hamlet is, in fact, wounded first – and one assumes that Laertes’ cut of Hamlet is deeper than the one Hamlet gave Laertes, if only because Laertes intends to kill Hamlet.
I feel like I’ve seen productions wherein they answer this question by making Hamlet wound Laertes more intensely than he was wounded but I don’t love that as a solution.
I mean…it feels to me more that Hamlet has more reason to continue to live. He has a lot to do before he shuffles off his mortal coil. He’s got to find out what happened to his mom and take care of the treachery and that’s before he knows for sure how guilty his uncle is. I think Hamlet’s adrenaline is pumping.
Laertes knows he’s dead as soon as he gets hit and he has nothing to do but confess and die.