Anointing is generally reserved for sacred objects or sacred heads. Saints are anointed, I think. I imagine it as a kind of blessing, but with oil.
But Laertes is going to anoint his sword with poison. He’s trying to get around the whole murdering thing by covering it in trappings of religion.
This seems to be one of the finest tricks of a religion to proclaim clearly and distinctly “Thou shalt Not Kill” but put a little asterisk next to it that leads to a footnote of exceptions.
*Except in cases of revenge, or holy purpose, or if your sword is anointed or it’s your dad that got killed. In that case – go for it.
If this play were called Laertes and all the scholars spent years analyzing his actions and his lines, this moment would be much analyzed. It might be Laertes’ tragic flaw. People like to say that Hamlet’s flaw is his inaction (a questionable, though much repeated thesis) but Laertes’ flaw might well be his gullibility, his willingness to be a pawn in Claudius’ game. His impetuousness gets him into the throne room and into his sister’s grave with Hamlet – but it is his susceptibility to be manipulated that REALLY gets him killed.
As I was looking up “unbated” on Etymology Online, I worked out for myself its roots. Of course…the opposite of unbated is bated. And bated is usually heard in relationship to breath, a withheld breath, a limited breath is bated. So a sword in fencing is usually bated – that is held back, blunted from its usual fullness to a limited version of itself. So this sword meant to kill Hamlet is unbated, un-leashed, unbound – the full expression of sword-ness.
This is a curious analysis of Hamlet’s character. Especially by a man who sees him as an enemy. I mean, he is generous and he DOES fail to peruse the foils. But he is absolutely NOT free from all contriving. And surely Claudius knows this. Hamlet contrived to have the story of the murder of his father in front of the murderer. He contrived to escape a ship taking him to his death and not be spotted upon his return.
It is an extraordinary and interesting contradiction.
Claudius suddenly gets real clear and direct once he starts planning. He’s all double talk and long clauses in longer sentences until a plan kicks in and then SPLAT. This is it. Crystal clear. As if he had it ready. But he can’t have had this plan ready, can he? He didn’t seem to know about Laertes’ return. Or Hamlet’s. He thought this was all over. And then Laertes turns up, ready to claim the throne and while Claudius is putting out THAT fire, Hamlet sends a letter that he’s back and ready for a reckoning.
All these years, I’ve thought of this as just a plan to get rid of Hamlet but it occurs to me now that this plan is ALSO a clever way to get rid of Laertes, who is also a threat. He can either get rid of Laertes by accusing him of murdering his nephew once the deed is done – or by getting him killed with an unbated sword in the duel. Maybe even slip Laertes the poisoned drink when he’s not paying attention.
– Oh, by the way, Osric, Laertes has come home. Did you hear?
– Oh, what? Laertes has come home? No, I didn’t hear that Laertes had come home. I hear he’s pretty good at fencing.
– Pretty good? Why he’s impossible to beat! A French guy came through here recently and he could not shut up about how good at fencing Laertes is.
– How good is he?
– Why he’s so good, all the best fencers are lining up to get a chance to play with him.
– And he’s home now, did you say?
– He’s home.
– I bet that Hamlet wouldn’t want to challenge him.
– No – I mean, he’s so good. He would be hard to beat.
– You mean, Laertes. Who is at home.
– Yes, Laertes. Who’s just come home.
Go to your room, Laertes!
And stay there, like a good boy, until I tell you to come out.
It is remarkable how easily Laertes goes from starting a coup to being told to go to his room and be quiet. I mean, Hamlet has his flaws – but he sees right through Claudius. I suppose that’s why he’s the hero of this play – rather than Laertes. Guys who get played like this aren’t actually that like-able.
I imagine it FEELS as though it should have no bounds. If you’ve been wronged enough to seek revenge, you probably feel like anything you do to revenge it will be entirely justified.
Revenge must feel a bit like the first stages of falling in love wherein nothing matters but the person who continually occupies your thoughts. Love wants no bounds on it either in those first flushes.
But…society does require some boundaries. We don’t really want to see every pair of new lovers going at it in the street. And we definitely don’t want everyone who has been wronged going around and seeking revenge. Revenge should have more bounds than most other things, really.
This is an interesting construction. It would seem to suggest, by context, that Claudius thinks no church should be excluded from being on the list of places a person can murder. BUT – if this sentence stood on its own, it would seem to say something else entirely.
Murder is the active word here, and the subject. Without context, he would seem to be at first agreeing with Laertes, because he says “indeed.” But murder is doing the sanctuarizing. Almost as if a place could be consecrated by murder, by blood.
Like, no place should be sanctified by blood. No place should be turned into a sanctuary BY murder – when he would seem to really be saying – no place should be a sanctuary from murder. But it’s hard to see that exactly in the sentence. It’s very curious.
But I suppose religion has been known to be quite bloody and not exactly free from murder…so I suppose there might be some hypocrisy to point at with a sentence like this.
Some critics love to contrast Laertes and Hamlet – to say that lines like these are why Hamlet fails. “See,” they say, “Laertes doesn’t care if his victim is at prayer the way Hamlet does. Laertes would cut Hamlet’s throat in the church and Hamlet would not kill Claudius at prayer (in the church?) when he had a chance. See, this is why Hamlet fails! “
Except – Laertes fails too. I mean, yes, he kills Hamlet – if you can call that success – but he dies in the process and regrets the killing as soon as it is done.
I don’t buy the “Laertes would be a better son, a better hero, a better king” idea. He’s hot-headed, yes. And has a great deal of fierce emotionality – which is, yes, an interesting contrast to Hamlet. But he’s clearly gotten up to a bit of trouble abroad, either through his libertine tendencies or his impulsiveness. And he ends up just as dead as everyone else.