The Price of Mercy in Hamlet
Act V, scene ii of William Shakespeare's Hamlet contains perhaps the most famous sword fight in the history of literature, and certainly one of the most debated. The famous 'sword switch' which results in Laertes' death with his own poisoned weapon has been fought over for centuries as to its accuracy, believability and execution, yet it has seldom been performed correctly on stage. There is one way that Shakespeare intended this maneuver to be performed, however, in a way that both facilitates the switch with the weapons of Shakespeare's own time, and gives clarity to Hamlet's character and his actions.
The most important concept to understand in dealing with the 'sword switch' is how much the art of fencing has changed over the centuries. In England, in the Middle Ages, most duels would have been fought with primitive, older weapons - namely the mace, battle axe, and the longsword. These weapons were heavy and brutish, useful only for offense, with the task of defense falling primarily to the pounds of heavy armour each combatant would wear. Those who couldn't afford the very costly purchase of armour, namely the lower class, began to develop weapons and systems that could be used for both offense and defense . These folk began organizing themselves, and eventually 'fighting guilds' were established to teach the new found skills (Craig, 3-4).
These guilds adopted the new Continental system of fighting with the sword and buckler (a small hand-held shield) as their own, and this system became established as the typical English style. Fighting with these instruments left most of the defense to the buckler, while the sword was used primarily for slashing...
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Jackson, James L. "'They Catch One Another's Rapiers': The Exchange of Weapons in Hamlet." Shakespeare Quarterly 41.3 (Fall 1990): 281-298.
Saviolo, Vincentio. Vincentio Saviolo his Practice. London, 1595. qtd. in Jackson.
Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. Ed. Edward Hubler. Gen. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Silver, George. Paradoxes of Defence. London, 1594. qtd. in. Jackson.
Taylor, James O. "The Influence of Rapier Fending on Hamlet." Forum for Modern Language Studies 29 (1993): 203-215.
This was researched and written by James Hallam as part of the course on Shakespeare by Individual Studies. Copyright is retained by James Hallam. This material may freely be used, so long as the author and source are cited.
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