I remember when I first read Hamlet in tenth grade. It was a wonderful play that I had sometimes had difficulty understanding. Those long soliloquies, monologues, and speeches didn’t honestly help that much. One sentence could last for ten lines, because the speaker insists on adding so much unnecessary information. How on earth am I supposed to keep up with what’s what and who’s who when I have to trudge through all this clutter? Seriously, you could probably skip over some lines or entire speeches and still get the gist, right?
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am no Shakespeare saint. I’ve done my fair share of skimming over a few lines here and there. But, over the years, I’ve discovered that while I got the basic idea, I did miss out on a deeper and more engaging experience with the play. Hopefully, you will learn from my mistakes on how a person can miss something so mind blowing by casually “not noticing” a speech…or two.
Let’s begin with one speech that seemingly has nothing to do with anything in Hamlet.
In Act 2, scene 2, Hamlet bids one of the traveling players to recite a speech about the slaughtering of Priam, the king of Troy. It is truly a wonderful piece of verse that, at first glance, seems out of place in the whole play. It seems to only function as a transition for Hamlet to, once again, bemoan the treachery of his incestuous mother. (Honestly, Hamlet, you don’t need Hecuba’s help in order to complain about your mother. You find plenty of opportunities to do so on your own.)
And really, all the allusions to mythical people and distant places only serve to confuse. Some of us may know who Priam and Hecuba are and what the Trojan War is, but who on earth are Aeneas and Pyrrhus? Why are they so important? What does the Trojan War have to do with anything that is going on in the play? Shakespeare, did you write this to show off your clever writing skills and to make Hamlet longer?
The Player’s speech has origins in Virgil’s famous epic poem The Aeneid (N.B., some critics have argued that the speech was also influenced by Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage). The poem follows the journey of Aeneas from the fall of Troy to the founding of Rome (as destined by the Fates). The scene in question comes from Book II, the chapter in which Aeneas, the protagonist, narrates his account of Troy’s fall. After he leads a group of Trojans out of the Greek carnage, Aeneas returns to the burning city in order to find his wife, whom he accidentally left behind. During this search, he witnesses many horrific and disheartening events, including the massacre of Priam. Pyrrhus, the blood-thirsty, ravenous son of Achilles, mercilessly and thoughtlessly slays the old king.
Now, we could go almost anywhere with this comparison. We could talk about: Hamlet and Aeneas; Hamlet and Pyrrhus; Hamlet and Fortinbras; how Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras are all aspects of Aeneas; the fact that both locations were/are at war. For today, I would like to focus on a theme that unites Shakespeare’s tragedy and Virgil’s poem: the death of an era and the rise of a new one.
For me, The Aeneid is about change. The Trojan War changes the lives of all the surviving Trojans and the gods involved. Eventually, the Trojans arrive at Italy and change the lives in Latium (one of the native tribes in Italy during that time). More importantly, there’s a change in power. Troy up until the war was considered to be a powerful and rich city. Rome, eventually, takes Troy’s place as the seat of strength and power in the region. In essence, Rome simply cannot exist alongside Troy.
And what on earth does this have to do with Pyrrhus?
Pyrrhus is the agent of destruction. Not only does he participate in the carnage, but he also slaughters Priam, the king of Troy, and, by extension, symbolically the city itself (if we are to take the king as the symbol of the land). Aeneas thus describes the Greek warrior:
“Pyrrhus exults, glittering with the sheen of bronze:
like a snake, fed on poisonous herbs, in the light,
That cold winter has held, swollen, under the ground,
and now, gleaming with youth, its skin sloughed,
ripples its slimy back, lifts its front high towards the sun,
and darts its triple-forked tongue from its jaw.” The Aeneid, Book II
Even though Pyrrhus causes the end of Troy, he is connected to the ideas of rebirth and renewal. The snake in the metaphor is coming out from the ground in spring, the time of year connected to rebirth and life. Furthermore, the snake has shedded off his old skin and is “gleaming with youth,” thus invoking the idea of renewal.
On top of that, the surviving Trojans lose their name towards the end of the poem. Juno–the queen of the gods and main antagonist— intervenes and beseeches to her husband that he will:
“not order the native Latins to change their ancient name,
to become Trojans or be called Teucrians,
or change their language, or alter their clothing.
Let Latium still exist, let there be Alban kings through the ages,
let there be Roman offspring strong in Italian virtue:
Troy has fallen, let her stay fallen, along with her name.”
Troy, as the Trojan exiles know it, is gone forever, and there is not even a modicum of a chance for rebuilding it. Trojan culture, language, everything disappears. All that’s left is their blood that will be mingled with the Latins’. It is the death of an era, but the beginning of a new one.
How is this relevant to Hamlet?
Let us consider all the major players who die and the order in which they die: Old Hamlet (before the play starts); Ophelia; Polonius; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Gertrude; Laertes; Claudius; finally, Hamlet. All of the Danish royals die by the end of the play, and, more importantly, Hamlet dies last. The prince’s death signals the end of the Danish era. In his last moments, Hamlet gives Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince, his “dying voice.”
Throughout the play, Fortinbras, the legitimate heir of Norway, lurks in the periphery. He makes a failed attempt to take back the lands his father lost in the war against Denmark. He leads his army to conquer a small piece of profitless land in Poland. People talk about him from time to time. Even then, we don’t know if it’s truth, rumor, a little bit of both. Fortinbras doesn’t make his grand entrance until the very last scene when the royal family has died. With Hamlet’s approval, Fortinbras takes over the throne, thus transforming it from a Danish rule to Norwegian.