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"Hamlet" opens with poison and closes with poison. What is the literal and...

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statecongress | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted January 7, 2009 at 10:57 AM via web

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"Hamlet" opens with poison and closes with poison. What is the literal and metaphorical use of posion throughout the play?

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mrs-campbell | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted January 7, 2009 at 1:14 PM (Answer #1)

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The literal use is, of course, to kill people.  Namely, the king, Hamlet's father, at the beginning.  Claudius uses poison to murder him and take over the kingdom.  Then, Claudius and Laertes use poison for the final death plot-Claudius in the infamous wine glass, and Laertes on the tip of his sword.  Unfortunately for Claudius, that little plan didn't go too well; it was his death-token.

Figuratively, we see how greed poisons, and how Hamlet's quest for truth and revenge poison.  Greed poisons Claudius; it prompts him to murder, to to plot Hamlet's demise, manipulating everyone around him in the meantime, sometimes with disasterous results.  It seems that everyone he plots with ends up dead, poisoned by his greedy touch.  Hamlet is poisoned by his quest for revenge and truth; he alters his behavior to alienate and ostracize those he cares about, in order to freely investigate his father's murder.  He rejects Ophelia-she turns mad and dies.  He mocks and derides Polonius, then killing him.  He rages against his mother, baffling her and possibly pushing closer to Claudius instead of further away, as intended.  He scorns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mastering their murder, in order to return and enact revenge against Claudius.  So Hamlet's quest for revenge was a figurative form of poison that slowly ate away at many characters in the play, leading to its disasterous ending.

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frizzyperm | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted January 7, 2009 at 5:55 PM (Answer #2)

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In Hamlet's feudal society men fought for their own honor in duels and often fought for the honor of their king in wars. Fighting skills were considered very important. Medieval nobility were little more than violent warlords defending and attacking each others' territory. So there were two skills that every nobleman was supposed to excel at, horsemanship and swordsmanship. (by contrast, Archery was not practiced by 'gentlemen' because archers were generally people from the bottom end of society) In medieval Europe there was a strict and brutal code of honor called Chivalry (from the French 'Chevalier' meaning 'horseman' or 'knight') A chivalrous knight was brave and true. The worst worst thing for a knight was to be thought a coward. It was much better to die than to be a coward.

So poison is completely unchivalrous. Poison is the weapon of a coward. A man who poisons is a liar and a cheat. Poisoning is the act of a man with no honor. And, in the days before science, poison was a dark and mysterious thing. It was devilish and monstrous magical potion. Using poison was a dark art! So, a poisoner is a devilish coward who has no truth or honor and who will go to hell.

And poison could be a metaphor for moral corruption, a poisoned person dies from the damage inside themselves, but may not have any signs on the outside of their body.

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