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-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

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Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.
PAGE 422
NOTES ON HAMLET

NOTE H.

THE EXCHANGE OF RAPIERS.

     I am not going to discuss the question how this exchange ought to be managed. I wish merely to point out that the stage direction fails to show the sequence of speeches and events. The passage is as follows (Globe text):

  Ham. Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
  Laer. Say you so? Come on.     [They play.
  Osr. Nothing, neither way.
  Laer. Have at you now!     [Laertes wounds Hamlet; then, in scuffling, they change rapiers, and Hamlet wounds Laertes.1
  King. Part them; they are incensed.
  Ham. Nay, come, again.      [The Queen falls.2
  Osr. Look to the Queen there, ho!
  Hor. They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?
  Osr. How is't, Laertes?

     The words 'and Hamlet wounds Laertes' in Rowe's stage-direction destroy the point of the words given to the King in the text. If Laertes is already wounded, why should the King care whether the fencers are parted or not? What makes him cry out is that, while he sees his purpose effected as regards Hamlet, he also sees Laertes in danger through the exchange of foils in the scuffle. Now it is not to be supposed that Laertes is particularly dear to him; but he sees instantaneously that, if Laertes escapes the poisoned foil, he will certainly hold his tongue about the plot against Hamlet, while, if he is wounded, he may confess the truth; for it is no doubt quite evident to the King that Laertes has fenced tamely because his conscience is greatly troubled by the treachery he is about to practise. The King therefore, as soon as he sees the exchange of foils, cries out, 'Part them; they are incensed.' But Hamlet's

   1So Rowe. The direction in Q1 is negligible, the text being different, Q2 etc. have nothing, Ff. simply 'In scuffling they change rapiers.'
   2Capell. The Quartos and Folios have no directions.

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