The Duel

Low, Jennifer. “Manhood and the Duel: Enacting Masculinity in Hamlet.” Centennial Review 43.3 (Fall 1999): 501-12.


This essay proposes that “in the course of the fencing exhibition, Hamlet discovers a means of performance acceptable to him” (501). Prior to this climactic scene, Hamlet struggles to balance the expectations of his public persona (e.g., prince) with those of his domestic roles (e.g., son). The conflict between the rational thoughts of ideal masculinity and the violent actions necessary to exact revenge compound Hamlet’s dilemma. Hamlet can only act when he finds a personal “form of masculine decorum,” “uniting private and public identities” and performing “the part of a man according to his father’s model” (504). A brief history of dueling proves that Hamlet finds a fitting means to act: “the duel embodies the notion of manhood, both through the correspondence of word and deed and through the implicit legitimization of vigilantism (and, by extension, individualism) as a means of achieving justice” (505). While the duel is initiated with the formality of tradition and ritual, its context within the theatrical production “interrogates the very structure of drama’s mimetic framework” (506). The nature of this lawful duel for entertainment is also altered by the unlawful and lethal intentions of Claudius and Laertes. Claudius seems solely responsible for the deadly results because “The violence set in motion by the king becomes the swordsman’s prerogative” (508). Thanks to Claudius’ ploy, Hamlet is able “to die as an avenger and a true prince” (509).

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Taylor, James O. “The Influence of Rapier Fencing on Hamlet.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 29.3 (1993): 203-15.


This article contends that Hamlet’s transformation in the last act of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s execution, as well as the slayings of Claudius and Laertes “are best understood if seen in the context of fencing, the imagery of which informs and illuminates the play” (203). A brief survey of Elizabethan fencing trends and of Vincentio Saviolo’s guidance to duelers provides an informative backdrop for the argument based on “the relationship between the rapier as an effective weapon and the word as a rapier—an even more effective weapon” (205). Throughout Hamlet, fencing and language are related because Hamlet’s “metaphorical sharpening and focusing of language” mirrors the duelist’s need to “keep his weapon honed and his skill exercised so that he will be ready to counter any attack” (206). For example, Hamlet’s words in 2.2 moves “toward the satiric tradition in which words are wielded as whips and lances and daggers”; the Prince turns “to Juvenal for instruction in their [words’] use because he has not yet fully mastered their power” (208); Hamlet’s meeting with the players marks the moment when “the satirist and avenger coalesce in Hamlet,” as he grasps “the potential of language to strip pretence from the hypocrites and cut deceit from corrupt statesmen” (209); with Gertrude and Ophelia, Hamlet’s “speech becomes pointed and rapier-edged”: “he is as menacing and relentless as the aggressive swordsman who presses every advantage in the fray” (212). With the death order for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet heeds Saviolo’s warning that “the duellist could not afford the luxury of merely wounding or disabling his opponent. The duel was an all-or-nothing venture” (213). Saviolo’s wisdom is also obeyed when Hamlet launches a proper frontal assault on Claudius in the final scene. Although “hardened by his duel with evil and his futile attempts to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet of the final act has maintained his humanity” (214).

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