He doesn’t. He’s what you sometimes hear referred to as the “exception that proves the rule.” Like how at the end of Hamlet, everybody dies. Except Horatio.
The official body count in the final scene (Act 5 Scene 2) of Hamlet is four: Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, Hamlet. Enter Fortinbras, who says “What happened here?” and Horatio is left to tell the tale.
Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version may have also killed off Osric (the referee, for lack of a more description term), it’s difficult to tell. In Branagh’s version, Fortinbras is actively invading the castle while the final duel takes place between Hamlet and Laertes. Osric is seen being taken by surprise and stabbed. However, he then returns to the scene to deliver his line about Fortinbras’ “warlike volley.”
In some interpretations, such as Ingmar Bergman’s 1986 production, Horatio is killed at the end of the play. When Fortinbras orders, “Bid the soldiers shoot,” some directors have taken that as license to execute Horatio, presumably as the last remaining witness to all that had taken place. It’s important to note that there is nothing in the text to indicate this (just like Osric’s death above). However, there’s two ways to die in a play. Either the script says you die, or else you eventually just run out of lines. Once you’re no longer part of the action (such as Osric), you might fall victim to artistic license and find yourself dead at the end of Act 5 whether Shakespeare wanted it that way or not.
There’s a short and easy answer to the question of why Hamlet killed Polonius. It was an accident. A case of mistaken identify, if you will. What he did next, however, certainly was no accident.
The story so far: Hamlet has sprung his mouse trap, playing out Claudius’ crime in front of him with the help of the actors. Claudius reaction has, as Hamlet anticipated, “caught the conscience of the king.” Gertrude, upset with her son for angering her husband, has requested Hamlet come to her bedchamber so she might speak with him. Polonius offers to spy on Hamlet by reaching the queen first and hiding in the arras (curtains).
Hamlet, in exultation at having proven Claudius’ guilt, comes to his mother’s bedchamber and intends to tell her off:
Hamlet. Now, mother, what’s the matter?
Gertrude. Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Hamlet. Mother, you have my father much offended.
Gertrude. Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
Hamlet. Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
Gertrude. Why, how now, Hamlet?
Hamlet. What’s the matter now?
Gertrude. Have you forgot me?
Hamlet. No, by the rood, not so!
You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife,
And (would it were not so!) you are my mother.
Hamlet’s mood at this point is pretty obvious. He’s been unhappy with his mother and is letting it all out. You have my father much offended. You question with a wicked tongue. You are your husband’s brother’s wife.
If Hamlet had stormed off at this moment, having made his point, the play would have gone differently. Instead, Gertrude stands up and says, “I don’t have to take this!” and Hamlet shoves his mother back down, because he’s not done with her yet:
Gertrude. Nay, then I’ll set those to you that can speak.
Hamlet. Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
Gertrude is not prepared for Hamlet to put his hands on her. Remember that the whole castle believes Hamlet to have lost his mind. So it’s hardly unexpected when she yells to Polonius for help:
Gertrude. What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murther me?
Help, help, ho!
Polonius. [behind] What, ho! help, help, help!
Hamlet didn’t know someone else was in the room. He stabs blindly through the arras:
Hamlet. [draws] How now? a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!
[Makes a pass through the arras and] kills Polonius.
Polonius. [behind] O, I am slain!
Gertrude. O me, what hast thou done?
Right now the audience is thinking the same thing that Gertrude is. What just happened? Hamlet’s a thinker and a talker, not a doer. Up to this point in the play he hasn’t really done anything. Until now. Heard a noise? Kill it!
Hamlet. Nay, I know not. Is it the King?
Gertrude. O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
Hamlet. A bloody deed- almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
Gertrude. As kill a king?
Hamlet thought Claudius was hiding behind the arras! During this exchange, in fact, he still believes he has killed Claudius, which perhaps explains why he so blatantly accuses his mother of the crime, thinking that he has now avenged his father.
The timing here is subject to some debate. In the previous scene, on his way to his mother’s bedchamber, Hamlet had already passed Claudius at prayer. He has an opportunity there to kill him, but chooses not to take it. So, then, does Hamlet think that Claudius somehow beat him to the same destination? It’s possible that Hamlet took his time getting to his mother’s room eventually. Or that castles do tend to have secret passages and if there was a shortcut to Gertrude’s room, Claudius knew it. It’s also likely that in the heat of the moment Hamlet simply never thought of this.
So, Polonius’ death was an accident. What happens next is not. Hamlet hides Polonius body, refusing to let him have a proper burial. Act 4 scenes 2 and 3 are actually devoted entirely to the search for Polonius’ body:
Rosencrantz. What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?
Hamlet. Compounded it with dust, whereto ’tis kin.
Rosencrantz. Tell us where ’tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel.
And then, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can get no answers out on him, Hamlet is taken before Claudius:
Claudius. Where is Polonius?
Hamlet. In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not
there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself. But indeed, if you
find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up
the stair, into the lobby.
So Hamlet uses the dead body of his girlfriend’s father as a prop so he can tell Claudius to go to hell. Is this part of his crazy act? Or at this point does he truly care so little about such things that he doesn’t think twice about defiling a corpse?
Juliet’s thoughts on marriage change during the play, so the answer to the question depends on whether we look in Act 1 Scene 3 or Act 2 Scene 2.
Juliet is first mentioned when Paris comes asking her father for Juliet’s hand in marriage. Her father tells Paris that her opinion counts, and that he will not force her to marry someone she does not love:
Capulet. But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,
My will to her consent is but a part;
An she agree, within her scope of choice
Lies my consent and fair according voice.
We next see Juliet with her mother, who is working her from a different angle:
Lady Capulet. Marry, that ‘marry’ is the very theme
I came to talk of. Tell me, daughter Juliet,
How stands your disposition to be married?
Juliet. It is an honour that I dream not of.
There is the short answer for anybody just looking to get the homework answer. What does Juliet think about marriage? It is an honour she dreams not of.
But wait! She hasn’t met Romeo yet. Act 2, Scene 2, otherwise known as the famous balcony scene:
Juliet. Three words, dear Romeo, and good night indeed.
If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word to-morrow,
By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.
This is Shakespearean for, “If you like it then you’d better put a ring on it.” Juliet has gone from “I’m not really interested in getting married” to “Just tell me the time and the place and I’ll be there.”
Twelfth Night opens with a shipwreck, but if you blink you’ll miss it. There’s no actual stage direction that says “And now a shipwreck happens,” unlike The Tempest which starts in exactly this way.
Instead, the first cue about what’s happened comes as Viola, the Captain and sailors enter (Act 1 Scene 2) and Viola asks, “What country is this?” and fears that her brother has drowned:
[Enter VIOLA, a Captain, and Sailors]
Viola. What country, friends, is this?
Captain. This is Illyria, lady.
Viola. And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown’d: what think you, sailors?
The Captain goes on to describe what he saw during the wreck, and gives Viola hope that her brother might indeed have survived (spoiler alert – he did!) But, still, that leaves Viola alone in a country unknown to her. The Captain tells her the story of the Lady Olivia and Duke Orsino. Viola wonders if she might become a servant for Olivia, but she is not seeing any visitors. So instead Viola decides that go into the service of Orsino, with the help of the Captain:
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
She never says “help me dress like a boy”, of course, but it can be inferred from the clues (“conceal me what I am”, “present me as an eunuch to him”).
But why is this her plan? Surely there must be easier ways to survive in Illyria. There are a few theories:
It’s a matter of safety. She’s an unaccompanied woman in an unknown country (even though she is with the Captain, he’s still just a hired hand, not exactly a family member). She’ll meet with less trouble if people think she’s a man. This is the logic that one of Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing heroines, Rosalind, uses in As You Like It:
Rosalind. Alas, what danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel forth so far!
Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.
Celia. I’ll put myself in poor and mean attire,
And with a kind of umber smirch my face;
The like do you; so shall we pass along,
And never stir assailants.
Rosalind. Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar spear in my hand; and- in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will-
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.
She needs money. Viola’s first thought is to go into the service of Olivia until she can get her own situation together:
Viola. O that I served that lady
And might not be delivered to the world,
Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is!
The Captain’s description of the story between Orsino and Olivia has captivated Viola’s attention, and she wants to insert herself into the story. She believes that she will be of value to the Duke because she “can sing, and speak to him in many different sorts of music” and also “what else may hap to time,” so it’s quite possible that she’s already thinking about trying to play matchmaker.
It’s easy to miss when and how Lady Macbeth dies, because like so many other major character she dies off stage and her death is reported by a lesser character. In this case the news comes in Act 5 Scene 5, when Macbeth hears a scream and sends Seyton to investigate. Seyton returns and says, “The queen, my lord, is dead.”
Macbeth does not ask how she died. Before play ends, however, Malcolm gives more information about the circumstances in Act 5 Scene 8:
…Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life;
Malcolm here appears to be confirming a rumor that Lady Macbeth killed herself. It is well established in other scenes that she has been slowly losing her mind. Shakespeare’s audience would have accepted as fact that she was possessed by demons at this point, and no additional detail would have been necessary.
It’s not uncommon for Shakespeare’s characters to die offstage, no matter how significant the character. Unfortunately this can make it difficult to understand how that character died. There’s a world of difference between seeing someone drink poison, and someone running on stage to announce, “She’s dead, she drank poison!”
So it is with King Lear‘s Cordelia. Her death, and the way Shakespeare chooses to present it, is easily one of the most tragic scenes ever put on stage.
Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too-
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out-
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.
Edmund is challenged to a duel by a mysterious opponent who turns out to be his brother Edgar. Edmund is defeated, and tries to make amends for the wrongs he has committed before he dies. He tells his guards:
Edmund. I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send
(Be brief in’t) to the castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.
“My writ is on [their] lives” means that he has ordered their execution. Quickly, messengers are dispatched to the prison to stop the order.
What happens next? Does the messenger arrive in time? No, this is a tragedy, we know that’s not the case. Does a messenger return and say, “Too late!” No. That would be too easy. (This is exactly how the end of Romeo and Juliet plays out, with that glimmer of hope that Romeo will reach Juliet in time…)
King Lear enters, carrying the lifeless body of his daughter, and the audience sees for themselves that it is too late.
Lear. Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.
If the question is how exactly did Cordelia die, her father answers it while weeping over her body, conversing with her as if she is still with him:
Lear. A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have sav’d her; now she’s gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou say’st, Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low- an excellent thing in woman.
I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.
That last line provides the detail – they were in the process of hanging Cordelia, when he attempted to rescue her.
Jephthah is not a word you hear every day. How often does phth show up in the middle of a word? Sounds onomatopoetic, like blowing someone a raspberry every time you say it. With words like that scattered around the play, of course it’s got a reputation for being difficult to read and understand.
Before we look at who Jephthah was, let’s first look at the scene where Hamlet uses the term (in Act 2 Scene 2). Hamlet has already visited with the ghost of his father, learned of his father’s murder, and has enacted his plan to “put an antic disposition on,” in the hopes of gathering evidence against his uncle Claudius. So basically he can say whatever he wants to whoever (whomever?) he wants. Part of the fun for Hamlet is in saying seemingly random things that actually have a deeper meaning.
Polonius, meanwhile, is convinced that Hamlet’s madness is love sickness, because he can no longer see Ophelia. Polonius even offers to prove his theory by putting out Ophelia as bait while they hide and watch how Hamlet reacts to seeing her, but Hamlet figures out their plan.
Hamlet. O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
Polonius. What treasure had he, my lord?
‘One fair daughter, and no more,
The which he loved passing well.’
Polonius. [aside] Still on my daughter.
The story of Jephthah is recounted in Judges 11:31, where Jepthah is about to go into battle with the Ammonites and makes a vow to God, offering as a sacrifice, “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Well, his daughter is the first to come out and meet him. So he inadvertently sacrifices his own daughter.
Polonius is so caught up in his own “love sick” theory that as soon as he sees a daughter reference he sees it as proof of his own theory (“He’s still obsessed with my daughter!”) He doesn’t appear to get the “sacrificed his own daughter” connection.
Irony : The expression “There’s a method to his madness” comes earlier in this scene, spoken by Polonius. So he does recognize that there’s a deeper, relevant meaning in the seeming gibberish that Hamlet is spouting. He just doesn’t realize it’s anything more than coincidence.
Othello has appointed Cassio to the job that Iago wanted. It is Iago’s ultimate plan to bring about the downfall of Othello, but he’s not above ruining Cassio’s career at the same time. In Act 2 Scene 3, Iago gets Cassio drunk and then plants the idea in Governor Montano’s head that Cassio is an alcoholic, and that he worries about the trust Othello has put in him:
Iago You see this fellow that is gone before;
He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar
And give direction: and do but see his vice;
‘Tis to his virtue a just equinox,
The one as long as the other: ’tis pity of him.
I fear the trust Othello puts him in.
On some odd time of his infirmity,
Will shake this island.
Montano But is he often thus?
Iago ‘Tis evermore the prologue to his sleep:
He’ll watch the horologe a double set,
If drink rock not his cradle.
(Literally, Iago is saying “You’ve seen the virtues the man has to offer, but now you realize he’s got just as many vices.” He then goes on to suggest that Cassio drinks himself to sleep every night.)
The truth of the situation is that Cassio is a lightweight drinker and he knows it. When Iago first offers him wine he responds , “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking” and “I have drunk but one cup to-night, and…
dare not task my weakness with any more.” What Cassio does not realize is that you can’t tell Iago something like that. He’s going to use it against you.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice actually opens with Iago and Roderigo discussing this exact subject, though the audience does not yet realize the subject of their conversation:
Roderigo. Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
Iago. Despise me, if I do not.
Iago goes on to offer several reasons why he hates this person, whoever this person is.
…Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp’d to him: …and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place:
But he; as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff’d with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators; for, ‘Certes,’ says he,
‘I have already chose my officer.’
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship’s ancient.
What does that all mean? Iago was lobbying for the lieutenant’s position under Othello (“his Moorship”) and even had some high-powered citizens/politicians (“great ones of the city”) go and offer their personal recommendation, only to find that Othello had already chosen Michael Cassio. Iago is not happy with this decision, and has nothing good to say of Cassio, who has no battle experience (as Iago does), and is instead what today might be called “book smart.”
But! Is this the real reason? Or is this just the reason that Iago is feeding Roderigo? At the close of Act 1, alone on stage, Iago reveals a deeper reason for his hatred:
…I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.
“Twixt my sheets done my office” is a polite way of saying, “Slept with my wife.” Iago even admits to not knowing if it is true, but doesn’t care.
So, again, is this the reason? Or is this again another justification for something deeper? This sounds more like he’s preparing an alibi, in case he ultimately needs one.
Does it go back to the racist thing? Maybe Iago doesn’t even want the lieutenant’s job, maybe he’s furious that Othello is in charge at all? He’s not shy about hurling racial epithets at Desdemona’s father in Act 1, Scene 1:
Iago. ‘Zounds, sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.
…Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.
Twice he refers to Othello as an animal (along with the associated suggestions of bestiality) and once as the devil.
But, again – maybe he’s just saying these things because he knows that they will upset Desdemona’s father Brabantio?
Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe Iago is a sociopath who truly has no specific reason for his hatred of Othello. That’s what makes this character one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. Every actor must decide for himself the source of Iago’s motivation. Maybe we can never truly know because there just isn’t a single right answer.