This lesson will discuss the literal and symbolic significance of poison and its effect on various characters in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet.
What goes around comes around.
.. right back to you
Another car cuts you off in traffic on the way to work and almost causes an accident.
You decide to speed up and let that person know just what you think of them. You reach the window of the other driver and suddenly jolt forward in your seat. In your attempts to get revenge, you seem to have gotten yourself into a pretty bad situation.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Famous playwright William Shakespeare understood this warped justice as displayed in his famous play, Hamlet. Unfortunately, the ambition and desire for justice leads to the demise of the characters in this tragedy.Shakespeare’s use of poison has literal and symbolic significance key to propelling the plot. A symbolic item is a concrete object used to represent an abstract concept or idea.
Poison is used as a weapon throughout this play. Old Hamlet, the King of Denmark, is poisoned by his brother, Claudius. Claudius uses the poison for his own selfish ambition and marries Old Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude, making him the new King of Denmark. Claudius is unaware that is his nephew and new step-son, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has been visited by the ghost of his father to seek revenge and bring the truth of his death to light.Hamlet kills Polonius, father to Laertes and Ophelia, mistaking him for Claudius. Laertes, the brother of Ophelia (Hamlet’s love interest), challenges Hamlet to a duel in order to avenge Polonius’ death.
Claudius convinces Laertes to put poison on the tip of his sword to cut Hamlet in the duel.To ensure Hamlet’s death, Claudius also has a poisoned cup of wine should Hamlet win the duel. Claudius does not intervene when Gertrude drinks the poisoned cup of wine because he does not want to give himself away.
Poisoning the Mind
Claudius is the ultimate manipulator in this play. He preys upon the hurt and pain that Laertes feels about Hamlet killing his father. Claudius also convinces Laertes that it is Hamlet’s fault that Ophelia committed suicide. Claudius uses Laertes by convincing him to duel Hamlet and wound him with a poisoned blade. Claudius’s concern is not with vengeance, rather eliminating the only person who knows the truth of Old Hamlet’s death.
Claudius also convinces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on their childhood friend, Hamlet, in order to get information about his behavior. Claudius approaches the two men under the pretense of concern for Hamlet, but his true motive is to see if Hamlet knows the truth.
Another form of poison in the mind within Hamlet is madness.
Ophelia’s character is driven into madness after she learns about the murder of her father, Polonius, by her lover’s hand. Unable to deal with her grief, Ophelia drowns herself.Hamlet experiences a degree of madness brought on by his obsession with exposing Claudius. He plans to ‘put on an antic disposition’ in order to distract Claudius from his true plans to expose his crimes; however, Hamlet loses himself as he plots his revenge.
Victims of the Poison of Vengeance
For many characters in Hamlet, their deaths were the direct result of the poisons of vengeance and ambition. Claudius’s ambition and Hamlet’s obsession with revenge cause a domino effect leading to Polonius’ death at the hand of Hamlet, Ophelia’s suicide, Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s beheadings, Gertrude’s poisoning, Laertes’ death, Claudius’ death, and Hamlet’s stabbing and poisoning, making this play a tragedy.
William Shakespeare uses poison, symbolically and literally, to reveal the true nature of some characters and to illustrate how ambition and desire cause a domino effect within the plot resulting in tragedy.
The literal uses of poison include poisoning the tip of swords, drinking poison, and pouring it in the ear. The symbolic uses of poison include poisoning the mind through manipulation madness, and vengeance. Through Hamlet, Shakespeare shows us how we can be blinded by our desire for revenge and the detrimental consequences of that blindness.