Hamlet's shield

In the book of Saxo Grammaticus, where the story of Hamlet (née Amlethus) is first told, Hamlet survives the act of his revenge. First he pins his false uncle's men drunken beneath their festival tent and burns the palace around them; then finds his uncle's bed and there, with a needless fillip of cunning, first warns Claudius (née Feng) that Hamlet is come for his revenge, then kills him as he rises with his own sword—while his uncle fumbles to draw Hamlet's, previously riveted through for the seeming-mad Hamlet's own protection.

This bloodyminded Hamlet's first act as king is to command his story—from the murder of his father through the accomplishment of his splendidly premeditated revenge—all to be painted on a great shield for him to carry.

Here were to be seen depicted the slaying of Horwedil; the fratricide and incest of Feng; the infamous uncle, the whimsical nephew; the shapes of the hooked stakes; the stepfather suspecting, the stepson dissembling; the various temptations offered, and the woman brought to beguile him; the gaping wolf; the finding of the rudder; the passing of the sand; the entering of the wood; the putting of the straw through the gadfly; the warning of the maiden after the escort was eluded. And likewise could be seen the picture of the palace; the queen there with her son; the slaying of the eavesdropper; and how, after being killed, he was boiled down, and so dropped into the sewer, and so thrown out to the swine; how his limbs were strewn in the mud, and so left for the beasts to finish. Also it could be seen how Amleth surprised the secret of his sleeping attendants, how he erased the letters, and put new characters in their places; how he disdained the banquet and scorned the drink; how he condemned the face of the king and taxed the queen with faulty behavior. There was also represented the hanging of the envoys, and the young man's wedding; then the voyage back to Denmark; the festive celebration of the funeral rites. Amleth, in answer to questions, pointing to the sticks in place of his attendants, acting as cup-bearer, and purposely drawing his sword and pricking his fingers; the sword riveted through, the swelling cheers of the banquet, the dance growing fast and furious; the hangings flung upon the sleepers, then fastened with the interlacing crooks, and wrapped tightly round them as they slumbered; the brand set to the mansion, the burning of the guests, the royal palace consumed with fire and tottering down; the visit to the sleeping-room of Feng, the theft of his sword, the useless one set in its place; and the king slain with his own sword's point by his stepson's hand. All this was there, painted upon Amleth's battle-shield by a careful craftsman in the choicest of handiwork; he copied truth in his figures, and embodied real deeds in his outlines.

Remember that a knight's shield was as good as his name—the means by which he would be known in battle or in travel, known both to friend and foe. Having become king, Hamlet desires that his story shall protect him and that he shall be known by his story. Both terms of this resolution come to pass in an unexpected way. Soon Hamlet falls into the hands of Hermutrude, Queen of Scotland—wise, clever, beautiful, proud, unwed. So impressed is she with his story—with the more than human cunning of his revenge—that she decides first to spare his life, and second to wed him—he the only accepted and the only surviving of her many suitors.

The shield itself is of course invisible in Shakespeare, though I cannot call it absent. By his story Hamlet enters the company of kings—so Fortinbras hails him; by his story Hamlet is known, when Horatio tells it before the confused witnesses of Hamlet's end in a Hamlet ending; and by his story Hamlet is saved—saved from England and returned to Denmark that he may end—in the Spartan phrase—with his shield or on it—but not without a shield.