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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 he 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 bloody-minded 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.

Remember that a knight’s shield was as good as his name – the means by which he would be known in battle and 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.