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Home :: Archive :: 2012 :: March ::
Laertes, the Superior Fencer?

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.101  Friday, 9 March 2012

 

[1] From:        David Crystal < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 8, 2012 12:44:12 PM EST

     Subject:     Laertes, the Superior Fencer

 

[2] From:        Stuart Manger < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 8, 2012 6:09:14 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Laertes fencing

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        David Crystal < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 8, 2012 12:44:12 PM EST

Subject:     Laertes, the Superior Fencer

 

I sent on your post to son Ben, who played Hamlet in the original pronunciation production at the University of Nevada last fall, produced by Eric Rasmussen, directed by Rob Gander, and he sent me this comment, which I thought you’d be interested to see.

 

‘I worked with the fight choreographer Roberta Brown on Iris Theatre’s King Lear in a castle in Austria, where I played Edgar, and having her choreograph the fights for Hamlet was the only time I insisted on something, diva-esque (aside from my footwear, which is another story).

 

Having worked with Roberta before, I knew her methods. JJ, my Laertes, was less familiar with fighting in general, but we’d spoken carefully over the first two weeks of rehearsal before she arrived.

 

Roberta’s fights always grow out of character, and so the logic was thus: Hamlet grew up in Elsinore. Polonius was a well-renowned councillor in King Hamlet’s reign. His children grew up there with him, their mother died there. Ophelia, in particular, seems dear to the Queen Gertrude. And King Claudius is willing to grant Laertes any suit. 

 

They are the second family, and with few other younger courtiers to play with, young Hamlet would have trained and played sword-work with Laertes. As Ophelia grew into a woman, the childhood friendship with Hamlet became something more, something Laertes could helplessly see blossoming.

 

As Laertes left for France, Hamlet hugged his old friend goodbye. 

 

When Laertes returns, he has grown up very quickly in a short space of time. A traveller’s life experience packed into a few months. Very likely encountering real fight situations, and thereby learning some French and possibly Spanish fighting styles.

 

We found a similar fighting relationship between Edgar and Edmund, the latter who has travelled and de facto has learnt fighting techniques from foreign lands, if only to survive.

 

Entering the fight at the end of the play, despite the recent tragic events, Hamlet and Laertes at play was once a regular event to watch. They start with rapiers, not Laertes’ strongest weapon.

 

At the beginning of the fight, Hamlet tests Laertes’ guard, and he doesn’t flinch. He tests again, and still nothing. Laertes’ fighting ability has changed these last few months, and he isn’t giving anything away. His form is perfect in comparison to Hamlet’s looseness.

 

Hamlet invites Laertes to start, but Laertes returns the invitation, (Come on sir/Come on sir), forcing Hamlet to make the opening move.

 

The first two bouts became about Hamlet trying the old tricks that no longer work, and Laertes gifted with moves Hamlet had never seen before.

 

Despite these tricks, Hamlet takes the first two points. This was worked out to Hamlet’s status and confidence - having always been a few years ahead, older and more experienced - winning over Laertes’ new skills. When they first face each other, neither can shake the memory of sword-playing together as children, when Hamlet always used to win. 

 

With the mocking ‘I pray you pass with your best violence’, a now publicly embarrassed Laertes pulls his dagger ‘Say you so, come on’, upping the stakes. Hamlet takes his own from Horatio, and the third bout begins with rapier and dagger, Laertes’ best combination.

 

In this bout, Laertes’ full skill-set at his disposal, and he quickly disarms Hamlet’s sword, taking the opportunity to cut Hamlet’s cheek (placing the poison furthest away from the organs, allowing him longer to die), and the fight devolves into a punch-up (part them they are incensed). Laertes, shocked and wondering how quickly the poison will work holds Hamlet at point, before Hamlet disarms him, slashing Laertes’ stomach (making for a quicker end) with the poison-tipped blade as he does so.

 

Throughout, Laertes was the stronger fighter, but their skills were balanced by the pressure of the situation until the final bout. Any hesitation on Laertes’ part to cut Hamlet disappeared with the shame of losing the first two bouts, and Hamlet’s mockery.

 

If you’d like to see the fight, a film of the production and documentary will be released later this spring.

 

Professor David Crystal

www.davidcrystal.com

http://david-crystal.blogspot.com/

www.theshakespeareportal.com

www.originalpronunciation.com

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Stuart Manger < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 8, 2012 6:09:14 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Laertes fencing. 

 

Don’t quite get this. Hamlet before the contest says he will win ‘at the odds’ i.e., he’s not that confident. Moreover, he is said to be ‘fat and scant of breath’. Whatever skill he may have, if Laertes makes him run around seriously, Hamlet’s timing etc may go. Laertes cheats before any real effect of Hamlet’s lack of condition might take effect. 

 

Stuart Manger

 

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