The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0338  Wednesday, 24 June 2009

From:       Joe Egert <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Tuesday, 23 Jun 2009 16:13:50 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0307 What ho, Horatio
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0307 What ho, Horatio

Conrad Cook writes:

"But I think there's something else going on with the snake story:  this 
is a reference to the Myth of the Fall. King Hamlet is resting in his 
orchard when a serpent stung him: an orchard is a garden for trees, and 
it reflects the Garden with two conspicuous trees, of Life and of 
Knowledge. When the Ghost says, therefore, "know thou noble youth the 
serpent that did sting my life now wears my crown," there is therefore a 
strong but subtle symbolic link made between Claudius and the 

C.laudius is also linked of course to the first fratricide C.ain, whom 
some legends stamped the natural son of Eve and her serpent. The first 
slayer in our drama was not Claudius but his brother King Hamlet, 
perhaps another 'tempter-devil', a 'dreaded sight' arrayed in dazzling 
armour upon the battlements of Elsinore, waiting to entice the Prince 
toward bloody revenge, in defiance of God's law.

Renaissance commentators endlessly pondered the nature of this Serpent 
of Eden. Was he perhaps the immaterial Devil himself, casting a 
serpentine illusion to beguile his prey? Most however believed the 
Serpent a material being, the most cunning of God's creatures, yet (like 
Iago) an instrument or tool possessed by Satan to lead astray the 
innocent and vulnerable.

But what kind of material creature was he? A common snake? a basilisk? a 
dragon? After reviewing the candidates, Pererius, in his Latin 
COMMENTARIORUM on Genesis (1589 and later), settled on the legendary 
scytale, an erect wondrously speckled and spotted serpent, given voice 
by the Devil inside him. Some deemed Eve's engaging this wondrous 
creature by eye and ear an early stage in her sinful regression.

As pagan or Biblical serpents were often affiliated with staffs/rods (or 
phalluses), so etymologically the scytale, or scitalis, was also a 
device where ciphers in fragmented strips were layered around a 
distinctly shaped rod for decoding. The Bible staffs were often pictured 
with flowery heads  (asphodels); so too the Serpent was often portrayed 
with a flowery or even virgin's head, the easier to beguile his prey. I 
wonder sometimes if the peeled rods, used by Jacob in Shylock's example 
to speckle and spot the newborn lambs and kids by visual impression, 
recall the scytale in both its senses. Preachers saw the mingled dark 
bark and white wood layering of these peeled rods as forecasting the 
final integration of the varied peoples of the Earth under the Christian 
dispensation (as with Jessica and Launcelet's Moor). Others contrasted 
the dark bark of the Judaic letter with the white wood of the 
superseding Christian spirit underneath. I wonder though if the Ewe 
gazing upon the speckled rod recapitulates Eve's succumbing to the 
speckled Serpent, thus leading to Original Sin tainting all her progeny.

Both staffs and serpents also served as crucifixion symbols. The 
astronomer's or navigator's 'Jacob's staff' was in fact such a 
cross-staff. Moses' brazen serpent in NUMBERS for healing bitten 
penitent believers was similarly transformed by Christian expositors 
into a crucified serpent of salvific potency for true believers gazing 
upon an image of Jesus' atoning sacrifice. Could choosing the lead 
casket in the MERCHANT similarly save Christian pilgrims like Bassanio, 
ready to hazard all for the image within of the sacrificial Portia (and 
later, Antonio)? Hasn't Bassanio's own spiritual journey taken him from 
the golden casket/fleece, which many want, to the lead casket of sacrifice?

Joe Egert

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