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Brian Richards Ms. Biester AP English 11 25 May 2011 The Motif of Poison in William Shakespeare s Hamlet In William Shakespeare s play Hamlet, the motif of poison is manifested as the story progresses. In the play, poison can be viewed in many different ways. Poison can be viewed both literally, in the sense of using it to kill, and symbolically, as a symbol of deception and betrayal. Throughout the play, Shakespeare ties many characters into the motif of poison. Characters are first tied into poison by acts of murder and the theme of death, but as the play progresses, poison is applied to the deceptive acts of the living and used as a symbol of madness and sorrow. As one of the most significant motifs in the play, poison ultimately leads to the death of the many characters associated with it. The motif of poison is introduced early in the play. Poison first comes to notice in act one while the ghost is describing his death to Hamlet. The ghost says, Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, / With juice of cursed hebona in a vial, / And in the porches of my ears did pour / the leprous distilment (1.5.62-65). In this quotation, King Hamlet is telling his son that he died at the hands of Claudius. The ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius poured poison in his ear in order to kill him and take control of the throne. In this scene, Shakespeare uses the motif of poison in a literal sense. Poison is known as a substance used to cause illness and death. Claudius uses poison strictly to kill his own brother and take control of the state of Denmark.

he says A poisons him I the garden for his estate (3. Again the motif of poison is used in the literal sense of being used to kill. By saying that Ophelia is poisoned by deep grief. this is the poison of deep grief (4.2. Shakespeare transforms the motif of poison from a literal sense to a symbol of the deceptive acts of living people. As Ophelia leaves. of a midnight weeds collected (3. Unlike poison references earlier in this play. hands apt. As the play goes on.76). Shakespeare is using the word poison to express Ophelia s emotion toward the death of her father. / Confederate season.2. . Thoughts black. Hamlet attempts to catch the conscience of Claudius. and time agreeing. As Hamlet describes the play within a play to Ophelia. and the other characters in the play begin to notice that Ophelia is going mad.5. During the play within a play. the King is saying that the grief Ophelia is mourning for her father s death is acting like a poison in the sense that it is turning Ophelia mad. This continues the theme of poison being used in a literal way throughout the first three acts of the play.259). the King is stating that Ophelia is poisoned by the grief that came with her father dying. As Lucianus reenacts the killing of the King by Claudius.253-255). he says the lines. drugs fit. poison is not to be taken in a literal sense in this quotation. / Thou mixture rank. This quotation tells Ophelia that the poison was used to kill the King in order to take control of his estate. Ophelia is addressing the King in song. Lucianus is using the poison Gonzago. Ophelia is mourning the death of her father Polonius. else no creature seeing. the King says O.Richards 2 The motif of poison can also be found used in a literal sense during the play within a play. In scene five. In act four. By saying this. just as Claudius used to poison to kill the late King Hamlet. and eventually leading to her death.

the motif of poison ultimately ends with the death of all the characters associated with it. In this play. First. Claudius says to himself. Shakespeare is using the word envenom to display the effect that Hamlet s envy played on him.295). The King says that if Laertes sword does not penetrate Hamlet s flesh. It is the poisoned cup (5. the people of Denmark are unaware that Claudius has killed and will not turn against him. Knowing what he has done.160-163). then he has poisoned a cup that he will have Hamlet drink. / If he by chance escape your venomed stick. when the King is talking Laertes into a duel with Hamlet. By poisoning.Richards 3 Also in act four. the motif of poison can be found.7. This plan to kill Hamlet by poison reflects the deceptive acts of Claudius. the motif of poison is found both in a literal sense. as well as a symbolic sense. In the end. the word poison is used to express the acts and emotions of the living. to play with you (4. In this quotation. Again. The King also says I ll have prepared him / A chalice for the nonce. the Queen accidentally takes a sip of the poisoned cup. By using the word envenom. the King says that Hamlet was poisoned by his envy and could do nothing but wish and beg Laertes sudden coming over to play with him. This quotation further expresses the plan to kill Hamlet by poison.104-106). The King says Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy / That he could nothing do but wish and beg / Your sudden coming o er.7. As the plan to kill Hamlet begins to take place. and now he plans on killing Hamlet by giving him a cup containing poison.2. which will kill him just as the sword would. whereon but sipping. / Our purpose may hold there (4. the plan to dip Laertes sword in poison and make contact with Hamlet s skin during the duel. Claudius killed King Hamlet by pouring poison in his ear. Claudius knows that his deceptive acts have now killed his own wife and therefore he . As the King and Laertes are planning to kill Hamlet in act four.

324). The blame of killing other characters is now placed onto Claudius. Laertes confirms this statement by saying. Hamlet is yet to die. to being viewed as . / It is a poison tempered by himself (5. He is justly served. then it shall be put to use and used to kill the King. which has killed many others associated with it in the play. The King then faces his death by poison.330). The Queen is poisoned by her guilt for marrying Claudius so soon after her husband s death and therefore is killed by poison at the end of the play. Hamlet has now fallen as his father did.355). The King s death is an ironic situation because throughout the play. Like other characters in the play. By saying this. He says to Horatio. he knows it is now necessary to kill the King. the King s deceptive acts of using poison to kill or attempt to kill other character ultimately lead to his own demise. Poison.2. Throughout Claudius deceptive acts. Hamlet is saying that if the point of the sword is also envenomed. He stabs the king and says Then venom to thy work (5. Hamlet now defined as the tragic hero of the play. the Queen is killed by poison because she is previously tied into the motif earlier in the play. Claudius was justly served because his deceptive acts lead to the killing of many other characters including his own brother. After Hamlet is aware of what is happening.Richards 4 is guilty. one being the motif of poison. The motif of poison transforms from being viewed in a literal sense. This states the end of the motif of poison in the play.2. Laertes is stating that the King deserved to die because it was his idea to poison the sword and the cup that led to the death of others. William Shakespeare s play hamlet is highlighted by many motifs. has now overpowered the main characters soul. After the death of all the characters poisoned in act five. The potent poison quite o ercrows my spirit (5.2.

that in the end leads to the death of all who are associated with it. Many characters. whether it be through literally being poisoned or being poisoned by sorrow or betrayal are connected to this motif in the play.Richards 5 a symbol for sorrow and madness. Through the deceptive acts of King Claudius. . poison becomes and important motif in the play.

Shakespeare. Clayton: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Classics. Print. Annotated Bibliography.Richards 6 Works Cited Blankenship. <http://hamlethaven. Hamlet.com/>. Harmonie. Hamlet Haven: An Online. Web. William. 2005. 23 May 2011. .

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