Hamlet's Sword Switch

By James Hallam, December 1996

The essay that follows was researched and written by James Hallam as part of the course on Shakespeare by Individual Studies, 1996; it is reprinted here with her permission. While copyright is retained by James Hallam and the University of Victoria, this material may freely be used for educational and non-profit purposes, so long as the author and source are cited.
Please remember that plagiarism is not research.

Act V, scene ii of William Shakespeare's Hamlet contains perhaps the most famous sword fight in the history of literature, and certainly one of the most debated. The famous 'sword switch' which results in Laertes' death with his own poisoned weapon has been fought over for centuries as to its accuracy, believability and execution, yet it has seldom been performed correctly on stage. There is one way that Shakespeare intended this maneuver to be performed, however, in a way that both facilitates the switch with the weapons of Shakespeare's own time, and gives clarity to Hamlet's character and his actions.

The most important concept to understand in dealing with the 'sword switch' is how much the art of fencing has changed over the centuries. In England, in the Middle Ages, most duels would have been fought with primitive, older weapons - namely the mace, battle axe, and the longsword. These weapons were heavy and brutish, useful only for offense, with the task of defense falling primarily to the pounds of heavy armour each combatant would wear. Those who couldn't afford the very costly purchase of armour, namely the lower class, began to develop weapons and systems that could be used for both offense and defense . These folk began organizing themselves, and eventually 'fighting guilds' were established to teach the new found skills (Craig, 3-4).

These guilds adopted the new Continental system of fighting with the sword and buckler (a small hand-held shield) as their own, and this system became established as the typical English style. Fighting with these instruments left most of the defense to the buckler, while the sword was used primarily for slashing maneuvers, the use of the point not yet fully understood (Craig, 4-5).

By the early sixteenth century there were new developments on the continent, particularly in Italy. Teachers began investigating the movements of the human body and found that a thrusting motion, as opposed to a cutting one, was more economical and useful in combat. This rendered the buckler almost useless though, as most thrusts just deflected off the shield to another part of the target. This caused the buckler to be replaced with a dagger, which began to be used to deflect the thrusts away from the body. A new sword was also developed, better designed for point use and the complicated movements that began show in the hands of the new masters - the rapier (Craig, 5-6).

This new development gradually emigrated to England, where it encountered some fierce resistance from the sword and buckler group, especially George Silver, a member of the English Corporation of Defense Masters. His work Paradoxes of Defense (London, 1599) often rails against the "swarthie Italian swordmen" and their "foyning" fence (Craig, 7). The rapier and dagger were accepted, however, and by the time of Hamlet's first performance (1600-01) there were three fighting styles in vogue: the sword and buckler, the rapier and dagger and a new variation, the rapier and gauntlet.

Shakespeare elected to have Hamlet and Laertes duel with the rapier and dagger (V, ii, 146-7), and this combination leads to a very specific means of accomplishing the 'sword switch', a method known as the "left-hand seizure". In this maneuver, performed when one opponent is close enough to be past the other's point, the first drops his dagger and reaches with his left hand and grabs hold of the the other's hilt and twists it out of his grip. The second, now in the process of being disarmed has no other choice but to perform the same maneuver himself, thus resulting in a complete switch of weapons (Jackson, 282). This would have easily allowed the poisoned sword to be switched from Laertes to Hamlet. This does give Hamlet the incentive now to purposefully go after securing the sword, which indicates that Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be fully aware of the Laertes' treachery, from the instant of his first injury (V, ii, 304). This is verified by the evidence of "bating." A bated sword was one used for practice session and for non-lethal or sporting duels. Typically this meant that the sword was dulled and blunted, a process that didn't result in any huge physical differences on the sword, or at least any that could be seen without an inspection. Now the duel here was a gentlemanly exchange, supposedly carried out with both combatants possessing blunts. The instant Hamlet was injured, he would have known that there was treachery afoot, because a blunt wouldn't have broken the skin. Regardless of whether he knew that the blade was poisoned, his anger at the betrayal would lead him to go after Laertes with full vengeance and attempt to wrest the sword from his grasp (Jackson, 293).

Our modern productions of Hamlet have often been of the highest quality. Laurence Olivier's 1948 film production and Franco Zefferelli's 1990 version have both been very well received, and John Gielgud's performance in 1936-37 is still talked about. With yet another film production looming (Branaugh's Hamlet, due late 1996, early 1997) it is worth pointing out that none of these productions have actually performed the sword switch correctly. This largely due to the development of fencing after Shakespeare's time, and most notably, the epee.

This smaller lighter sword is now the most commonly used instrument of fence, yet it is substantially different that its predecessor, the rapier. The most obvious difference for our purpose is the fact that the epee can be knocked out of an opponent's hand. That is a comparative impossibility with a rapier however, because of the fencer's grip. In order to keep the rapier upright and ready in many of the moves described in Vincentio Saviolo's Practice (London, 1595), he would need to keep a finger or two across the quillon of the weapon, a grip that in practice prevents the disarming of an opponent very well.

Most staged fights now use epees, however, making a single disarming a very possible outcome of the exchange. This introduces the idea that the sword switch was accidental, as weapons begin flying around the stage - it would be easy to mistake one blade for another in the heat of the moment. But with the knowledge that Shakespeare meant for the duel to be fought with rapiers and not epees (a blade yet to be invented at the time) it is logical to pass over the accidental switch, when the "left-hand seizure" is more accessible in the text (Jackson, 286- 289).

This deadly exchange was then very accurate to Shakespeare's time, and shows his relative competency in the terms of duel. The bloody end that results also is accurate - as Francis Bacon said "noe man can foresee the dangers and inconueniences that may arise and multiply there-vpon" (Bacon, 9). Perhaps Saviolo's words summarize it best though, "it is 'childish' to think that friends can engage in a real duel with naked blades; once a challenge is accepted, both combatants must fight to win; one cannot afford to spare the other even slightly, for the price of mercy might be death (Taylor, 203).

Works Cited

  1. Bacon, Francis. The Charge of Sir Francis Bacon Touching Duells. London, 1614. Reprinted Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd.; New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.
  2. Craig, Horace S. Dueling Scenes and Terms in Shakespeare's Plays. Berkely: U of California Press, 1940.
  3. Jackson, James L. "'They Catch One Another's Rapiers': The Exchange of Weapons in Hamlet." Shakespeare Quarterly 41.3 (Fall 1990): 281-298.
  4. Saviolo, Vincentio. Vincentio Saviolo his Practice. London, 1595. qtd. in Jackson.
  5. Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. Ed. Edward Hubler. Gen. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
  6. Silver, George. Paradoxes of Defence. London, 1594. qtd. in. Jackson.
  7. Taylor, James O. "The Influence of Rapier Fending on Hamlet." Forum for Modern Language Studies 29 (1993): 203-215.

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This page last updated April 8 1997.