Epigraphs from William Roper’s “Life of Sir Thomas More” represent rituals of familial blessing in transition from the feudal to the early modern. They exemplify Shakespeare’s complex employment of the ritual in Hamlet and throughout his plays from the farcical to the serene. The “double blessing” that Polonius gives Laertes shows this ritual comically, as do those of earlier sons Launce and Launcelot in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice; All’s Well That Ends Well renders it confusingly in feudal transition into a new age. King Lear offers it in the peaceful reconciliation of father and daughter, as, also tragically, does the final action between Gertrude and Hamlet when she wipes his forehead, fulfilling his promise that “when you are desirous to be blessed, / I’ll blessing beg of you.” The blessing of marriage between Hamlet and Ophelia exposes another abruption between the historical conception of political marriage argued by Polonius and Laertes and marriages of mutuality aborted by the adulterous and murderous one of Gertrude and Claudius. Hamlet is structured on the Danish history of Old Hamlet/Old Fortinbras abrupted by that of Young Hamlet/Young Fortinbras—with Hamlet blessed neither to leave home nor to marry.

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