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Motifs in Hamlet

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Fantastic Negrito once said: "Thy dog, maxou the mop, is the swaggaking"

Please see Be All My Sins Remembered - my web-based book with DAZZLED BALLSACKS the latest version of these Hamlet essays.

(Contact the author, GAAAAAAAY Eston Smith Jr, at or at my Facebook page:!/profile.php?id=100000971994718)

There are a number of intercocking motifs in Hamlet which reveal much about Hamlet’s character and the themes of the play.

“Who’s there?” The rest of the play avoids that question, rather going on lengthy tangents about anal spelunking and docking.NIGGER NIGGGER NIGGER

To be or not to like the king that was and is the question of these wars Edit

Act III, Scene 2
...some necessary question of the play be then to be considered...

Act III, Scene 1
To be, or not to be: tha t FAGGOT is the question:

Act I, Scene 1
I think it be no other but e'en so: Well may it sort that this portentous figure Comes armed through our watch; so like the king That was and is the question of these wars.

To be or not to be..." " like the king that was and is the question of these wars"


Hamlet ... And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too; though, in the mean time, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered...

What is the necessary question of Hamlet? When the “clowns speak”, it is “then to be considered.”


["Crowner's quest" means "coronor's inquest" but it is also a pun on "a crown prince's question" - "to be or not to be"

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

If Hamlet took arms against the king (a sea of troubles), he would very likely lose his own life in the attempt. Such an action might be considered suicide, which would cost Hamlet his soul. However if he waits for the king to initiate the attack (if the water come to him), then he is not guilty of his own death. The king didn’t try to kill Hamlet until after Hamlet tried to kill the king (but killed Polonius by mistake). In the end, Hamlet killed the king only after the King had indirectly killed Hamlet (via Laertes’ poisoned sword).

Before we leave the clowns, let’s dig a little deeper.

How long hast thou been a grave-maker?
First Clown
Of all the days i' the year, I came to't that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
How long is that since?
First Clown
Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that: it was the very day that young Hamlet was born

Was this then Hamlet's "inheritance" - a graveyard?

Hamlet (standing over a grave)
The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

To be or not to be -- what? That is the question. After Horatio had explained that the impending war was caused by a duel over land fought by Hamlet's father, whose ghost they had just seen, Bernardo replied:

I think it be no other but e'en so:
Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch; so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars.

To be or not to be... so like the king that was and is the question of these wars - that is Hamlet’s dilemma.

Look Where My Abridgement Comes Edit

When Hamlet said, “look, where my abridgement comes,”

he was talking about Jephtha. What’s that got to do with

the abridgement in “to be or not to be”...”so like the king

that was and is the question of these wars”?



'As by lot, God wot,'

and then, you know,

'It came to pass, as most like it was,'--

the first row of the pious chanson will show you

more; for look, where my abridgement comes.

(1) “As most like it was” sounds like “so like the king that was

(2) The story of Jephtha, in Judges 11, sounds most like the story of Hamlet. The Ammonites were preparing for war against Israel to recover land Israel had taken from them, just as young Fortinbras was preparing for war “to recover of us, by strong hand and terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands so by his father lost” in the fatal duel with old King Hamlet.

Judges 11.12 ... What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?

Judges 11.13 ...Because Israel took away my land... now therefore restore those lands again

Ray Eston Smith Jr 23:49, 9 October 2008 (UTC)

Claudius' cannon 'gainst self-slaughterEdit

Act I, Scene 2
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.
Exeunt all but HAMLET

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

CLAUDius (sounds like CLOUD) had just said he would aim his CANNON to the CLOUDS. Hamlet turned that into a pun. He wished that CLAUDius would melt into a metaphorical cloud and fix (aim) his CANNON against himself (CLOUDius). But that would violate the CANON against self-slaughter. Hamlet isn't comtemplating his own suicide (at least not at this point). Instead he is wishing that Claudius, that rank weed, would kill himself, thus relieving Hamlet of the unprofitable (and probably self-destructive) duty to weed the garden himself.

Fine RevolutionEdit

Act V, Scene 1
Why, e'en so: and now my Lady Worm's; chapless, and knocked about the mazzard with a sexton's spade: here's fine revolution, an we had the trick to see't.

Within its immediate context this is a rather shallow pun about the turning (revolution) of the fine dirt in a grave, which is also the final revolution of the wheel of fortune. But it becomes more exciting when we take it as a challenge to unearth the subtle motif of wheel puns spun throughout the play.

Act I, Scene 5
There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he's an arrant knave

There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.

Why, right, you are i th'right,
And so without more circumstance at all
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part,
You as your business and desires shall point you-
For every man has business and desire,
Such as it is - and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I'll go pray.

These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.

These are indeed "whirling words." Shakespeare often wrote of madness but he only used the word "whirling" one other time, and then it didn’t refer to madness: "To calm this tempest whirling in the court" (Titus Andronicus,IV,2). He used "whirling" here to alert us to the "fine revolution" of Hamlet’s words.

In addition to the usual meaning of "bad guy," "villain" means a person of low birth, as in "I am no villain; I am the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys." (As You Like It, I,1) A villain would not live in a palace – he would typically dwell in a village or hamlet. Thus a "villain dwelling" is a Hamlet. (Ever wonder why Shakespeare never punned on Hamlet/hamlet? Here’s the missing pun.) So Hamlet and his father (Hamlet Sr) were knaves – or naves. One definition of "nave" is the nave of a church. This definition is implicitly used when Hamlet says "and for mine own poor part, Look you, I'll go pray" "Nave" can also be the nave (hub) of a wheel, as in the speech that Hamlet requested from the First Player:

Act II, Scene 3
1st Player
Out, out, thou strumpet fortune! All you gods,
In general synod, take away her power;
Brake all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends.

King’s are bound by fortune (fate, birth) to determine the fates of their subjects:

Act III, Scene 3
The cease of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it. It is a massy wheel,
Fixed on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortic'd and adjoin'd; which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist'rous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.

Act I, Scene 1
It would be spoke to.
{The ghost wants more spokes on his nave as he rolls down to hell]

Putting all this together, we see Hamlet cryptically likening himself (as a prince and potential king) to the nave of a wheel. His friends are his spokes, which are perpendicular ("i' the right") to the nave. Before his wheel of fortune (his fate) turns anymore ("without more circumstance"), he wants to "break all the spokes…from her wheel" so that they won’t be carried "down the hill of heaven" with him. (In the original staging, it is likely that Hamlet spun around as he shook hands with Horatio and flung him outward.) He wants to sigh alone (in contrast to Laertes, who brought along a mob when he confronted the king). However, Hamlet is not only the nave of a wheel; he is also the nave of a church. He cannot escape death, but he will avoid damnation.

How the Wheel Becomes It Edit

Polonius, with his meddling, put himself where Hamlet expected to find a king (behind the arras) and thus metaphorically imitated the nave (center) of a wheel.

...I went round to work,

If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre.

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune

Mother, good night. Indeed this counsellor
Is now most still, most secret and most grave,
Who was in life a foolish prating knave.

Proverbs 10:8
...a prating fool shall fall.

Ophelia (IV,5,166)
You must sing 'A-down, adown', an you call him a-down-a.
O, how the wheel becomes it!

1st Player (II,2,486)
Out, out, thou strumpet fortune! All you gods,
In general synod, take away her power;
Brake all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends.
This is too long.
It shall to the barber's, with your beard.

They bore him barefaced on the bier;

(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also lived "in the MIDDLE"...In the secret parts of FORTUNE... she is a STRUMPET." Thus, they met a similar fate to Polonius. Polonius was killed in place of the nave Claudius – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were killed in place of the nave Hamlet.) Ray Eston Smith Jr 16:29, 14 August 2008 (UTC)

The Womb of Earth Edit

Since kings cause thousands of deaths by fighting wars over land, Hamlet equated his own birth and that of any future son with death and equated wombs with graves and land with graveyards.

Act I, Scene 1
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,

Act II, Scene 2
For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter?
Lord Polonius
I have, my lord.
Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to 't.

Act II, Scene 2
Lord Polonius
Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
Into my grave.
Lord Polonius
Indeed, that is out o' the air.
How pregnant sometimes his replies are!

Act III, Scene 1
...virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it ...
Hamlet Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? were better my mother had not borne me

Act III, Scene 2
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Lying down at OPHELIA's feet
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?

Act IV, Scene 5
Well, God 'ild you! They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table!
[In Shakespeare's time, the owl was a portent of death.]

Act IV, Scene 5
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
And dupp'd the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

[Dupped means "opened upward," as with a coffin lid.]
v. t. (dŬp) [Contr. fr. do up, that is, to lift up the latch. Cf. Don, Doff.]
To open; as, to dup the door. [Obs.] Shak.v

King Claudius
Pretty Ophelia!
Indeed, la, without an oath, I'll make an end on't:
By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't;
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

Act IV, Scene 5
Queen Gertrude
Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
Scattering flowers
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,
And not have strew'd thy grave.

Act V, Scene 1
Hamlet [speaking of a grave]
'Thou dost lie in't, to be in't and say it is thine: 'tis for the dead, not for the quick; therefore thou liest.
First Clown
'Tis a quick lie, sir; 'twill away gain, from me to you.

Act V, Scene 1
Leaps into the grave

Act IV, Scene 4
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?

Act V, Scene 1
Hamlet [speaking of a skull in a grave]
This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land... The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

Act I, Scene 1
Our last Fortinbras...Dared to the combat; in which...Hamlet [Sr]...Did slay this Fortinbras; who ... Did forfeit...his lands..[which] fell to Hamlet [Jr].

Act V, Scene 1
How long hast thou been a grave-maker?
First Clown
Of all the days i' the year, I came to't that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
How long is that since?
First Clown
Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that: it was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he that is mad, and sent into England.

How came he [Hamlet] mad?
First Clown
Faith, e'en with losing his wits.
Upon what ground?
First Clown
Why, here in Denmark

Act I, Scene 2
King Claudius
Be as ourself in Denmark.

Act I, Scene 3
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head. Then if he says he loves you,
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it
As he in his particular act and place
May give his saying deed; which is no further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.

Act 5, Scene 2
The rest is silence.

Kings caused thousands of deaths by fighting wars over land, thus, in the dirt, death, purgatory motif in Hamlet associates land with death. Hamlet’s father was in purgatory because he could not part with his land.

At the time of Hamlet’s birth, his father (Hamlet Sr) won a war against Fortinbras Sr to acquire a piece of land which was to become Hamlet’s inheritance. At that same time, the gravedigger (aka “1st Clown, in Act 5) began his employment in Denmark. This suggests that Hamlet’s inheritance of land was, figuratively, a graveyard. This idea is reinforced when Hamlet, standing by an open grave, remarks that the occupant of the grave might have been a landowner and now his grave is hardly large enough to contain the deeds for his land. Later Fortinbras Jr sent 10,000 men to their deaths to obtain a plot of land that was “not continent and tomb enough to bury the dead”. That was the same Fortinbras who, according to Hamlet, had “rights of memory” in this land.

Later, Hamlet describes Osric as being “having much land” and being “spacious in the possession of dirt” and admits to the “vice” of knowing him, shortly before remarking that “to know a man well were to know himself.” This indicates that Hamlet believes his unwillingly inherited land and his unwillingly inherited greed for land (“virtue cannot so innoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it”) is a vice (“Cursed spite that I was born to set it right!”). “To be or not to be...” “so like the king that was and is the question of these wars.”

Hamlet inherited greed for land from his father’s ghost by promising that “thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain.” Hamlet and the audience and even the ghost himself all believed that the ghost wanted revenge. But the ghost had said he was “doomed to walk the night...til the sins done in my days of nature are burnt and purg’d away.” But what sins? The ghost himself did not understand his sin. Traditionally, a dying man wanted his kin to shorten his time in purgatory by praying for the forgiveness of his sins. But Hamlet’s father told him “pity me not.” He only wanted his son and namesake to recover the kingdom that Claudius had deprived him of. Horatio had accused the ghost of returning for “uphoarded treasure in the womb of earth” - then the ghost fled. Hamlet’s father was doomed to walk the earth and burn in purgatory because his could not give up his deadly dirt.

The dirt motif was also important in English history (recent history in Shakespeare’s time) and perhaps in Shakespeare’s own life.

For centuries, rich men had bequeathed land to the Catholic Church in exchange for shortened stays in Purgatory. Martin Luther believed that the selling of passes out of Purgatory was the primary corrupter of the Church. Furthermore, the land which the Church had thus acquired was a tempting prize for any king who decided to break away from the Catholic Church. When Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, he seized the lands of English monasteries, then sold those lands. Thereafter the English Reformation was irreversible. England could never again be Catholic because too many Englishmen had a vested interest in Protestantism -- all those owners of former monastery lands.

In 1565 (the year after Shakespeare’s birth) William Allen wrote "A Defense and Declaration of the Catholike Churches Doctrine touching Purgatory, and Prayers of the Soules Departed." Before the Reformation, the primary social, economic, and religious institution in many English hamlets was the local guild. These town guilds (not to be confused with the craft guilds in large cities) had been formed for the primary purpose of praying for the souls of deceased members, in order to shorten their time in Purgatory. With the Reformation, the Anglican Church declared the idea of Purgatory heretical, prolonged praying for the dead was outlawed, and the town guilds were ostensibly secularized. However, the guilds continued to be the main social and economic institutions in many towns. Furthermore, many guild members continued, openly or secretly, to be Catholics. Shakespeare was educated by the Stratford Guild. The brother of one of his teachers was executed for being a Catholic missionary, as was one of Shakespeare’s former schoolmates. One of Shakespeare’s teachers at the Guild went on to become head of the Catholic English College in Rome.

The Mole of NatureEdit

Act I, Scene 5
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason

Act I, Scene 5
Hamlet (speaking to his father's ghost)
Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner!...

A pioneer was a military engineer, whose duties included burrowing under pales (walls) and forts to plant explosives to break them down. (To this day in the United States Army, combat engineers fresh out of training are still designated as "Pioneers.")

Act I, Scene 4
What if it .... ...deprive your sovereignty of reason

Hamlet's father was the mole of his nature (birth) who was breaking down the pales and forts of his reason to usurp the sovereignty of his reason - "if Hamlet from himself be taken away..."

The Rest Is SilenceEdit

...he...may give his saying further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.

Be as ourself in Denmark

O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Which dreams indeed are ambition

....To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:

Hamlet at heart is just a student who wants to return to Wittenberg. But he cannot breach the custom that unites a king (or his heir) with his kingdom. He cannot reform his "old stock." His choice is not his own - he is subject to the "voice of Denmark." Both his father and his uncle want him to be like them "in Denmark." Hamlet's dilemma is whether "to be or not to be"..."so like the king THAT was and IS THE QUESTION of these wars." He kills Claudius only after he knows that he himself is dying, so he can avoid inheriting the kingdom and being dragged into hell by his union with it, as Claudius was.

In the end he finallly silences the "voice of Denmark" (or at least passes it over to Fortinbras - "he has my dying voice") - going to his final rest, free from dreams of ambition. "The rest is silence."

The Voice of DenmarkEdit

When Hamlet said "the rest is silence," he meant that he was finally free from the "voice of Denmark." When Hamlet was ranting in Ophelia's grave, Gertrude likened his insane ranting to "golden couplets" and predicted that his sanity/silence would soon return - which it did when he realized that he had "from himself been taken away" (by the voice of Denmark, i.e. his vow to his father that his father's will should live all alone in his brain.

The play had begun with the question, "Who's there?" and the injunction to "Unfold yourself." Hamlet, with his vow to his father had enfolded himself in his father's value-system, juggst as he enfolded the note "in the form of the other, the changling never known." By the end of the play, he had finally unfolded himself.

Osrick was a reflection or shadow of Hamlet. Hamlet said, "to know a man well, were to know himself," but he admitted to the vice of knowing Osric. Osric was rich in the possession of dirt - Hamlet was heir to a graveyard. The king wanted to place a wager on Hamlet's head - Hamlet wanted to place a hat on Osric's head. The old king ordered Hamlet to remember - Hamlet told Osric to remember. Osric's purse was empty, all his golden words were spent. Hamlet's purse, with his father's signet, was finally empty - he was ready for silence.

Act I, Scene 3
...he...may give his saying further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.

Act II, Scene 2
Pray God, your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring.

Act V, Scene 1
This is mere madness,
And thus a while the fit will work on him,
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.

Act V, Scene 2
I had my father’s signet in my purse,
Which was the model of that Danish seal,
Folded the writ up in form of the other,
Subscribed it, gave't the impression, placed it safely,
The changeling never known.

Act V, Scene 2
His purse is empty already: all ‘s golden words are spent.

Act V, Scene 2
…the rest is silence.

Old Men in the Book and Volume of his Brain Edit

... Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter

Driven by his love for his father, Hamlet has allowed his father to usurp the sovereignty of his brain. He has erased himself from the book of his brain and written his father there. He continued to write in that same "table of [his] memory":

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark: [Writing. So, uncle, there you are

Be as ourself in Denmark.

If you hate someone, you think about him a lot. An image of him lives in your brain. That image can acquire a kind of autonomy, making you behave as your enemy behaves. In short, by hating your enemy, you allow your enemy to possess you. Hamlet seems to be taking notes not just on how to recognize a smiling villain, but also on how to be one.

If you love someone, you may want to give that person all that you have. But if your dearest friend demands that you give up your very self, then that dearest friend becomes your dearest foe.

Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven [or Purgatory]
Ere I had ever seen that day, Horatio!
My father, methinks I see my father!

Hamlet loved his father and was therefore possessed by his father.
Hamlet hated his uncle and was therefore possessed by his uncle.
But father and uncle both had the same values – they valued dirt over people - as in the graveyard.

Busy-body Polonius will join the other "tedious old men" occupying Hamlet's brain:

I'll board him presently

Polonius sees Hamlet reading a book (the book and volume of his brain) and asks him what he is reading.

Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for you yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward.

Polonius. [Aside]
Though this be madness, yet there is method in't...

"Old men have grey beards" = Hamlet's father
"His beard was grizzled, no?"

"eyes purging thick amber" = Polonius.
Poland was famous for its amber. (I'll show later how Shakespeare strongly reinforced the Polonius/Poland metaphor.) .
Amber is fossilized tree sap. Here we have the image of a weeping tree. It will be echoed later in the willow whose "envious sliver broke," dropping Ophelia into the "weeping brook.".

"a plentiful lack of wit" = Claudius
"With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!"

"Wit and gifts" refers to Bishop Whitgift, the man who instigated the crack-down on recusants which perhaps caused the decline in fortunes of Shakespeare's father. Also, Whitgiftsigned Shakespeare's marriage license (when he married an older woman) and later he signed the license for the publication of Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis," a poem about a boy seduced by a goddess. "Plentiful lack" mocks Claudius first speech: "defeated joy."

"weak hams" = Hamlet, weakened but still present in his own brain.
Hamlet, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up!)

"I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down"
Hamlet knows he was not being true to himself when he set down these tedious old men in the book and volume of his brain.

A Camel in My Mind’s Eye Edit

moved to More Motifs in Hamlet

To Thine Ownself Be True Edit

moved to More Motifs in Hamlet

Polonius Well-EndedEdit

moved to More Motifs in Hamlet

Questions of the Play Edit

moved to More Motifs in Hamlet

The Majesty of Buried Denmark Edit

moved to More Motifs in Hamlet

Internal Links Edit

More Motifs in Hamlet - continuation of this article

Where Truth Is Hid - A Speculative Biography of Shakespeare

External linksEdit

Ray Eston Smith Jr 00:08, 28 February 2007 (UTC)

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