After I read the Ghost of King Hamlet recounting his demise to his son Hamlet, I begin to analyze the strategic nature of the symbolism of his murder at the hands of Claudius,
“With juice of cursed hebona in a vial and in the porches of my ears did pour the leprous distilment.” (1.5.62-64)
After the poison went into his ear, his whole body was plagued with leprosy and its “loathsome crust.” King Hamlet’s whole body being destroyed from the disease reminded me of the phrase,
“kill the body and head will die.”
I remembered reading the phrase in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, but did not understand the context or meaning due to reading it at too young of an age. When I researched the quote, I discovered the famed boxer Joe Frazier utilized the quote in his training, and proved it when he defeated Muhammad Ali in 1971 at Madison Square Garden. What I aim to do in this blog is to compare and contrast the strategic validity of the quote “kill the body and the head will die”, how Joe Frazier can bring a popular context to the Ghost of King Hamlet in Hamlet, and ultimately how two separate and deeply unrelated events can both operate under the same context.
Joe Frazier utilized the phrase “kill the body and the head will die” as a promise to Muhammad Ali in their 1971 bout,
“Frazier was literally laughing in Ali’s face now and he was in command. When the bell ended the fifth round, Frazier cuffed Ali across the top of the head. In the tremendous tempo, Frazier was fulfilling his strategy to “kill the body and the head will die.” (Anderson, 1971)
The etymology of “kill the body and the head will die” goes further back than Joe Frazier, and the more literal meaning of the phrase can also be seen. In 1935, when questioned on his plan to fight Primo Carnera, the boxer Joe Louis said,
“I will concentrate my attack on the mid-section for the first three rounds and then switch to the head.” (Louis, 1935)
Louis’ plan, much like Frazier’s, was to weaken their opponent with constant blows to the midsection, in order to get an unprotected punch for a knockout hopefully. “Kill the body” means weakening the foundation, the cornerstone of a person, or family in the case of the murder of King Hamlet. The “head will die” is the consequential lose of the fighter due to the strategy of the victor, or the unraveling of King Hamlet’s family and kingdom after his death.
This phrase has a deeper logical meaning in agriculture, where it is further applied. Agricultural workers for decades had been saying “kill the root and the head will die” (Daley 1935) meaning the head of the plant. Without removing the foundation of life, the plant will continue to exist. The subtle truth from this quote that can be scene in all it examples; “the body” ie the weak point, is protected and hidden. While Claudius’ did intentionally kill his brother to take the crown, he had no idea that one death would cause a collapse of a kingdom of lives. Claudius sealed the destruction of his kingdom, “the head” when he again utilizes poison in Act 5. Joe Frazier and Joe Louis both knew the quicker you can get to a knockout the better, but attacking the head directly is a wasted effort against a fighter who is blocking, so you make them vulnerable. Claudius weakened “the body” by murdering his brother, but by nature of him doing so, he made his kingdom, “the head”, so vulnerable, he easily sealed its fate with his own treachery.
Claudius’ intention was to murder his brother in order to take the throne, so in contrast to Joe Frazier entire intentional strategy to defeat Mohammed Ali, Claudius’ unintentionally “killed the head” by destabilizing his whole Kingdom. The meaning of the quote can still be seen in King Hamlet’s death however. Even though King Hamlet is the head of his kingdom, due to how Hamlet unfolds, he was clearly “the body” and his death was the impetus for the fall of his kingdom. His role of “the body” is illustrated by his whole being succumbing to leprosy due to the poison, “And a most instant tetter barked about, most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust all my smooth body. Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched.” (1.5. 71-75) The body of “the body” was quite literally killed by a disease that eats away at it. King Hamlet was “smooth” but he became a scaly, crumbling, and vulnerable body. The “killing of the body” started with death of King Hamlet, which gave way to the “death of the head” which was the joined deaths of Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude, and Ophelia, ending their line and kingdom.
The irony of the plan is that Laertes proposes using poison on his sword against the a dual against Hamlet,
“I’ll touch my point with this contagion that if I gall him slightly it may death.” (4.4.145-147)
Claudius sealed his fate by the treacherous nature of the dual he was Laertes and Hamlet to engage in, “Or with a little shuffling, you may choose a sword unbated, and in a pass of practice requite him for your father.” (4.4.136-138) Claudius intended to propose an innocent dual for both of them, but planned on Laertes kill Hamlet with an undulled sword. Claudius putting this plan into motion, allowed Laertes to introduce poison, which led to the accidental death of Gertrude,
“It is the poisoned cup; it is too late! (5.2.269)
The same poison killed Laertes, Hamlet, and Claudius himself.
If Claudius intentionally adhered to “kill the body and the head will die” like Joe Frazier did, well he was the “Joe Frazier” of ending family lines in this case. Seeing as that is not the case however, he is a consequential but deserved victim to his own tyrannical mentality. The core of the phrase “kill the body and the will die” is simply the universal truth that damaging or affecting the foundation of a structure, person, or group of people will likely lead to the end of them. What furthers the effect of the phrase is that it’s not tied to time, it can either be a slow or quick process, and affective either way. It’s such a truth that even if applied intentionally by a boxer or unintentionally by power hungry man, the outcome is the same and unrelated to scale. My view of the historical and cultural context for both Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet and Joe Frazier pummeling Muhammad Ali’s midsection in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, is that they both represent the same catalyst at their core. Those actions lead to larger consequences that lead to definitive moments in fictional and nonfictional history.
Anderson, Dave. (1971, March) Joe Frazier Beats Muhammad Ali in ‘Fight of Century’. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/11/sports/joe-frazier-beats-muhammad-ali-in-fight-of-century.html
Cowans, Russell J.“Louis in Tip-Top Form on Eve of Carnera Bout”. The Afro American. (May 11, 1935) pg. 20, col. 2 https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/kill_the_body_and_the_head_will_die_boxing_adage
Daley, Arthur. “Sports of The Times”. New York Times. (December 2, 1955), pg. 33 https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/kill_the_body_and_the_head_will_die_boxing_adage
King Hamlet Being Poisoned Image Link: https://simanaitissays.com/2020/08/12/who-doth-dunit-part-2/
Root Killer Image Link: https://www.warrenpipe.com/product/rooto-copper-sulfateroot-killer-32oz/