By: Peggy Sue Wood | @pswediting
Episode 25, one of the first OVAs of the Black Butler franchise, has stood out to me as one of the most confusing entries to the series I can recall (you know, with the exception of all of Season 2…) and it seems fitting to discuss right before Halloween given the theme. For those of you not familiar with Hamlet or caught up on with this old episode of Black Butler, I’ve linked some summaries that I recommend as a brief run down:
All up-to-date? Good–
“His Butler, On Stage” or “His Butler, Performer,” the Black Butler episode under review here, has been rolling around in the back of my mind for years now. I, a person who has–at one time–been obsessed with both Black Butler and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, have looked back on it fondly and questioningly in the handful of times that I re-watched it on Netflix.
Initially, I thought it odd to show Hamlet in the series. Because, why Hamlet? Other than the main character wanting revenge, I didn’t really see any reason for it. However, now I see it as foreshadowing to what we currently see in the manga. For example, Hamlet refers to the country of Denmark having become like a prison in the play, and this comes as a response to always being watched by those around him. Hamlet is constantly being spied on and surrounded by potential enemies, which Ciel is facing at present by those like the Midford family (who turned their back on him upon learning he was/is not the eldest son of the Phantomhive family, the OG “Ciel”) and servants of the Queen. (Undertaker, too–as well as Tanaka, from what we can tell.)
This foreshadowing also extends to Ciel’s declaration for revenge, which is reaffirmed in Chapter 63 (it was released long after Season 1’s conclusion):
Moreover, with Lizzy as a stand-in for the role of Ophelia in the series (though she actually takes the place of a guard in the episode), we see the two fold tragedy of her character. First is the betrayal of Hamlet (in this case, “our” Ciel), the madness of the choice (Vol. 29, I believe), and–probably–a future death by suicide or accident. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Midfords undergo a tragedy similar to all of Ophelia’s family…
And with that in mind, I think we can use this particular episode to get a clear idea that Ciel will have his revenge before this series comes to an end, though it will cost him his life and the life of many others. Likely the only ones to remain will be the faithful servants at his side (Finnian, Baldroy, and Mey-Rin. They seem like excellent stand-ins for Horatio.
Sebastian, meanwhile, seems to be a reflection of the madness and capability Hamlet has in the Shakespearian play. Hamlet, debatably, is both insane from grief and not, and we (as well as he) are led to believe that the performance of acting crazy/mad is blurred between reality and fiction. Regardless of Hamlet’s mental status, he is shown to be extremely capable. Not only is he witty enough to hide insults behind a mask of potential insanity, he’s able to root out treason (the order for execution written by his uncle), perform sword play, plan a new play for the actors to perform, and more. What better stand-in than Sebastian for this role then? As the capable butler not only performs things to perfection, but is constantly threatening to overtake Ciel should he let go mentally. This is confirmed later in the series during the Green Witch arc (specifically Chapters 94/95), but highlighted and foreshadowed in this early OVA when Ciel is distracted by the crowd and Sebastian takes aim with a sword:
What is perhaps the most pivotal point of the episode in question, and my comparison of Ciel’s story to Hamlet, however, comes from the all too well-known “To be, or not to be” speech provided in our play-within-a-play (a dramatic plot device or extended metaphor where characters narrate one story while still part of another) structure.
In Hamlet, the play within is put on by actors who perform “The Murder of Gonzago” and acts both as an extended metaphor for Hamlet’s show of madness to his parents and those around him, but also a way to test whether or not Claudius is quilty of fratricide. In Black Butler, the play within the play is literally Hamlet being performed in the OVA, and the extended metaphor–the ending of Black Butler that is presented to us–is the tragedy that will come at the end of our long road to revenge.
Despite my initial blindness to it, the attribution or adaptation of Hamlet’s story in Ciel’s is fitting. Both are about, as Ciel puts it in the episode, “A young prince who loses his father and burns for revenge.” However, the stories are more than that–they’re a question of choice as highlighted by the all-to-famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. In Hamlet’s speech, he has basically made up his mind to commit revenge. He’s scared, though, as revenge will likely mean his death and what lies beyond life’s end is frightening and unknown. Sure, he’s seen his father’s ghost, so he can think that maybe an afterlife exists, but he has also been questioning whether or not the ghost is real. Moreover, while he has somewhat decided on revenge, he’s reaffirming that revenge is something he wants above any duty he may have to fulfill his ghost-father’s request or because of some other reason (like his mother remarrying so soon). Hamlet wants revenge for the wrongs he feels his uncle has committed and the crimes he suspects–it’s a personal want and a personal decision no longer made simply because his father’s ghost came about and told him to do it. Likewise, Ciel mirrors similar notions in the manga–his revenge is not for his family but for himself.
Also reiterating this is Ciel’s version of the “To be…” speech, which is noticeably different from Hamlet’s:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question. My uncle is a cunning man. Even if I’m able to carry out my revenge, I shan’t escape alive. And… the truth is… I don’t want to die. Ah! Quit being a coward, hamlet! Drive out that foolish, stunted soul of thine this instant! My vow is a bloody one. There’s no turning back now. Now, let me be off, before the blazing sun in my blood rises.”
Other than the first line, every line is different from Hamlet’s, yet both are expressing their want for revenge and the fear of what happens to the soul after death, which is sure to follow.
Two lines in the animated OVA that stand out in particular to make me feel like this is all foreshadowing, too, are these lines said by Sebastian,“Let’s make this a prelude to the bloody revenge coming” and “The curtain is finally rising on this tale of revenge.”
But, what are your thoughts? Do you think the tragedy of Hamlet may foreshadow the ending of Black Butler? Or do you think I have, perhaps, read too much into it? I’d be interested to know…