home contact

The Dumb-Show in Hamlet

William Witherle Lawrence. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol.18.

The scene in which the play is performed before the assembled court is of far greater tensity than any which have preceded, save the nocturnal revelations of the Ghost upon the battlements. Its effects have been carefully prepared, and it is itself most artfully constructed, so as to increase in interest steadily up to the very moment when the King stops the play. To this climax each stage in the action contributes its due and well-adjusted share. Our present purpose is to examine the dramatic development up to this climax, and to endeavor to gain a clearer understanding of the details, and thereby of the whole scene.

A bit of explanation seems desirable at the outset, in order to make clear the method to be followed here. When we ask the reason why Hamlet delayed the consummation of his revenge upon his uncle, there are really two answers. The first is that without this delay there would be no play. But, in the second place, it is the duty of the dramatist to provide a plausible reason within the play for this postponement of revenge. This Shakespeare does by making Hamlet temperamentally inclined to meditate, to procrastinate, to think too precisely "on the event." Similarly, when we try to explain why the King did not betray himself at the dumb-show, which afforded a lively representation of his guilt, the first reason is that this would have spoiled the whole scene. The climax does not belong at the beginning. But the further question arises: how has Shakespeare made the presentation of the dumb-show and the King's composure plausible?

It is this second type of question which will engage our attention here — how Shakespeare has motivated the actions of his characters. Only rarely has he allowed dramatic effectiveness to outweigh the strict logic of a situation, and made his characters act otherwise than in the most natural and obvious way. Close study shows that the motivation of this scene has been very carefully arranged, and that it is consistent with other parts of the play, and with the play as a whole.

The significance of the dumb-show which opens the drama of the strolling players has not hitherto, I believe, been generally realized. Certainly one searches the critics in vain for a satisfactory explanation. To us this pantomime seems rather artificial and perhaps superfluous, on first thought. But it should be remembered that dumb-shows giving a more or less definite foretaste of the action to come were common enough in Shakespeare's day, so that the use of one here in connection with the testing of the King's guilt would not have seemed so strange to the Globe Theatre audience as it does to us.

As has several times been remarked, the dumb-show in Hamlet is of a less usual type, in that it gives, not "an allegorical presentment," but a close representation of the spoken drama to follow. This departure from the usual order of such "shows" is not without significance. In any case, the pantomime must have been put there with a purpose, and we ought to try to divine Shakespeare's intention. I cordially agree with Greg, who has discussed it at some length, that it "was actually designed for its present position, and was intentionally made to anticipate the representation of the spoken play. And no theory of Hamlet is tolerable that does not face this fact and offer a rational explanation of it."

But while Greg thinks it was intended to prove to the spectators of Hamlet that Claudius did not murder his brother by pouring poison into his ears, since he could behold a representation of this unmoved1, I believe that the dumb-show was inserted to show the Globe Theater audience (not the Danish court audience) that Claudius knew, before the spoken play, that Hamlet was fully informed of the circumstances of the murder. This increases greatly, as we shall see, the dramatic effectiveness of the scene.
Hautboys play. The Dumb-Show enters.
Enter a King and a Queen, very lovingly: the Queen embracing him, and he
her. She kneels, and makes show of protestation unto him. He takes her up,
and declines his head upon her neck: lays him down upon a bank of flowers:
she, seeing him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his crown,
kisses it, and pours poison in the King's ears, and exit. The Queen returns;
finds the King dead, and makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some
two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead
body is carried away. The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts; she seems
loath and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts his love.
Why do not the King and Queen take offence at all this? "Is it allowable to direct," as Halliwell, following earlier conjectures, suggested, "that the King and Queen should be whispering confidentially to each other during the dumb-show, and so escape a sight of it?" I do not think so.

To suppose that the King and Queen do not see the pantomime is begging the whole question, in the lack of any evidence of their neglect. There is some plausibility, perhaps, in arguing that they might not pay much attention to a minor part of the performance, inferior in interest to the main entertainment, just as some opera-goers of today talk through the overture. But I do not think this argument sufficient. Why, then, if they witness the pantomime, do they not resent it?

Let us begin with the Queen. It is important to observe, at the outset, that she did not at this time know that her first husband had been murdered by his brother.2 That is first revealed to her by Hamlet later on, in the scene in her private apartments. So the marriage of the Player Queen to the murderer of the Player King could have, in Gertrude's mind, no resemblance to her own case.

In the second place, it will be observed that the dumb-show gives no indication that the Poisoner was a relative of his victim. That is first brought out during the play proper by Hamlet's comment, "This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king." Consequently the Queen could not be affected by the spectacle of a lady marrying within the forbidden limits, for the dumb-show does not reveal this. The only thing that could offend her was the suggestion of the betrothal of a queen, hard upon the death of that queen's first husband. This was not pleasant; but it was a matter in which Gertrude and Claudius had decided to brave public opinion, and there is no adequate reason for the Queen to manifest any open resentment at this point.

The case is different with the King. The moment the dumb-show is over, he realizes that Hamlet knows the whole truth. The action of the dumb-show is too like the crime which he has himself committed to leave doubt upon that score. If there were any such doubt, the drift of Hamlet's apparently mad talk during the spoken play following would dispel it. And Rosencrantz and Polonius have already mentioned Hamlet's joy at the arrival of the players, his command that they shall give a play, and his desire that the King and Queen shall witness it. Polonius has said; "He beseech'd me to entreat your majesties to hear and see the matter." Claudius would be a dreamy simpleton indeed if he did not realize that the facts of the murder have been discovered. He is far from being a stupid man, and, as the play gives abundant testimony, his apprehensions have reached a high pitch of nervous tension.

Moreover, Shakespeare's audience, who, with Hamlet, have listened to the Ghost's revelations, know that the King is aware that Hamlet possesses his dreadful secret. But the Danish court, with the single exception of Horatio, who has been told of the Ghost's narrative, are ignorant of the guilt of Claudius, and there is no reason why the dumb-show should enlighten them, especially as the Poisoner is not shown to be related to the poisoned Player King. What is Claudius to do? Is he to give the whole black business away by his demeanor? Not a bit of it; he is too clever and too resourceful a villain for that. He is not, as some critics would have us believe, set to go off like a mechanical toy as soon as the events of the murder are represented before him. Any view of Claudius which does not credit him with bravery, adroitness, subtlety, and a determination to play his evil game for all it is worth, and to the bitter end, is surely mistaken.

Consider his courage in the scene where Laertes, with the rabble at his heels, utters open defiance; his adroitness in his first address to the court from the throne after his brother's death; the insistence which even the Ghost lays upon the "witchcraft of his wit," and the resolution with which he turns to new crimes in the latter part of the play, to secure his crown, his ambition, and his queen. To betray agitation, to stop the play upon the evidence of the dumb-show, will be to direct suspicion against himself — suspicion of the blackest sort. It will be far wiser for him to await further developments. Dumb-shows were frequently not much like the play they preceded in action; it is possible that the king, as Dowden suggests,3 takes comfort in the thought that the action of the play to follow will be less disturbing. In any case, his best line of conduct for the present is watchful waiting and dissembling.

There is every reason to suppose that Hamlet knew before-hand that the dumb-show was to form a part of the performance. He was familiar with the 'Murder of Gonzago' long before the players visited Elsinore; he was well acquainted with the plot, the scenes, and the names of the characters — so much so as to be able to act as a kind of Chorus during the performance of the play. And he knew the Italian source. That he should be ignorant of the dumb-show is unthinkable. Moreover, he had especially prepared the play for the evening's performance. Had it interfered with his plans, he would surely have sacrificed it.

Greg thinks that the dumb-show was probably a surprise to Hamlet,4 and that it must have interfered with his plans, because "the plot has been prematurely divulged, and the King has shown no symptoms of alarm." But has the plot been prematurely divulged? We cannot see into Hamlet's mind, and his remark about "miching mallecho" is too vague to give a hint. We do know that after observing the moving power of words in the player's speech about Hecuba, Hamlet placed his chief reliance upon the speech to be inserted in the play — a fact which he mentions several times. But it is perfectly possible that he considered that the dumb-show would also aid his plot, since this would give two shots at Claudius, the one sudden, the other a more slowly developed emotional attack. As Dowden suggests, 5 "Hamlet would thus have a double opportunity of catching the conscience of the King."

On the other hand, it is evident that the dumb-show, in failing to produce signs of guilt in the King, really hinders Hamlet's main plan, in that it puts the King on his guard, and renders him less likely to "blench" at what was to come. Furthermore, Hamlet's choice of the 'Murder of Gonzago,' so strikingly reproducing the actual circumstances of his father's murder, and apparently fixed up in such a way as to heighten that resemblance, is unwise, since it reveals to the King that Hamlet possesses his guilty secret. A piece in which the victim was murdered by having his throat cut or his brains dashed out would have been almost as good a test of Claudius' guilt, and would have left him uncertain of Hamlet's knowledge. But it would have been less effective dramatically, and less revealing to the audience, than to have the details of the actual murder reproduced.

The real question here, then, is not what Hamlet intended, but what Shakespeare intended. In some cases Shakespeare makes his characters act unwisely or even absurdly (just as human beings sometimes do), for the sake of the effectiveness of the drama. For example, there is logically little defence for Lear's casting off Cordelia on so slight a cause, and turning for comfort to Goneril and Regan. His children could not have concealed their real characters from him so many years. But his action is what makes the play. So it is not profitable to argue that Hamlet chose to have the 'Mouse-Trap' resemble the murder of his father so closely because he believed that the effectiveness of this close resemblance in testing the guilt of the king would outweigh the danger in the King's knowing that his secret was discovered; it is not possible to reject the dumb-show as a test on the ground that it was unwise; we must inquire rather why Shakespeare chose to make Hamlet act thus, how it helps the effectiveness of the scene. We may call the presentation of the dumb-show illogical folly, if we choose — though a case may be made out for it, as we have seen — but we must remember that such folly often makes the stuff of tragedy. And it is obvious that the dumb-show, however we may regard it as strategy on Hamlet's part, serves to make the scene dramatically far more intense.

The dumb-show has revealed to the King that Hamlet knows the circumstances of his father's murder. Shakespeare's audience, who have heard the Ghost's communication, now see that the King has discovered Hamlet's knowledge of the crime. The audience also know that Hamlet is going to try to entrap the king by a speech in the play to follow. It is to be a contest of two wills, and the king is on his guard. If the dumb-show were looked upon by Hamlet as a test, it has failed. Will the king "blench" at Hamlet's main test, or will he keep his countenance, and Hamlet thus be led to conclude that he is innocent, the Ghost a devil, and the revelations on the midnight terrace false?

If the audience are made to feel that Claudius has a good chance thus to escape self-betrayal, the dramatic tension is much increased. It is not absolutely necessary that they should feel this, but, like many other subtleties in Shakespeare, this increases the total effect when it is realized. Stories in which things seem to be going against the hero until his final victory are always more exciting than those with a nicer balance of probabilities. The increasing suspense of this scene may be followed in Hamlet's own agitated action and words, culminating in his uncontrollable outburst at the end, when the King finally shows his guilt.

It thus becomes evident why the dumb-show involves a departure from the usual type, in providing a literal rather than a symbolical representation of the action of the play to follow. It is hard enough to keep an audience from being confused by a play within the play which they are witnessing, but if to that were added a symbolical reproduction of the inserted play, confusion would be worse confounded. On the other hand, if the inserted play and the dumb-show are similar in action, and this action is as similar as possible to the events of the murder which it is to expose, no misunderstanding can arise.

One thing must not be overlooked at this point. The Elizabethan audience were not as familar with the plot of Hamlet as we are today, if indeed most of them knew it at all. The story had been earlier dramatized by Kyd, and some of Shakespeare's auditors may have seen the older play, but Shakespeare can hardly have assumed such acquaintance with the plot. He wrote for people who were seeing an absorbing story developing before their eyes, and who were not sure what turn events would take next. They did not know that they were assisting at the birth of one of the world's greatest tragedies. We must criticize the structure of Hamlet then, like that of any other stage piece, and not allow modern familiarity with the plot to cloud the issue.

The dramatic action following the dumb-show must now be studied in some detail. But it will be well first to look at the spoken play, or portion of a play, which follows, and consider the nature of the alterations which Hamlet may be supposed to have made in it — and whether he made any in the dumb-show. This investigation will, I think, provide comfort for those who are disturbed at the close resemblance of the play and the dumb-show to the facts of the murder.


1. See the outline of Greg's theories above, p. 2, note, and his article, esp. p. 401. 2. This point is too familiar to need restatement here. See the Furness 'Variorum Shakespeare,' Vol. II, p. 265. The Ghost ascribes the elder Hamlet's death only to Claudius; Claudius never treats the Queen as guilty with him of the murder; and she never gives any indication of having participated in it. Particularly strong, too, is the evidence of the lines in the First Quarto given to the Queen in the Closet-scene.

But as I haue a soule, I sweare by heauen,
I neuer knew of this most horride murder.
(Variorum, p. 72)

3. Tragedy of Hamlet, 1899, p. 116, note.

4. 'His argument at this point is very much a piece of special pleading. "[Hamlet's] comment on the [dumb-]show affords no indication that it [the show] was part of his plan. 'What means this, my lord?' asks Ophelia. 'Marry,' returns Hamlet, 'this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.' The reply is intentionally cryptic; if anything it suggests that the show was a surprise." — Does it? I cannot see the slightest reason for such a conclusion. His remark certainly affords no indication that the show was a part of his plan, but why should it? Why should Hamlet divulge his game to Ophelia, whom he has found he cannot trust, and before the whole court? We cannot, in any case, draw safe conclusions from Hamlet's "mad" speeches. But Greg goes on to argue that "if the dumb-show was unexpected on Hamlet's part, it must have been singularly unwelcome," etc. (loc. cit., p. 404).

5. loc. cit., p. 116.

How to cite this article:
Lawrence, William Witherle. The Play Scene in Hamlet. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol.18. 1 Jan. 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2013. < >.


More Resources

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time

More to Explore

 Hamlet: The Complete Play with Explanatory Notes
 Introduction to Hamlet
 The Hamlet and Ophelia Subplot
 The Norway (Fortinbras) Subplot
 Deception in Hamlet

 Hamlet: Problem Play and Revenge Tragedy
 Analysis of the Characters in Hamlet
 The Elder Hamlet: The Kingship of Hamlet's Father
 Hamlet's Relationship with the Ghost

 Philological Examination Questions on Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
 Hamlet Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Analysis of I am sick at heart (1.1)
 Hamlet: Q & A

 Soliloquy Analysis: O this too too... (1.2)
Soliloquy Analysis: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!... (2.2)
Soliloquy Analysis: To be, or not to be... (3.1)
Soliloquy Analysis: Tis now the very witching time of night... (3.2)
Soliloquy Analysis: Now might I do it pat... (3.3)
Soliloquy Analysis: How all occasions do inform against me... (4.4)

Ophelia's Burial and Christian Rituals
 The Baker's Daughter: Ophelia's Nursery Rhymes
 Hamlet as National Hero
 Claudius and the Condition of Denmark

 In Secret Conference: The Meeting Between Claudius and Laertes
 O Jephthah - Toying with Polonius
 The Death of Polonius and its Impact on Hamlet's Character
 Blank Verse and Diction in Shakespeare's Hamlet

 Hamlet's Silence
 An Excuse for Doing Nothing: Hamlet's Delay
 Foul Deeds Will Rise: Hamlet and Divine Justice
 Defending Claudius - The Charges Against the King
 Shakespeare's Fools: The Grave-Diggers in Hamlet

 Hamlet's Humor: The Wit of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark
 All About Yorick
 Hamlet's Melancholy: The Transformation of the Prince
 Hamlet's Antic Disposition: Is Hamlet's Madness Real?

 The Significance of the Ghost in Armor
 The Significance of Ophelia's Flowers
 Ophelia and Laertes
 Mistrusted Love: Ophelia and Polonius

 Divine Providence in Hamlet
 What is Tragic Irony?
 Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama
 Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers