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The Spoken Play in Hamlet

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

A high literary value cannot be assigned to the 'Murder of Gonzago,' but it appears to be a fair specimen of the drama of the 'Cambises' variety, which must have fallen upon the ears of Shakespeare's audience as stilted and artificial. There is of course a good reason for the employment of this type of drama just here — the same reason as in the First Player's elocutionary effort on Hecuba; Shakespeare "had to distinguish the style of the speech from that of his own dramatic dialogue."1 The 'Murder of Gonzago,' while not of a sort unknown to the audience of the Globe Theater, would have seemed old-fashioned on account of its conventionality, its monotonous rhymes, and its rather turgid rhetoric. All this, with the antiquated dumb-show, set sharply against the prose of the speeches of Hamlet, Ophelia, and the King, would have increased its illusion as a stage stage-play.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the lines inserted in the play by Hamlet. Did Shakespeare mean that the audience should identify these? I think not: he lays stress on this insertion (in Hamlet's conversation with the First Player, in his instructions to the players, and in his words to Horatio before the play), in order to make the close resemblance between the play and the murder more plausible, and to focus the interest of the audience upon the spoken play. If we must identify the insertion, it seems most likely that it is the speech of Lucianus the Poisoner, beginning "Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing, " because of Hamlet's exultant words to Horatio after the play is over, when his test of the King's guilt has fully succeeded.

Ham. O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?
Hot. Very well, my lord.
Ham. Upon the talk of the poisoning?
Hot. I did very well note him.

This fits well with Hamlet's request before the play that Horatio shall narrowly observe the King, and see if "his occulted guilt do not itself unkennel in one speech." But I do not believe that Shakespeare felt it necessary for his audience to identify the inserted speech, since this evidence comes after the play. No dramatic purpose would be served by such knowledge, as far as the play-scene itself is concerned. On the other hand, the interest is heightened if the audience is kept wondering which the fatal speech is to be, and watching, like Horatio, who has not been told which speech it is, for the king's self-betrayal. 2

It is not a matter of consequence, and perhaps cannot be determined, whether Hamlet's preparations also involved alteration of the action. Shakespeare twice warns the audience through the mouth of Hamlet that the action of the play is to be strikingly like that of the murder. When Hamlet is elaborating his plan, some little time later than his first avowal of intention to make use of the 'Murder of Gonzago,' and insert a speech, he muses,

I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father.

And still later, in his words to Horatio,

There is a play tonight before the king;
One scene of it conies near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father's death.

So no strain is imposed upon the credulity of the audience, after all this preparation, to find the action of the play — and of the dumb-show — so like the murder. In point of fact, playgoers never are disturbed by it. And unless they are gimlet-eyed critics, they will not stop to inquire where the "dozen or sixteen lines" are, or whether Hamlet modified the action, inserting, let us say, the detail of the poison in the ears. They know that he was superintending the performance of the play, writing in a speech, and training the actors; that the play was of his own choice, and that one part of it was to be very like the murder of the elder Hamlet. That is enough, surely, for ordinary dramatic purposes. Shakespeare has, indeed, been somewhat more careful here than is his wont; he frequently asks his audience to swallow very large coincidences for the sake of dramatic effect.

In the present instance, the coincidences are not really so great, perhaps, as they seem. They may be summed up in a sentence: a king with an apparently devoted wife is murdered, while asleep in his garden, by a relative who pours poison in his ears, and wins the love of the queen, pressing his suit with gifts.3 The murderer in the play is the nephew, not the brother of the victim. Stories of a man who makes love to a female relative or betrothed of a man he has killed are not uncommon, either in history or fiction. They are frequent in Elizabethan drama of the revenge type — the 'Spanish Tragedy,' 'Hoffman,' 'Antonio's Revenge.' Shakespeare had already used the motive in 'Richard III.'

The most striking correspondence is the pouring of the poison into the ears; and this detail may be imagined, if we choose, to have been inserted at Hamlet's command, in view of what is said of his part in choosing the play, and in giving directions for its proper production, with additions to the dialog. But I do not believe that Shakespeare meant his audience to go so far as this.

Those who are disturbed by the coincidence of Hamlet's finding a play which contained a scene so like that of his father's murder will do well to ponder the resemblances of action in the 'Spanish Tragedy' between the main plot and the play within the play. In the main plot, Horatio is betrothed to Bel-Imperia; Balthazar desires her, and employs Lorenzo to kill Horatio. Balthazar then makes love to Bel-Imperia, who kills him and commits suicide. Supply in this outline Erasto for Horatio, Soliman for Balthazar, the bashaw for Lorenzo, and Perseda for Bel-Imperia, and the plot of the play within the play is stated. Moreover, Hieronimo discloses the action of this inserted play to the murderers who are to take part, Lorenzo and Balthazar, and who are destined to suffer death through it. There may be influence of the Soliman and Perseda situation, which Kyd seems to have derived from Henry Wotton's 'Courtly Controversy of Cupid's Cautels,' upon the main plot of the 'Spanish Tragedy,'4 but in criticising the dramatic action we are not at liberty to take this into account. We must look at the story as it presents itself to the audience, not at its literary antecedents. It is equally futile, in discussing the dramatic significance of 'Hamlet,' to point to historical analogs of the poison in the ears, however interesting these may be in themselves.5

The historical fact may have influenced Shakespeare — or Kyd in the earlier play — in the conception of the elder Hamlet's death, and at the same time have suggested the name Gonzago, but we must not make the mistake of criticising the dramatic structure on this basis.

The avowed object of Hamlet in staging the 'Mouse-Trap' is to "catch the conscience of the King. " But he has a secondary purpose, which reveals itself very clearly as the piece proceeds. He is consumed with a desire to know the extent of his mother's guilt. Was she cognizant of the murder of her husband when she married Claudius? Is she perhaps equally guilty with him? This horrid suspicion is not quieted until the scene in her closet, when Hamlet directly taxes her with the murder.

A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.

Her response satisfies him that the accusation is groundless, and he never repeats it. But all through the play-scene his mind is tortured with this suspicion, and the Queen's behavior serves on the whole to confirm it. When the Player Queen exclaims,

In second husband let me be accurst!
None wed the second but who kill'd the first —

Gertrude, though in no wise guilty of the murder of the elder Hamlet, as we have seen, 6 cowers before the attack upon women who marry a second time, and Hamlet, watching her narrowly, and probably mistaking her agitation for deeper guilt, mutters "Wormwood! Wormwood!" and finally breaks out into the open challenge "Madam, how like you this play?" — Gertrude, under the eyes of the court, can only gasp, in confusion, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." It thus seems highly probable that the play-scene, which confirmed for Hamlet the truth of the Ghost's accusation of Claudius, led to false conclusions in regard to his mother's guilt.
Meanwhile, the King is watching his chance to save the situation, to stop the play if possible. But to break it off at this point would be dangerous. The Queen is painfully agitated; may not her distress be interpreted as guilt of the accusation in the play that "none wed the second but who kill'd the first?" Such a conclusion must be avoided at all costs. The gibes at women who marry a second time are offensive, but no revelation — all the court knows of the Queen's second marriage. To stop the play on this ground would be to admit that the marriage was offensive, a sub- ject to be handled with gloves, a disgraceful thing. Hamlet's tactless insistence upon it can be forgiven a prince suffering from mental disease, just as his indecorous jests to Ophelia are forgiven. One cannot take offence at the disordered outpourings of a lunatic.

The danger, as the King well knows, is that the play, or Hamlet himself, will reveal the true facts of the murder, in such a way that the court will understand them. But if this does not happen, and he can keep his composure, it will be better for him not to stop the play. He prepares, however, to break the piece off, should it become necessary, by a technicality. Stage-plays performed before royalty should contain nothing irritating to exalted sensibilities. It is to be presumed that this play, given under the direction of the prince, and obviously very familiar to him, will have been thus scrutinized. If, however, in consequence of Hamlet's unsettled mind, or some oversight, this has not been done, the play can be stopped.

The King can invoke this solution, then, if worst comes to worst. But a better line of defence is feigned surprise at the whispers that are going about the court. His query to Hamlet, then, "Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in't?" is really intended for the ears of the court, as much as to say, "I see no offence in this play as yet, but I observe that people are exchanging glances; are you sure that there is nothing inadmissible in the lines to come?"

Both the play itself and the comments of Hamlet now take a more incisive turn. First, "your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not," then the revelation that the Poisoner who gains the love of the Queen is a relative of the dead man, then the actual enactment of the poisoning-scene. The King's agitation increases; it is of a twofold nature: fear of betrayal by Hamlet's comments, and the working of his own conscience at seeing his crime reenacted. Hamlet, for his part, reaches a pitch of almost uncontrollable nervous excitement. With a bombastic tag, "Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge," taken at random from old play-material,7 he hurries on the climax, which may be expected to contain a speech in the grand style.

The actual speech of the Poisoner is not very terrifying. But the king, who is not a man without imagination and conscience, as his soliloquy while at prayer proves, is not quite able to control himself. He has steeled himself through the dumb-show, but now, with the whisperings of the court about him, with his knowledge that Hamlet is fully acquainted with his guilt and the details of his crime, and with his suspense lest Hamlet shall betray him, he is not strong enough to endure the emotional strain of the action of the poisoning, reproducing before his eyes an act which is continually causing him the sharpest stings of conscience.

It needs no very pointed language to strike him with horror; the revolting action of the crime, coupled with the murderer's damnable faces in the darkened hall, is enough. So, "upon the talk of the poisoning," as Hamlet later tells Horatio, and just at the moment that the murder is committed on the stage, he "blenches," and Hamlet, unable longer to contain himself, leaps up and cries out,

He poisons him i' the garden for's estate. His name's Gonzago; the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian; you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife.

Upon these last words, as Shakespeare has carefully indicated through Ophelia's exclamation, 8 the King rises. The moment for leaving has come; Hamlet's violence is such that his revelations are not to be risked further, and the ordeal of witnessing the representation of the crime has become unendurable. So, calling for lights, the King rushes from the hall.

It will be noted that while Hamlet's wildness through the play-scene partly leads to the king's self-betrayal, it also saves the king from exposure before the court. For it is perfectly clear that the noble spectators who attended the performance of the 'Murder of Gonzago' were not informed by it of the guilt of Claudius. That was not its intention,9 and there is no evidence later on that anyone had guessed the truth. The court were looking at the play, and not, like Hamlet and Horatio, scanning the king's visage.10

On the other hand, Hamlet's interpolated comments must have been heard by everyone, and the interruption of the play was sufficiently explained for the courtiers on this ground. His outburst at the very end was hardly of a sort to be tolerated. Guildenstern tells Hamlet that the King is "marvellous distempered . . . with choler" — exceedingly angry; the Queen has said that Hamlet's actions have bewildered and astonished her, and she confronts her son with the reproach that he has "much offended" Claudius; Polonius reminds her that Hamlet's pranks "have been too broad to bear with," and Claudius finds in the play-scene his final justification for sending Hamlet away.

The terms of our estate may not endure
Hazard so near us as doth hourly grow
Out of his lunacies.


To summarize briefly the results of the preceding pages is difficult; dramatic analysis calls rather for extended exposition than for condensation. But, in view of the vast amount of Shakespeare criticism which every year brings forth, it may be a convenience for many readers to have the main results of the present essay reduced to their lowest terms and categorically set forth.

In order to understand the play-scene, a careful review of the action preceding is necessary. The dumb-show is inserted with a definite dramatic purpose: to make clear to Shakespeare's audience that Claudius knew before the spoken play that Hamlet had learned the true facts of the murder. This puts the King on his guard and lessens the likelihood of his betraying himself, thus heightening the dramatic tension during the performance of the spoken play by making it seem likely that Hamlet's plot may fail after all.

There is every reason to conclude that Hamlet knew that the dumb- show was to be performed; but if it was intended as a test of the King's guilt, it was a failure, and came near to wrecking Hamlet's plans. The dumb-show is of a less usual type in that it offers a literal rather than a symbolical representation of the action to follow in the spoken play. Shakespeare (or Kyd in the earlier 'Hamlet') made this arrangement in the interest of clearness and vividness; to have a symbolical pantomime of the play within the main play would have been too confusing.

It is not admissible to suppose that Claudius and Gertrude did not pay attention to the dumb- show, and analysis of the situation shows why neither of them manifested discomposure upon witnessing it. The 'Murder of Gonzago' is intentionally archaic and artificial in type, because it was necessary to convey the illusion of a stage-play presented before the actors in the main stage-play. Shakespeare informs us that it was especially prepared by Hamlet for the occasion; Hamlet has commanded the performance of this particulai piece, trained the actors, and urged the King and Queen to be present; twice Hamlet says that the action will be strikingly like that of the murder, and several times he alludes to a speech which is to be from his pen and inserted in the play. This removes the reproach of too great coincidence between the events of the murder and the 'Mouse-Trap,' and serves to concentrate attention upon the spoken play. The exact identification of the "dozen or sixteen lines" inserted in the 'Murder of Gonzago' is impossible, and it does not appear that Shakespeare meant the audience to identify them.

If the attempt must be made, the probabilities are in favor of the speech of Lucianus the Poisoner. The play is a test of the Queen's guilt as well as of the King's; Hamlet probably gathers false conclusions from her demeanor. The King does not stop the play, because to do so would be a tacit confession of guilt. His agitation lest the words of Hamlet, who is now in possession of his secret, or the words of the play itself, should reveal to the court the true facts of the murder, together with his horror at seeing his crime literally reenacted, cause him to "blench," whereupon Hamlet breaks in with words and action so violent that the King has adequate excuse for stopping the play and leaving the hall. The court does not suspect the guilt of Claudius, for they have not been occupied, like Hamlet and Horatio, in watching his face, but they have all heard the wild outbursts of Hamlet, which are accepted as sufficient reason for stopping the performance. The King's determination to get rid of Hamlet thus gains added justification; it appears hazardous to allow him to remain longer at the court.

The analysis offered in the preceding pages is entirely in keeping with what may be called the traditional view of the play, as expressed by the best critics of the present day. The lover of 'Hamlet' is not asked to accept a new and startling hypothesis which will totally change the significance of the piece; he is invited rather to consider Shakespeare's art in the management of detail. Surely the main lines of the action are simple and definite, and have been accepted as such by generations of playgoers. Shakespeare did not obscure the story so that it has been misunderstood for three hundred years. There is every indication, however, that he labored over 'Hamlet' more than was his wont, spending loving care on the nice adjustment of the smaller issues.

We have endeavored to perceive his purpose in some of these subtler questions. Such minute study, surely, should not have the effect of blunting the poignancy of the tragedy or of diminishing its imaginative appeal. On the contrary, it should leave us with a new admiration for Shakespeare's technical accomplishment, and a more sane and discriminating enjoyment of his greatest masterpiece.

William Witherle Lawrence


1. Bradley, 'Shakespearean Tragedy,' p. 413.

2. Greg (p. 402, note) thinks it inadmissible to regard the Poisoner's speech as the insertion, "for that speech is clearly an integral part of the play, and does not particularly point at Claudius." I should like to know how Mr. Greg knows that the Poisoner's speech is an integral part of the play. Are we to believe that Hamlet's dozen or sixteen lines would have betrayed themselves by their style? As regards its not pointing particularly at Claudius, I am equally at a loss. It does everything but call him by name. For an explanation of the rather commonplace character of the lines, in contrast to the effect they produce, see below, p. 19.
Bradley, 'Shakespearean Tragedy,' p. 133, has no doubt that the Poisoner's speech is the inserted lines.

3. This seems to me to include all the resemblances which seem so striking to Greg.

4. See Boas, 'Works of Thomas Kyd,' Oxford, 1901, pp. xxiii; lvi. The view of Boas seems more plausible than that of Sarrazin, that Kyd had written an earlier piece upon the Soliman and Perseda theme.

5. See Dowden's note, loc. cit., p. 122: "In 1538, the Duke of Urbano, married to a Gonzaga, was murdered by Luigi Gonzaga, who dropped poison into his ear," etc.

6. See above, p. 9.

7. Cf. Dowden, note, p. 123, 'Tragedy of Hamlet,' quoting a communication by Simpson (Academy, Dec. 19, 1874) who "shows that Hamlet rolls into one two lines of The True Tragedie of Richard the Third." Greg objects that there is nothing in the action of the inserted play at this point which suggests revenge. But Hamlet's words concern the style of the speech, not its matter. His interpolations all through this scene, which are, of course, half made in his role of madman, and much affected by his intense excitement, should not be taken too literally.

8. And as Greg has well emphasized. His comments in connection with this scene are often most suggestive; though I believe his interpretation of it, in the broader outlines, to be wholly mistaken.

9. See Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 96.

10. The call for lights at the end may mean that the action is to be imagined as taking place in a darkened hall, with the play-stage illuminated. On the general subject of lighting in Elizabethan theatres, see W. J. Lawrence, 'The Elizabethan Playhouse and Other Studies,' Second Series, Philadelphia, 1913.
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. < >.


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