Defending the Dumb

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, here is a theater review that I wrote about five years ago, which focuses on why, and how, Hamlet works the way that it does.

There are a number of reasons to recommend the vigorous Hamlet starring Jude Law that is currently galloping its way through the Broadhurst Theater in New York City. Good pacing, lighting, staging, and pantomiming (lots of pantomiming) — the show is largely successful and has earned good press and good business.

This production is already successful enough on its own terms that I can safely abuse it in order to make some exceptionally pedantic editorial notes.

I should emphasize that this production’s errors, such as they are, all begin with good intentions. In order to make athletic entertainment out of the lengthy Frankentext that is Hamlet as we have it, Michael Grandage has done what any practical-thinking director might have done, and trimmed it. This is generally not much of an issue for his show. No audience goes to the theater eager for the few Hamlet-less scenes in the play’s fourth act, for instance, and decisions to cut lines there and to merge scenes together do not disrupt the play’s logic.

However, Shakespeare’s text is a subtle, intricate thing, and there are places where Grandage might have been less bold with excisions. For instance, he cuts about five superfluous-seemingly lines belonging to Claudius before Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2 that are perfectly healthy tissue. Here is the original, with the struck text emphasized:

CLAUDIUS. Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply:
Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come;
This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart: in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
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
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!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

A critic would probably have to be totally and completely insane to express alarm at the slicing of these six lines. However, I am your man here, because I do think that the cut lines actually contribute a lot to the play, and that Hamlet is surprisingly and notably diminished by their absence.

For one, they initiate an association between Claudius and drink that carries throughout the play to his death, which is partly due to the consumption of poisoned wine. And without this association, Hamlet’s acrimonious salutation to Horatio in the same scene (“We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart”), his later complaint that Danes are unfairly slandered as drunkards, and his retort to Guildenstern’s announcement that Claudius is distempered — “With drink, sir?” — all become essentially non-sequitoral.

The play’s first soliloquy also benefits by the presence of these lines for two additional reasons. One, Hamlet’s speech, filled as it is with the language of disease and decay, gets a bit of kick from its obvious contrast with Claudius’ sunny references to “jocund health,” “smiling,” and so on. And also, as Stephen Booth has noted, there are complex textual relationships between the two speeches (“cannon” / ”canon”, “heavens” / “the Everlasting”, military language, etc.) that likely contribute (among other things) to a feeling of cohesion between them.

If these six lines of dialogue therefore serve unexpectedly important purpose in the play, then the silent dumb show that precedes Hamlet’s staging of The Mousetrap is essential. This show, as well as the characters’ commentary upon it, must seem like an especially inviting target for a director looking to trim excess, with its explicit redundancy of the play about to be staged. The importance of my argument here, however, is of such heaven-bending magnitude, that I have absolutely no choice but to set it apart on its own line:

It is 100% critical that a production of Hamlet not cut out the dumb show.

To explain why will require a number of tangents. First: twos. From “double, double, toil and trouble” to the plot of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s career-long obsession with the number 2 is of a degree that verges on the criminally insane. Hamlet is unusually full of this repetition-as-motif, which scales from “too too solid flesh” in the speech referenced above all the way to the play’s extended joke on the interchangeability of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Many of the play’s famous speeches, such as Polonius’ paternal advice to “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy or Claudius’ speech at prayer comparing his soul to his crown are either a comparison or a contrasting of two objects. Gertrude insists that Hamlet “hath cleft [her] heart in twain” and he jests to Ophelia that the Queen looks merry despite the fact that it has only been “two hours” since his father’s death. “Nay, ’tis twice two months,” Ophelia corrects. And so on.

Secondly, Shakespeare delights generally in creating analogous situations between the fictional people in his plays and the actual people assembled to enjoy them. Consider, for instance, the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” scene in Julius Caesar where the mob assembled on stage stands in for the larger mob assembled to watch Julius Caesar, both of which are at last persuaded by Marc Antony. One way that Shakespeare accomplishes this special kind of experiential doubling in Hamlet is to generate questions of interpretation, the answers to which are as obscure to any audience as they might be to the play’s central characters. The question of Hamlet’s motivation is the largest of these and is a general problem for most of the personalities on stage. Additionally, Hamlet himself spends much of the play attempting to infer Claudius’ guilt, in part to establish whether his father’s ghost is “a spirit of health or goblin damn’d.”

Ophelia’s mad songs are another good case study on this point. They are all localized in Act 4, Scene 5, and after their first verse is delivered, Gertrude asks what the song that she is hearing “imports,” and in doing so, speaks for the audience. Claudius soon enters and provides a coarse, singular interpretation: the song is mere “conceit upon her father” and nothing more. However, at this stage in the play, Ophelia is mourning not just Polonius but also Hamlet, who, as far as she knows, has been sent away to England for execution. Indeed, over the course of the scene her verses are consistently about a lover who has passed away, and she responds to Claudius about as directly as is possible for a girl who is in the process of losing her mind. “Pray you, let’s have no words of this,” she replies, “but when they ask you what it means, say you this.” She then launches into a final, bawdy song that tells the story of a man who seduces a young lady by falsely promising his hand in marriage before drawing a summary moral. She departs and again Claudius insists single-mindedly that her grief has motivated her insanity, that it “springs / All from her father’s death.” Yet although Ophelia’s songs do reflect her father’s heavy-handed advice to her in Act 1, Scene 3, Claudius is nonetheless much, much too narrow in his interpretation. The play, however, barrels onwards.

I bring this up to emphasize the fact that interpretative work in Hamlet is a tricky business and that, like Polonius before Hamlet, one must constantly be on guard against misdirection. “In what particular thought to work I know not,” says Horatio in the play’s opening scene when he, like the audience, fails to make sense of the first appearance of the ghost. So too does an audience also struggle routinely throughout Hamlet to make full sense of the available evidence before it is pressed onwards by the play (a push that is especially effective in a brisk Hamlet such as Grandage’s). In this context, it is worth examining Claudius’ decision to send Hamlet away to England, which is not an item that begs interpretation, but is nonetheless a point of mischief in the play. Because Claudius later refers to Hamlet as the “violent author / Of his own just remove,” because he twice emphasizes his need to deport Hamlet in the same breath that he also discusses the murder of Polonius, because he also describes his plan as “sudden,” and because Act 4 also contains a number of related events — the first confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius over this plan, the first time that Claudius’ intention to have Hamlet killed is revealed as well as the actual exile of Hamlet — the King’s decision is made to seem entirely the natural consequence of Polonius’ murder. This sense is furthered by the fact that Hamlet reminds Gertrude that he will be sent to England in the Closet Scene, with Polonius’s fresh corpse in full view on stage (an exchange that is also unfortunately cut by Grandage). Yet Gertrude’s response — “Alack, / I had forgot: ’tis so concluded on” — might as well stand in for the audience’s. In fact, Claudius’ initial decision to send Hamlet abroad arrives an act earlier, just after the King covertly watches his nephew deliver abuse to Ophelia in Act 3, Scene 1:

KING CLAUDIUS. Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose (footnote 1)
Will be some danger: which for to prevent,
I have in quick determination
Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England…

Claudius repeats this intention once again after The Mousetrap is staged, but the amount of time that elapses between these brief, almost incidental mentions and the intense later focus on Hamlet’s “just remove” also helps along the misperception that Hamlet is entirely its “author.”

As noted, the related questions of Claudius’ guilt and of the nature of the Ghost are similarly challenging and, like Ophelia’s songs, beg interpretation, although over the entirety of the play. Indeed, the point of The Mousetrap is that it is designed by Hamlet to test both of these matters at once, since his assumption is that confirmation of the murder will also establish the Ghost’s benevolence. This confirmation is necessary because, for much of the play, the sum of Hamlet’s — and an audience’s — hard evidence in favor of the idea that Claudius has murdered King Hamlet is the testimony of the Ghost.

However, if that testimony is not exactly suspect, it should be treated with skepticism. In the scene where Hamlet first encounters the Ghost, he opens two possibilities, that its intentions are “wicked or charitable,” and the play preserves these options to the last. This same ambiguity begins before Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost: Horatio describes its final exit in the play’s opening scene by noting that “it started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons.” This shading is reinforced in the first lines of the Ghost during its meeting with Hamlet: he begins the conversation by noting the inevitability of his own return to “sulph’rous and tormenting flames,” a description that both calls to mind and conflates the respective landscapes and spiritual functions of Hell and Purgatory. Immediately afterwards, the Ghost suggests that its soul is, in fact, waylaid in Purgatorial fire:

I am thy father’s spirit, 
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away.

The play, however, refuses to let its audience settle decisively upon such a comfortable conclusion. These lines follow a brief scene where, like the play’s opening scene, the return of the Ghost is presented as an event with ominous overtones. Hamlet’s reference in this scene to the “questionable shape” of King Hamlet’s ghost is intended to mean that it has returned question him, but this also accents the uncertainty of his father’s spiritual status. Additionally, at least part of Horatio’s cautionary speech — that it might draw Hamlet toward madness — turns out to be at least partly fulfilled, if not necessarily in the manner expected. Furthermore, any emphasis upon “sulph’rous flames” or “foul crimes” in this context is likely to push an audience towards — if not to — a worst-case conclusion.

Hamlet’s instinct following the staging of The Mousetrap is to declare that he will “take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound,” (footnote 2) echoing his earlier declaration after his meeting on the platform, that “it is an honest ghost” that he has seen. Like Claudius’ interpretation of Ophelia’s songs, these are hasty, although unlike Claudius, Hamlet ultimately reverses himself in both instances (footnote 3). And although the play’s audience does receive late confirmation from Claudius at prayer that he has committed the murder, it is important to note that Hamlet never does.

This essay has been dancing around the topic of The Mousetrap and its attendant dumb show for some time now and is at last ready to address these issues directly. In a play filled with nuanced scenes, the one in which the play-within-the-play is performed is perhaps the most unintuitively complex, and it is worth examining just what is presented on stage while it is performed. The Mousetrap is offered by the play (and its namesake) as a simple analogue to the action of Hamlet, when in reality it performs double duty. Following the dominant motif of the larger play, each character in The Mousetrap maps to two different characters in Hamlet. Lucianus, like Prince Hamlet, is both a regicide and a nephew to the king, and like Claudius, he is a regicide who murders by pouring poison into ears. The Player King, like Hamlet, is an erratic melancholic, and like King Hamlet, he is poisoned in his ear while reclining in his orchard. The Player Queen, like Ophelia, attends to a character that is “far from cheer and from [a] former state”; like Gertrude, she remarries a regicide. What Claudius observes, therefore, in The Mousetrap is a complicated refraction of the world of Hamlet: not just a simple depiction of his own crime, but among other permutations, the illustration of a nephew (like Hamlet) murdering an uncle (like himself).

An extremely late-breaking thesis of the current essay is that an audience is likely to receive definitive interpretations by characters in Hamlet with some quiet uneasiness, even if it is not wholly sure why in the moment. As noted, if Claudius’ coarse pronouncement that Ophelia’s songs are all due to filial grief is too simple — and is likely to feel at least slightly so to an audience — so too is Hamlet’s confident declaration that Claudius confirms his own guilt with his abandonment of the play, which could very well stem from two possible motivations. The fact, then, that Claudius sits without difficulty through the dumb show, which also depicts his crime (and is thus a doubling of the action of The Mousetrap), adds to a small but non-negligible sense that Hamlet’s ringing pronouncement is somehow incomplete.

This may well be a lot of prose to expend in defense of a few moments of dialogue-less action, but I also believe that this sense of incompleteness is in fact a major virtue of Hamlet and is to be generally preserved. To phrase this another way, one of the greatest strengths of the play is its ability to indefinitely prolong interpretive questions both large and small — and to leave its audience with a faint but persistent sense that there are more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in its understanding of what has happened on stage. And it may be unintuitive, but I believe that audiences actually enjoy this sensation, largely because it helps to contribute to a sense of mystery in the play (consider the inverse: one item that all bad art typically has in common is that it is easily understood).

In this context, it is another slight misstep of the Grandage production to have his Gertrude decisively reject Claudius after the Closet scene; Hamlet begs her to avoid the conclusion that it is his madness and not her “trespass” that colors their meeting, but that option is still available to her all the same. Along similar lines, it would take a longer essay to discuss the many motivations of Hamlet, which characters and audience alike seek a definitive word upon in vain. That kind of seeking, I submit at last, is one of the major reasons that a modern audience still attends regular productions of a play that is over 400 years old, to include the one presently playing in New York at the Broadhurst theater. And if, like Polonius’ man Reynaldo, I have oversold Mr. Grandage’s faults in public, it is only because, I am also convinced of his essential soundness.

(1) Note also the surprising relationship here between “melancholy” / “brood” and “sits on brood” / “hatch.”

(2) Note also the relationships here between “perceive” / “note” / “recorders” and “music” / “note / “recorders”:

HAMLET. O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?
HORATIO. Very well, my lord.
HAMLET. Upon the talk of the poisoning?
HORATIO. I did very well note him.
HAMLET. Ah, ha! Come, some music! come, the recorders!

(3) When discussing the use of the Mousetrap to probe Claudius three scenes after the Ghost’s visit, Hamlet tells Horatio: “If his occulted guilt / Do not itself unkennel in one speech / It is a damned ghost we have seen / And my imaginations are as foul / As Vulcan’s smithy.” Hamlet also reasons, when Claudius is at prayer two scenes after The Mousetrap, that “He took my father grossly, full of bread; / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May; / And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?”