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Full text of "The Dumb-Show in "Hamlet""

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THE DUMB-SHOW IN HAMLET 

In a delightfully ingenious and thoroughly unconvincing paper in 
the Modern Language Review for October, 1917, Dr. W. W. Greg 
contends that "Claudius did not murder his brother by pouring 
poison into his ears, " for if he had done so he would have taken alarm 
at the representation of this action in the dumb-show without waiting 
for a second representation of it in the spoken play; consequently, 
that " the Ghost's story was not a revelation, but a mere figment of 
Hamlet's brain"; that as Hamlet was already familiar with The 
Murder of Gonzago, it was from that play that his fevered imagination 
supplied the incident, and hence we have the amazing coincidence 
of the exactly similar story.i 

In answer to all this, Mr. J. Dover Wilson, in the April number of 
the same journal, employs and ampUfies the familiar explanation that 
Claudius did not see the dumb-show; it seems that he was speaking 
aside with the Queen and Polonius, as he himself clearly proves by 
asking Hamlet, while the play itself is in progress, "Have you heard 
the argument ? Is there no offence in't ?" As Ophelia had already 
divined, the dumb-show is the argument. Dr. Greg had dismissed 
this explanation, first proposed by Halliwell, as wholly unwarranted; 
and even if it is not, we must admit that it does somewhat blur and 
confuse the picture to have Claudius too obviously and too conven- 
iently happen to play the part of a box occupant at the Metro- 
politan Opera House during this crucial moment. 

Whatever difficulty there is in the way of this explanation could 
be overcome by supposing that the throne chairs of the King and 
Queen were placed in the inner stage, as they would be, I presume, 
in order that they might be removed and the prie-dieu substituted 
for the next scene, and that the dumb-show was acted on the upper 

' The "amazing coincidence" may be explained, I believe, by a liberal interpretation 
of Hamlet's much discussed "dozen or sixteen lines." That Shakespeare did not mean 
to imply by this a special passage, but some sort — anv sort — of alteration which would 
account in the minds of Jthe audience for the precise similarity, is now usually conceded: 
and a proof of it might be found in the fact that after mentioning The Murder of Gonzago 
Hamlet says, "I'll have these players Play something like the murder of my father." 
The Ghost's revelation enabled Hamlet to make "something like" into an "exact coin- 
cidence." 

51] 51 [MoDEEN Philoloot, May, 1919 



52 Henry David Gray 

stage.' There would be perhaps a certain appropriateness in thus 
separating the dumb-show from the scene of the piece itself, its 
silent action taking place, as it were, in a world apart, remote, 
symbolical. And if this were indeed the arrangement, think how 
the dramatic value of the whole episode would be enhanced ! Claudius 
composed and unsuspicious beside his Queen, with Hamlet and 
the others ranged before him watching, and over his very head the 
action taking place which was soon to be repeated before his eyes! 
The suspense which could be created by such a situation would be 
intense and would be sustained and increased as the piece itself was 
given. 

Nevertheless, however appropriate in and of itself, and however 
excellent for its theatrical effectiveness, there is not the least warrant 
for presuming that it was actually so given. As the play was pre- 
sented before the King, the dumb-show would not be placed where 
the King could not see it. There is no "above" in the stage direction; 
and in other dramas where a somewhat similar device occurs there is 
abundant evidence that it was not a traditional arrangement. In 
Jocasta and in Gorboduc it is expressly stated that the performers in 
the dumb-show entered "upon the stage." In James IV, as in 
The Spanish Tragedy, those who were to witness a play were sent, 
as was Christopher Sly, to the "gallery"; but we have no record 
of any such use of the upper stage as I have suggested. I beheve 
that the dumb-show and spoken piece alike were presented before 
Claudius, and that he did not look the other way to show the audience 
that he did not see what it was fully intended that he should see.^ 

What, then, of Claudius' calmness when his crime is first repre- 
sented ? How are we to get over this difficulty ? My answer is 
simple : by not creating it. As we read the stage direction, it surely 
seems that Claudius would take alarm at the business of the dumb- 
show; but if we had none of us read or studied the drama, I doubt 
if our reaction during the brief moment when the dumb-show is 
being given would be more than an excited wonder as to whether 

'Mr. Wilson assiimes that the play within the play was performed on the inner 
stage, which corresponds in general position with the usual modern arrangement. 

2 It is a gratuitous assumption on Dr. Greg's part, and wholly unwarranted it 
seems to me, that the dumb-show was a surprise to Hamlet. He was familiar with the 
piece and was deeply concerned with its proper presentation. His comment, "Marry 
this is miching mallecho; it means mischief," indicates simply that he knows what is 
coming. He is not disconcerted, nor are his plans in the least upset. 

52 



The Dumb Show in "Hamlet" 53 

the King would realize its import. We continue sure that something 
will happen when the piece itself is performed; but it is not to be 
expected that Claudius, as a well-conducted villain, will betray 
himself before the proper moment has arrived. 

It is quite the custom for Shakespearean critics to scold at their 
adversaries for treating the characters in a drama as if they were 
actual people, and then to proceed to do the same thing themselves. 
Let me blandly follow the example of my betters and ask now: 
Why, considering Claudius as an actual murderer who witnesses the 
performance of his very crime, does he sit unmoved until the same 
action is repeated with the accompanying words ? 

Claudius, of course, is quite unprepared for any such exhibition. 
A group of strolling players has arrived at his castle, and he is 
delighted that Hamlet is inclined to see them perform a piece. He 
would naturally suppose that Hamlet was seeing it for the first time 
— as he himself was. If one will but glance again at the dialogue from 
the King's entrance to the appearance of the dumb-show, he will 
note that Hamlet has not yet begun to play the part of interpreter 
and "chorus." That these players should enact the very incident 
of his own crime might well impress Claudius (as it does Dr. Greg) 
as a strange coincidence, but there was no occasion for him to take 
alarm, nor would his "conscience" be instantly and violently shaken. 
The whole ear of Denmark had been rankly abused with a false re- 
port as to this unknown and unsuspected murder; to Claudius, who 
knew nothing of the Ghost's revelation, the pouring of poison into 
a sleeper's ear could have a special significance for no one but himself; 
so long as his crime was safely hidden, this momentary pantomime 
could arouse no suspicion regarding him. 

It was not, so far as we know, the custom to have the action of the 
dumb-show repeated in the spoken piece; indeed, we have no other 
instance (I speak under correction) where just that is done. Ordi- 
narily, preliminary or supplementary matters are the dumb-show's 
province. Wherever the argument is given, it is always spoken, 
as it was always in Latin comedy. There was no reason, therefore, 
why Claudius should inevitably take the dumb-show to be the argu- 
ment, even though the action had thus far been repeated. Indeed, 
the purport of the dumb-show seems to have been none too apparent 

53 



54 Henry David Gray 

to the other spectators. Ophelia guesses that "belike this show 
imports the argument of the play, " but still hopes that the Prologue 
will tell them what it meant. One is reminded of the opening scene 
in Munday's Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, where, imme- 
diately after the elaborate pantomime, Skelton says. 

Sir John, once more bid your dumb-shows come in, 
That, as they pass, I may explain them all. 

When, therefore, Hamlet begins to manifest some knowledge of 
The Murder of Gonzago, it is quite natural that Claudius should ask 
him' if he has heard the argument, and if there is no offense in it. 
His question shows that Claudius does not even yet realize that the 
business of the dumb-show is to be completely worked out, and is 
only beginning to suspect Hamlet's connection with the "Mouse- 
trap." Immediately after this the action rushes to its climax. 
Hamlet reveals his complicity in the affair; the pouring of poison 
into the sleeper's ear is now re-enacted, with the open and explicit 
statement of the deed; and Hamlet adds, "You shall see anon how 
the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife." At last Claudius 
fully realizes that his crime is known — that Hamlet himself knows 
it — and he retires in confusion and alarm. 

The purpose of the dumb-show then is to do away with the spoken 
and too explicit argument and at the same time give the flavor of an 
old play acted by strolling players; and also perhaps to whet the 
curiosity of the audience as to the King's conduct when the play 
itself is presented. The mere action of the dumb-show, unsupported 
by any hint of Hamlet's connection with it, would not lead Claudius 
to any naive self-betrayal, however increasingly uncomfortable he 
might grow during the whole procedure. At the start he had no 
reason to think of anything but a coincidence or to show any too 
obvious emotion. There is therefore no mystery to explain, and no 
reason to fancy either that Hamlet had been self-deceived (or 
Ghost-deceived) as to the exact manner of the murder, or that 
Claudius did not see the dumb-show when it was presented before 

Henry David Gray 
Leland Stanford Junior University 

> " Hamlet, of aU people in the world! " exclaims Dr. Greg. But why not precisely 
Hamlet, who has Just said as to the Player Queen's protestations, "O, but she'll keep 
her word " 7 That denouement was still to be regarded, apparently, as possible. 

54