Poisoned Ears and Parental Advice in Hamlet

Reina Green
Mount Saint Vincent University

Green, Reina. "Poisoned Ears and Parental Advice in Hamlet". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):3.1-31 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-3/greeham2.htm>.

  1. The preponderance of ears and hearing in Hamlet has been well noted by critics.[1] There are more references to ears than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays and those ears are most often at risk of some form of violence: not only are they literally poisoned, but they are also “abus’d” (1.5.38), “[t]ake[n] prisoner” (2.2.473), “cleave[d]” (2.2.557), “mildew’d” (3.4.64), and metaphorically stabbed (3.4.95).[2] While the play might be read as a text on early modern beliefs about the anatomy and physiology of the ear as Peter Cummings suggests (83), it can also be read as a manual on parent-child relationships. The play presents several parent-child connections, foregrounding those of Hamlet with his late father and uncle/step-father and offering the parallel relationships of Laertes and Ophelia with Polonius, and of Fortinbras with his late father and uncle.[3] Moreover, each father-son pairing is complicated by the father’s death and the son’s desire to avenge that death, an event the son does not witness, but of which he later hears.[4] However, in contrast to most early modern conduct literature on parent-child relationships, in which the need for children—whatever their age—to listen to and obey their parents is repeatedly emphasized, Hamlet presents relationships in which sons and daughters are endangered by listening to and obeying fathers and father-substitutes. I therefore wish to explore how inter-generational acts of listening in Hamlet echo or distort the advice found in the conduct literature and how attending to these acts of listening may affect the theatre audience.

    Advising Parents and Listening Children

  2. Many writers of early modern medical, philosophical, and religious treatises describe listening as a dangerous necessity. They note that it is vital for social interaction and for learning the truth (both earthly and spiritual), but that it leaves the listener open to infiltration and potential corruption.[5] Sound is often described in invasive and violent terms (Folkerth 108-10),[6] and while listening was believed necessary for discerning the truth, it was recognised that a listener could not reliably determine the truth of what was heard.[7] Listening, as the precursor to obedience, also underpinned the social hierarchy, and conduct literature frequently emphasizes the need for subjugated individuals—including children—to attend to those in authority. In his discussion of filial obedience, William Gouge cites Ephesians 6.1: “Children obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right,” before declaring that obedience is shown by a “humble submission to hearken, that is, to attend and give heed to the commandements, reproofes, directions, and exhortations which are given to them” (132-33).

  3. There appears to have been no upper age limit for this sign of obedience. Writers rarely distinguish between minor and adult children, suggesting that the same rules apply, regardless of age.[8] Moreover, as the patriarchal structure of domestic hierarchy was believed to reflect a divinely ordained pattern of universal order, children were warned that failing to “harken unto their [fathers’] instructions” was like “gaine-say[ing] . . . the will of God” (Primaudaye 539). According to Richard Brathwait, few children would ignore their parents, because “there is an inbred filiall feare in Children to their Parents, which will beget in them more attention in hearing, and retention in holding what they heare” (English Gentlewoman 183). Nonetheless, just in case children did not listen properly, Gouge describes exactly how they should attend to their parents: “The many exhortations given in Scripture unto children to heare, hearken, give eare, give heed, marke, and observe the words of their parents, doe imply the forenamed silence and patience: For they who ought to be swift to heare must bee slow to speake.” He adds that failure to keep quiet, interrupting, “fretting,” “murmuring,” “flinging or slinking away,” while parents are speaking are all signs of disobedience (437-38). Even when parents are “long and tedious,” children must “indure it” (437).

  4. In act one of Hamlet, the audience sees three father-son pairings in which sons are required to listen to father-figures: first, Hamlet refuses to listen respectfully to Claudius; second, Laertes attends deferentially to Polonius; and third, Hamlet listens to a ghost claiming to be his father. In 1.2, Hamlet murmurs and frets during his step-father’s speech (1.2.65; Hartwig 216), his very act of speaking indicating that he does not regard Claudius as a father-figure and is unlikely to listen to or obey him. He then pointedly pledges obedience to his mother alone (1.2.120), further emphasizing his refusal to accept Claudius as a father-figure. In contrast to Hamlet, Laertes is not only respectful to Claudius, asking his king’s “leave and favour to return to France” (1.2.51), but he then patiently listens to Polonius’ long-winded advice while his shipmates wait for him (1.3.55-81). Not only does Laertes show what Gouge considers appropriate respect for his father by breaking off his speech to Ophelia when Polonius enters, but he also listens to his father without interrupting.[9] Only when Polonius signals the end of his speech, does Laertes speak and then it is to “humbly . . . take [his] leave” (1.3.82; emphasis added).

  5. Polonius may not be aware that when dispensing his advice, he is uttering his last words to his son, but his speech is intended to prepare Laertes for his father’s absence. His advice may seem long-winded and contradictory to us, but Shakespeare’s own audience may have considered Polonius a wise father dispensing conventional, albeit ineffective, advice to his son, particularly as his advice is similar to that of such prominent fathers as Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, and James I, whose works in the genre of parental advice literature were sufficiently popular to run to several editions.[10] Both Burghley and Raleigh instruct their sons not to lend money, to avoid those of inferior status, and to make friends with “some great man . . . [and] compliment him often” (Wright 12), advice in keeping with Polonius’ counsel to Laertes. They also offer guidance on listening and speaking, repeatedly warning their sons about trusting others with confidences. James I acerbically advises his son, “Rather perswade thy selfe then thy friend to keepe thine owne Councell” (16), while Raleigh succinctly notes, “He that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his life,” and that a man who speaks too much is easily overcome “like a city without walls” (Wright 25-26). Raleigh specifically advises his son to “hearken much, and speak little” (26), counsel that echoes Polonius’ “[g]ive every man thy ear, but few thy voice” (1.3.68).[11]

  6. Given that Polonius expresses principles similar to those of such court-wise fathers as Raleigh and Burghley, Claudius’ counsellor may be deemed to have a realistic understanding of the craft required of a courtier. While we might think Polonius’ final exhortation, “to thine own self be true” (1.3.78), at odds with his guidelines on how his son should behave, Shakespeare’s contemporaries may have been more comfortable with the idea that certain performed behaviours could be identified with a “true self.”[12] Burghley, for example, tells his son that courtesy towards one’s equals “makes thee known for a man well-bred” (Wright 13). Too often, critics regard Polonius as “a bore” and “a foolish old man” (Taylor 275), an assessment that echoes Hamlet’s complaint that the counsellor was “in life a foolish prating knave” (3.4.217), without considering Hamlet’s bias. As Claudius’ trusted advisor, Polonius is Hamlet’s enemy; he has pledged allegiance to the man Hamlet refuses to obey, and Hamlet is well aware that “whether or not Polonius speaks foolish words, he speaks them into the ear of a king” (Hartwig 215).

  7. An Elizabethan audience may have approved of Polonius’ fatherly advice and Laertes’ patience, but Polonius’ inability to separate his courtly role from his parental role may not have been considered so positively. Required to eavesdrop on others as Claudius’ advisor, Polonius adopts the same practice in the lives of his children and even uses them as decoys to gather information (Taylor 276-77). As David Leverenz notes, Polonius cares more for his position at court than for his daughter’s well-being, and he uses his paternal authority to better his status as king’s advisor (301). Seen by some as comic relief, Polonius’ appointment of Reynaldo to spy on Laertes demonstrates the methods he uses to gather information and suggests that he no more trusts his own family than those who threaten the crown.[13] He has little faith that the father-son bond is strong enough to ensure Laertes’ obedience.

  8. Not only does Polonius manipulate, eavesdrop, and hire spies to inform on his own children, but he also uses the same practices to assess Hamlet’s filial obedience. In doing so, he ignores the danger inherent in such actions. Hamlet does not expect to find a government official, a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” (3.4.31) in his mother’s closet, anticipating instead a family member, a husband, albeit one who is a king. As Lisa Jardine notes, “Polonius has no legitimate place within the intimate space of Gertrude’s closet; his presence fatally confuses privacy with affairs of state” (319). Polonius fails to consider the risk of using political tactics in a private sphere, just as he fails to note the risk of listening to conversations to which he should not be privy. That Polonius dies because he is “in the ear” (3.1.186) is reinforced by the fact that he is killed for responding to what he hears when he cannot see what is happening.[14] His death also supports Raleigh’s argument that “[h]e that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his life.”

  9. While Polonius can only hear but cannot see in Gertrude’s closet, the ghost is first introduced to us as an apparition without a voice. Silent in response to Horatio’s command that it speak, it can be seen but not heard. This silence contrasts Polonius’ verbosity in the previous scene, but further connections may be drawn between the statesman and the ghost. In ironic contrast to Polonius who does not realize that his advice to Laertes are his final words to his son, Hamlet Senior has no opportunity to instruct his son prior to his death. Instead, Hamlet must listen to the ghost tell of that death. If children were generally predisposed to listen to their parents, they were believed to be particularly attentive to their parents’ last words. Gouge notes that, of all the speeches a person might hear, “[t]he words of a dying parent are commonly most regarded: his last words doe make a deepe impression” (577).[15]

  10. The power of deathbed speeches, like that of farewell speeches, stems from the knowledge that the body and voice of the speaker will soon be gone, and this anticipated absence gives dying parents what Wendy Wall calls an “invisible moral authority” (290-91). Wall offers the deathbed speech of Mary Sidney, Philip Sidney’s mother, as an example of such authority (290-91). Holinshed reports that Sidney “wounded the consciences, and inwardlie pearced the hearts of manie that heard hir” (1551), a reaction reminiscent of Hamlet’s response to the ghost he calls “father” (1.4.45) when he hears that ghost describe how his father died. If the words of a dying parent carry particular weight, how much more authority might be granted to words apparently uttered from beyond the grave by that parent?

  11. There is no question that Hamlet admires his father and therefore would be especially inclined to attend to an apparition that looks like the late king. He describes Hamlet Senior as “[s]o excellent a king” (1.2.139), and “[a] combination and a form indeed / Where every god did seem to set his seal” (3.4.60-61), contrasting him to the “mildew’d ear” of Claudius (64). However, this contrast is equivocal. Hamlet puns on a “mildew’d ear” both as an ear of grain that can infect the grain around it and as a human ear that can be infected. With this latter meaning, though, it is not Claudius, but Hamlet Senior who has a “mildew’d ear” as a result of the poisoning. Indeed, earlier, Hamlet openly acknowledges that his father was less than perfect, noting that he died “grossly, full of bread, / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May” (3.3.80-81). Even the ghost declares that King Hamlet was “[c]ut off even in the blossoms of [his] sin, / . . . With all [his] imperfections on [his] head” (1.5.76, 79). Given these mixed descriptions of his father, Hamlet’s insistence on distinguishing between his mother’s two husbands as “Hyperion to a satyr”(1.2.140), “Jove” to a “pajock” (3.2.277-78), appears unfounded (Ferguson 296-97). While Hamlet’s deification of his father is in keeping with Gouge’s admonition that children show “reverend respect” regardless of their parents’ behaviour (441), others, both in Elsinore and in the theatre, have difficulty seeing the contrast he makes between his father and Claudius (Farrell 174-75). Indeed, it is no coincidence that the ghost appears in the armour in which Hamlet Senior killed Old Fortinbras, a deed for which Young Fortinbras now desires retribution.[16] Like Claudius, King Hamlet has committed an act that a son seeks to avenge.

  12. Both the late Hamlet Senior and the apparition that resembles him are presented ambiguously, and Hamlet remains doubtful whether the ghost is “a spirit of health or goblin damn’d” (1.4.40).[17] Nonetheless, he identifies the ghost as his father, declaring, “I’ll call thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane” (1.4.44-45). Indeed, the ghost demonstrates the absolute authority of a king and father; it is “majestical” (1.1.148), and its silent refusal to speak to Horatio and its speech to Hamlet underscore its authority (Farrell 169). Its first words, “Mark me” (1.5.2), are redundant given that Hamlet has just asked the apparition to speak. The ghost’s command is a sign not only of who controls the conversation, but also of how Hamlet needs to listen: he must “lend [his] serious hearing” (l.5.5; emphasis added). Hamlet responds by declaring that he is “bound to hear” (6), an acknowledgement of his willing bondage to the ghost. Hearing, as the ghost warns him, binds Hamlet “to revenge” (7), and the ghost reminds him of his filial duty: “List, list, O list! / If thou didst ever thy dear father love—” (22-23), immediately before demanding Hamlet take revenge. Unfortunately for Hamlet, what the ghost asks him to do is unlawful, at least according to conduct book writers such as Gouge, and even though the ghost later qualifies its demand to “howsomever thou pursuest this act” (84), there is no doubt that it asks Hamlet to “[r]evenge his [father’s] foul and most unnatural murder” (25).

  13. In his long discussion of filial duty, Gouge considers what should be done when parents demand that children avenge wrongs done to them. Generally in accordance with the cultural tenet of filial obedience, he draws the line at obeying a parental demand for vengeance. He insists that such a demand is “Heathen” and that it is “unlawful” for children to seek revenge (488). He is, however, aware of the pressure exerted on children in the quest for vengeance. He writes, “some presse [revenge] so farre upon children as they affright them with their parents Ghost, saying, that if they neglect to revenge their parents wrongs, their Ghost will follow them, and not suffer them to live in quiet, but molest them continually” (488). Hamlet, though, is not simply “affright[ed]” by the threat of his father’s ghost, but is confronted by an apparition resembling him. Still, Hamlet is not conduct literature and therefore one has to examine whether Gouge’s criticism of the filial drive to revenge wrongs done to parents has any relevance to Hamlet’s dilemma.

  14. Stephen Booth argues that while Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, it constantly draws on other frames of reference, including the Christian context that underpins most conduct literature, to present conflicting value systems (154). Even as the ghost demands revenge, it prohibits Hamlet from acting against Gertrude by demanding that he “[l]eave her to heaven” (1.5.86), echoing the Judeo-Christian belief that humans should not seek revenge (Leviticus 19:18; Romans 12:19). The ghost’s conflicting demands that Hamlet avenge his father’s death yet leave his mother alone may also be an acknowledgement of Hamlet’s private and public motives for revenge. In his essay, “Of Revenge,” Sir Francis Bacon considers revenge a “kinde of Wilde Justice” that the law should “weed . . . out.” He admits, though, that revenge may be necessary “for those wrongs which there is no Law to remedy,” and differentiates between public revenge, which he considers exemplified in Julius Caesar’s death, as “for the most part, Fortunate,” and private revenge, which “is not so” (16-17). When a regicide like Claudius becomes king, the law may be incapable of bringing him to justice. In Bacon’s terms, then, revenge of King Hamlet’s death would be “fortunate.” Still, Hamlet Senior’s death is also fratricide, a private affair linked to Claudius’ desire for Gertrude. This type of wrong, Bacon notes, should be “pass[ed] . . . over” as that makes a person “Superiour: For it is a Princes part to Pardon” (16).[18]

  15. Hamlet’s hesitation, therefore, may not only be due to his doubts about the truth of what he hears from the ghost, but may also stem from his inability to determine his motive for revenge. If he desires vengeance for the death of his king, his action may be acceptable, but if he is motivated to revenge his father’s murder, then his action will be condemned. The consequences are not based on the act itself, but on his motives. Thus, while bound to revenge because he has submitted to the ghost’s authority and listened to its tale, Hamlet has difficulty fulfilling its commands, not only because they are conflicting commands, but also because he understands the risk he faces, unlike Laertes who rejects the consequences of taking revenge, declaring, “I dare damnation . . . / Let come what comes, only I’ll be reveng’d / Most throughly for my father” (4.5.133, 135-36). Laertes readily acquiesces when Claudius claims, “Revenge should have no bounds” (4.7.127), itself an ironic reversal of the ghost’s insistence that Hamlet is “bound” “to revenge” (1.5.6-7). Moreover, just as connections can be made between Laertes’ father and the semblance of Hamlet’s, so the two sons are associated in their predisposition to listen to demands for revenge from characters who fill the role of substitute parents.[19] Hamlet calls the ghost “father” and grants it filial obedience, but he has no proof that the ghost is his father; as he admits, it could be the devil. Equally, Claudius tries to act as father to both Hamlet and Laertes, calling one “my son” (1.2.64) and the other “a good child” (4.5.148), but in both cases he is clearly a substitute. These substitute fathers are also similar in that they both tell substitute tales. Claudius is about to tell Laertes that Hamlet has gone to England, unlikely to return, when he is interrupted by a messenger bearing Hamlet’s letter. Laertes never hears Claudius’ initial plan. Equally, the ghost tells Hamlet that it “could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,” but then declares that this tale cannot be told “[t]o ears of flesh and blood” (1.5.15-16, 22) and substitutes another.[20]

  16. Nonetheless, this substitute tale provokes the same response in its listener as the untold tale. It too “freeze[s]” Hamlet. This paralysing tale, which Hamlet fears will stop his heart and cause him to age instantly: “Hold, hold, my heart, / And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, / But bear me stiffly up” (1.5.93-95), is of King Hamlet’s paralysing death, of how his blood coagulated when hebona was poured into his ear. Neither was King Hamlet’s ear the only one poisoned. The ghost notes that “the whole ear of Denmark / Is by a forged process of [the king’s] death / Rankly abus’d” (36-38), abuse caused by yet another substitute narrative: the tale that the king was stung by a serpent.[21] If, as the ghost implies, ears are irrevocably poisoned by hearing a substitute tale, then Hamlet is clearly at risk, even as he listens, of also being poisoned and, like his father, he undergoes both an internal and external change because of what he hears (Pollard 127).[22] Claudius, ever watchful of his nephew, complains that “nor th’exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was” (2.2.6-7), and Ophelia notes that Hamlet does not simply look as if he has seen a ghost, but that he now resembles a ghost: “As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors” (2.1.83-84), emphasizing how he has undergone a paralysing corruption similar to that which killed his father.

  17. While Hamlet’s exterior change is comparable to that suffered by his father, it is also seen in another avenging son. Pyrrhus, like Hamlet, “did the night resemble” (2.2.449) and, as he wreaks havoc in Troy, he becomes covered in “coagulate gore, / With eyes like carbuncles” (458-59), a description reminiscent of both the “vile and loathsome crust” (1.5.72) of the dying king and the young prince’s “two eyes like stars start[ing] from their spheres” (17). Pyrrhus also makes a first “wide” strike (2.2.468), a precursor to Hamlet’s own misguided strike when he stabs Polonius. Both men also appear to hesitate after their first attempt, Pyrrhus being momentarily paralysed by what he hears. He is deafened by a “hideous crash [that] / Takes prisoner [his] ear” (472-73), the sound being caused by the fall of Troy, the public ramifications of his revenge. Hamlet, too, recognizes and perhaps hesitates because, whatever his motives for revenge, there will be public repercussions thanks to the position held by his father’s murderer. By seeking revenge against his uncle, Hamlet commits treason against his monarch and risks being condemned as a villain, just as Pyrrhus is considered the villain in Priam’s death (Prosser 154).[23] Hamlet has already learned from the ghost how rumours circulated after death can affect public affairs. With the account of Priam’s slaughter, Hamlet is reminded of how a vengeful son can be labelled a villain. It is little wonder, then, that he later insists that Horatio tell his story, fearing “what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me” (5.2.349-50).

  18. Hamlet’s willingness to listen to the ghost and Laertes’ ensuing openness to Claudius’ suggestions parallel what Laertes considers his sister’s “too credent ear” (1.3.30). Prior to his departure, Laertes warns Ophelia that listening to Hamlet may endanger her honour (29-32), while her father is even more emphatic. Using the same analogy as Raleigh when he compares a talkative man to an unprotected city, Polonius tells his daughter to “[s]et your entreatments at a higher rate / Than a command to parley” (122-23), and then insists,
    I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
    Have you so slander any moment leisure
    As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. (132-34)
    Polonius thus gives contrasting advice to his children about listening. Laertes may “[g]ive every man [his] ear but few [his] voice” (68), while Ophelia must not listen to others, particularly Hamlet, because Polonius assumes that she cannot distinguish truth from guile, and because listening will prompt her to speak or “parley.”[24] In contrast to Polonius’ admonition to Ophelia, and heedless of his friends’ warnings, Hamlet spends “private time” with the ghost, giving it a “free and bounteous” audience (1.3.92-93). Moreover, Hamlet’s desire to obey the ghost’s commands echoes Ophelia’s obedience to Polonius. In both cases, this obedience leads to their undoing. Ophelia’s compliance with her father’s command that she avoid Hamlet appears to provoke his attack in the Nunnery scene, and the isolation she experiences due to his rejection, her brother’s absence, and her father’s death contributes to her madness. Like Hamlet, Ophelia is asked to obey contradictory commands. She promises Laertes that his advice is “in my memory lock’d, / And you yourself shall keep the key of it” (1.3.85-86) yet, almost immediately, when her father asks what her brother has said, Ophelia tells him. Obedient to her father, she must then be silent with Hamlet. She cannot even reveal the reason for her changed behaviour. Hamlet, like Ophelia, is forced to keep what he considers a parental command secret. [25] In contrast to Raleigh’s belief that “He that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his life,” both Ophelia and Hamlet suffer for their silence as these secret commands have disastrous consequences, akin to the poison poured into King Hamlet’s ear (Farrell 166).

  19. Both Hamlet and Ophelia die because they listen to and obey commands from parental figures (Hartwig 217). Laertes also dies as a result of his obedience, though initially he is anything but silent. He returns to Elsinore hot for revenge when he learns of his father’s murder. However, he is too much his father’s son to maintain his opposition to Claudius. Laertes, thanks to Polonius’ tutelage, understands court politics and how one needs to be friends with “some great man” as Burghley advises his son. Laertes tells Claudius that he would give his life for his “friends” (4.5.145-47), a declaration that earns him the new king’s approval. The problem is that Laertes behaves “like a good child” towards a man who is not his father, and while Claudius is king and therefore must be obeyed, he is of course a substitute king. Both Laertes and Hamlet fail to limit their filial obedience to their blood parents, granting it to those who simply look or act like parents. Furthermore, their failure to consider the substitute nature of the father figures to whom they listen demonstrates the risk of listening when a speaker’s motives cannot be determined. Polonius might claim, “[T]o thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man” (1.3.78-80), but there is no way of knowing if speakers are always true to themselves and, therefore, whether they are being false to others. Claudius looks like a king, but his true self is not kingly. Equally, Hamlet listens to the ghost because it looks like his father, but he cannot discern the ghost’s true nature. These young men might be criticized for their inability to ascertain these speakers’ intentions, but they are not alone in trying to determine what lies beneath “actions that a man might play” (1.2.84).

    Substitution, Intention, and Interpretation

  20. The play itself demonstrates the difficulty of being able to discern intention from action, thought from speech, and the fencing match explicitly shows how an event can be variously interpreted when the motives behind the action remain hidden. Laertes sees the fencing match as a way to revenge the death of his father, while Claudius regards it as an opportunity to rid himself of Hamlet, whom he rightly considers a “[h]azard” and “fear” (3.3.6, 25). Vincent Crapanzano argues that for Laertes and Claudius, the “mimicking game” of fencing masks “the mimicked reality, the fight-to-the-death” (310); they know that the match will end in bloodshed and death, while Gertrude and most of the courtiers see the game as just that. Hamlet is aware that it hides something less innocent, though he cannot see the precise “villainy” (5.2.317) until Laertes tells him that the sword he holds is “[u]nbated and envenomed” (323). According to Richard Flatter, Hamlet is not surprised that Laertes’ foil is unbated, but he is surprised that it is also poisoned (141-42). Hamlet may see the unbated foil and he obviously both sees and feels his own wound, but it is not until he hears Laertes’ words that he can fully understand what is happening.

  21. Throughout Hamlet, the audience and the characters onstage repeatedly see something before hearing the information necessary to understand what has been seen. As noted, the ghost appears in the first scene, but does not tell its story until the end of act one. Claudius enters as king in the second scene, but his confession remains unheard until act three. It is therefore no surprise that Claudius and the rest of the court do not respond to the dumb show of The Mousetrap; they must also hear the play itself (Anderson 306).[26] Both Pollard and Tiffany point to Claudius’ reaction on hearing the play as indicative of the power of speech to infiltrate a listener (Pollard 139; Tiffany 318). Certainly, Hamlet thinks that Claudius moves “Upon the talk of the poisoning” (3.2.283). Still, hearing alone is also insufficient, as shown by Polonius’ death, caused by Hamlet and the old counsellor reacting blindly to what they hear. Paul Kottman believes that the sequence of spectacle followed by speech presents (and inaugurates) theatre experience as shared spectacle that suspends even as it impels and requires affirmation through speech (40-51). In contrast, Bill Readings argues that the play demonstrates “a certain failure of representation” in both visual display and the spoken word (47), and Polonius’ experience demonstrates that listening is not enough, while the ghost’s appearance and the dumb show indicate that seeing a spectacle is equally inadequate. As Andrew Mousley notes, characters try to discover the truth behind what they hear and see so they can ascertain how to act (77). Hamlet therefore tries to construct an understanding of events from the repetitions and revisions that constitute the play, even creating his own re-enactment with The Mousetrap and its dumb show, so he can determine a course of action.

  22. The problem is, as Steve Roth notes, that Hamlet’s plan fails to work (par. 9). To begin with, the play is a substitute in a number of ways. It takes on an alternate purpose as it is used not just to entertain, but to determine Claudius’ guilt. The play is even given another title by Hamlet indicating this change, The Mousetrap being substituted for The Murder of Gonzago. In addition, Hamlet inserts a speech into it, substitute words that are never identified.[27] Intended originally to depict the murder of the Duke of Gonzago, the play, at least to Hamlet, “comes near the circumstance / . . . of [his] father’s death” (3.2.76-77). The play also represents Hamlet’s desired revenge—the murder of his uncle—for, as Hamlet is careful to point out, Lucianus is the Player King’s nephew, not his brother, as would be expected if the murder of King Hamlet were depicted.[28]

  23. Despite the indeterminacy of events actually represented in The Mousetrap, Hamlet is confident that Claudius will interpret the play as a re-enactment of his crime and confess. Not only does Hamlet note that on seeing a play, the guilty have been moved to “proclaim . . . their malefactions” (2.2.588), but he also tells Horatio, “If [Claudius’] occulted guilt / Do not itself unkennel in one speech, / It is a damned ghost that we have seen” (3.2.80-82). The problem is that Claudius simply calls for lights and does not confess his crime within Hamlet’s hearing. Nonetheless, Hamlet interprets the spectacle of Claudius rising as a sign of his guilt, even though, in Hamlet itself, verbal commentary is shown to be vital for a complete understanding of previously seen spectacle. Hamlet ignores that visual spectacles, “dumb-shows,” can be “inexplicable” (3.2.12), whether performed by an actor or an audience member. Despite Hamlet’s conviction that his uncle leaves “Upon the talk of the poisoning,” Claudius’ movement does not indicate whether he is distressed or angered by Lucianus’ speech, his action, or Hamlet’s commentary, all of which occur immediately beforehand.[29] The audience eventually learns that Hamlet is right to believe his uncle guilty, but it also knows that his assumption is based on the wrong reasons (Hartwig 219-20). Indeed, in the next scene, when Claudius’ guilt is revealed to the theatre audience, the potential for misinterpreting a visual display or dumb show is simultaneously shown. Hamlet, seeing Claudius in an attitude of prayer, assumes he is praying and determines that to kill him now would be insufficient revenge. In contrast, the audience learns from Claudius that despite appearances, he cannot pray, that his performance is literally a “dumb” show: “[His] words fly up, [his] thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (3.3.97-98).

  24. The Mousetrap, like the fencing match, is a “mimicked reality,” a representation of other events (whatever they may be), and the audience’s understanding depends on knowledge of those events. Moreover, the play is not only a representation and revision of the ghost’s story of King Hamlet’s poisoning through the ear, but it is also a re-enactment and result of the metaphoric poisoning posited (and performed) by the ghost. The speech Hamlet inserts into The Mousetrap echoes the many other substitutions occurring in Elsinore, its indeterminacy echoing the mystery surrounding King Hamlet’s poisoning and the enigmatic nature of the ghost. Visual spectacle may not provide sufficient information, but the spoken word, at least as used in Elsinore, is open to multiple interpretations, and the truth beneath it, like the proof Hamlet seeks, is evasive (Mousley 79). While writers of parental advice and conduct literature generally agree with Polonius that sons, unlike daughters, can distinguish the truth in what they hear, and that it is therefore safe for them to “[g]ive every man [their] ear,” Hamlet reveals that neither sons nor daughters are able to accurately identify the truth even when they are listening to authority figures and substitute fathers, for such figures cannot always be distinguished from unworthy counterfeits. Laertes cannot discern Claudius’ self-interest any more than Hamlet can find incontrovertible evidence of the ghost’s honesty.

    The Attending Audience

  25. The emphasis on attending to the advice of dying parents and the possibility of being seduced through the ear must have resonated strongly in a nation ruled by an aging queen with no clear successor, and which feared such coups as that attempted by the Earl of Essex. It is under these conditions that Shakespeare writes a revenge tragedy clearly influenced by societal attitudes towards parental advice.[30] Conduct book writers repeatedly emphasize the need for filial obedience, and Gouge appears to be the only one to suggest that there may be times when parents’ commands should not be obeyed. Shakespeare explores both the validity of parental dictates and the consequences of granting someone parental authority. In Elsinore, obedience to parental directives, whether given by an actual or substitute parent, has horrifying consequences. Ophelia obeys her father’s seemingly reasonable charge that she not spend time alone with Hamlet and ends up isolated and insane. Hamlet, accepting the ghost as the spirit of his dead father, struggles to obey an inappropriate command, fulfilling it only through circumstances arranged by his father’s murderer. His own father having died in service to the king, Laertes follows Claudius’ plan in order to gain revenge, and dies in part because of his loyalty to his father and the king and his inability to detect the king’s purpose.

  26. The problem in Hamlet is that nothing is quite what it seems. The king is not a king but a murderer, a fact that makes his loyal counsellor a “knave,” at least according to the rightful king’s son. The disruption of the link between word and object as represented by Claudius’ usurpation permits all words to be open to interpretation and arbitrary assignation. As a result, listeners must struggle to gather meaning out of a speaker’s words. They become like Ophelia’s “hearers” who “botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” (4.5.10), as both the onstage and offstage audiences discover. The theatre audience struggles to determine the meaning behind Barnardo’s opening question, only to be confused by Francisco’s reply. He speaks, but fails to answer his comrade’s query. The audience feels, as Booth notes, “unexpectedly and very slightly out of step” with the action presented on the stage (140). Claudius appears in the following scene with all the ceremony associated with a king, and the audience is comforted by his explanation of events, that is, until Hamlet interrupts and gains the audience’s ear. As the prince’s confidant, the audience is in the same position as Hamlet himself, a listener to someone enigmatic, who possesses “that within which passes show” (1.2.85).

  27. By repeatedly speaking directly to the audience members, Hamlet transforms them into primary, involved listeners, thereby underscoring the usual role of audience as unseen observer and eavesdropper, a position that, given Polonius’ experience, clearly poses risks. While the audience laughs at Polonius’ misguided belief that Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (1.5.180) is due to his love for Ophelia, it is also guilty of assuming it “will find / Where truth is hid” (2.2.157-58), even though its assumptions are just as arbitrary as the old man’s (Booth 159, 163). The audience’s self-awareness is further emphasized by the play within a play. In his advice to the players, Hamlet notes that an actor’s speech and gesture should hold “the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.22-24). He claims that anything overdone, while it “makes the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve” (25-27), and that a good actor disguises the artifice of playing by using natural speech and gesture: “[s]uit[ing] the action to the word, the word to the action” (17-18). Jane Donawerth notes that Hamlet’s advice echoes a contemporary shift in acting practice, a shift apparent in Shakespeare’s more restrained use of gesture in his tragedies than in his earlier history plays, and which led to characters becoming more individualized by gesture and voice (88-91).

  28. Hamlet’s advice to the players may reflect a shift in theatre practice towards a more “natural” representation, but it also emphasizes the importance of listening. Terence Hawkes notes Hamlet’s “highest praise is reserved for . . . the good listener” and that what he and, in the background, Shakespeare want from the audience is a form of “enhanced receptivity” (116-18). Nonetheless, Hamlet also acknowledges the risks of such listening. The prince, even as he lies dying in the final scene, echoes the ghost as he speaks directly to an audience already astonished by what it has seen and heard. He notes that while those “[t]hat are but mutes or audience to this act” already “look pale and tremble at this chance” (5.2.340, 339), the tale he could tell if he had time would be even more horrifying. Unable to tell his own tale, and aware of how an ear can be “by a forgèd process . . . “[r]ankly abused” when a murderer is deemed a king, and a murder a snakebite, Hamlet insists that Horatio “[r]eport me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied” (5.2.344-45). Hamlet, like Laertes, is too much his father’s son. He fears that he, like Pyrrhus, will have a “wounded name” (349) and wants to right such wrongs. However, his story is much like his father’s as it too has a potentially unreliable narrator. Horatio does not know all the details (Roth par. 22-23), and the tale, if told, would also “freeze . . . young blood,” being of “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause” (5.2.386-88).

  29. The English Ambassador hints at the power of Hamlet’s tale to paralyse its hearers when he states, apparently in reference to the prince, “The ears are senseless that should give us hearing” (5.2.374). The Ambassador’s speech, though, may equally apply to members of the audience whose ears have been paralysed or made “senseless” by what they have heard. Even the “groundlings” in the audience who are “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise” (3.2.11-12) can be said to have “senseless” ears in that they do not sense anything but spectacle and sound. Furthermore, as the Ambassador’s speech refers directly to a dead man’s ears, to ears that have heard the tale of a dead man, it further emphasizes the lethal nature of listening to an audience that is itself attending to a dead man’s tale. If Hamlet is endangered because he listens to a mysterious ghost, Hamlet’s own audience may also be at risk, for he is equally inscrutable. It is not just in Elsinore that the king is not a king; such disconnection between what is heard and what lies beneath is also present in theatrical practice. “Playing” depends on concealing reality, as Hamlet points out.

  30. While Hamlet emphasizes the importance and dangers of listening, both within the play and within the theatre, it is not unique in its emphasis on the power of speech, and particularly of speech heard in a theatre. This was also a primary concern expressed by antitheatricalists (Pollard 136). Stephen Gosson, while he rails against plays and what might “enter by the passage of our eyes and eares into the soule,” underscores the aural aspect of theatre-going, noting that plays are “the doctrine of the Deuill; the Counsell of the vngodly” (B7v). Even in his complaint about “wanton Italian bookes,” he emphasizes the role of the ear in allowing this “poyson” to enter. He writes, “none are so pleasaunte or plausible as they, that sound some kinde of libertie in our eares” (B6r). Frustrated by people’s preference for plays over preaching despite the remonstrance of “godly preachers” such as himself (B2r), Gosson emphasises the inability to trust the speech of an actor. He asks that his reader, “if anye Player belie me in your hearing upon the stage, . . . would rather consider of the person than of the speach, for a Player is like to a Marchants finger, that standes sometime for a thousande, sometime for a cypher, and a Player must stand as his parte fals, sometime for a Prince sometime for a peasant” (A5r).[31] However, if performance must “o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (3.2.19) as Hamlet desires, then it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the actor-prince from the rightful prince, the “actions that a man might play” from “that within,” even when one listens closely. And, as Hamlet’s experience demonstrates, the inability to determine the nature of a speaker not only raises questions about how one determines the validity of what one hears, but also the very performance itself can leave one open to potentially corrupting speech.

  31. I am not claiming that Shakespeare is a closet anti-theatricalist, but he does appear to echo anti-theatrical discourse in Hamlet through the suggestion that listeners are always at risk of being corrupted by what they hear, even when they listen to apparently appropriate figures of authority.[32] He does not, though, place the onus for such corruption solely on the speaker, but also on the listener. When Gertrude hears that Ophelia’s listeners are interpreting her speech in accordance with their own preconceptions, she worries that the young girl “may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5.14-15). Gertrude’s concern is based on both facets of verbal communication: Ophelia’s speech and the listeners’ own prejudices. She understands that Ophelia’s words are most dangerous when heard by certain people. Shakespeare, then, even as he notes the potential for listeners to be infected—diseased—by what they hear within the theatre, as they “botch the [playwright’s] words fit to their own thoughts,” trying to discover “[w]here truth is hid,” returns the responsibility for any corruption (real or imagined) to the listening audience by suggesting that the problem is not simply the speaker’s words, but the “ill-breeding minds” of the listeners. Shakespeare likely wrote Hamlet several months before February 1601, when a play about Richard II—likely Shakespeare’s—was performed at the request of some of the Earl of Essex’s followers the evening before his rebellion.[33] While the rationale for the performance—whether the intention was to inspire themselves or others—is unknown (Barroll 453-54), Shakespeare’s prior abdication of responsibility as a playwright suggests that he had his defence already prepared should any “ill-breeding minds” cause trouble about this or any of his other plays in such politically fragile times.


I wish to acknowledge the helpful advice of Christina Luckyj, John Baxter, and Ron Huebert on previous drafts of this work. An abbreviated version, titled “Poisoned Ears in Hamlet and Its Audience,” was read at the 2004 annual meeting of Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) in Winnipeg, Canada.

[1] Critics who examine ears and hearing in Hamlet include Mary Anderson, Peter Cummings, Tanya Pollard, and Mark Robson. Robert Wilson discusses ears in relation to narrative and “narratees”; Kenneth Gross discusses ears and hearing in connections with slander; and Bill Readings and Grace Tiffany consider the relationship between spectacle and language—what is seen and heard in Hamlet, Tiffany arguing that the play presents a Calvinist perspective on the power of speech, while Readings deconstructs the gap and connections between seeing and hearing. Bruce Smith and Wes Folkerth consider hearing in relation to sound and its impact in the broader context of early modern theatre and drama. The work of both Smith and Folkerth influence my examination of Hamlet.

[2] All references to Hamlet are to the Arden edition, edited by Harold Jenkins (London; New York: Methuen, 1982).

[3] In his introduction, Harold Jenkins notes that in 1.2, Claudius deals with three sons: Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet, the circumstances of the others being designed to echo Hamlet’s problem in particular ways (133).

[4] Eric Rasmussen notes that Hamlet includes five sets of murdered fathers and avenging sons. These are King Hamlet and his son, the elder Fortinbras and his son, Polonius and Laertes, Achilles and Pyrrhus, and Marcus Junius Brutus and his son, the latter being evoked by Polonius’ memory of having played Julius Caesar who was killed by Brutus (463).

[5] Michel de Montaigne comments on the inability of the deaf to learn earthly truth: “because they [can]not receive the instruction of the world by their eares” (2: 150-51), while several Protestant ministers take the Pauline doctrine (Romans 10:17) that faith is by hearing literally and argue that deafness is a sign of God’s displeasure (Harrison 23; Wilkinson Aviir), and that the deaf “are in a dangerous or desperate case, because the Word is the sauour of life vnto the right hearer, and the sauour of death vnto him that heareth not as hee ought” (Egerton A7r).

[6] For the dangerous properties of sound, see Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum 43, Crooke 609-10, Paré 24. In his poetic description of the human body, Phineas Fletcher describes sound as an “unwelcome guest” (V.39.7).

[7] For examples of the concern about distinguishing truth from falsehood, see Cornwallis 213, Erasmus 193, and Jonson 43.

[8] As evidence of continued obedience and respect for parents by adult children, Elizabeth Cary’s biographer notes that Cary always treated her parents respectfully: “her own father and mother she always used with very much respect; so far, as for the most part (all her life), to speak to her mother (when she was sitting) on her knees, which she did frequently for more than an hour together; though she was but an ill kneeler and a worse riser” (Weller and Ferguson 199).

[9] Gouge defines “breaking off speech” when a parent enters the room and remaining quiet while a parent is speaking as “the two branches of silence” required of children (437).

[10] James I’s Basilikon Doron was first published in 1599, with a second edition in multiple imprints following in 1603 when he succeeded to the English throne. His Fathers Blessing was then published in 1616 and went through four editions before 1633. Lord Burghley wrote his Certain Precepts for the Well Ordering of a Man’s Life in the early 1580s, but it was not published until after his death. It first appeared in 1617 and went through four editions in twenty years. Sir Walter Raleigh likely wrote his Instructions to His Son and to Posterity after he was committed to the tower in 1603. The text was first published in 1632, with five editions appearing by 1636 (Wright xvii-xx).

[11] James I is more circumspect when advising his son about how to listen, telling him, “Beleeue not all that is told, nor tell not all that thou hearest, for if thou doe though shalt not long be without trouble, but shortly without friends” (18).

[12] Ramie Targoff examines ideas about public worship to argue that performance and interiority were considered more connected than suggested by critics such as Katharine Eisaman Maus, hence the concerns expressed by many anti-theatricalists about the impact of theatrical performance on both actors and audience.

[13] Polonius’ inability to remember what he intends to tell Reynaldo (2.1.50-52) is often cited as support for Hamlet’s view of Polonius as “a foolish prating knave.” Harry Levin suggests it is a sign that Polonius bores himself as much as his listener (25), and the general assumption is that he is either forgetful or distracted by something inconsequential. Ophelia, though, speaks less than thirty lines later and Polonius could well be troubled by the appearance of his distressed daughter as she enters. Being an obedient child, she does not interrupt her father, and he dispatches his manservant before dealing with her.

[14] Hamlet also reacts blindly when he hears Polonius’ cry for help and stabs at the arras. Anderson notes that these and other events in Hamlet emphasize the need for combined visual and auditory perception and that information only received by the ear is shown to be “malignant,” while that received only by the eye is shown to be “ineffectual” (302). In contrast, Tiffany argues that the play presents spoken language as being morally superior to and less deceitful than visual images (308-09).

[15] Gouge notes that it is a parent’s “last duty” to give children “good instructions” and goes so far as to advise parents to prepare their final speech beforehand (576-77).

[16] Rasmussen notes that Fortinbras’ demand for revenge is redirected by his uncle Norway so that Hamlet presents two subplots in which one son (Laertes) seeks to avenge his father’s death, while another (Fortinbras) does not. This same balance is also reflected in the two classical allusions to sons whose fathers are murdered: Pyrrhus and Brutus. Hamlet, then, is presented with the choice between these oppositions (463).

[17] It is beyond the scope of this article to engage in the debate about the nature of the ghost. Eleanor Prosser and Stephen Greenblatt have already done admirable work in contextualising how the ghost may have been interpreted by early modern audiences. Greenblatt points out how the sentries regard the ghost as a spectacle, a “fantasy,” a “dreaded sight,” an “apparition” (1.1.26, 28, 31; Greenblatt 208-09). Barnardo states (twice) that the ghost is “like the King” (1.1.44, 46; emphasis added), and Horatio notes that the ghost “usurp’st” the form of the king (49), suggesting that the sentries are fully cognizant that whatever else the ghost may be, it is not the late king.

[18] Prosser notes Elizabethans’ condemnation of revenge, and points to Bacon’s “unequivocal condemnation of private revenge under any circumstances . . . . He condemns all types as flatly wrong” (20). Prosser, however, does not examine Bacon’s suggestion that “public revenges are for the most part fortunate.”

[19] Critics disagree over Hamlet’s predisposition to listen. Cummings argues that Hamlet is “figuratively hard of hearing” as a result of “his own very fertile and noisy mind” (86-87). In contrast, Kenneth Gross claims that the prince has a “capaciousness of ear” and is predisposed to listen to everyone (13).

[20] Not only is the account of King Hamlet’s poisoning substituted for the “secrets of [the ghost’s] prison-house” (1.5.14), but the ghost then revises and abbreviates this narrative when he notices the incipient dawn (58-59).

[21] It is difficult to ignore the allusion here to the serpent that “stung” Eve’s ear in the Garden of Eden, a serpent that raised questions about God’s command and offered an alternate tale instead.

[22] Pollard notes that Hamlet “is obsessively interested in the interior of the body” (124), and that the ear is shown to be a vulnerable entrance to the body’s interior. She argues that in this scene Hamlet is not merely at risk of being poisoned, but that the ghost intentionally poisons him (127).

[23] Jenkins notes that Pyrrhus “presents a monstrous and horrific figure in which the alarming potentialities of both murderer and revenger are contained,” mirroring both aspects in Hamlet (145). I suggest it is less Pyrrhus’ actions, than the way they are remembered that reveals to Hamlet how an avenging son can be deemed a brutal murderer.

[24] In Miscelanea, Meditations, Memoratiues (1604), in which she warns her son against being seduced from Catholicism, Elizabeth Grymeston also compares a “faire young maid” who listens to the “flattering gloze” of “a false Louer” to a “parleing citie [which] neuer long resists” (A4v). She is confident, though, that her son can detect deceit. She warns him, “God borroweth not the Syrens voice,” and suggests mortals are as much to blame as the devil for their downfall because of their own evil thoughts (Dv). In The Mothers Blessing (1616), Dorothy Leigh also equates female listening to sexual promiscuity in her advice to her sons and notes, like Polonius, that problems occur because women sometimes do more than just listen: “Had they onely lent an eare . . . they had done well enough . . . . I would haue euery one know, that one sinne begetteth another. The vaine words of the man, and the idle cares of the woman, beget vnchaste thought oftentimes in the one, which may bring forth much wickednesse in them both” (Brown, 27-28).

[25] Even while the ghost clearly supports Hamlet’s demand for secrecy, its under-stage presence as an “old mole” (1.5.170) and its ability to repeat what it hears demonstrate the difficulty of keeping such secrets in Elsinore.

[26] I am not claiming that Claudius and the rest of the court do not see the dumb show, but simply that they lack sufficient information to know how to respond. Roth notes that Claudius is the only one in the court who knows that King Hamlet has been murdered and he does not react because to do so would confirm his guilt. The others, he argues, do not react because they do not connect the poisoning of the dumb show with King Hamlet’s death by snakebite (par. 10-11).

[27] Tiffany claims that the inserted speech begins with the Player Queen’s interruption and extends to her pledge of everlasting fidelity (3.2.172-218; Tiffany 316), while J. Dover Wilson claims that the inserted speech begins, “Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing” (3.2.249; Wilson 162). Hamlet’s aside, “What, frighted with false fire?” (260), when Claudius leaves the play suggests, however, that the king reacts earlier than anticipated and that Hamlet’s insertion is either not heard or not heard in full.

[28] See Jenkins 145, 508; Levin 88; J. Dover Wilson 170-71. Wilson claims that Hamlet’s decision to threaten the king in this way is spontaneous, while Prosser argues that it is an “error” that reveals his emotional turmoil (181 n9). Pollard agrees that The Mousetrap does not focus on the murder of Hamlet Senior, but on the death of his murderer at the hands of Hamlet. She notes that even the play’s original title, The Murder of Gonzago, points to this substitution as Luigi Gonzaga was the murderer not the victim in the historical account of the Duke of Urbino’s 1538 death by poisoning (128, 140).

[29] Bruce Danner and Steve Roth argue that it is not Claudius’ lack of response, but Hamlet’s conflation of his father’s murder with his own threatened revenge that leads to the lack of conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt (Danner 32; Roth par. 12).

[30] Most textual scholars now agree that Hamlet was written before the Earl of Essex’s rebellion on February 8, 1601, likely towards the end of 1599 or in 1600 (Cathcart 341, Jenkins 13). While textual differences between Q1, Q2, and F1 indicate later revision, these do not appear to be in direct response to the Essex rebellion. Nonetheless, both J. Dover Wilson and Edward Le Comte argue that the Earl’s personal foibles, political career, and calamitous fall may have influenced Shakespeare’s play (Le Comte 89-94, Wilson 228).

[31] In his complaint that people fail to pay attention to sermons against the “abhominable practices of playes,” Gosson wonders “whether our eares be wilfully stoped, and our eyes muffled . . . or whether the deuill our ancient enemie hath stricken so deepe and so venemous into the heart of man, as hath infected, and wounded the soule to death” (B2r-v). His description here is remarkably similar to the ghost’s account of King Hamlet’s poisoning, and it suggests that both playwrights and anti-theatricalists wanted “serious hearing,” and that both understood the potentially corrupting effect of false stories, the very fictions on which the theatres depended.

[32] Tiffany also sees connections between the power granted to words and listening in Hamlet and the anti-theatrical rhetoric of Protestant preachers (309).

[33] There has been much critical debate on the Richard II-Essex connection, most recently initiated by Leeds Barroll’s criticism of New Historicist use of historical documents. Chris Fitter outlines the reasons why Shakespeare’s play was most likely the one performed along with Barroll’s argument about why the Privy Council may have been more concerned with sedition in print sources than in the theatre (note 46). Arthur F. Kinney suggests that the theatre may have been considered less seditious because of the ephemeral nature of performance, noting that unless Elizabeth attended a performance, she “could have no certain proof of seditious intent” (466). Kinney does not, however, consider the possibility that this very unknowability may have also concerned the authorities.


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2006-,Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).