Essay: Shakespeare Hamlet

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Dumb Show in Hamlet

The Significance of the Dumb-Show in Hamlet

As Mary Anderson asserts, "The role of theatre as a medium which incorporates both the eye and the ear in the transmission of ideas is also a central theme in the play" (300). The role of theatre as one of the themes of Hamlet is evident almost entirely throughout the drama. The arrival of the players follows closely upon the arrival of the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, called to keep an eye on Hamlet. Polonius, at Hamlet's request, recalls his own acting days. The stage is used to reflect in dumb-show and in drama the murder of King Hamlet by his brother Claudius. Hamlet himself enjoys the theatre more than anything else, because it acts as a mirror whereby one might learn the truth of the world around him. Hamlet is also a kind of actor, best described as a mirror, reflecting both the faults and the virtues of those with whom he comes into contact. In Hamlet, the theatre (in all its manifestations) states things that cannot be spoken in any other way.

This fact raises the significance of the dumb-show performed by the players as a prelude to the "mousetrap." But this dumb-show performance is not the first of its kind in the play: it is preceded by dumb-shows from both the ghost and Prince Hamlet. The handful of brief dumb-show performances represents the tragic consequences of attempts by some characters to silence others. This paper will show how the relevance of the dumb-show tradition applies to Hamlet by conveying a sense of the disconnect between what is said and what is seen, what is false and what is true.

While theatre, as Anderson observes, appeals to both the eye and the ear, there is throughout the play a disconnect between what the eye sees and what the ear hears. Elsinore, for instance, is as enshrouded in lies as it is in fog at the opening of the play: its inner turmoil is hidden both by Claudius' lies and the puppeteering of Polonius, yet both assume a semblance that is both kind and concerned. Hamlet, wishing to discern the true state of things at Elsinore, cannot consult the King, Queen, or love Ophelia, as all are more or less encased in the deception and manipulation. When Claudius asks Hamlet, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" (1.2.68) it is an attempt by the King to steer Hamlet away from suspicion. Hamlet responds that he is "too much in the sun," (1.2.69), indicating on the pun that he neither wishes to play the part that has fallen to him (as son-in-law or as happy celebrant of the royal wedding). Both parts, Hamlet senses are false. The ear is filled with lies, but the eye acts as the window to the soul. Although Hamlet speaks his thoughts in words quite loquaciously, he is troubled by the fact that as he tries to sort through the lies, his own thoughts begin to betray him. His dumb-show performance for Ophelia, by which she is "so affrighted" (2.1.85) reflects both the effect of her rejection of his suit as well as the ghost's mysterious and otherworldly appearance at Elsinore. The ghost performs his own dumb-show for the watchmen (speaking only to Hamlet, when the two are apart from the others). In short, events at Elsinore have become so covered over that the dumb-show becomes one way in which some truth might be impressed upon the inhabitants.

B.R. Pearn defines the dumb-show as "a part of a play which presents by means of action without speech an element of plot which would more naturally be accompanied by speech" (385). This definition characterizes the ghost's "performance" upon the castle walls in the first scene of the play. It also characterizes Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia, which is depicted in words later to Polonius. To Ophelia, Hamlet acts out without speech his own inner feeling of being cut loose from all moorings. The ghost has testified to murder, his faith is being tested, and his trust in womanhood has now been broken. Whatever tethers held him to Ophelia are removed when she obediently follows her father's command and denies Hamlet his suit. She informs the audience of the effect it has had on him: "with his head over his shoulder turned, / He seemed to find his way without his eyes, / For out o' doors he went without their helps / And to the last bended their light on me" (2.1.109-12). Hamlet's "dumb-show" represents the inadequacy of the senses to understand and convey meaning. He cannot trust his ears (or he will become the dupe of liars), nor can he quite trust his eyes (as they see ghosts and the false appearances of friendliness). He must see by some inward light, of which Ophelia's support served as a kind of beacon. But with her rejection of Hamlet (under the ridiculous and intrusive orders of Polonius), all supports are taken away and his dumb-show illustrates just how "blind" he has become. He is pantomiming his own loss of love, faith, and sense.

Hamlet, of course, gradually recovers his equanimity as he tries to make sense of Elsinore, life, love, and himself. Full recovery, however, comes only after a further fall, instigated by the player's "dumb-show" enactment of murder by poison in the ear. This enactment reflects Claudius' poisoning of his brother and pricks the King's conscience; he in turn upsets the entire evening's scheduled entertainment by calling for lights and exiting the theatre. In both instances (Hamlet's "dumb-show" and the players' dumb-show), light is specifically mentioned. The King cries, "Give me some light. Away!" (3.2.295) and Polonius echoes the demand, crying, "Lights, lights, lights!" (3.2.296). The cry is a practical one: the King is anxious to avoid the scene being enacted on the stage and requires light to see his way safely out the theatre. But the call for light is doubly significant when in the next scene, Claudius is shown attempting to pray to God. The dumb-show and the ensuing drama (along with Hamlet's commentary) have apparently done their job: they have shown the King his true self in a way that he could not ignore and in a way that could overwhelm whatever defenses he had set in place. He sees himself fully, admits his crimes, and attempts to pray for mercy. The light that he calls for may be understood as light by which he may see his way both physically and psychically, or spiritually. The dumb-show casts a light upon his foul, black deeds. To reverse the effect, light is needed. No other means might have been adequate in provoking the King's conscience. The silent dumb-show is the first step in knocking down the walls of falsehood and pretense and allowing truth (or light) to get through to the mind and soul.

As Charles Boyce states, a dumb-show "could function as a prologue or chorus" in English theatre tradition (165) and that is certainly how it functions in Hamlet. The ghost's silent dumb-show, in which he appears and silently haunts the castle walls in his soldierly armor, serves as a prelude to his meeting with and imparting of a mission to Hamlet. Hamlet's "dumb-show" for Ophelia serves a prologue to his descent into madness. The players' dumb-show serves as a prologue to the main drama, which drives home the final thrust to Claudius' conscience. The English tradition associated the dumb-show with imitations of life and later with comic pantomime acts (Lust 2). They were not, in Elizabethan England, on the same level as serious dramatic performances and this may be the reason why the dumb-show itself does not deliver a startling or overwhelming effect on Claudius.

In fact, the lack of response on the part of Claudius to the dumb-show, in which his crime is clearly depicted in pantomime, has been the cause of debate among critics for years. The most common theory for Claudius' silence in response to the dumb-show (his explosion does not come until the drama proper gets underway) is that he is aghast at what he sees but attempts to control himself. Only with the second performance, in which his guilt is depicted in verse as well as action, does the King lose control of himself and quit the theater. In other words, he is able to handle the depiction once but not twice. The dumb-show breaks down the first barrier that he has erected between himself and Elsinore through his lies and cover-ups, and in this sense acts as a kind of battering ram, opening the gate to allow truth to penetrate more freely.

Thus, as Claudius tries to silence Hamlet, Hamlet uses the silent pantomime act of the theatre to assault Claudius. Hamlet, as always, acts as a perfect mirror: to reflect the insistence upon silence (Claudius all but gags Hamlet by surrounding him with spies and eventually plotting his complete removal from… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Shakespeare Hamlet.  (2013, March 9).  Retrieved June 15, 2019, from

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"Shakespeare Hamlet."  March 9, 2013.  Accessed June 15, 2019.