Act Three, Part Six
By Dennis Abrams
I’m going to conclude our look at Act Three’s The Mousetrap” scene and aftermath, with an excerpt from Garber. If you’re interested in reading John Dover Wilson’s exhaustive (and close to exhausting) breakdown of the play within the play, you can buy What Happens in Hamlet here.
“The play Hamlet chooses to confront and entrap Claudius is very different from the Pyrrhus play, ‘Aeneas’ tale to Dido.’ The Pyrrhus speech came from a play with familiar epic values – Polonius, not surprisingly, found it classical and boring, not relevant to anything he knew or cared about. But The Mousetrap, or, to give it its other name, ‘The Murder of Gonzago,’ is a thriller, a modern (which it to say, a Renaissance) melodrama, a play of political intrigue. ‘The story is extant,’ says Hamlet, ‘and writ in choice Italian.’ Modern, current (or ‘extant’), and Italian – all harbingers of audience titillation. Italy, the home of Machiavelli, was often presented in English Renaissance drama as the site of scurrilous intrigue and scandal. A playwright had only to set his play there, as Ben Jonson would do with Volpone or John Webster with The Duchess of Malfi, he had only to give his characters Italian names, and it would be quite clear to the audience that they were being vouchsafed a glimpse into a world of decadence, sin, and forbidden pleasures – as well as of violence, betrayal, and murder.
In the course of The Mousetrap play the spectators first witness a dumb show, then hear a conversation, in rhymed couplets, between Player King and Player Queen; and finally see the entrance of the murderer. Throughout, Hamlet acts as interpreter – a role he will play throughout the larger drama, using his soliloquies and asides as a way of commenting to the offstage audience, just as his interpolations during The Mousetrap enlighten and disturb the onstage court. ‘You are as good as a chorus, my lord,’ Ophelia will observe, with characteristic artlessness. Hamlet’s glosses are brief and to the point. ‘This is one Lucianus, nephew to the King,’ he will explain as the murderer makes his appearance. Why ‘nephew’ and not, as in the real case of Claudius and old Hamlet, ‘brother?’ This is an explanation with an added menace – a glance backward that is also a glance forward. For it is Hamlet himself who is ‘nephew’ to King Claudius. The past murder and the present threat are combined: Claudius has killed Hamlet’s father; the ‘nephew’ quietly announces that he will avenge that murder with another. And then ‘[t]he King rises,’ calling an end to the performance, yet another broken play, perhaps the most famous and effectively truncated play-within-the-play in all of Shakespeare, structurally akin to ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the pageant of the ‘Nine Worthies’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and to Prospero’s masque in The Tempest.
But which play has the audience of Hamlet been watching? As always, our consciousness is closely knit with Hamlet’s, and Hamlet, clearly, has been watching not the stage but the King. The suspense for him is in what Claudius will or will not reveal, not in the outcome of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ – an outcome he already knows and that, indeed, he may in part have written in those elusive, added ‘dozen or sixteen lines.’ Once again Claudius and Gertrude are the Player King and the Player Queen. We have been deceived by our eyes again. The play was in the audience. Claudius and Gertrude are the ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’ of Hamlet’s soliloquy (2.2.566), but they are also the bad actors he criticizes in his advice to the players: “O there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise…that neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor no man…’ The King and Queen are audience, but they are also players, players now caught in Hamlet’s play, caught in his mousetrap. Art now acts on life. The play catches the king. What seems to be a mere fiction or fabrication reveals a key truth.
From this moment, from the play’s principal turning point (3.2), Hamlet will himself begin to act, not only in the gravedigger’s sense of ‘perform,’ but also in his sense of ‘do.’ When he next appears, he will act, quickly and without remorse, in his mother’s closet, stabbing behind the arras at the intruder he is sure is Claudius, killing Polonius instead:
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell.
I took thee for thy better.
The sentiment, and the phrase, recall Prince Hal’s epitaph on the fallen Falstaff at Shrewsbury. ‘Poor Jack, farewell./I could have better spared a better man.’ As it turns out, Falstaff is not really dead. But with the indubitably dead Polonius, Hamlet wastes no time on pathos or pity. He does not even ‘lug the guts into the neighbour room,’ until he has spoken with, and shamed, his mother. The body of Polonius lies onstage, a visceral object lesson and memento mori, throughout the rest of the scene – much as did, in earlier history plays, the coffins of dead kings.”
I’d like to take a quick look at a character I’ve been ignoring – Claudius – and his Third Act soliloquy courtesy of Frank Kermode:
“Claudius’s soliloquy could be used to signal the fuller maturity of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse in Hamlet. It sets us, and its writer, on the road that leads eventually to the tragic intensities of Coriolanus. Take these nine lines as a sample:
May one be pardon’d and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law, but ‘tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.
It’s hardly necessary to point out the differences between this kind of speech and that of Marcus in Titus Andronicus, or even that or Richard II as he considers his fate, or of Brutus meditating in the orchard. Here is a man suffering from his thought, working out his violent emotion in violent, immediate language, subjected to the pressure and slippage of bold, even anguished, metaphor. He asks, already knowing the answer, whether he can repent and yet retain the benefits of his crime. (‘Retain th’ offense’ is very compressed; a soliloquy of this sort is distinguished by its great alterations of pace, its constrictions as well as its expatiations.) He speaks of ‘the corrupted currents of this world,’ where ‘currents’ is vague – it can mean course of events, as in modern ‘current affairs,’ but also have a sense of flowing or even ‘sloping,’ ‘having an inclination to fall,’ as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. A corrupt current could be a sewer. Claudius, a man of turbulent intelligence, does not develop the idea but instead presents an allegory so briefly sketched that it almost passes as something other than allegory: Offence, the crime, holds money in his hand and shoves by justice – pushes it aside. Then, relaxing into the literal, he puts it thus: that the gold obtained by the crime may be the bribe that ensures the offender’s security. He contrasts this position with what obtains in the world ‘above,’ where ‘There is no shuffling, there the action lies/In his true nature.’ ‘Shuffling’ means underhand or equivocating conduct, here especially legal trickery (he moves from justice to law). The action (the prosecuting case in court) lies (its sustainable). In that case full confession is unavoidable. ‘Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults’ – here again are the brows, now compelled to be honest, and now associated with teeth. This line is usually taken to mean a hostile face-to-face confrontation, but that interpretation misses the point that the evidence of the accused is a total confession, so that the face, teeth, and brows will be ashamed, not defiant. In any case, the face is attributed to the ‘faults,’ which are now unconcealable shames; no mask, no helmet, no lie covers them.
Here we have the energy, the flurries of oblique association, that characterize Shakespeare at his best. The play of figures, echoing one another, the failure or refusal to follow the old course of milking similitudes, the changing depth of focus on Mercy, Justice, Offence, the colloquial roughness of ‘shove’ and ‘shuffle,’ the persistent but not expansive legal references testify not only to a different range of metaphorical usage but to a different, dramatic manner of representing a man thinking, under the stress of guilt and fear. Only at the end of his speech does Claudius lapse into an older style: ‘O wretched state! O bosom black as death!’ – a line which serves to remind us that there was a continuing but increasingly tense relationship with the past.”
One final point I’d like to bring up. Why wasn’t Gertrude able to see her husband’s ghost? Bradley argues that in Shakespeare’s day, a ghost could only manifest itself to a single person in a company. Wilson strongly disagrees:
“…Gertrude is unable to see the ‘gracious figure’ of her husband because her eyes are held by the adultery she has committed. [MY NOTE: Committed before her husband’s death.] The notion…was probably a common one in the period, and Shakespeare doubtless expected his audience to assume it without explicit statement on his part. He emphasizes it, however, unmistakably enough – and this is the second point, not in words, but in the action of the Ghost himself…Here is the clue to the following as yet unexplained lines in Shakespeare’s play:
Queen:…Whereon do you look?
Hamlet: On him! on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form an cause conjoined, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects, then what I have to do
Will want true color, tears perchance for blood.
Hamlet’s words indicate some strange agitation in the Ghost’s face and actions, an agitation that wrings the son’s heart with pity and forces tears to his eyes. What is it?…The Queen’s words to Hamlet reveal to the Ghost that she is cut off from him, that she can neither hear nor see him; he holds out hands in supplication towards her; he turns a face full of anguish upon Hamlet; and as the horror of the whole situation dawns upon him and he realizes the reason for her insensibility, he ‘steals away’ in shame, ‘out at the portal.’ It is the last glimpse we have of King Hamlet; he returns to his purgatory with the added torment that he is separated for all eternity from the being he loves best.
No wonder Hamlet is overcome by the pity of it. For he feels his father’s grief not only as a son but as a lover. He too has held out hands in silent supplication; he too has stolen from the closet of a beloved one with pale and stricken face; he too has been met with a stony stare of fright and estrangement. The Ghost’s farewell to Gertrude is a repetition of Hamlet’s farewell to Ophelia [MY NOTE: Another doubling!] at the beginning of act 2. Shakespeare does not do these things by accident.”
So what do you all think so far? Any questions? Anything I haven’t covered? I’m going to take tomorrow off to start reading Act Four – I’ll post again Sunday evening/Monday morning.
Enjoy your weekend.