The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0911 Monday, 12 May 2003
From: Paul Swanson <
Date: Sunday, 11 May 2003 12:25:50 EDT
Subject: Performances and Audiences in Hamlet
In looking at "Hamlet" the other day, I was struck by a connection
between Hamlet and Claudius that I had not made before.
Hamlet and Claudius are each audience members to a performance. For
Claudius, of course, his participation as an audience member watching
"The Mousetrap" in 3.2 has received much discussion. Hamlet, too, is an
audience member is 2.2, first initiating the Player's speech on the
murder of Priam, and then stepping back to listen to an oration of the
Player describing the murder of the Trojan King.
Interestingly, both performances lead Hamlet to meditate on the nature
of "freedom" and moral purity. After the player's speech, Hamlet
admonishes himself for not being as moved as the player, noting that if
the Player had the "motive and the cue for passion / That I have," the
Player would "drown the stage with tears / And cleave the general ear
with horrid speech, / Make mad the guilty and appall the free..."
(2.2/555-558) During the Mousetrap, Hamlet sarcastically notes that the
audience shouldn't feel squeamish about watching such unpleasant subject
matter because "we that have free souls, it touches us not"
In each performance, however, both Hamlet and Claudius respectively are
"touched," drawing a clear parallel between their characters. Each is
moved by being an audience member who is exposed in either verbal or
visual means to a murder of a King, and using Hamlet's terms, neither is
"free" of moral uncertainty because of their respective circumstances.
In short, the "conscience of the King" is not the only conscience moved
in the play. Hamlet, in essence, writes two plays in Shakespeare's
drama: one is The Mousetrap, and one is the Player's speech in 2.2.
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