The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0312 Monday, 17 April 2006
Date: Wednesday, 12 Apr 2006 09:52:16 -0600
What was the fascination with dumbshows about? In Hamlet's advice to the
players, he suggests that a taste for dumbshows was characteristic of an
unrefined popular audience (" . . . the groundlings, who are for the
most part capable of nothing but dumbshows and noise" [3.2.11-12]). And
of course Shakespeare apparently dispenses with dumbshows (except for a
play within the play), as do his contemporaries, suggesting that they
are outmoded during his lifetime. The criticism I've read suggests that
the dumbshow functions to foreshadow the main action. I also seem to
recall reading that dumbshows or miming go back to the Roman stage
tradition. Hamlet's comments after the dumbshow of the Murder of Gonzago
suggests his impatience ("Marry, this' miching mallico; it means
mischief"). Strangely, Ophelia seems unable to grasp the dumbshow,
asking Hamlet twice what it means, and speculating that it "imports the
argument of the play."
My questions are: why did they need a dumbshow to foreshadow the main
action, at least in the dramatic tradition which precedes Shakespeare?
How did this custom arise? How widespread and important was it? and what
was the attraction of dumbshows? They seem completely dispensable to me,
but then I've never been a fan of street mimes either.
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