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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: April ::
Dumbshows?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0337  Friday, 21 April 2006

[1] 	From: 	Peter Goldman <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 10:09:47 -0600
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0312 Dumbshows?

[2] 	From: 	David Crosby <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 12:05:34 -0500
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0324 Dumbshows?

[3] 	From: 	Larry Weiss <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 14:12:05 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

[4] 	From: 	Ros King <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 20:02:38 +0100
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

[5] 	From: 	Kenneth Chan <
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	Date: 	Friday, 21 Apr 2006 08:20:55 +0800
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

[6] 	From: 	David Bishop <
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	Date: 	Friday, 21 Apr 2006 01:57:32 -0500
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

[7] 	From: 	Gabriel Egan <
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	Date: 	Friday, 21 Apr 2006 12:16:15 +0100
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Peter Goldman <
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Date: 		Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 10:09:47 -0600
Subject: 17.0312 Dumbshows?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0312 Dumbshows?

My original question was about dumbshows in general, not the dumbshow in 
Hamlet, except for what it tells us about Elizabethan stage practice. 
But since the question has been raised, here's my two cents:

I agree with Barbara Palmer's students that Hamlet apparently did not 
know that the players would stage a dumbshow, and he is not pleased. 
Why? perhaps because he thinks they will spoil the dramatic (and moral) 
impact of the main performance on Claudius: "The players cannot keep 
counsel; they will tell all." It's clear, however (to my mind), that 
Claudius is not paying attention to the dumbshow; typical of the 
informality of Elizabethan performances, the audience is eating, 
drinking, and talking among themselves. This is why Claudius doesn't 
react until the main performance.

As to why Shakespeare chose to include a dumbshow in the play, we can 
only speculate. Among other things, HAMLET is an extended meditation on 
the "purpose of playing," and playing during the Renaissance includes 
dumbshows. Hamlet's advice to the players, the long speech on Priam's 
slaughter, Polonius's comments on genre, the player's comments on the 
children acting companies: together these add up to Shakespeare's 
"abstract and brief chronicle" of the Elizabethan theater, in almost 
epic fashion. As part of his commentary, Shakespeare records the 
CHANGING stage practices: the long speech on Priam's slaughter is 
clearly outmoded, despite Hamlet's enthusiasm, and Hamlet's advice to 
the players registers the shift away from the tyrant's rant that Bottom 
loves so well, towards a more naturalistic acting style. Apparently, the 
dumbshow, along with the prologue, was part of a rather old-fashioned 
dramatic aesthetic that Hamlet, and perhaps Shakespeare, finds outmoded; 
when Shakespeare does use prologues and dumbshows in the Romances, they 
ask to be viewed as ironic and overtly self-conscious.

~Peter

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Crosby <
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Date: 		Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 12:05:34 -0500
Subject: 17.0324 Dumbshows?
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0324 Dumbshows?

Alan Desen does a service by citing the concise definitions of dumb 
shows from his and Leslie Thomson's _Dictionary of Stage Directions_. I 
can only add a few other plays of the period that use dumb shows to his 
list: James IV (1590), Captain Thomas Stukely (1596), The Downfall of 
Robert, Earl of Huntington and the Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington 
(both 1598), The Four Prentices of London (1600), and The Devil's 
Charter (1607). The existence of some 90 plays in the period that use 
dumb show in some way certainly testifies to the convention's 
usefulness, though playwrights often apologize when they use it merely 
to get out of a sticky dramatic situation.

David Lindley is also helpful in recommending Dieter Mehl's book on 
Elizabethan Dumb Show, which has yet to be supplanted. It should be 
supplemented, especially for those who seek the origin of dumb show in 
English drama, by the studies of tournament, court entertainment, civic 
pageantry, and emblems published by Glynne Wickham, Sydney Anglo, and 
David Bergeron. Their work is too frequently overlooked by those who 
focus only on the professional stage.

David Crosby

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Larry Weiss <
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Date: 		Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 14:12:05 -0400
Subject: 17.0329 Dumbshows?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

I am not dogmatic about the following speculation, an idea in progress:

If WS wanted to make clear that Claudius's reaction ("Give me some 
light!") was in response to Hamlet's taunting threats and not to The 
Mousetrap, he might first show us that Claudius did not react to the 
explicit depiction of his crime in the dumbshow.

But why would he not react?  Claudius does not strike me as the type of 
man who would explain confusing events by reference to supernatural 
phenomena.  He would surely wonder how Hamlet happened to produce a play 
exactly paralleling his crime, as there was no rational explanation for 
Hamlet having such knowledge.  He would hardly assume that his dead 
brother told Hamlet what happened.  So he would likely chalk it up to 
the kind of coincidence that leads some people to farfetched conspiracy 
theories.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Ros King <
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Date: 		Thursday, 20 Apr 2006 20:02:38 +0100
Subject: 17.0329 Dumbshows?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

But the dumbshow doesn't tell the same story as the play as heard with 
Hamlet's running commentary. If all guilty creatures sitting at a 
play/movie gave themselves away the moment they saw something remotely 
similar to their crime we wouldn't have so many unsolved murders. 
Claudius is fazed not by the murder (they're 2 a penny as he knows) but 
by Hamlet's identification of the murderer as 'nephew to the king' and 
by the motivation that Hamlet supplies about murdering him in the garden 
for his estate. The two together announce that Hamlet knows what 
happened and that he intends to take revenge - which in a sense he does 
perfectly by poisoning him through the ear in this way. See Nigel 
Alexander, Poison Play and Duel.

You could argue that the dumbshow is therefore necessary because it 
tells Hamlet that the ruse won't work unless he does something more 
explicit to stir things up. Or you could say that the dumbshow and 
play+commentary together show both past and intended future

Best,
Ros King
School of English and Drama

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[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Kenneth Chan <
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Date: 		Friday, 21 Apr 2006 08:20:55 +0800
Subject: 17.0329 Dumbshows?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

Jeffrey Jordan writes: "I believe he included the Dumb Show because the 
Mousetrap play was interrupted, when Claudius left.  I think that's the 
"functional" reason in Hamlet.  Without the Dumb Show, the Hamlet 
audience wouldn't really know what the Mousetrap play was going to 
present, and he recognized that problem."

This explanation of the need for the dumb show would roughly parallel 
that given by Dover Wilson. Nonetheless, while I agree that it would 
help the audience follow the drama, the dumb show is not strictly 
necessary. The text had already made it clear that the play would 
resemble the ghost's account of his murder. We already know Hamlet's 
purpose in staging the play - he clearly stated it in his soliloquy in 
Act 2 and, again, in his conversation with Horatio.

Jeffrey Jordan writes: "I have "staged" the Dumb Show, on paper, 
according to the implicit staging directions embedded in the dialogue in 
Hamlet, and it indicates that the Dumb Show is turned toward Hamlet, and 
away from Claudius, to a degree that Claudius cannot see the Poisoner's 
hand when he holds the vial close to the King's ear.   Claudius can't 
see that it's a poisoning, done the same way he poisoned his brother, so 
Claudius will presume the King was killed by suffocation, or some other 
common method."

I find it doubtful that Shakespeare would have left that important point 
- that Claudius could not see the key element of the dumb show - 
embedded only in implicit staging directions. Surely Shakespeare would 
have realized that most people would then miss the point completely 
(which is the case). Also, even if Claudius could not see exactly how 
the King was poisoned in the ear, the dumb show should still resemble 
the murder sufficiently.

Kenneth Chan

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Bishop <
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Date: 		Friday, 21 Apr 2006 01:57:32 -0500
Subject: 17.0329 Dumbshows?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

If we may again discuss Hamlet, despite the inrush of crankishness that 
discussion invites, the dumbshow may be a good place to start. What 
Jenkins called this "problem which is...no problem" again makes plain 
that understanding this play involves an understanding of what 
represented characters are and are not up to, an understanding in the 
pursuit of which one must partly train oneself to the intuition good 
criticism demands.

At least some things ought to be clear. Stage directions, for example, 
are unlikely to be false or even vitally incomplete. Claudius does not 
miss the dumbshow because he's talking to Gertrude, nor does he miss the 
poison poured in the ear because he's sitting in obstructed seating. The 
players, as far as we know, are Danish, Hamlet isn't horrified at the 
unexpected dumbshow, Shakespeare was not making this an example of 
undecidability in support of Derrida, nor was he depicting the 
repression of truth to illustrate a platitude. To be serious 
explanations have to stick closer to the play, which means to what's 
happening with the characters and the audience.

Claudius has committed a crime known only, he thinks, to himself. So far 
he's done a practically perfect job of hiding it. We know it preys on 
his conscience from his "painted word" speech, but no one else knows of 
the crime except Hamlet and Horatio--and they were told. To believe that 
the dumbshow would instantly provoke a flagrant reaction from this 
secret criminal requires perhaps the nerves of a scholar. An ideal 
spectator, attentive, empathetic and honest, would not make that mistake.

The dumbshow does get to Claudius more subtly, though, leading to his 
questions, "Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in't?" The 
dumbshow shows us all how the Mousetrap play will go, so as the action 
is repeated, with words, we can pay more attention to Claudius, and feel 
his emotion building to its climax. Not that we need concentrate on him, 
but part of our attention is released by knowing what's coming. We don't 
even have to get to the murder again before we see how he reacts "Upon 
the talk of the poisoning".

I agree with Jenkins that "Only a modern spectator for whom Hamlet has 
been staled by familiarity is likely to find the dumbshow otiose", only 
amazed at how staled Shakespeare's readers have evidently become. 
Witness Stanley Cavell's snatching up of the Gregian baton. Or maybe 
"staled" isn't the right word. "Familiarity" might not be either.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Gabriel Egan <
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Date: 		Friday, 21 Apr 2006 12:16:15 +0100
Subject: 17.0329 Dumbshows?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0329 Dumbshows?

Markus Marti wrote

 >They [Elizabethan actors] did not have programmes with plot summaries . .

According to the essay "'On each Wall and Corner Poast': Playbills, 
Title-pages, and Advertising in Early Modern London' in the journal 
_English Literary Renaissance_ volume 36 (2006) pages 3-170, they did. 
Tiffany Stern points out that the surviving document of Vennar's hoax 
_England's Joy_ is not a playbill but a kind of programme giving the 
plot. In Ford's _Lover's Melancholy_ 3.3 the author of the masque enters 
with a paper plot that he gives the prince, and Heironymo gives a 
playbook and 'argument' to the king in Kyd's _Spanish Tragedy_. It being 
a courtly practice, the occasion in Hamlet is just when we might expect 
such a thing.

Gabriel Egan

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