The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0410 Friday, 29 October 2010
From: Arnie Perlstein <
Date: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 2:59 PM
Subject: Allusion to Shakespeare in Poe's The Tell Tale Heart
I have recently updated some research I did last year which led me to discover a
significant allusion to Shakespeare in Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart," which I believe
has not previously been noted by any scholar. For fun, I will unfold the tale of my
discovery for you in stages, so as to maximize the chances of causing each
particular hair on your head to stand on end....
Poe's title hints toward the answer. The word "tell-tale" points to the following line
spoken by Scroop, the Archbishop of York, about the dying King Henry IV in Part 2
of Henry IV (the play):
"For he hath found to end one doubt by death Revives two greater in the heirs of
life, And therefore will he WIPE his TABLES clean And keep no TELL-TALE to his
MEMORY That may repeat and history his loss To new remembrance..."
This allusion to Part 2 of Henry IV, while I believe it to have been intentional on
Poe's part, is not, I assert, the end point of Poe' Shakespearean allusion in "The
Tell-Tale Heart." Yes, there are parallels between the King's paranoia about Prince
Hal being eager for him to die so that he might replace his father on the throne, on
the one hand, and Poe's narrator who murdered the old man who might be his
father, on the other.
But otherwise, I do not particularly perceive any strong parallels between the two
stories. Rather, I claim that Poe's allusion to that passage in Part 2 of Henry IV is
primarily a literary way station, the first stop in a two-stage allusive "flight" to
Poe's ultimate Shakespearean destination.
Because although most Bardolaters would not, I think, recognize the above passage
I just quoted from Part 2 of Henry IV, they WOULD recognize the FOLLOWING very
famous passage in ANOTHER one of Shakespeare's plays:
"Remember thee! Yea, from the TABLE of my MEMORY I'll WIPE away all trivial fond
records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and
observation copied there..."
Of course that is HAMLET speaking to the Ghost of his dead father, and isn't it
obvious that these two passages in two separate plays of Shakespeare are so
closely connected? -- so obvious, that the connection was seen and footnoted
hundreds of years ago by Shakespearean editors.
But what is not obvious, unless you think about it -- and this is where it gets
interesting -- is the powerful resonance between the situation and attitude of
Poe's paranoid crazy murderer in The Tell-Tale Heart, and Hamlet. Both involve the
protagonist being in the presence of the "ghost" (whether actual or imagined) of
his "father" -- a protagonist tormented by overpowering Freudian guilt over the
death of that "father".
That resonance is what I sensed initially, that caused me to begin a course of
literary sleuthing into the text of "The Tell-Tale Heart" verify my intuitions of that
resonance. And boy, did it pay off quickly!
That is when I actually read the text of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and found the
following textual "bread crumbs" which sealed the deal, in terms of proving an
intentional allusion on Poe's part:
["The Tell-Tale Heart"]
True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you
say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not
dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard ALL THINGS IN THE
HEAVEN AND IN THE EARTH. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad?
Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.
There are more THINGS IN HEAVEN AND EARTH, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your
[The Tell-Tale Heart]
So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that
every night, JUST AT TWELVE, I looked in upon him while he slept.
Hamlet, Horatio, and the guards all see the ghost at midnight
[The Tell-Tale Heart]
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon
the tin fastening , and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out, "WHO'S
The very famous first line of Hamlet, maybe the most famous first line of any play
ever written, is "Who's there?"
[The Tell-Tale Heart]
I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise when he had
turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been
trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself, "It is
nothing but the wind in the chimney, it is only A MOUSE CROSSING the floor,"
And, of course, you know that Hamlet refers to the play within a play as the
MOUSEtrap which he uses to try to trap Claudius into an admission of GUILT when
he watches a murder of a king in the play. But also in the beginning of the play, the
part with the Ghost, one of the guards responds to a nervous question as to how
his guard has gone with the line:
"Not a MOUSE STIRRING"
[The Tell-Tale Heart]
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise
precautions I took for THE CONCEALMENT OF THE BODY. The night waned, and I
worked hastily, but in silence.
Of course, after Hamlet kills Polonius (thinking he's really Claudius) by stabbing him
through the curtain in Gertrude's boudoir, Hamlet chops up Polonius's body and
hides the pieces for a while, to conceal what he has done.
And there are more less distinct echoes, which I think are not necessary to prove
that Poe intentionally alluded to Hamlet in The Tell Tale Heart.
And inspired by the above findings, I subsequently found a great deal of evidence
outside the text of The Tell Tale Heart, to corroborate my interpretation of this
allusion by Poe. ```` And I consider this discovery even more significant, in terms
of interpretation of HAMLET. What I see in Poe's allusion is a veiled interpretation
by Poe of Hamlet, in which Poe is, implicitly, suggesting that Hamlet HALLUCINATES
Poe was not the first to espouse that idea, and the idea really only caught the ear
of the Shakespeare public when Walter Greg wrote his famous article on this
subject just before Joyce published Ulysses nearly a century ago, but it still is big
news that Poe was ONE of the earliest---and how interesting that Poe, who wrote
an essay on Hamlet, did not mention this point at all.
There are indeed more things in literature than are dreamt of in the philosophy of
most literary scholars, if an amateur like myself is the first person to see this
profound connection between the famous writings of two great and renowned
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the opinions expressed
on it are the sole property of the poster, and the editor assumes no responsibility