The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0410  Friday, 29 October 2010

From:         Arnie Perlstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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:


[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 
the ghost!

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 


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