The preponderance of ears and hearing in Hamlet
been well noted by critics.
There are more references to ears
than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays and those ears are most often at
risk of some form of violence: not only are they literally poisoned, but
they are also “abus’d” (1.5.38), “[t]ake[n] prisoner” (2.2.473), “cleave[d]”
(2.2.557), “mildew’d” (3.4.64), and metaphorically stabbed (3.4.95).
While the play might be read as a text on early modern beliefs about the
anatomy and physiology of the ear as Peter Cummings suggests (83), it can
also be read as a manual on parent-child relationships. The play presents
several parent-child connections, foregrounding those of Hamlet with his
late father and uncle/step-father and offering the parallel relationships
of Laertes and Ophelia with Polonius, and of Fortinbras with his late father
Moreover, each father-son pairing
is complicated by the father’s death and the son’s desire to avenge that
death, an event the son does not witness, but of which he later hears.
However, in contrast to most early modern conduct literature on parent-child
relationships, in which the need for children—whatever their age—to listen
to and obey their parents is repeatedly emphasized, Hamlet
relationships in which sons and daughters are endangered by listening to
and obeying fathers and father-substitutes. I therefore wish to explore
how inter-generational acts of listening in Hamlet
echo or distort
the advice found in the conduct literature and how attending to these acts
of listening may affect the theatre audience.
Advising Parents and Listening Children
Many writers of early modern medical, philosophical, and
religious treatises describe listening as a dangerous necessity. They note
that it is vital for social interaction and for learning the truth (both
earthly and spiritual), but that it leaves the listener open to infiltration
and potential corruption.
Sound is often described in invasive and violent
terms (Folkerth 108-10),
and while listening was believed
necessary for discerning the truth, it was recognised that a listener could
not reliably determine the truth of what was heard.
Listening, as the precursor to obedience, also underpinned the social hierarchy,
and conduct literature frequently emphasizes the need for subjugated individuals—including
children—to attend to those in authority. In his discussion of filial obedience,
William Gouge cites Ephesians 6.1: “Children obey your parents in the Lord:
for this is right,” before declaring that obedience is shown by a “humble
submission to hearken
, that is, to attend and give heed to the commandements,
reproofes, directions, and exhortations which are given to them” (132-33).
There appears to have been no upper age limit for this
sign of obedience. Writers rarely distinguish between minor and adult children,
suggesting that the same rules apply, regardless of age.
Moreover, as the patriarchal structure of domestic hierarchy was believed
to reflect a divinely ordained pattern of universal order, children were
warned that failing to “harken unto their [fathers’] instructions” was like
“gaine-say[ing] . . . the will of God” (Primaudaye 539). According to Richard
Brathwait, few children would ignore their parents, because “there is an
inbred filiall feare in Children to their Parents, which will beget in them
more attention in hearing, and retention in holding what they heare” (English
183). Nonetheless, just in case children did not listen
properly, Gouge describes exactly how they should attend to their parents:
“The many exhortations given in Scripture unto children to heare, hearken,
give eare, give heed, marke, and observe
the words of their parents,
doe imply the forenamed silence
: For they who
ought to be swift to
heare must bee slow to speake
.” He adds
that failure to keep quiet, interrupting, “fretting,” “murmuring,” “flinging
or slinking away,” while parents are speaking are all signs of disobedience
(437-38). Even when parents are “long and tedious,” children must “indure
In act one of Hamlet
, the audience sees three father-son
pairings in which sons are required to listen to father-figures: first,
Hamlet refuses to listen respectfully to Claudius; second, Laertes attends
deferentially to Polonius; and third, Hamlet listens to a ghost claiming
to be his father.
In 1.2, Hamlet murmurs and frets during his step-father’s
speech (1.2.65; Hartwig 216), his very act of speaking indicating that he
does not regard Claudius as a father-figure and is unlikely to listen to
or obey him. He then pointedly pledges obedience to his mother alone (1.2.120),
further emphasizing his refusal to accept Claudius as a father-figure. In
contrast to Hamlet, Laertes is not only respectful to Claudius, asking his
king’s “leave and favour to return to France” (1.2.51), but he then patiently
listens to Polonius’ long-winded advice while his shipmates wait for him
(1.3.55-81). Not only does Laertes show what Gouge considers appropriate
respect for his father by breaking off his speech to Ophelia when Polonius
enters, but he also listens to his father without interrupting.
Only when Polonius signals the end of his speech, does Laertes speak and
then it is to “humbly
. . . take [his] leave” (1.3.82; emphasis added).
Polonius may not be aware that when dispensing his advice,
he is uttering his last words to his son, but his speech is intended to
prepare Laertes for his father’s absence. His advice may seem long-winded
and contradictory to us, but Shakespeare’s own audience may have considered
Polonius a wise father dispensing conventional, albeit ineffective, advice
to his son, particularly as his advice is similar to that of such prominent
fathers as Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, and James I, whose works in
the genre of parental advice literature were sufficiently popular to run
to several editions.
Both Burghley and Raleigh instruct their sons not to lend money, to avoid
those of inferior status, and to make friends with “some great man . . .
[and] compliment him often” (Wright 12), advice in keeping with Polonius’
counsel to Laertes. They also offer guidance on listening and speaking,
repeatedly warning their sons about trusting others with confidences. James
I acerbically advises his son, “Rather perswade thy selfe then thy friend
to keepe thine owne Councell” (16), while Raleigh succinctly notes, “He
that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his life,” and that a man who speaks too
much is easily overcome “like a city without walls” (Wright 25-26). Raleigh
specifically advises his son to “hearken much, and speak little” (26), counsel
that echoes Polonius’ “[g]ive every man thy ear, but few thy voice” (1.3.68).
Given that Polonius expresses principles similar to those
of such court-wise fathers as Raleigh and Burghley, Claudius’ counsellor
may be deemed to have a realistic understanding of the craft required of
a courtier. While we might think Polonius’ final exhortation, “to thine
own self be true” (1.3.78), at odds with his guidelines on how his son should
behave, Shakespeare’s contemporaries may have been more comfortable with
the idea that certain performed behaviours could be identified with a “true
Burghley, for example, tells his son that courtesy towards one’s
equals “makes thee known for a man well-bred” (Wright 13). Too often, critics
regard Polonius as “a bore” and “a foolish old man” (Taylor 275), an assessment
that echoes Hamlet’s complaint that the counsellor was “in life a foolish
prating knave” (3.4.217), without considering Hamlet’s bias. As Claudius’
trusted advisor, Polonius is Hamlet’s enemy; he has pledged allegiance to
the man Hamlet refuses to obey, and Hamlet is well aware that “whether or
not Polonius speaks foolish words, he speaks them into the ear of a king”
An Elizabethan audience may have approved of Polonius’
fatherly advice and Laertes’ patience, but Polonius’ inability to separate
his courtly role from his parental role may not have been considered so
positively. Required to eavesdrop on others as Claudius’ advisor, Polonius
adopts the same practice in the lives of his children and even uses them
as decoys to gather information (Taylor 276-77). As David Leverenz notes,
Polonius cares more for his position at court than for his daughter’s well-being,
and he uses his paternal authority to better his status as king’s advisor
(301). Seen by some as comic relief, Polonius’ appointment of Reynaldo to
spy on Laertes demonstrates the methods he uses to gather information and
suggests that he no more trusts his own family than those who threaten the
He has little
faith that the father-son bond is strong enough to ensure Laertes’ obedience.
Not only does Polonius manipulate, eavesdrop, and hire
spies to inform on his own children, but he also uses the same practices
to assess Hamlet’s filial obedience. In doing so, he ignores the danger
inherent in such actions. Hamlet does not expect to find a government official,
a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” (3.4.31) in his mother’s closet, anticipating
instead a family member, a husband, albeit one who is a king. As Lisa Jardine
notes, “Polonius has no legitimate place within the intimate space of Gertrude’s
closet; his presence fatally confuses privacy with affairs of state” (319).
Polonius fails to consider the risk of using political tactics in a private
sphere, just as he fails to note the risk of listening to conversations
to which he should not be privy. That Polonius dies because he is “in the
ear” (3.1.186) is reinforced by the fact that he is killed for responding
to what he hears when he cannot see what is happening.
His death also supports Raleigh’s
argument that “[h]e that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his life.”
While Polonius can only hear but cannot see in Gertrude’s
closet, the ghost is first introduced to us as an apparition without a voice.
Silent in response to Horatio’s command that it speak, it can be seen but
not heard. This silence contrasts Polonius’ verbosity in the previous scene,
but further connections may be drawn between the statesman and the ghost.
In ironic contrast to Polonius who does not realize that his advice to Laertes
are his final words to his son, Hamlet Senior has no opportunity to instruct
his son prior to his death. Instead, Hamlet must listen to the ghost tell
of that death. If children were generally predisposed to listen to their
parents, they were believed to be particularly attentive to their parents’
last words. Gouge notes that, of all the speeches a person might hear, “[t]he
words of a dying parent are commonly most regarded: his last words doe make
a deepe impression” (577).
The power of deathbed speeches, like that of farewell
speeches, stems from the knowledge that the body and voice of the speaker
will soon be gone, and this anticipated absence gives dying parents what
Wendy Wall calls an “invisible moral authority” (290-91). Wall offers the
deathbed speech of Mary Sidney, Philip Sidney’s mother, as an example of
such authority (290-91). Holinshed reports that Sidney “wounded the consciences,
and inwardlie pearced the hearts of manie that heard hir” (1551), a reaction
reminiscent of Hamlet’s response to the ghost he calls “father” (1.4.45)
when he hears that ghost describe how his father died. If the words of a
dying parent carry particular weight, how much more authority might be granted
to words apparently uttered from beyond the grave by that parent?
There is no question that Hamlet admires his father and
therefore would be especially inclined to attend to an apparition that looks
like the late king. He describes Hamlet Senior as “[s]o excellent a king”
(1.2.139), and “[a] combination and a form indeed / Where every god did
seem to set his seal” (3.4.60-61), contrasting him to the “mildew’d ear”
of Claudius (64). However, this contrast is equivocal. Hamlet puns on a
“mildew’d ear” both as an ear of grain that can infect the grain around
it and as a human ear that can be infected. With this latter meaning, though,
it is not Claudius, but Hamlet Senior who has a “mildew’d ear” as a result
of the poisoning. Indeed, earlier, Hamlet openly acknowledges that his father
was less than perfect, noting that he died “grossly, full of bread, / With
all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May” (3.3.80-81). Even the ghost
declares that King Hamlet was “[c]ut off even in the blossoms of [his] sin,
/ . . . With all [his] imperfections on [his] head” (1.5.76, 79). Given
these mixed descriptions of his father, Hamlet’s insistence on distinguishing
between his mother’s two husbands as “Hyperion to a satyr”(1.2.140), “Jove”
to a “pajock” (3.2.277-78), appears unfounded (Ferguson 296-97). While Hamlet’s
deification of his father is in keeping with Gouge’s admonition that children
show “reverend respect” regardless of their parents’ behaviour (441), others,
both in Elsinore and in the theatre, have difficulty seeing the contrast
he makes between his father and Claudius (Farrell 174-75). Indeed, it is
no coincidence that the ghost appears in the armour in which Hamlet Senior
killed Old Fortinbras, a deed for which Young Fortinbras now desires retribution.
Like Claudius, King Hamlet has committed an act that a son seeks to avenge.
Both the late Hamlet Senior and the apparition that resembles
him are presented ambiguously, and Hamlet remains doubtful whether the ghost
is “a spirit of health or goblin damn’d” (1.4.40).
Nonetheless, he identifies the ghost as his father, declaring, “I’ll call
thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane” (1.4.44-45). Indeed, the ghost
demonstrates the absolute authority of a king and father; it is “majestical”
(1.1.148), and its silent refusal to speak to Horatio and its speech to
Hamlet underscore its authority (Farrell 169). Its first words, “Mark me”
(1.5.2), are redundant given that Hamlet has just asked the apparition to
speak. The ghost’s command is a sign not only of who controls the conversation,
but also of how Hamlet needs to listen: he must “lend [his] serious
hearing” (l.5.5; emphasis added). Hamlet responds by declaring that he is
“bound to hear” (6), an acknowledgement of his willing bondage to the ghost.
Hearing, as the ghost warns him, binds Hamlet “to revenge” (7), and the
ghost reminds him of his filial duty: “List, list, O list! / If thou didst
ever thy dear father love—” (22-23), immediately before demanding Hamlet
take revenge. Unfortunately for Hamlet, what the ghost asks him to do is
unlawful, at least according to conduct book writers such as Gouge, and
even though the ghost later qualifies its demand to “howsomever thou pursuest
this act” (84), there is no doubt that it asks Hamlet to “[r]evenge his
[father’s] foul and most unnatural murder” (25).
In his long discussion of filial duty, Gouge considers
what should be done when parents demand that children avenge wrongs done
to them. Generally in accordance with the cultural tenet of filial obedience,
he draws the line at obeying a parental demand for vengeance. He insists
that such a demand is “Heathen” and that it is “unlawful” for children
to seek revenge (488). He is, however, aware of the pressure exerted on
children in the quest for vengeance. He writes, “some presse [revenge] so
farre upon children as they affright them with their parents Ghost,
saying, that if they neglect to revenge their parents wrongs, their Ghost
will follow them, and not suffer them to live in quiet, but molest them
continually” (488). Hamlet, though, is not simply “affright[ed]” by the
threat of his father’s ghost, but is confronted by an apparition resembling
him. Still, Hamlet is not conduct literature and therefore one has
to examine whether Gouge’s criticism of the filial drive to revenge wrongs
done to parents has any relevance to Hamlet’s dilemma.
Stephen Booth argues that while Hamlet
is a revenge
tragedy, it constantly draws on other frames of reference, including the
Christian context that underpins most conduct literature, to present conflicting
value systems (154). Even as the ghost demands revenge, it prohibits Hamlet
from acting against Gertrude by demanding that he “[l]eave her to heaven”
(1.5.86), echoing the Judeo-Christian belief that humans should not seek
revenge (Leviticus 19:18; Romans 12:19). The ghost’s conflicting demands
that Hamlet avenge his father’s death yet leave his mother alone may also
be an acknowledgement of Hamlet’s private and public motives for revenge.
In his essay, “Of Revenge,” Sir Francis Bacon considers revenge a “kinde
of Wilde Justice” that the law should “weed . . . out.” He admits, though,
that revenge may be necessary “for those wrongs which there is no Law to
remedy,” and differentiates between public revenge, which he considers exemplified
in Julius Caesar’s death, as “for the most part, Fortunate,” and private
revenge, which “is not so” (16-17). When a regicide like Claudius becomes
king, the law may be incapable of bringing him to justice. In Bacon’s terms,
then, revenge of King Hamlet’s death would be “fortunate.” Still, Hamlet
Senior’s death is also fratricide, a private affair linked to Claudius’
desire for Gertrude. This type of wrong, Bacon notes, should be “pass[ed]
. . . over” as that makes a person “Superiour: For it is a Princes part
to Pardon” (16).
Hamlet’s hesitation, therefore, may not only be due to
his doubts about the truth of what he hears from the ghost, but may also
stem from his inability to determine his motive for revenge. If he desires
vengeance for the death of his king, his action may be acceptable, but if
he is motivated to revenge his father’s murder, then his action will be
condemned. The consequences are not based on the act itself, but on his
motives. Thus, while bound to revenge because he has submitted to the ghost’s
authority and listened to its tale, Hamlet has difficulty fulfilling its
commands, not only because they are conflicting commands, but also because
he understands the risk he faces, unlike Laertes who rejects the consequences
of taking revenge, declaring, “I dare damnation . . . / Let come what comes,
only I’ll be reveng’d / Most throughly for my father” (4.5.133, 135-36).
Laertes readily acquiesces when Claudius claims, “Revenge should have no
bounds” (4.7.127), itself an ironic reversal of the ghost’s insistence that
Hamlet is “bound” “to revenge” (1.5.6-7). Moreover, just as connections
can be made between Laertes’ father and the semblance of Hamlet’s, so the
two sons are associated in their predisposition to listen to demands for
revenge from characters who fill the role of substitute parents.
Hamlet calls the ghost “father”
and grants it filial obedience, but he has no proof that the ghost is
his father; as he admits, it could be the devil. Equally, Claudius tries
to act as father to both Hamlet and Laertes, calling one “my son” (1.2.64)
and the other “a good child” (4.5.148), but in both cases he is clearly
a substitute. These substitute fathers are also similar in that they both
tell substitute tales. Claudius is about to tell Laertes that Hamlet has
gone to England, unlikely to return, when he is interrupted by a messenger
bearing Hamlet’s letter. Laertes never hears Claudius’ initial plan. Equally,
the ghost tells Hamlet that it “could a tale unfold whose lightest word
/ Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,” but then declares that
this tale cannot be told “[t]o ears of flesh and blood” (1.5.15-16, 22)
and substitutes another.
Nonetheless, this substitute tale provokes the same response
in its listener as the untold tale. It too “freeze[s]” Hamlet. This paralysing
tale, which Hamlet fears will stop his heart and cause him to age instantly:
“Hold, hold, my heart, / And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, / But
bear me stiffly up” (1.5.93-95), is of King Hamlet’s paralysing death, of
how his blood coagulated when hebona was poured into his ear. Neither was
King Hamlet’s ear the only one poisoned. The ghost notes that “the whole
ear of Denmark / Is by a forged process of [the king’s] death / Rankly abus’d”
(36-38), abuse caused by yet another substitute narrative: the tale that
the king was stung by a serpent.
If, as the ghost implies, ears are irrevocably poisoned by hearing a substitute
tale, then Hamlet is clearly at risk, even as he listens, of also being
poisoned and, like his father, he undergoes both an internal and external
change because of what he hears (Pollard 127).
Claudius, ever watchful of his nephew, complains that “nor th’exterior
nor the inward man / Resembles that it was” (2.2.6-7), and Ophelia notes
that Hamlet does not simply look as if he has seen a ghost, but that he
now resembles a ghost: “As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak
of horrors” (2.1.83-84), emphasizing how he has undergone a paralysing corruption
similar to that which killed his father.
While Hamlet’s exterior change is comparable to that suffered
by his father, it is also seen in another avenging son. Pyrrhus, like Hamlet,
“did the night resemble” (2.2.449) and, as he wreaks havoc in Troy, he becomes
covered in “coagulate gore, / With eyes like carbuncles” (458-59), a description
reminiscent of both the “vile and loathsome crust” (1.5.72) of the dying
king and the young prince’s “two eyes like stars start[ing] from their spheres”
(17). Pyrrhus also makes a first “wide” strike (2.2.468), a precursor to
Hamlet’s own misguided strike when he stabs Polonius. Both men also appear
to hesitate after their first attempt, Pyrrhus being momentarily paralysed
by what he hears. He is deafened by a “hideous crash [that] / Takes prisoner
[his] ear” (472-73), the sound being caused by the fall of Troy, the public
ramifications of his revenge. Hamlet, too, recognizes and perhaps hesitates
because, whatever his motives for revenge, there will be public repercussions
thanks to the position held by his father’s murderer. By seeking revenge
against his uncle, Hamlet commits treason against his monarch and risks
being condemned as a villain, just as Pyrrhus is considered the villain
in Priam’s death (Prosser 154).
Hamlet has already learned from the ghost how
rumours circulated after death can affect public affairs. With the account
of Priam’s slaughter, Hamlet is reminded of how a vengeful son can be labelled
a villain. It is little wonder, then, that he later insists that Horatio
tell his story, fearing “what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown,
shall I leave behind me” (5.2.349-50).
Hamlet’s willingness to listen to the ghost and Laertes’
ensuing openness to Claudius’ suggestions parallel what Laertes considers
his sister’s “too credent ear” (1.3.30). Prior to his departure, Laertes
warns Ophelia that listening to Hamlet may endanger her honour (29-32),
while her father is even more emphatic. Using the same analogy as Raleigh
when he compares a talkative man to an unprotected city, Polonius tells
his daughter to “[s]et your entreatments at a higher rate / Than a command
to parley” (122-23), and then insists,
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. (132-34)
Polonius thus gives contrasting advice to his children about listening.
Laertes may “[g]ive every man [his] ear but few [his] voice” (68), while
Ophelia must not listen to others, particularly Hamlet, because Polonius
assumes that she cannot distinguish truth from guile, and because listening
will prompt her to speak or “parley.”
In contrast to Polonius’ admonition to Ophelia,
and heedless of his friends’ warnings, Hamlet spends “private time” with
the ghost, giving it a “free and bounteous” audience (1.3.92-93). Moreover,
Hamlet’s desire to obey the ghost’s commands echoes Ophelia’s obedience
to Polonius. In both cases, this obedience leads to their undoing. Ophelia’s
compliance with her father’s command that she avoid Hamlet appears to provoke
his attack in the Nunnery scene, and the isolation she experiences due to
his rejection, her brother’s absence, and her father’s death contributes
to her madness. Like Hamlet, Ophelia is asked to obey contradictory commands.
She promises Laertes that his advice is “in my memory lock’d, / And you
yourself shall keep the key of it” (1.3.85-86) yet, almost immediately,
when her father asks what her brother has said, Ophelia tells him. Obedient
to her father, she must then be silent with Hamlet. She cannot even reveal
the reason for her changed behaviour. Hamlet, like Ophelia, is forced to
keep what he considers a parental command secret. 
In contrast to Raleigh’s belief that “He that keepeth his mouth, keepeth
his life,” both Ophelia and Hamlet suffer for their silence as these secret
commands have disastrous consequences, akin to the poison poured into King
Hamlet’s ear (Farrell 166).
Both Hamlet and Ophelia die because they listen to and
obey commands from parental figures (Hartwig 217). Laertes also dies as
a result of his obedience, though initially he is anything but silent. He
returns to Elsinore hot for revenge when he learns of his father’s murder.
However, he is too much his father’s son to maintain his opposition to Claudius.
Laertes, thanks to Polonius’ tutelage, understands court politics and how
one needs to be friends with “some great man” as Burghley advises his son.
Laertes tells Claudius that he would give his life for his “friends” (4.5.145-47),
a declaration that earns him the new king’s approval. The problem is that
Laertes behaves “like a good child” towards a man who is not his father,
and while Claudius is king and therefore must be obeyed, he is of course
a substitute king. Both Laertes and Hamlet fail to limit their filial obedience
to their blood parents, granting it to those who simply look or act like
parents. Furthermore, their failure to consider the substitute nature of
the father figures to whom they listen demonstrates the risk of listening
when a speaker’s motives cannot be determined. Polonius might claim, “[T]o
thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou
canst not then be false to any man” (1.3.78-80), but there is no way of
knowing if speakers are always true to themselves and, therefore, whether
they are being false to others. Claudius looks like a king, but his true
self is not kingly. Equally, Hamlet listens to the ghost because it looks
like his father, but he cannot discern the ghost’s true nature. These young
men might be criticized for their inability to ascertain these speakers’
intentions, but they are not alone in trying to determine what lies beneath
“actions that a man might play” (1.2.84).
Substitution, Intention, and Interpretation
The play itself demonstrates the difficulty of being able
to discern intention from action, thought from speech, and the fencing match
explicitly shows how an event can be variously interpreted when the motives
behind the action remain hidden. Laertes sees the fencing match as a way
to revenge the death of his father, while Claudius regards it as an opportunity
to rid himself of Hamlet, whom he rightly considers a “[h]azard” and “fear”
(3.3.6, 25). Vincent Crapanzano argues that for Laertes and Claudius, the
“mimicking game” of fencing masks “the mimicked reality, the fight-to-the-death”
(310); they know that the match will end in bloodshed and death, while Gertrude
and most of the courtiers see the game as just that. Hamlet is aware that
it hides something less innocent, though he cannot see the precise “villainy”
(5.2.317) until Laertes tells him that the sword he holds is “[u]nbated
and envenomed” (323). According to Richard Flatter, Hamlet is not surprised
that Laertes’ foil is unbated, but he is surprised that it is also poisoned
(141-42). Hamlet may see the unbated foil and he obviously both sees and
feels his own wound, but it is not until he hears Laertes’ words
that he can fully understand what is happening.
, the audience and the characters
onstage repeatedly see something before hearing the information necessary
to understand what has been seen. As noted, the ghost appears in the first
scene, but does not tell its story until the end of act one. Claudius enters
as king in the second scene, but his confession remains unheard until act
three. It is therefore no surprise that Claudius and the rest of the court
do not respond to the dumb show of The Mousetrap
; they must also
hear the play itself (Anderson 306).
Both Pollard and Tiffany point to Claudius’ reaction on hearing
the play as indicative of the power of speech to infiltrate a listener (Pollard
139; Tiffany 318). Certainly, Hamlet thinks that Claudius moves “Upon the
talk of the poisoning” (3.2.283). Still, hearing alone is also insufficient,
as shown by Polonius’ death, caused by Hamlet and the old counsellor reacting
blindly to what they hear. Paul Kottman believes that the sequence of spectacle
followed by speech presents (and inaugurates) theatre experience as shared
spectacle that suspends even as it impels and requires affirmation through
speech (40-51). In contrast, Bill Readings argues that the play demonstrates
“a certain failure of representation” in both visual display and the spoken
word (47), and Polonius’ experience demonstrates that listening is not enough,
while the ghost’s appearance and the dumb show indicate that seeing a spectacle
is equally inadequate. As Andrew Mousley notes, characters try to discover
the truth behind what they hear and see so they can ascertain how to act
(77). Hamlet therefore tries to construct an understanding of events from
the repetitions and revisions that constitute the play, even creating his
own re-enactment with The Mousetrap
and its dumb show, so he can
determine a course of action.
The problem is, as Steve Roth notes, that Hamlet’s plan
fails to work (par. 9). To begin with, the play is a substitute in a number
of ways. It takes on an alternate purpose as it is used not just to entertain,
but to determine Claudius’ guilt. The play is even given another title by
Hamlet indicating this change, The Mousetrap
being substituted for
The Murder of Gonzago
In addition, Hamlet inserts a speech
into it, substitute words that are never identified.
Intended originally to depict
the murder of the Duke of Gonzago, the play, at least to Hamlet, “comes
near the circumstance / . . . of [his] father’s death” (3.2.76-77). The
play also represents Hamlet’s desired revenge—the murder of his uncle—for,
as Hamlet is careful to point out, Lucianus is the Player King’s nephew,
not his brother, as would be expected if the murder of King Hamlet were
Despite the indeterminacy of events actually represented
in The Mousetrap
, Hamlet is confident that Claudius will interpret
the play as a re-enactment of his crime and confess. Not only does Hamlet
note that on seeing a play, the guilty have been moved to “proclaim . .
. their malefactions” (2.2.588), but he also tells Horatio, “If [Claudius’]
occulted guilt / Do not itself unkennel in one speech, / It is a damned
ghost that we have seen” (3.2.80-82). The problem is that Claudius simply
calls for lights and does not confess his crime within Hamlet’s hearing.
Nonetheless, Hamlet interprets the spectacle of Claudius rising as a sign
of his guilt, even though, in Hamlet
itself, verbal commentary is
shown to be vital for a complete understanding of previously seen spectacle.
Hamlet ignores that visual spectacles, “dumb-shows,” can be “inexplicable”
(3.2.12), whether performed by an actor or an audience member. Despite Hamlet’s
conviction that his uncle leaves “Upon the talk of the poisoning,” Claudius’
movement does not indicate whether he is distressed or angered by Lucianus’
speech, his action, or Hamlet’s commentary, all of which occur immediately
eventually learns that Hamlet is right to believe his uncle guilty, but
it also knows that his assumption is based on the wrong reasons (Hartwig
219-20). Indeed, in the next scene, when Claudius’ guilt is revealed to
the theatre audience, the potential for misinterpreting a visual display
or dumb show is simultaneously shown. Hamlet, seeing Claudius in an attitude
of prayer, assumes he is praying and determines that to kill him now would
be insufficient revenge. In contrast, the audience learns from Claudius
that despite appearances, he cannot pray, that his performance is literally
a “dumb” show: “[His] words fly up, [his] thoughts remain below. / Words
without thoughts never to heaven go” (3.3.97-98).
The Mousetrap, like the fencing match, is a “mimicked
reality,” a representation of other events (whatever they may be), and the
audience’s understanding depends on knowledge of those events. Moreover,
the play is not only a representation and revision of the ghost’s story
of King Hamlet’s poisoning through the ear, but it is also a re-enactment
and result of the metaphoric poisoning posited (and performed) by the ghost.
The speech Hamlet inserts into The Mousetrap echoes the many other
substitutions occurring in Elsinore, its indeterminacy echoing the mystery
surrounding King Hamlet’s poisoning and the enigmatic nature of the ghost.
Visual spectacle may not provide sufficient information, but the spoken
word, at least as used in Elsinore, is open to multiple interpretations,
and the truth beneath it, like the proof Hamlet seeks, is evasive (Mousley
79). While writers of parental advice and conduct literature generally agree
with Polonius that sons, unlike daughters, can distinguish the truth in
what they hear, and that it is therefore safe for them to “[g]ive every
man [their] ear,” Hamlet reveals that neither sons nor daughters
are able to accurately identify the truth even when they are listening to
authority figures and substitute fathers, for such figures cannot always
be distinguished from unworthy counterfeits. Laertes cannot discern Claudius’
self-interest any more than Hamlet can find incontrovertible evidence of
the ghost’s honesty.
The Attending Audience
The emphasis on attending to the advice of dying parents
and the possibility of being seduced through the ear must have resonated
strongly in a nation ruled by an aging queen with no clear successor, and
which feared such coups as that attempted by the Earl of Essex. It is under
these conditions that Shakespeare writes a revenge tragedy clearly influenced
by societal attitudes towards parental advice.
Conduct book writers repeatedly emphasize the need for filial obedience,
and Gouge appears to be the only one to suggest that there may be times
when parents’ commands should not be obeyed. Shakespeare explores both the
validity of parental dictates and the consequences of granting someone parental
authority. In Elsinore, obedience to parental directives, whether given
by an actual or substitute parent, has horrifying consequences. Ophelia
obeys her father’s seemingly reasonable charge that she not spend time alone
with Hamlet and ends up isolated and insane. Hamlet, accepting the ghost
as the spirit of his dead father, struggles to obey an inappropriate command,
fulfilling it only through circumstances arranged by his father’s murderer.
His own father having died in service to the king, Laertes follows Claudius’
plan in order to gain revenge, and dies in part because of his loyalty to
his father and the king and his inability to detect the king’s purpose.
The problem in Hamlet is that nothing is quite
what it seems. The king is not a king but a murderer, a fact that makes
his loyal counsellor a “knave,” at least according to the rightful king’s
son. The disruption of the link between word and object as represented by
Claudius’ usurpation permits all words to be open to interpretation and
arbitrary assignation. As a result, listeners must struggle to gather meaning
out of a speaker’s words. They become like Ophelia’s “hearers” who “botch
the words up fit to their own thoughts” (4.5.10), as both the onstage and
offstage audiences discover. The theatre audience struggles to determine
the meaning behind Barnardo’s opening question, only to be confused by Francisco’s
reply. He speaks, but fails to answer his comrade’s query. The audience
feels, as Booth notes, “unexpectedly and very slightly out of step” with
the action presented on the stage (140). Claudius appears in the following
scene with all the ceremony associated with a king, and the audience is
comforted by his explanation of events, that is, until Hamlet interrupts
and gains the audience’s ear. As the prince’s confidant, the audience is
in the same position as Hamlet himself, a listener to someone enigmatic,
who possesses “that within which passes show” (1.2.85).
By repeatedly speaking directly to the audience members,
Hamlet transforms them into primary, involved listeners, thereby underscoring
the usual role of audience as unseen observer and eavesdropper, a position
that, given Polonius’ experience, clearly poses risks. While the audience
laughs at Polonius’ misguided belief that Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (1.5.180)
is due to his love for Ophelia, it is also guilty of assuming it “will find
/ Where truth is hid” (2.2.157-58), even though its assumptions are just
as arbitrary as the old man’s (Booth 159, 163). The audience’s self-awareness
is further emphasized by the play within a play. In his advice to the players,
Hamlet notes that an actor’s speech and gesture should hold “the mirror
up to nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very
age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.22-24). He claims that
anything overdone, while it “makes the unskilful laugh, cannot but make
the judicious grieve” (25-27), and that a good actor disguises the artifice
of playing by using natural speech and gesture: “[s]uit[ing] the action
to the word, the word to the action” (17-18). Jane Donawerth notes that
Hamlet’s advice echoes a contemporary shift in acting practice, a shift
apparent in Shakespeare’s more restrained use of gesture in his tragedies
than in his earlier history plays, and which led to characters becoming
more individualized by gesture and voice (88-91).
Hamlet’s advice to the players may reflect a shift in
theatre practice towards a more “natural” representation, but it also emphasizes
the importance of listening. Terence Hawkes notes Hamlet’s “highest praise
is reserved for . . . the good listener” and that what he and, in the background,
Shakespeare want from the audience is a form of “enhanced receptivity” (116-18).
Nonetheless, Hamlet also acknowledges the risks of such listening.
The prince, even as he lies dying in the final scene, echoes the ghost as
he speaks directly to an audience already astonished by what it has seen
and heard. He notes that while those “[t]hat are but mutes or audience to
this act” already “look pale and tremble at this chance” (5.2.340, 339),
the tale he could tell if he had time would be even more horrifying. Unable
to tell his own tale, and aware of how an ear can be “by a forgèd process
. . . “[r]ankly abused” when a murderer is deemed a king, and a murder a
snakebite, Hamlet insists that Horatio “[r]eport me and my cause aright
/ To the unsatisfied” (5.2.344-45). Hamlet, like Laertes, is too much his
father’s son. He fears that he, like Pyrrhus, will have a “wounded name”
(349) and wants to right such wrongs. However, his story is much like his
father’s as it too has a potentially unreliable narrator. Horatio does not
know all the details (Roth par. 22-23), and the tale, if told, would also
“freeze . . . young blood,” being of “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
/ Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning
and forc’d cause” (5.2.386-88).
The English Ambassador hints at the power of Hamlet’s
tale to paralyse its hearers when he states, apparently in reference to
the prince, “The ears are senseless that should give us hearing” (5.2.374).
The Ambassador’s speech, though, may equally apply to members of the audience
whose ears have been paralysed or made “senseless” by what they have heard.
Even the “groundlings” in the audience who are “capable of nothing but inexplicable
dumb shows and noise” (3.2.11-12) can be said to have “senseless” ears in
that they do not sense anything but spectacle and sound. Furthermore, as
the Ambassador’s speech refers directly to a dead man’s ears, to ears that
have heard the tale of a dead man, it further emphasizes the lethal nature
of listening to an audience that is itself attending to a dead man’s tale.
If Hamlet is endangered because he listens to a mysterious ghost, Hamlet’s
own audience may also be at risk, for he is equally inscrutable. It is not
just in Elsinore that the king is not a king; such disconnection between
what is heard and what lies beneath is also present in theatrical practice.
“Playing” depends on concealing reality, as Hamlet points out.
emphasizes the importance and dangers
of listening, both within the play and within the theatre, it is not unique
in its emphasis on the power of speech, and particularly of speech heard
in a theatre. This was also a primary concern expressed by antitheatricalists
(Pollard 136). Stephen Gosson, while he rails against plays and what might
“enter by the passage of our eyes and eares into the soule,” underscores
the aural aspect of theatre-going, noting that plays are “the doctrine of
the Deuill; the Counsell of the vngodly” (B7v
). Even in his complaint
about “wanton Italian bookes,” he emphasizes the role of the ear in allowing
this “poyson” to enter. He writes, “none are so pleasaunte or plausible
as they, that sound some kinde of libertie in our eares” (B6r
Frustrated by people’s preference for plays over preaching despite the remonstrance
of “godly preachers” such as himself (B2r
), Gosson emphasises
the inability to trust the speech of an actor. He asks that his reader,
“if anye Player belie me in your hearing upon the stage, . . . would rather
consider of the person than of the speach, for a Player is like to a Marchants
finger, that standes sometime for a thousande, sometime for a cypher, and
a Player must stand as his parte fals, sometime for a Prince sometime for
a peasant” (A5r
However, if performance must “o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (3.2.19)
as Hamlet desires, then it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish
the actor-prince from the rightful prince, the “actions that a man might
play” from “that within,” even when one listens closely. And, as Hamlet’s
experience demonstrates, the inability to determine the nature of a speaker
not only raises questions about how one determines the validity of what
one hears, but also the very performance itself can leave one open to potentially
I am not claiming that Shakespeare is a closet anti-theatricalist,
but he does appear to echo anti-theatrical discourse in Hamlet
the suggestion that listeners are always at risk of being corrupted by what
they hear, even when they listen to apparently appropriate figures of authority.
He does not, though, place the onus for such
corruption solely on the speaker, but also on the listener. When Gertrude
hears that Ophelia’s listeners are interpreting her speech in accordance
with their own preconceptions, she worries that the young girl “may strew
/ Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5.14-15). Gertrude’s concern
is based on both facets of verbal communication: Ophelia’s speech and the
listeners’ own prejudices. She understands that Ophelia’s words are most
dangerous when heard by certain people. Shakespeare, then, even as he notes
the potential for listeners to be infected—diseased—by what they hear within
the theatre, as they “botch the [playwright’s] words fit to their own thoughts,”
trying to discover “[w]here truth is hid,” returns the responsibility for
any corruption (real or imagined) to the listening audience by suggesting
that the problem is not simply the speaker’s words, but the “ill-breeding
minds” of the listeners. Shakespeare likely wrote Hamlet
months before February 1601, when a play about Richard II—likely Shakespeare’s—was
performed at the request of some of the Earl of Essex’s followers the evening
before his rebellion.
While the rationale for the performance—whether
the intention was to inspire themselves or others—is unknown (Barroll 453-54),
Shakespeare’s prior abdication of responsibility as a playwright suggests
that he had his defence already prepared should any “ill-breeding minds”
cause trouble about this or any of his other plays in such politically fragile
 Critics who examine ears and hearing in Hamlet
include Mary Anderson, Peter Cummings, Tanya Pollard, and Mark Robson.
Robert Wilson discusses ears in relation to narrative and “narratees”; Kenneth
Gross discusses ears and hearing in connections with slander; and Bill Readings
and Grace Tiffany consider the relationship between spectacle and language—what
is seen and heard in Hamlet, Tiffany arguing that the play presents
a Calvinist perspective on the power of speech, while Readings deconstructs
the gap and connections between seeing and hearing. Bruce Smith and Wes
Folkerth consider hearing in relation to sound and its impact in the broader
context of early modern theatre and drama. The work of both Smith and Folkerth
influence my examination of Hamlet.
 All references to Hamlet are to the Arden
edition, edited by Harold Jenkins (London; New York: Methuen, 1982).
 In his introduction, Harold Jenkins notes that in
1.2, Claudius deals with three sons: Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet, the
circumstances of the others being designed to echo Hamlet’s problem in particular
 Eric Rasmussen notes that Hamlet includes five sets of
murdered fathers and avenging sons. These are King Hamlet and his son, the
elder Fortinbras and his son, Polonius and Laertes, Achilles and Pyrrhus,
and Marcus Junius Brutus and his son, the latter being evoked by Polonius’
memory of having played Julius Caesar who was killed by Brutus (463).
 Michel de Montaigne comments on the inability of the deaf to
learn earthly truth: “because they [can]not receive the instruction of the
world by their eares” (2: 150-51), while several Protestant ministers take
the Pauline doctrine (Romans 10:17) that faith is by hearing literally and
argue that deafness is a sign of God’s displeasure (Harrison 23; Wilkinson
Aviir), and that the deaf “are in a dangerous or desperate case,
because the Word is the sauour of life vnto the right hearer, and the sauour
of death vnto him that heareth not as hee ought” (Egerton A7r).
 For the dangerous properties of sound, see Bacon,
Sylva Sylvarum 43, Crooke 609-10, Paré 24. In his poetic description
of the human body, Phineas Fletcher describes sound as an “unwelcome guest”
 For examples of the concern about distinguishing
truth from falsehood, see Cornwallis 213, Erasmus 193, and Jonson 43.
 As evidence of continued obedience and respect for
parents by adult children, Elizabeth Cary’s biographer notes that Cary always
treated her parents respectfully: “her own father and mother she always
used with very much respect; so far, as for the most part (all her life),
to speak to her mother (when she was sitting) on her knees, which she did
frequently for more than an hour together; though she was but an ill kneeler
and a worse riser” (Weller and Ferguson 199).
 Gouge defines “breaking off speech” when a parent
enters the room and remaining quiet while a parent is speaking as “the two
branches of silence” required of children (437).
 James I’s Basilikon Doron was first published
in 1599, with a second edition in multiple imprints following in 1603 when
he succeeded to the English throne. His Fathers Blessing was then
published in 1616 and went through four editions before 1633. Lord Burghley
wrote his Certain Precepts for the Well Ordering of a Man’s Life
in the early 1580s, but it was not published until after his death. It first
appeared in 1617 and went through four editions in twenty years. Sir Walter
Raleigh likely wrote his Instructions to His Son and to Posterity after
he was committed to the tower in 1603. The text was first published in 1632,
with five editions appearing by 1636 (Wright xvii-xx).
 James I is more circumspect when advising his
son about how to listen, telling him, “Beleeue not all that is told, nor
tell not all that thou hearest, for if thou doe though shalt not long be
without trouble, but shortly without friends” (18).
 Ramie Targoff examines ideas about public worship
to argue that performance and interiority were considered more connected
than suggested by critics such as Katharine Eisaman Maus, hence the concerns
expressed by many anti-theatricalists about the impact of theatrical performance
on both actors and audience.
 Polonius’ inability to remember what he intends
to tell Reynaldo (2.1.50-52) is often cited as support for Hamlet’s view
of Polonius as “a foolish prating knave.” Harry Levin suggests it is a sign
that Polonius bores himself as much as his listener (25), and the general
assumption is that he is either forgetful or distracted by something inconsequential.
Ophelia, though, speaks less than thirty lines later and Polonius could
well be troubled by the appearance of his distressed daughter as she enters.
Being an obedient child, she does not interrupt her father, and he dispatches
his manservant before dealing with her.
 Hamlet also reacts blindly when he hears Polonius’ cry for help
and stabs at the arras. Anderson notes that these and other events in Hamlet
emphasize the need for combined visual and auditory perception and that
information only received by the ear is shown to be “malignant,” while that
received only by the eye is shown to be “ineffectual” (302). In contrast,
Tiffany argues that the play presents spoken language as being morally superior
to and less deceitful than visual images (308-09).
 Gouge notes that it is a parent’s “last duty”
to give children “good instructions” and goes so far as to advise parents
to prepare their final speech beforehand (576-77).
 Rasmussen notes that Fortinbras’ demand for revenge
is redirected by his uncle Norway so that Hamlet presents two subplots
in which one son (Laertes) seeks to avenge his father’s death, while another
(Fortinbras) does not. This same balance is also reflected in the two classical
allusions to sons whose fathers are murdered: Pyrrhus and Brutus. Hamlet,
then, is presented with the choice between these oppositions (463).
 It is beyond the scope of this article to engage
in the debate about the nature of the ghost. Eleanor Prosser and Stephen
Greenblatt have already done admirable work in contextualising how the ghost
may have been interpreted by early modern audiences. Greenblatt points out
how the sentries regard the ghost as a spectacle, a “fantasy,” a “dreaded
sight,” an “apparition” (1.1.26, 28, 31; Greenblatt 208-09). Barnardo states
(twice) that the ghost is “like the King” (1.1.44, 46; emphasis added),
and Horatio notes that the ghost “usurp’st” the form of the king (49), suggesting
that the sentries are fully cognizant that whatever else the ghost may be,
it is not the late king.
 Prosser notes Elizabethans’ condemnation of revenge,
and points to Bacon’s “unequivocal condemnation of private revenge under
any circumstances . . . . He condemns all types as flatly wrong” (20). Prosser,
however, does not examine Bacon’s suggestion that “public revenges are for
the most part fortunate.”
 Critics disagree over Hamlet’s predisposition to listen. Cummings
argues that Hamlet is “figuratively hard of hearing” as a result of “his
own very fertile and noisy mind” (86-87). In contrast, Kenneth Gross claims
that the prince has a “capaciousness of ear” and is predisposed to listen
to everyone (13).
 Not only is the account of King Hamlet’s poisoning
substituted for the “secrets of [the ghost’s] prison-house” (1.5.14), but
the ghost then revises and abbreviates this narrative when he notices the
incipient dawn (58-59).
 It is difficult to ignore the allusion here to
the serpent that “stung” Eve’s ear in the Garden of Eden, a serpent that
raised questions about God’s command and offered an alternate tale instead.
 Pollard notes that Hamlet “is obsessively interested
in the interior of the body” (124), and that the ear is shown to be a vulnerable
entrance to the body’s interior. She argues that in this scene Hamlet is
not merely at risk of being poisoned, but that the ghost intentionally poisons
 Jenkins notes that Pyrrhus “presents a monstrous and horrific
figure in which the alarming potentialities of both murderer and revenger
are contained,” mirroring both aspects in Hamlet (145). I suggest it is
less Pyrrhus’ actions, than the way they are remembered that reveals to
Hamlet how an avenging son can be deemed a brutal murderer.
 In Miscelanea, Meditations, Memoratiues
(1604), in which she warns her son against being seduced from Catholicism,
Elizabeth Grymeston also compares a “faire young maid” who listens to the
“flattering gloze” of “a false Louer” to a “parleing citie [which] neuer
long resists” (A4v). She is confident, though, that her son can
detect deceit. She warns him, “God borroweth not the Syrens voice,” and
suggests mortals are as much to blame as the devil for their downfall because
of their own evil thoughts (Dv). In The Mothers Blessing (1616),
Dorothy Leigh also equates female listening to sexual promiscuity in her
advice to her sons and notes, like Polonius, that problems occur because
women sometimes do more than just listen: “Had they onely lent an eare .
. . they had done well enough . . . . I would haue euery one know, that
one sinne begetteth another. The vaine words of the man, and the idle cares
of the woman, beget vnchaste thought oftentimes in the one, which may bring
forth much wickednesse in them both” (Brown, 27-28).
 Even while the ghost clearly supports Hamlet’s demand for secrecy,
its under-stage presence as an “old mole” (1.5.170) and its ability to repeat
what it hears demonstrate the difficulty of keeping such secrets in Elsinore.
 I am not claiming that Claudius and the rest of
the court do not see the dumb show, but simply that they lack sufficient
information to know how to respond. Roth notes that Claudius is the only
one in the court who knows that King Hamlet has been murdered and he does
not react because to do so would confirm his guilt. The others, he argues,
do not react because they do not connect the poisoning of the dumb show
with King Hamlet’s death by snakebite (par. 10-11).
 Tiffany claims that the inserted speech begins
with the Player Queen’s interruption and extends to her pledge of everlasting
fidelity (3.2.172-218; Tiffany 316), while J. Dover Wilson claims that the
inserted speech begins, “Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time
agreeing” (3.2.249; Wilson 162). Hamlet’s aside, “What, frighted with false
fire?” (260), when Claudius leaves the play suggests, however, that the
king reacts earlier than anticipated and that Hamlet’s insertion is either
not heard or not heard in full.
 See Jenkins 145, 508; Levin 88; J. Dover Wilson 170-71. Wilson
claims that Hamlet’s decision to threaten the king in this way is spontaneous,
while Prosser argues that it is an “error” that reveals his emotional turmoil
(181 n9). Pollard agrees that The Mousetrap does not focus on the
murder of Hamlet Senior, but on the death of his murderer at the hands of
Hamlet. She notes that even the play’s original title, The Murder
of Gonzago, points to this substitution as Luigi Gonzaga was the murderer
not the victim in the historical account of the Duke of Urbino’s 1538 death
by poisoning (128, 140).
 Bruce Danner and Steve Roth argue that it is not
Claudius’ lack of response, but Hamlet’s conflation of his father’s murder
with his own threatened revenge that leads to the lack of conclusive evidence
of Claudius’ guilt (Danner 32; Roth par. 12).
 Most textual scholars now agree that Hamlet
was written before the Earl of Essex’s rebellion on February 8, 1601,
likely towards the end of 1599 or in 1600 (Cathcart 341, Jenkins 13). While
textual differences between Q1, Q2, and F1 indicate later revision, these
do not appear to be in direct response to the Essex rebellion. Nonetheless,
both J. Dover Wilson and Edward Le Comte argue that the Earl’s personal
foibles, political career, and calamitous fall may have influenced Shakespeare’s
play (Le Comte 89-94, Wilson 228).
 In his complaint that people fail to pay attention to sermons
against the “abhominable practices of playes,” Gosson wonders “whether our
eares be wilfully stoped, and our eyes muffled . . . or whether the deuill
our ancient enemie hath stricken so deepe and so venemous into the heart
of man, as hath infected, and wounded the soule to death” (B2r-v).
His description here is remarkably similar to the ghost’s account of King
Hamlet’s poisoning, and it suggests that both playwrights and anti-theatricalists
wanted “serious hearing,” and that both understood the potentially corrupting
effect of false stories, the very fictions on which the theatres depended.
 Tiffany also sees connections between the power granted to words
and listening in Hamlet and the anti-theatrical rhetoric of Protestant
 There has been much critical debate on the Richard
II-Essex connection, most recently initiated by Leeds Barroll’s criticism
of New Historicist use of historical documents. Chris Fitter outlines the
reasons why Shakespeare’s play was most likely the one performed along with
Barroll’s argument about why the Privy Council may have been more concerned
with sedition in print sources than in the theatre (note 46). Arthur F.
Kinney suggests that the theatre may have been considered less seditious
because of the ephemeral nature of performance, noting that unless Elizabeth
attended a performance, she “could have no certain proof of seditious intent”
(466). Kinney does not, however, consider the possibility that this very
unknowability may have also concerned the authorities.