Who Knows Who’s There?
An Epistemology of Hamlet
(Or, What Happens in the Mousetrap)
"Who Knows Who Knows Who’s There? An Epistemology of Hamlet (Or,
What Happens in the Mousetrap)". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2
(September, 2004) 3.1-27 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/rothepis.htm>.
I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We’re a knowledgeable family.
— From The Lion in Winter, Prince Geoffrey to his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, speaking of her husband, his father, Henry II.
Hamlet: O good Horatio! I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?Consider what’s going through Horatio’s mind at this moment: “Yes, I saw you put on a play before the court threatening the king’s life, with you as chorus, and he got really angry in response. Yes, I saw that.” His is not a ringing endorsement.
Horatio: Very well, my lord.
Hamlet: Upon the talk of the poisoning?
Horatio: I did very well note him.
…it is Hamlet himself who, chorus-like, supplies the information [about Lucianus as nephew]…he uses the play to threaten his uncle in a fashion which no one who sees it can mistake. It is a sudden dénoument, sudden like all Hamlet’s actions, like his assumption of the “antic disposition” or his decision to have the Gonzago-play itself; and I think Shakespeare intended us to consider it unpremeditated.
Gertrude: O! what a rash and bloody deed is this!These are wild and whirling words; Hamlet is apparently accusing Gertrude of the murder. Gertrude gets an intimation that King Hamlet was killed, but no hint that Claudius did it. And they never return to the subject.
Hamlet: A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
Gertrude: As kill a king!
Hamlet: Ay, lady, ’twas my word.
 Fredson Bowers noted the lack of knowledge early in the play in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton, Princeton UP, 1940, 89–90), and perceived its key innovation as a dramatic method to extend the action of a revenge tragedy. He attributed the innovation to Kyd in the ur-Hamlet, however (a position he later abandoned, but necessarily without commentary, in a note to the 1959 offset reprint edition, p. ix). He also failed to note that the ignorance in Hamlet extends to the end of the play, and beyond (or the implications of that fact): “In the Kydian [style of] tragedy a murder is committed secretly, the name of the murderer is given to the revenger by a medium which he distrusts; delay results until additional facts corroborate the ascription, but then the revenger is hampered by the counterdesigns of his enemy and all perish in the catastrophe.” (104)
 Hamlet’s pivotal position in the transition from medieval to modern thought is something of a critical commonplace, notwithstanding quibbles regarding period terminology (is it modern or is it early modern?). Mainstream discussion of that modernity has focused on the depth, interiority, and realism of Shakespeare’s characters, most notably Hamlet. This critical tradition finds its apotheosis in Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books-Penguin Putnam, 1998). But a widespread though less mainstream body of writings finds that modernity in the play’s widely-discussed obsession with questions and uncertainty (viz, Maynard Mack’s comment that “Hamlet’s world is preeminently in the interrogative mood” in “The World of Hamlet,” Yale Review 41, 1952: 504). Several authors have explored the relation between Hamlet and the rise of skepticism in the Renaissance (with Montaigne looming large because of his demonstrated influence on Shakespeare’s writings). Examples include Aaron Landau’s “‘Let me not burst in ignorance’: Skepticism and Anxiety in Hamlet” (English Studies 82:3, June 2001, 218-230), which relates Hamlet to “the humanist revival of Academic and Pyrrhonian skepticism in the late Renaissance,” which Landau says “is explained by historians of philosophy as, to a large extent, a response to the 16th century schism in the Church”; and Eric P. Levy’s “‘Things standing thus unknown’: The Epistemology of Ignorance in Hamlet” (Studies in Philology 97:2, Spring 2002, 192-209), which argues that Hamlet “achieves epistemological self-control through acceptance of the limits of knowledge.” Many writers have viewed Hamlet in relation to existentialist thought, even going so far to depict Hamlet as an existentialist hero. Examples include Shakespeare and the dialectic of certainty by Lee A. Jacobus (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), Michael G. Bielmeier’s Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and Existential Tragedy (Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: Mellen, 2000), and Christine Gomez’s “Hamlet—An Early Existential Outsider?” (Hamlet Studies 5 : 27-39). An extension of this body of thinking links Hamlet to the uncertainty inherent in the Theater of the Absurd. See for instance Robert B. Parker’s “Dark Laughter: Hamlet and the Problem of Belief” (Lock Haven Review 12, 1971, 81-89); Eric R. Boyer’s “Hamlet and Absurd Freedom: The Myth of Sisyphus as Commentary on Shakespeare's Creation” (Ball State University Forum 16:3, 1975: 54-66); and A. P. Aichinger’s “Hamlet and the Modern Dilemma.” (Culture 29, 1968: 142-49).
 Prosser, E. Hamlet and Revenge, Stanford, Calif., Stanford UP, 1967. McGee, A. Chapter 3, “The Fellow in the Cellarage” in The Elizabethan Hamlet, New Haven and London, Yale UP, 1987. Greenblatt, S. Hamlet in Purgatory, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2001. Greenblatt cites the other major discussions of this issue, p. 308 n 46.
 All line-number references are to Granville-Barker et. al., eds. The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
 The flurry of arguments up to 1939 (with the most significant being between W. W. Greg and J. D. Wilson) is admirably summarized by W. W. Lawrence in “Hamlet and the Mouse-Trap,” PMLA 54 (1939), 709–735. More recent discussions include Andrew J. Green’s “The Cunning of the Scene,” Shakespeare Quarterly 4:4 (1953) 395–404; John Doebler’s “The Play Within the Play: Muscipula Diaboli in Hamlet,” Shakespeare Quarterly 23:2 (1972) 161–169; Lee Sheridan Cox’s Figurative Design in Hamlet: The Significance of the Dumb Show, Ohio State UP, 1973; W. W. Robson’s Did The King See The Dumb-Show? ( Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1975); M. R. Woodhead’s “Deep Plots and Indiscretions in ‘The Murder of Gonzago,’” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979) 151–161; Eileen Z. Cohen’s “Hamlet and The Murder of Gonzago: Two Perspectives,” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire LXI:3 (1983) 543–556; Alfred Mollin’s “On Hamlet’s Mousetrap,” Interpretation 21:3 (1994) 353–372; and C. Edelman’s “’The very cunning of the scene’: Claudius and the mouse-trap,” Parergon 12:1 (1994) 15–25.
 Wilson, J. D. What Happens in Hamlet, third edition, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1960. Cited below as WHIH.
 A prepublication reviewer of this article suggested that this is a “possibility that has been often recognized before.” That is certainly true; most every possibility about Hamlet has been raised before. But the realization is almost completely absent from the mainstream tradition, notably the editors’ notes and commentaries. Surprised by the reviewers’ comment, I re-checked the following editors and commentators: Harold Jenkins, H. H. Furness (and his cited predecessors), Samuel Johnson, E. K. Chambers, George Rylands, A. C. Bradley, William Empson, Fredson Bowers, J. D. Wilson, Harley Granville-Barker, Phillip Edwards, Harold Bloom, and G. R. Hibbard, plus every critic cited in note 5. All take it for granted that the mousetrap actually works—that it gives Hamlet proof of Claudius’s guilt. John Kerrigan is the most significant exception. (See notes 12 and 16.) Of the editors I reviewed, only Anne Barton, in her introduction to the Penguin edition, makes the point, calling the effect of the mousetrap “inconclusive” and saying that “the play is likely to be regarded by an ignorant court (and in some measure even by Claudius himself) as Hamlet’s scandalous threat to the life of an innocent and long-suffering uncle.” (Hamlet, ed. T. J. B. Spencer, New York etc.: Penguin, 1980. 32-33) She fails to note, though, that it is also likely be regarded as such by Hamlet. Future editors and critics might better serve their readers by questioning this editorial orthodoxy.
 William Empson has commented on Wilson’s “odd power of making a deep remark without seeing its implications.” “Up-dating Revenge Tragedy” in Pirie, ed., Essays on Shakespeare. Cambridge, 1986, 79-92.
 WHIH 200.
 WHIH 164.
 This view (first suggested by Tieck and—in Jenkins’ words—“revived by Halliwell-Phillips” and “insisted on by Dover Wilson”) has received wide airing and surprising consideration, given that it rests on a single tender prop. If Claudius saw the dumb show, Wilson wonders, why does he ask Hamlet whether Gonzago has any offence in it? But critics have offered many quite reasonable explanations for that query, and others are not difficult to come up with. Absent any other support in the text, Wilson’s insistence is pretty hard to accept.
 Only one critic that I am aware of has fully grasped the uncertain outcome of the mousetrap, and the noncommittal nature of Horatio’s response. In Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, p. 79), John Kerrigan ascribes to the old second-tooth theory discussed below, but he also says, “The effects of the playlet are tested on Claudius, and Hamlet declares himself satisfied—though, as Horatio implies [citing Horatio’s lines quoted above], the experimental findings are ambiguous, and, to the end of the play, it can only be a rational probability for the prince (whatever the absolutes of his heart) that the king killed Old Hamlet.” Kerrigan does not note the originality in the genre of this ongoing uncertainty, however, or the fact that no other character knows of the murder.
 The “second tooth” moniker was apparently coined by A. W. Pollard in private conversation or correspondence with J. D. Wilson and/or W. W. Greg. I can track no printed source for it. In his 1917 “Hamlet’s Hallucination” (MLR XII:4, 393-421, described by Jenkins as “a notorious article”), Greg speaks in a footnote of “a theory (dubbed by a friend the ‘second tooth’ theory).” (398) (It’s significant the warm credit he gives to Pollard in the first footnote of the article.) In WHIH, Wilson says that the notion “has been wittily described by Dr Pollard as the ‘second tooth’ theory.” (151) In WHIH’s “epistle dedicatory to Dr W. W. Greg,” Wilson says “you can guess how much I have learnt from the criticisms and suggestions of A. W. Pollard.” The theory itself goes back at least to Dowden.
 W. W. Lawrence, in “Hamlet and the Mousetrap” (note 5) points out that this dramatic function “was recognized independently by H. D. Gray and by E. L. Ferguson in the same year (1919) that my own analysis [also recognizing this function] was published.” (730)
 WHIH 170–171.
 Again, John Kerrigan (Revenge Tragedy, p. 189) has come closest to grasping Horatio’s situation: “Yet, can Horatio report either Hamlet or his cause aright? His brief account to Fortinbras, with its ‘carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts…accidental judgments, casual slaughters’ (380–5), suggests that he cannot, for everything that seems essential to Hamlet’s tragedy is left out. Honest, compassionate, and intelligent though he is, Horatio is not equipped by circumstance to inform the yet unknowing world about the nunnery scene, Claudius’ words to heaven, ‘To be or not to be’ or, indeed, any of those perplexed soliloquies.” To that list I would add the more mundane items of the ghost’s actual words to Hamlet (during either appearance), and Claudius’s conversations with Laertes.
 21 usages in Hamlet for a frequency of .070%, compared to 303 usages in the whole dramatic corpus, for a frequency of .035%. The 16 occurrences in All’s Well match Hamlet’s frequency, which is exceeded only by Measure for Measure, with 25 occurrences and a frequency of .116%.
 The Birth of Tragedy, online tr. Ian C. Johnston: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/tragedy_all.htm.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).