Saturday, 30 July 2016

The play within a play from Hamlet

Two short critical excerpts on The Mousetrap in Hamlet, as ways of thinking about character and about the theme of performing. 

Terry Hawkes suggests the play scene in Hamlet is a key point at which we can consider the two characters of Hamlet and Claudius, and see the balance between them:
In short, The Mousetrap sets in motion a new and intricate see-saw. For if Hamlet shows us anything at this point, it shows us a highly complex villain whose corruption demands to be viewed in the light of, if not to be mitigated by, the pitiable human situation it generates: that of a man torn by the conflicting demands of criminal passion and remorse, and held to the flames by an obduracy that is also self-control. In addition, and by the same token, it presents us with a no less complex and increasingly reckless protagonist who, in the name of 'justice', will impulsively commit violent murder before our eyes: the same crime that he is dedicated to revenge. Hamlet's role as both killer and avenger, an identity clearly symbolised by the figure of Pyrrhus, cannot but complicate the play.[i]
Hawkes draws on the characterisation which appears in Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! of the play as a ‘battle of mighty opposites’,[ii] in which Claudius and Hamlet become a matched pair, balanced and ‘far from representing corruption on the one hand, and justice on the other.’[iii]  

Hamlet is a play which thematises performance and performativity, concerned with the play within the play - both the actual literal performance of the Players, but also Hamlet's own performance to the court around him, and to Claudius in particular, a focus on 'seeming' (the 'seeming virtuous Queen' (1.5.46); 'to be or not to be' and others). The performance of The Mousetrap/ Murder of Gonzago is the central part of this double playing, highlighting to us the audience as we watch the audience of another play, the double nature of the narrative. Kate Flaherty asserts that
As an  impromptu, the First Player's performance activates the manifold nature of play: 'play' as a game, 'play' as performance, and even 'play' in its technological meaning, as the space allowed for a moving part in machinery. It is a staged moment in which both the fiction and the power of performance can be acknowledged simultaneously.[iv]
She invokes W.B. Worthern's concept of 'double-vision' in 'theatrical seeing'[v] to see the character as both actor (within the play) and (secondary) character; the difficulty of the character of Hamlet is separating Hamlet-as-actor and Hamlet-as-character.


N.B. Kate Flaherty's article is freely available on the internet.



[i] Terry Hawkes (2002) Shakespeare in the Present (London: Routledge) p. 74.
[ii] Michael Innes, Hamlet, Revenge! , p. 61.
[iii] Terry Hawkes, (2002) Shakespeare in the Present (London: Routledge) p. 74.
[iv] Kate Flaherty, (2005) 'Theatre and metatheatre in Hamlet', Sydney Studies in English 31, 3–20, pp.3–4.
[v] W. B. Worthen, 'The Weight of Antony: Staging 'Character' in Antony and Cleopatra'Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 , 26 (1986), 295–308.

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