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Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1 (2003) 29-62

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Speaking Daggers

Bruce Danner


That hamlet chooses to "speak daggers . . . but use none" (3.2.387)—and thus to rely on language when he should most act—remains the central fact of the play for many audiences. Why he should become distracted in the speaking of daggers at all, however, continues to evade scholarly consensus. Over time this and related questions have led to comparisons between Hamlet's increased distraction from his revenge and the metadramatic elements of Shakespeare's art that undermine the play's pretensions to mimesis. This pervasively metatheatrical character becomes all the more complicated in the face of Hamlet's essentialist, almost naive conception of theatrical performance. As Robert Weimann has shown over a series of important essays, the play critiques such essentialist views by contrasting Hamlet's humanist ideal of the stage (the purpose of which is to hold "the mirror up to nature" [3.2.22]) with the work's discordant episodes of antic theatricality, where the presumed links between intention, representation, and interpretation become increasingly unstable. 1 In his effort to engage the play's varied, "heterogeneous" forms of mimesis, Weimann attempts to move beyond unresolved critical disputes (humanist versus poststructuralist, character criticism versus formalism) to a more productive synthesis:"Shakespearean mimesis comprehends so many functions that neither the traditional [End Page 29] or classical nor the post-structuralist approach to mimesis can do justice to them all." 2 In this effort he relies on comic theatrical modes whose antic and subversive effects reject the neoclassical authorities of both tragic structure and performative transparence. 3 While these comic structures illustrate how the play's fictional reality can be distinguished from the mechanics of its own performance, they blur perception of how the experience of its characters is itself fraught with the same discontinuities over mimesis and theatricality. However we define its causes, Hamlet's move from violence to language carries a desperation and futility that bear little connection with the comic. Indeed, it is in the context of the play's tragic form that I wish to connect its metatheatrical self-consciousness with the ethical imperatives of Hamlet's dilemma, one in which theatricality is called on to stabilize ambiguity and to authorize the prince's call to action. The failure of theatricality to perform these tasks and the destructive consequences that attend it cannot be reconciled to a poetics of the comic rooted in the popular tradition or the carnivalesque. As the radically self-conscious Hamlet enters into layer upon layer of theatrical metaphor, what Weimann describes as a "simultaneity in the awareness of life in the theater, and the theater as a supreme form of life" 4 functions also as an impetus to confusion, paralysis, and death.

Hamlet's harping remarks on his mother's use of "seems" in 1.2 typify how the problems of representation and theatricality are linked to his tragic paralysis:

QUEEN Thou know'st 'tis common: all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
HAMLET Ay, madam, it is common.
QUEEN             If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
HAMLET Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not 'seems'.
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

(1.2.72-86) [End Page 30]

In one of the play's extraordinary non sequiturs, Hamlet protests his integrity even when it is not being challenged. Gertrude does not dismiss Hamlet's grief to mere seeming but rather accepts it fully in order to identify its cause and relief. Hamlet latches onto the queen's use of "seems" as pejorative when her emphasis falls instead on the word "particular"—a rejoinder to his concession...


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