Allegoria Paranoia

To Balk Logic and Practice Rhetoric: Allegories of Rhetoric and Dialectic in Shakespeare’s Plays

 

 

Chapter 6:  Hamlet's Mousetrap:  Interpretive Allegoresis as Politics of Entrapment

"Though you fret me, you cannot play upon me" (Hamlet 3.2.370-1)

When Philemon Holland published his complete translation of Plutarch's Morals in 1603, it is likely that Shakespeare somehow found access to this multi-volume work.  He had, after all, used North's translation of Plutarch's Lives extensively in writing Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar and would again in Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.  He might have looked into Holland's work because of his own interest in Montaigne (where Plutarch appears on nearly every page).

Montaigne’s essays he would likely have read in manuscript before John Florio's translation was published (also in 1603).  In reading Holland's translation of Plutarch's Morals, Shakespeare might have turned to one of Plutarch's early essays on "How a Young Man Should Study Poetry," which probably would have reminded him of the way he was taught to read by his Oxford masters at the Stratford grammar school.1

The essay recommends that children be exposed to poetry as a preparation for their later reading of philosophy, but it mainly deals with ways to counteract the negative aspects of poetry (the "lies" of poetic fiction, as Plato calls them) by drawing moral lessons from the good parts and seeing the bad characters and their speeches in the larger context of the poet's moral vision. 

When a moral could not be found, as Plutarch points out about many passages in Homer, Plutarch suggests that we invent one.  This suggestion is somewhat obscured by Holland's translation when he has Plutarch say of Homer, "True it is that this kind of doctrine in Homer is after a sort mute and not delivered in plain and express terms:  but if a man will consider more nearly, even those fables and fictions in him, which are most blamed and found fault withal, there may be found therein a profitable instruction and covert speculation."2

The point is made differently in Frank Cole Babbitt's 1927 translation of Plutarch's Moralia:

In Homer this form of instruction is given silently, but it leaves room for a reconsideration, which is helpful in the case of those stories which have been most discredited[,] by forcibly distorting these stories through what used to be termed "deeper meanings," but are nowadays called "allegorical interpretations. . . .”3

The distortion of a text by imposing an allegorical reading is more apparent in Babbitt's translation, but the assumption in Holland's translation that this imposed reading is somehow actually in the text as veiled implication ("covert speculation") is perhaps a more sinister reading. The impact of an imposed allegorical meaning on poetry would not have been lost on Shakespeare, who might well have worried about the political danger of people inventing hidden meanings in his plays.

In my view, Shakespeare worked carefully to create within the plays themselves his own complex, allegorical meanings and commentary--as rhetoric and dialectic--to preempt arbitrary, simplistic allegorical interpretation.

Such allegoresis, imposed readings, by figures of authority hostile to the poet meant trouble for writers, including Shakespeare's friend and rival poet Ben Jonson, who was imprisoned and threatened with loss of an ear and even with loss of his life for.4 The Master of the Revels, whose official function was to censor offensive matter from plays before it could offend on stage, read the plays for hidden allegorical meanings before authorizing performance.  His role was that of interpreter, and Ben Johnson railed against the censors and allegorizors who found subversive political allegories in his plays.

One example among many is Jonson's Induction to Bartholomew Fair (1614), in which he calls for "Articles of Agreement" as a contract with his audience.  One of these "articles" requires that members of the audience, of whatever political stripe, refrain from allegorizing his play:

In consideration of which, it is finally agreed, by the foresaid Hearers and Spectators, that they neither in themselves conceal, nor suffer by them to be concealed, any state-decipherer, or politic picklock of the scene, so solemnly ridiculous, as to search out, who was meant by the ginger-bread woman, who by the hobby-horseman, who by the costardmonger, nay, who by their wares.  Or that will pretend to affirm (on his own inspired ignorance) what Mirror of Magistrates is meant by the Justice, what great lady by the pigwoman, what concealed statesman, by the seller of mousetraps, and so of the rest.5

On the one hand, Jonson's diatribe against reading allegories into his plays indicates that political allegoresis was a real problem for playwrights.  On the other hand, Jonson was not above putting  political implication into his own plays, as in the case of Eastward Ho! when Jonson and Chapman were thrown into prison for offending King James I and his court with derogatory remarks about Scots.

Unlike Ben Jonson, Shakespeare never wrote any formal literary criticism or explanation of his own playwriting techniques, but comments about plays, players, and playwriting abound in the plays themselves, none more so than in Hamlet.  Thus, for my text I choose Hamlet, which gives us not only a good view of Shakespeare's poetics but also an idea of why it was politically expedient for him to write plays as  dialectic, inquiries that argue for and against various positions.6

As an interpreter of Hamlet, I am faced with a problem. To me,  Hamlet is an allegory of interpretation.  In its structure the play actually foregrounds the problem of interpretation and misinterpretation.  I am reminded of Northrop Frye's comment in Anatomy of Criticism that "all commentary is allegorical interpretation" (89).  I take this as a warning against imposing a meaning on Hamlet.  The play, in my view, warns against interpretive allegoresis every bit as much as Ben Jonson's induction to Bartholomew Fair, while at the same time it invites interpretation at every major turning point of the plot.  I, therefore, approach my interpretation of Hamlet with a certain wariness.

The dialectic of Shakespeare's allegory of interpretation in Hamlet questions almost every interpretation, and the play constantly warns us against misinterpretation even as Hamlet interprets everything for us in multiple, contradictory ways.  One aspect Hamlet as allegory presents interpretation as a philosophical problem (an epistemological problem of how we can know, or fail to know, other minds or even our own minds).7

A second valence seems to be political and has to do with notions of privacy versus the right of authorities to pry into the conscience of others, to know what we are thinking.

A third part of the allegory has to do with playwriting and what we can guess about Shakespeare's poetic (and allegorical) theory and practice in rendering a dramatic facsimile of life.  I shall begin with this third question.

Let us turn to Hamlet and consider what Shakespeare says about plays. (This may be familiar ground to some readers, but I think there are fresh insights to be discovered.) Keeping in mind that there is no way to know for sure where Shakespeare stands in relation to Hamlet's comments on dramatic theory and practice, I shall proceed for the moment as if Shakespeare endorses what Hamlet says. I begin at Act Three, scene two.  Here, Hamlet tells not only how the lines are to be delivered (with "discretion" 3.2.17 and "the modesty of nature" 3.2.19) but also tells why:

      For anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end,       both at the first and now, was and is to hold as 'twere 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. (3.2.19-24)

This idea recalls the Mirror of Magistrates with its downfall of wicked kings.  It recalls as well the medieval speculum.  Of course, it also echoes Sir Philip Sidney in An Apologie for Poetry (The Defense of Poesy), a work with which Shakespeare would certainly have been familiar.8  Shakespeare points out that poetry as nature's mirror is a very old notion.  As Hamlet asserts, the purpose of playing was at first and is now to hold as it were a mirror up to nature.

The play that Hamlet has in mind for King Claudius will involve "virtue, vices, matters of public policy [and] private government" as Sidney recommends, but its purpose is not to teach and delight (Sidney 107 and 103).  Hamlet's "mirror up to nature" is designed to make Claudius incriminate himself by confirming through outward show what Hamlet has heard from the ghost, that Claudius killed the old king, Hamlet's father.  Toward this end, Hamlet asks the First Player if their company of tragedians can play The Murder of Gonzago,to which Hamlet will add "a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert in't" (2.2.538-542).

This idea of adding to a source play, in this case The Murder of Gonzago, corresponds to what I see as Shakespeare's poetic practice of changing and adding a complex allegorical meaning to the plots of already existing plays.  George Puttenham in The Arte of English Poesie (1589) makes some pertinent comments on the use of allegory.  We know Shakespeare read it because he borrowed from and made fun of Puttenham's courtly handbook in Love's Labor's Lost.9

Puttenham speaks of allegory as poetic practice rather than a way of reading, as we saw, for instance, in Plutarch's Moralia.  According to Puttenham, allegory is "a duplicitie of meaning or dissimulation vnder couert and darke intendments" (Smith 160).10  Further, Puttenham calls allegory "the Courtier or figure of faire semblant."  This fair-seeming "courtly Poet" is required to "dissemble not onely his countenances and conceits, but also all his ordinary actions of behauiour. . . " (184).  Hamlet plays this "courtly poet" in the play.

When Hamlet's play, the modified Murder of Gonzago, is performed, "to catch the conscience of the king" (2.2.606), Claudius apparently has some misgivings about its import and asks Hamlet, "Have you heard the argument?  Is there no offense in't?"  Hamlet answers,  "No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest.  No offense i' the world" (3.2.230-3).  Here, Claudius sounds like the Master of the Revels looking for political allegory, and Hamlet is able to offer the argument that it is only a play, only make-believe.  Since it is only a fiction, it cannot be full of lies.  This idea seems to be an odd allusion to Sidney's response to Stephen Gosson's charge in The Schoole of Abuse (1579) that poets are liars and libellers.  Sidney says, "Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms [as true], and therefore never lieth" (123).  Of course, we know there is much offense in the play, since Hamlet has already announced that he was going to add a ppolitical allegory to it, but Hamlet is able to rely on a rhetorical strategy we today would call "plausible denial."

 Hamlet's disingenuous response to Claudius' question raises a further question about interpreting the "purpose of playing" (3.2.20).  What are we to make of the fact that Hamlet's play actually contains exactly the ulterior, allegorical motive that Jonson's induction and Hamlet in Shakespeare's play seeks to deny?  If Claudius were to find an offensive, allegorical application to himself and his queen in the plot or argument of the play, this would not be allegoresis imposed on it by Claudius.  We know Hamlet put it there, and that he wants Claudius to react to it.  Shakespeare's Hamlet as a whole foregrounds the idea of imposing false interpretations on others, whereas the play-within-the-play reminds us that some plays are actual allegories.  Clearly, we are dealing with a play that enfolds a highly complex dialectic about plays and interpretation.

When Claudius asks Hamlet what the play is called, Hamlet says,

The Mousetrap.  Marry, how?  Tropically.  This play is the
image of a murder done in Vienna.  Gonzago is the Duke's name, his
wife Baptista.  You shall see anon.  'Tis a knavish piece of work, but
what of that?  Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us
not. (2.3.235-40)

In a double-meaning pun (syllepsis), Hamlet announces that the play is a trap (trapically), but he also points out that the play is an allegory ("tropically"), since allegory is a trope or figure of speech.

Then Hamlet says that it is about a murder done in a distant city, placing it at a safe distance from the court of the King of Denmark.  It was Shakespeare's usual practice to set his plays in faraway places and distant times to keep the plays' implications from striking too close to home.  It is a thin ruse, and Shakespeare points out here that he uses it.

The above lines also echo another of Sidney's arguments.  In answer to the charge that poetry "abuseth man's wit," Sidney replies that one should turn the charge around and "not say that Poetry abuseth man's wit, but that man's wit abuseth poetry" (125).  Hamlet's version of this argument as an apology for poetic fiction is that "free souls" are not touched by whatever a play says because they harbor no guilt.11 

On the previous page of the Apology, Sidney speaks of the positive side of allegorical reading:

If then a man can arrive, at that child's age, to know that the poets' persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written. (124)

Here, we are brought full circle, back to the naive, allegorical reading advocated by Plutarch in "How a Young Man Should Study Poetry."  However, Hamlet shows that allegory and allegorical interpretation can be a deadly serious business.

Another of poetry's defenders who speaks of the allegorical methods of poets is Sir John Harington, whose translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso into "English heroical verse" (1591) contains a preface ("A Brief Apology for Poetry") on how poets use allegory.  Shakespeare was undoubtedly familiar with it, since we know that he borrowed the main plot for Much Ado About Nothing from one of Ariosto's novelle (short stories) contained in the poem, and it is likely that he consulted Harington's translation rather than the Italian original.

In reply to the charge that poets lie, Harington speaks of the honest meanings below the surface of literal sense (Smith 201). These underlying meanings or valences of allegory include the moral, political, philosophical (what we would call psychology as well as natural law), and theological (Smith 201-2).  (The ancient Greeks called these undermeanings hyponoiai.)  Harington says these meanings are covered "with the vaile of fables and verse for sundrie causes," one of which "was that they might not be rashly abused by profane wits, in whom science is corrupted, like good wine in a bad vessell" (Smith 203).

Thus, "those of weaker capacities will feede themselues with the pleasantnes of the historie [the story, the plot] and sweetnes of the verse, some that haue stronger stomackes will as it were take a further taste of the Morall sence, a third sort, more high conceited then they, will digest the Allegorie" (Smith 203).

Hamlet seems to make Harington's distinction between those of "weaker capacities" versus those with "stronger stomackes" in Hamlet's discussion of plays.  Concerning the audience, Hamlet recalls seeing a play that "pleased not the million; 'twas caviar to the general [public]. But it was--as I received it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine--an excellent play" (2.2.436-9).  In terms of Hamlet's conception of dramatic technique, the source play, such as Hamlet's The Murder of Gonzago, provides the plot or story to amuse the "barren spectators" (3.2.41), while the deeper, allegorical sense would appeal to the "judicious," the few who can appreciate an excellent play when they see it and whose judgment, of playwright and players, must "o'erweigh a whole theater of others" (3.2.26-8).12

Hamlet's discourse on the purpose of playing reflects an ongoing conversation on poetics, rhetoric, and reading in late Elizabethan culture.  I suggest that Shakespeare imports this conversation and questions it, as dialectic, through the plot of his play.  At this point, it is time to acknowledge what I have been deferring:  Hamlet is not Shakespeare, and, although Hamlet's comments on plays and interpretation can point us in the right direction, I suspect that the play and the play-within-the-play are a good deal more complex than Hamlet's theories would allow.  I shall consider the issue of interpretation of The Mousetrap first.

Hamlet does not know for certain that King Claudius is guilty of the murder of the late king, his own brother and Hamlet's father.  He does not hear the king's guilty aside in Act Three, scene one, nor does he hear the king's attempt to pray to God for mercy for having killed his brother in Act Three, scene three.  Hamlet comes in right after the king admits his guilt. Only we--and God--know the king is definitely guilty.  Our knowledge of Claudius' guilt is a matter of fact, not interpretative opinion.

In terms of forensic (legal) rhetoric, we have an "inartificial" proof and do not have to rely on the artificial proof of circumstantial evidence to judge Claudius guilty.  This puts us in an odd position as audience because we are privy to Claudius' innermost, secret thoughts, which Hamlet wants desperately to know, but in his own case he reserves the particular right to keep his own secret thoughts private.  The play as a whole emphasizes the issue of the privacy of one's thoughts even as most of the characters spy on each other to find them out.  Thus, in revealing to us Claudius’ guilty conscience, Shakespeare has placed us as audience in an ethically difficult position.

But what about The Mousetrap?  It begins with a dumb show.  Did Hamlet arrange for it?  We are not told.  In his advice to the players, Hamlet speaks of the "groundlings," at the outdoor theaters such as the Globe, "who for the most part are capable of [appreciating] nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise" (3.2.11-12).  Perhaps this dumb show is not inexplicable.13

After the dumb show's assassin murders the king and woos the queen, only Ophelia responds.  She asks Hamlet, "What means this, my lord?"  Hamlet has no problem with the dumb show. He knows exactly what it is intended to do dramatically. Hamlet replies to Ophelia that "it means mischief."  Ophelia assumes the dumb show reveals what the play will be about:  "Belike this show imports the argument of the play" (3.2.134-37).  Ophelia is correct, of course.  And yet, Claudius does not react to the dumb show.  No one reacts to it.

If I am correct that Hamlet is an allegory of rhetoric and dialectic, there has to be at least one (and there may be more than one) enigmatic scene that, when interpreted, yields an allegorical emblem, a key or hint that in some way stands in miniature as a representation of the whole play.  In Hamlet, the chief allegorical emblem is the dumb show.14  The Mousetrap is in Act Three, scene two, at the center of the play.

The dumb show is a double enigma:  Claudius does not react to it, and we have to wonder why.15  It has to have an allegorical significance, but it fails to signify to the King of Denmark, the very audience for whom it was intended.  Perhaps its failure to signify is the point.

In Hamlet, as I contend, the ongoing dialectic of the plot consistently foregrounds questions of intention and interpretation.  In the dumb show we have both.  Hamlet intends to trap Claudius, and Claudius fails to react. Leaving aside for the moment The Mousetrap proper, with its words and action (and the audience’s reaction to them), the dumb show by itself may be seen as a dramatic inset and allegorical emblem of intention and reaction. 

Elizabethan critics of and apologists for drama both concede that plays have power to influence an audience. In The Schoole of Abuse Stephen Gosson deplores drama's power to corrupt, and in An Apology for Actors Thomas Heywood praises its power to inspire.  In the dumb show, as an allegorical emblem, Hamlet as a play announces, with no words or response whatsoever, that even the best "intentions" of plays and playwrights to catch consciences of kings--of Denmark, or England, or anywhere--may have no effect whatsoever.

Given an extreme example of subversive drama, the audience fails to be moved.  To me, this lack of response is the allegorical impact of the dumb show.  Showing without directly telling--through deixis (direct verbal pointing) and epideixis (explaining through praise or blame)--may have no discernible impact at all.

There is more, of course, to The Mousetrap, the unfolding of which I have deferred in order to slow down the plot and examine its implications.  When the Player King and Player Queen speak in the main part of The Mousetrap, the old king says he will die soon and that his wife, the queen, should remarry.  She objects copiously, leading Queen Gertrude to respond to Hamlet's question, "Madam, how like you this play?" with the famous lines, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (3.2.227-28).

This is the point at which King Claudius asks if the argument of the play has offensive application, as discussed earlier.  Claudius is now suspicious, but he does not react until Lucianus delivers lines that point to and explain Lucianus’ own actions, as he pours poison into the sleeping Player King's ear (3.2.253-62).  After Lucianus explains what he is doing and then does it, Claudius rises and calls out, "Give me some light.  Away!" (3.2.267). 

Claudius is clearly upset by Hamlet's play.  According to Hamlet's interpretation of Claudius's behavior, Claudius has revealed his guilt, but would not Claudius have reacted the same way if he were innocent and realized that Hamlet had arranged a play to slander him in front of his own court?

As audience specifically assigned by Hamlet to observe Claudius' reaction, Horatio's interpretation is ambiguous.  In terms of character, Horatio is a man of deep loyalty, whose allegiance to Hamlet is unquestioned, but he is also a stoic and a skeptic (in the scientific sense of the word because he wants matters of fact).  For instance, in Act One, the guards claim to have seen the ghost of King Hamlet, but, according to Marcellus, "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him" (1.1.27-28). 

Hamlet asks Horatio to watch Claudius closely and to look for signs of guilt in reaction to the play. When Hamlet, gleeful over the success of his plan, says he should be granted a share in an acting company for his playwriting skill, Horatio suggests that Hamlet's effort is worth "half a share."  Is he trying to deflate Hamlet's manic ego, or does he think the trap was inconclusive?  Then Hamlet says, "O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?"  Horatio says, "Very well, my Lord."  And to the question of whether Horatio saw the king's reaction "upon the talk of poisoning," Horatio only responds by saying, "I did note him well" (3.2.273-288).  He does not say what he noted. 

Is Horatio unconvinced?  He does not tell us, or Hamlet, either way.  When the play is performed, the director's and players' interpretations influence our judgment by the way they stage the entire scene.  However, the lines themselves do not tell conclusively whether Horatio thinks Claudius revealed his guilt or not.

This may seem silly.  Everyone knows Claudius is guilty.  Those who attended a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet in the early seventeenth century would have known about Claudius' guilt from the old play called Hamlet, and, if anyone did not, the person next to him or her would have given word.  Then or now, if anyone be in the dark, the Ghost tells us, and Claudius alludes to his own guilt, as noted earlier, before The Mousetrap, in Act Three, scene one. 

Claudius responds to one of Polonius's moral sentences, directed not at him but about the hypocritical necessity to spy on Ophelia and Hamlet.  Polonius says, "We are oft to blame in this-- / 'Tis too much proved--that with devotion's visage / And pious action we do sugar o'er / The devil himself."  Claudius speaks to himself, in an aside:

O, 'tis true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden! (3.1.46-55)

When Claudius alludes to his guilt here, what follows is dramatic irony.  However, as I mentioned earlier, in a play in which private knowledge is a matter of conscience, we have knowledge that is between a person and God, or priest.  These days, we would have to add psychoanalyst and lawyer, but the point is clear enough.  We are given privileged information.  Under the circumstances of the play, this is guilty knowledge.  In case we missed this pointed allegorical twist the first time, we are clearly placed in the role of God or priest-confessor the second time, when, after the play, Claudius explicitly confesses his guilt.

We may tend to forget that Hamlet never hears this confession.16  Hamlet enters after Claudius has concluded his admission of guilt and his failed repentence.  We have just heard an uncoerced confession.  As an audience, what are we to do with this information?  I think this is Shakespeare's question to us. We have the facts. Hamlet has, at best, an artificial proof based on inference.  At worst, he has his own supposition of Claudius' guilt, built on the word of a ghost, and only ambiguously confirmed by Claudius' reaction.  However, Hamlet is sure it is an honest ghost, and now he is bloody-minded enough to kill Claudius.  Unfortunately, the first person he supposes to be the king is Polonius, spying behind an arras.

If we confuse what we know with what Hamlet only supposes and endorse his intentions if not his actions at this point, we have some second thoughts coming.  What do we become if we violate, even in our own minds, such privileged information?  For me, this is the allegorical crux of the play, not for Hamlet but for us, as audience.  I look to Horatio to help me.  He has good sense.  He is not driven by supposition. But he is Hamlet's friend, and Hamlet is Prince of Denmark. Horatio goes along with Hamlet's surmise as if it were true.

The play puts us in a difficult position.  If we are indeed "judicious" and not the "general" multitude, we must see that the play's dialectic puts us, allegorically, in the play and taxes our judgment to an extreme.  We have to keep in mind two irreconcilable pieces of knowledge:  we are privileged to know Claudius is guilty as a matter of fact, but we also know, or ought to know, that Hamlet's judgment of Claudius' guilt is based on the thinnest sort of circumstantial evidence.  The problem is that the play encourages us all along to ignore what it makes perfectly clear but never acknowledges.

Let us turn to the play again and examine this process of noninterpretation and misinterpretation.Although Hamlet is the chief object of misinterpretation in the play, I would like first to consider Ophelia, who is destroyed by misinterpretation.  In Act One, scene three, both her brother Laertes and her father Polonius warn her against Hamlet's tenders of affection lest she lose her virginity.  Laertes's interpretation is that Hamlet as Prince of Denmark will make a political marriage for reasons of state; therefore, he cannot marry her:

                                          . . . but you must fear,
      His greatness weighed, his will is not his own.
      For he himself is subject to his birth.
      He may not carve for himself, for on his choice depends
      The safety and health of this whole state,
      And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
      Unto the voice and yielding of that body
      Whereof he is the head. (1.3.16-24)
As it turns out, Laertes's cogent interpretation of Hamlet's marital options is wrong.  When Ophelia is about to be buried, the queen laments,
      I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife.
      I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid,
      And not t'have strewed thy grave. (5.1.244-6)

Gertrude would do anything for Hamlet, and Claudius would do anything for Gertrude.  If Hamlet had wanted to marry Ophelia, no one would have stood in his way.  Yet Laertes stands in Ophelia's way.  What motivates him to suppose that Hamlet's place precludes his marrying a lady of the court?  We never know.  Whatever is the case, Laertes's interpretation is wrong.

Polonius' interpretation of Hamlet's behavior toward Ophelia is easier to fathom.  To him, all young men have one thing in mind.  He tells his daughter:

In few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their vestments show,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile. (1.4.127-32)

Polonius' pun is a syllepsis on Hamlet's brokered "investments" in Ophelia and his false "vestments" or ornamented words to get what he wants.  Polonius' fear that Hamlet is using Ophelia is only one possible interpretation of Hamlet's behavior, but it carries authority, and Ophelia obediently adopts her father's viewpoint and agrees to give up any further relationship with Hamlet.

When she returns the love tokens he gave her, he questions her honesty, accusing her of being a "bawd" with her affections, just as Polonius earlier interpreted his behavior to Ophelia.  He says, "I did love you once," but, since he believes she has betrayed him, he then says, "I loved you not" (3.1.116,120).  Of course, if Hamlet loved Ophelia, and she obeyed her father by denying Hamlet her presence, he has reason to be angry at her. 

Hamlet says these wounding words to Ophelia before he suspects they are being spied on by Polonius. Not until 3.1.131-32 does he demand to know where her father is or hear what may be Ophelia's lying answer ("[He is] at home, my lord"). Before his suspicion is aroused by Polonius, Hamlet has already consigned Ophelia to the same category as Hamlet's mother Gertrude, the topos of female moral weakness and duplicity:  "Frailty, thy name is woman"(1.2.146).

He twice says to Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery" (3.1.122 and 131) just before he says, "Where's your father?"  By way of syllepsis, the word "nunnery" slides easily from its meaning as "convent" into its slang meaning of "brothel."  From this time forward, Hamlet will not let go of this theme of Ophelia as whore.  He "frets" and "plays upon" Ophelia with it.  As we come to find out, it may be as much Hamlet's various ways of calling her a whore as his murder of her father Polonius that causes her madness.

Although Hamlet has cause to be angry and suspicious toward Ophelia, his response is out of all proportion to the offence, and he never forgives her.  Instead he imposes a fantastic interpretation on her. In rhetoric, this kind of interpretation is called suppositio, an idea in the mind that the speaker supposes to be real and imposes as a false reality on an object.  It is a form of allegoresis.

There is more than one way for an audience to be "absolute," and Hamlet shows that, as Ophelia's audience,  he is incapable of a judicious interpretation of her.  For Hamlet, Ophelia is either loyal to him, or she is a bawd. There is no in between. Later, we will have occasion to examine this absolutist tendency in Hamlet's interpretations.

After her father's death, the distracted Ophelia wanders about the court singing enigmatic remarks and ditties that the hearers attempt to interpret--or not.  Here again, we may be faced with an allegorical emblem of interpretation, misinterpretation, and disinterpretation.  As the gentleman of the court who overhears Ophelia says to Queen Gertrude,

[Ophelia] speaks things in doubt
That carry but half sense.  Her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they yawn at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts. (4.5.6-10)

The gentleman's remarks provide a definition of suppositio, as the hearers interpret her meaning according to their own preconceptions and fit her "half sense" into the topoi or categories that in their own minds best explain her words.  As an allegorical emblem, his words point to our own difficulty as allegorical interpreters of the play.  I consider it fair warning that, as a "hearer" of the play, I am likely to take "nothing" or things "unshaped" and turn them into something, as I patch the words together to fit my own thoughts.  The gentleman's words yield another definition--of allegoresis, interpretation imposed on the play.

Horatio points out to the queen that such interpretations may have serious political ramifications:  "Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds" (4.5.14-5).  Horatio is indeed correct.  The songs she sings deal with two subjects, both of which may refer obliquely to Hamlet.  One song seems to refer to Hamlet's murder of her father:

He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone. (4.5.29-32)
But the other two may refer to Hamlet's responsibility for another deed altogether.  The first one says:
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more. (4.5.48-55)

I think the allegorical meaning of the riddle of the maiden who is let into a man's room and then is let out again but who "never departed" is obvious enough, but I have had a number of intelligent readers tell me I am making it up.

At the risk of sounding like the "absolute" gravedigger of Act Five, I interpret Ophelia's song to mean that the young woman who enters the man's chamber is a maiden, a virgin, when she is let in, but when she is let out, she has lost her virginity.  Thus, the maiden can "never depart" from the room because there is no more "maiden" but instead a deflowered woman.  If this interpretation seems less than convincing, look at the very next song Ophelia sings:

"By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't;
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.'"
He [the young man] answers:
"'So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.'" (4.5.59-67)

The implication here seems to me inescapable.  If Ophelia is referring to herself in this song, Hamlet promised to marry her, bedded her, and then refused to marry her on the grounds that she was no longer a virgin.17  This puts a new light on Hamlet's repeated references to Ophelia's being a "baud" in her affections and, in fact, validates Polonius and Laertes' earlier fears for her chastity.

I think one reason readers have trouble interpreting these songs the way I have just done is that none of her auditors in the play seems to hear what she is saying.  In this failure to acknowledge Ophelia's words, we have, allegorically speaking, the aural equivalent of the dumb show.  In this case, the audience fails to react to what they are hearing.18

The only one who offers an interpretation of Ophelia's cryptic ramblings is the king, who picks up on what she says about the death of her father ("This is the poison of deep grief; it springs / All from her father's death") and Hamlet's role in it ("First her father slain; / Next, your son gone, and he most violent author / Of his own just remove") (4.5.76-7, 80-1).  No one says a word about the other implication (or application) of Ophelia's words. 

Claudius only echoes Horatio's fear of "dangerous conjectures"--false interpretations or politically volatile true ones--when he speaks of the turbid atmosphere of rumor among "the people muddied, / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers / For good Polonius's death" (4.5.82-4).  The king forecloses any further interpretation of Ophelia's songs with his final interpretation that Ophelia is mad ("Poor Ophelia / divided from herself and her fair judgment" 4.5.85-6).

No one mentions the possibility that, in addition to killing Polonius, Hamlet might have deflowered and rejected Ophelia. Why not? Were they not listening? Is it a conspiracy of silence to pretend she has said nothing ("Her speech is nothing," as the gentleman said.) because what is already known to be true about Hamlet, that he killed Polonius, is already trouble enough? I think so. Claudius is using what we today would call "spin control," putting it out for public consumption that Ophelia is mad so as not to have to interpret this other damaging information.

Of course, Ophelia is mad.  The play makes this clear, also.  In the unfolding of the play's dialectic, we are actually discouraged from interpreting sense from Ophelia's ramblings.  In terms of the dominant discourse of the play, the rhetoric favors Hamlet.  Most of the lines--and all of the good lines--are his.  The ethos or ethical weight of the play's rhetoric encourages us to identify with Hamlet and to regard him as our moral interpreter within the play.19

Further, a failure to acknowledge the possibility that Hamlet had sex with Ophelia has another ethical implication.  To reject the possibility is to say, as Renaissance rhetoricians were prone to say of a person subject to judgment, that Hamlet is not the type to have done such a deed.  It is a key argument in any logical, artificial (circumstantial) proof in a forensic debate or legal case.  The play encourages this kind of ethical judgment on our part.

For the audience, there is a further ethical implication to such an argument in favor of Hamlet's character.  To acknowledge what Ophelia's words mean would be to understand that Hamlet behaved shabbily toward her.  This would require acknowledgment that Hamlet, with whom we may identify, is perhaps unworthy of our sympathy, or that we as an audience have made a judgment that shows our own unworthiness in identifying with him.

Because we see from Hamlet's position, we fail to see the obvious.  Stanley Cavell speaks directly to our "condition" as audience:  "In failing to see what the true position of a character is, in a given moment, we are exactly put in his condition, and thereby implicated in the tragedy" (84-85).  As an allegory of reading, Hamlet puts us in a position to see and hear all we need to know, if only we can acknowledge what we see and hear, "so that," as Cavell says, "when it comes over us that we have missed it, this discovery will reveal our ignorance to have been willful, complicitous, a refusal to see" (85).

I would not go so far as Cavell because I do not think we ever know in Shakespeare the "true position of a character" or the "true" meaning of anything.  This is not to say, as deconstructionists tend to say, that meaning is indeterminate.  Shakespeare's dialectic sets things up so that, quite often, "meaning" consists of two alternatives.  Either Ophelia died a virgin, or she did not.  Either Hamlet deflowered her, or he did not.  The play sets things up so that members of the audience are bound to disagree in their judgment of the situation.

We do not have to agree in our judgment, but to deny that both possibilities exist is to fail to acknowledge the dialectical doubleness of the play and the choice we are offered in making a judgment.

Claudius as an interpreter may deny the significance of what Ophelia has said, but his actions belie the denial.  He manipulates the situation by attempting to gag Ophelia, by ordering Horatio to keep an eye on her:  "Follow her close.  Give her good watch, I pray you"  (4.5.75).  The next time we hear about Ophelia, she is dead.  Horatio has not kept an eye on her, and she has drowned in a brook.  Is he somehow implicated in her death?  We do not know.  He has received a letter from Hamlet and has apparently abandoned his watch over Ophelia in order to go to Hamlet as Hamlet's letter requests (4.6. 23-4). 

Horatio's first allegiance is to Hamlet. He does not care about Ophelia except to prevent her from spreading rumors about Hamlet that would raise "dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds." Even if Horatio was not actively implicated in Ophelia's death, he had no stake in her continued existence, and her death would serve his purpose, to silence Ophelia's tongue.  This interpretation puts the noble Horatio in a different perspective.  The ground of our understanding of him shifts when we see him from a different place, as Hamlet's defender, guarding against slander of his boss.

And what are we to make of Gertrude's lovely speech interpreting Ophelia's death? (4.7.167-84).  The queen tells Laertes that Ophelia drowned by accident and that her death was magically beautiful.  Gertrude was not there when it happened, was she?  If she had been, surely she would have rescued Ophelia.  Unless we suppose Gertrude was implicated in Ophelia's death, we have to assume Gertrude is imagining what Ophelia's death was like.  So Gertrude's lovely story of Ophelia's death is a fable.

Gertrude's interpretation is beautifully imagined, but is it probable?  The common opinion is that Ophelia killed herself.  The gravediggers believe Ophelia died by her own hand.  The first clown asks the other, "Is she to be buried in Christian burial, when she willfully seeks her own salvation?" (5.1.1-2).  After a discussion of ecclesiastical law in such cases, the second clown concludes that "if this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o' Christian burial" (5.1.23-5), but the official judging the cause of death, the coroner, probably knowing his own best interest (in terms of royal wishes), interpreted her death to be accidental (5.1.4-5).

The priest presiding over Ophelia's interment seconds the gravediggers' interpretation of the situation and says further that the king has dictated reality by imposing his own interpretation that her death was not suicide:  "Her death was doubtful, / And but that great command o'ersways the order / She should in ground unsanctified been lodged / Till the last trumpet" (5.1.227-30).  Again, we see the king as a figure of authority manipulating facts and imposing his own interpretation on reality, leaving the priest, gravediggers, and the rest of the common people to mutter about the results.

Ophelia's case involves damning interpretations and willful misinterpretations over which, in death as in life, she had no control.  No one ever attempts to ask Ophelia what she wants.  Self-serving interpretations of her character and motivations are projected upon her, and Ophelia is destroyed in the process.  Hamlet's situation is different.  In contrast to Ophelia, he uses to his own advantage the tendency of others to impose interpretations upon him.20

As Hamlet says to Guildenstern, ""Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?  Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me"  (3.2. 368-70).  In fact, Hamlet plays upon them.

Because they are ambitious, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's explanation of Hamlet's strange behavior is that he is ambitious to become king (2.2.253), and since they will not believe him when he says he is not ambitious, Hamlet plays along with their interpretation by telling them what they want to hear:  "Sir, I lack advancement" (3.2.338).  In a similar way, Polonius, recalling his own unrequited love madness as a youth, explains Hamlet's strange behavior by placing him in a similar category:  "And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this" (2.2.189-91).  Hamlet plays on Polonius' labeling of his malady by continually referring to Ophelia when Polonius tries to interrogate him.  After Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet with Ophelia, Claudius can see no evidence of Hamlet's love madness:

                        Love?  His affections do not that way tend;
                        Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
                        Was not like madness. (3.1.165-7)
Seeing what he wants to see, Polonius holds to his opinion:
                                                            But yet do I believe
                        The origin and commencement of his grief
                        Sprung from neglected love. (3.1.179-11)
In terms of the Renaissance practice of rhetoric, Polonius is better at invention, which he does copiously, and at creating weighty aphorisms, as in his sententious and contradictory advice to Laertes, than he is at judgment, despite his reputation as a sage counselor to the king.  Matters of fact seem less important to him than the arts of rhetoric, as Queen Gertrude tells him ("More matter, with less art" 2.2.95) when he fails to get to the point concerning Hamlet and Ophelia. Perhaps Polonius is a Ciceronian, trained in the copious rhetoric that Erasmus recommended in an earlier generation.  As part of the play's dialectic of interpretation, Polonius exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of Renaissance training in rhetoric and rhetorical logic.

Hamlet uses the coercive categorizing of Polonius and the rest to encourage them to misinterpret his behavior.  Although Polonius realizes that men his age have a tendency to project their own propensities on to others, he cannot prevent himself from doing it:

                        By heaven, it is as proper to our age
                        To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
                        As it is common for the younger sort
                        To lack discretion. (2.1.117-9)

Since everyone in the play tends to overshoot the mark when they try to interpret people and things beyond themselves, perhaps Shakespeare means more than is apparent in Polonius's comment.  At the risk of casting beyond myself and missing the mark, I would like to suggest that, in Polonius' statement, the play seems to be hinting that misinterpretation was characteristic of the period ("proper to our age"), in which people mistake their suppositions for truth.21 

If this is one of the meanings of the allegory of interpretation in Hamlet, why would misinterpretation have been a particular problem for Shakespeare and English society at the beginning of the seventeenth century?

As I see it, the marked concern with interpretation and misinterpretation represented in Hamlet reveals a third aspect of allegory that, as dialectic, comments on a radical change in perceiving and judging truth that moves away from sixteenth-century training in rhetorical or probable logic toward a new intellectual absolutism that assumes the mantle of transcendental truth.  Regarding what I am about to say about this change, I apologize in advance for the gross generalizations, but I can see no other way of getting from here to where I am going.

Against the probable logic and arguments on both sides of a question (in utramque partem), which I perceive as being Shakespeare's dialectical habit of playwriting, a habit which is also a way of perceiving human problems, we can see emerging in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England new (or renewed) forms of intellectual absolutism.  As imperfect and in many ways backward as the philosophical and intellectual climate of England was in the sixteenth century, England remained isolated from the worst of the polarizing certainties of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.22

According to my view, this virulent intellectual absolutism began to be visited upon England at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The older place logic treats words as pictures created by the mind, having only an approximate relation to the things of external reality, whereas various forms of renewed intellectual absolutism posit a world in which the word equals the thing itself, as truth.23

What has this distinction to do with interpretation?  Perhaps the answer is that, if the two different attitudes toward language in the interpretation of human affairs lead to distinctly different notions of truth and how such truth may be arrived at (or even if it can be arrived at), the interpretive acts of those who believe words have a certain "as-if" quality will likely be more tentative, circumspect, and self-reflexive than the interpretations of those who believe words can be made equal to things.

The latter will find their mental pictures of the world and the words used to describe them completely convincing, marked as they are (or as they assume) by an equality of word and thing that binds the perceiver (the interpreter) to the perceived (the world) without consciousness that there may be a discrepancy.24  The probable logic Shakespeare learned in grammar school taught that words (verba) do not equal things (res).

Marion Trousdale says of sixteenth-century rhetoric, "The single most important belief about the nature of language in the sixteenth century [is] the disjunction between words and things" (24).  "Language can be used to argue that the Battle of Troy took place, and then, using the same categories, inverted to say that it did not" (25).25  The arguments created by this kind of rhetoric, place logic, and dialectic are matters of human judgment, not absolute truth.  The Elizabethan schoolboy might have been as aware of the artificial nature of language as a late twentieth-century student of linguistics.

The copiousness and amplification characteristic of sixteenth-century rhetoric offer "more ways of talking about things than things have of existing" (Trousdale 29).  Since words do not in themselves yield truth in cases in which truth cannot be definitely known but only conjectured about in terms of possibilities and probabilities, words can be used within multiple topics, shifting the argument from place to place, to show as many aspects of the matter as the writer or speaker has the inventive capacity to reveal, aspects that may actually contradict each other.

To me, this practice corresponds to Shakespeare's rhetorical, dialectical approach to writing plays.  As Trousdale says of Shakespeare:

If, as in Richard II, [the king] appears both virtuous and weak or, as in King John, both good and evil, there is a sense in which such richness, and indeed even such apparent contradiction, can be seen not only to reflect the formulae that [Thomas] Wilson provides, but to give validity to the [Elizabethan] rational structures of discourse in so doing. (31-2)

There is a fundamental dialogic quality to place logic that grows out of the Latin tradition of Cicero and Quintilian, whose rhetoric, in textbook form, Shakespeare would have learned from his Oxford-trained masters at the Stratford grammar school.

By contrast to the "as-if" quality of probable logic, there are new claims to transcendental truth in human affairs that constitute various strains of intellectual absolutism.  One of the latter that Hamlet marks is Ramism.  Ramist dialectic, invented by the sixteenth-century French Protestant philosopher and rhetorician known in England as Peter Ramus, conflated Aristotle's distinction between the scientific logic of demonstrable truth and the probable logic of human affairs.

The positive aspects of Ramus's method are found in Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning (1605), in which Bacon bemoans the tendency of those trained in the arts of rhetoric to concern themselves more with the apt phrase than with the weight of their matter. Like Polonius, these rhetoricians need more matter and less art.  Ramus's use of simple language to portray the visual, diagrammatic quality of his ideas rather than the Ciceronian copia verborum of earlier rhetoric leads to the transparency of style that science was to adopt and which eventually became the model for English prose.

Ramist thinking is not congenial to poetry, which represents the opposite of Ramus's method of clear teaching.  To Ramus, poets deceive.  They "ambush" their audience into drawing conclusions which the audience has no inclination to draw" (Ong 253).2 "Theories involving probable logics had allowed for poets, orators, historians and others to work from premises acknowledged as less than certain" (Ong 253). To Ramus, who did not admit of anything less than certainty, such tactics were "a perversion of method" and thus a liar's art (Ong 254).

One can see why a playwright like Marlowe would take a verbal shot at Ramus through the Duke of Guise in The Massacre of Paris.27 I contend that, in Hamlet, Shakespeare imported, as complex allegory, the whole controversy over interpretation--of the true/false of Ramist dialectic versus the older probable/possible of rhetorical dialectic.28

There are numerous clues to this particular valence of Shakespeare's allegory.  The play is full of references to place logic, from Polonius's endless sentences (1.3.55-81) to Hamlet's memorized "saws of books" and his own writing down of his thoughts in a common place book ("the table of my memory") (1.5.101, 99).  There are also specific references to Ramist dialectic.

For instance, Polonius, who follows the older Elizabethan rhetorical model of copiousness and verbal flourishes, finds it impossible to be brief despite his sententious statement that "brevity is the soul of wit." It helps to know that Queen Gertrude's  "More matter, with less art," (2.2.90-91, 95) was a Ramist rallying cry. Res (matter) over verba (words) is reflected in both the Puritan call for a plain style and in Bacon's The Advancement of Science, mentioned above.

A further hint that Shakespeare has Ramism in mind in Hamlet is Polonius' aside concerning Hamlet's "antic disposition":  "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it" (2.2.205-6).29  Beyond its meaning of "cunning" in the passage, "method" has the additional meaning of methodology clearly associated with Ramist dialectic.30

By 1601 or so, when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Ramism was old news. What was there then that made Shakespeare allude to it? To me, it is as if Shakespeare perceived a serious philosophical and political problem for playwrights in particular and for society in general. Ramism was one aspect of the broad displacement of dialogue and rhetorical dialectic (arguments in utramque partem, on both sides of a question) in considering human affairs, and its replacement by a growing dogmatic, absolutist monologue.31 

Puritans, as their enemies called them, found congenial Ramism's plain style and emphasis on matter over rhetoric. As conscientious Calvinists, they liked the Ramist dogma that dialectical method could lead to truth in all areas.  It coincided with their desire to interpret divine providence.32  Whatever the reason, the habit of intellectual absolutism seems to have captured discourse on all sides.  At the risk of over-generalizing once more, I think it is reasonable to note that, in the seventeenth century, issues of debate that a generation or two earlier might have involved reasoned discourse on the probable/possible began to degenerate into polemical diatribes, as questions were recast so that answers would reveal demonstrable truth.33

As Michel Foucault points out, the grammatical link to this new (or renewed) ontological authority of language to define all reality--where the word is equal to the thing itself--is the verb to be.34The game of words that was English rhetoric from the time when place logic gained a hold on English universities to the time that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet was beginning to give way to the word-is-thing logic of Ramus.  In Hamlet, this change, from an "as if" rhetorical dialectic of probability to a "it is" Ramistic dialectic of truth, may be inscribed in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy.35

In the dominant direction of the play, the "To be or not to be" speech is obviously a superb example of the older, rhetorical dialectic of argumentum in utramque partem, as Hamlet debates with himself whether to live or die, and whether it is better to continue "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" or to brave "the undiscovered country" of death and the likelihood of God's judgment against suicide (3.157-89).

In his soliloquy, Hamlet moves easily from topic to topic, by a kind of syllepsis in which one word reminds him of another and, thus, another topic for internal debate, using a number of rhetorical tropes and figures.  The speech is a model of Elizabethan rhetorical skill.  It is also a dramatic tour de force, "set down with . . . modesty and cunning" (2.2.440), as Hamlet says of a play he admires, requiring an actor who can deliver the lines "well spoken, with good accent and good discretion" (2.2.466-67).

If read another way, Hamlet's speech becomes an allegorical emblem that inscribes a change in habits of thought. This is part of the secondary discourse of the play. From this point of view, Hamlet's "To be or not to be" shifts from the rules of rhetoric and of good acting (or fair seeming) to a new ground for judgment.

In this second view, "to be" is the language of "being," the language of transcendental "truth."  According to this logic, "not to be" becomes the language of "seeming," the false seeming of beguiling but empty rhetoric, and of playing a part rather than being true.  From this allegorical perspective, "To be or not to be" really is the "question" in Hamlet. Of course, from the point of view of interpretation, in allegory as rhetoric and dialectic, nothing "really is" in Hamlet or any other Shakespeare play. Because Shakespeare argues on two or more sides of any question, we can only know probably or possibly what he meant, or we can explicate the multiple ways of viewing a given case.

As rhetoric and dialectic, words are a serious game.  They have a relation to reality but are never equivalent to it.  It is the rhetorical perspective of the "as if" logic of "not to be."  To the Ramist the whole "as-if" structure is a lie whose intention is to deceive the unwary audience.

We are back to Plutarch's essay on reading.  Any attempt to pin down a single reading of the play (or any of his plays) would prompt Shakespeare to say that the words mean whatever we think they mean as long as we do not hold him responsible for what we read into them.  As to his own inner thoughts about his authorial intention, Shakespeare resolutely kept them to himself.

Whereas Ben Jonson oversaw the publication of his plays and published prefaces and glosses to explain his intention, Shakespeare never authorized the publication of his plays.  If it had not been for friends like Jonson who wanted the world to remember Shakespeare's dramatic production after his death in 1616, the 1623 Folio would never have existed.  Perhaps Shakespeare did not want people prying too deeply into what was actually in the plays so that he could keep to himself their inmost secrets, things not caught by the audience in performance.

Whatever might have been Shakespeare's motive, Hamlet expresses concern about the privacy of one's inmost thoughts.  Spying on others to learn their secrets is foregrounded in the play. Polonius uses Reynoldo to spy on his own son.  He probes the secrets of his daughter's affection for Hamlet:  "What is between you?" he demands of Ophelia.  "Give up the truth" (1.3. 99).  Then he spies on Ophelia and Hamlet to learn what is in Hamlet's heart. Finally, he is killed while spying on Hamlet with Gertrude.  Hamlet is the chief object of spy activity, as not only Polonius but the king, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern all try to find out his deepest thoughts, but he refuses.  As Hamlet says to Guildenstern:

You would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass, and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. (3.2.364-8)

Hamlet asserts the right to keep his inmost conscience to himself. Is it only to the privacy of his own heart that these lines refer?  Perhaps there is more to it.

I am thinking of the argument put forth by Donna Hamilton in Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England (1992), in which she delineates an important political theme in Shakespeare's plays concerning the controversy over ecclesiastical courts and the invasion of personal privacy.  While Hamilton does not deal with Hamlet, I think her insights apply equally to this play.36 

Against the background of the Act of Supremacy of Queen Elizabeth over the Church of England and the Act of Uniformity within the church (1559), resulting in severe penalties against recusant Catholics, Hamilton describes new measures to enforce uniformity among suspected nonconformist Puritan ministers.  Beginning in 1584, a person accused of nonconformity was called before the ecclesiastical court of High Commission, which compelled an oath from him ex officio mero:

This oath extracted from the accused the vow to answer all questions the court would put to him, and before the accused knew that with which he was being charged.  Because it could be required of defendants presumed to be guilty but against whom no evidence of or witnesses to wrong-doing existed, the ex officio oath, and the High> Commission along with it, thus promoted and legitimised a system that subjected people to self-accusation. (Hamilton 35)

These oaths engendered heated debate through the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign and into the reign of James I when the great common law advocate Sir Edward Coke wrote in 1606 that the ex officio oath "entrapped" those forced to take it into "Heresies and Errors."37  Thus, "no man shall be examined upon secret thoughts of his heart, or of his secret opinion" (Hamilton 37).  Coke lost the battle.  The law was not revoked until 1641.

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, spies attempt to trap Hamlet into revealing "the secret thoughts of his heart," but he refuses to unpack his heart to them.  Though others may fret him, they cannot play upon him.  But Hamlet "plays" upon Claudius and attempts to entrap him with The Mousetrap.  If entrapment of one's conscience was a hot issue when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, what does it mean that Hamlet creates a trap to catch the conscience of a king?  Was Hamlet wrong?  Perhaps he was.  At the least, he was inconsistent.

Most of us may love Hamlet as much as the general population of Denmark loves him.  Claudius makes the point twice about the people's affection for the prince:

He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes. (4.3.4-5)
He also speaks of
. . . the great love the general gender bear him,
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Work like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces, so that my arrows,
Too slightly timbered for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again
But not where I had aimed them. (4.7.19-22)

These lines suggest that the "general" audience of Hamlet, like the general public of Denmark, loves Hamlet despite what he does.

Here, we should note that Hamlet in some ways occupies the privileged position of the Vice figure of morality plays.  The Vice, with his "antic disposition," played to the audience with asides and double meanings, moving to the apron of the stage to address the audience directly.  This is Hamlet's role in the play, whereas Claudius probably remains well back in the locus, the area furthest from the audience.38  Whereas Hamlet commands the audience's automatic sympathy, the play's allegory of interpretation seems to question his behavior.

To return to my earlier point about Ramist absolutism, I would suggest that Hamlet may be caught between his "Ramist" tendencies and his joy in wordplay, a habit associated with rhetoric and place logic. He is at his worst when he confers upon himself an absolute moral authority that supposedly yields truth. At these times, he holds his version of reality to be superior to that of others. He announces this when we first meet him.  He alone has genuine "being"; the rest are mere "seeming."

In answer to his mother's question, "Why seems it so particular with thee?" Hamlet quibbles with the word "seems":  "Seems, madam?  Nay, it is.  I know not 'seems'" (1.2.75-6). Hamlet distinguishes his own inner genuineness from outward "actions that a man might play." He has "that within which passes show" (1.2.84-5). 

Aside from the fact that the whole "play" is a "show," Hamlet's distinction between his own image of himself as the only fully authentic being in the play, while others may only be false seeming, reveals a double metaphysical assertion--a claim of being and an accompanying claim of truth (both to know the truth and to be true).  This is what is "particular" with Hamlet. However, Hamlet is ambivalent about being and seeming.  It is as if he were trapped between the "to be" of Ramist dialectic and the "not to be" of "as if" rhetoric.

Seen in this way, Hamlet is himself emblematic of the play's dialectic of being and seeming.  The dominant rhetoric of the play endorses him as a hero, but the secondary discourse, as dialectic, questions this assertion. 

What exactly is the tragedy of Hamlet?  Perhaps it is that his absolutist interpretation of himself and the world gets the better of his habit of verbal play and arguments on both sides.  That Hamlet is poised between two opposite ways of interpreting can be observed when he tells Rosencranz, "There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so" (2.2.250-51). This statement can be interpreted in two ways.

Looked at one way, it can be seen as Montaigne's skepticism.  Perhaps in a related way, it can be seen in light of rhetorical argumentum in utramque partem, where particular cases may be judged "good or bad" not absolutely but probably, according to which general principles are applied and how the issues are argued, according to rhetorical logic and coloration.

In contrast, if the "thinker" is an absolutist who believes he can know the truth, then thinking does indeed make it so. Poised between these two possibilities, Hamlet succumbs to the latter, assuming a power to "know not seem[ing]" but truth.

In this way of interpreting Hamlet's actions, his absolutist picture of reality destroys Ophelia, and his assumption that he knows the truth about Claudius causes him to kill Polonius by mistake. Later, he sets in motion a plan to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because he is certain they are guilty of carrying out a plan to kill him, but they were only the king's pawns and knew nothing of the message sent to England to kill Hamlet. His play to catch the conscience of the king is an act of unconscious hypocrisy, an intrusion into the heart of another that he would not allow others to do to him.

In addition to his Ramist tendencies, Hamlet reveals himself to be something of a Calvinist.  When he realizes he has mistakenly killed Polonius, he says,

                                            For this same lord,
I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. (3.4.179-84)
I infer that Hamlet feels he has been singled out for God's special providence.  If my interpretation seems less than convincing, consider Hamlet's supreme confidence when he describes to Horatio how he dispatched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
Rashly,
And praised be rashness for it--let us know
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will. (5.2.6-11)

Hamlet's statement echoes Calvin's belief in God's special providence:  "The plans and intentions of men are so governed by his providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end" (Calvin, Institutes, 1.16.8).

Hamlet attributes to divine providence his discovery of the king's commission to England and his forgery of a new commission that would cause the death of the two lackeys without the opportunity to confess and repent:  "He should those bearers put to death, / Not shriving time allowed" (5.2.47-7).  Even the fact that he still had his late father's signet ring to seal the false document was ordained by providence:  "Why, even in that was heaven ordinant" (5.2.48).

In his absolute assurance that his course is divinely ordained, Hamlet dismisses the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They were two unimportant little men ("those of baser nature") who got themselves between the king and Hamlet, "two mighty opposites" (5.2.60 and 62).  The pawns who "did make love to their employment . . . are not near [Hamlet's] conscience" (5.2.57-8).  They are victims of God's plan.  Hamlet identifies his own will with God's plan.  There is no arguing with Hamlet, and Horatio, like a good pupil, merely assents to Hamlet's illogical logic.  Hamlet has aligned himself with God's truth.  As he says,

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet
it will come.  The readiness is all.  Since no man of aught he leaves
knows, what is it to leave betimes?  Let be. (5.2.217-22)

Has Hamlet at last learned something?  If this is a moment of anagnoresis, it is an ambiguous one.  Hamlet carries out his role as "minister and scourge," and Fortinbras marches in and steals the kingdom of Denmark.  Had Hamlet not been so consumed with a sense of his own transcendent truth (of knowing it and of being it), it is possible that neither event would have occurred.

The play's allegory of interpretation shows that Hamlet has caught himself in his own philosophical and political "mousetrap." It is the trap of a simplistic picture of the world created by intellectual absolutism and a methodology that confuses probabilities with certainties, one that combined easily with the providential bent of Puritanism.  Whereas the dialogic approach of an earlier rhetorical dialectic might have served him well, Hamlet chooses instead a logic of certainty more appropriate to scientific demonstration.  Thus, one might say that the play's allegory of interpretation suggests the more tentative course of probable logic for human situations where certainty is unattainable.

 


1I am indebted to John M. Wallace's essay for directing my attention to Plutarch's chapter on reading in Plutarch's Morals.  "'Examples are Best Precepts':  Readers and Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Poetry," Critical Inquiry 1 (1974):  273-90.

2Plutarch, Morals, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1603).

3Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, 1927, vol. 1 (Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1960) 101.

4See Andrew Gurr concerning Eastward Ho! and The Isle of Dogs in The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642 (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1992) 43 and 53.

5Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, ed. G. A. Wilkes, The World's Classics (Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1988) 492-93.

6Joel Altman regards Renaissance plays as questions answered in utramque partem (on both sides of the question) as dialectic (2-3).  Citing T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greek 2 vols. (Urbana, Ill., 1944) and Madeleine Doran,  Endeavors of Art (Madison, 1954) among others, Altman points out that Shakespeare's training in the grammar school of Stratford would have prepared him in this sort of argumentation.  Further, Altman responds to the work of A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns (New York, 1961), Eugene Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Shakespeare, Chapman and Dryden (New York, 1962), and Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York, 1967) (Altman fn 13, 5-6). Altman proposes a theory of Shakespeare's plays as dialectic that "legitimizes and makes available to us a much greater range of response than we have been accustomed to feel is appropriate, and allows us to be true to our sense, as careful, affectionate readers and viewers, of what these plays do to us," The Tudor Play of Mind:  Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1978) 6.

7Philosophical skepticism and the problem of knowing, or failing to acknowledge, other minds is the subject of Stanley Cavell's Disowning Knowledge (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1987).  See in particular Part 2 of Chapter 2, "The Avoidance of Love:  A Reading of King Lear" (81-123).

8Citing Aristotle's Poetics, Sidney articulates the idea of poetry as the imitation of nature:  "Poesy therefore is an arte of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word Mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture--with this end, to teach and delight" (101).  Further, Sidney says that poetry excels both the particularity of history and the precepts of philosophy by combining the virtues of both.  Through its vivid images presented in words as if spoken, the poet gives light to the "learned definition" of the philosopher "be it of virtue, vices, matters of public policy or private government--replenisheth the memory with many infallible grounds of wisdom, which, notwithstanding, lie dark before the imagination and judging power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of poesy" (107).  Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry or The Defence of Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester:  Manchester UP, 1973).  For a complete discussion of the possible influence of Sidney on Shakespeare, see Alwin Thaler, Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney:  The Influence of The Defense of Poesy (New York:  Russell and Russell, 1947).

9Marion Trousdale has an extensive discussion of Puttenham and Shakespeare in Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1982).  The discussion of Love's Labor's Lost  appears on pages 95-113.  See also William Lowes Rushton, Shakespeare and the Arte of English Poesie (Liverpool: Henry Young and Sons, 1909).

10All citations from George Puttenham and Sir John Harington are from Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith, vol. 2, 1904 (Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1967).

11Hamlet's response to Claudius about those who might construe a negative meaning from a play by imposing an allegorical reading also sounds like that of George Puttenham, whose answer for them comes from King Edward III, who established the Order of the Garter:  "Honi soit qui mal y pense . . . Dishonored be he who means vnhonorably" (Smith 2.107), or "Evil is who evil thinks."

12The 1603 bad Quarto (Q1) edition of Hamlet announces itself as "The Tragicall Historie of HAMLET Prince of Denmarke [.]  By William Shake-speare.  As it hath beene diuerse times acted by his Highnesse seruants in the Cittie of London:  as also in the two Vniversities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where.  At London printed for N. L. [Nicholas Ling] and John Trundell.  1603," reprinted in Appendix 1 of  The Complete Works A-15.  We might infer that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with both a "general" and a "judicious" (university-educated) audience in mind.  Gabriel Harvey certainly thought so.  In a handwritten note in his copy of Speght's 1598 edition of Chaucer, Harvey wrote,  "The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis:  but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them, to please the wiser sort.  Or such poets:  or better:  or none.

Vilia miretur vulgus:  mihi flavus Apollo
Pocula Castaliae plena ministret aquae.

["Let what is cheap excite the marvel of the crowd; for me may golden Apollo minister full cups from the Castalian fount" (Ovid, Amores 1.15.35-36, Loeb translation).]  Harvey's note is reproduced in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1997) 3329.

13Lee Sheridan Cox asks, "Is Hamlet's expression of contempt for dumb shows significant in a play that includes one?"  Figurative Design in Hamlet:  The Significance of the Dumb Show (Columbus:  Ohio State UP, 1973) 8.

14The notion that there is an important allegorical significance in the dumb show at the beginning of The Mousetrap, the play within the play in Hamlet, has several adherents.  Lee Sheridan Cox, quoting W. W. Lawrence ("Hamlet and the Mouse-trap"), asserts that the dumb show is "the keystone to the arch of the drama" (15).  Stanley Cavell calls the dumb show "one of the most extraordinarily theatrical strokes in our drama," in "Hamlet's Burden of Proof", Chapter 5 of Disowning Knowledge 181.  Cavell and others refer to such dramatic insets or emblems, which depict in miniature the basic figure or allegory of the plot, as mise en abyme, Andre Gide's term for such allegorical insets.  I like this term but have refrained from using it because of the connotations of interpretive aporia that cling to it through its currency in deconstructive criticism.  Although my interpretation goes in a different, though not incompatible, direction from Lawrence, Cox and Cavell, I agree that the dumb show is significant.

15Cox notes Claudius' failure to react to the dumb show and guesses that Claudius' dumbness in response to dumb show may itself be "a clue to the character of his response and a clue to the function of the dumb show as well" (10).  Likewise, Stanley Cavell notes Claudius' failure to respond to the dumb show (180).  Claudius' non-response to the dumb show has led some critics to inscribe elaborate interpretations on this mute scene.  For example, Philip Armstrong supposes (and superimposes) an elaborate Lacanian psychoanalytic explanation:  Interrupting the duality of imaginary identification, awareness of the gaze of the Other radically challenges the identity of the subject and the security of its location within the optical field. . . .  The imaginary fantasy of dumb-show gives way to the intrusion of a third gaze, whereby Claudius, as spectator, finds the spectacle looking back at him," in "Watching Hamlet watching:  Lacan, Shakespeare and the mirror/stage," Alternative Shakespeares, vol. 2, ed. Terence Hawkes (London:  Routledge, 1996) 228.  Armstrong never explains why the "spectacle" of the dumb-show alone would not cause Claudius to feel as if he were the object of speculation, but the spectacle and words of The Mousetrap do provoke a reaction (Claudius rises and commands, "Give me some light.  Away!" 3.2.267).  According to my view, Armstrong is engaging in allegoresis, supposition that takes an idea he likes and imposes it on the play without much evidence.

16An example of our tendency to forget that Hamlet does not overhear Claudius' confession of guilt is a review by Samuel Crowl of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version of Hamlet:  "Later, Claudius will slip into the . . . confessional after 'The Mousetrap' to try to salve his guilty conscience, and it will be Hamlet-as-scourge-and-minister who hears his confession on the other side of the screen," "Hamlet," Shakespeare Bulletin (Winter 1997):  34.  Branagh's film does not make this mistake.  It is Crowl's misinterpretation, which, I suggest, the play invites.

17In his film version of Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh interprets Ophelia's songs to mean that Hamlet and Ophelia made love, the evidence of which we see in two flashbacks by Ophelia.

18Cavell says that the failure to see the obvious "lies in a refusal, a refusal expressed as a failure to acknowledge.  (This refusal, something each character is doing and is going on doing, is what makes these events add up to tragedy rather than to melodrama--in which what you fail to see is simply out of sight," Disowning Knowledge 84.

19Cox makes the point that Hamlet is our moral interpreter (60) and cites A. C. Bradley as an example of our interpretive identification with Hamlet:  "Bradley says that Hamlet 'habitually assumes . . . that he ought to avenge his father' and that 'we are meant to assume' the same" (fn 8, 165), quoting from Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1904) 97, 100. The ethos of the play's rhetoric clearly favors Hamlet. As a friend of mine, who is a Shakespeare scholar, once said to me when we were arguing over whether or not Hamlet deflowered Ophelia, "Hamlet is not the type to do such a thing." The play's dominant discourse presses the character argument in Hamlet's behalf. In terms of rhetoric, Hamlet is a special case; he fits the topos of the honest and honorable prince: case closed. However, this is an artificial proof, not a fact.

20In his introduction to Hamlet in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt notes that various critical interpretations of Hamlet's motivation resemble the attempts of characters in the play to do the same:  "These recurrent attempts to pluck out the heart of Hamlet's mystery are a modern continuation of an interpretive activity that goes on throughout the play itself" (1660).  I plead guilty as charged.

21Suppositio is a rhetorical sleight of hand.  Walter Ong explains that "in Cicero and others, supponere meant to substitute, so that the unwary easily came to think of terms not as 'signifying' things or reality, not as affording insight into reality, but as surrogates or substitutes for things. . . .  The substitution theory is the worst of semantics,"  Ramus and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1958) 70.  In a rigorous use of rhetorical logic, as Aristotle recommended, false supposition or substitution of an idea for a real thing could be refuted by the process of elenchus, pointing out the logical fallacy involved.

22The "judicious" in the audience might have known that references to "method" signaled an allusion to Cambridge Ramists such as Abraham Fraunce, Gabriel Harvey, Everard Digby, William Temple, Dudley Fenner, George Downham, and William Ames (Ong 15).  Dudley Fenner in his pamphlets and in his Ramist rhetoric text of 1584, Artes of Logike and Rethorike, had made himself notorious through radical, Puritan attacks on episcopacy.  Gabriel Harvey makes the Ramist case in the last of his Foure Letters. . . . London, Imprinted by Iohn Wolfe, 1592 (British Museum, C. 40. d. 14):  "The vayne Peacocke with his gay coullours, and the prattling Parrat with his ignorant discourses (I am not to offend any but the Peacocke and the Parrat) have garishly disguised the worthiest Artes, and deepely discredited the profoundest Artistes, to the pitifill defacement of the one and the shamefull preiudice of the other.  Rodolph Agricola, Philip Melancthon, Ludouike Vives, Peter Ramus, and diuerse excellent schollers have earnestly complaned of Artes corrupted, and notably reformed many absurdities" (Smith 236).

23An example of this intellectual absolutism on the Continent would be Galileo's argument in utramque partem for and against the Copernican theory of a heliocentic universe in his  Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), for the publication of which he was sentenced to house arrest for the last ten years of his life.

24For the following discussion of Ramism, I am indebted to Walter J. Ong, S.J. for his treatment of fifteenth and sixteenth century developments in topical logic and its similarities to and differences from ancient and scholastic logics and rhetorics in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1958).  I have also made use of the insights of Marion Trousdale (who also relies on Ong) in Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1982).  Ong's study of Ramus and Trousdale's discussion of Shakespeare's rhetoric complement each other.  Ong describes the importance of the shift from probable logic to new absolutist rhetorics, and Trousdale, as a structuralist, shares the post-modern understanding of the importance of place logic in the sixteenth century as a pre-modern version of the current linguistic emphasis on the distinction between words and things.

25As Walter Ong points out in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, in the Renaissance, as humanist schoolmasters turned away from Scholasticism, Ciceronian rhetoric replaced Aristotelian logic, and Scholastic distinctions among logics and between logic and rhetoric disappeared:

St. Thomas Aquinas had discussed the differences between various logics:  [1] a logic of scientific demonstration (what would be called simply "logic" today; [2] a logic of probability or of the more probable as used in discussion or debate, styled dialectic in the strict sense; [3] another logic of the probable, rhetoric, where probability had to be sufficient, if not to decide between alternatives intellectually, at least to result in practical decision or action; [4] a logic of poetry, still less probable, being a kind of logic of the "as-if"; and finally [5] a logic of bogus probability, sophistic. (Ong 101)
In practice, however, medieval logicians, who were usually schoolmasters dealing with teenagers, eliminated these useful but difficult distinctions.

26In The Tudor Play of Mind, Joel Altman stresses the importance of playwrights' training in rhetoric in the development of Elizabethan drama:  "Several important questions arise when we consider the impact of a rhetorical education like the one enjoyed by the young grammarians of Tudor secondary schools and those who pursued more advanced studies at the universities.  First, what happens to a mind conditioned to argue in utramque partem--on both sides of the question--as Renaissance students were trained to do?  Surely one result must be a great complexity of vision, capable of making every man not only a devil's advocate but also a kind of microcosmic deity--as John Heywood playfully suggests--who can see all sides of an issue" (3-4).  Of Hamlet and the problem of transcendental knowledge, Altman notes that, toward the end of the sixteenth century, "one tragedy after another casts doubt upon the possibility of transcendence.  Hamlet, the courtier, soldier, and scholar, standing on the edge of Elizabethan humanism, gives eloquent testimony to the failure of deep-searching wit to extricate itself from the limitations of its own condition" (10-11).

27Ong cites Ramus, Dialectique (1555) 128-129:  "executer l'embusche."

28There were other Elizabethan playwrights who took aim at Ramism.  For Thomas Nashe's remarks against Ramism in his preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon and elsewhere, see Wilbur Samuel Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1956) 197-9.

29In Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (Cambridge, 1987) 68-72, M. Todd questions whether Ramism had much impact in England.  Ramist tags are easy to spot as allusions in plays and other forms of poetic fiction.  The fact that Shakespeare and other poets felt that Ramism was worthy of comment indicates that they thought it was important, and that their audiences thought so, too.

30The allusions in Hamlet is not the only references to Ramist method in Shakespeare.  In Twelfth Night Shakespeare seems to parody the growth of Ramist "methodism" shown in Puritan sermons:

Olivia:   Give us the place alone.  We will hear this divinity.  Now sir,
what is your text?
Viola:   Most sweet lady--
Olivia:   A comfortable doctrine, and much may be said of it.  Where lies
your text?
Viola:   In Orsino's bosom.
Olivia:   In his bosom?  In what chapter of his bosom?
Viola:   To answer by the method, in the first of his heart.
Olivia:   O, I have read it.  It is heresy. (1.5.213-23)

31The "judicious" in the audience might have known that references to "method" signaled an allusion to Cambridge Ramists such as Abraham Fraunce, Gabriel Harvey, Everard Digby, William Temple, Dudley Fenner, George Downham, and William Ames (Ong 15).  Dudley Fenner in his pamphlets and in his Ramist rhetoric text of 1584, Artes of Logike and Rethorike, had made himself notorious through radical, Puritan attacks on episcopacy.  Gabriel Harvey makes the Ramist case in the last of his Foure Letters. . . . London, Imprinted by Iohn Wolfe, 1592 (British Museum, C. 40. d. 14):  "The vayne Peacocke with his gay coullours, and the prattling Parrat with his ignorant discourses (I am not to offend any but the Peacocke and the Parrat) have garishly disguised the worthiest Artes, and deepely discredited the profoundest Artistes, to the pitifill defacement of the one and the shamefull preiudice of the other.  Rodolph Agricola, Philip Melancthon, Ludouike Vives, Peter Ramus, and diuerse excellent schollers have earnestly complaned of Artes corrupted, and notably reformed many absurdities" (Smith 236).

32The change from dialogue and rhetorical dialectic to absolutist monologue in the arena of human affairs is Walter Ong's thesis in Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue.

33For a full discussion of Puritan anxiety over interpretation of God's divine providence, see Michael P.Winship, Seers of God (Baltimore:  John Hopkins UP, 1996) 11.

34It would be reasonable to suppose that training in rhetoric that taught Elizabethan citizens how to argue on both sides of a question contributed to the basic civility and stability of the period, since it taught people to appreciate points of view that they might not have understood otherwise.  It might also be fair to say that Ramist thinking, as part of a larger pattern of increasing intellectual absolutism in human matters, might have had a small share in the polarization of politics and religion that led to the English Civil War in 1642.

35Michel Foucault makes the following insight in The Order of Things (Les Mots et Les Choses):  "The independent analysis of grammatical structures, as practiced from the nineteenth century, isolates language, treats it as an autonomous organic structure, and breaks the bonds of judgment, attribution, and affirmation.  The ontological transition provided by the verb to be between speaking and thinking is removed; whereupon language acquires a being proper to itself" (295). Foucault is speaking about breaking the word=thing connection that had existed since the early seventeenth century.

36Hamilton sees a commentary on ecclesiastical courts and the issue of privacy in Shakespeare's King John, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, and Henry VIII.

37During Queen Elizabeth's reign, Lord Burghley called these oaths a form of entrapment.  Writing to Archbishop Whitgift, the man responsible for instituting the oaths, Burghley said, "I think the Inquisitors of Spain use not so many questions to comprehend and to trap their preyes" (Hamilton 36).

38Robert Weimann discusses Hamlet as a descendent of the Vice in the privileged position Hamlet holds in relation to the audience, in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978) 119 and 125-33.