The Mousetrap

Barker, Walter L. “‘The heart of my mystery’: Emblematic Revelation in the Hamlet Play Scene.” Upstart Crow 15 (1995): 75-98.


In an effort to “explicate the coherence of the Hamlet play scene and the function of The Murther of Gonzago,” this essay proposes “a description of the scene in the context of emblematic theatre” (75). Artistically, an emblem “both represents some phenomena or human experience and interprets it in the context of Neoplatonic truths, patterns, principles, etc., which the Elizabethans in general held to be universal” (75). By inserting an emblem (e.g., masque), Shakespeare “exploits” the “interplay of limited and omniscient points of view” in order “to provide his theatrical audience with an interpretive context for the stage audience’s behavior in both the play scene and the drama as a whole” (76). Hamlet’s discussions on theater with Polonius, Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players prepare theatergoers for (and alert them to) the emblematic presentation in the play scene. The dumb-show “represents and interprets stage audience behavior by delineating a psychomachia model of human nature which compels the interplay of value oriented and passion driven responses to lost love in all human beings” (86). In comparison, the dialogue of the Player-King and Player-King provides “voices for the conflicting principles through which transcendental Love shapes the Psychomachia responses to lost love in human nature” (91). The Murther of Gonzago, as “a figurative mirror of macrocosmic principle and microcosmic human nature,” “delineates the variable pattern of moral reductiveness, ‘passionate actions,’ and slanderous misreadings in which all human beings, individually and collectively, act out blind and poisoning responses to lost love” (91). Aside from the various emotional, spiritual, and mental poisonings in Hamlet, the final scene stages “a dance macabre of literal poisonings—by sword and cup, by intent and mischance, feigned and overt, forced and accidental, single and double—in which the characters complete their tragic destruction of each other” (96). “Seen historically, Shakespeare’s use of The Murther of Gonzago masque demonstrates that he thought and wrote in the modes of emblematic and Neoplatonic discourse that dominated Elizabethan art and sensibilities, and that he was very good at it” (96).

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Edelman, Charles. “‘The very cunning of the scene’: Claudius and the Mousetrap.” Parergon 12 (1994): 15-25.


This article hopes to resolve the “apparent inconsistency” of the ineffective dumb show in The Mousetrap “in a manner which takes audiences more deeply into the text, while enriching both the theatrical power and thematic significance of The Murder of Gonzaga” (15). Although generations of critics and editors have attempted to define the stage business during the silent prologue, they mistakenly “assume that Claudius’ guilt is ‘proclaimed’ by some outward display of emotion when Lucianus poisons the Player King a second time” (19). Instead, arguments could be made that The Mousetrap, in its entirety, is a methodically drawn out processes of imposing pain/discomfort. For example, the dumb show is similar to a dentist’s extraction of the first tooth in that Claudius can endure the experience and his suffering; The Murder of Gonzaga, the pulling of a second tooth, proves more difficult to bear; the verbal exchanges between Claudius and Hamlet may even constitute the figurative removal of a third and a fourth to a weakened tolerance. But how does Claudius react to The Mousetrap? A hysterical departure or a passive retreat seem unlikely. Rather, textual evidence suggests that Claudius expresses disgust and defiance, when he tells Hamlet, “Away” (23). Aside from the “theatrical power” and climactic energy of such a staging, this reading permits consistency in Claudius and the play because “the advantage is with Claudius” after The Mousetrap (24).

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Gibinska, Marta. “‘The play’s the thing’: The Play Scene in Hamlet.” Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Eastern and Central European Studies. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1993. 175-88.


This essay argues that the dumbshow and The Murder of Gonzago “each has its own specific dramatic function and meaning, by no means identical,” and that interpretations of both parts of The Mousetrap “must be related to the interpretation of Hamlet’s words and behavior” (176). Hamlet’s dialogue with Ophelia seems a dramatization of “his ‘Gertrude problem’: men treat women as sexual objects and women show themselves to be so” (179). Hence, the pantomime performance “begins in the context of Gertrude, not Claudius” (180). The dumbshow’s emphasis on the Player-Queen’s behavior creates “an image of the moral censure passed on Gertrude by both Hamlet and the Ghost” (181-82). During The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet verbally responds to staged declarations of wifely love, creating a “quasi-dialogue” with the Player-Queen; then he launches “a direct attack” on his mother by asking her opinion of the play (182). Hamlet’s question shifts focus to the throne and corresponds to the Player-King’s lengthy speech—which leads to the poisoning scene. After this pause, “the trapping of the king’s conscience begins”(183). The exchange between Claudius and Hamlet is complicated by pretense and knowledge: “each of them as the Speaker is motivated as the character he is and as a character he pretends to be; also, each of them as the Hearer may have more than one interpretation of the other’s utterances” (184). Unfortunately, Hamlet “can no longer control himself”: acting “contrary to his intentions,” Hamlet voices “implications” that alert the King “before the trap is sprung” (185). Claudius’ sudden exit is a response to the two complimentary actions directed against himself: “the play of Gonzago and the play of Hamlet” (186). Hamlet, “by bad acting,” “offers Claudius an opportunity to strengthen his position” and, “by proving the crime, puts himself in the tragic position of one who in condemning the crime must himself become a murderer” (187).

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Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Mouse and Mousetrap in Hamlet.” Shakespeare-Jahrbuch 135 (1999): 77- 92.


Expanding on John Doebler’s work, this essay explores the plethora of connotations of mouse and mousetrap. In relation to Gertrude, the mouse reference in the closet scene could be “a term of endearment” or a pejorative reference to a lustful person (79). Historically, mouse is also connected with “the devil’s entrapment of human lust with the mousetrap” (80); hence, Hamlet’s diction suggests that he perceives Gertrude “at once as the snare that catches the devil Claudius (and the son Hamlet?) in lust, and snared herself in the same devil’s mousetrap” (82). With Claudius, the mouse implies “destructive and lascivious impulses” (84). Hamlet also is associated with the mouse in his role as mouser or metaphorical cat. For example, the “cat-like, teasing method in Hamlet’s madness” appears in his dialogue with Claudius immediately prior to the start of The Mousetrap (88). The mousetrap trope becomes “part of a pattern of images in Hamlet that poises the clarity of poetic justice against a universe of dark of unknowing,” as “the trapper must himself die to purify a diseased kingdom” (91).

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Hunt, Maurice. “Art of Judgement, Art of Compassion: The Two Arts of Hamlet.” Essays in Literature 18 (1991): 3-20.


This article uses the Troy playlet, which Hamlet requests of a player, and The Murder of Gonzago to argue two points: “Shakespeare’s idea of the relevance of mimetic art for the past and future,” and “Shakespeare’s conception of the humane use of his tragic art” (3). The Troy playlet seems an odd choice for Hamlet because it displaces sympathy from the avenger to his victim; but, for Shakespeare, its blending of vengeance and compassion seems to imply that art does not mirror life, it refines human experience. Although Hamlet initially praises the Troy performance, his hunger for revenge overrules his appreciation of art. He misuses art in The Mousetrap scene, with the utilitarian hope of detecting guilt and without recognition of the form’s power to influence/transform will. The player king recommends human compassion, but Hamlet only judges others. His (unmerited) condemnation of Gertrude leads him to fail in his goals with The Mousetrap. While Hamlet remains unmoved by The Murder of Gonzago, the theater audience is encouraged to join him in scrutinizing Claudius’ (and Gertrude’s) reaction. York’s skull offers another example of Shakespeare’s metadramatic commentary because it “resembles dramatic tragedy in its effect upon certain viewers” (14). After shifting from pity for to criticism of the skull, Hamlet exploits the object as “an iconographically stereotyped battering ram in the Prince’s campaign against women” (14). The skull is misused, just like The Murder of Gonzago. In the course of Hamlet, the protagonist harshly assesses others who seem deserving of pity but never questions the Ghost, who is suffering for previous crimes. Hamlet’s judgement reminds the audience “of what makes his experience tragic, and of what we might attempt to avoid in our lives beyond the theater” (16).

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Lucking, David. “‘Each word made true and good’: Narrativity in Hamlet.” Dalhouse Review 76 (1996): 177-96.


This article explores Hamlet’s “preoccupation with what might be termed self-actualizing narrativization, the process that is by which narrative not only reflects but in some sense constitutes the reality with which it engages” (178). When the Ghost appears in the first scene, interrupting Barnardo’s narrative of previous sightings, “words are translated into facts, story becomes history” (181); but the Ghost does not speak, he does not narrate. In the next scene, the audience meets Hamlet, a figure “destitute of a role” but obviously seeking a cause to warrant his animosity towards Claudius (184): he “has the elements of a story already prepared, and only requires confirmation of that story in order to establish a role for himself” as the avenger (186). Horatio’s report of the Ghost meets Hamlet’s need, and the Prince works quickly to appropriate the phantom for his own story by swearing all parties to secrecy. When he meets alone with the Ghost, Hamlet hears confirmation of his suspicions in a linguistic style remarkably similar to his own. He then uses The Murder of Gonzago “to manipulate Claudius’s behavior in a manner that will fulfil the narrative demands the prince is making on reality, to determine the course of nature and not to mirror it” (190). Regardless of the various possible reasons for Claudius’ reaction to the play, Hamlet interprets guilt to suit his narrative. But the other characters have their own stories, in which Hamlet is interpreted. In the final scene, Horatio “is invested with narrative control,” and there is no certainty that he reports Hamlet’s story—or his own (195).

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Malone, Cynthia Northcutt. “Framing in Hamlet.” College Literature 18.1 (Feb. 1991): 50-63.


With the goal of bringing “the self-effacing frames of Hamlet into focus” (50), this essay examines “the particular theatrical frame in which Hamlet was first performed, the Globe theater” and considers “thematic and formal issues of framing in Hamlet, positioning these textual issues within the discussion of the theatrical space” (51). The performance space “cannot be contained completely by the theatrical frame; it seeps outward: before [e.g., “extruding limbs or bodies of actors”], behind [e.g., actors’ “holding place ‘behind’ the stage”], between [e.g., “sites of transition” between spectacle and spectator or inside and outside], above [e.g., the Globe’s open roof], below [e.g., the Ghost’s voice from beneath the stage]” (52). While the theatrical frame simultaneously defines and questions the boundaries of the performance space, “Hamlet plays out a sequence of dramatic frames that mirror the theatrical frame and double its doubleness” (53). For example, the Ghost provides the pretext for the revenge plot but “functions at the outermost edges of the play” (53), seeming “to inhibit the very borders of the dramatic world” (54); in The Mousetrap, “Revenge drama is enacted within revenge drama, with the players of the central drama as audience, and stage as theater” (57); Hamlet exists inside and outside of The Mousetrap, enacting the roles of both chorus and audience (58). But Claudius’s interruption of the play-within-the-play “begins the process of closure for the configuration of frames” (58), and “All of the frames in the play undergo some transformation in the process of closure” (59). For example, “the framing Ghost of Hamlet” is internalized by the son when Hamlet fully appropriates his father’s name (59): “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.250-51); Hamlet transforms into the avenger, murderer (Claudius’s double), and victim (Old Hamlet’s double) (59). Ultimately, he passes “from the world of speech to the world beyond”; in comparison, Horatio “is released from his vow of silence, his function is transformed from providing the margin of silence surrounding Hamlet’s speech to presenting the now-dumb Prince” (60). As Hamlet’s body is carried away, “a figured silence closes the frame and dissolves into the background of life resumed” (60).

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Mollin, Alfred. “On Hamlet’s Mousetrap.” Interpretation 21.3 (Spring 1994): 353-72.


After debunking the popular theories of why Claudius fails to respond to The Mousetrap’s dumb show and makes a delayed exit during The Murder of Gonzago, this article offers a “fresh approach” by dissecting the reactions of Claudius and the stage audience to Hamlet’s The Mousetrap (359). The accuracy of the dumb show suggests to Claudius that Hamlet has some proof that may turn the stage audience against the King. But Claudius consistently maintains his composure during even the most volatile situations (e.g., Laertes’ mob riot), and the pantomime does not identify an incriminating familial relationship between Player-Murderer and Player-Victim. In the spoken play, the Player-Queen’s similarities to Gertrude increase Claudius’ internal anxiety. But to halt the play would be to force Hamlet’s hand. “Claudius has no choice but to wait and discover how severe Hamlet’s accusation will be” (361). Hamlet’s identification of the murderer as a nephew, rather than a brother, initially causes Claudius relief that there is “no public indictment”; “But the game is over. The Mousetrap accomplished its purpose. Claudius has silently unmasked himself” because an innocent person would have immediately responded (362). Meanwhile, the stage audience is shocked by the “tasteless dumb-show” and the insulting spoken play that makes Hamlet’s theater production appear treasonous (362). They must wonder why any king would endure “such threats and insults” (363). Fortunately, Hamlet calms the stage audience by interrupting the performance to explain the source and to indirectly note the drama’s divergence from recent events. Claudius chooses this moment to exit because he realizes that, in remaining silent, he has revealed himself to Hamlet. He also recognizes the staged covert threat: the Player-Nephew kills the Player-King. Staging The Mousetrap “with Claudius outwardly calm and unmoved throughout both the dumb-show and the spoken play, reacting only after his unmasking,” seems “preferable” and “most faithful to the text” (369).

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