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"Foul as Vulcan's Stithy": A Different Perspective on “The Mousetrap” and Its Intended Audience

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet illustrates how the dead can drive the living to fulfill their unfinished business. Armed with secrets of his murdered father’s specter, Hamlet conceives “The Mousetrap,” a play within a play, its stated purpose—"to catch the conscience of the king,” his uncle Claudius—though Hamlet himself sabotages his gambit during the performance (Shakespeare 2.2.606). This alone, however, should not measure its success, for Hamlet’s audience is wider. Queen Gertrude is also targeted by the piece. Indeed, she is the prince’s true focus, and there is no question here of Hamlet’s glorious success, the ramifications of which condemn them all to tragic death.

Though Hamlet mourns his father, he is more disturbed by Gertrude’s choice to speedily remarry his uncle. Maquerlot proposes Hamlet’s “disgust at the world” is “generated by disgust at his mother” (98). Hamlet’s revulsion is most dramatically demonstrated when he requests “a passionate speech” he heard performed once by a player and then prompts him by reciting fifteen lines of Aeneas' tale of King Priam’s slaughter (Shakespeare 2.2.432-436). The story finishes with Queen Hecuba’s grief at her husband’s death, declaring “The instant burst of clamor that she made… Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven” (2.2.515-517). The underlying message is to contrast Queen Hecuba’s behavior with Gertrude’s. That Hamlet had memorized these lines speaks to the depths of his fixation.

Because the disclosure of Claudius’s crime comes through supernatural means, Hamlet’s knowledge is of limited use. The ghost stirs Hamlet’s wrath, calling Claudius “that incestuous, that adulterate beast,” who used his “wit and gifts… to seduce [and win] to his shameful lust/The will of [the] most seeming-virtuous queen” (Shakespeare 1.5.42-46). This charge of adultery invites differing interpretations ranging from the ghost still considering Gertrude its possession to a denunciation of sexual liaisons predating the murder. The ghost is also unreliable. When it appears in Queen Gertrude’s private chamber, for example, she neither sees nor hears it. Derrida discusses Hamlet’s ghost rules in depth, coining the term “hauntology” to describe how the “altogether other” interact with the living (11). “What seems almost impossible,” Derrida says, “is to speak always to the specter, to seek to the specter, to speak with it, [or] especially to make or let a spirit speak,” and this hypothesis is reinforced when only Hamlet hears its claims (11).

Faced with such a fickle witness, Hamlet chooses “The Mousetrap,” bidding Horatio to “Observe mine uncle” for guilt, though likely he has another purpose (Shakespeare 3.2.80). Consider that Hamlet does nothing with the information gleaned. Moreover, Hamlet appears more affected than Claudius by the play. Before leaving in a warranted huff, Claudius’s only lines are “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in't?” (3.2.232-233) and “What do you call the play?” (3.2.236). To these two reasonable questions, Hamlet spews about “poison in jest” (3.2.234) and “Let the galled jade winch, our/withers are unwrung,” both detrimental to his ploy, condemning it to failure (3.2.242-243). If indeed Hamlet sought to rattle the king, he was ignorant of Claudius’s mettle, for when confronted by a murderous Laertes, the king also does not flinch.

Who then is the real target? Maquerlot calls Hamlet “the most efficient agent of deflection” (96). This play within a play is the best tool of deflection, and Hamlet uses it to admonish his mother, the only person whose opinion he queries. In response to the promises of the Player Queen, who swears “If, once a widow, ever I be wife!” (Shakespeare 3.2.223), Gertrude parries with the famous judgment, “The lady doth protests too much, me thinks” (3.2.230). When he arrives in her private chamber later, Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s sexuality is palpable. He greets her saying, “You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife” (3.4.15) and maintains she cannot love Claudius, because “You cannot call it love; for at your age/The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble” (3.4.68-69). His “imaginings… as foul/As Vulcan’s stithy” (3.2.83-84) are evident in full when he describes their sex, “In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty” (3.4.92-94) Perhaps Hamlet does not wish to possess Gertrude, as Oedipus did Jocasta, but he intends to control and deny her sexuality and succeeds, for when he demands she “go not to mine uncle's bed… Assume a virtue, if you have it not,” she seems to submit (3.4.159-160).

By then, the story’s trajectory is out of everyone’s hands. Hamlet’s visit to his mother’s quarters leads to Polonius’s murder who was there to protect her from Hamlet’s murderous zeal. Hamlet, now guilty of the same heinous crime as Claudius, is doomed to Laertes’s poisoned rapier. The treacheries are further compounded by the fate of Ophelia, the accidental poisoning of Gertrude, Hamlet’s trickery—which kills Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—and his opportunistic murder of Claudius. The mousetrap seemed to succeed so well that it caught almost everyone.

(594 original words, excluding these.)

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. "Injunctions of Marx." Specters of Marx, the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, 1994, pp. 1-60.

Maquerlot, Jean-Pierre. "Hamlet: Optical Effects." Shakespeare and the Mannerist Tradition: A Reading of Five Problem Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 87-117.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare: The Essential Plays/Sonnets, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al. 3rd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. 2016.

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