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|GR: Spying and eavesdropping
Written by Laraine
(5/22/2003 2:32 p.m.)
I mentioned before that I wrote my Master's thesis on overheard dialog in Hamlet. I admit that one of the reasons I stuck the topic of spying and eavesdropping in early is that I think of it as a way of understanding the whole play and its characters. So I thought I'd share what I generally think about how important the theme is.
For me, one of the dominant themes in all of Shakespeare is the is the epistemological question of how we know what truth is, of how we know what to believe, of what constitutes proof, and of how we know whom or what we might trust. Macbeth believes in the witches’ predictions and is foiled by putting faith in their seeming impossibility; Othello believes the “ocular proof” Iago manages to provide; in Much Ado, Claudio and Don Pedro believe Don John’s subterfuge because they believe they can trust their own eyes; those shipwrecked on Prospero’s island all have different views of what the external world appears to hold; Lear fails to discern real love from its semblance in fine sounding words. And Hamlet’s attention to words gives us access into the nature of how integral language is to our understanding of our world and its truth.
It's fairly amazing to me how much of the dialog in key scenes from Hamlet is overheard. The idea of "overhearing" and listening at keyholes or behind tapestries draws the audience in to the Elsinore of plot, intrigue, and puzzle, while it simultaneously casts doubt on any truth discovered from spying. As audience, we are always eavesdroppers, trying to understand the world unfolding before us, to solve its mysteries and answer the questions it poses for us. But when posturing, spying, half-truths, and lying enter the world of the play and even become its focus, the integrity of all characters, their trustworthiness, becomes part of the how Shakespeare calls into question how we know what we know.
The most obvious eavesdropping incidents are those scenes in which Polonius and Claudius listen in on his conversations with Ophelia and Gertrude. Secondly, there are those conversations that Hamlet has with characters who he knows will report the content to Claudius. This is true of all of his conversations with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with Polonius, and with Osric; an occurrence of such a dialogue that is undramatized is his interruption of Ophelia in her sewing closet. Thirdly, characters engage in public conversations that others observe, such as Claudius’ opening address to the court, the quibbling over the location of Polonius’ body, the play scene, Polonius’ advice to Laertes (which Ophelia is meant to overhear), and the confrontation in Ophelia’s grave. There are also (depending on how they are counted) as many as twelve soliloquies, conversations with the self in which the character can presumably trust him- or herself as a listener, which allow characters to sort out problems or translate recent events into a comprehensible form. But even these supposedly truthful dialogues are problematic because the characters are limited in their perceptions of events and sometimes are not capable of seeing or hearing the truth. This list leaves relatively little of the play unaccounted for: Hamlet communicates directly with Horatio, with the players, and with the ghost; Claudius plots his spying and Hamlet’s murder in direct discourse. But even in these cases, the theater audience is overhearing all, and Hamlet’s first words are an aside that underscore his awareness of the audience and their role as listeners. As audience, we overhear dialogue concerning what goes on in Claudius’ Denmark and not the Denmark as it was when Hamlet’s father ruled. Our role as observers and listeners has greater responsibility, even anxiety, associated with it, because we must remember that while we see and hear much, any character may be lying at any moment.
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