False Fire: Providence and Violence in Webster’s Tragedies

  • William M. Hamlin
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


When Rosencrantz informs Gertrude and Claudius that ‘certain players’ have come to Elsinore, he adds that Hamlet, learning of their arrival, has exhibited ‘a kind of joy / To hear of it’.1 And little wonder. The players, in Hamlet’s view, are instruments of providence, lingering manifestations of a morally responsive universe in which ‘murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ’ (2.2.570–1). More precisely, they provide him with the occasion to oppose one form of feigning against another: what we might call imitating truth against imitating falsehood. And Hamlet’s operating premise — deeply suspect, to be sure — is that the players’ illusion of violence will ‘unkennel’ the guilt currently ‘occulted’ behind Claudius’ illusion of innocence (3.2.73–4).2 Hamlet assumes, in short, that a core of vulnerability exists in all humans, and that sufficiently cunning art can expose ‘that within which passeth show’ — at least if ‘that within’ constitutes a truth or state of being that has been deliberately withheld from the world.3 It is crucial to note, however, that it is precisely because a spectacle of violence is recognized as fictional that it can serve a purpose that authentic violence could never be trusted to serve: unkenneling guilt. Faced with a genuine act of poisoning, Claudius would be obliged to respond, to react in some way to the perpetration of violence — or else, as when Gertrude drinks the wine, to assume a façade of ignorance.


Violent Spectacle Feigned Death General Mist Moral Coherence Epistemological Scepticism 
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Copyright information

© William M. Hamlin 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • William M. Hamlin
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishWashington State UniversityUSA

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