False Fire: Providence and Violence in Webster’s Tragedies
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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.
KeywordsViolent Spectacle Feigned Death General Mist Moral Coherence Epistemological Scepticism
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