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Knight, required a person of considerable skill to manage him, although his body was only of wicker-work and his head and neck of pasteboard. The animal was considered so dangerous by the Puritans that, exerting all their power, they successfully banished him from the May-games. The people, however, clung to him with wonderful pertinacity; and it is most probably for this reason that when an individual cherishes a small piece of folly, which he is unwilling to give up, it is called his hobby-horse.
The players, a king and queen, now enter, and enact a dumb show. Like an olden prologue, it is designed to explain the main action of the tragedy. This introductory pantomime, common to old court plays of England, was also a favorite on the Danish stage, and is known to have survived as late as the seventeenth century. In the present instance, the silent players briefly reveal by mimic action the barest outlines of the plot or argument. Upon a king asleep on a bank of flowers, steals a murderer, who pours poison in his ears and noiselessly departs. The queen, who is in collusion with the murderer, enters, and, followed by the poisoner and other mutes, makes much ado with them in passionate action over the dead body of the king. The pantomime closes with the murderer winning, after a brief wooing, the heart of the queen.
The dumb-show proves a dark puzzle to Ophelia, and, therefore, Hamlet informs her that it is "miching mallecho," which she understands to mean a hidden wickedness, or secret crime, and so it truly is in a double sense; for the mock tragedy is designed to reveal not only the Prince's secret plot, but also the secret crime of Claudius. As the prologue opens, he further assures her that she shall learn all from the players, because from the very nature of their art, they can keep no secrets. For while dramatic art supposes players, shut out from the outer world, to be wholly engaged in conversation with each other, with no intruder to hear their words or see their actions, they are, in fact, all in the face of an audience, which cannot fail to see their every act, and hear their most confidential secrets.
Hamlet is soon wholly distracted from the presence of Ophelia, because, with eyes intently fixed upon the King, his mind is entirely engrossed in watching his movements. Hence he is listless, and his few replies, if thoughtless and irrelevant, serve to hide his secret purpose and the terrible anxiety which riots in his expectant soul.
THE MOUSE TRAP
Heedless of Ophelia's gentle reprehension, Hamlet utters a caustic jest in allusion to their former love, and lapses into silence at the entrance of the Player-king and queen. The dialogue, he hopes will awaken in his mother the memory of her former life of love and faithfulness. An honored life of thirty years of wedded happiness should cause her to realize its contrast to her present shameful guilty state. The Playerking, in serious illness, is conscious of his waning powers, and expresses a presentiment that his sands of life are nearly run. He, however, assures the Player-queen that, loved and honored, she, perhaps, may find another husband as loving and as true. The Player-queen with passionate impulse energetically protests against his words, because they seem to argue treason in her heart; and, in order to confirm her loyal love, calls down curses on her head, if she ever wed again, affirming that “none wed the second (husband) but who kill the first. Uneasy and visibly affected by these telltale words, Gertrude casts an inquiring glance at Hamlet, who with eyes intently fixed upon her countenance, is anxiously watching to catch in
her troubled looks and flushing face even the faintest flash by which he may see her guilty conscience unwillingly revealed. Reading upon her face the handwriting of her troubled thoughts, he gives them expression with telling force, when with eyes piercing her very soul, he mutters in burning words audible to her, “wormwood ! wormwood !"
After this sudden and brief interruption, the Player-king proceeds to assure his consort that, while now admitting the truth of her words and her present firm resolve to live in perpetual widowhood, nevertheless, relying on his knowledge of the fickleness of the human heart and the natural instability of human resolutions, he still cannot help but think that, under changed circumstances, she too will change her mind; for our fates often running contrary to our wills, leave us our resolves, but frustrate their fulfilment. Hence, he concludes by affirming that, though she now swear never to wed a second husband, this resolve shall die when her “first lord is dead."
The Player-queen, in response, swears to the eternal loyalty of her love and the infrangibility of her resolve. In proof whereof, she neither hesitates to invoke many curses and imprecations on herself, nor to pray Heaven to let eternal strife pursue her, both here and in the world to come, if, once a widow, she ever be a wife again. These words as Hamlet perceives, strongly affect his mother, and in steady gaze he watches her disturbed feelings, which he further irritates by the terrible irony of his accusing words, "if she should break it now!”
Ignoring Claudius throughout the dialogue, Hamlet had centered his attention wholly upon Gertrude. Though the ghost had revealed the fact that she had been faithless to his father; that, while counterfeiting the sincerest affection, she had yielded to the illicit love of his seducing uncle, he was still unaware of the extent of her guilt: whether she had ac
tively or passively countenanced the murder, or whether in full innocence of the foul crime, she had contracted an incestuous marriage with the murderer. Having learned from her troubled looks and restlessness, that she recognized herself in the Player-queen, he now suddenly turns upon her and startles her by the suddenness and vehemence of his sarcastic question, "Madam, how like you this play?" His question was a shaft barbed with bitter irony, which quickened the memory of her infidelity to his loving father. Gertrude in surprise, falters for the moment at the fierce utterance, only to reply, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks." These telltale words of covered guilt prove that she has recognized in the Player-queen her own faithless love; and Hamlet, mindful of her disdain to mourn the memory of his honored father and of her shameful hasty marriage, shoots another shaft steeped in ridicule and raillery, in the words “O, but she'll keep her word.”
Claudius, too, in guilty conscience takes alarm. During the introductory pantomime, he had been distracted partly by the loquacious Polonius, and partly by Hamlet's attention to Ophelia. Hence, he did not notice the silent actors in their dumb and brief portrayal of the plot. He had since, however, heard enough of the dialogue of the Player-king and queen to sniff offense; Gertrude's evident disturbance at the pointed reference to the Player-queen's hasty marriage with her criminal paramour inspired a fear lest there be a further design to unkennel the secret of his soul. This is manifest from his eager questions and demand to know the plot before the play proceeds. Hamlet in a light and airy mood assures him, that, as all is done with merriment and jest, there can be no possible offense. Nevertheless, from anxiety of mind, he fears lest Claudius, who seems alarmed by suspicions, may interrupt the play before the enactment of the poisoning scene, and so thwart his
well laid plot. Hence his ingenuity is supremely taxed. He must at once disarm the King of his suspicions and his fears, and detain him nolens volens to the end. He is equal to the task, and when Claudius, manifestly worried and still unassured, grufily demands the name of the play, the Prince in playful satire replies in enigmatic words, “The Mousetrap."
With a deep penetration of the wily character of his uncle, Hamlet relies on one bold, but successful stroke. He braves the King, and shames him, and in defiance challenges him to interrupt the play at the risk of a public confession of his guilt. The interlude, he says is but the image of a murder done long long ago in a foreign land, and though the knavish crime be heinous, why should his royal highness, whose soul is stainless as his own, fear its re-enactment. Such a play, if it make the guilty wince, will leave the innocent unaffected. His defiant ruse triumphs; and Claudius unwillingly remains to see the play continued.
As the play proceeds, the approaching crisis rouses Hamlet to the greatest nervous tension. With glowing mind and throbbing heart, he fiercely struggles to repress wild emotions, which, if manifested at this critical moment, might terminate the play before Lucianus enters to speak his sixteen lines. His eyes rigidly fixed upon the uneasy King, his attention, all absorbed by his overmastering purpose, is not distracted for an instant even by the words of Ophelia. If he speak to her at all, it is to ease the tumult of his thoughts and, under the mask of an assumed indifference and calm, to bridge over the moments of intense suspense while awaiting the expected climax when he may release his pent-up thoughts and feelings.
His first reply to Ophelia, in words cynical and half ambiguous, is an allusion to their former love, and must have