Travelling Players in Hamlet:
New Historicist Issues
Travelling Players in Hamlet: New Historicist Issues
In Hamlet, Shakespeare makes use of a play within a play, as the device through which Prince Hamlet hopes to prove King Claudius’s guilt in the murder of the old King Hamlet. This idea suggests itself to Hamlet in Act 2, Scene 2, when Rosencrantz tells him that a group of actors will soon be arriving at Elsinore, at which point their conversation digresses briefly to the circumstances surrounding these itinerant players. In the space of the next 45 lines, Shakespeare informs his audience of several important issues affecting the real actors of his time. This is of particular interest from the viewpoint of New Historicism, which treats literature as a part of history, and as an expression or representation of forces on history (Holman and Harmon, 318). New Historicism emerged as a theoretical movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s with one of the earliest proponents being Louis A. Montrose. In his essay “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” Montrose says that the focus of New Historicism “…has been upon a refiguring of the socio-cultural field within which canonical Renaissance literary and dramatic works were originally produced; upon resituating them not only in relationship to other genres and modes of discourse but also in relationship to contemporaneous social institutions and non-discursive practices” (17). A Handbook to Literature points out that New Historicism “…views literary works (particularly Renaissance dramas and Victorian novels) as instruments for the displaying and enforcing of doctrines about conduct, etiquette, and law. In a dynamic circle, the literature tells us something about the surrounding ideology…, and the study of ideology tells us something about the embedded literary works” (Holman and Harmon, 318). Shakespeare is thought to have written Hamlet around 1600-1601, near the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. At that time, there were serious issues affecting the English acting companies, and Shakespeare has highlighted several of them in the short passage which begins at line 312 of Act 2, Scene 2. When Hamlet asks which players are arriving, Rosencrantz responds: “Even those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city”, thereby revealing Hamlet as an enthusiastic devotee of theatre whose knowledge of drama, therefore, is not surprising (2,2,319). Hamlet goes on to ask why the company is travelling, given that it would be more beneficial to their reputations and pocketbooks to stay at their own theatre in the city. Susanne Wofford points out, in her introduction to the play, that by the time Hamlet was written, “Theatergoing had become an extremely popular entertainment,” attracting approximately a tenth of London’s population to weekly performances (7). This should have meant a relative degree of security and wealth for the playwrights and actors, but that was certainly not always the case. While Queen Elizabeth I loved theatrical productions, and did what she could to protect the more prestigious acting companies, major sources of trouble were the plague and the Puritans. The plague caused theatres to be closed for portions of many years, sending the players out on the road. The Puritans compounded the actors’ problems, as F. E. Halliday comments with heavy irony: “There was still some plague about in London, and, as the cause of plague is sin and the cause of sin is plays, [Thomas White, vicar of St. Dunstan-in-the-West] had little difficulty in demonstrating with inexorable logic that the cause of plague is plays” (Shakespeare in His Age , 80). The essence of the Puritans’ objection to drama, is very clearly delineated by Suzanne Wofford: [The theatrical metaphor] showed…that histrionic power can expose an inner emptiness, upon which other uses and forms of...
Cited: Frye, Roland Mushat. The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Halliday, F.E. Shakespeare in His Age. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956.
Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Montrose, Louis A. “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture.” The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Vesser, Routledge, 1989.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. Boston: Bedford Books, 1994.
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