Hamlet, Mimesis and the Fallacy of the Mirror-Concept

Copyright © Ildi Solti, 2003

(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)

Ildi Solti

This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.

"...virtue consists in understanding the abstract rules that govern technique."
J-M Rabate (on Socrates), The Future of Theory, Blackwell 2002.

Any production of Shakespeare's Hamlet brings with it a great deal of 'baggage', both in terms of traditional interpretations as well as long-standing questions concerning the staging of some of its most important moments. Perhaps the most famous of these conundra occurs at the pivotal point of the play onstage, when Claudius disrupts the performance in the 'Mousetrap' scene. In this paper, I will engage briefly with the symposium topic that touches this question, and my own work as a practitioner-researcher, most closely. That is: how should we approach the relationship between composition for performance, performance mastery and performance viewed as "interpretation"? Looking at this complex issue from the combined positions of expert-practitioner and practitioner-researcher, I will follow and investigate the principles of performance mastery an actor needs to apply in order to operate successfully within the given parameters of the logic/logistics of production. The 'Mousetrap' scene in Hamlet presents these questions in a particularly strong way because of the contentious nature of both its interpretative and staging qualities, nowhere more obvious than in the performing environment at the New Globe Theatre on Bankside.

This paper works through mapping the main aspects of the performer's disciplinary mastery that need to be applied in the process of staging the scene in this environment and, based on the observations thus made, makes projections concerning the type of outcome in terms of performer action which in turn (and not vice versa) becomes the main interpretative aspect of the performance.

Hamlet's advice to the Players, in which he refers to the function of playing as holding up 'a mirror unto nature' has traditionally been regarded as a general manifesto for theatre and a basis for mimesis as 'mirroring'. I want to argue that since the concepts of character (a construct) and person (the actor, director, or Shakespeare,etc) on one hand, and the concepts of 'mirroring' (a one-way process) and of 'mimesis' (not necessarily a one-way process at all), on the other, are not the same, conflating them in critical and theatrical practice has often reduced staging (and interpretative) possibilities. As a result of that reduction, generalisations applying to one set of concepts have widely been attributed, as though unproblematically, to another. Many interpretative approaches which suppose a one-to-one relationship between history and plot provide evidence of this curious strategy, as does the substitution of the supposedly unproblematic explanatory power of psychology, for the highly complex technical process of the actor's developing the action.

To counter this view, I point out below that the 'Mousetrap' scene, highlighted by both plot and stylistic means within the structure of the play (it is Hamlet's device, and a play-within-the-play) is one where the interpretative and technical elements are heightened precisely with the purpose of highlighting each other. Since these elements are relevant to performance only in as much as they apply to the performers and the relationships between them materialised in space, it is these performers' processes and concretely realised positions that we need to interrogate if we want to find the internal coherence of the scene. The problem can be summarised as follows: how to stage a scene aiming for an ostensibly multiple focus - "to watch the watcher being watched" - that culminates in a moment of single focus which is internal (and so invisible), inarticulate and - seemingly - implausible? Put in more pedestrian terms, our first question is this: how do we stage the scene in such a way that both onstage and offstage audiences get satisfactory sightlines? The second question is this: how do we justify the climactic action in the scene, when this action (Claudius' disruption of the play) seems to have been pre-empted by his having seen the dumb-show, to which is added the sheer length of time he had to compose himself afterwards?

My own proposal is double: 1. in terms of the production of an effect, these two questions are really one; 2. as a consequence, it is necessary to consider them in each other's terms if we are to stage the moment when 'the King rises' to maximum impact. In the performance event, it will be how the performers' physical virtuosity, in operating these two systems, informs the visible scene, producing for spectators a unified effect, that will determine the success of the peformance.

Ildi Solti 1. SPACE

In production, before the interpretative question of why 'the King rises' can be fully articulated, it has to be given material form within a specific context of scenic environment, in terms of bodies, shapes, colours and relative positions in space. That is, the interpretative question presents itself, of necessity, as a problem of staging. The basic question of staging, involving the performers' expertise, is first: what do I do, to make this action work in this particular space? Secondly, in terms of interpretation: what do I infer, on the basis of my double perception (internal and embodied to external-visible) of this visibly-performed complex action, as to the character's motives? Our first concern, in other words, is not yet why Claudius does something, but where the performer is whilst doing it. The first set of abstract rules governing the performer's technique, then, are those of the professional mastery of 'space' as double?

The disciplinary mastery here entails a performer's spatial awareness of the theatrical in general and from within it, linked to the ways the performer can try to manipulate it, for an outsider's demanding look which also conditions it, in terms then of the parameters specific to dramatic situation and theatrical situation. The relative position of characters on stage is determined by a range of different factors, starting with the type of performance space given, and the possibilities it offers through its 'limitations'.

For the purposes of the present brief discussion I want to propose that we consider the action in terms of the possibilities and constraints offered by the Globe Theatre. I do this for three reasons: 1) first of all, we can be reasonably certain that Hamlet, the play, was composed with a Globe-type space, that is, a full-light arena playing environment, in mind. 2) The New Globe Theatre on Bankside is a coherent manifestation of this type of environment, meaning that we possess an invaluable tool of practical experimentation with which to test the validity of various staging options. 3) Hamlet has actually been performed at the New Globe in 2001 and so we do have performance data for this play; however, as far as I am aware, this data has not yet been evaluated in terms of the questions that I am discussing here.

The notion that the configuration of the playing space determines the range of choices available for staging is a fundamental concept in performance studies. Importantly, in my approach here, the 'playing space' acquires a reference that is not limited only to the stage, but encompasses the total architectural environment of which the audience area is an integral part. Insofar as the performance space then is a primary framing constituent of the performance event, it has also to be viewed as signalling a primary compositional consideration. In visible environments, therefore, and especially in arena structures like the Globe, the actors'disciplinary mastery will include knowledge of, and dexterity in utilising, the particular architectural parameters of the performance environment; in this particular instance, this complex knowledge will inform visible compositional elements, of which it becomes a primary component. In professional terms, virtuosity of the playwright/composer and of the performer presuppose each other, and provide a vital starting-point for the work of the actor.

Viewed in another way, we can say that the skills of playwright/composer and actor/performer complement each other, the former providing the impetus, the latter embodied action central to the process of activating the audience's perception of the spatial components to a particular dramatic-fictional as well as theatrical effect. At the Globe, these spatial characteristics can be summarised in material terms, at least, as an enclosing auditorium with three galleries, an elevated thrust stage with two pillars holding a roof, and three upstage entrances (Diagram 0).

Diagram 0

Our considerations of where the action takes place on stage at any given point in the scene will be made in this context.


The other, equally important determiners of where all performers are on stage at any given time are provided by the dramatic composition as imaginative framework, of which the text is a trace. A word of epistemological caution is in order here: I take 'text' to refer to the trace of spoken material which is symptomatic of the larger, complex system of organised psychophysiological action (however the psychophysiological was understood in the context and situation of its initial production). The fact that most of us today encounter plays in printed form is largely due to accidental and unrelated developments in technology. Even before printing, the trace of plays in a written, 'textual' form was accidental and not at all necessary for being able to perform them. The status of the 'text', which forms the basis of an overwhelming majority of interpretative strategies relating to drama and Shakespeare, is viewed in the following argument differently - not as the basis of interpretation but as a trace of an enabling sub-system of the total performance mechanism, transposed, more or less effectively, into a different, unrelated medium - print.

Because the two systems, which, for brevity's sake, I have so far called 'Space' and 'Text' respectively, have to work together in performance as parts of a single effect, to assess either in isolation is bound to yield partial (or flawed) results. What we need to do is to see how these systems work in interaction (as other commentators have recognised). It follows that the appropriate object of enquiry in expert-performance terms is not the 'Text' and not the 'Space', but a third entity which is the result of their confluence. In order to make this process of confluence clear, however, and to ensure that we can follow the actor's disciplinary mastery as one operating in a single complex medium (the psychophysiological process), and not then as oscillating by will or on others' commands between two independent and unrelated media ('text' and 'space', respectively), we have to change from a vocabulary that promotes this misunderstanding to one that makes the 'underlying principles that govern technique' clear. I will call the enabling sub-system of which the 'text-as-trace' is part the 'Imaginative Framework', identifying the other sub-system, which provides the other set of performance parameters, the 'Theatrical Framework'.

There are plainly types of basic staging actions implied by the configuration of the performance space, which may be utilised in the scene to create such traditional technical parameters for actors in Elizabethan/Jacobean performance environments as the usual place of throne, hiding behind a pillar or confiding in the audience especially in the downstage corners. In the present approach, however, the primary spatial parameter is that of a circle and the tension set up by the opposition of its circumference (occupied mainly by the audience) and its centre (occupied mainly by the actors). The basic actions of the performed play emerge, then, in a step-by-step consideration of actions enabled and regulated at the interface between the Imaginative and the Theatrical Frameworks.

The complexity of the task of setting up the Mousetrap scene is highlighted explicitly in the play by the care attributed to Hamlet in his arranging the spectators around the stage. Following J.L.Styan's work on this scene and its systematic relationship with the architecture of the Globe, we can identify three major stage areas occupied by three distinct groups of characters. The first of these is that of the King and Queen (and courtiers) upstage centre, the traditional place for the throne. Besides their central position, the slightly raised height of the throne assists visibility and assists the creation of a focal point on Claudius. The Players of the 'Mousetrap', the nominal centre of attention both for the on and offstage spectators, can take up the largest, central area of the stage. For Hamlet, taking Ophelia with him ('No, good mother, here's metal more attractive') one of the downstage corners appears to be the most practical place. From here, he can observe the reactions of the royal couple and the action of the 'Mousetrap' at the same time while not necessarily having to be seen by those others himself.

The performer playing Hamlet can use the pillar and his antics with Ophelia to disguise his gaze, or even his whole bodily presence, from others on stage, while simultaneously opening up through proximity to, and seeming to confide in, the theatre audience. The role of Horatio as appointed observer takes him to the downstage corner opposite from Hamlet, from where he can have a similar, but complementary view of the play and the royal reaction to it, yet he can remain in easy communication with his friend.

Diagram 1 A bird's eye view diagram of the stage confirms Styan's contention that following the requirements of action and space together, in this scene no less than three centres of attention, or three planes of action, are created (Diagram 1). What is more, notes Styan, these planes not only illustrate the situation and the theme of the play in their own various ways, but the three groups actually interpret the other, through the activity of constant observation and adjustment to each other in the course of the 'Mousetrap'.

All three groups are engaged in 'watching watchers being watched', each thereby conferring on the other the status of Actor-object, and effectively teaching that complex action to the theatre audience. Thus complex and sustained action itself, in space, points to a major thematic thread. The climax of the scene has to evolve from this reinforced main action, to reach a moment when somebody does something to upset the fragile status quo. As we can see through this example, the interaction of the Imaginative and Theatrical systems is by no means haphazard but rather carefully engineered in order to evoke a very particular effect. This effect however is not simply a stage image, but a complex psychophysiological action through the actors' adapting to their Imaginative and Theatrical environment simultaneously. Following this process, we saw the pattern of the 'three mirrors' emerge in response to the particular bearings of the spatial parameters (as sightlines for both on and offstage audiences) on the imaginative action (that is, what the actor needs to do within the action parameters of his character) and vice versa. Next we consider the tendencies of action that these action parameters can give rise to.

3. 'ACTION!' Ildi Solti

In order to avoid confusion between literary/narrative and theatrical/psychophysiological connotations concerning the notions of character and actor, below I will put the names of characters between quotation marks (eg. "Hamlet"). This is to signal that the performance phenomenon we mean is equivalent neither with an autonomous fictional entity (the character), nor with the actor (say, Sam West), but is a composite reality whose elements predicate each other and together form yet another psychophysiological entity.

Having followed through (in broad terms) the patterns set up by the interaction of the Imaginative and Theatrical Frames we are far from done however, as the action of the scene is just about to start. Building on Styan's work, I would like to propose a way in which his general view of the action can be made particular from the starting position outlined above, to the climax of the scene and the surprise moment when 'the King rises'.

The most groundbreaking aspects of Styan's work on this scene are, in my view, his conceiving of the action as a dynamic, and his effort to find ways to include the audience in this dynamic as an active constituent. He proposes that "Hamlet's" behaviour (hence the actor's actions) during the 'Mousetrap' becomes particularly active, or even frantic, after the dumbshow. According to Styan, what makes "Claudius" appear to lose control eventually is the concentration of public attention on his person. As he says, this is made possible by both by the audiences' being at leisure to split their attention because of familiarity with the plot after the dumb show and by "Hamlet's" refocusing that attention, on and offstage, from the "Players" onto the "King" through his increasingly pointed remarks.

What makes this suggestion so appropriate in terms of the basic mechanism of the full light arena performance space, is its core use of the configuration of the audience that is particular to this type of space, while also invoking the dynamic of pressure exerted by their social presence. Moreover, Styan proposes that this change of focus will also transform the situation into a confrontation between "Hamlet" and "Claudius". Several important things still remain unexplained, however. Why does "Hamlet" appear to be interfering in the "Players'" action if he is really directing attention away from it? As the confrontation between "Hamlet" and "Claudius" becomes apparent, why does the "King" not take the initiative, although he has the power? And we still don't know what exactly happens to warrant the violent action of the "King" disrupting the play at the moment he does so.

Diagram 2 It is necessary at this point to mention the close relationship between Hamlet's 'antique disposition', so prominent during the 'Mousetrap'scene, and its relationship to the actions of the Zanni, or Commedia dell'Arte clown. The Zanni are traditionally very active physically and potentially dangerous. When, as Styan says, "Hamlet" gets increasingly agitated during the latter part of the 'Mousetrap', I argue that the affinity of this role wth that of the Zanni, together with other indicators in the scene, make it plausible to suggest that he actually gets to his feet (Diagram 2). In this way, besides rallying audiences to focus on the "King", he can start participating in the action himself, physically assuming the role of catalyst. "Ophelia", turning to him when he tries to (over)explain the action with 'This is one Lucianus, nephew to the King', identifies him with a theatrically functional role: 'You are as good as a Chorus, my Lord'.

Diagram 3 Here "Hamlet" starts interfering with the action rhythm of the "Players", urging them to 'Begin, murderer, pox, leave thy damnable faces and begin'. Then, in my reading, he actually steps into their scene, pointing out the characters at close range and verbalising the action: 'This is one Lucianus, nephew to the King' (Diagram 3). From the positioning set out above, we can see that the "King" is caught between accusatory pincers, one before and one behind him. However, in order to justify his imminent disruption of the play, an impetus is needed, which is not a past event (that is, part of a narrative - e.g. the murder), but a present action (which is part of the plot, or sequence of actions on stage).

Viewed within the overarching context of 'revenge', central to both the 'Mousetrap' and to the play Hamlet, a particular schematic plot device (or scenario) is (re-)produced here, a scenario which formed the climactic action of one of the most popular plays of Shakespeare's time, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. In the climactic scene of The Spanish Tragedy, the character who suffered most injury steps into the play that he has commissioned to entertain his oppressors. From this position he proceeds to involve his main foe actively in the action and, turning stage action into reality, actually kills him on stage. Given the well documented popularity of this play, it is reasonable to suppose, drawing on pointers in the action (as it happens here in Hamlet), audiences on and offstage, "Claudius" included, could be counted on to recognise that pattern. When "Hamlet" turns the focus on "Claudius" from within the play-within-the-play with 'You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife' (where 'love' can also identify "Claudius"), the distinction between fantasy and reality, between on and offstage theatricality becomes blurred. "Claudius" now has a particular and immediate action to fear, that of "Hamlet's" impending violence, and when "Hamlet" appears to implicate him in the action itself, the "King" jumps up and withdraws. By doing so, he also reasserts his audience function, protecting himself by re-marking the action of the 'Mousetrap' as a fiction. In my reading, he thereby breaks the suspenseful build of the scenario which he perceives to be a threat to his life (Diagram 4).

Diagram 4

The consequences of the disruption are momentuous for the play, as the change it introduces on both the Imaginative and Theatrical levels refocus the action, introduce a new dynamic and take it to a higher level by introducing a new, fundamental aspect of the main action. In response to what he takes to be "Hamlet's" threat of literal involvement in the 'Mousetrap', "Claudius'" changing his vertical position in space, disrupts the play in the centre. As a result, the three planes of action (as set up by Styan) and which I called the three 'mirrors', are broken. The new positions in space, and so the new status quo they imply, is radically different. Instead of three parallel centres of attention there is now only one, and at this moment the physical dynamic of the scene can be clearly seen to take the action forward, and not vice versa.

As I have said, during the scene, the playwright refocuses the attention of on and offstage audiences on "Claudius". At the moment he succeeds in it, however, and when the actor playing "King" stands, the main focus line, understood in terms of the total space, is directed not to him, but to the site occupied by "Hamlet", running diametrically across the parallel planes of the 'mirrors' before, and acquiring its reference through the hierarchy of spatial relationships implied by the periphery of the circle (shared by "Claudius") and its centre (occupied by "Hamlet"). Through this final 'mirror', the usurping "King" and the "King-to-be" see each other as mutually exclusive aspects of the same image. From this point, we can see "Claudius" actively seeking to eliminate "Hamlet".

Most importantly, from this point on, "Hamlet" pursues his revenge action with what might be interpreted by onlookers as an evolving sense of responsibility and awareness for his actions which finally lead him to assuming kingship just before his death. This interpretation of action is pointed by such remarks as 'let me speak daggers to her, but use none' on the way to confront "Gertrude" in her closet; ' 'tis I, Hamlet, the Dane', on his return from the sea voyage; and it culminates in his taking responsibility for succession in the state by naming Fortinbras as the next ruler in line. The original riddle we started with, then, turned out not to be the final surprise in the scene. It is rather the final impetus which sets in motion a recognition whose significance is concentrated in the play's main character/action and has implications that relate the scene action directly to the overarching main action of the play. At the same time it takes it forward in this direction.

Crucially, as I have observed, the scene action, the possible solution for the staging problem of the riddle, and the final main focus, could not have emerged without a simultaneous attention to the Imaginative and the Theatrical frames of the action. It follows that the virtuosity of the actor lies in his producing a new quality from these processes with a new meaning.


This approach usefully reinforces "Hamlet" as an active, as opposed to a passive character, more in keeping with his image as the 'courtier, scholar and soldier'. Finally, I would suggest that these observations, especially within the context of the Globe-type, full-light arena environment, have interesting implications for two concepts that have had special interpretative relevance for Hamlet: the 'Mirror' and 'Mimesis'. When we look at the main lines of the'Mousetrap' scene as a complex, performed action within a space that is considered in its totality, we can see that the 'mirror held up to nature' was not one but three; not static (or synoptic) but dynamic; not just reflecting from a single, finished surface but, rather like a prism, focusing a variety of lines of attention through itself. Taken to a general level, the implications of a changed 'mirror concept' can have great bearings for the concept of 'mimesis', fundamental to drama. Here, mimesis would mean a process of re-activating the dynamic of the object of mimesis, while adapting to the actual context in which the action takes place each time.

Mimesis, from this perspective, is an action of transformation, rather than simple reflection, and it is much more complex as a process than one limited to providing an image of something that already exists. Mimesis as a real-time process also involves, crucially, the production of emergent signifying potential through action. In this context, the concept of the actor's virtuosity changes as well. While other playing environments tend to prioritise various aspects of technique while making less use of others, in the full-light arena the actors' effectiveness, or their virtuosity, or performance mastery, depends on the level of integration they can achieve between their various technical and adaptive skills at any given moment. The process we followed in Hamlet from the riddle to the potential impetus of 'the King rises' is a prime example of this process.

Web design and photography copyright © John Robinson 2003-4.

Page last updated 4th December 2004.