3. The Miseries of Hecuba and Hamlet’s Play to Catch The Conscience of a King

After Hamlet watches an actor perform a tragic description of Hecuba’s agonies caused by the “tyrant Pyrrhus,” he expresses astonishment at the actor’s abilities to fake such deep sorrow: “For Hecuba! / What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?” (2.2.558-60). In this same speech, the Prince then happens upon a plan that will help determine whether his uncle Claudius is indeed guilty of killing Hamlet’s father. He will write a scene for the theater troupe to perform before Claudius which recreates the murder, hoping it will jolt his uncle into an incriminating reaction.

But what gave him this idea? Hamlet here is clearly recalling a story in Plutarch’s Lives about Alexander, the tyrant of Pherae, who was so overcome by grief at a reenactment of “the miseries of Hecuba” that he interrupted the play and rushed out of the theater as he wept. North then refers to the “guilty conscience …of this cruel and heathen tyrant.” Naturally, Claudius does indeed react exactly like North’s tyrant, stopping the play and rushing from the room. [1]

North’s Plutarch’s LivesShakespeare’s Hamlet
in a theater, where the tragedy of Troades of Euripides was played, he went out of the Theater, and sent word to the players notwithstanding, that they should go on with their play, as if he had been still among them, saying, that he came not away for any misliking he had of them or of the play, but because he was ashamed his people should see him weep to see the miseries of Hecuba …The guilty conscience therefore of this cruel and heathen tyrant did make him tremble… –325                    
play, players, weep, Hecuba,
tyrant, guilty conscience
Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here, /But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit … /For Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? /… I have heard /That guilty creatures sitting at a play Have by the very cunning of the scene /Been struck so to the soul that presently /They have proclaimed their malefactions. For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak With most miraculous organ. /I’ll have these players Play something like the murder of my father / Before mine uncle. …         … The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. –2.2.550-53, 558-60, 589-98, 605-606
Play, players, weep, Hecuba,
tyrant, guilty, conscience  

In other words, in Hamlet, the actor’s description of Hecuba’s woes is not random. It was meant to evoke the classical roots of the scheme that Hamlet was about to set into action, which in turn provides one of many examples of his prodigious education: Hamlet does not suggest he is inventing the idea himself; he says that he has heard that carefully crafted plays have triggered guilty spectators. He knows the Plutarchan tale of Alexander of Pherae, and he is going to refashion a similar situation for Claudius.

[1] John Upton, Sir John Hawkins, and George Steevens all discuss the use of the Alexander of Pherae tale in the eighteenth century. For what may be the definitive history of scholarly thoughts on the borrowing, see Frank N. Clary Jr., “Hamlet’s Mousetrap and the Play-within-the-Anecdote of Plutarch,” in Reading Readings: Essays on Shakespeare Editing in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Joanna Gondris (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999), 164-97.

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