Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Ear Disease in Hamlet

Academic journal article Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences

Ear Disease in Hamlet

Article excerpt

"To spleet the ears of the groundlings"--Hamlet

In the historical moment in which Shakespeare's Hamlet was composed, the ear was coded as an admonishing organ, the avenue for hearing sermons. Though Protestant preachers in Shakespeare's day attacked the theatre as a place of corrupting public spectacles, "gaping gazing sights," Elizabethans spoke of going to "hear a play," as the term "audience" suggests.

Though Hamlet is not the only person in the play to see the ghost, he is the only one to whom the ghost speaks; and Hamlet remains skeptical until the play within the play that what the ghost has told him is reliable. He fears that perhaps the ghost has abused his ear. Hamlet says, "I'll have grounds/ More relative than this. The play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" (II.ii.603-605). What Hamlet needs is a visual demonstration in order to see into the King's conscience. This visual demonstration takes the form of an attack on Claudius's guilty mind, and the seeing into it Hamlet characterizes as a kind of ocular stabbing: "I'll observe his looks. / I'll tent [probe] him to the quick." If he sees the king "blench" [flinch], says Hamlet, then he'll "know" his "course" (II.ii.596-597). So the reliable form of knowing here is visual.

Hamlet will only be authorized to revenge when he has had ocular proof that Claudius is guilty. This reliance on the visual is ironic because for anyone not already knowing the guilt of the king, Hamlet's play proves nothing but that Hamlet, "nephew to the king," wants to kill the king and get the love of the queen. It is actually only the overhearing of Claudius's confession during the prayer scene after the play within the play, when Claudius speaks of having murdered his brother, that the guilt is located outside Hamlet's imagination.

The ear is given a special prominence in Hamlet, most obviously in the bizarre story of poisoning through the ear, but just as significantly in so far as the pouring of the poison can be understood as a metaphor for listening in this play. When she wants to persuade her husband to kill King Duncan, Lady Macbeth says, "Hie thee hither,/That I may pour my spirits in thine ear" (I.iv.25-26), an image of verbal seduction.

Ears in Hamlet are abused, invaded, and diseased. Listening to the ghost seems to drive Hamlet from mourning into a more than feigned madness. Ernest Jones has traced the medically improbable death of Hamlet Senior from hebona to Shakespeare's having confounded the narcotic "hebon" with "henbane (hyoscyamus), which at that time was believed to cause mortification." Jones notes as well that Pliny mentioned henbane as a cause for mental disorder when poured into the ear.

Even before hearing about the ghost from Horatio and the soldiers on the watch, Hamlet appears to be a walking shadow, haunting Denmark with the memory of his dead father. In the play's opening, Bernardo, having twice seen the ghost of buried Denmark, prepares to tell again the skeptical Horatio the tale of the dead king's return:

   Sit down a while,
   And let us once again assail your ears,
   That are so fortified against our story,
   What we two nights have seen (I.i.30-33, my italics).

The image of listening here is embedded in a metaphor of the mind as a castle fortified against attacking sounds which assail the ears. These ears do not want to hear; they are defended against hearing because it is safer that way. As Bernardo proceeds to set the scene of the previous night's watch, "The bell then beating one--" (I.i.39), it is as if his story comes to life, for the ghost enters as if on a sound cue. Here the ghost is silent, but its very presence seems enough to make Horatio turn pale as a ghost himself. Horatio charges the ghost to speak, but it stalks dumb away. Bernardo remarks to Horatio, "You tremble and look pale" (I.i.53). The now ghost-like Horatio, asked if the specter is "not like the King? …

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