chapter  3
36 Pages

‘The painting of a sorrow’: Hamlet

In the last two chapters we saw some of the ways in which Shakespeare’s narrative poems compare themselves to works of pictorial art, and the complex mimetic effects that this creates. When we turn to the dramatic works, we find that this appropriation of other forms of representation as a way of commenting upon, or even increasing, the mimetic complexity of Shakespeare’s artistry persists. Hamlet has attracted a great deal of critical interest in its metatheatrical elements, with its numerous references to actors, acting and ‘the purpose of playing’ (3.2.20).1 Yet the play is also concerned to explore the relationship between different modes of representation: narrative, dramatic and pictorial. In 3.4, for example, Hamlet asks Gertrude to consider the relationship between Claudius and Old Hamlet by directing her attention towards two pictorial representations: ‘Look here upon this picture, and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ (3.4.51-2). And in 4.7, Claudius accuses Laertes of being indifferent to his father’s death by comparing him to a work of pictorial art: ‘Laertes, was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart?’ (4.7.105-7). Claudius’ simile seems especially apt in a play so preoccupied with the ambiguity of visual signs, and the difficulties of constructing an ‘authentic’ representation of grief. 2 Yet this moment also highlights the ways in which the characters of Hamlet – themselves the product of Shakespeare’s dramatic art – at times derive a sense of authenticity through being compared with other forms of art. On the one hand, this moment might remind us that an actor playing Laertes is indeed like

1 Unless otherwise stated, quotations from Hamlet are taken from Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor’s Arden 3 edition (London: Thomson Learning, 2006). This edition is based on the Second Quarto (Q2). Among the many treatments of the metatheatrical aspects of the play see especially Anne Righter [Barton], Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, esp. pp. 158-64, and her ‘Introduction’ to the New Penguin edition of Hamlet, ed. T.J.B. Spencer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980); James L. Calderwood, To Be and Not to Be: Negation and Metadrama in ‘Hamlet’ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983); Robert Weimann, ‘Mimesis in Hamlet’, in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey H. Hartman (eds), Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 275-91, and Author’s Pen and Actor’s Voice, chs 1 and 6; and Bruce Danner, ‘Speaking Daggers’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 54 (2003), 29-62.