Study Guide


by William Shakespeare

Hamlet Essay - The 'Heart of My Mystery': Hamlet and Secrets

The 'Heart of My Mystery': Hamlet and Secrets

Mark Thornton Burnett, Queen's University of Belfast

When Elizabeth I passed through the city in 1559 to be crowned in Westminster, Londoners were treated to a magnificent spectacle. A calvacade of pageants crowded the streets; children staged dramas in which the virtues of chastity and grace were celebrated; and respected members of civic corporations showered upon the young queen gifts and presents. But the coronation entry was more than a display of citizen exuberance; it was a carefully orchestrated episode designed to dissolve factions and to bring together disparate elements at a time of political crisis, and the various stages of the procession were arranged in consultation with Elizabeth herself. A contemporary recorder recognized the implications of the event, observing 'shee [knew] … right well that in pompous ceremonies a secret of government doth much consist, for that the people are naturally both taken and held with exteriour shewes.'1 The comment offers one way of assessing the mechanisms used by Elizabeth in securing and maintaining her royal power. Throughout her reign she practised what might be called a politics of secrecy, which involved cultivating a distant inscrutability even as she presented herself as open and vulnerable in matters of state. Recalling 1568 and the difficulties surrounding Mary Stuart, William Camden wrote, 'By means of these Letters, and … words, Queen Elizabeth seemed (for who can dive into the secret Meanings of Princes? and wise men do keep their Thoughts locked up within the Closet of their Breasts,) seriously to commiserate the most afflicted Princess her Kinswoman'.2 Sly suggestion and feigned impartiality join in the description, a telling instance of Elizabeth's exercise of control masquerading as apparent weakness. On many occasions, Elizabeth would employ such tactics to her advantage, and they extended to claiming a comprehensive acquaintance with political affairs in order to contain potentially damaging influences. She rankled in 1595 at the charge that she owed James VI money, and was quick to accuse him of dishonesty: 'Suppose you that so long a raigne as mine hath so fewe frends … that … dealings made by such as ought most have helped you, could be kept secret from my knowledge?'3 A shrewd manipulator of counsellor and ruler alike, Elizabeth encouraged an illusion of defencelessness while remaining aloof and guardedly impenetrable.

Much has been written about the function of secrets in social organizations. Etymologically the word 'secret' has its roots in the Latin secernere, meaning to put apart or to divide, and secretus, the past participle, connotes being separated, solitary or private.4 These meanings suggest the ways in which secrets establish boundaries, areas of autonomy which are inaccessible to those excluded from the possession of privileged information or not privy to specialized knowledge. They recall, too, the icy reserve of Elizabeth in her speeches when she registered disapproval of the prying questions of members of parliament. Secrecy betokens the ownership of power. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the exercise of secrecy was not the sovereign's province alone. Closed associations (or 'secret societies' as they are sometimes termed) traditionally yoke together the members of particular groupings, operating as apparatuses of control and promoting cohesion in the place of fragmentation and difference.5 In a Renaissance context, there were elaborate methods which evolved in order to disseminate the transmission of secrets, the techniques used by scribes or the mysteries of apprenticeship, for example. And the arcana imperii of the monarch had a counterpart in the coded systems of communication enlisted by dissidents; during the period of the English Civil War and the Interregnum, emblems, ciphers and secret discourses marked the writings of royalists wishing to escape the restrictions of censors anxious to stamp out the broadcasting of subversive political messages.6

Perhaps more than Shakespeare's other plays, Hamlet has attracted readers and playgoers who have attempted to account for the fascination the central character exercises. Criticism, to adapt Hamlet's angry words to Guildenstern, has occupied itself with plucking out the 'heart' of the hero's 'mystery' (III.ii.356-7), and as Catherine Belsey notes, the 'interiority, this essence, the heart of Hamlet's mystery, has been the quarry not only of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, agents of the king's surveillance, but of liberal-humanist criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.'7 Such is the volume of these exegetical endeavours, Hamlet has become a text about which no agreement seems to be possible. The more it is studied, the more obscure it appears to become. Frank Kermode writes: 'Shakespearians may find explanations of the mysteriousness … of Hamlet, by considering instead the ur-Hamlet … Once a text is credited with high authority it is studied intensely; once it is so studied it acquires … secrecy … Shakespeare is an inexhaustible source of occult readings'.8 While these are useful comments which go some way towards contextualizing the status of the play and its cultural resonances, they can be pushed further and redirected towards other modes of inquiry. One of the reasons for the interest generated by Hamlet is the play's overriding preoccupation with what is hidden and secret. Shakespeare's text primarily concerns itself with secrets, with their function, inception, management, continuation and exposure, in ways which are historically specific and politically active. The scenes of private conference, the metatextual details, the rites of initiation, and the stress upon sexuality, espionage and inheritance in Hamlet all point to a fascination with secrets and to questions of political moment in the period. Taking into account the various discourses of secrecy circulating in the English Renaissance makes possible a deeper appreciation of a play, which debates arguments concerning the usefulness of perpetuating a system dependent upon supporting the 'mysteries of state', and is informed by anxieties about an Elizabethan order spiralling towards its inevitable demise.

Illusions of Privacy

Why Hamlet's subjectivity has provoked such comment is worth pausing over for a moment. In exploring this aspect of the play, the warnings of Katharine Eisaman Maus might be heeded; she summarizes recent views on subjectivity in the period and arguments which claim that, despite a highly developed rhetoric of inwardness, the concept of privacy hardly existed.9 The twentieth-century vocabulary of inferiority is hardly congruent with terms popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where 'secrets' most effectively conveyed a sense of the mysteries of the contents of the heart. Self-conscious metaphorical languages and representational systems took the place of concepts now assumed to be normative. Nevertheless, it is possible tentatively to suggest that part of the impact of Hamlet can be traced to its delineation of characters who struggle to hide what is within, to subordinate a sense of self by keeping secrets, and who agitate to achieve authentic subject positions. The frustrations suffered by Hamlet, incapacitated from articulating 'that within which passes show' (I.ii.85), is duplicated in a series of mirror images or doubles. In some respects Hamlet's reflection, Laertes undergoes comparable experiences. The long lesson in moral discipline given to him by Polonius has as its principle the importance of remaining separate and refusing to divulge in public secrets which may have disruptive consequences. No overt political allusions to England or Scotland rupture the texture of Hamlet, a play which only hints at the larger world of politics to which it belongs, and gestures towards the rhythms and routines of the court. Its scenes of repression, however, would seem to enact a peculiarly Renaissance phenomenon, and look forward to the circumstances of a monarch such as James I whose most intimate bodily functions were public events at which there was in attendance a substantial royal entourage. The sexual practices of his favourites, and the ailments which affected them, were all publicly discussed in a ceaseless round of gossip and social exchanges. A private realm, where such matters were not offered up for general consumption, was essentially inconceivable.10

Linked to the illusion of inferiority in Hamlet is a parallel situation involving characters who appear alone on stage or who engage in 'private' conference. 'Privy' and 'private' are key terms, recurring at salient moments, as when Horatio contemplates the terrifying possibility that the ghost may be 'privy to thy country's fate' (I.i.136). In addition, few scenes contain large groups of characters; the action, although it moves outside Denmark from time to time, is dominated by Elsinore, and Hamlet must rank among the more claustrophobic of Shakespeare's plays, one which is full of incident but which figures experiences of an essentially solitary and isolated nature. Under duress Ophelia admits that Hamlet has given her 'private time' (I.iii.92); later, when counselled by her father, she remains on her own having denied Hamlet 'access' (II.i.110). Privacy is defined by Sissela Bok as 'the condition of being protected from unwanted access by others … Claims to privacy are claims to control access to hat one takes—however grandiosely—to be one's personal domain. Through such claims, and the counterclaims they often generate, people try to reinforce or expand this control. Privacy and secrecy overlap whenever the efforts at such control rely on hiding.'11 But in Hamlet privacy is not a matter of choice: the condition is induced, introduced through or denied by political pressure. Eavesdropping makes a mockery of bids for privacy as Ophelia overhears Hamlet's soliloquies and Polonius, killed by Hamlet in Gertrude's chamber, is replaced as eavesdropper by the ghost. Affections are annexed, and characters dictated to by the demands of a society which roots out concealment to ensure its continued survival.

Writing Secrets

A text that looks in upon itself, Hamlet occludes the meanings of which it is constituted. The play's closest relative is the legend of Pandora's box, the mythic jar containing the gifts of misery and hope in classical accounts of the creation. Vigorously suggestive in this respect, the language of Hamlet clusters about ideas of locking, covering and shutting away material which, if released, could have disastrous ramifications. Ophelia locks up Laertes's advice in her 'memory' (I.iii.85) and acts upon Polonius's order to 'lock herself from' Hamlet's 'resort' (II.ii.143). As characters in the play withold or resist expressing what they know, so do they shield themselves by adopting roles and false identities. When he puts 'on' his 'antic disposition' (I.v.180), it is as if Hamlet wears his madness like a garment; Gertrude dons a disguise more substantial than this, and her heart is described as being encased in armour (III.iv.35-8). At times it appears, indeed, that nothing is in the open in Elsinore, the castle and its environs taking on the properties of a baffling, metaphysical, labyrinthine gaol.12

What is secret in Hamlet cannot easily be comprehended or embraced: either it is rarely articulated or it is the privileged possession of a single character. These secrets are unspoken, silent; they are also difficult to see or to perceive. Nor can they be read; in this respect, Hamlet, like other Shakespearean plays, displays a preoccupation with metatextual questions. At the level of writing, secrets are implied in the number of references to sealed documents. 'Upon his will I seal'd my hard consent' (I.ii.60) says Polonius of Laertes's petition; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bear 'letters seal'd' (III.iv.204) to England; 'everything is seal'd and done' (IV.iii.59) thinks Claudius of his scheme to have Hamlet assassinated; and Hamlet's decision to 'unseal' (V.ii.17) this 'grand commission' (V.ii.18) saves him from becoming the intended victim of the same plot. Whether the letters reach their ostensible destination or are substituted in an effort to forestall political conspiracy, they can still have a deadly effect: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are murdered when they become ensnared in a web of textual communications.13

One of the motivating energies of Hamlet is Claudius's anxious desire to have established the foundations of his rule; it is a concern of such weight that he is eventually precipitated into attempting to wipe out those who block the path towards dominion. In this connection Hamlet seems to implicate itself in the kinds of political activities which characterized the period, and which shaped struggles for supremacy in the later sixteenth century. Only in the 1580s James had conducted a clandestine correspondence with various elder statesmen in England in order to cement a Scottish-English alliance and possibly to seal his own claims to one or other of the crowns. A letter of 1584 to Mary Stuart shows James rejecting his mother's design for an association under which she and her son would share the Scottish kingdom; James wrote reprovingly about the 'secret instructions that Your Majesty forbids me to ever reveal to any one'.14 Later in the year, courted by Cecil this time, he was prepared to contemplate abandoning his mother and siding with English forces, and James ensured that the bearer of the letters expressing his enthusiasm for the project was 'directed … with more special and secret commission than any I ever directed before'.15 The scrupulous attention to the transmission of these documents was entirely necessary, for when the intrigue came before Elizabeth, she was furious, writing in 1585, 'we old foxes can find shiftes to saue ourselves by others malice, and come by knowledge of greattest secreat, spetiallye if it touche our freholde.'16 This chastening experience appears to have instilled in James a fastidious regard for secret texts; lest his private thoughts be known, everything he wrote thereafter he subjected to strict protective regulations. Even Basilikon Doron, published in 1599, had to answer to these requirements, James at first permitting only seven copies 'to be printed, the Printer being first sworne for secrecie' 17 The lesson of misdirected political aspirations had been learned.

The timely exposure of James's clumsy manoeuvrings checked his predilection for intrigue, at least while his mother was still alive. With the reading of the letters in Hamlet (their contents being, as it were, textualized) comes the series of revelations that brings about the unravelling and partial resolution of its complications. For if the play obsessively folds up information into itself, simultaneously it illuminates and brings secrets to light. The reflections of Foucault on sexuality may be relevant here: he argues that secrets are forced into hiding so as to make possible their eventual discovery.18 Entering into a critical relationship with Hamlet entails interpreting acts of repression and equally powerful representations of unburdening, showing and disclosing. The first we hear is for Barnardo to 'unfold' (I.i.2) himself as he cannot be seen in the darkness. The Queen asks for Hamlet to 'cast' his 'nighted colour off (I.ii.68), to put aside his funereal garb and to present himself in brighter hues. Although constriction is associated with Ophelia, tied to her is an antithetical idea of unchecked movement: Polonius will 'loose' (II.ii.162) her to Hamlet and exploit her innocence in a plan to have demonstrated the causes of his mad, melancholic malady. If Hamlet is a drama of cloistered communications, failed missives and tortured intellects, it is also one in which frustrations strive towards a climactic release.

Demonic Awakenings

Nowhere is this dialectic between hiding and unearthing or manifesting made more apparent than in the appearance of the ghost. This figurative unearthing provides the play with one of its most potent moments of unlocking as the tomb is broken to release the restless spirit. Typically the ghost is surrounded in mystery: 'This to me / In dreadful secrecy impart they did' (I.ii.206-7) Horatio states, informing Hamlet of the supernatural visitation. In his reply, Hamlet urges his friends to consign the ghost to an area of unseen, unspoken phenomena—'if you have hithero conceal'd this sight, / Let it be tenable in your silence still … Give it an understanding but no tongue' (I.ii.247-50)—although when the apparition is confronted, metaphors of unclasping and expulsion dominate, replacing the veiled occurrences of the previous scenes:

                                     but tell
Why thy canoniz'd bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements, why the sepulchre
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd
Hath op'd his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again.

At last the ghost's voice rings out, but one of the revelations which has been anticipated is tantalizingly postponed. Promising to deliver unknown truths, the ghost only hints at secrets which will not be broken:

                          But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold …

For Hamlet, though, the story he hears is enough to impel him to make certain again of his friends' confidence: 'Never make known what you have seen tonight' (I.v.149).19

Considering the ghost's appearance permits several broad patterns to emerge. As he listens to the disclosure and learns the fantastic secret, Hamlet's antipathy towards Claudius hardens and he elects himself co-conspirator in the execution of revenge. His conduct is a dramatic realization of the ways in which secrecy, according to Sissela Bok, can 'fuel gross intolerance and hatred towards outsiders. At the heart of secrecy lies discrimination of some form, since its essence is sifting, setting apart, drawing lines.'20 Bok's observations are similarly helpful in contextualizing Hamlet's swearing his friends to secrecy with frantic, elaborate insistence immediately after the ghost's departure. Confidentiality helps to explain 'the ritualistic tone in which the duty of preserving secrets is repeatedly set forth in professional oaths and codes of ethics', she writes. 'Still more is needed, however, to explain the sacrosanct nature often ascribed to this duty.'21 Professional dimensions of secrecy are not too far removed from Hamlet. An ecstatic fervour marks Hamlet once the ghost has made its pronouncements, and the urgency with which he guarantees the silence of Horatio and Marcellus smacks of the ceremonial of an arcane religious ritual. Now that he owns the ghost's knowledge, it is as if the transformed Hamlet has successfully passed through an initiation rite.

In The History of Carolina (1714), John Lawson describes the practice of 'Husquenawing' common to some native American tribes. During the ceremony, which is intended to instil reverence towards superiors, young men are imprisoned in a house of correction where they are starved in darkness:

Besides, they give them Pellitory-Bark, and several intoxicating Plants, that make them go raving made as ever were any People in the World; and you may hear them make the most dismal and hellish Cries, and Howlings, that ever humane Creatures express'd; all which continues about five or six Weeks, and the little Meat they eat, is the nastiest, loathsome stuff, and mixt with all manner of Filth it's possible to get. After the Time is expired, they are brought out of the Cabin, which never is in the Town, but always a distance off, and guarded by a Jaylor or two, who watch by Turns. Now, when they first come out, they are as poor as ever any Creatures were; for you must know several die under this diabolical Purgation. Moreover, they either really are, or pretend to be dumb, and do not speak for several Days; I think, twenty or thirty; and look gastly, and are so chang'd, that it's next to an Impossibility to know them again, although you was never so well acquainted with them before.22

Many cultures have elaborated rites of passage during which the adolescents of the community are separated, tested and finally granted a more mature status, often being offered secret gifts of wisdom and experience that accompany the shedding of old dependencies and the assumption of new responsibilities. Through ceremonies of induction, the novice enters the adult world in a ritualized enactment of the movement from one stage of development to the next.23

Celebrations of the young person's incorporation into a new community are charged with local meanings and associations. It would be unwise to argue for generalized patterns which overcome historical contingencies. However, prudence cannot totally foreclose a discursive correspondence between the broad outlines of Lawson's description, whose general features reappear in countless other accounts, and Hamlet's behaviour. Quickly following upon the ghost's revelation is Ophelia's report of Hamlet's appearance in her chamber:

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac'd,
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd and down-gyved to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors, he comes before me.
                                   (II. i. 78-84)

Apart from the suggestions of sexual assault and the familiar metaphors of exposure, the passage is striking as it enlists initiation rite motifs—the dirt, pallor, dumb language, seeming madness and infernal connotations. It is as if Hamlet, no longer in the first flush of youth, has belatedly undergone a rude, cathartic awakening, and has been admitted to terrifying realities. In Joel Fineman's elegant but enigmatic phrase, 'Placed between maternal presence and paternal absence, Hamlet learns, and becomes, the "secret" of the primal scene.'24 The immediate mystery of the ghost resolved, Hamlet's fate is sealed.

Sexual Places

Hamlet abounds in secret places, whether they be Ophelia's chamber, Gertrude's closet or the 'removed ground' (I. iv. 61) from which the ghost announces to Hamlet its chilling injunctions. All of these spaces are connected, and Hamlet's experience of them leads him to a confrontation with sexual forces that lurk in hiding, pushed into concealment by Elsinore's political wrangles. As Foucault points out, from the Renaissance onwards, sex was presented as 'something akin to a secret … [a] disquieting enigma: not a thing which stubbornly shows itself, but one which always hides, the insidious presence that speaks in a voice so muted and often disguised that one risks remaining deaf to it.'25 In fairy tales, too, such as 'Bluebeard' or 'The Enchanted Pig', a child discovers forbidden information by unlocking the door of a secret place or room where are kept books or evidence of carnal knowledge.26 About sex in Hamlet there gathers conflict, restriction and covert argument. Whatever secretively took place between Claudius and Gertrude prior to the murder of Hamlet senior is hedged about with silences, ambiguities and nervous speculations. In particular Ophelia suffers at the hands of a system which outlaws and straightjackets the expression of unhindered sexuality. She is advised by Laertes not to 'open' her 'chaste treasure' to Hamlet's 'unmaster'd importunity' (I.iii.31-2); virginity is a precious item in a coffer's inventory, to be prized and removed from contact. Her beauty, similarly, should not be allowed to 'unmask' (I.iii.37) itself, an ironic choice of word as this applies more to Hamlet who wishes to strip off the smooth urbanity that cloaks Claudius's villainy. The logical extension of these practices of sexual containment is Ophelia's madness and her song about Saint Valentine's day duplicity:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
 All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
 To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clo'es,
 And dupp'd the chamber door,
Let in the maid that out a maid
 Never departed more.

                                         (IV. v. 48-55)

Metaphorically, in the fateful chamber, Ophelia has yielded her treasure, and the knowledge gained contributes catastrophically to the sequence of events culminating in her death. A tone of sombre, chastened reflection informs these scenes which forcefully communicate the extremity of Ophelia's chaotic condition. The issues represented here also spill over into other parts of the play. The king's spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, joke together saying that they live in the 'privates' (II.ii.234) of Fortune, to which Hamlet replies: 'In the secret parts of Fortune? O most true, she is a strumpet' (II.ii.235-6). Now a fickle woman replaces Ophelia's dissembling gentleman, but the idea of a sexuality that is or should be invisible or unintelligible is common to both types. Ballad and bawdy interchange unite in stimulating a suspicious interrogation of sexuality's enticing unknowability.27

The troubled soliloquies, whispered conversations and hushed, ghostly introductions that lend Hamlet its air of secrecy combine with constructions of woman in a dislocating anatomization of practices that are never clearly defined, but only hinted at through the use of euphemisms and rhetorical figures. Metaphor and metonymy rule the sexual discussion of Hamlet, miming the features of Renaissance legal treatments of the subject. The etymological roots of 'secret' and 'sex' are the same, and in contemporary judicial discourses 'secrets' indicated the sexual parts.28 In addition, women were traditionally perceived either as themselves 'secrets', embodying the secrets of life, or as 'leaky vessels' incapable of respecting the confidences with which they were entrusted.29 It is less the language of the courthouse which colours Hamlet, however, than the insecurities fostered in a society ruled over by a sovereign in whom the boundaries between male and female were indistinct. A woman occupying a traditionally male position, Elizabeth was princess and prince to her people at one and the same time. Although she played multiple sexual roles with delighted ease—idealized shepherdess, besieged mistress and chaste goddess—she was still mysterious, virginal, protective of her secret self.30 The single status she maintained was her greatest political asset; consequently, negotiations for possible marriages were enveloped in secrecy and subterfuge. Anticipating a visit by Francis of Valois, the Duke of Alençon, one of her suitors, Elizabeth wrote to her ambassador in France in 1574: 'For that if there follow no liking between us after a view taken the one of the other, the more secretly it be handled, the less touch will it be to both our honours.'31 But the idea Elizabeth popularized, that she was wife and mother to the nation, could not remain unchallenged. An unmarried woman was an ideological anomaly in the English Renaissance, a monstrous curiosity who would provoke salacious conjecture. Quarter sessions of the period overflow with seditious remarks, many of them directed against Elizabeth; in 1590, two Essex peasants came before the authorities for having claimed that the queen had secretly delivered two children, and that the Earl of Leicester, the father, had left them in a chimney to be burnt alive. A Colchester yeoman, Thomas Wenden, was punished in about the same year for alleging that Elizabeth was 'an arrant whore'.32 These cases throw light on the predicament of a female ruler steering a course between wielding male prerogatives and performing the part of a delighted recipient of her courtiers' attentions. They convey a powerful sense of limited possibilities, of the constrictions of Hamlet and the embittered sexual comment which is its hallmark, and the contradictions with which Elizabeth wrestled as she sought to establish her political place in the face of forces both oppositional and intransigent.

Political Secrets

The sequestration of Ophelia and her accompanying collapse direct attention to the means by which Elsinore constructs itself as a political system. Most obviously, Claudius relies upon techniques of surveillance, arguing that they are legitimate ways of exerting authority as leader of a state. Contemporary thinkers approved in principle of espionage as a justifiable weapon to be employed by sixteenth-and seventeenth-century rulers, and also held that spies needed to be chosen with the utmost rigour and care. Giovanni Botero observed in The Reason of State, published in Italian in 1589, that since 'counsellors and ambassadors, secretaries and spies are those who deal most often with secret matters, they should be selected for their acute minds and for their taciturnity'.33 Claudius takes this advice to heart and makes full use of the willingness of his servants to eavesdrop upon his subjects, but the transparent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the garrulous Polonius, would seem to be unfit candidates for the model agents Botero recommends.

Foucault remarks that secrecy is 'indispensable to … [the] operation [of power] … power imposes secrecy on those whom it dominates'.34 It is a formulation pertinent to Hamlet, to the desperate methods hatched by Claudius to tighten his tenuous hold on a kingdom threatened from within, by Hamlet, and from without, by Norwegian insurgences. With little compunction he dispatches Voltimand and Cornelius to Old Norway to work in secret to young Fortinbras's disadvantage. A similar partnership is shared by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: they are appointed to find out about Hamlet's bizarre distemper, later assuming the mantle of hired murderers. Throughout, their behind-the-scenes conduct disrupts the flow of social intercourse; Hamlet attacks their 'secrecy to the King' (II.ii.294) and maintains, since they have purposes which they do not reveal, that he enjoys an equivalent privilege: 'That I can keep your counsel and not mine own' (IV.ii.10). Everything recovered in Elsinore falls prey to public scrutiny, and even Hamlet's private letters to Ophelia are not exempt from being read aloud in court.35 The need to police, inform and control what are seen to be deviancies infects Denmark at every level, dislocating political and familial relationships: Polonius schools the aptly named Reynaldo in the arts of surveillance, and Laertes is obliged to return from France 'in secret' (IV.v.88).

The mechanisms of surveillance in Elsinore express themselves in a number of ways. They are immediately apprehended in acts of secreting, and Polonius is the most diligent and enthusiastic of practitioners. With Claudius he decides to 'bestow' (III.i.44) himself to overhear private conversations. Once discovered by Hamlet behind the arras in Gertrude's chamber, he is dispatched, taking his information with him in death.36 As Hamlet says: 'This counsellor / Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave' (III.iv.215-17). When it comes to Polonius's burial, he is put to rest 'hugger-mugger' (IV.v.84) or secretively. The bumbling politician who prided himself on his skills in concealment is rewarded with an apposite tribute, an anonymous funeral at which no guest is present.

Articles which are secreted can turn rank and poisonous. The body decays, corrupts and becomes the feeding-ground for bacteria; politic worms make a meal of Polonius's corpse. Terms referring to opening and closing distinguish Hamlet's exploration of secrecy; a similarly emphatic set of metaphors locates itself in disease and illness. 'Here is your husband, like a mildew'd ear / Blasting his wholesome brother' (III.iv.64-5) says Hamlet, threatening Gertrude with images of his father and uncle. In a shrewd impersonation of ignorance born out of sympathy, Claudius pretends to have misled himself in his assessment of Hamlet:

          But so much was our love,
We would not understand what was most fit,
But like the owner of a foul disease,
To keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of life.

'Divulging' is being used richly, I think. The term carries the sense of 'becoming public', and there is the suggestion of a spreading infection, the existence of which has been carefully hidden from knowledge. The condition afflicting Claudius brings to mind Sissela Bok's remarks on the effects of nurturing secrets over a period of time:

The fear of conspiracies, of revenge, and of the irreversible consequences of opening Pandora's box nourishes this view, as does awareness of the corruption that secrecy can breed. Thus Jung wrote that the keeping of secrets acts like a psychic poison, alienating their possessor from the community. Like other poisons, he wrote, it may be beneficial in small doses, but its destructive power is otherwise great.37

The strategies adopted by Claudius have as their objective the validation of what is already an uncertain claim to royal authority. But Hamlet flushes out or finds out his inefficient intelligencers; the rottenness in Denmark grows unabated, while a racked Claudius festers from within, consumed by an experience that he does not dare to put into words.

Stories and Confessions

Traditionally poison, infection and secrecy have formed an uneasy alliance. Keeping secrets is often regarded as a species of transgression which can only result in the owner being rewarded with eventual illness. It is a relationship which can be taken back to early hypnotists and doctors who, by bringing into the open painful secrets, aimed to cure the afflictions of their patients. Only by confession, the Christian fathers held, could such poisons be purged and the sufferer be restored to wholeness and grace.38 Admitting to secrets entailed absolution, reintegration into the community and the banishment of intolerable, extreme experiences.

Not one but several confessions interlace the structure of Hamlet. The ghost's use of the word 'disappointed' (I.v.77) suggests that the last rite of absolution was not ministered, and Hamlet is the first to hear its confessional revelations. Hamlet, intending to bring Claudius to justice at the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, later imagines an explosive disclosure prompted by an unbearable conflation of fiction and fact:

                                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 proclaim'd their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ.

Tension mounts during the performance as Hamlet fears that the players will reveal the design: 'The players cannot keep counsel: they'll tell all' (III.ii.137-8). But Claudius's longed-for confession is not forthcoming on this occasion; Hamlet must wait until he comes across the king at prayer, and even then he arrives too late. Claudius complains:

                      Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I first begin,
And both neglect.

For Hamlet and Claudius, the confession backfires and is anti-climactic. The secret is confessed in secret; Hamlet enters only after the declaration has been completed, and there will be no public outcry to support him in his endeavour. Potentially a murderer, Hamlet here becomes an unpunctual father confessor, frozen into immobility by the possibility of the repentant Claudius gaining salvation.

Treacherous currents run through Hamlet, a play that comes perilously close to destabilizing monarchal power and the shibboleths that propped up its institutions. The possibility that there could be royal self-exposure instilled horror in most contemporary commentators on the traditions the ruler was expected to observe. In his essays, composed between 1597 and 1625, Bacon argued that 'an Habit of Secrecy, is both Politick, and Morall', and went on to state: 'As to Secrecy; Princes are not bound to communicate all Matters, with all Counsellors; but may extract and select. Neither is it necessary, that he that consulteth what he should doe, should declare what he will doe. But let Princes beware, that the unsecreting of their Affaires, comes not from Themselves.'39 Put briefly, the ruler was obliged to shun the counsellor attempting to delve too far into royal mysteries, and to concentrate instead upon preserving an imperviousness to external influences and a veneer of studied self-sufficiency. Both Elizabeth and James subscribed to these necessities with zealous commitment.40 More keenly than his predecessor, James developed his sublime inaccessibility into a fine art. Only occasionally was a member of his circle admitted to his personal ruminations, as when he recommended to Elizabeth in 1585 the bearer of a letter, Sir William Keith, 'Whom I have directed, not as in any public message but priuatlye, to informe yow of my secret intention in all thinges.'41 The theme dominated James's political transactions, reaching its compietesi statement in Basilikon Doron, published in 1599, in which he informed his son that 'a King will haue need to vse secrecie in may thinges: but yet behaue your selfe so in your greatest secrets, as yee neede not bee ashamed, suppose they were all proclaimed at the mercate crosse'.42 Embodied in the injunction is the elaboration of a strict code of ethics which can nevertheless admit of the potential for fallibility and leakage. It is possible to pinpoint in Hamlet, therefore, moments of subversive discontent, and the scene in which Claudius almost uncovers himself throws off echoes of contemporary worries about the insubstantiality of the royal identity and the fragility of the barriers which separated monarch from subject. Hamlet's accidental intrusion is dangerous. As Louis Adrian Montrose states: 'To "discover" the nakedness of the prince is both to locate and reveal—to demystify—the secrets of state.'43 Balancing itself between attempts to obscure realities and equally urgent impulses to have them illuminated, Hamlet cuts across the fears that animated a Renaissance ruler's darkest fantasies.

In quick, narrative strokes, Shakespeare sketches patterns of concealment and exposure in Hamlet. One scene delineates Polonius rushing to hide behind the arras; the next shows Claudius describing his crime for the first time. An alternating between hiding and revealing is the play's structural principle, the basis of its rhythm, the chief characteristic of its movement and procedure. At many points a secret is contracted in such a way as to suggest that its contents will immediately be broadcasted, or the play implies that vital intimacies hover on the brink of discovery. No sooner has Hamlet committed himself to the trust of Horatio and Marcellus—'But you'll be secret?' (I.v.127)—than he refuses to publish his secret: 'There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he's an arrant knave' (I.v.129-30). When he visits Gertrude in her closet, Hamlet warns her not to reveal his pretence of madness, and threatens drastic consequences: 'No, in despite of sense and secrecy, / Unpeg the basket on the house's top' (III.iv.194-5). That Gertrude confirms to Claudius that Hamlet is, indeed, insane signals either her incomprehension or her confidence. In a curious grammatical construction that echoes the ghost, Hamlet promises finally to show up the seedy operations that contaminate Elsinore but retracts at the last moment:

Had I but time—as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you—
But let it be.

The confession is never made and indefinitely held in abeyance. Hamlet withdraws the promise to Horatio he has only just contracted. Like the ghost, he undertakes to tell a story which fails to materialize.

Secrets and Succession

A narrative of deeper consequence was coming to an end in the later sixteenth century, and another was about to commence. The last decades of Elizabeth's reign were tense and unstable, plagued by conspiracy, rebellion, economic distress and harvest failure. Contemporaneous with Hamlet, usually dated 1599-1601, was widespread speculation about how long the queen's health could last, and how soon a successor might be chosen. Although the question of the succession had monopolized the early parliaments, and continued to surface at moments of crisis in the ensuing years, by 1600 it seems to have fallen dormant. There was no 'golden speech' in which Elizabeth categorically identified a replacement, but few could doubt the most likely candidate. That James VI of Scotland would ascend to the throne appears to have been an open secret. Or perhaps not. After the ill-fated affair of the 1580s, James had quelled his Machiavellian dissimulations. But the 1590s show him renewing scheming contrivances, commending himself indiscriminately to various catholics, and corresponding with Florence and with Tyrone, in anticipation of being elected to the English monarchy.44 Most intriguing were the letters that passed between James and Cecil in which preparations were made for the Scottish king's assumption of duties and London arrival. Complex numero-logical codes prevented the identities of the writers from being known; they constituted a private language designed to foil Elizabeth's intercepting agents. In 1601 James wrote to Cecil, concluding 'And in the meantime ye may rest assured of the constant love and secrecy of Your most loving and assured friend, 30.'45 When in 1602 he brought into the plan a new recruit, possibly Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham, James wrote: 'so have I for the present no other recompense to send you for your goodwill but my faithful promise that all my dealing with you shall ever be accompanied with these three qualities: honesty, secrecy, and constancy.'46 The final days of Elizabeth were fast approaching. At first, her illness was kept secret but, when it became obvious that she would not live, her condition was made public. Without voice as death neared, she nominated with signs her successor, James, who may now have been able to convince himself that his furtive ventures had resulted in a tangible achievement.

Pages of critical exegesis have dwelt upon the eerie conjunction of Elizabeth's nomination of James, and Hamlet's election of Fortinbras with his dying voice. The house of Hamlet, like the house of Tudor, labours under a sentence of death. It is not the uniqueness of the parallel to which I am drawn, however; rather, the process whereby Hamlet comes to elect the Norwegian prince is what prompts interest. As the play proceeds, an audience is bombarded with conflicting messages concerning the Danish monarchy, not one of which appears to be privileged. On the issue of the succession, Hamlet prevaricates; in the same way, Elizabeth's reign was characterized by a singular insecurity about the continuation of her royal line. For much of the play, who precisely is the rightful heir is not made clear, although it seems that Hamlet will be king eventually. But cryptic remarks continually disallow such a straightforward reading, as in the second scene when Claudius refers to Gertrude as a 'jointress' (I.ii.9), implying that she, too, has a legitimate claim. The hint, voiced later, that Claudius usurped the throne (III.iv.96-101) adds to the confusion, as do passing comments in act four which suggest that Hamlet may accede with the help of popular protest. In a startling volte-face, act five abruptly establishes that Denmark is an elective rather than a hereditary system. What galls Hamlet is that Claudius 'Popp'd in between th'election and my hopes' (V.ii.65), and Fortinbras offers corroboration of the elective process on taking control (V.ii.402). Until this point, the subject of the future of the state has been shrouded in obscurity. As E. A. J. Honigmann states: 'the mystery of the Danish succession only yields its secret' in the final scene.47 His observation invites a reconsideration of the plight of England as the Elizabethan period drew to a close. Years of uncertainty culminated in the investment of James at Elizabeth's death; the knowledge that Hamlet, having been deprived of the opportunity to assume power, can elect Fortinbras, finally resolves the play of its contradictions. It is as if the doubts riddling Hamlet follow the contours of the questions never answered by Elizabeth, a sovereign destined to die, like Hamlet, without issue, unable to pass on her inheritance to a direct descendant.

Often Shakespearean plays cast glances ahead to the restitution of order when they close, but critical argument can only confine itself to the evidence presented within the parameters of the text. However, Horatio's pat summary to Fortinbras of the action does not bode well for the unravelling of difficulties. As Terence Hawkes suggests, Horatio's rehearsal 'mocks at the subtleties, the innuendoes, the contradictions, the imperfectly realized motives and sources for action that have been exhibited to us.'48 Another Claudius, it seems as if Horatio will only obscure secrets rather than allowing them to see revealment. Fortinbras, the arch-exponent of what Sissela Bok terms 'military secrecy', as he relies upon 'surprise and stratagems', is bent more upon removing the carnage and proclaiming his victory.49 While Horatio is determined that events in Elsinore be generally known—'let me speak to th'yet unknowing world' (V.ii.384)—Fortinbras cleverly manages to make sure that the story will first be heard by a select, private gathering, thereby suppressing what might constitute threatening political secrets: 'Let us haste to hear it, / And call the noblest to the audience' (V.ii.391-2).50 What that audience hears is not for the ears of the spectators in the theatre; the play ends with the shadowy Fortinbras stifling elucidation, not encouraging it, and with another act of deferral.


The text of Hamlet covers and exposes its meanings (it dilates and contracts with the diastole-stystole beat of a heart), but it also teases phenomenologically, constantly promising to show itself but usually yielding only a glimpse of its secret interior. With reference to Hamlet, Patricia Parker has touched upon this aspect, writing: 'Derrida's punning "différance"is silent on this third term from that single Latin root, that of dilatio or dilation, which in Renaissance usage in its verbal form meant not only to expand, disperse, or spread abroad but also to put off, postpone, prolong, or protract—meanings that still linger in the modern English "dilatory".'51 To identify the postponements of Hamlet is a prolegomenon to a longer critique. What I have attempted to illustrate is the relationship between Hamlet's deferrals and politics, the ways in which the play thematizes the various secret processes whereby power was perpetuated in the English Renaissance. My reading is that Shakespeare's drama has a charged place in a culture in which notions of privacy were being hotly debated, in which dangerous letters concerning the state of the kingdom circulated, and in which the strains and stresses of a monarchy in eclipse fuelled deep-seated political tensions. Hamlet coincides with floods of espionage in the later sixteenth century, with gloomy forebodings about the condition of the nation, with scurrilous insinuations about the queen's sexual status, and with anxieties about her vulnerability—activities and preoccupations which impinge upon the course of the play's trajectory. Embedded in Hamlet are radical energies, a dissatisfaction with the politics of secrecy, and a demythologizing, dismantling treatment of arcane royal ceremonies. Two questions would seem to arise from this critical stance. What was the 'fate' of England, and who was 'privy' to it? Yet Shakespeare does not pose dilemmas so baldly, nor does he often deal in the currency of direct political allusions. More diffuse and subtler effects are achieved by the dramatist. The rhythms of the play, however, continually lead back to matters of contemporary import, to Elizabeth's hesitancy to name a successor, to the rituals that would surround her death, to the awakening of a new Stuart dynasty, and to the rites that James, in his inauguration as king, would experience. This is the sense in which it might be possible to begin to talk about the prophetic soul of the play, not the prince.

Both Elizabeth and James had frequent recourse to an identical formula. When they needed to put off answering delicate questions, they argued that God alone knew all secrets and could bring them from the gloom where they lurked into brightness. Angrily responding to parliament in 1586 on the subject of Mary Stuart, Elizabeth stated: 'If there be any that think I have prolonged the time of purpose to make a counterfeit show of clemency, they do me the most undeserved wrong, as He knoweth, which is the Searcher of the most secret thoughts of the heart.'52 Likewise, in Basilikon Doron (1599) James observed that 'the deepest of our secrets, cannot be hidde from that all-seeing eye, and penetrant light, piercing through the bowels of very darkenesse it selfe.'53 Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reformers would have endorsed these sentiments, although they might have added that every secret would be revealed with the second coming of Christ.54 There is not the merest suggestion of such justice informing Hamlet. The last scene offers little divine comfort to dispel the grim truths it reinforces. Towards an intensification of confusion and a thickening of mystification is the direction in which the play tends. Hamlet's spiritual fate is in doubt, as Horatio's worried invocation of the flights of angels indicates. Horatio muddles his unfolding of the secrets of Elsinore, and Fortinbras's political programme remains chillingly sketchy and enigmatic. No final word of judgement cuts through the clouds of uncertainty. No revelation is at hand, no key available to unlock the contents of the heart. The only assurance is engulfment by an ineluctable darkness.


1 Sir John Hayward, Annals of the First Four Years of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, ed. John Bruce, Camden Society, 7 (1840), p. 15.

2 William Camden, The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth, Late Queen of England: Selected Chapters, ed. Wallace T. MacCaffrey (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1970), p. 89.

3 John Bruce, ed., Letters of Queen Elizabeth and James VI of Scotland, Camden Society, 46 (1849), p. 169. See also

4 For derivations, see Page duBois, Torture and Truth (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), p. 129; Rudolf Ekstein and Elaine Caruth, 'Keeping Secrets' in Peter L. Giovacchini, ed., Tactics and Techniques in Psychoanalytic Theory (London: Hogarth, 1972), p. 200; Albert Gross, 'The Secret', Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 15 (1951), 38; Arnaud Lévy, 'Évaluation Étymologique et Sémantique du Mot "Secret"', Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, 14 (1976), 117-29; Russell Meares, 'The Secret', Psychiatry, 39 (1976), 261; William W. E. Slights, 'Secret Places in Renaissance Drama', University of Toronto Quarterly, 59 (1990), 364; Gérard Vincent, 'The Secrets of History and the Riddle of Identity' in Antoine Prost and Gérard Vincent, eds, A History of Private Life: Riddles of Identity in Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 163.

5 On secrets and closed associations, see F. G. Bailey, Gifts and Poison: The Politics of Reputation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971), p. 291; Gordon Hunter, Secrets and Sympathy: Forms of Disclosure in Hawthorne's Novels (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1988), pp. 3-4; Douglas H. Johnson, 'Criminal Secrecy: The Case of the Zande "Secret Societies"', Past and Present, 130 (1991), 170-200; Evelyn Fox Keller, 'From Secrets of Life to Secrets of Death' in Mary Jacobus, Evelyn Fox Keller and Sally Shuttleworth, eds, Body / Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), p. 178; D. A. Miller, 'Secret Subjects, Open Secrets', Dickens Studies Annual, 14 (1985), 17-38; J. M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972).

6 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), I, 270; Lois Potter, Secret rites and secret writing: Royalist literature, 1641-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Stephen R. Smith, 'The London Apprentices as Seventeenth-Century Adolescents', Past and Present, 61 (1973), 149-61.

7 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and difference in Renaissance drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 41.

8 Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp. 79, 144. Kermode's views are elaborated in his 'Secrets and Narrative Sequence' in W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., On Narrative (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 79-97.

9 Katharine Eisaman Maus, 'Proof and Consequences: Inwardness and Its Exposure in the English Renaissance', Representations, 34 (1991), 29-30. See also

10 See Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 150.

11Sissela Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (Oxford and Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 10-11.

12 The metaphor of Denmark as a prison is made explicit in the version of Hamlet printed in the first folio; see Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies (London, 1623; S.T.C. 22373), p. 262.

13 Margaret W. Ferguson, 'Hamlet: letters and spirits' in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds, Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), p. 300.

14 G. P. V. Akrigg, ed., Letters of King James VI and I (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984), p. 56.

15 Akrigg, ed., Letters, p. 59.

16 Bruce, ed., Letters, p. 17. It has not been categorically established that Elizabeth is responding in this letter to the correspondence of the previous year, and any argument attached to her indignation must be necessarily conjectural. Some historians hold that James deliberately encouraged policies that would have led to his mother's death; the correspondence relating to this theory is rife with references to secrets. See Robert S. Rait and Annie I. Cameron, King James's Secret (London: Nisbet, 1927), pp. 11, 51, 120, 131, 157, 173, 191, 197.

17Basilikon Doron (1599) in Charles Howard Mcllwain, ed., The Political Works of James I (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1918), p. 5.

18 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, tr. Robert Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 42.

19 On the secrets associated with death, see Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, tr. A. M. Sheridan (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 122, 172; Thomas Whythorne, The Autobiography, ed. James M. Osborn (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961), p. 3.

20 Bok, Secrets, p. 28.

21 Bok, Secrets, p. 123.

22 John Lawson, The History of Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of that Country (London: W. Taylor and J. Baker, 1714), p. 233.

23 M. R. Allen, Male Cults and Secret Initiations in Melanesia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1967), pp. 6-7; Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (London: Thames and Hudson, 1955), pp. 117-19, 205, 227; Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, tr. Monika Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), pp. 78, 81. See also

24 Joel Fineman, 'Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles' in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, eds, Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 106. The 'initiation' aspect of Hamlet has been discussed by Marjorie Garber, but she does not consider the implications of the scene in which Hamlet appears in Ophelia's chamber. See her Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1981), pp. 198-205.

25 Foucault, History, p. 35. See also

26 Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 300, 302.

27 Jacques Lacan makes a similar point about the play: 'The object of desire is essentially different from the object of any need [besoin]. Something becomes an object in desire when it takes the place of what by its very nature remains concealed from the subject: that self-sacrifice, that pound of flesh which is mortgaged [engage] in his relationship to the signifier. This is profoundly enigmatic, for it is ultimately a relationship to something secret and hidden.' See his 'Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet' in Shoshana Felman, ed., Literature and Psychoanalysis (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 28.

28 G. R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasants and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth Century England (London: Croom Helm, 1979), p. 176; Lyndal Roper, 'Will and Honor: Sex, Words and Power in Augsburg Criminal Trials', Radical History Review, 43 (1989), 51. See also

29 Keller, 'From Secrets of Life', p. 178; Slights, 'Secret Places', 365. It is interesting to note that in All the Kings Short Poesis, composed in 1616-18, James writes: 'Euen so all wemen are of nature vaine / And can not keepe no secreti vnreuealed'. See James Craigie, ed., The Poems of James VI of Scotland, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1955 and 1958), II, 92.

30 Patricia Fumerton, '"Secret" Arts: Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets', Representations, 15 (1986), 58.

31 G. B. Harrison, ed., The Letters of Queen Elizabeth (London, Toronto, Melbourne and Sydney: Cassell, 1935), p. 122.

32 Joel Samaha, 'Gleanings from Local Criminal Records: Sedition amongst the "Inarticulate" in Elizabethan England', Journal of Social History, 8 (1975), 69.

33 Giovanni Botero, The Reason of State, tr. P.J. and D.P. Waley (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), p. 48. For the use of spies by Elizabeth and James, see Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance 'Hamlet': Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 39-40; Harrison, ed., Letters, pp. 64, 91. Also useful are recent studies of the Elizabethan secret service: John Bossy, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991); Alan Haynes, Invisible Power: The Elizabethan Secret Services, 1570-1603 (Far Thrupp: Allan Sutton, 1992); Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (London: Cape, 1992); Alison Plowden, The Elizabethan Secret Service (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991).

34 Foucault, History, p. 86.

35 As Sissela Bok points out, secrecy and property are connected: 'At its root, it is closely linked to identity, in that people take some secrets, such as hidden love letters, to belong to them more than to others, to be proper to them. We link such secrets with our identity, and resist intrusions into them' (Bok, Secrets, p. 24). The public world of Elsinore fuels Hamlet's ruminations on his own identity.

36 Pierre Bourdieu has noted that '"Behind" is naturally associated with "inside", with … all that is private, secret and hidden'. See his The Logic of Practice, tr. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 90.

37 Bok, Secrets, p. 8.

38 Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychology (London: Allen Lane, 1970), p. 44; Foucault, History, p. 35; Neil Hertz, The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 122-43; C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ed. Aniela Jaffé (London: Collins and Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 118; C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), pp. 39, 41; Origenes Adamantius (Origen), Horn, in Lucam in Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius (London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 349-50.

39 Sir Francis Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels, Civili and Morali, ed. Michael Kieraan (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), pp. 21, 65. For comparable ideas, see Sir William Cornwallis, Essayes (London, 1600; S.T.C. 5775), sig. E3 V ;Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde in Generali: A Reprint based on the 1604 edition, ed. Thomas O. Sloan (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press, 1971), p. 119.

40 For comparisons between Elizabeth and James on this issue, see Secret History of the Court of James I, 2 vols (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1811), I, 69, 77, 320. Most illuminating on James's cult of secrecy is Goldberg, James I, pp. xii, 56, 65, 83.

41 Bruce, ed., Letters, p. 25.

42Basilikon Doron in Mcllwain, ed., Works, p. 44. For the fate visited upon those who were too inquisitive, see John Chamberlain, The Letters, ed. Norman Egbert McClure, 2 vols (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1939), II, 14.

43 Louis Adrian Montrose, 'The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text' in Patricia Parker and David Quint, eds, Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 328.

44 David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (London: Cape, 1966), pp. 142, 147, 148.

45 Akrigg, ed., Letters, p. 180. See also

46 Akrigg, ed., Letters, p. 195.

47 E. A. J. Honigmann, 'The Politics in Hamlet and "The World of the Play"' in John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, eds, Hamlet, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 5 (London: Arnold, 1963), p. 139. See also

48 Terence Hawkes, 'Telmah' i n Parker and Hartman, eds, Shakespeare, p. 311.

49 Bok, Secrets, p. 191.

50 Horatio here invokes the theory that the 'public has a right to know', itself a fallacy. 'How can one lay claims to a right to Know the truth when even partial knowledge is out of reach concerning most human affairs, and when bias and rationalization and denial skew and limit knowledge still further?' (Bok, Secrets, p. 254).

51 Patricia Parker, 'Deferral, Dilation, Différ a nce: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Jonson' in Parker and Quint, eds, Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts, p. 182. Parker has in mind, I think, Derrida's essay 'Différance' which is reprinted in Peggy Kamuf, ed., A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 61-79. Others have pointed out that to refuse to fix meaning is anti-theological as it implicitly resists God's word, an argument which pertains to Hamlet. See Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, ed. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1990), p. 147; Gerald L. Bruns, Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 18.

52 Rice, ed., Public Speaking, p. 93.

53 Mcllwain, ed., Works, p. 5.

54 John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976), p. 291; John Rogers, The displaying of an horrible secte of grosse and wicked heretiques (London, 1579; S.T.C. 21182), sigs N1r-v.

Source: "The 'Heart of My Mystery': Hamlet and Secrets," in New Essays on Hamlet, Mark Thornton Burnett, John Manning, eds., AMS Press, 1994, pp. 21-46.