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The 'Heart of My Mystery': Hamlet and Secrets

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9,855 words.)