“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.

[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.


Part II: Female Identity, Subjectivity, and Knowing the Self (8 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Warning: This post includes potentially triggering discussions of nonconsensual physical and mental assault.  

Last week’s post opened an exploration into the narrative obfuscation of Rey’s identity, and considered the advantages of such inscrutability, both to the character’s further development in Episodes VIII and IX, and to fans eager to argue for a myriad of markers in the signifying process. If, as previously discussed, The Force Awakens presents the mystery of Rey’s origin and selfhood without providing a clear narrative resolution, such representation also obscures access to knowing what this character wants and desires.

In discussing the formation of the modern individual alongside and through the cultural rise of the novel, literary critic Nancy Armstrong describes the subjectivity of a person as:

  1. Culturally constructed and historically-informed
  2. Defined by desire and operating within a contract between the sexes
  3. First and foremost, a woman

Through the ideological influence of literature, eighteenth-century writers and thinkers began to delineate what a man ought to desire in a woman – and, consequently, what a woman ought to be. This process of domestication and feminization, as effectively realized through fiction, eventually came to reorient male desire away from the erotic, physical, and all too material body of the woman, and toward a self-regulated interior depth characterized by emotions and constructed through words. “I am convinced,” Armstrong asserts, “that the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with the unconscious arose in response to the question of what women want.”[1]

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(Credit: Imdb)

The grand mystery of the universe, answered by artists as diverse as Christina Aguilera and Virginia Woolf.

So what, if anything, does Rey want?

For the most part, a character’s identity relies on the public or private formulation, realization, and eventual acknowledgment of their aims, hopes, and desires – that is, what motivates a character through the ongoing narrative, fleshed out through backstory, and that which functions as integral to invoking a reader or viewer’s sympathy. Moments of subterfuge may allow temporary disguising of one’s “true” identity, but well-rounded storytelling rarely admits a sudden revelation or engineers a redemptive arc without first sowing the seeds for this later evolution. Within the Manichean universe of the Star Wars galaxy, where the split between good and evil has so effectively been named as, respectively, the Light side versus the Dark side, viewers may easily determine a character’s allegiance – and thus, moral stance – through obvious hints: the Imperial march, the proclivity for wearing all black, or rather unsubtle allusions to Nazi imagery amidst grand declarations of superior rule.

Often, the reluctant or unaware hero/ine’s narrative represents a journey toward realizing the burden of fate, or finally accepting the path destiny has laid out for them. But if Jedi only wish to restore balance to the Force, and the Sith are those who have succumbed to the seductive power of negative energies, what becomes of the wayward heroine who only desires to survive while awaiting the return of those who left her?

“Know Thyself,” the Oracle says. Completely different science-fiction universes, though the mystique of subjectivity remains the same.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” Luke Skywalker declares at the end of Return of the Jedi, after some soul-searching under Yoda’s tutelage and advice from Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. While on Dagobah, his Force-induced vision in the Dark Side Cave imparts a warning against his potential failings – whereas the flashes of memories constructing Rey’s vision receive no such elucidation. Instead, viewers must rely on Maz’s counsel, which suggests a course of action, but fails to deliver satisfactory interpretive meaning:

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes…you already know the truth. The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead…Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.”

Compare, then, this scene of revelation-via-Force to the forced exposure of Rey’s memories at the hands of the film’s conflicted villain, Kylo Ren. In the interrogation chamber, a scene set with uncomfortable signs of bondage and reminiscent of Poe Dameron’s earlier torture, the unmasked Ben Solo looms over a fully restrained Rey and grimly informs her of his ability to just “take what [he] wants.” At Rey’s continued resistance, Ren/Solo uses the Force to enter her mind, exposing her innermost thoughts by speaking them aloud: her loneliness, fantasies of a faraway ocean, and burgeoning admiration for Han Solo as a paternal figure.

The last of these is that which Ren/Solo sneers at the most, providing the scene with traces of Oedipal tension, a prime element for any psychoanalytic reading. Here, a supposed expert – with the Force – delves past repression and resistance into the mind of a couch-bound patient, in order to arrive at and expose the truth at the most foundational level of the self. Whereas Freud would propose such truth to be founded upon genital sexuality, Ren/Solo initially only seeks information Rey has acquired through visual perception. Yet, as he casually flaunts his power of mental penetration, the struggle between intrusion and resistance takes on a darker tone: it is the scene of a male character assuming the right to speak Rey’s thoughts, to determine her desires, and to authorize her identity – all without her consent.

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(Credit: Yahoo Entertainment)          (Credit: Star Wars Wikia)

The film’s early interrogation of Poe Dameron brings to mind Darth Vader’s similarly situated, though purely physical torture of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Although the methods of, and intentions behind the interrogation are the same, a significant factor distinguishing Poe’s cross-examination from Rey’s interaction with Ren/Solo comes in the form of the dangerous erotic charge inherent in an unbalanced gender dynamic.[2] Seeing the villain’s surprisingly youthful features may have ruined the aura of evil for many a viewer, but this act of unmasking stands as Ren/Solo’s response against Rey’s accusation of “being hunted by a stranger in a mask.” Uncovering his face allows him the authority to directly contradict and negate Rey’s words, and to demand that she, in turn, uncover herself per his demand.

“I’m not telling you anything,” Rey flatly states, to which Ren/Solo scoffs, “We’ll see” – then, in one of the most powerful struggles in a film titled The Force Awakens, instead of bowing under the mental assault, Rey does tell him something: about himself.



“You, you’re afraid…that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!”

Surely, this must have come as a pleasant surprise to viewers well acquainted with former Princess – now General – Leia’s sudden silence after her capture in the lair of Jabba the Hut, and subsequent degradation in the infamous “slave bikini.” In this pivotal moment of struggle for subjectivity, Rey reveals to the audience more about Ren/Solo’s inner conflict than anything about herself.

This mystery and show of power embarrasses Ren/Solo as much as it intrigues him, and he takes it upon himself to reassert some kind of superiority in “offering” his services as her teacher – a telling demand, especially since he hasn’t even gone through the trouble to learn Rey’s name.

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Caption: Someone needs to write a The Force Awakens and Legally Blonde crossover now.

The effacement, silencing, or flattening out of female characters in the grand narrative of the Star Wars canon has unfortunately been all too prevalent in a family that takes its name from Shmi Skywalker, the apparent Virgin Mother of the Chosen One. However, as that title passes onto Rey, unknown as her identity may be at this point in time, one can hope and expect the embodiment of great things to come. May the Force be with you, Rey.

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(Credit: Superhero Hype Forums)

[1] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford UP, 1987): pg. 8, 224.

[2] There are of course fans who note the potential for an equally dangerous, similarly nonconsensual erotic imbalance during the scenes of Poe Dameron’s interrogation, and have begun to create works theorizing on the former friendship between a young Poe and Ben Solo, which can be found at:*s*Kylo%20Ren/works

Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.

Part I: Female Identity, Representation, and the Inscrutable Self (1 March 2016)

“There’s been an Awakening in the Force” – but what kind?

Feeling the franchise fatigue? It’s understandable. Whether through filmic expansions on original texts – Parts 1 & 2, for your viewing pleasure and box office sales – recalling nostalgia for a past childhood – I’m looking at you, Finding Dory (June 2016!) – or in the face of Marvel’s ever-expanding arsenal of white male superhero fantasies – poor Peter Parker, doomed to repeat high school once again – viewers all around are perfectly justified in just waiting for the next recycled sequel to hit Netflix or Redbox.


Presented without comment.


And then, came a day that shook up the status quo; a day to live on forever in the hearts of fans everywhere: December 18, 2015.

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In light of heavy-handed promotion, plenty of folks were warning against Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens fatigue even before the film premiered. At present, however, close to two months and 2.028 billion USD[1] in earnings, fans have already begun to anticipate the next installment, set to premiere in December 2017. Fueled by set photos posted on Twitter, cast lists, and conspiracy theories,[2] the Star Wars fervor continues. Amidst all the rumors, one central mystery inspires and drives forth the bulk of narrative speculation:

Who is Rey?

Bringing in a cast of young, diverse, new characters while reintroducing the old seems like a good way of reinvigorating a franchise arguably dulled by lackluster prequels, although naysayers will have their complaints. Put a lightsaber in the hands of a young woman of mysterious origins and incredible Force sensitivity, and absolutely everyone loses their collective bantha-shit.

Popular theories diverge into two camps:

Whether cast as Luke Skywalker’s illegitimate daughter with yet another absent-possibly-deceased mother, or as Kylo Ren’s long-lost sister (which leads all Reylo shippers into a rather uncomfortable position; a mistake twice made in the same franchise), proponents of this theory usually point to the instant affection expressed by both Han Solo and General Leia Organa upon meeting a young woman who, on all accounts, ought to be a complete stranger. This is, of course, in addition to the unreadable look Luke gives his own maybe-daughter while doing his cool posturing on the edge of a cliff.

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“Luke…you ARE the father!”


Sure, Jedi aren’t supposed to give into strong emotion, much less foster long-lasting relationships outside the realm of fraternal or familial affection, but hey, Obi-Wan Kenobi was quite the suave character. Not to mention, he must have sought out some company whilst in exile on Tatooine.

A third camp proposes Rey might be completely unrelated to the tightly enclosed Skywalker family, and thus unconnected to the rather incestuous network of characters who have been causing imbalances to the Force and disruptions within the galaxy for decades. This minority expresses excitement over the introduction of a new and potentially unaffiliated player to the already crowded chessboard, especially given the evidence of parallel narrative structures inherited from the original trilogy.

Alongside the ongoing primaries, you could make your voice heard! Vote here!

But how does Rey define herself?

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“Classified, huh? Yeah, me too.”


“I’m no one,” she protests to the keen-eyed Maz, who can tell even without her magnifying goggles that Rey’s estrangement from a nuclear family unit matters little in the grand scheme of epic adventure, inherited destiny, and lightsaber-chosen fate. Some quick-witted fans have already made the connection to Odysseus’s claim of being “Nobody,” extending their conjectures about Rey’s role into a full-fledged allegorical analysis following the Greek hero’s epic journey.

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In the words of another modest recluse, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”


But while Rey might feel better off in the comfortable obscurity of being “no one,” the lack of properly signifying markers referencing a stable identity produces both excitement and unease. Who left Rey alone on Jakku as a helpless child? What trauma might have happened in the long stretch of years since that abandonment, and whose return does she so faithfully and tragically anticipate, despite all evidence of permanent separation from her former life?

In her artifact-triggered, Force-induced vision, Rey comes face-to-face with the child-version of herself, wearing similar garb, and even the same hairstyle as her present appearance. While recalling the uncanny encounter of looking at one’s younger self and experiencing one’s memories as in a mirror, the image suggests simultaneous development and stasis. The younger Rey pleads for the return of an unidentified entity, object, or individual – a deliverance still unrealized in the life of the adult, and finally surrendered as an irrecoverable loss. Yet even with this presumably unfiltered glimpse into Rey’s mind and subjective memory, her identity remains murky. Ultimately, such revelations give rise to more questions than they answer.

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Rey as a child, pleading with a departing ship.


As a character composed of complex signifiers that fail to reveal a cohesive legible image, Rey is an inscrutable character. She represents a text both oversaturated with possible meaning from an overflowing archive of materials in the Star Wars universe, and, at this specific liminal moment, an identity constantly under revision.[3] In contrast to George Lucas’s writing of Luke Skywalker as his own self-insert, the potential for Rey’s development appears all the more infinite given the wealth of questions The Force Awakens stubbornly declines to answer.

Certainly, viewers can anticipate the unfolding of Rey’s identity throughout Episodes VIII and IX, and despite the opacity of her narrative backstory, the popular reception of this new heroine has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite numerous instances of the purposeful exclusion of Rey’s character in available toys and merchandise, the revelation of which resulted in the trending of #WheresRey in backlash, there are those who continue to celebrate the opportunity that such inscrutability grants. Filling in narrative gaps with their own relevant meanings has long been a common fan practice, an exercise in claiming representation, and a process of interpretive meaning. Although Rey appears uncertain as to the ins and outs of her own identity, the construction of such as a work-in-progress appears far more relatable than any pre-made Self.

[1] Scott Mendelson, “Star Wars: Force Awakens Passes Avatar Today to be Top Grosser of All Time in U.S.,”, Jan. 6, 2016.

[2] Exhibit A: Jar-Jar Binks’s triumphant return as Supreme Leader Snokes?? (

[3] According to a host of news sources, the postponing of Episode VIII to December of 2017 came as a result of rewrites focusing on characterization  and groundbreaking representation of queer characters.

Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.