Hamlet II.ii.332: “Their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation”
Many commentators have discussed what “innovation” caused the players’ “inhibition” in Hamlet (II.ii.332). The annotations in critical editions almost all assume that a contemporary allusion is at play—that the innovation refers to a change in playing practices or some rebellious activity in 1600 or 1601, and that the inhibition speaks of an inhibition of one or more actual playing companies in that period.
None of these theories has achieved general acceptance, because they are all quite contestable on quite reasonable grounds.
David Farley-Hills has suggested a simpler and more reasonable explanation—or the beginning of one, at least—that works cogently within the play, and requires no reference to external events. His explanation is especially appealing given Shakespeare’s almost-universal avoidance of clearly identifiable topical allusions. (The reference to little eyases is perhaps the most notable exception, which is probably why scholars have consistently looked outside the play to explain Rosencrantz’s innovation/inhibition line.) In Farley-Hill’s words:
It is much more likely that this part of the conversation between Hamlet and Rosencrantz does not refer to contemporary England at all, but to the requirements of the plot where the ‘innovation’ would be the political crisis caused by King Hamlet’s recent death. It would clearly have been the kind of prudent move one would expect from Claudius to ‘inhibit’ the city players during the crisis in order to forestall unwanted comment. This would also explain why Q2, the ‘authorized’ version of the play published in 1604, while it omits all reference to the now passé war of the theaters, keeps the earlier lines referring to the ‘innovation’ and the reasons why the troupe has to gone on its travels. Clearly Shakespeare felt that this passage was germane to the plot, whereas the jokes about the ‘little eyeases’ had ceased to be topical by 1604 and so had lost their point. —Shakespeare and the Rival Playwrights (London, 1990), 9.
There are some debatable assumptions regarding Hamlet’s textual history underlying this discussion, but the central point is promising—that (unlike the seemingly direct allusion to the Children of the Chapel) “innovation” refers to something within the play, not to a contemporary event.
It is unlikely, though, that “the late innovation” refers to King Hamlet’s death and Claudius’ accession. Several commentators have pointed out that when Shakespeare uses “innovation” it’s always in the context of treason and rebellion. The other three usages in the corpus (1H4 5.1, Cor. 3.1, Oth. 2.3) couple it with the following words: fickle changelings, poor discontents, craftily qualified, hurlyburly, insurrection, pell-mell havoc and confusion, traitorous, and foe to the public weal.
The audience knows, of course, that the real innovation was Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet, and his taking of the crown. So there’s irony at play here (whether intended or not). But Rosencrantz isn’t in on the joke; he must be referring to some other innovation. The most obvious reference is to the threatened rebellion against Danish dominion by Fortinbras and his “lawless resolutes” (I.i.98). (“Lawless” is quite in keeping with the language Shakespeare regularly associates with “innovation.”)
Harold Jenkins is I think singular among editors in raising this possibility, but he at the same time dismisses it, in a passing comment within his long note on the line: “Unless Fortinbras’s enterprise’ should be thought to qualify, [the event being referred to] is not easily traceable in the plot of the play.” (Arden II ed. 1982, 471.) But stay; why goest thou by so fast? Fortinbras’ raising of troops to take back the subject lands very much qualifies as the event being referred to.
There is a pervasive sense in the play of barely suppressed rebellion, whispered scuttlebutt, and wicked rumor. Less than a hundred lines into the opening scene, that atmosphere is explained as being a result of Fortinbras’ threatened attacks on Denmark. Marcellus asks: (I.i.70–78)
Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week,
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-laborer with the day:
Who is’t that can inform me?
Bernardo and Marcellus—officers, not just soldiers—have to ask what the sudden and hurried arming is about. And their allegiances are so uncertain that they don’t know who to ask. (Prince Hamlet’s college friend?) This is emphasized by the repetitive “tell me he that knows” and “Who is’t that can inform me” in the first and last lines of the passage.
Horatio explains what Fortinbras has been up to in a fairly lengthy speech, condensed here to highlight the atmosphere in Denmark (I.i.79–103).
“That can I,/At least the whisper goes so;.../...young Fortinbras,/...Hath.../Shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes/...to some enterprise/...which is no other,/.../But to recover of us, by strong hand/And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands.”
This threatened insurrection by Fortinbras, says Horatio, is “The source of this our watch, and the chief head/Of this post-haste and romage in the land” (I.i.106–107). It’s natural in these conditions that Claudius or Polonius (or Elizabeth or Burleigh) would inhibit the public theaters. They certainly wouldn’t take kindly to special performances of Richard II.
Two months later, even after the ambassadors’ successful mission to restrain Fortinbras, Claudius depicts the ongoing atmosphere of veiled slander and imminent unrest in the land, as displayed by his words following Polonius’ death (IV.i.38–44):
Come, Gertrude, we’ll call up our wisest friends;
And let them know both what we mean to do,
And what’s untimely done: so, haply, slander,
Whose whisper o’er the world’s diameter,
As level as the cannon to his blank
Transports his poison’d shot, may miss our name,
And hit the woundless air.
Two months after that, Horatio makes clear that people are still whispering. In convincing Gertrude to speak to the mad Ophelia, he says, “‘Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew/Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (IV.v.14–15). Claudius can apparently still feel it as well; the people, he says, are “muddied/Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers.” (IV.v.81–82) He says that Laertes (IV.v.90–94):
. . . wants not buzzers to infect his ear
With pestilent speeches of his father’s death,
Wherein necessity, of matter beggar’d,
Will nothing stick our person to arraign
In ear and ear.
In Q1’s corrupt if revealing text, Claudius says of Laertes at this point, “he hath halfe the heart of all our Land.” (TLN 2825) So the player who played Marcellus opposite Shakespeare’s ghost—who was among the first to speak on stage of the “sweaty haste” in the land—that player, at least, interpreted the atmosphere as highly volatile and rebellious. That atmosphere is made manifest when Laertes arrives heading a riotous mob (IVv.102–109):
...young Laertes, in a riotous head,
O’erbears your officers. The rabble call him lord,
They cry, “Choose we, Laertes shall be king!”
Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds,
“Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!”
It’s clear from this outbreak that even in the opening court scene four months before, Claudius’ position was not secure—that not everyone had, with Polonius, “freely gone/With this affair along” (I.ii.15–16). As Hamlet says, there were “those that would make mouths at him while my father lived” (II.ii.364–65). (The association of “make mouths” with players is alluring.)
So it seems reasonable to see Rosencrantz’s “innovation” as referring to Fortinbras’ rising, especially given the ongoing sense of rebellion in the land. Much in the play supports it, and nothing that I can find calls it false. It also provides a simple and satisfying explanation of the players’ inhibition.
But was Claudius responsible for the inhibition, as Farley-Hills suggests? There’s no evidence for it in the text; nowhere does Claudius evince any unease with the players. He actually replies quite enthusiastically when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report Hamlet’s interest in them: “it doth much content me/To hear him so inclin’d./Good gentlemen, give him a further edge,/And drive his purpose into these delights.”
Polonius, on the other hand, is less sanguine. He speaks enthusiastically when introducing them, and suggests his own familiarity with the troupe, actually hamming it up himself: “The best actors in the world...scene individable, or poem unlimited...” (II.ii.396–400). But he also puts across no little disdain: “I will use them according to their desert” (II.ii.527). And he’s keenly aware of how insurrection can be played on the stage: “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was kill’d i’ th’ Capitol; Brutus kill’d me” (III.ii.103–4). Given his attitude, his apparent position as the leading functionary of the realm, and his constant Burleigh-esque machinations, Polonius would be a likely inhibitor.
It’s interesting in this light to look at the complex (and for editors troublesome) quibble in Polonius’ announcement of the players: “Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light, for the law of writ and the liberty: these are the only men.” (II.ii.400–403). (This only sixty lines after Rosencrantz’s “inhibition.”) The punctuation is especially problematic here, but Q2 and F1 are almost the same, and offer little help. Q1’s rendition is perhaps illuminating: “Seneca cannot be too heauy, nor Plato [sic.] <g> too light:/For the law hath writ those are the onely men.” (TLN 1450–51). The hard stop after “light” makes the sense much clearer than the fairly nonsensical comma in F1/Q2. Likewise for the missing stop before “those are the onely men.”
The Q1 actor/reporter, with his intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan theater scene, took the line to mean that this was the only company allowed to play—an interesting take probably influenced by the Chamberlain’s recent (June, 1600) enfranchisement, with the Admiral’s, as the only allowed public companies in London. While most would say this is one of the many erroneous interpretations by Hamlet’s first editor, it shows that one quite knowledgeable contemporary associated Polonius’ line with playing companies’ “liberties” and inhibitions. Given the arguments made here, I suggest that we would be judicious to follow suit in making that association.
Rosencrantz’s allusion is certainly informed by the various innovations and sometimes-resulting inhibitions on public playing in late sixteenth-century England. Audiences would have recognized the pattern from contemporary life. But I would suggest that the passage is not referring to any particular Elizabethan innovation or inhibition. Rather, the innovation refers to the rising of Fortinbras and his lawless resolutes. The inhibition, whoever imposed it, was in response to that rising, and the general air of rebellion in Denmark., Editors might consider annotating future editions to that effect.