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Chapter 1

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The source of Hamlet’s “croaking Raven doth bellow for revenge” line.

In the midst of the mousetrap play, Hamlet exhorts the Lucianus player to stop with his overacted dumb-showisms and get on with things, with the line “Begin, murtherer, leave thy damnable faces and begin. Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.”

Richard Simpson pointed out in 1874 that the line is a compressed mimicking of a speech (reproduced below) from The True Tragedy of Richard III, written in 1591-2 and perhaps revived by the Admiral's Men around the time of Hamlet's debut.

By alluding to that speech, Shakespeare succeeds in making (at least) four (incredibly involved) jokes, all at once.

  • As explained in Appendix B of The Undiscovered Country, it contributes to the extended takeoff on Edward Alleyn and the Admiral's Men that J. D. Wilson describes.

  • It perfectly echoes the Hamlet and Gonzago theme of a stolen crown (which is also echoed in the allusion to Alphonsus, King of Arragon; again, see Appendix B).

  • It replies tellingly to Thomas Lodge’s ridicule of the Ur-Hamlet in his 1596 Wit’s Miserie and the World’s Madness: "the ghost which cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, ‘Hamlet, revenge.’” ("Revenge" appears fifteen times in sixteen lines!)

  • It's a beautiful ridicule, in all its purpleness, of the overblown verse that the players (and Hamlet) are so fond of.

Meethinkes their ghoasts comes gaping for revenge,
Whom I have slaine in reaching for a Crowne.
Clarence complaines, and crieth for revenge.
My Nephues bloods, Revenge, revenge, doth crie,
The headlesse Peeres comes preasing for revenge,
And every one cries, let the tyrant die.
The Sunne, by day shines hotely for revenge.
The Moone by night eclipseth for revenge.
The stars are turnd to Comets for revenge,
The Planets change their coursies for revenge.
The birds sign not, but sorrow for revenge.
The silly lambs sit bleating for revenge.
The screeking Raven sits croking for revenge.
Whole heads of beasts come bellowing for revenge.
And all, yea all the world I thinke,
Cries for revenge, and nothing but revenge.
But to conclude, I have deserved revenge.

--Malone Society reprint (Oxford, 1929), lines 1880-1896

In his footnote where he quotes this passage (in What Happens in Hamlet), Dover Wilson can’t resist reprinting the comments of M. C. Bradbrook, and I can't resist reprinting his reprints:

She calls it “probably the most prodigious piece of epiphora in the English drama,” and “a part to tear a cat in.”

I couldn't agree more.

--Steve Roth