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‘Caviare to the general’?: Taste, Hearing, and Genre in Hamlet


Much has been written about hearing in Hamlet. Yet this work has overlooked a crucial aspect of the play’s interest in audition—its intervention in a turn-of-the-century contest over how plays should sound, and how audiences should hear them. Hamlet responds directly to attacks, made by Ben Jonson and other playwrights, on revenge tragedy’s rumbling speeches and on the supposedly unthinking, indiscriminate reception they required. Boasting that their cutting-edge comedies introduced a new, trippingly pronounced sound to London’s stages, these playwrights insisted theatergoers hear their works differently by practicing tasteful audition. A play which not only takes hearing as one of its subjects, but which does so from within the genre of revenge, Hamlet questions the viability of Jonsonian reception while at the same time recuperating revenge tragedy from charges of creaking irrelevance. Preoccupied with the social significance of his auditory choices and appreciating most what is “caviare to the general,” Hamlet makes numerous mistakes as a listener. These point the way to an auditory alternative—Horatio’s cautious, conscious hearing, which is more attentive to sense than to sound, or to substance than to style. Ultimately, Hamlet’s investigation of formally specific modes of hearing entails nothing less than the transformation of the revenge tragedy form. From an outmoded but still-popular genre, one traditionally focused on the violent effects of audition and the instability of corporeal and political bodies that signifies, revenge is remade into a genre attuned to the individual’s struggle to protect the self against aural and other onslaughts.

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