Hamlet and the Snare of Scandal

Abstract

The well-known “dram of eale” textual crux found in the second quarto of Hamlet can be resolved or better understood by reading the crux’s final word, “scandal,” as a verb used in its doctrinal sense. Drawn from the Greek skandalon, the term “scandal” grew in controversial importance around 1604, as its doctrinal meaning—which emphasized the spiritual risks of unseen mechanical traps, rather than harm to public reputation—was increasingly used by nonconformists to describe the idolatrous dangers of religious ceremonies and devotional objects. The availability of wire mousetraps around this time may have helped lend such metaphors new purchase. Shakespeare encountered scandal’s doctrinal meaning in his reading, and he employs it in Edward III, when Warwick describes himself as a spirit “from the court of hell” sent to be the “scandalous solicitor” of his own child. A line of development links Samuel Daniel’s “Complaint of Rosamond” to Shakespeare’s Edward III and Hamlet, with these texts all expressing a strong conventional association among scandal, doubt, and corruption—an association also found in Protestant commentaries on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Thus, the crux at 1.4.36–38 is neither misprinted nor unfinished; rather, its use of scandal both presents and describes the entering ghost of Hamlet’s father, enacting the kind of perilous stopping or entrapment described in seventeenth-century treatises on scandal. Key to understanding this famous crux, the politically charged concept of scandal is also relevant to Hamlet and the revenge tragedy tradition more broadly.