Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains a number of significant references to Rome. Very

early in the play, Horatio declares,

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,

A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,

The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,

Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,

Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,

This sets the scene for a number of other references to Rome, to individual Romans,

and to contemporary plays set in Rome, not least – but not only – Shakespeare’s

own Julius Caesar. These are, I shall argue, constitutive for the meaning of Hamlet

at every level, from the events it depicts to the way in which it chooses to represent

them, and also condition its wider political meanings. Its sustained allusions both to

Roman representational practices and to contemporary protocols for representing

Rome allow Hamlet to focus its audience’s attention on the principal difference

between the classical stage and the early modern one, the diametrically opposed

views on whether violence should be shown or described. This in turn offers an

analogy for exploring whether the public display of violence (which Foucault would

have it was a constitutive element of the early modern experience) has a legitimate

rôle in the state, and, by extension, whether stage plays have a duty to bring issues

to light to the fullest extent that they can, even if, as in ‘The Mousetrap’, this must

perforce be done obliquely.