Much Virtue in O-Oh: A Case Study


  • Alan C. Dessen University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill



Shakespeare, Middleton, Fletcher, Massinger, stage directions, stage conventions, theatrical vocabulary, early modern, renaissance, English, stage, performance conventions


The ‘O, o, o, o’ that follows Hamlet’s ‘The rest is silence’ in Shakespeare's first folio has often been derided, but this signal is found in five other Shakespeare plays and in the words of dramatists as varied as Jonson, Middleton, Fletcher, Massinger, and Brome to indicate that a figure is dying, mortally wounded, or sick, or to generate a comic effect. Shakespeare was adept at using the tools at hand, but to understand his distinctive implementation of those tools requires a working knowledge of the theatrical vocabulary shared at that time by playwrights, players, and playgoers.  

Author Biography

Alan C. Dessen, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Alan C. Dessen ( is a Peter G. Phialas professor emeritus in the department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of eight books, four of them with Cambridge University Press: Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters (1984); Recovering Shakespeare’s Theatrical Vocabulary (1995); Rescripting Shakespeare (2002); and, co-authored with Leslie Thomson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642 (1999). In 2005 he gave the annual British Academy Shakespeare lecture. Between 1994 and 2001 he was the director of ACTER (A Center for Teaching, Education, and Research), a program (now renamed Actors from the London Stage) which brings groups of five British actors for one-week residencies at U.S. college campuses. From 1994 and 2009 he was editor or co-editor of the 'Shakespeare Performed' section of Shakespeare Quarterly.


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Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto, ed. Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir (Berkeley, 1981).

Riverside edition, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1997).
Hamlet, ed. G. R. Hibbard, (Oxford, 1987), 352.

Hamlet Works

E. A. J. Honigmann, ‘Re-enter the Stage Direction: Shakespeare and Some Contemporaries,’ Shakespeare Survey 29 (1976), 123.

Gary Taylor, Shakespeare Reshaped 1606-1623 (Oxford, 1993), 248.

Third Edition of Annals of English Drama 975-1700, ed. Alfred Harbage, rev. S. Schoenbaum, rev. Sylvia Stoler Wagonheim (London, 1989)

Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thomson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama (Cambridge, 1999).

Alan C. Dessen, Recovering Shakespeare’s Theatrical Vocabulary (Cambridge, 1995)

Terence Hawkes, That Shakespeherian Rag: essays on a critical process (London, 1986), 73-4.

Martin Coyle, “’O, o, o, o’: Hamlet Again”