Acting & Theatre in Hamlet – Quotes & Analysis

“Seems madam? nay it is, I know not seems.’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,Nor customary suits of solemn black,Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,Together with all forms, moods, shapes of griefThat can denote me truly. These indeed seem,For they are actions that a man might play, But I have that within which passes show —These but the trappings and the suits of woe.” — Hamlet, Act I Scene 2 > Hamlet’s repetition of “seems” emphasises the sense of confusion over what is real and what is not. Hamlet resents the fact that the court is more preoccupied with appearances than with realities.> Hamlet’s “customary suits of solemn black” are implicitly compared to dramatic costumes (“the trappings and and the suits of woe”); “actions that a man might play” is another reference to theatre. They ask the audience to reconsider how they think about the relationship between the costume and the character, outward appearances and interior truths, and the open-ended question is further complicated by the knowledge that although Hamlet is protesting that he has “that within which passes show” he is also a character being played by an actor.
“Remember thee!Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seatIn this distracted globe.” — Hamlet, Act I Scene 5 The globe refers to Hamlet’s skull, and to the world in general, and to the Globe Theatre where Hamlet’s being performed. Even if Shakespeare wasn’t technically allowed to openly comment on contemporary political events or religious controversies, he threw in a ton of in-jokes referring to the London theatrical world in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There’s his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in II.2 about the “little eyases” and his exchange with Polonius about Julius Caesar; references to Fortune have been interpreted as jokes about the Fortune Theatre (run by Shakespeare’s rivals, built c.1600); he even (mis)quotes an old (c.1591) play, The True Tragedy of Richard III, in Act III Scene 2 (“the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge” – the word “revenge” appears sixteen times in the original seventeen-line speech, it’s impressively terrible).
“… And indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to be a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” — Hamlet, Act II Scene 2 > “this goodly frame, this most excellent canopy, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” are references to the Globe’s roof, as the roof of a playhouse was called the “heavens”. So you could argue that contextually the theatre-as-the-world metaphor is already there, Shakespeare just makes it particularly clear in Hamlet. > Hamlet sees the world as a theatre – this is why he calls the Ghost “this fellow in the cellarage” (the cellarage was the bit below the stage where the actor playing the Ghost would have hidden). You can link this both to the appearance/reality theme (everyone’s acting a role) and to the metatheatre motif (for Hamlet and the world of the play, the world literally is a theatre, the whole action takes place on one stage – the Globe). > You might be able to mention psychoanalytic critics here – Hamlet’s way of speaking (he’s praising the world and the nature of man but he still can’t stop seeing it as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable) is really typical of depression. And this is a bit of an analytical stretch but it’s interesting how Shakespeare associates this mentality with the theatre.
“He that plays the king shall be welcome, his majesty shall have tribute of me.” — Hamlet, Act II Scene 2 Hamlet treats the Player King with a lot more respect than he does the actual king – i.e. Hamlet respects actors more than hypocrites.
“Now I am alone.O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this player here,But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,Could force his soul so to his own conceitThat from her working all his visage wanned,Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,A broken voice, and his whole function suitingWith forms to his conceit? And all for nothing? For Hecuba!What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,That he should weep for her? What would he do,Had he the motive and the cue for passionThat I have? He would drown the stage with tears,And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,Make mad the guilty and appal the free,Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeedThe very faculties of eyes and ears.” — Hamlet, Act II Scene 2 > Hamlet’s just seen the First Player acting the part of the revenger Pyrrhus, and the First Player does “bereaved son about to go on roaring rampage of revenge and stab everyone” much better than Hamlet himself does. Hamlet’s upset that he can’t be more authentic than the actor, but then the irony is that Hamlet is also being played by an actor. > This whole soliloquy’s really metatheatrical. Maybe on some subconscious level Hamlet is aware of being in a revenge tragedy – it’s a popular genre, he knows how it works, he knows how the revenger acts and he knows how it all ends – but he can’t act the revenger (the role he’s predestined, [waves Calvinism flag], to play).
“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and feature.”— Hamlet, Act III Scene 2 > Directing the play’s a big deal for Hamlet. It gives him control of /a/ (if not /his/) reality and allows him to determine what happens and how it happens – which so far [waves Calvinism flag again] he’s had little control over. > So Hamlet’s fussy about acting because he is also acting – putting on his antic disposition, and acting the revenger – but we can also interpret this as Shakespeare’s own voice, giving his own views on acting (some critics interpret Hamlet’s lines about not letting the clowns speak more than is set down for them is a reference to Shakespeare’s falling-out with his company’s clown).
[The Mousetrap, Act III Scene 2] The King and Queen’s speeches use circumlocution, a medieval rhetoric device for tension & comic effect. This and the traditional revenge tragedy style mark the play out as being old-fashioned – possibly linking it to Old Hamlet.
“You are as good as a chorus my lord.” — Ophelia, Act III Scene 2 The chorus, in classical drama, would sing to help the audience understand the (mimed) performance. Ophelia’s implying that Hamlet acts as an interpreter between the theatre and “reality” (… which is also a theatre).
HAMLET: Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me, with two provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir?HORATIO: Half a share.HAMLET: A whole one I. By the end of The Mousetrap Hamlet is seeing himself as a player, a sharp contrast to the “that within which passes show” Hamlet of I.2 [waves character development flag] – Hamlet-as-revenger and Hamlet-as-player are inextricably linked.
“Give order that these bodiesHigh on a stage be placèd to the view,And let me speak to th’yet unknowing worldHow these things came about. So shall you hearOf carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,And in this upshot, purposes mistook Fallen on th’inventors’ heads. All this can ITruly deliver.” — Horatio, Act V Scene 2 Horatio suggests the court be turned into a sort of theatre to tell the story of “how these things came about”. It sort of rounds off the theatre motif, gives it a kind of circularity and sense of inevitability that’s heightened by our knowledge, watching or reading the play, that the events have been enacted over and over again for four hundred years. Horatio might as well be speaking to the audiences as well as to Fortinbras.