Shakespeare’s plays may seem impenetrable to many, but identifying common motifs can make them more accessible. These include the play-within-a-play, naturalistic language, and dialogue that reflects on the art of acting itself. All of this can be seen in Hamlet, making it the perfect play to analyze.
The Theater Shakespeare Wrote For
A young prince, dressed all in black, sits on the ground beside an open grave. In his hand, he holds a skull, and as he stares into its lifeless sockets, he delivers a speech about the fleeting nature of life and the fear of what comes after.
The play is Hamlet, and it is the magnificent graveside scene that opens the fifth and final act of that play. It’s a moment of great staged drama—the young prince, the black costume, the graveyard, the skull, the speech; this is one of the iconic moments on the stage that mark Shakespeare’s plays.
This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
How would they have been staged and what would they have looked like to Shakespeare’s audience around 1600? Knowing the sort of stage he was writing for can help us understand how his plays work, even today.
A Man of the Theater
William Shakespeare was a man of the theater. For over half his life, the theater was his livelihood: Shakespeare was simultaneously a playwright, an actor, and also a shareholder in his theatrical company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then later, The King’s Men. As a shareholder, he received a part of the profits from every performance.
As far as we know, he was the only playwright to fill these other roles. He knew everything about the world of the theater and how to exploit its possibilities to the fullest.
Learn more about three important moments of religious contemplation within Hamlet
Shakespeare was a businessman as well as an artist, and his business was the theater. Throughout his career in London’s theatrical world, he prospered. By the early 1600s, he was able to buy land near his Stratford home by the hundreds of acres and purchase the family coat-of-arms that his father had longed for.
Hamlet’s Play Within a Play
Returning to his most famous of the plays, Hamlet, if we look at the heart of that play in Act 3, we find a play being performed within the larger play we are watching.
Hamlet continues to doubt the words of his father’s ghost, who has told him that his uncle Claudius killed his father and demands that Hamlet exact vengeance for this.
The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil…[who] abuses me to damn me.
Hamlet needs to test his uncle’s guilt, but how can he do it?
He decides to perform a play before the king in which the murder the ghost reported is acted out. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet concludes, “Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
The whole drama of the play turns on … a play. Claudius’s very conscience will be revealed by his watching a performance.
It’s as if Shakespeare suggests that how we respond to a drama tells us much about our character—it catches our conscience. This is a key tool for us to employ as we study Shakespeare: We must watch for the presence of the play within the play. Some version of this happens in many of Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s crucial because it demonstrates to us how Shakespeare thought of drama.
So what do we see in the play-within-the-play in Hamlet? It’s no ordinary play. Called “The Murder of Gonzago,” it has a plot strikingly similar to Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet.
Hamlet has asked the players if he can insert his speech into the play. He says,
You could for a need study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in’t, could you not?
Hamlet is both the producer of this play and, in a sense, the playwright. As the performance goes on, Hamlet explains to the audience what the play means, who the characters are, and what the plot is, as if he is the director. Before the play begins, we see Hamlet talking privately with the players and telling them how he wants them to speak his lines.
Naturalism in Shakespeare’s Language
As we look at Hamlet’s directions, it is hard not to think that this is how Shakespeare himself wanted his plays to be performed.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.
Hamlet’s first piece of advice not only urges that most fundamental of skills for an actor—clarity and alacrity of speech—but it even exemplifies those traits “trippingly on the tongue”.
He then speaks up for the poets, urges the actors to let the words convey the meaning, and to avoid absurd over-gestures and excess of motion, stating,
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently … you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
He then warns against working too hard to please the groundlings, those who have paid the least to see the play and are, he claims, “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.” The point is not to overdo it—let it be natural. As Hamlet explains in the most famous part of this speech:
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.
“The mirror up to nature”—this sums up the clues of this whole episode, and it’s as if Shakespeare is handing us a major tool for understanding his theater. Shakespeare’s art, at least as Hamlet understands it, consists of mirroring reality, in mirroring or representing “nature,” the world as it naturally is. This is what we call mimesis, or imitation.
When we read or watch a Shakespeare play, we must read the language and imagine the performance as having a natural quality as trying to imitate life. This doesn’t mean the plays always have to seem realistic—A Midsummer Night’s Dream has fairies in it, Macbeth and Hamlet have ghosts, The Tempest has spirits, and many of the comedies depend upon absurdly unrealistic plots. But it means the acting should be natural, not overdone or ridiculous; the goal is to offer an image of what our own life is like in some sense.
This also gives us a crucial clue. One of the most important tools for really making sense of what’s happening in a Shakespeare play is to read the words out loud instead of just watching them on the page, which helps to make sense of those words. Lines that on the page might seem odd or confusing will, when reading aloud, suddenly reveal their meanings, particularly if we combine the reading with a natural sense of what the characters would be doing with their bodies alongside the words—in other words, how they would be acting.
Shakespeare’s Cues to Actors
Here, Hamlet’s words tell us how to read Shakespeare: naturally, without affection or undue emotion, or what we might call over-acting. Temperate, smooth, not overdone, suiting the word to the action, this is not unlike what the poet William Wordsworth, nearly 200 years later, calls “the real language of men,” meaning the way we naturally talk, without flowery poetic diction or affected airs.
To me and many contemporary actors and directors, Shakespeare is best read in one’s natural accent. I don’t let my students adopt an English accent or try to sound like Sir Laurence Olivier to make the language “higher” than it normally is. When I’m reading Shakespeare, I speak the way I speak, trying to inform each word with as much understanding of what is happening on the stage as I can.
This is the same approach used by the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia, who strive to reproduce Shakespeare in his original staging conditions as much as they can. Their actors offer a model of how clear Shakespeare can be to an audience when presented with understanding and a sense of the appropriate action for the words.
To be honest, there is no way to know if this is Shakespeare speaking through Hamlet, though it’s tempting to look at this and assume this is how Shakespeare felt actors should express themselves. This is partly because it fits well with many of Shakespeare’s other ideas.
It’s also impossible to know if this description is illustrative of the whole Elizabethan age, or if it goes against the dominant modes. As one scholar remarked in the mid-20th century, “there is extant not a single piece of analytical description of Elizabethan acting in general, or of an Elizabethan actor in a particular role” (Harbage 693).
We can only speculate on how Shakespeare’s contemporaries might have staged their plays, based on journal entries, illustrations, letters, and the like. But what is crucial to note here is the emphasis placed by Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most theatrical character, on matching performance with nature, as if the stage could reveal to us the deepest truths of our interior selves.
Common Questions About Analyzing Hamlet
Hamlet is a bitter character full of disgust for his mother and hatred of his scheming uncle. Hamlet is complex and lashes out at times while hesitating at others.
Hamlet has major issues with himself. He is paralyzed with indecision and suicidal over his lack of action. He is constantly comparing himself with the first Player and finding himself lacking.
Hamlet’s indecision to act and hesitation is his downfall. Every action he does take is a subterfuge for potentially taking care of business, which he does not do on any occasion.