The Art Of Acting: Hamlet’s Advice

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

As they say, acting is an art. And Shakespeare had a very clear notion about acting. This can easily be seen in his various plays. But none depicts it as beautifully as his all-time great play Hamlet. How he inspires the players through Hamlet’s advice on the art of acting is clearly an eye-opener for the young and experienced actors alike.

The painting depicts Hamlet trying to show his father's ghost to his mother.
In this 1778 painting, Hamlet tries to show his mother, Gertrude, his father’s ghost.
(Image: Nicolai Abildgaard/Public domain)

Hamlet’s Advice

Hamlet’s advice to the players before enacting a play is very insightful. He says, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue”. This is part of how to read Shakespeare. He further tells that for speaking these lines, one has to be proficient, clear, and compact with what is called “elocution” by old-time teachers. He says, “Do not saw the air too much with your hands, thus, but use it gently”. Hamlet cautions against excess of hand motions, as if more than the words themselves were needed to express the meaning.

He then goes on to complain about how some players indulge in excesses while acting. In his words, “O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.” Hamlet wants to target his dramatic art at the most sophisticated and the most educated and not at the lowbrows and the masses.

He also does not want an excess of comic relief during the play. Hamlet’s advice is to keep the clowns under control. He requests that they stay within the limits of the play only. He says, “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them—for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.”

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Most Important Advice

Portrait of William Shakespeare believed to have been painted in his lifetime.
This was long thought to be the only portrait of Shakespeare painted in his life till another possible portrait was revealed in 2009. (Image: John Taylor[1]Derivative work: Fred the Oyster/Public domain)

And lastly, Hamlet gives his most important theatrical advice. In this, he, and most probably Shakespeare himself, specify the proper method for acting and that is to eventually imitate nature itself. According to Hamlet, “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 any thing so overdone 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 pressure.”

As per Hamlet’s advice, actual acting is the best when it can not be differentiated from nature. This can be a little tricky if pushed too far. If the best player of the play resembles true nature, how can the two be differentiated? As a matter of fact, in the end, is there any difference between acting and reality, between the looks and the reality of a character?

This exact question puzzles Hamlet and bothers him a lot. In an important speech earlier, his mother asks him why his father’s death seems so painful to him? And Hamlet grabs the word ‘seems’ as he protests arduously and says:

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 ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly: these indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Initially, it looks good as Hamlet is not pretending to be in grief but he is actually in grief. But looking at his words carefully: These “seem”, according to him, “for they are actions that a man might play”—which means that Hamlet is not acting. Rather he has “that within which passeth show”, but what does he have within? How can it be seen? How can the inner reality be differentiated from outside looks, specifically when Hamlet’s advice and his own logic is that the best acting is the one that cannot be differentiated from one’s true nature?

Taken too far, Hamlet’s advice of playing suggests that the self is always difficult to find and it is a performance that has no genuine or real character within it. Such ideas can make any man insane. But that Hamlet can sustain these ideas without losing his mind is evidence of his amazing intelligence.

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Hamlet’s Test

Picture of a scene from 'Hamlet' where the queen can be seen consoling Hamlet.
Hamlet’s most important piece of theatrical advice is to imitate nature itself. (Image: Eugène Delacroix/Public domain)

Hamlet uses theatricality as a test of his uncle Claudius’s guilt. After seeing the mousetrap scene, which shows how Claudius killed his brother by pouring poison in the ear of the sleeping king and then marrying his wife after his death, Claudius is forced to disclose his guilt. Both Hamlet and Horatio see this. It is a strong but strange evidence.

Hamlet depends on the looks and acting of guilt to find actual internal guilt. This may be a problematic standard of evidence. But it is clear from this moment on—and this is in the heart of the third act that is generally the most critical part of a Shakespeare play—Hamlet has no doubt about what he wants to do.

Why Does Hamlet Not Take Action?

But, as many readers have noticed, Hamlet still does not take any action. His uncle still lives on for two more acts of the play and a lot of things happen before Hamlet eventually kills him. What is the reason?

The fact is, Hamlet remains unable to act not because he is uncertain or cannot make up his mind or has doubts—he is paralyzed precisely because he is the only character in the play, perhaps in all of Shakespeare, whose mind can penetrate the religious complexities of what he is called upon to do. It’s those religious or theological issues that really make Hamlet such a magnificent play,

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Common Questions about Hamlet’s Advice

Q: What advice does Hamlet give to the players before the play?

Hamlet tells the players, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue”.

Q: What is the reason for Hamlet giving instructions to the players?

The reason Hamlet gives instructions to the players is that he wants them to enact a scene similar to how he thinks his father was killed.
He wants to see how Claudius reacts to the scene.

Q: Why is Hamlet’s speech to the players important?

Hamlet’s speech to the players brings out the importance of how a fabricated reality can bring the actual reality out. This is what he wants from Claudius and hopes that he will see the reflection of Claudius’s evil nature in the play.

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