Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Theme of Acting in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"



Shakespeare is almost unique as a playwright in the fact that he was part of an acting company, meaning that he was writing his plays for specific actors. Indeed, many critics have suggested that, when Polonius says, “I did act Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare knew that the actor who played Caesar (Julius Caesar was allegedly performed not long before Hamlet) would later play the part of Polonius. Others have gone even further to suggest that the actor of Hamlet, who replies with his pun, “It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf,” possibly played Brutus, perhaps prophesising Polonius’s death later on in the play. This is one of many examples that demonstrate Shakespeare’s interest not only in the words and speeches of his plays, but also in their acting and production on the stage. It is not impossible to imagine Shakespeare directing the King’s Men himself, cringing if he saw his masterpieces ruined by terrible acting. Shakespeare’s presence in the theatre and his interest in the art of acting explains the recurrence of the ‘acting’ theme in Hamlet, and in a number of his other plays. King Lear is perhaps the most obvious example: both of Gloucester’s sons, Edgar and Edmund, deceive him at different points in the play. They both put on an act. Just as Edgar is deceptive, Claudius deceives Hamlet and Laertes, and a number of others. Just as Edmund feigns madness and becomes Tom O’Bedlam, so Hamlet puts on his ‘antic disposition’. It is the persuasiveness of Hamlet’s madness, along with his hesitancy, that have led many to suggest that Hamlet would be far more at home in an acting company than on a throne. 

Hamlet clearly demonstrates his acting skills in his deception of almost all the play’s characters. At first, only Horatio and Marcellus are told of Hamlet’s plans to put on his ‘antic disposition’ – everyone else, particularly Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia, is completely fooled. Although we never see it, Hamlet’s madness is perhaps most convincing in his confrontation of Ophelia, which she reports to her father. Hamlet is described as the conventional mad lover: pale, his stockings fouled, his knees shaking, “As if he had been loos├Ęd out of hell…” She goes on to explain that “He raised a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk, / And end his being.” When he departed, “He seemed to find his way without his eyes.” Through his repeated use of the word  ‘seem’, Shakespeare insinuates this idea of appearances: Hamlet is not really mad, he only seems mad; he is only acting. Polonius, also deceived, unfeelingly comments to his daughter: “That hath made him mad.” Gertrude too is fooled, and is eager to discover why her son has changed so much. As well as being able to deceive, Hamlet also subtly ridicules a number of the play’s central characters, particularly Polonius. Thus, when Hamlet enters in Act 2 Scene 2 and greets Polonius as a fishmonger, there is certainly method in his madness, as Polonius later comments. The fishmonger trade was at that time one of the most unglamorous professions, and so it is bound to offend an adviser to the King. Moreover, when Polonius asks him what he is reading, the conversation that ensues is very comical:

                Hamlet: Words, words, words.
                Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
                Hamlet: Between who?
                Polonius: I mean the matter that you read, my lord.

However, Hamlet is not just mocking Polonius: he also subtly expresses his thoughts and his anger. For instance, he observes: “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand,” and this clearly demonstrates the same melancholy and despair that he displays in his soliloquys. Furthermore, as Polonius departs and asks for Hamlet’s leave, Hamlet says to him: “You cannot sir take from me anything that I will no more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life.” Thus, as well as insulting Polonius, Hamlet also uses his madness to express his own melancholy thoughts about life – his replies are, as Polonius observes, pregnant. This does perhaps suggest that Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is, at least at times, not in fact feigned, but real. Is Hamlet actually mad by the end of the play?

Hamlet’s acting skill is also evident in his ability to hide what he knows. In his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of his supposed friends who are under Claudius’s instructions to find out “Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus,” Hamlet knows that they are attempting to spy on him. He realises that they are trying to make him admit that he wishes he were King (“Why then your ambition makes it one;”) but he skilfully sidesteps their probing: “A dream itself is but a shadow.” He goes on to tell them that he “cannot reason,” so that now is not the time to discuss important matters. Indeed, he then explains that he knows they were sent for, and the two men soon admit that they are under Claudius’s instructions. He hides from them the real reason for his sadness (the murder of his father and Claudius’s marriage), and instead presents himself as the mourning son and heartbroken lover, again confirming Polonius’s earlier thoughts:

“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…”

What Hamlet is telling them is all true, but he deceives them in that he hides the real truth. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are easily deceived, and indeed they think that Hamlet’s sadness is caused by Ophelia, as he intended them to think. He tells them: “Man delights me – no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.” Hamlet seems to be controlling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, directing their thoughts in certain ways so that they feed this false idea (that Hamlet’s sadness is only caused by heartbreak) back to Claudius. Indeed, the fact that throughout a lot of the play he hides his knowledge of the murder, shows his skill at masking his knowledge under a veil of madness. His expert trickery is again evident when he tells the two men that Claudius and Gertrude are deceived: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This is contradictory, a clever double-give from Hamlet: he wants them to think he is mad, when he is not. This demonstrates his skilled deception, and thus his ability as an actor.

In the same scene, Hamlet demonstrates his skilful acting in his ability to immediately switch his madness off when the situation demands. Upon the entry of the Players, Hamlet seems completely sane, greeting them: “Y’are welcome, masters, welcome all. I am glad to see thee well. Welcome good friends.” In receiving his old friends, he hides his ‘antic disposition’ and acts normal. However, in the next scene, Act 3 Scene 1, he switches the ‘antic disposition’ back on in the knowledge that Ophelia is being used to spy on him (another instance of the spying theme).  Although Hamlet seems mad in this scene, many have questioned whether it is feigned madness, or whether Hamlet is simply expressing his anger against women. He claims to not have sent Ophelia any letters, and then goes on to tell her: “Get thee to a nunnery - why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Hamlet is disgusted at his family, and indeed the whole world, so much so that he thinks the human race should be left to die out. This anger is real, but it is very possible that he is only expressing this anger so that he seems mad. It is likely that his seemingly mad words to Ophelia are motivated by both his feigned ‘antic disposition’ and his real anger. Nonetheless, Ophelia is tricked, and exclaims: “O heavenly powers, restore him!” She laments that such a noble mind has been “o’erthrown” and that his “unmatched form and feature of blown youth” has been “Blasted with ecstasy”. Although Ophelia is tricked, Claudius is not:

                “Love? His affections do not that way tend;
                Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
                Was not like madness.”

Here, Claudius voices the audience’s thoughts: although Hamlet may seem to be slightly mad, his anger was not feigned, it was real. There really is “something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.” Thus, we can see that, while Hamlet can deceive Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Claudius is not deceived. Hamlet’s acting becomes less convincing when he allows his own emotions to take over – he forgets that he is being spied on, and loses sight of his aim to deceive. As Claudius observes, Hamlet is not mad, he is angry and emotional. Thus, although Hamlet is a good actor, he allows his passion to overtake him.

Not only is Hamlet a good actor, he is also an ardent devotee of the theatre. This love is demonstrated in Act 2 Scene 2 when Hamlet recites a whole 13 lines of a speech from his favourite play. Even Polonius praises Hamlet for his skilled recital:  “’Fore God my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion.” The fact that he knows by heart such a long extract shows his passion for acting. Moreover, he demonstrates his love of the theatre in his beseeching of the First Player: “Prithee say on…” and his scalding Polonius for interrupting: “It shall to th’ barber’s with your beard… He’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps.” Hamlet’s intimacy with the Players (he calls them “good friends”) and his passion for the theatre suggest that he would be well suited to life in an acting company.

Finally, Hamlet would probably not make the best of Kings. His emotional soliloquys show his character to be passionate and scholarly (admittedly good regal attributes), but also hesitant and uncertain (very bad regal attributes). In his third soliloquy Hamlet displays his characteristic indecision: even though he wants to be firm and decisive (he exclaims “Hold, hold, my heart, / And you my sinews grow not instant old / But bear me stiffly up,”) it is his scholarly indecision that leads to his tragic fall. Compared to Claudius’s decisiveness (after discussing his marriage to the queen, he immediately turns to legal matters: “Now follows that you know…”), Hamlet seems weak and lacking in resolve. Claudius, although not a morally good person, is good at ruling a state. Moreover, Hamlet also seems rather weak in his death-wish: as soon as he is presented with any difficulties in his life, he considers giving up on life entirely. A good King would certainly not do this.

Thus, we can see that Hamlet would not be the best of Kings. But would he make a better actor? Along with his skilled deception and his knowledge of the theatre, Hamlet seems to have the sensibilities and passions required for acting. His soliloquys demonstrate a scholarly and yet still sensitive character, surely what is needed in an actor. They need to be able to understand the importance of what they are saying, they need to be able to memorise their lines, and they need to be able to show their passion, all of which Hamlet can do. Therefore, Hamlet would certainly be more suited to a career in acting than in politics. However, whether he would be the most successful of actors is still debatable. He does, at times, seem to let his guise slip, as when he expresses his anger at women to Ophelia. Nonetheless, he is a good actor, particularly in comparison to all the other characters of the play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s spying is immediately discovered by Hamlet; Claudius’s feigned care for Hamlet is obviously false; Polonius’s attempts to discover the reason for Hamlet’s madness are particularly unsubtle. The play is based around this theme of acting, of appearances, and Hamlet is (excepting the real Players) the best actor. Thus, one could very well argue that Hamlet should have been an actor. Perhaps he and Edmund ought to go into the trade together, although they might not always play the central roles!

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