Study Guide

Hamlet Art and Culture

By William Shakespeare

Art and Culture

Act I, Scene ii

Why seems it so particular with thee?
'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.

When Gertrude asks Hamlet why he "seems" to be taking the death of his father so personally, he responds that no outward behavior on his part (wearing an "inky cloak," sighing, shedding tears, and so on) can "show" what he truly feels inside. If the "trappings" of grief are like a theatrical performance, as Hamlet suggests here, then performance is ultimately ineffective – an actor could never truly capture the kind of anguish Hamlet feels inside. Of course, this inevitably draws our attention to the fact that Hamlet's lines are being spoken by a stage actor, which makes the entire passage seem self-conscious. Just how powerful is performance? Is it possible for an actor to reproduce a feeling like grief in a realistic way?

Act I, Scene v

How strange or odd some'er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on)

When Hamlet warns his friends that he's going to "put an antic disposition on," he's literally referring to a "clown" or a performer who plays the role of a "grotesque." That means he gets verbal freedom. Like the fool, he can say whatever he wants without getting in trouble. No one holds a crazy man responsible, right?

Act II, Scene ii

I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Hamlet wants the traveling players to put on a play, so when King Claudius watches a murder take place on stage, his emotional response will reveal whether or not he's guilty of murdering Old King Hamlet. This may sound a bit wacky to us, but Elizabethans believed that theater was a very powerful place. (If you've ever cried all the way through a Nicholas Sparks movie, you probably agree.)

It could also be dangerous. In 1601, the Earl of Essex's rebel faction asked Shakespeare's theater company to perform Richard II (a play in which Henry Bolingbroke usurps the throne from the corrupt King Richard II). The very next day, Essex stormed the queen's court. Okay, sure, he failed. But the point is that the play seems to have gotten them riled up enough to actually move.

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 conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With 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 passion
That I have?

If the player can conjure up such intensity and "passion" for a fictional character, why can't Hamlet move himself to action against the man who killed his father? By the end of the passage, Hamlet tries to place himself in the position of this stage actor and wonders what the player would do if he had Hamlet's "motive" and "cue for passion" (that is, the knowledge that Claudius has killed his father). In other words, maybe we could all benefit from a few acting lessons.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Nay, their endeavor keeps in the wonted
pace. But there is, sir, an aerie of children, little
eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are
most tyrannically clapped for 't. These are now the
fashion and so berattle the common stages (so they
call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid
of goose quills and dare scarce come thither.

Time for Shakespeare to get in a little contemporary dig at the fashion for children's acting companies, which posed a pretty significant threat to adult theater groups. Rosencrantz calls child actors "eyases" (young hawks), suggesting that these kid actors were threatening the livelihood of the adults. (Just wait ten years, guys: they'll be racking up DUIs and checking into rehab, like all child stars.)

Act III, Scene ii

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced
it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth
it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and
beget a temperance that may give it smoothness (3.2.1-8).

Everyone—we mean, no one—loves an armchair director. Here, Hamlet "helps" the actors prep by telling them to hold back. More cable drama, and less daytime soap.

Madam, how like you this play?

The lady protests too much, methinks.

O, but she'll keep her word.

Dude, Hamlet, lay off your mom. At this point in the action, the Player Queen has professed over and over again that she will not remarry after her husband, the Player King, dies. Gertrude says here that the character "protests too much" and Hamlet, as usual, finds a way too insult his mother. The faithful Player Queen, he insists, will "keep her word," unlike Gertrude, who Hamlet sees as unfaithful and adulterous. In this case, life definitely doesn't imitate art.

[…] o'erstep not he 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 time
his form and pressure. (3.2.20-26)

Hamlet wants the player's performance to be authentic, as though it were holding a "mirror up to nature." This idea about theater being a kind of "mirror" also seems to be in keeping with Hamlet's belief that the play will reflect King Claudius' guilt. And it does. So what kind of emotions is Hamlet reflecting back to us?

He poisons him i' the garden for's estate. His
name's Gonzago: the story is extant, and written in
choice Italian. You shall see anon how the
murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife.

The king rises.

Veeeery interesting. Claudius looks pretty guilty when he gets up and leaves the room after he sees the on-stage poisoning. Looks like there's something to Hamlet's theory of theater, after all.

Act V, Scene ii

Not from his
Had it the ability of life to thank you.
He never gave commandment for their death.
But since, so jump upon this bloody question,
You from the Polack wars, and you from England,
Are here arrived, give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view,
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th' inventors' heads. All this can I
Truly deliver.

At this moment, after the final bloodbath, Horatio and Fortinbras call for the dead bodies to be placed "high on a stage" to be viewed by the "noblest" "audience" while Horatio tells everybody what's gone down in Elsinore. If we think about it, Horatio and Fortinbras basically turn the royal court into a giant theater. These actions suggest that theater can be a kind of tribute to the dead, like a funeral service). It can also be a place where memory is preserved indefinitely. Hamlet will never be forgotten —he'll live on as long as his story is told. (So, 400+ years… and counting.)