When we think of Hamlet we often think of misery, melancholy, death, dismay and destruction. While all of those things certainly are quite high on the billing, if we look around there’s actually quite a few light-hearted, funny moments. In the speech we’re going to explore today we find just that. This is a speech I would highly encourage any actor to learn, or at the very least read. Because its lessons still ring true today, some 400 years later. This is Hamlet’s advice to the players.
Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. Once regarded as being a high flying, intelligent renaissance man of sorts, when we step foot into his life we find him at his lowest point. His Father, King Hamlet, has recently died, and his Fathers brother, Claudius, has taken his place on the throne, and in his marriage, quickly marrying his deceased brother’s wife and queen, Gertrude. Hamlet, understandably, is still grieving the loss of his father, and can’t seem to understand why everyone around him seems to have moved on so fast. At the start of the play, on a cold night in Elsinore, Hamlet’s closest friend encounters the Ghost of King Hamlet along with sentries Marcellus and Bernardo, and the three decide to tell the Prince as soon as possible. And so Hamlet goes to see the ghost of his father and when he does, the ghost tells him that it was his Uncle, Claudius who killed him, and demands that he avenge him. Hamlet agrees to do so, and tells Horatio and the sentries that he will from now on feign madness, and that they must keep his secret.
Some days later Hamlet’s school friends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, unbeknownst to Hamlet, by order of the King and Queen to investigate his erratic behaviour. Hamlet greets them warmly, but figures out quickly their ulterior motives. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that they’ve brought with them a troupe of actors. He asks them to deliver a speech about Queen Hecuba and King Priam and they happily oblige. Blown away by their performance, and pondering on how human beings can conjure emotion from nothing, Hamlet decides to stage a play called “The Murder of Gonzalo”. A play that depicts a death not dissimilar to the death of King Hamlet, and to gauge King Claudius reaction and to see if he is guilty.
Later down the line, Hamlet and the Players are rehearsing for their performance to the court when Hamlet decides to give the Players some acting advice…
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
had spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much – 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. O, it offends me to the soul to
see 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. I could have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant – it out-
Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.
I warrant your honour.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own
discretion be your tutor. 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
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. Now this
overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the
unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve,
the censure of the which one must in your allowance
o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players
that I have seen play and heard others praise – and that
highly – not to speak it profanely, that neither having
the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian,
pagan nor no man have so strutted and bellowed that I
have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made
men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity
I hope we have reformed that indifferently with
O, reform it altogether – and 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. That’s villainous and
shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.
Go, make you ready.
lief, had as
old form: liue
should like just as much
old form: vse
treat, deal with, manage
self-control, calm behaviour, moderation
beget (v.), past form begot
obtain, develop, nurture
passionate outburst, emotional passage
old form: Pery-wig-pated
bewigged, wearing a wig
boisterous, noisy, unruly
audience standing in a theatre courtyard
old form: capeable
appreciative of, able to take in
old form: o’re-doing
noisy and overbearing character in mystery plays
in the Bible, a Judean king, portrayed in medieval mystery plays as a wild and angry figure
movement, demeanour, gesture
old form: modestie
moderation, restraint, discipline
point at issue, matter in hand
physical appearance, bodily shape, looks
old form: Scorne
impression, stamp, image
old form: forme
image, likeness, shape
come off (v.)
turn out, result
old form: tardie
old form: vnskilfull
undiscerning, ignorant, uneducated
assessment, opinion, judgement, criticism
old form: o’reway
outweigh, exceed, prevail over
acknowledgement, admission, confirmation
old form: speake
give an account of, report, describe
ordinary person, normal human being
old form: Iouerney-men
common workman, hireling
unresponsive, dull, apathetic
note, jot, write
clothes, clothing, dress
writing tablet, memo pad, notebook
lack, need, be without
badge, emblem [= cognizance, in heraldry] blabber (v.)
five-step capering dance
Say the lines, I’m begging you, as I said them to you, with clarity. If you’re going to perform like so many other modern actors, I might as well get the town crier to do it. And don’t flail your arms around all over the place but, rather, gesture gently. If you want to convey a storm of passion, you must do so with a sense of ease. Oh, I find it so offensive to watch some actor in a wig screaming their lines passionately, destroying them in the process along with the audience’s eadrums, who are really only suited to loud and silly theater anyway. I would have the actor whipped for overacting Termagant. It’s worse than those old plays with Herod in them. I beg you, don’t do it.
Player: Whatever you say Hamlet.
Don’t be too subdued either, but let your instincts guide you. Suit the action to the word and the word to the action, and pay attention to never overact in an unnatural way. Acting should never be over the top. The very purpose of acting, from its inception to now, has been to hold a mirror up to nature, good and bad, and to reflect the values of society. Should you overact it may make one uninformed theater goer laugh, but a more educated one will grieve. And their opinion on the theater, you should hold above all else. I’ve seen many highly regarded actors who, without being rude, cannot perform as a Christian, a Pagan, or even a man, and they strut around and bellow at the tops of their lungs like some beast that was made by one of God’s apprentices. They act the parts of men, but not well at all.
Player: I hope we have almost reformed that from our performances.
Oh, get rid of it completely! And make sure your comedic actors say their lines exactly as they are written. Because they might make some stupid members of the audience laugh with a cheap gag but will make the others miss an important part of the plot. That’s villainous and shows the actors more interested in being noticed than the story of the play. Go and get ready.
Notes on Performance
This speech should be full of drive and energy! Hamlet feels very strongly about the subject matter he’s ‘discussing’, and about the outcome of the play as a whole. So keep that in mind as you perform this monologue.
Remember that Hamlet is also feigning madness at this point and it’s up to you to decide how far he takes this facade. Which way you go is up to you, but make a decision and stick with it.
The last piece of advice I have for you is this. Follow Hamlet’s instructions! It wouldn’t be too good if we were to perform this monologue any way other than trippingly on the tongue without sawing the air too much with our hands. So keep this in mind when you speak the speech!