Hamlet's Advice to the Players | Shakespeare's Tips for Actors
shakespeares advice to the players

Hamlet’s Advice to the Players

Written by on | Acting Tips Shakespeare

It’s funny that many actors today think of Shakespeare as over-the-top, melodramatic and as far from naturalism as you can get. We see the Globe theatre and grand costumes and assume that the plays written 400 years ago would have been disconnected, grandiose and probably lacking the nuance of modern screen acting. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure, but Shakespeare did leave us with some of his own advice to actors, spoken through the words of one of his most famous characters, Hamlet. In this article I want to explain and unpack Shakespeare’s profound and eternally relevant advice to the players.

shakespeares advice to the players

Shakespeare’s Acting Advice

Hamlet, in speaking to the players (actors) in Act 3 Scene 2 discusses what many believe were Shakespeare’s own thoughts on acting. We know that Shakespeare was himself an actor, and so he would have had great instincts and would have a lot to share after seeing his work performed countless times during his lifetime. This short passage is the only insight we get into Shakespeare’s advice for actors, but it remains a timeless insight into how to perform with connection, clarity and simplicity.

To begin let’s take a look at the advice:

Hamlet’s Advice to the Players (Original Text)

HAMLET:

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. 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 dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

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 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. 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 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 so abominably.

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 mean time, some necessary
question of the play be then to be considered:
that’s villanous, and shows a most pitiful ambition
in the fool that uses it. Go, make you ready.

Unfamiliar Words

Here are all the words that may not be familiar to a modern reader. It’s often worth looking up words you think you know as many have different meanings in Shakespeare’s time.

trippingly: in a nimble or lively manner
lief, had as: should like just as much
temperance: self-control, moderation
tempest: a violent storm
beget: obtain, develop, nurture
passion: passionate outburst
periwigpated: wearing a wig
profane: irrelevant, flippant
dumbshows: mime, use of gesture to tell a story
Town-crier: a person employed tot make public announcements.
robustious: boisterous, unruly
groundlings: audience standing in a theatre courtyard (typically lower class)
capable of: appreciative of, able to take in
overdo: outdo, surpass
Termagant: noisy and overbearing character in mystery plays
Herod: Bible character, a Judean king, typically portrayed as a wild and angry figure
warrant: assure, promise
action: movement, demeanour, gesture
modesty: moderation, restraint, discipline
nature: human nature
purpose: matter in hand
feature: physical appearance, looks
scorn: folly, foolishness
form: image, likeness, shape
tardy: inadequately, slow witted
unskilful: undiscerning, ignorant, uneducated
censure: judgement, criticism
overweigh: prevail over
allowance: acknowledgement, admission, confirmation
Christian: ordinary person, normal human being
journeyman: common workman
indifferently: to some extent, fairly well
barren: dull or apathetic
quote: note, write
table: writing tablet, notebook
want: lack, need, be without
cullison: badge, emblem
blabber: mumble
cinquepace: a type of five-step capering dance

More common Shakespearean words explained.

Modern Translation of Hamlet’s Advice to the Players

This is my interpretation of the text. It’s always hard to match up any translation exactly, but this should help you unlock some of the gold within the speech.

Say your lines, I beg you, as I taught them to you
in a lively, forward moving manner: but if you just play the mood
as many actors often do, I would have preferred
a news reporter spoke the lines. (That would be better)
Also, don’t over gesture with your hands too much,
but use movement simply, like this, because even in a fit of passion
you have to acquire a relaxation as an actor that gives the work a smoothness.
It annoys me to no end to hear unruly actors with great big wigs on
become overly passionate and wail so loudly that the audience
have to put their fingers in their ears in pain (even those
that usually love pantomime and over the top nonsense.)
I would have an actor beaten for being so melodramatic. Like in those old plays where
actors playing Herod would just rant at the audience. Gah! Please, I beg you to avoid that.

Don’t be too under-energised either, but simply trust your own instincts.
Match the action of the scene to the words and give the words a simple action.
And in this way don’t let your acting be unnatural, for anything over the top
is not helpful in theatre, the purpose of theatre is to imitate nature, to show
her truth to the world.
Now, if it is over the top, or poorly performed,
though it might make the plebs laugh, it cannot really affect
a decent audience member. You must always play for the entire audience.
I have seen actors, and heard actors being praised, who don’t have an accent,
walk, or anything resembling a normal person, they have imitated humanity so badly
that they literally didn’t appear to me like a human being.

Correct this behaviour altogether and let those that play the comical characters
say no more than is written in the script, no ad-lib, for though they
might make a small group of friends in the audience laugh,
the rest of the audience misses the important plot points of the play.
This is disgraceful, and shows that the actor is a pathetic attention seeker. Now go and get ready!

shakespeares advice to the players

Important lessons from Shakespeare’s 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 spoke my lines.

The opening section of this speech hits the nail on the head, and in fact is reticent of Noel Coward’s advice: “just say the lines and don’t bump into furniture.” A kind of entreaty for actors to not over play the part, but to simply say the lines clearly and with a forward drive. And if you can’t do that, I would prefer a boring news anchor to speak them. We have all experienced this watching a disconnected actor on stage. We would honesty prefer someone just read the lines and got off!

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. 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 dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

Shakespeare’s advice here is to keep gesturing and over-acting to a minimum.

A common trap for young actors is to compensate by over-gesturing. They think that they need to do more than just speak the words honestly. Even when you are in the midst of a passionate/high-stakes scene, keep a centred calm interior. We have all seen those over the top actors who are not connected with the words, and it’s painful even for audiences who love soaps and melodrama.

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 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.

Next he almost seems to contradict himself, but of course the genius isn’t. We are always striving for that balance with acting. Don’t underplay the scene too much either. You have to be present and connected, and here in an almost mystical way he presages Stansivlaki’s Objectives. The idea of having an action in a scene and suiting the words to that action. You cannot just simply say the words, they have to have meaning. Finding actions and objectives goes on to be one of the most common acting techniques the world over.

He then says arguably the most well known line from this whole speech: hold a mirror up to nature. Theatre is always holding a mirror up to nature. It has to resemble the reality of life for it to move an audience. You could argue that Shakespeare is encouraging naturalism which didn’t get popularised for another few hundred years. Even then the focus was truth and reality. So, keep it real.

Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve;

This is so true today. Often called “cheap laughs”, or “playing for laughs” is when actors do things that might make an injudicious audience member laugh but doesn’t add to the story. Often actors play up a scene when their friends are in the audience. This is certainly common at high school level.

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 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 so abominably.

This complex section is really summed up in the final line “they imitated humanity so abominably”. We have all seen actors who the second they start “acting” become a whole other creature. Something we can barely recognise them and the performance certainly doesn’t resemble humanity.

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 mean time, some necessary
question of the play be then to be considered:
that’s villanous, and shows a most pitiful ambition
in the fool that uses it

This final section is so profoundly modern, as I was working on this article I literally shuddered. This exact note is being said in drama schools the world over, albeit less poetically. In comedy, don’t feel like you need to be funnier than the lines. Work with the text and don’t try to make a small group of friends laugh by corpsing on stage, or commenting on the comedy instead of being it. This is so relevant.

Shakespeare Expert takes a look at Classic Speech [VIDEO]

Conclusion

As you can see this over 400 year old piece of acting advice is still incredibly relevant, and prognosticated many of the acting theories set out by Stanislavski hundreds of years later. And I am quietly confident Stanislavski turned to this advice in formulating his own method. Always hold the mirror up to nature in your work. Resembling reality and honouring the words of the writer are paramount. Even in comedy, or heightened tragedy, you need to have a calm centred focus never indulging in the words or getting lost in trying to impress the audience.

I hope this helps you trust in your Shakespeare work. There is no need for a fake accent, or an over the top demeanour. Bring all of yourself to the role. His work is always played for the entire audience, which included everyone from the working man to royalty. Throw away those tired notions of how you should perform Shakespeare and take on the advice set out by the man himself. Enjoy!

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is the founder of StageMilk.Com. Andrew trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and is now a Sydney-based actor working in Theatre, Film and Television.

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is the founder of StageMilk.Com. Andrew trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and is now a Sydney-based actor working in Theatre, Film and Television.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *