Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Is Everybody Acting in Hamlet?

The Players aren't the only ones acting in Hamlet
The theme of acting is not only central to Hamlet's 'mousetrap' plan, but it is also a constant undercurrent throughout the play. 

Is Hamlet really mad? Is Gertrude really innocent of the knowledge of the murder of her husband? Who can we believe and what can we ever know for sure?

Despite the obvious example of the players' performance, there are numerous cases of acting in one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.

Examining the Nature of Acting in Hamlet

There are several examples of Shakespeare’s tendency toward ‘postmodernism’ (although he was writing over 400 years before the movement began and the phrase came into usage). Two of the most striking instances are to be found in the chorus of Henry V and Hamlet’s discussion of the rudiments of acting in Hamlet.

From a modern perspective, this seems peculiar of 400-year-old drama, but plays within plays and the deconstruction of the art of theatre, which are both found in Hamlet, were commonplace in the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and even those of his predecessors. If nothing else, this suggests that ‘postmodernism’ is not so modern after all.
Does the play within the play emphasise the theme of
acting that runs throughout the play?

The Players in Hamlet

At first glance, the purpose of the players is to provoke guilt in Claudius and expose his crimes.

However, as many of the characters in Hamlet profess or pretend to be other than they are (particularly Claudius and Hamlet), the players take on a more significant role within the play. There is something poetic about the fact that the players, who are themselves feigning events and emotions, are able to shine a light on the true emotions of both Hamlet and Claudius.

In addition, it is worth remembering that the main aim of Hamlet is to entertain and, as mentioned above, the play within a play technique was extremely popular with Shakespearean audiences.

Is Hamlet Acting?

Whether or not Hamlet is feigning madness is something that is hotly debated. It certainly seems fair to assert that his madness is concocted as part of his revenge strategy.

Is Hamlet's madness real or feigned? | David Tennant
playing mad
Evidence of this can be found in Hamlet’s claim that he will “… put an antic disposition on”(I.v) However, whether events turn this into a genuine madness is less clear, but one could certainly argue that Hamlet’s sanity declines throughout his intended revenge.

There are further incidents within the play that allude to Hamlet acting, for example in act II, scene i, Ophelia tells of Hamlet playing the part of a rejected lover.

This notion of Hamlet ‘playing the part’ either of a wounded lover or a madman simply adds to the enigma of the character.

To further complicate an audience’s perception of Hamlet, during his first appearance on stage he tells his mother “Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems.”(I.ii). Of course, the implication here is that he is incapable of feigning emotion. His subsequent actions, however, prove this to be untrue.

Who Else is Acting in Hamlet?

Well, the short answer is: almost everybody. Claudius is clearly acting the part of innocent brother and loving uncle. As mentioned above, to what extent Gertrude is aware of that and is, therefore, acting herself is not clear. Polonius meanwhile conducts a form of acting, as he attempts to humour the 'mad' prince.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
can't fool Hamlet
And, of course, there are those who are encouraged to put on an act, but are not quite so convincing: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, who have a "kind of confession in their looks,"(II.ii) that reveals to Hamlet their true purpose in Elsinore. 

Then, there's Ophelia who is encouraged by her father and Claudius to shine on to Hamlet in order to get the truth out of him. She too is not really cut out for the task of deception. 

In short, Hamlet is riddled with acting and actors. The theme of acting, or at least 'playing a role', is fundamental, and the inclusion of the players seems to be a way of emphasising this point. 

Shakespeare give us professional actors and those who are acting for self-preservation or personal gain. And of course, things don't end so well for those 'amateurs'. 

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