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Exploring Shakespeare: Hamlet's Act

'only theatre can show Hamlet the truth'

Shakespeare in Italy’s Associate Director Bill Alexander turns his attention to Hamlet in his series of blogs on rehearsing Shakespeare. Here he demonstrates how much of the play is indeed about acting – and the different meanings of the word.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Shakespeare's writing is the way in which he transformed his source material. Part of the key to creating good productions out of the scripts is for director and actors to reach a common understanding as to why he made the choices he did and what lay behind those choices. The single most significant change to the medieval story of Amleth the Viking prince was the addition of a group of travelling actors. Much of the play is about acting and the different meanings of that word. It is about acting in the sense of doing, committing an act, making a decision and turning it into an action; in this case, Hamlet avenging his father's death by murdering his murderer. It's also about acting in the sense of dissimulation - acting in life by pretending to be something other than you really are. Hamlet acts being mad, Claudius acts being a loving stepfather and an honest man but as his nephew observes: "a man may smile and smile and be a villain." And then at the very centre and heart of the play, exactly half-way through, it becomes about the art of theatre acting, the imitation of life on a stage, telling a dramatic story to shock, entertain, inform or sometimes, to reveal the truth.

The character, Hamlet, spends much of the play, "Hamlet", pretending to be mad - acting. So the actor playing Hamlet has to figure out the best way to act Hamlet acting. It's a similar challenge when playing Viola or Rosalind, how to "act" the male character they assume. Sane Hamlet’s performance as mad Hamlet is in itself a lesson in acting, which is one of the reasons it's such a satisfying play to work on with actors: it deals with the subject of acting in a wholly original way. Playing Hamlet makes the actor think precisely about how to mould their own spirit and personality into an imaginary character who both is and is not them. His purpose is to survive, discover the truth and then act upon it: the situation is deadly serious and his capacity to act convincingly is tested to the limit causing him to verge on becoming the person he is pretending to be. Taken seriously, acting can be a dark, difficult and even dangerous art form especially when undertaken with a subjective rather than an objective purpose. To over indulge in it as personal therapy, to take one’s own inner workings too self-importantly, can easily lead to the actor getting in the way of the play, of the author’s purpose. But at the other extreme to over objectify, to behave as if the actor’s job is simply to learn the lines, speak clearly and let the play do the rest, is to damagingly minimise the way in which an individual's spirit and personality, if sharply focused, can animate a written character into active life. Hamlet can make us more alert to the nature, purpose and potential of acting than any treatise ever written on the subject, while at the same time being a ghost story, a revenge tragedy, a love story, a religious debate, a philosophic exploration of appearance and reality, madness and sanity, and the meaning of life and death. Quite a hefty check list! Acting as a problematic idea is present from early in the play, not only in Gertrude's implication that her son may be "overplaying" his grief, or the prince’s reference to his uncle’s false smiles, but in the very fabric of its central question: what is the ghost?


To understand the importance of this question the director needs to be clear about one of the central issues that dominated the intellectual and theological debates of the Elizabethan age.


The Catholic/Protestant divide had created a national schizophrenia of belief in many ways and in many minds and one of the profoundest and most contentious was the difference between the Catholic and Protestants’ visions of the afterlife, of Heaven and Hell. For the devout Catholic there were three possibilities for the human soul after death. For those who had led a blameless and God-fearing life, full of good deeds and regular worship combined with deep faith, the prize was Heaven, salvation and eternal bliss. For those who had led a life of sin, selfishness and indulgence with little thought of God or consequences, the price was Hell, eternal damnation. But the Catholic Church had to face up to an obvious fact of life: for the vast majority of people the life they'd lived had not been quite so cut and dried. Most people did good things and bad things. Sometimes they behaved well, and other times not so well. People would go through periods of religiosity and times when they didn't think much about religion at all. Sometimes they would pray, sometimes they would sin and their lives passed by in a messy mixture of aspiring to the angelic, then sinking to the bestial, bouncing around in the human section of the great chain of being: a mingled yarn woven of the good, the bad and the indifferent. So the Catholic Church invented the idea of Purgatory. Here was the third afterlife option, a sort of half-way house between Hell and Heaven, a supernatural prison term in which accounts could be settled for sins committed and a balance worked out between punishment and redemption. Souls were cleansed and purged to prepare them for Heaven. This was a clever idea and led to a huge trade between men and monks, who having plenty of time on their hands were paid to pray for the dead to shorten the time spent in Purgatory. Those who believed in the Catholic way, and there were still plenty of them in 1600 when Hamlet was written, heard the voices of the souls of their dead relatives  - mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sons and daughters crying out to them from this theatre of suffering and paid the prayer-mongers what they could.

Almost everyone in Christian Europe at the time of Shakespeare believed in a life after death, but their spiritual leaders disagreed about its nature. The Catholic idea of a clearing house for different degrees of sinners was anathema to the religious reformers of the Lutheran revolution. Protestants had no time for the concept of Purgatory. They believed that you were either damned or saved. They believed God knew what lay in your heart with an instant and infallible judgement and had no need for flexible periods of post life torture as a prelude to Paradise. Nor (and most significantly for our play) did the Protestants believe in ghosts, and their’s was the official state religion. At least they didn't believe in ghosts in the Catholic sense, that it might be the spirit of a dead person who had returned to Earth to give warnings, or offer advise, or make requests. A ghost to them was a demonic spirit, come from Hell to lure you into error or sin on behalf of their master, Satan. A ghost was a special kind of demon performing the part of a particular dead soul. A ghost was always acting.

Or was it? The old and new beliefs snaked and threaded their way through the consciences of Shakespeare's audience. Confusing, contradictory and terrifying, a restless uncertainty must have shrouded the thinking of a huge proportion of the population. In the most famous speech of all, when he asks " that sleep of death what dreams may come..." Hamlet was speaking for an awful lot of people. Whatever else might be said about the afterlife, whatever it consisted of - it was there waiting for you one way or the other. Most people accepted that judgement was inevitable in the end, and on the whole they probably tended to go along with the messages that issued from Protestant pulpits every compulsory church attending Sunday of the year. So what were they, and what are we to make of the ghost of Hamlet’s father?

"I am thy father’s spirit 

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away."

The description is pure Catholic theology. Either the ghost is speaking the truth and bearing witness to an afterlife that is just as Catholic theology would describe it, or he is lying and is therefore the kind of demon actor that Protestant authority would caution against. So right at the beginning of the play we have the main character placed in a dilemma that is all about acting. Is it really his father returned, or a dissembling spirit? Hamlet recognises the problem, but he loathes his uncle and wants to believe the ghost and his immediate instinct is to act on the demand for revenge. Acting these initial reactions to this first encounter with the ghost is about capturing the agonisingly paradoxical nature of the character’s situation. He seems to know himself well enough to be aware that he's a man who tends to wear his heart on his sleeve and finds it difficult to conceal strong emotion. His problem is how to control that emotion and contain it so he doesn't let on what he has learnt and risk becoming another victim of his murderous uncle. On the other hand, how can he be sure that the ghost is telling the truth? His solution is to act. Not act on the ghost’s request, but to act the part of a lunatic. By seeming to have gone mad he can channel the turmoil of his feelings into a performance that will make him appear harmless. The grief for his father's death, the anger towards his uncle, the revulsion and jealousy he feels towards his mother, can all be poured into an "antic disposition" that will keep him safe. It should work because it was a commonplace of Elizabethan thinking that grief was a primary cause of madness. 

Assuming that actor and director broadly agree on this, the question will be how to make Hamlet’s thinking clear to an audience. The whole theme of "acting" needs to be set up from the text’s earliest references to it, and emphasis placed on these moments will generate awareness. The question of acting has come up well before Hamlet meets his father's ghost or the demon player. In only the second scene of the play he makes it clear he thinks his uncle and step father's manner towards him is fake or acted. Claudius' friendliness is a "seeming" that makes Hamlet extremely prickly. When his mother asks him about his signs of grief without choosing her words carefully enough, "why seems it so particular with thee?" he rounds on her with a caustic diatribe about acting and emotion:

"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 saviour of the visage, 

Together with all forms, modes, shows of grief,

That can denote me truly; these indeed seem

For they are actions that that a man might play."

Interestingly the word "actions" in the last line has become a term today for describing the intentions or the motivation of a character in many rehearsal rooms all over the world. 

Acting and religion are linked in Hamlet’s state of uncertainty. He doesn't know what to believe about Claudius and doesn't know what to believe about the afterlife. He wants to believe the Ghost but he was educated at Wittenburg University, a rock solid intellectual bastion of Lutheran and hence Protestant teaching, an education that leads him clearly to the thought that has to be at the centre of any actor’s interpretation of the part:

"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."

You can't forget just how alert he must be to that possibility. Rehearsals have to focus on it as a key thought that both colours and sets up much of what follows. It's a good example of character and narrative coming together at a moment in the play crucial to the clarity of the action. Hamlet is exceptionally self-aware, the exact opposite of Lear who, "...hath ever but slenderly known himself." He is honest, knows that he is prone to melancholy and that the devil can work with great effectiveness on "spirits" such as his. If he is not shown as being acutely aware that he could be tricked into damnation by a demonic actor impersonating his dead father, then there is no reason for the introduction of the players into the play, the single most significant addition that Shakespeare made to his source material other than the ghost itself. The speech concludes:

"I'll have grounds more relative than this; the play’s the thing

Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."

His theological education cannot give him a definitive answer, only theatre can show him the truth. He develops his idea by telling us something remarkable, something that might have had a real story behind it, possibly many stories.

"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'll know my course."

The whole idea is, of course, triggered by the arrival of a company of travelling actors that he appears to know well, greeting them as old friends and sharing the latest theatrical gossip with them. They've barely got there before he is imploring them to act something for him, instantly becoming immersed in the leading actor’s performance - a speech about the grief of Queen Hecuba during the fall of Troy. It's while he listens to this speech that director and actor need to locate the exact moment the idea, of establishing Claudius' guilt or innocence by monitoring his reactions to a play, comes to him. Normally ideas should strike characters in the moment of speech; but in this case it seems to me the audience need to register something earlier, something that is then developed in the soliloquy just quoted. The audience will then feel complicit in the idea rather than it appearing arbitrary. It should almost be as if the audience have put the idea into Hamlet’s head.

As the actors are shown to their lodgings, Hamlet takes the leader of the troop aside asking him if he remembers an old play, The Murder of Gonzago, and would he mind the addition of a few extra lines of his own composition. This is agreed, then alone on stage he tells us the plan.

This play within a play is a major new element to the old tale of Amleth. It's remarkable not only for its theatricality but for what it indicates about the place and importance of theatre in England at the time. Apparently, there is good evidence that on at least one occasion "guilty creatures sitting at a play" had indeed "proclaimed their malefactions." A woman who had paid two professional hit men to murder her husband, watching a performance at the Rose Theatre of what may have been Arden of Faversham a play about precisely that, broke down in hysterics and screamed out her confession to the amazement of audience and actors. This was the mirror of theatre held up to nature in a shockingly dramatic way. Exposure to the kind of passionate yet realistic acting that the new drama demanded could be a kind of shock therapy to ordinary people never before exposed to anything like it. For most people it was completely novel to be confronted with truths about themselves and their private thoughts. In a sense, actors began to have more psychological power than priests and more moral authority than the royal court and probably more than the law courts. This capacity to tell the truth in an emotional and often disturbing way might sometimes have been too much for some people to take. At the end of the "Hecuba" speech, Polonius reacts to what he's just heard in words that seem genuinely shocked and slightly disgusted, as if something faintly improper had just taken place:

"Look where he has not turned his colour and has tears in his eyes. Prithee no more!"

It's as if he responds to that degree of emotion in acting as tasteless because it's hard to tell where artifice ends and reality begins, and maybe because it has created an unwanted emotional response in himself? Hamlet knows the power of acting to get to the truth:

"Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live."

His plan works perfectly. The performance the players give has exactly the effect on Claudius he was hoping for, although strangely it is never clear which lines were the one he added. The King’s reaction clearly reveals his guilt, so nothing now stands in the way of the revenge demanded by, what he now knows to be, his father's spirit. So the ghost was telling the truth: he is an "honest" ghost. The narrative of the play therefore seems to uphold a Catholic point of view. It seems to underline what Hamlet has said to his fellow student at the Protestant Wittenburg university: 

"There are more things in Heaven and Earth Horatio than are dreamt of in our philosophy." The clear implication is that the Catholic version of the afterlife is the correct one. But if that's true then his father is leading his soul to eternal damnation by inciting him to an act of murderous revenge. You would be confused wouldn't you - and a little hesitant? But that's another story. 

Bill Alexander ©


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