Wednesday, January 4, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players

Act 3 Scene 2 is again too long for a single set of entries, so we will be dividing it in four parts. The first, Instructing the Players, is of great interest because it presents Shakespeare's idea of what acting and theater should be. In Hamlet's instructions, we'll discover what going to see one of his plays in the late 16th and early 17th centuries would have looked, sounded and felt like. Since he advises them about the play within the play, I've thought it appropriate to also include in this section Hamlet's instructions to Polonius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and Horatio, players - or rather, "players" - all. Before heading into cinematic waters, let's look at the text. As usual, Shakespeare is in italics:

SCENE II. A hall in the castle.
Enter HAMLET and Players

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.
FIRST PLAYER: I warrant your honour.

Shakespeare's first acting tip entreats the actors not to play "too big". For people who don't know or care about Shakespeare, his plays are synonymous with the very bombast he warns against here. Plainly, Shakespeare didn't like "shouty" acting, or big, unnatural gestures. It is part of theater's natural paradox that one must play to the rear of the audience without undercutting the story's intimate moments. And so:

HAMLET: 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.

Here he tells us that the purpose of theater is to represent humanity, something that is certainly true of his writing, whereas the kind of presentational, bigger-than-life, winking-at-the-audience style he advises against takes us away from a true representation. Bad actors are human beings who, ironically, cannot portray human beings believably. It would seem that Shakespeare would have been happy with the idea of his plays being turned into films, where the actor can actually play quiet moments QUIETLY, in close-up. In a way, Shakespeare wants to do away with the artifice of theater, which is distracting. Note also how much of Hamlet's personal idiom is religious (Herod, Christians), relevant to an easy to support Puritan vs. Hedonists reading of the play.

FIRST PLAYER: I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir.
HAMLET: 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 villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go, make you ready.

Something I know all too well from 25 years of improv: The player's anxiety about silence. When a crowd is silent, the player starts to fear he is not entertaining enough. Laughs are vocal reactions and instant gratification for the player, one he might be tempted to indulge, play into, steering the attention away from the point the play is making, or even other actors. It takes a more mature player to realize silence can represent a gamut of reactions, most more relevant to the play than laughter - philosophical interest, fascination, delight, sadness... these may manifest relatively silently. What you don't want to hear are scraping chairs, people talking or going to the bathroom. Here, Shakespeare warns the players about clowning and giving in to that instinct to panic and throw in some laughs.

Exeunt Players

How now, my lord! I will the king hear this piece of work?

LORD POLONIUS: And the queen too, and that presently.
HAMLET: Bid the players make haste.


Will you two help to hasten them?



After talking to the actual players, Hamlet moves the bit players of his greater play (the Court) around, a precursor to how he is about to manipulate them with his play and in its aftermath. Hamlet is the play's director as well as the play within a play's. R&G's errand seems particularly useless, just a way to get them out of the room so he can talk more privately with Horatio.

HAMLET: What ho! Horatio!


HORATIO: Here, sweet lord, at your service.
HAMLET: Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal.
HORATIO: O, my dear lord,--
HAMLET: Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits,
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter'd?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.--Something too much of this.--

This is our best description of Horatio's relationship to Hamlet, one that gives munitions to the theory that Horatio is a fragment of Hamlet's personality, the part of himself that "is not passion's slave". In that interpretation, it makes sense that Horatio is a separate character, one divorced from the passionate, "idle" Hamlet. As written, Horatio is Hamlet's stabilizing influence, the one character Hamlet doesn't act mad around (not since the Ghost showed up and sundered Hamlet's mind). If the Ghost is the devil on Hamlet's shoulder, Horatio is its angelic counterpart, but not a conscience per se. Rather, his presence brings calm and focus to Hamlet's mission. Compare to the turmoil the Ghost brings with it from Hell. We must also note here the image of the pipe, which will return in the aftermath of the Mouse-Trap. There, the pipe is Hamlet, difficult to play upon. Here, the pipe is Not-Horatio, on whom Fortune may not play. In neither case can these characters be easily played on, but for different reasons. It is nevertheless a link between them, something that may point to their being the same person. The fact that Horatio doesn't seem to have a destiny of his own and is invisible to Fortune makes him a kind of non-entity. A projection by Hamlet?

There is a play to-night before the king;
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father's death:

It seems that Horatio was filled in on the details off-stage. He is Hamlet's only full confidante.

I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy. Give him heedful note;

Though Hamlet starts the scene as a pious Christian, he turns to paganism here, speaking in Horatio's own idiom. Is there an implicit analysis of the two in this scene? Hamlet, the Christian (even Puritanical) man is passion's slave, while Horatio, the "ancient Roman", is not. History is rather ambivalent on the subject (especially at the time of writing). Is it a play on words? The "passion" of the Christ linked to that of Hamlet and his impending sacrifice by tragedy's end? Greco-Roman myth celebrates victories far more than Christ-like "defeats". Perhaps there is a thesis there if someone were willing to develop it. Certainly, Hamlet is a Christ figure - he has been given a difficult and potentially lethal task by his other-worldly father and is even (arguably, illogically) in his 30s. But it's a distorted image of the Christ, with a hellish father who asks him to commit murder. He only friend, a self-professed Pagan who will act as his evangelist.

For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.
HORATIO: Well, my lord:
If he steal aught the whilst this play is playing,
And 'scape detecting, I will pay the theft.
HAMLET: They are coming to the play; I must be idle:
Get you a place.

Definitely in the "not mad" column: The fact that Hamlet says he must now become mad as the Court enters. As such, he sends his "stability" away while he plays the fool.

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