Shakespeare is well known for placing many theatrical references in his plays. They can be found in The Tempest, Macbeth, and perhaps most famously in Jaques “All the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It. Despite this running theme, the use of this theatrical metaphor stands out much more noticeably in Hamlet. In fact, Pearce points out that this theme is “central to [its] particular…meaning” and that the play itself is a metatheatrical work in that Hamlet himself is quite aware of his own theatricality (Pearce 66). In most of the aforementioned plays as well as the others wherein a theatrical metaphor can be found, it isn’t until late in the play that the characters have this self-realization of their metatheatrical reality. The difference in Hamlet is that Hamlet himself is quite aware throughout the course of the play that he is an actor playing a part. Hamlet appears depressed and distraught months after his father’s death not because he is still in mourning of his father but because he has come to this harrowing realization about life. But instead of letting this melancholy insight push him to suicide, he decides to use it to his advantage and fully embraces the dramatic and theatrical in his quest to avenge his father.
The Renaissance Everyman
The character of Hamlet is unique in many ways and not only exhibits absurdist tendencies but also hearkens back to the medieval Everyman in many ways. Pearce observes that Hamlet himself is not the same sort of Shakespearean character as Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, or any other tragic heroes in that while all these characters posses some sort of “underlying coherence,” Hamlet remains indefinable and open to many different interpretations (Pearce 64). Not only is Hamlet an Everyman due to his vague characterization but also due to the fact that he addresses issues in a very broad sense and does not limit his interpretation to his individual plight. Possibly Shakespeare’s most well known soliloquy is the “to be or not to be” speech delivered by Hamlet in act three scene one. It is widely agreed that in this soliloquy, Hamlet is contemplating suicide as a means to escape the “heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (Shakespeare III.i.70-71). But as German professor Horst Breur points out in his article Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, the shocks to which Hamlet refers must apply to either “the human situation in general…or more specifically to the indignities and hardships apt to befall those who occupy a humble station in life” (Breur 15). Hamlet is not listing difficulties that relate personally to his own position but is rather making a much broader claim that applies to a more common man. This particular soliloquy is also another example of Hamlet’s self-awareness as well as the inherent tragedy of his situation. Hamlet understands the world for exactly what it is and also acknowledges what could be a possible ending when he muses on suicide. Hamlet realizes that life is a play that will always end with a final bow in the grave. The tragedy of the situation is that even though Hamlet comes to this realization we still see a disconnect between his thought and his action. Pearce explains it best when he says that “Hamlet perceives that ‘life is a play’, yet is unable to write the script” (Pearce 67).
It is clear that for the good majority of the play (if not for the entire play) Hamlet is quite aware of his metatheatrical existence and accepts it as a means to his ends. He is an actor; fully aware of the theatre he is acting in and accepting of his role, he plays his part carefully and thoughtfully. Throughout the entire play we see Hamlet doing the job of a trained method actor consciously researching and perfecting his role of revenger. Hamlet is presented with his part in act one scene five when the ghost that has been haunting the castle battlements accosts him about his father’s “foul and most unnatural murder” at the hands of Claudius (Shakespeare I.v.31). Hamlet immediately turns to dramatic means to solve this problem. At the end of the act, Hamlet makes Horatio swear that no matter how bizarrely he may act in the future, Horatio is not to give away his ruse but is to except the dramatic as reality.
In act two scene two the players arrive at the castle and are met by Polonius who introduces them to Hamlet. To get a sense of their talent, Hamlet employs the first player to recite a monologue of the Greek hero, Aeneas, about the Trojan queen, Hecuba. The player’s performance is brilliant and emotional as he is nearly brought to tears before Polonius stops him. Once alone, Hamlet is left to reflect on this performance and becomes quite critical of himself. This comparison of Hamlet to an actor further reinforces his metatheatrical awareness and his value of the dramatic. He does not compare himself to a murderer or warrior or politician but to an actor. Hamlet then continues his utilization of drama when he decides to trick the king into revealing his conscience by having the players act out “The Murder of Gonzago” which closely resembles the murder of his father. Hamlet sets out to show Claudius the evil character that he is playing the only way he knows how: through the theatrical.
Not only does Hamlet exhibit an undying respect for the theatrical so common among actors, but his behavior is also strikingly similar to that of a method actor. Hamlet is not predictable and does not act how one would expect someone in his situation to act but rather acts curiously like a player perfecting his craft. Hamlet observes and reflects, studies and practices, and pushes himself through a wide range of emotions. It is the latter practice that has caused some people to label Hamlet’s often irrational and spontaneous behavior as acts of madness. Eric Levy supports this idea in his article The Problematic Relation between Reason and Emotion in ‘Hamlet’ when he states that “madness is…associated with the disastrous inability to control emotional impulse” (Levy 83). But Hamlet is not mad; these actions are not irrational but rather serve as research to make him an all around better actor. Hamlet is just doing what all great actors do but in a very short period of time.
Another characteristic that Hamlet also shares with the great method actors of our time is a characteristic of his thought process. A.C. Bradley, a nineteenth century critic, was the first to point out Hamlet’s tendency towards repetition in his thoughts. Although Bradley makes it clear that such repetition is common among dramatic characters but with regards to Hamlet states that it “becomes a habit with him.” Mr. Pearce goes further to parallel this habit with the habit of an actor to “repeat a phrase in order to experience its emotion, delve again into its depth” (Pearce 66). Once again, this is research of emotion that is commonly practiced among dramatic actors and is a powerful connection to Hamlet’s theatricality.
Hamlet is very careful and observant of all the emotions he experiences and this is quite evident in his soliloquy at the end of act two scene two. Throughout the duration of this speech, Hamlet experiences an exceptionally wide range of emotion but after each, steps back to reflect on it. Once again this behavior is widely characteristic of that of an actor experiencing an emotion and then taking a moment to observe and remember that feeling (Pearce 66). It isn’t just this soliloquy that Hamlet is emotionally reflective but is, in fact, reflective for the duration of the play. In act four scene 5, Hamlet observes Fortinbras’ approaching army and once again becomes very critical of himself. He comes to the realization that he has all the motivation and the tools necessary to perform his part and finally commits to it when he swears “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (Shakespeare IV.v.68-69).
By the beginning of the fifth act Hamlet has fully accepted his role but has still yet to come to terms with death. With the emotional memory of his father’s death just barely in his mind, Hamlet needs an immediate impetus to recall those emotions of pain and distress to truly perfect his part. That stimulus comes in the form of Ophelia’s suicide which Hamlet does not learn of until he witnesses her funeral in the graveyard. This discovery is the spark that triggers all of Hamlet’s emotions and we finally see him “suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (Shakespeare III.ii.18-19). His grief over the loss of the woman he loved spurs him to challenge Laertes to a duel and fully commit to his part. Not only do we finally see a connection between Hamlet’s thoughts and actions but we once again see proof of Eric Levy’s theory of the relation between reason and emotion in the world of this play. When Hamlet proclaims his love for Ophelia was greater than that of “forty thousand brothers,” Claudius quickly points to Hamlet’s madness as a cause for this emotional and dramatic outburst. But, just as before, Hamlet is not mad but rather knows precisely what he is doing. He is, at last, ready to perform his role in the face of his own death.
In the final scene of the play, Hamlet’s mind is the clearest is has been and his thoughts are incredibly rational. He is now more metatheatrically aware than he has been at any other point in the entire play and he reveals this in his discourse with Horatio. He tells Horatio exactly what happened on his trip to England and reveals Claudius’ plot to have him murdered. His tale is laced with super-awareness and a very broad sense of his condition when he praises impulsive behavior because “there’s a divinity that shape’s our ends, rough-hew them how we will” (Shakespeare V.ii.11-12). He recognizes the inevitability of his fate and the futility of deep reflection about life to try to change its outcome. He understands that the only way to incite change is through action and no matter how you try to paint life in your mind, it will not change. Throughout the following dialogue, Hamlet mixes in many more theatrical metaphors to describe his situation. He alludes to the fact that he has finally begun his performance after the very detailed research he performed throughout the rest of the play. The play ends with Hamlet’s death and possibly the clearest thought we’ve seen from him since the beginning of the play. Hamlet instructs Horatio to tell his story and to crown the invading Fortinbras king of Denmark. Hamlet is ready to take his fin
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