Art Imitates Life Imitates Art: Shakespeare’s Commentary on Hamlet

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In Act 3, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s tragic play Hamlet, Prince Hamlet prepares a play that will re-enact the murder of his deceased father King Hamlet by the current king Claudius. Using a group of travelling players, Hamlet decides the one way to determine if the current king is guilty or not is to see his reaction to a re-enactment of the murder Hamlet believes took place. Taking three players aside from the troupe, Hamlet instructs them on how to act during their performance of the play. He acts as a director and playwright for what is to be the most important and final work of his lifetime. Using a play for comedic purposes or for plot explication in Shakespeare’s works is not unusual. In this case, Shakespeare not only uses the play to perform these functions, but to also comment on the nature of plays during his time and what they should be like. On the most basic surface level of the start of the scene, Hamlet is explaining to the three actors how they should act during their performance of The Murder of Gonzago. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance,” Hamlet explains, “that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature,” (3.2.18-21). Hamlet tells the actors they must act realistically and according to nature because if they don’t then they will come across as funny and Claudius may not understand the underlying message of the play. He tells the actors not to speak anything that isn’t written in the script, and not to speak too wildly or exaggerate their actions too much. All of these descriptions were common among plays during Shakespeare’s time and Hamlet acknowledges that he has seen plays in which actors “imitated humanity so abominably,” (3.2.37). As Hamlet explains how his play should be acted to the three actors on stage, Shakespeare uses this time to explain how his play, Hamlet, should be acted to his actors. Hamlet, acting as Shakespeare, even subtlety references the actors in the play currently being performed by him when he criticizes “if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as life the town-crier spoke my lines,” (3.2.2-4). Shakespeare didn’t want his actors to over-exaggerate or scream their lines either and wanted them to act as real as possible. By having Hamlet say these words to the characters in the play, Shakespeare immortalizes his ironic message that actors should act as real as possible in their parts, even the comedic ones. The irony comes from the fact that many of the situations/characters in Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet included, are exaggerations and are ridiculous. Hamlet’s description of how to act is, in itself, ridiculous. Hamlet tells his actors to say and do what is written in the play and act realistic, which becomes a problem when what is written is unrealistic and requires interpretation. Shakespeare uses this part of the dialogue to also comment on the nature of plays in general, saying how they should comment on life and “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body the of the time his form and pressure,” (3.2.23-26). Shakespeare gives us an explanation of what a play should be idealistically, a commentary on the current times and a mirror of reality, before destroying it completely using the ridiculous and silly play put on by the players to show Hamlet’s father’s death. After Shakespeare supplies the rules he believes should be followed, he satirizes the common practices of plays of his time and demonstrates what they are doing wrong in a manner that the audience will surely think is humorous. And that, among many other reasons, is why Shakespeare was a genius.
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