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The Endless Mirror Up to Nature: The Play within the Play



 


Alexander Christie. Hamlet finding the king at prayer. Oil on canvas, 1842.

One of the most interesting plot devices in Hamlet is the play-within-a-play, where a troupe of actors comes to Elsinore and is employed by Hamlet to present a play of his choosing to the court. The play, he believes, will prove his uncle’s guilt for the murder of the king.

 

Hamlet asks a player to recite a piece about the fall of Troy and marvels that the player is able to give a moving speech for people he has never met. Hamlet, on the other hand, is unable to speak to anyone about his father’s murder and cannot muster the conviction to follow through with his revenge.

 

In the world of theater, it is from this scene that Shakespeare’s inside-jokes for actors are often quoted. Hamlet is a very bossy director, going on for lines and lines about how he wants the players to perform this play exactly as it is written (no going out of the script for laughs), to perform subtly and not overact, to speak clearly and loudly, and to be as natural as possible. Do you think Hamlet is saying these lines, or is Shakespeare?

 

The play-within-a-play has been re-imagined in hundreds of ways in various productions of Hamlet. In the text, a king and queen speak to each other with many professions of love; the queen argues that, should her husband ever die, she would be as bad as his killer to marry again ("The lady doth protest too much, methinks," Gertrude comments). The king reclines for a nap and is poisoned by a relative of his who takes the crown and the kingdom. Hamlet uses the play to observe his uncle’s reaction. Watch how he does so in our production. Do you think the play-within-a-play is used effectively?

 

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Francis Hayman. The play scene from Hamlet. Pen and ink wash, ca. 1740-41.



Did you know?

Why doesn’t Hamlet just do it already?

It is a question that has been asked for centuries: after hearing of his father’s murder from the visiting Ghost, why doesn’t Hamlet immediately kill Claudius in revenge? There were many beliefs about the nature of spirits that would have shaped the ideas Shakespeare’s audience held towards the Ghost in Hamlet. Protestants believed that there was no such thing as Purgatory and that, once humans passed from life to death, they went immediately to heaven or hell, never to leave again. Therefore, since a ghost could not be human, it could only be a good or evil spirit – an angel or, more likely, a demon who takes on human qualities in order to tempt the living. While Catholics would have agreed that true spirits of the departed could not come back to earth by their own free will, they did believe that such a miracle could occur if God willed it to be so. In that rare case, the consequences would be great not to heed the message the spirit brought. The only other option was that the ‘ghost’ was merely a hallucination of an unstable mind. With all of these factors to consider, Hamlet’s uncertainty seems a little more reasonable. If you saw a ghost who looked like someone you knew, and it told you of important news to act on, would you go through with it?





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