In warfare, a soldier’s worth can be measured by strength of their weapon and the skill with which they wield it in battle. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is set in Denmark during a time of war, and its characters are armed with varying skill levels in the art of acting. Their weapon of choice is an art form that Shakespeare presents as a means for its characters to escape “reality.” These “players” are discontented with the way fate has fortuned them and they wish to forge a new “reality” that better suits their respective agendas. King Claudius and Hamlet are two “players” that fortify their arsenals of deception with a weaponization of the art of acting, using it to control others in order to shape this new “reality”—one that is shaped by how they “seem” to others. Hamlet, who fosters a hatred for his uncle Claudius (the murderer of his father), aims to cleanse the kingdom of Denmark by exposing Claudius’s guilt. Since art has a capacity to capture audiences in their own reflection, Hamlet stages a play within Shakespeare’s play in order to “catch the conscience of the king” and expose Claudius’s guilt (II.ii.635). The power of art is that it courses from a mysterious force that catches people off guard. In this state of vulnerability and uncertainty, the playgoer and the reader are able to glimpse the most intimate and authentic versions of Shakespeare’s characters, because as Hamlet says, the purpose of art is to “hold … the mirror up to nature”(III.ii.23). Art uses deception to show us what is authentic.
Mirrors have a dual significance in Hamlet. On the one hand, Shakespeare denotes their functional purpose as an object that reproduces “reality” or projects a copy of it to the person who looks into it. In another sense, reflection is what guides Hamlet and Claudius to an introspective rebirth brought on by art. In Hamlet, Hamlet—and Shakespeare—can use the play within the play to “catch the conscience of the King” because art functions as a mirror. “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”(II.ii.618-621). The play-within-the-play has a profound effect on Claudius because he wants to uphold an artificial disguise. In reality, he is not a king and he is not a father; he is only acting like he is one. The “reality” that the art, the play, is reflecting back at the king is one that is embedded in lies and fantasy.
In addition to reflecting the audience, art in Hamlet is also a means for protection. In a time of war, the best offense is a good defense. Hamlet realizes that acting is an art that does not have to be saved for the stage. He uses an “antic disposition” to disguise his authentic displays of grief, which in Shakespeare’s Denmark are marks of weakness (Act I.v.192). Hamlet discovers early on that he has to act in order to protect himself. When we first encounter him in Act I, the prince appears to us to be in his most genuine, honest, and vulnerable state. Claudius, however, is disapproving. He criticizes the prince for his gloomy disposition and instructs him to do a better job of concealing his emotions. “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”(I.ii.69). Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, just wants to know why Hamlet’s grief “seems … so particular” (I.ii.77). Everyone seems to have moved on from the death of Hamlet’s father, but in reality they are all just pretending to appear as if they have moved on in an effort to disguise or protect their genuine emotions. Hamlet responds, “together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, that can denote me truly: These indeed seem for they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within passes show, these but the trappings and the suits of woe”(I.ii.85-90). Hamlet is frustrated by his mother’s and stepfather’s overbearing lack of compassion in asking him to hide his authentic and natural emotion. Why should he continue to show his true emotion, since Claudius and the rest of Denmark consider his emotional candidness as a flaw? Regardless of how authentically Hamlet presents himself publically, Claudius is going to think Hamlet is acting no matter what he does—so he might as well “act.” This exchange between Gertrude, the King, and Hamlet is the genesis for the young prince’s interest in acting, but it is Claudius who will inspire him to perform the craft.
The proverb that says “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” helps illuminate Hamlet’s relationship with Claudius. This nefarious stepfather is in essence Hamlet’s greatest teacher in the art of deception. He is Hamlet’s chief acting coach. “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! … That one may smile and smile and be a villain” (I.v.113). Claudius is evil. He murdered his own brother and deceives all the people of Denmark with his “smiles.” The simple artistry in Claudius’s deceptive temper by which Claudius conceals his own guilt for his “foul murder”(III.iii.56) serves as the inspiration for Hamlet’s “antic disposition.” The antic disposition is Hamlet’s artificial display of madness; it is a device to disguise his own grief and authentic hatred for Claudius. Hamlet’s method is to call attention to his act while not calling attention to his authentic hunt for retribution.
At the start of Act III, Hamlet leaves his players with some resonating acting advice just prior to the start of the play for King Claudius, Gertrude, and the court. “Let your own discretion be your tutor: Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (III.ii 17-21). An actor should never appear to be acting. A play’s dialogue loses its integrity when delivered by someone out of tune with the rhythm and flow of the prose as well their meaning. An actor is able to convince an audience of their transformation into a character only if they assimilate themselves seamlessly with their role. Hamlet’s discourse continues, “For anything so o’erdone 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” (21-26). Here Hamlet defines the meaningfulness and mission of acting as a vocation. The arts, in this case theater, provide people with an opportunity to absorb the story that they are observing and relate it to their own experiences. The mirror is key to this educational opportunity. Just as a mirror is used to reflect a person’s physical existence, theater can also reflect the state of one’s morality.
The acting lessons that Hamlet provides for the players are essential for the success of the play-within-the-play, but these anecdotes would have also been of essential value to Polonius and his daughter Ophelia.“To thine own self be true… Thou canst not then be false to any man”(I.iii.84-86). These are the final words of advice that Polonius articulates to Laertes before he leaves for France, but the philosophies of this declaration carry over to the relationship between Polonius and Ophelia. Polonius’s stated principle of “to thine own self be true” indicate that he holds authenticity in the highest regard and of the upmost importance for meaningful life. It is clear that Polonius wishes to steer Ophelia in the direction of his aforementioned proclamations on virtuosity, as he deters her from what he believes would be a poisonous relationship with the deceptive prince. Ironically, Polonius “played [Julius Caesar] once I’th’ university” and was “accounted a good actor” (III.ii.105-107). Polonius at the start of the play “seems” like the wise voice of authenticity and yet moves through the play poised to work for the benefit of others. With Hamlet’s acting lessons in mind, paired with knowledge that Polonius once presented an acclaimed interpretation of Julius Caesar on stage, one might conclude that Ophelia’s virtuous father might have some alternative motives. In order to be regarded as a good actor, Polonius must have felt connected to the role of Julius Caesar, a king. We might surmise that Polonius is not satisfied with his place in the royal family as a mere aide to the king. Polonius’s aptitude for acting in this play, however, was lacking—Gertrude cautions Polonius for speaking too ornately: “more matter with less art” (II.ii.103). This warning is Gertrude’s reaction to Polonius first exercise of indirection in the play.
Polonius attributed Hamlet’s love for Ophelia to be the primary cause of the prince’s apparent descent into madness, and he aimed to prove this claim with “indirection.” He believed that “We… by indirections find directions out”(II.i.73). This belief directly reflects Hamlet’s use of art to catch the king’s conscience. Acting is the mode of indirection Polonius uses to help prove Hamlet’s madness for his daughter. Polonius also employs art to achieve an objective and yet by interpreting his lack of skill for this craft, we realize that his advice to Ophelia doomed them both from the start. There is no place for authenticity and purity in Denmark. This is a country in which those who have mastered the craft of acting, i.e. Claudius, assume the throne.
With the frustrating realization that people are quick to judge one another based on outward signs of emotions, what better way to gain control of emotions than with acting? Moreover, what better way to control others than with acting? Ironically, at the finale of the play, during what is supposed to be a harmless duel, Hamlet is killed at the hands of the king’s crafty and influential indirection; he convinced Laertes to want to kill the prince so that he would avoid “seeming” like the villain but is also killed with the same poison that kills Hamlet. In the end, after all of the deception and lying and pretending to be other people, all of those who wielded art as a weapon unintentionally turned that weapon upon themselves.
Hamlet’s dying wish was for Horatio to “tell [his] Story (V.ii.384). A story is fundamentally different than a play because it does not involve actors, who reincarnate people in theater. Horatio would especially not be able to act out a play of Hamlet’s life because there is no evidence of his acting skills; he never “seems” to be someone other than a “good friend” and “servant” (II.ii.168-169). In placing Horatio with the responsibility to record the prince’s legacy, it is apparent that Hamlet has learned the value and trustworthiness of someone authentic. The story of Hamlet will be a new kind of art, a chronicle aimed at ensuring the survival at Denmark by illuminating its dishonest and deceptive history. The artful craftsmanship in wording an accurate and authentic history is the clearest and most compelling way to save people from the mistakes humanities past; Horatio, the historian, is therefore the most artful playgoer of all in Hamlet.
Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine, and Folger Shakespeare Library. The Tragedy of the Prince of Denmark. Simon & Schuster paperback ed. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012