Playing Hamlet


Dr. Larry A. Brown

Professor of Theater

Nashville, Tennessee

July 2007


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The Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) devised the first systematic approach to acting, providing a theoretical foundation for creating a character with psychological depth and consistency. Contemporary acting teachers such as Robert Cohen (Acting Power, 1978) have expanded on Stanislavski’s system and developed several techniques to help actors prepare for a role. Cohen distinguishes between two kinds of thinking for actors: preparation or rehearsal thinking and in-performance thinking. Preparing for a role can be analytical, philosophical, historical, studying the play from many different angles. In contrast, in-performance thinking mimics that of the character's mental activity, which is forward-looking, purposeful, seeking what the character seeks, thinking like she thinks. Cohen gives exercises to help an actor get into the mind of the character while performing, helping to overcome major obstacles in acting: self-consciousness, distractions, dropping out of character, lack of concentration and focus. The actor has too many things to think about, unless she can align all her thoughts in one direction. To illustrate some of these approaches, let’s imagine an actor preparing to play one of the most famous roles in the theater – Hamlet.


For an example of analytical thinking, consider the problem of determining the truth about the Ghost. Most readers assume that the Ghost has come from purgatory, as he mentions "foul crimes" being "burnt and purg'd away." He describes himself as dying "unannel'd," without receiving the last rites. Also one might note the reference to St. Patrick, the keeper of purgatory. These facts in the text point toward an assumption of Roman Catholic beliefs. On the other hand, the word purgatory is never used, but hell is, and Hamlet refers to the voice beneath the stage/ground as the "old mole," a common term for the devil. Horatio asks if the apparition might be a "goblin damn'd," and in his second act soliloquy, Hamlet considers if the Ghost might be a devil in "pleasing shape." These facts might point to a Protestant reading of the text, in which purgatory does not exist, and the Ghost only claims to be Hamlet's father. So which faith does Hamlet follow? These are the kind of questions an actor may study in the analysis of the play, which may lead to interesting interpretations depending on one's conclusions.


However, during performance, an actor would not be asking such questions, but rather would focus on recreating the thought processes of Hamlet caught in the moment of action. To utilize this "in-performance" thinking, Cohen stresses that playing the situation must come before playing character. In everyday life we do not concentrate on our characters so much as on our immediate need or desire in the present situation: getting to an interview on time, asking someone for a date. During in-performance thinking, the actor should focus on Hamlet’s situation and what he wants to come from it. A good example is the scene in Act 3 where Hamlet finds Claudius at prayer. He does not reflect on his role as a potential murderer (“Am I that blood-thirsty?”), but only whether his killing the king at this moment might send Claudius straight to heaven, forgiven of his sins, rather than damning him to hell. Hamlet is too focused on what he wants to worry about what this act reveals about his character.


Herein lies an important difference in a literary critic’s analysis of the play and an actor’s playing a role in performance. Critics often psychoanalyze a character like Hamlet, looking into his past to find reasons for his present behavior. In the 20th century one popular theory has assumed that Hamlet possesses an Oedipal complex, that is, he secretly desires his mother sexually. This concept has influenced countless productions and films of the play, despite little or no evidence of this idea in Shakespeare’s text. Whatever one might think about this interpretation, the actor must take a different approach from the critic. Even if this desire dwells in his subconscious, Hamlet would not consciously think, “I want to kill Claudius so I can sleep with my mother.” During performance, the actor rarely thinks of the character's past motivation but is looking toward the future, and planning how to achieve his intentions. As Cohen explains, motivation and intention are not synonymous terms (33). Motivation looks to the past, assuming that every action is the direct result of some previous cause. In contrast, an actor must look forward, seeking the intention of the character, rather than dwelling on the causes of his behavior in the past, or in Hamlet’s case, hidden in his subconscious mind.


This principle of looking to the future toward a specific goal helps the actor understand the best known but most misinterpreted speech in the play. Most people, when they hear the familiar words, “To be or not to be,” assume that Hamlet is considering suicide. However, there are several reasons why this interpretation does not make sense of the dramatic action at this point in the play. In his first soliloquy in Act 1, Hamlet has already ruled out suicide as an offense against God: “… or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter." Upset over his mother’s “o’er-hasty marriage,” he wants to die but refuses to take his life because of divine law. However, after hearing the ghost’s story, his objective changes from self-loathing to revenge. At the end of Act 2, Hamlet has devised a plan to test the truthfulness of the ghost: he will stage a dramatic scene which resembles the alleged murder of his father to see how Claudius responds. Now that he has a specific action to pursue and has made preparations with the acting troupe to carry it out, why should he be so depressed that he wants to kill himself? He now has a reason to live with a goal to fulfill.


Several films such as Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 version and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version starring Mel Gibson seem to recognize this problem. In order to make sense of Hamlet’s sudden, “suicidal” thoughts, both directors rearrange the scenes to place Ophelia’s rejection of Hamlet before the “To be” speech, whereas in the text Ophelia enters after the soliloquy. The films make it appear as if Hamlet wants to die because he lost his girl. Both films then move Hamlet’s conception of the “Mousetrap” play after the soliloquy. In making these changes, the directors ignore Shakespeare’s intentions in the arrangement of these scenes.


If the actor thinks like Hamlet, looking ahead to his intended goal of avenging his father, this speech makes perfect sense in the dramatic context. Hamlet now has a plan to test the king’s guilt. The question remains: should he go through with it? He considers his options: “To be or not to be; that is the question.” His next line explains the first in parallel thoughts: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – that is, should one continue to live and endure the hardships of life – “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them” – or should one take action against the trouble, in this case by killing Claudius, if he is proven guilty of old Hamlet’s death. Hamlet knows that the likely consequence of assassinating the king will be his own death, thus his troubles will “end.”


As the soliloquy continues, he admits that fear of what lies beyond death prevents many people from taking their own lives, but this is not his main concern. Pursuing vengeance for his father, he does not seek to escape his filial responsibility, as a suicidal interpretation would imply. Far from succumbing to despair, Hamlet remains focused on the bloody matter at hand. This reading of the speech creates a consistent psychological thread from Hamlet’s plan to “catch the conscience of the king” at the end of Act 2 to his contemplating the probable, deadly results at the beginning of Act 3. Stanislavski called this thread the throughline of action, connecting one unit of the character’s action to the next, eventually linking all units of the play.


Along with the soliloquies which focus inwardly, the actor playing Hamlet must also consider his relationships with others in the play. As Cohen explains, dramatic communication involves two basic modes: content and relationship. Often what information a person tells another is not as important as what the speech implies about their relationship. Communication conveys attitude and emotion, whether lovers are warm or cool to one another, whether a person feels superior or inferior to another, whether the speaker projects confidence or vulnerability. Actors use this mode of communication to redefine their relationship with another in a way that helps them achieve their objectives.


Cohen describes two ways of using relationship tactics with others in order to reach a character’s goals. Threat tactics include taking charge of a situation, overpowering others, implying or bluffing about a hidden weapon, taking the offensive in an argument or cutting others off in the middle of a sentence. Threat tactics imply the feeling of superiority over others, and seek a situation where one character wins and the other loses. Seduction tactics may seek mutual benefit, a win-win situation, and include confirming (nodding, smiling, listening attentively, eye contact), disarming (appearing non-threatening, open to the other, trusting, vulnerable), amusing, wanting to please, inspiring, flattering, and showing affection.


Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia raises many questions and provides interesting challenges to the actors involved. After her death, Hamlet professes his love for Ophelia, but in previous scenes he treats her shamefully. Critics have suggested different reasons for Hamlet’s behavior, but the actor must transform theories into tactics. What relationship does Hamlet communicate to Ophelia? In Act 2 she describes to her father how Hamlet appeared before her speechless, his clothes in disarray. The audience knows that Hamlet plans to pretend madness as a disguise for his actions. Thus his tactic may be to evoke her sympathy, as when she says, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” (3.1).


However, in their major confrontation scene, he speaks harshly to her, telling her to “get thee to a nunnery.” Given the double meaning of the word in Protestant England, he may be suggesting she go to a whorehouse. Why does he treat her this way? Some critics have suggested that Hamlet overhears Polonius when he tells Claudius that he will “loose” his daughter on the prince in order to discover the cause of his madness. This knowledge would explain why Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger,” a slang term for a pimp, and talks of his daughter “conceiving.” Hamlet may assume Ophelia to be a willing participant in the scheme. In Olivier’s film, upon entering the room where Ophelia waits, he looks around suspecting that others are listening. At first he is tender with her until he asks, “Where is your father?” to which she replies, “At home.” Catching her in a lie, he humiliates her like a woman willing to sell herself at her father’s bidding.


For another possibility, Kenneth Branagh’s film (1996) suggests a past sexual relationship between the couple, with flashbacks showing them in bed. When we first see Ophelia (1.3), both her brother and father warn her about losing her virginity – had she given them some reason to doubt it? She practically confesses as much in her mad scenes in Act 4 when she sings, “Before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed.” If she and Hamlet had indeed been intimate, it would explain her mild response to Hamlet’s bawdy innuendos during the “Mousetrap” play, suggesting he lie in her lap. A genuine lady would have walked out, highly offended. Thus Hamlet treats her as a past conquest, who knows how to play the game as well as he. Choosing one’s tactics with Ophelia becomes crucial in understanding their relationship. The multiple possibilities suggested by the text create levels of ambiguity which actors through the centuries have explored.


Cohen quotes Michael Goldman in an insightful explanation of dramatic characters as actors themselves: “Acting … is not a matter of assuming a fixed role but of showing how the character acts – that is, how he moves in and out of his repertory of roles, how he changes his disguises to meet every moment of the play, responding to changes in his situation and in the characters around him” (121). The actor must learn to think like the character, to desire what the character desires, share his dreams, her fantasies, and most of all, employ the tactics the character is willing to use to achieve them.