Some of my favorite lines from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (which I’ve been studying in a class lately) describe the purpose of drama — and in a way, of art in general. It’s fascinating to me the way in which Shakespeare explains how actors should play their parts so as to best unfold the “necessary question of the play” (Act 3, Scene 2, lines 42-3). But the words that most strike home to me are in lines 20-24. Prince Hamlet has been advising the players not to exaggerate when they act, but to behave naturally, like any normal human being.
“For anything so o’erdone is [contrary to] 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 feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
According to Hamlet, drama should reveal to Virtue and Pride their true essence, showing to the audience the reality of human nature. Plays, when they show us ourselves in a kind of mirror, can be an extraordinarily effective means of communication and growth.