“The Purpose of Playing”: Hamlet on Mirrors and Sawing the Air

Lately I’ve been rereading Hamlet and freshly remembering the play’s challenges, questions, and lessons. It’s Shakespeare’s longest drama and probably his most famous, understandably. I studied Hamlet my senior year of high school and in four different classes during my time at Hillsdale College—and the play never gets old.

I guess that makes this my fifth reread, and I’m still making new connections as I study it. Looking back through old blog posts, I was reminded that I’d written a short reflection inspired by Hamlet three years ago on the blog. (It was my tenth post ever! So long ago…) That was when I was studying the play for the third time in college, during my junior year.

IMG_5477As I mentioned in that blog post, there’s a wonderful section in Act 3 of the play where Shakespeare describes the purpose of drama with tremendous insight. Hamlet is interacting with a group of actors and gives them sound advice that we still need to hear four centuries later. First, he cautions them not to be overdramatic onstage: “Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

He then balances this advice by warning against the opposite extreme: “Be not too tame either, but 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 [moderation] of nature.”

Nature. The way things are. The way humans behave. Essentially Hamlet just wants the players to “act natural”—to create the illusion of reality on stage.

IMG_5502Why? Why is it so crucial for actors to seem like real people, rather than exaggerated parodies of people? Hamlet explains exactly why: “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 own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone or [done inadequately], though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.” This amazes me every time I read it: the purpose of a play is to hold a mirror up to nature. To demonstrate to people the truth about themselves.

Wow. As actors, or as a playwright, this is a high calling. Our mission is to present truth, not abstractly but in human form. If we pursue our purpose well and show human nature truly, the play’s viewers will be able to discern themselves in the characters onstage. That’s the power of drama: to incarnate truth and set it before an audience’s eyes, closely, physically, living and breathing. As Horatio says in the opening scene of Hamlet after seeing the ghost he’s been told about, “I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes.” It’s easy enough for us to read or hear about something and dismiss it; but when you see it intentionally lived out in front of you, then it’s harder to disbelieve.

So Hamlet had it right—not just what good acting looks like, but what acting is all about. As he famously states midway through the drama, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Plays have that potential. They show us who we really are, remind us who we’ve been, and reveal to us who we could be. I’m so grateful to play a part in that undertaking.

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