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Shakespeare's Comments and Point of View on Acting From "Hamlet," Act 3, Scene 2

I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Tip for Teachers Tackling Shakespeare

If you are trying to align your lessons to the Common Core Standards, Act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet would be an excellent section of text to use for a close reading activity in either an English class or a drama/theatre class.

  • Ask students to read this section of text closely to discover what Shakespeare had to say about the craft of acting.
  • Before tackling the text individually, play an audio or video clip of the speech. Remind students that sometimes we need to read the text multiple times in various ways in order to dig deeper and understand the full meaning.
  • Using a highlighter, students can underline phrases that they believe stand out as Shakespeare’s advice.
  • After identifying the evidence, students can write a journal entry or “quick write” to explain Shakespeare’s point of view on actors and their craft.
  • Use this article as a model for students, or write your own version to show students how it’s done!

Remember, the Common Core Standards encourage close reading of the authentic text. The standards also require teaching works of Shakespeare. Even if you don’t love the Common Core, this is one expectation that all English teachers should celebrate.

In Act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet, Shakespeare comments on acting through Hamlet’s speech to the players who will be reenacting the murder of Hamlet’s father in front of King Claudius. Hamlet’s mission is to reveal Claudius as a murderer. He wants the acting to be perfect so the play will go as planned. Shakespeare uses this speech to share his point of view on acting.

In this speech Shakespeare tells the audience that actors should put some energy and emotion into the dialogue of the play. If an actor fails to do this, he looks like he is merely giving a speech. In this case, according to Hamlet, a town crier might just as well bellow out the lines. Acting is more than speaking words on a stage. It is about bringing those words to life.

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Here, Shakespeare is explaining that movements, or actions, and speech should be controlled and deliberate. Actors should be motivated by the words and use that motivation to craft a performance. An actor randomly moving around the stage, possibly flailing his arms around, will look ridiculous and won’t be communicating to the audience. On the other hand, an actor who stands still and doesn’t use any vocal variation will end up with the same result as the flailing idiot.

Shakespeare states that acting should not be overdone, nor underdone, a few times in Hamlet’s speech. He says that in either case, the uneducated, or “unskilled” will be entertained. These are not the audience members the actor should worry about. The actor should try to please the “judicious” audience member. This person is educated about theatre and will criticize the actor’s every move.

Theatre should be held as “twere a mirror up to nature.” In other words, theatre imitates life. It does this in many ways: “to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Theatre shows a society its present state of affairs; it criticizes and challenges life.

Through Hamlet’s speech, Shakespeare tells us what he thinks acting should be. Acting should not be overdone, or underdone. Actors should use energy to bring a character to life in a controlled and deliberate fashion. In this way, acting will mirror life. It is often said that Shakespeare is timeless. Shakespeare’s view on acting is a perfect example to support this statement.

© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt


Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on May 28, 2012:

At times, I agree. Sometimes though, subtle doesn't read well on stage, so it is better to play the role up a bit. I suppose that is part of the art of stage acting. An actor must find the balance in order to be great.

Eric Calderwood from USA on May 28, 2012:

The funny thing is, in my opinion anyway, that most "Shakespearian" actors and actresses over-act. There have been times where I have been watching a movie and have been able to accurately point out which character is being played by a shakespearian actor or actress. I don't know, perhaps they have to act this way on stage in order to project to an audience that may not be able to see or hear as well as a movie audience can.