A Mirror Up To Nature.

Hello everyone and welcome to our third week of blogs, podcasts, and Shakespeare! We’ve so far been very broad in our discussions, but today I would like to start honing in onto some more nuts and bolts aspects of Shakespeare. One of the things I want to do with this blog is to highlight specific lines from the text of Hamlet that I find particularly fascinating. Often there is a disconnect between watching a production of Shakespeare and reading the text of Shakespeare. I hope that by taking a little time to delve into specific points of interest in the text you can walk away from the show having better enjoyed the performance, and understand a little bit more about why a good number of us have such a strong regard for Shakespeare’s works.

Today I want to talk to you about a small portion of a speech that Hamlet gives to a troupe of actors right before they put on a performance of a play. Hamlet has some words of advice for the actors, and tries to give a summary of why he thinks theatre is important:

“…Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this

special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. 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.”

Interesting? Moving? Gibberish? Depending on your familiarity with the play and the text it could strike you as any combination of the three.  I’d like to go through the text carefully, line by line, to help illuminate what I find so special about this passage of less than 100 words.

“..Suit the action to the word, the word to the action…”

This is one of the most famous lines in the entirety of Hamlet. In fact, this particular phrase has often been cited  as one of the best pieces of advice ever written for actors. I don’t want to get into trying to defend such huge statements, but I do want to clarify what I think it means and why I think it has value. If I were to summarize it into a more modern way of speaking I would say that when you are acting you should make sure that what you are saying is in line with what you are doing.  In my mind it means that you should make sure that the choices you make as an actor, the way you say your lines, interact with other characters, and choose your motivations, reflect the actions and words of the character you’re playing.  Here is a very simplified example: Let’s say you’ve been cast as Homer Simpson in a stage version of The Simpsons. As most of us know Homer loves doughnuts. He is constantly telling other characters how much he loves doughnuts. In the script there are stage directions that when ever Homer finally gets to eat a sweet, sweet doughnut he makes sounds of joy and ecstasy as he chews.  So, I think we can agree that it would be pretty unsettling if you choose to portray Homer Simpson as a man who actually doesn’t like doughnuts, and even more horrifying if you chose to make noises of disgust whenever he ate a doughnut. 

See where this is going?

Shakespeare’s advice is to simply take what the script gives you and run with it. There are tone of exceptions and nuances to this advice, but I think at its core it is reminding us not to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes everything you need is staring you right in the face.

“…with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.”

In this Shakespeare seems to be advocating a naturalistic style of acting. I think it’s pretty straightforward, asking that you take your cues from how to act from nature. It’s not the only method, and sometimes different forms of performance can call for different styles. I think this part is more important in how it sets up the next passage of text.

“…For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing…”

It’s important to note here that playing means acting or performing. What I gather from this is that he lists the ways he thinks good acting is carried out, make what your character says and does in line with your performance and take your cues for how your portray characters from real life, and then says that not doing those things misses out on the whole purpose of acting. which is…

“…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.”

Alright, now we’re in the meat of our subject. This is what Shakespeare thought the point of theatre was from it’s very beginnings right up until when he wrote it (“both at the first and now”).  Theatre’s purpose, he says, is to let us see a reflection of how life is, in order that we can have a better understanding of our own lives. We can see if our virtues are actually virtues, see if the things we scorn are worthy of that scorn, and take a hard look at the age and time we’re living in. This is powerful stuff, and I think that any play that tries to accomplish these goals would be well on their way to producing a very powerful piece of theatre. I also hope that we can all agree that the best theatre is the kind that gives us some insight into our own lives, and makes us think about ourselves in a new way.

Now I know that you can find a lot of what I just said in any of the thousands of books written about Shakespeare. If you want an easy to understand modernization of the text, you can look at Sparknotes.com’s No Fear Shakespeare. If you want an in-depth description of the history and context of the speech in relation to the time it was originally composed in, I would recommend the Hamlet section of Isaac Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare. Or, if you want a great scholarly and critical analysis of the value of Shakespeare’s words I have personally found a lot of joy in Harold Bloom’s The Invention Of The Human. What I’m trying to say is that I am of course not the first person to point out any of this, and am rehashing things that have been written about for over 400 years. So why do it?

Firstly I think that there is value in putting my own thoughts into words. Even if they’ve been said before, they haven’t been said in exactly the same way that I’m going to say them. Maybe my crude metaphor involving Homer Simpson is the final poke that pushes just the right button in someone’s brain that they set off on their journey to become the greatest actor the world has ever seen. I know that it would certainly stoke my ego to think so. Maybe my words can hit someone in a slightly different way from all of the others, and that is the way that helps them finally connect with the passage. Or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever read about this passage and I can at least get you interested enough in Shakespeare to turn you on to better writers than myself.

In a way, the whole thing strikes me as a metaphor for why we still continue to produce and perform Shakespeare after all these hundreds of years, especially in our modern era when there so many fine film productions of his plays. Why continue to do it? Why try to do something hundreds of others have done before, and probably done very well? I think the value in producing it are the same as the values I found in writing about it. The idea that hopefully some small difference in the way I see the story, or the way the actors portray the characters will strike a chord with the audience. No matter how many productions of Hamlet there have been, or ever will be, none of them will ever be like the one we’re doing right now. And if we can even find one moment that helps to hold a mirror up to someone’s nature, I think we will have been a success.


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