Hamlet’s Evaluation of Drama

Shakespeare has a number of clever “play-within-the-play” scenes in his dramas that shed some light into the author’s goal for his work. One such scene is found when Hamlet, having purposed to use a play to trap the conscience of the king, compares himself with an actor:

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage waned;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? An all for nothing,
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him or he to her,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty, and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. [II.ii.516-532]

Hamlet seems to be lamenting that the actor can accomplish so much without real feelings, while Hamlet is not moved to action, even though he has much genuine passion. Hamlet sees this actor, sees himself reflected in the scene, and then desires action in his own life.
In contrasting his “real” passions with the actor’s pretended passions, Hamlet is using the argument from the lesser to the greater to point out how much more real his feelings are than the actor’s. The fact that Hamlet’s character is performed by an actor, however, puts an ironic twist into the scene.
This irony would seem to indicate, then, that the audience’s feelings are much more real than Hamlet’s, and that they can therefore move to action to a greater degree than Hamlet’s can.
If this is true, then Shakespeare is saying that passions ought to move people to action, and that plays ought to cause the individuals in the audience to see themselves as in a mirror, so as to stir their emotions and be moved to action in their lives.

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