Hamlet’s advice to actors

Hamlet’s speech to the players in act 3, scene 2 of his eponymous play is very sound advice. I don’t need to go into details here, but a prince that is using actors to try and catch his uncle in a lie about killing the prince’s father probably wants those actors to be at the top of their game. Also, it was written by Shakespeare, and he’s Shakespeare. Reading and understanding Hamlet’s words is like a mini master class in acting. Also, it’s written in prose, which pretty much tells you how they felt about actors back then (low class).

As you read it, pay special attention to how he recommends the actors speak, use their bodies, and avoid overacting. It should be read to every cast before every performance – and that’s something I may start doing. Enjoy.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you,
trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our
players do, I had as live the town crier spoke my lines. Nor 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. O, it offends me to the
soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to
tatters, to very rags, to split the cars of the groundlings, who
(for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb
shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipp’d for o’erdoing
Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.

****

Be not too tame neither; 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 modesty of
nature: for anything so overdone 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. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though
it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious
grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance
o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I
have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to
speak it profanely), that, neither having the accent of
Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature’s
journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated
humanity so abominably.

*****

O, reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns
speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them
that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren
spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary
question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villanous
and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go
make you ready.

Take away:
1. Stay in control of your movements and avoid overacting.
2. Speak clearly. Enunciate.
3. Every action should be thought out and suited to what you are saying, and vice versa. Nothing extraneous.
4. Be as truthful as possible. Hold that “mirror up to nature”.
5. Don’t go for the cheap laugh. No mugging or any other kind of technique designed to force comedy. Don’t do a poor job of imitating humanity.
6. Stick to the script. Don’t set out only to make yourself look good.