Hamlet’s Advice to the Players

In the endless mess of schools, classes, books, websites, and video learning how to act/speak well (especially with Shakespeare’s text) can be daunting, confusing, and just downright hard. How does Ian McKellen do what he does best? What makes Patrick Stewart so easy to listen to? Or Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi?

There are a lot of wonderful resources out there that can help; I’ve blogged about a few that may help. But when looking for a real concise, simple (though not easy) resource why look any further than the works of The Bard himself?

Shakespeare’s own melancholy Dane has a speech in which he instructs the tragedians how best to play.

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 lief 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 ears of the groundlings, who (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipt 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 any thing 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 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 makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen playโ€”and heard others praise, and that highlyโ€”not to speak it profanely, that, neither having th’ accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellow’d 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 consider’d. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready.

Over the next few posts I will be dissecting the speech and discussing individual parts of it so that I can cover some specifics of the advice about acting. In the mean time: look it over, familiarize yourself with it. It’s a good one to know.

We begin with Trippingly on the Tongue –>