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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT II, SCENE II

Throughout the play Hamlet shows an ongoing concern with acting as an aspect of human behavior. His idealism demands that people be true to their own nature. He genuinely tries to live by Polonius' advice, "To thine own self be true"; as early as Act I, Scene ii, he is trying to tell his mother that his grief is not a matter of acting, of posturing and costume. With the players soon to arrive, Hamlet's notion of true and false emotion is about to get mixed up with what is commonly called the paradox of acting- the idea that an actor has to create a genuine emotion onstage in order to make his audience know what the character is feeling. In Hamlet's eyes this is impossible, as the very definition of acting implies pretending to have an emotion. However, his uncle's behavior and his own mixed feelings about revenge and murder are constant reminders to him that emotions can be feigned in real life too, that in fact there are situations in which the pretense of actors is more "real" than the feelings people must often pretend to show in public; and it is the actors who will give him the clue to his next move. As you go through the play, be on the lookout for the varied situations in which Shakespeare shows or refers to people "acting" in real life, and notice how each relates to Hamlet and his dilemma.

A trumpet fanfare indicates the arrival of the acting company at the castle. Hamlet's greeting clearly shows that he is on friendly terms with them. As a preview of their performance, he requests a speech from a play he admires (significantly, one that was not a popular success). The speech is the story of the Trojan War as told by the surviving Trojan prince, Aeneas, to Dido, queen of Carthage. Hamlet chooses the section that tells how Aeneas' father, King Priam, was slaughtered in battle by the brutal Greek soldier Pyrrhus, while the city of Troy was being sacked and burned by the Greeks. Hamlet recites the first part of the speech, describing Pyrrhus, dressed in black and covered with the blood of his victims, searching for the old king.


The company's lead actor now takes over, and describes how Pyrrhus finds the brave but feeble old man, King Priam, and slaughters him remorselessly. "This is too long," Polonius interrupts, but Hamlet rather insultingly overrules him. The next part of the speech describes how Priam's wife, Hecuba, the queen of Troy, witnessed her husband's murder and mutilation, and how her wailing would have brought tears to the eyes of the gods.

At this point Polonius interrupts again, upset that the player has gotten so carried away that his face is flushed and he is crying real tears. Saying, "I'll have thee speak out the rest of this soon," Hamlet turns the actors over to Polonius to be housed and fed. As Polonius leads the actors off, Hamlet takes the first player aside and asks him to play The Murder of Gonzago, adding that he will give him an additional speech "of some dozen or sixteen lines" to insert in it. He sends the first player after Polonius, and says good night to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who leave.

Turning to the audience with the simple declaration, "Now I am alone," Hamlet launches into his second great soliloquy, "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" He compares himself bitterly to the player, who could summon real passion and real tears for the story of Hecuba, a mythical character ("What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?"). He wonders what the player would do in his, Hamlet's, situation:

Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears...
Make mad the guilty and appall the free [that is,
the innocent].

 

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