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A Play about Playing?
Among the many things Hamlet is about is the art of theatre itself.
Hamlet clearly grew up loving plays and players. After all, “poor Yorick,” whose skull he
famously eulogizes, was the court jester of Hamlet’s youth. The acting troupe is summoned to
lighten his “melancholy” because they were known to delight him in the past.
“The Mousetrap”—the title Hamlet mischievously gives the play that he hopes will
ensnare Claudius—is perhaps drama’s most famous play-within-a-play. We even see Hamlet
directing a rehearsal, delivering his famous “Advice to the Players,” which contains
Shakespeare’s timeless definition of his own craft as “to hold, as ’twere, the / mirror up to
Shakespeare weaves theatrical language and metaphors into the text more subtly as well.
Hamlet’s very first lines draw our attention to the difference between “actions that a man might
play” and genuine feelings “which passeth show.” When he marvels at the lead player’s
commanding presence, he wonders “What would he do / Had he the motive and the cue for
passion / That I have?” Elsinore itself is often depicted as a theatre of deception; Hamlet
“performs” madness to deceive his enemies, while Claudius and Polonius try to stage a love
scene between him and Ophelia as they look on.
Even in such a serious tragedy, Shakespeare is not above the occasional in-joke for his
Elizabethan colleagues. Amid his banter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet mocks a
current London fad for companies of boy players who were taking away business from
Shakespeare’s own company. Polonius’ boast of having once played Julius Caesar in a school
play may be a nod to Globe Theatre regulars as well. John Heminges (the actor many scholars
believe first played Polonius) really did play the title character in Shakespeare’s own Julius
Caesar, a recent hit. When Polonius tells Hamlet, “I was killed i’ the Capitol; Brutus killed me,”
the audience might have had another good laugh, since Brutus was played by none other than
Shakespeare’s leading man Richard Burbage—who also played Hamlet. Was Shakespeare also
foreshadowing of Hamlet’s own “brutal” killing of Polonius soon to come?
—Garrett Eisler
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2016 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s
plays. For more information on the play, click here. To buy the full Illuminations, click here.
Members at the Donor level and above and teachers who bring school groups to OSF receive a
free copy of Illuminations.