Monday, February 25, 2013

Being, Seeming, Acting, Performing in Hamlet


Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’. ’Tis not alone my inky coat, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly. These indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show — These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

(1. 2. 72-86)
Here Hamlet’s ‘actions that a man might play’ subtly insinuate the whole issue of performance, the distinction itself (between seeming and being) coming from a consummate actor who cannot act to revenge his father. How are we to interpret what L. C. Knights calls ‘Hamlet’s habitual tendency to make everything, even what he deeply feels, into a matter of play-acting’? ‘Again and again’, explains Knights, ‘intrinsic values, direct relations, are neglected whilst he tries out various roles before a real or imagined audience’.16 Indeed, so consummate an actor is Hamlet that to this day criticism remains unable to settle the issue of his most challenging and provoking role—his madness—a challenge as much to our understanding of madness itself, it should be said, as it is to our understanding of the character. How far is madness an escape from the burden of expectation into self-protective ‘play-acting’? 

‘An act hath three branches’: Being and Acting in Hamlet

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