Discuss the idea of acting in Hamlet. How is Hamlet acting and playing different roles as the play progresses?

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Some Shakespeare scholars assert that Hamlet assumes a number of different roles throughout the play and that he appears in different personas to different characters, depending on how he wants to deceive each of them or obtain information from them. Other scholars argue that Hamlet assumes only one role but that all of the major characters in the play are deceived by the "antic disposition" that he puts on after he sees his father's ghost (1.5.191–192).

If Hamlet does, in fact, assume different roles throughout the play or put on an "antic disposition," he's not very good at it.

The "antic disposition" that Hamlet assumes at different times in the play is amateurish at best, and his attempt to appear mad is simply embarrassing for someone in Hamlet's position and with his intelligence.

Hamlet's appearance to Ophelia

with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle. (12.1.88–90)

and his "piteous and profound" sighs (2.1.89–90, 106) is rank overacting of the kind that Hamlet cautions the players against in his "Speak the speech" lecture in act 3, scene 2.

Hamlet's "antic disposition" act is wholly inconsistent, and he has trouble sustaining it for any appreciable length of time. Hamlet tires of his witty repartee with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in act 2, scene 2, and he's quickly bored playing words with Polonius about clouds shaped like camels later in the same scene. It's as if Hamlet's heart really isn't in the play-acting, and sometimes he just gives up trying to sustain it.

Polonius seems to think that Hamlet might be trying too hard to appear mad and suspects there's more to Hamlet's behavior than meets the eye.

LORD POLONIUS. [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is a method in't. (2.2.216–217)

Claudius isn't at all convinced of Hamlet's "madness." He's more concerned about Hamlet's motivations for appearing to be mad, which might negatively affect his own safety.

CLAUDIUS. Nor do we find him forward to be sounded,
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state. (3.1.172–176)

Guildenstern isn't the brightest or most astute character in the play, but he sees right through Hamlet's madness act.

GUILDENSTERN. Nor do we find him forward to be sounded,
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.

GERTRUDE. Did he receive you well?

ROSENCRANTZ. Most like a gentleman.

GUILDENSTERN. But with much forcing of his disposition. (3.1.7–13)

Hamlet really doesn't have much method to his madness. He has no plan. He simply reacts to the people around him and the situations in which he finds himself.

Hamlet doesn't actually assume another role in the play. No other character in the play says that Hamlet has become someone else or changed his essential character. Hamlet simply acts more like himself, accentuating his own worse personality traits, almost like a caricature of himself.

Even Ophelia, who gets the worst of Hamlet's overacting, wonders what's happened to Hamlet, not who or what he's become.

OPHELIA. O, help him, you sweet heavens! ...

O heavenly powers, restore him! ...

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, scholar's, soldier's, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down! (3.1.143, 150, 159–163)

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