Explain Hamlet's comparison of himself to the actor.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet has been concerned since he saw the ghost with the issue of appearance versus reality: who tells the truth and who lies? Is the ghost actually his dead father? Who among the courtiers in a corrupt court tells the truth? Is his uncle really a murderer?

It also weighs heavily on Hamlet, who is depressed and having suicidal ideation, that he feels paralyzed. He is terribly grieved over his father's death and feels the loss acutely. If the ghost is telling the truth, he feels the burden of needing to avenge his father's murder. 

When the traveling players come, Hamlet watches the First Player as he acts the part of Hecuba, the wife of King Priam, mourning her husband's death with tears and body language that communicate deep grief. Hamlet wonders that someone merely acting a part can so convincingly convey strong emotion. Hamlet asks,

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
That he should weep for her?
He then compares himself to the player, noting how deeply he, Hamlet, has genuine cause for emotion ("passion") and a real "cue" (the words of the ghost) to prompt him to act. He wonders
What would he [the player would] do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free . . .
Hamlet judges himself harshly for not being able to muster the player's emotion. Why, he wonders, can't he express or act on what he feels?
"Am I coward?" Hamlet wonders. Hamlet's inner struggles are acute and ongoing, a source of anguish to him that is only exacerbated by his encounter with the player.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet watches the actor (or Leading Player) deliver a monologue in which he, the actor, becomes so emotionally invested that his performance is incredibly believable, including moments of rage and even ending in tears.  Later, Hamlet compares himself to this actor in his famous "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy.  He basically beats himself up for not having the same amount of passion about his real life situation as the actor has for a pretend situation.  Hamlet is desperately mad at himself for not having taken any action yet to avenge his father.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial