The First Player's speech is often cut in performances of the play. Explain why it is important and why it should not be cut. Act 2
If Hamlet is performed according to the text(s) of the play we have, it runs more than four hours, so most directors make the decision to cut dialogue in order to fit the play to a more normal running time. The First Player's speech, however, is important. The most significant part comes when the First Player describes in vivid terms how Pyrrhus kills Priam.
Pyrrhus's story mirrors Hamlet's. After his father, Achilles, is killed in the Trojan war, Pyrrhus comes to Troy seeking to kill Priam to avenge Achilles' death. The First Player's reciting of this scene particularly speaks to Hamlet, because like Hamlet, Pyrrhus, when he encounters Priam, for a moment "did nothing." The First Player describes this pause as the still before the storm, in which the whole world is silent for a moment, "as hush as death." Then Pyrrhus strikes with "aroused vengeance" and takes a pitiless revenge by killing his foe. This functions as a gloss or commentary on Hamlet's future actions and is what helps motivate the rash way he murders Polonius. By having this speech in place, the audience also can see that "life" as shown in Hamlet's story, does not work as neatly as it did for Pyrrhus. Also, the speech is important because Shakespeare's language is so stunning and vivid.
The second part of the speech is as follows. The First Player notes that Pyrrhus first:
Did nothing.But as we often see against some stormA silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,The bold winds speechless, and the orb belowAs hush as death, anon the dreadful thunderDoth rend the region. So, after Pyrrhus' pause,Arousèd vengeance sets him new a-work.And never did the Cyclops' hammers fallOn Mars’s armor forged for proof eterneWith less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding swordNow falls on Priam.
In Hamlet, Act II, Hamlet says:
- The Player's first monologue is essential to the play for the following reasons:
- It begins the meta-drama motif: theatre about theatre. The key to uncovering Claudius' guilt is through theatre.
- It mirrors the Ghost's monologue from Act I. Hamlet is drawn to morbid dialogues: they set him in motion.
- It foils Hamlet's predicament. Pyrrhus killing Priam is analogous to Hamlet killing Claudius. The speech is both an allusion and a foreshadowing of his revenge against a King.
- It shows Hamlet's love of the theatre. Hamlet is happiest in Act II: the players and Horatio are the only ones he trusts. As Denmark is a prison, Hamlet is free only while he's on stage.
- It shows hilarious critical commentary between Hamlet and Polonius. It shows that Hamlet knows what good art is and Polonius does not. The monologue foils the artistic hero and the fool.
After the First Player's speech, Polonius declares that it (the speech) is "too long," to which Hamlet replies that "it shall to the barber's, with your beard." The joke here is that Polonius does not see the value in the speech. Ironically, nor do those who cut this speech from their performances of the play. Shakespeare's breaking of the fourth wall here in his commentary on the speech should suffice to tell the audience that, long or not, it is of some importance to the events of the play.
Hamlet, of course, is happy to let the First Player continue: the speech has caught his attention, and he prays the player "say on." We can see, then, that the plight of Pyrrhus, driven to kill Priam, has captured Hamlet's imagination. Given the obvious mirroring between this classical story and Hamlet's own future situation with Claudius, it is fair to suggest that Hamlet may have been, however unconsciously, inspired by this speech of which he asks to hear more. Therefore, to cut the speech is to eradicate one of the elements motivating the young prince.