What different attitudes toward drama are displayed by the various characters in Hamlet?
In the middle of the play, Hamlet uses the traveling acting company to stage a play that will supposedly "catch the conscience of the king." This attempt suggests that theater can be used to reveal hidden qualities, such as the guilty thoughts one would otherwise be able to hide. Certainly, Gertrude's "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" remark indicates the power of a play to do so.
Hamlet has other thoughts on theater, of course. He seems to have been an avid fan of theater: he knows the company of actors and respects their work, cringing at the use of boy actors instead of these professionals, faulting actors who would go "off script" in order to get a personal laugh, and even developing his own theory of realistic acting technique ("hold the mirror up to nature").
As the Player King performs the monologue that Hamlet requests (regarding Hecuba and the murder of Priam), we see that theater can be used to conjure up emotions and make one experience a heightened sense of humanity, especially human suffering. The Player King can bring himself to tears simply by recalling the story of the fall of Troy:
What’s Hecuba to him or he to HecubaThat he should weep for her?
This play is particularly interesting in the way that Shakespeare seems to use it to comment on acting and also to make fun of the excesses of various actors. This is perhaps most evident in Act III scene 2, when at the beginning, before the Players perform the play in front of the King and his court, Hamlet gives them some last minute advice on how to perform:
O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.
This speech is a strange collision of times and cultures. The phrase "groundlings" was unique to Shakespearian times, as it denoted people who paid only a penny to stand and watch the drama. Shakespeare, himself an actor, puts his own frustrations into the voice of Hamlet, his protagonist, in order to mock the failings of actors in his own day and also for comic effect. This is further supported by Polonius, who fancies himself as a bit of an actor due to his one past performance on the stage. One aspect of this play that it is important to note, therefore, is the way in which Shakespeare uses the attitudes of characters towards drama in order to hold up a mirror to his audience of Elizabethan theatre, mocking its excesses.