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 Hecuba
That he should weep for her?
Shakespeare's audience might see a template of their own experience here, reflecting on the torment the actor playing Hamlet feels as he speaks his soliloquies.
The character who seems to stand most in opposition to Hamlet's and Shakespeare's view of dramatic art is Polonius
. What marks Polonius as an anti-theatrical sort is his aesthetic taste.
As he and Hamlet watch the Player King, Hamlet is entranced, while Polonius grows bored ("This is too long") or intrigued by fancy words ("That's good! 'Mobled queen' is good"). According to Hamlet, Polonius is the type of audience member who will fall asleep unless continually entertained. In a play as dependent on delay and long speeches as this one, Shakespeare must surely be satirizing Polonius.
Polonius informs Hamlet that in his university days, he was accounted a decent performer. Of course, the Inns of Court or university plays stand in contrast to the public theaters where Shakespeare built his career. These university theaters were training grounds for the type of rhetoric
used in legal and government settings, often considered rather tedious fare.
Polonius, however, played a part in a historical drama concerning Julius Caesar
(and we must remember that Shakespeare's own play by this name was his biggest and most recent "hit" prior to Hamlet
). In summarizing the play, Polonius says, "I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i' th' Capitol. Brutus killed me." The dig here is that Polonius recalls this play only in its plot, rather than remembering any elevated thought one might derive from it. Again, Hamlet
is a play in which very little happens in terms of plot yet which explores a vast array of human experiences.