What is the Hecuba speech in Shakespeare's Hamlet about?

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This soliloquy at the end of Act II scene ii shows Hamlet considering the way the acting he has just witnessed was able to access such powerful depths of emotion even though the performance was just "a fiction, ...a dream of passion".  In the small performance earlier in the scene, the actor describes the terror of Hecuba, a figure from Ancient Greece, who watches her husband Priam's murder at the hands of Pyrrhus.  In his soliloquy later on, Hamlet is impressed that the actor was able to express such empathy for Hecuba to the extent that the actor's "visage wann'd" and he had...

Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect, 

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit...

Clearly the actor is so connected to Hecuba's emotion that his entire body communicates it fully even though Hecuba in reality means nothing to him: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?"

Hamlet then moves on to attack himself for his inadequate expression of emotion in comparison to the actor's.  This is a familiar theme of the play.  Hamlet is frequently frustrated about his own inability to act decisively in response to the information that his father was murdered by his uncle Claudius.  Here, Hamlet's point is that he has much better grounds than the actor to express his emotions, but even so he is not able to.  He lets out a stream of abuse at himself, calling himself "pigeon-liver'd", a "John-a-dreams", and "A dull and muddy-mettled rascal", emphasising his over-thoughtfulness and lack of mettle (courage).

Finally, he moves on to concretise his plan to get the actors to perform a play about a murder similar to the one Hamlet suspects Claudius of committing.  Hamlet's theory is that Claudius will be so affected by the emotions of the play that he will reveal his guilt spontaneously.  He explains this in these lines:

                                         ...I have heard

That guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have by the very cunning of the scene

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaim'd their malefactions...


Overall, this speech reveals Hamlet's growing impetus towards action through the inspiration of the players.  It is also interesting to note that Shakespeare seems to be putting forth a case for the power of dramatic art to effect change in the world.

As the mother of Hector, Hecuba features in Homer's epic poem The Iliad, an Ancient Greek text.

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