Why is the idea of playing a role or acting a part so important to Hamlet over the course of the play?

The idea of acting out a part in his own life as it's represented in Shakespeare's Hamlet is important to Hamlet because it allows him to disguise his own feelings and hide his true motivations for his behavior. By putting on an "antic disposition," Hamlet can protect himself from the dangerous situation in which he finds himself and perhaps induce his uncle, Claudius, into incriminating himself in the murder of Hamlet's father.

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Hamlet's first reference to acting in Shakespeare's Hamlet occurs not long after Hamlet's first appearance in the play. In act 1, scene 2, Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, and Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, take Hamlet to task for what they perceive as Hamlet's excessive show of grief for his recently dead father.

Essentially, Claudius and Gertrude accuse Hamlet of acting like he's grieving. Hamlet responds that his sense of grief is far deeper than he shows.

HAMLET. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
(act 1, scene 2, lines 86–89)

It's not long, however, before Hamlet really is acting. After he sees the ghost of his father, Hamlet decides to act mad, or behave like he's insane, to mislead Claudius, protect himself from Claudius, and perhaps draw Claudius into incriminating himself in the murder of Hamlet's father.

HAMLET. I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on.
(act 1, scene 5, lines 191–192)

Hamlet's decision to "put an antic disposition on" immediately calls into question whether Hamlet was, in fact, acting out his grief at his father's death, as Claudius and Gertrude suspected.

Hamlet's "antic disposition" decision also raises a question about Hamlet's trustworthiness through the rest of the play. Is Hamlet being truthful, is Hamlet expressing his true emotions, or is Hamlet simply acting?

The first audience to Hamlet's "antic disposition" is Ophelia, who reports Hamlet's strange and frightening behavior to her father, Polonius, in act 2, scene 1.

Hamlet's acting for Ophelia has the desired result. Both Ophelia and Polonius think Hamlet is mad, although Polonius goes a little off the mark by deciding that Hamlet is mad for Ophelia's love and that Ophelia's recent distant behavior toward Hamlet is causing Hamlet to exhibit "the very ecstasy of love" (act 2, scene 1, line 114).

When the travelling players arrive at Elsinore, Hamlet imposes on the first player to perform "a passionate speech" but not before Hamlet does a little acting himself (act 2, scene 2, lines 445–459). Hamlet is entirely comfortable acting the role of Æneas, a mythological hero from ancient classical literature, and he remembers Æneas's lines without prompting.

Hamlet's famous "speak the speech" speech to the players in act 3, scene 2 shows that Hamlet knows a great deal about acting. Was Hamlet aware that Claudius and Polonius were eavesdropping on him and Ophelia in the prior scene, and if so, was Hamlet acting out his "to be, or not to be speech" and his "get thee to a nunnery" scene with Ophelia for them?

Hamlet is in his element in the "play-within-a-play" scene, in which the players are enacting "a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines" (act 2, scene 2, line 534) that Hamlet himself wrote for them, and Hamlet is acting out his own play, wherein he hopes to "catch the conscience of the King" (act 2, scene 2, line 600).

Hamlet does, indeed, "catch the conscience of the King." However, even when the reality of the situation finally becomes clear to Hamlet and he knows what he must do to avenge his father's murder, Hamlet is compelled to keep acting.

Hamlet's "antic disposition" has become second nature to him. He continues to act the madman with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after the "play-within-a-play," and, with the help of his father's ghost, he convinces his mother that he's mad in their scene together (act 3, scene 4), which madness she promptly reports to Claudius.

GERTRUDE. Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier.
(act 4, scene 1, lines 7–8)

Hamlet seems to have reconciled himself with reality when he returns from his brush with death on his forced trip to England, which he relates in a letter to Horatio (act 4, scene 6). Nevertheless, Hamlet can't resist again playing the role of the mythological hero at Ophelia's grave by jumping into the grave, boldly declaring himself "Hamlet the Dane" (act 5, scene 1, line 256), grappling with Ophelia's brother, Laertes, and calling after Laertes and threatening him as he leaves his sister's grave.

All of the major characters in the last scene of the play are acting, except for Hamlet, who, unlike Claudius, Laertes, and Gertrude, doesn't have anything to hide at that point in the play. Hamlet is truly himself, perhaps for the first time in the play, and unfortunately it proves to be his downfall.

Hamlet's death is very dramatic, of course, but that's due to Shakespeare's writing, not Hamlet's acting, although Hamlet urges Horatio to tell his story, as if it was a play, before his final, dramatic line: "The rest is silence" (act 5, scene 2, line 320).

Fortinbras gets the last word on Hamlet's acting in the play, and he also provides for Hamlet's final bow:

FORTINBRAS. Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage
(act 5, scene 2, lines 412–413)

By "stage" Fortinbras means a funereal stage, not a stage in a theatre, but Shakespeare no doubt meant the word to have a double meaning, in order to give Hamlet a suitable and meaningful theatrical exit.

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