Make mad the guilty, and appall the free

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all the visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, an' his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing,
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty, and appall the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 550–566

Hamlet is disgusted with his lackadaisical performance as an avenger. Having just heard an actor's impassioned recitation of the fall of Troy, the prince marvels that such feeling could be mustered for Hecuba, the Trojan queen, a mere indifferent fiction. The teary delivery, the actor's feigned distress, his artificial pallor—"all for nothing,/ For Hecuba!" If the actor had the very real material Hamlet has—a fratricidal stepfather, an incestuous mother, a flock of spies scrutinizing his every move—his performance would profoundly affect ("amaze indeed") a terror-stricken audience and expose the guilty party by its very force [see THE PLAY'S THE THING].

Yet despite all his "motives" and "cues," Hamlet's acting style has been rather cerebral, except when he lets loose in soliloquies like this one. Preferring cunning to rant, Hamlet instinctively distrusts histrionic display—even when it is "real" it will seem affected [see THAT WITHIN WHICH PASSES SHOW and HOLD A MIRROR UP TO NATURE].

Themes: madness, actors and acting

Speakers: Hamlet

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