What is the purpose of performance? Is it to mirror reality? Or, is to distort it? As a playwright, Shakespeare seems to have been quite interested in the answers to these questions. Indeed, he frequently poses them within his own work, forcing his audience to consider how the performance unfolding on stage fits in on the spectrum between objective reality and subjective appearance. More importantly, Shakespeare asks us to decide what matters more, a play that is an exact copy of reality or one that offers alternatives that cannot be enacted in the real world. While Shakespeare’s work provides many examples of this inquiry, The Tragedy of Hamlet offers a particularly intriguing show-case of Shakespeare’s meta-theatrical debate. Here, we have a protagonist who is actively engaged in the question of performative purpose. Committed to genuine demonstrations of emotion, but forced to act as if he were mad, Hamlet must gain some sense of what his performance means. Yet, unlike the audience, who has the luxury of pondering this question without consequence, Hamlet knows that his answer will have a very real effect on his understanding of reality and, by extension, the lives of those around him.
In the opening act, Hamlet expresses himself earnestly, proclaiming that his grief for his father is not some show for those around him, but legitimate reflections of his feelings. Asked why he thinks it necessary to seem so grieved, Hamlet replies, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.76). He concludes a few lines later, “I have that within which passeth show” (1.2.85). He expresses disgust at his mother’s own (in his mind, inadequate) show of grief, implying that her tears were no more than an act to cover her intentions to marry his uncle. At this early juncture in the play, Hamlet distances himself from Shakespeare’s other meta-theatrical figures, such as Iago or Richard the Third, who revel in the more distortive aspects of performance in order to achieve their goals. For Hamlet, nothing good can come from such distortion. This dislike of exaggeration and artifice is reflected in Hamlet’s directorial efforts later in the play. “O, it offend me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags,” Hamlet later tells one of the players (3.2.7-9). He warns the player to avoid such delivery in the upcoming performance for the King. Here, Shakespeare, via Hamlet, seems to be arguing that performance should never intend to mask or exaggerate, but should “hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of time his form and pressure” (3.2.20-22). This results in a certain sense of dissatisfaction with theatrical conventions that distort this mirror, such as when the clown improvises and lightens a scene intended to be serious. Hamlet sees this practice as unnecessary pandering to the audience, cheapening the performance as a whole. His desire for a performance that is as close to genuine as possible is not mere aesthetic quibbling. Hamlet, and likely Shakespeare as well, believe that this realistic delivery will create a corresponding reaction out of the audience. For Hamlet, it is crucial that the audience’s reaction to the play be genuine as it is a test of his uncle’s guilt. If there is too much ill-placed humor, then his uncle might hide his emotions. It is not implausible that Shakespeare would desire a similarly honest reaction from his audience, particularly with a play like Hamlet which touches on such serious subjects as inheritance, loyalty, and mortality.
However, is should be noted that both Hamlet and Shakespeare are guilty of distorting reality. Although they are not exaggerating it, they are both bending the facts in order to create their “genuine” depiction. Despite his disgust of deceit, Hamlet is compelled to assume “antic disposition” (1.5.173) (i.e. to act like he is mad) by the end of the first act. His “madness” operates like a disguise, helping to mask his new found knowledge of his father’s murder and allowing him to observe his uncle and courtiers without the suspicion that he is trying to usurp the throne. It is not unlike the “honest” disguise worn by Iago and Richard as they plot their own vengeance. Furthermore, the play that Hamlet asks the players to perform, The Mousetrap, is a rather garbled adaptation of a murder case that happened in Italy in 1538 in which a nephew kills the duke to take his property (see footnote eight on 1741). While this could be potentially confusing element, Hamlet nonetheless chooses to insert the scene of Claudius murdering the King, distorting the original play in order to reenact his father’s death. Similarly, Shakespeare adapted Hamlet from a Danish story about a prince, Amleth, who plots to kill his uncle after his uncle has killed his father. While this tale is a fairly straight forward revenge tale with no supernatural elements or existential angst, Shakespeare clearly saw its potential to house such elements.
This suggests that, despite the potential damage it can conflict, one needs a certain level of distortion in performance. To simply hold up a mirror to reality would do very little to highlight all of the possible alternatives in life, many of which are not open to individuals in their own lives. As a result, playwrights are faced with a level of responsibility in creating their work. While it should be able to inspire genuine emotion, they must do so in a way that does merely repeat the everyday. A level of fiction, or conceit is necessary in order to show us what we failed/cannot to see in reality. However, there is some risk involved. Hamlet’s tale does not resolve itself in a neat package, but fragments into many angles by which we may examine it. While this is intriguing, it is also endlessly frustrating as there can never be one “real” answer. As a result, we, like Hamlet, have to do the best we can with what we know, always aware that of the potentially tragic consequences.