Hamlet Dramatic Technique

Aristotelian forms of tragedy in Hamlet #


Hamlet conforms to the Aristotelian forms of tragedy. It is well constructed and abides to Aristotle’s definitions regarding a complete dramatic action which arouse pity and fear inducing Catharsis.

The play is based on the theatre of illusion where the audience experiences the predicaments of the characters vicariously By identifying emotionally and psychologically, we are drawn closer to the characters; identify and empathise and are aroused by their terror to pity and fear (Pathos) to a state of Catharsis, releasing our tension, soothing and purging our souls.

This can be ephemeral with no lasting consequences.

The plot is linear, progressing from a beginning, a middle and an end with various techniques of wholeness, unity and purpose. It reaffirms a rational, ordered universe.

Dramatic structure of Five Acts from Aristotle via Ovid:

  1. Exposition
  2. Complications
  3. Crises - turning point
  4. Delaying tactic
  5. Catrastrophic unravelling of the plot leading to denoument.

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may”

The characters are appropriate, realistic and plausible; the hero from a good family, going through a crisis with a reversal of fortune.

Suffering is depicted as ennobling. At the end, order is restored, god is on his throne and all is right with the world.

Theatre of illusion.

The audience deluded into thinking they are watching real time events The structure of the plays change the way the audience is presented with the concepts of life. Hamlet is a climactic structure, sequentially ordered from beginning, middle and end, has motifs to bond it, with cause and effect.

Theatre of Action and emotional involvement

In Hamlet we have a hero and avenger who builds up to a climax. Hamlet suffers melancholy, depression and builds anger and frustration eventually leading to the dramatic death of Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet himself. We identify and relate to Hamlet and this involvement becomes a vicarious experience of suffering arousing pity and fear leading to Catharsis, or release of tension, and a purging, soothing to the soul.

This experience has a temporary affect and may have no lasting consequences on the readers feelings.

Emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion…. (see notes on motifs in Hamlet)

Hamlet is an Aristotelian model of a classical drama - there is an overall logic to the action, and the plot has a discernible shape: a beginning, middle, and end. By the conclusion of the play, in other words, through the actions of the participants, something has been dealt with, resolved. Shakespeare represents a monolithic unanimous ordered society with uniformity of thought, religion ideology and economics. Hierarchical and socially rigid; a place for everything and everything in its place with clockwork organisation, unquestioned religious beliefs with certitude about purpose of life and surety of an afterlife.

Yet there are some Absurdities:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.

Shakespeare, while innovative with language and thought, is very conservative in politics and theatrical conventions.

Suffering is inherent in the human condition, leads man to a noble form of dignity by confronting us with challenges.

Men are depicted as Heroes, yet there can be no doubt that Shakespeare reveals the folly of Fortinbras in going to war on any pretext yet Hamlet appears impressed by him. How Fortinbras can represent restoration of order is beyond me. Is Shakespeare admitting that all leaders are mediocre but provide a form of stability however vacuous their minds?


Goes it against the main of Poland, sir, Or for some frontier?


Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.


Why, then the Polack never will defend it.


Yes, it is already garrison’d.


Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.
death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.

From: Entire play - http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html

Metatheatre #

Hamlet is an example of “Metatheatre”, or “Theatre about Theatre”.

Meta : On a basic level, meta meant recursive or self-referential—. To be meta was to flex your self-awareness for social currency, to demonstrate proficiency in the language of smirky dissociative irony that was the trendy cultural refuge from the massive information shitstorm

To the ancient Greeks, μετα- simply meant “after.” Aristotle, got to the period right after The Physics, he didn’t put too much thought into calling it Metaphysics.

He was basically calling it Physics: The Sequel. But Aristotle’s work in that period was arguably his most intense. Whereas The Physics summoned concepts like matter, nature, substance, and motion to describe the inner workings of the visible world, Metaphysics attempted to go beyond the visible.

When Hamlet tells the players that the purpose of theater is to show “the very age and body of the time,” we get the overall idea: they should embody the life of their own historical period. But the individual pieces of the phrase don’t cohere. The time does not have a body—it is the thing to be embodied by the actors. The “age of the time” borders on tautology. When Hamlet talks of his father’s tomb opening “his ponderous and marble jaws,” we must work quite hard to get to what is being signified, which is the heavy marble construction of the tomb. That banal little word “and” leaves us in a place somewhere between comprehension and mystery.

Shakespeare started his career as an actor and gradually advanced to writing and became a share holder of the Globe Theatre. It is based on other versions of Hamlet during his time. It combines thinking and action. There are mirrors within mirrors, plays within plays and tragedies within tragedies.

John Bell writes:

Shakespeare articulates theatre’s function in Hamlet: ’the purpose of playing… was and is, to hold….. the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time is form and pressure.’ That means to reflect the time we live in as precisely as the image made by a signet ring pressed into wax, an exact image.

Shakespeare capitalises on opportunities to comment on the nature of drama and actors when he has the Hamlet advise the players on how to say their lines. (3.2)

I remember, one said there were no sallets
in the lines to make the matter savoury
. (Sallets – salacious or juicy bits)


Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but
there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases,
that cry out on the top of question, and are most
tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the
fashion, and so berattle the common stages–so they
call them–that many wearing rapiers are afraid of
goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.


What, are they children? who maintains ’em? how are
they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players–as it is most like, if their means are no
better–their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?


‘Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and
the nation holds it no sin to tarre them to
controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid
for argument, unless the poet and the player went to
cuffs in the question.

Polonius flaunts his knowledge on the various genres of drama.


The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.

Polonius is impressed with Hamlet’s recital of the first lines of Dido’s speech:


‘Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion.


Good my lord, will you see the players well
bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for
they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the
time: after your death you were better have a bad
epitaph than their ill report while you live.

Hamlet’s Advice to the Player is Shakespeare’s subtle criticism of actors and director’s of his time.


Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.


Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to 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
the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
censure of the which one must in your allowance
o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be
players that I have seen play, and heard others
praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,
that, neither having the accent of Christians nor
the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of
nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them
well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

First Player

I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir.


O, reform it altogether. And let those that play
your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;
for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to
set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh
too; though, in the mean time, some necessary
question of the play be then to be considered:
that’s villanous, and shows a most pitiful ambition
in the fool that uses it. Go, make you ready.

Hamlet and Polonius discuss his acting at University.


My lord, you played once i’ the university, you say?


That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.


What did you enact?


I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i’ the Capitol; Brutus killed me.


It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. Be the players ready?

Shakespeare uses the play to make some commentary on current theatrical theory and practices of his time.

Soliloquys #


Ancient theatrical devices include monologue and dialogue. Primitive Greek theatre has a chorus and mute actors or dancers. Initially Aeschylus had just a song, sung by a chorus with a dance, then he introduced a second actor, and later more. The chorus, today a ‘voice over’, stood aloof as a commentator, interpreter and occasionally participant in advising the characters.

A monologue consists of one character speaking to himself or to the audience. Shakespeare’s brilliant invention was to have a lone character in dialogue with themselves, voicing two differing perspectives, revealing their inner conflict.

Some critics contend that Hamlet is the first literature to allow us introspection of the main character.

Hamlet says “To be.” Then he expresses the opposite: “Or not to be.”

He is wrestling with himself:

That is the question:
Whether ‘tis Nobler i n the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?

To do the first is a person of faith or a coward.

To do the second is a person of courage or a fool who forsakes God and goes to Hell.

It is a dilemma, a quandary, an inner conflict exposed to the audience. They give us an insight into the character’s inner thought and feel their pain. It is the beginning of a distinctive feature of modern literature; instead of feeling sympathy for a character, we can be induced to feeling empathy with a character – we become them.

I had expected to illustrate Hamlet’s struggle to act with an analysis of the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare: ‘To be, or not to be’ (Act III Scene I). It begins with these oft-quoted lines:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

But now I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. “To be, or not to be” is ambiguous. Also, Hamlet probably knows he is being watched by the king or others while he is speaking, and thus is not really speaking his mind.

Arguably, Hamlet’s definitive speech in the play comes just before this one, at the end of Act II. In this red-blooded soliloquy, he berates himself for his inaction, asking, “am I a coward?” and reflects that he lacks the gall, “To make oppression bitter”.

He says,

‘I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal’;

i.e. murdered Claudius and fed his guts to the carrion eaters.

He also mocks his proclivity to seek solace in words:

Why, what an ass am I! Ay, sure, this is most brave;
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with my words…

So many of the stories we consume involve some sort of heroic quest where a reluctant hero accepts this call.

Reason appeals to principles. It appeals to the capacity for reason in others. It doesn’t take the law into its own hands. But what if it is sometimes reasonable to abandon reason and strike at power with power? Can reason survive such a decision?

The endless appeal of Hamlet #

Hamlet is not only successful because Hamlet himself embodies our own struggles. Hamlet is also staggeringly quotable – the quip is that there are too many quotations in it.

The play’s appeal also lies in the depth of the secondary characters, such as Ophelia, Polonius and the inseparable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet’s friends from university).

And the play is seductively enigmatic. We are unsure whether Hamlet’s mother was in on the murder of the old king, whether Polonius is indeed a fool, whether Hamlet loses his mind, and so on. Where there are mysteries, there are detectives.

Given all the trouble Hamlet has with his father and mother, it’s not surprising that Freud saw something Oedipal in the whole business.

Ophelia, who suffers the double tragedy of her own demise and being less discussed than Hamlet despite having a compelling struggle and brilliant lines (“we know what we are, but / know not what we may be”), is referenced in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Her words, “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night” provide a foreboding conclusion to the ghastly pub scene in Part II of Eliot’s poem.