Hamlet: ‘A Play Full of Quotes’

Not seen Hamlet? Maybe you know the play better than you think. Our new trainee director from Birkbeck College, Stephen Darcy, gives a brief overview to some of the themes in one of Shakespeare's most quotable plays.

Brian Ferguson in Hamlet rehearsals. Image by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Some years ago at the theatre, I overheard a disgruntled audience member discussing an unsatisfying student production of Hamlet.  When asked what she thought of the play she said:

“It’s alright.  It’s just a play full of quotes”

Even the most reluctant theatre goer is probably familiar with some of the more famous lines from the play: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. What exactly Hamlet means by this has been the subject of many more in depth studies than this. And so: ‘Since brevity is the soul of wit ... I will be brief’(II:ii), and therefore will not dwell on this conundrum further. Suffice only to say, ‘The play’s the thing’ (II:ii) as we come to the question, what is this play about?

Is it the story of a bright young man gone mad? – ‘Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown?’ (III:i).  Or a story brimful of sensible advice handed down from parents to children: ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ (I:iii). My personal favourite and very useful tip: ‘This above all; to thine own self be true’ (I:iii) is sound advice for all ages. If only it was easy to follow such advice, one would surely not find oneself declaring; ‘Why what an ass am I.’ (II:ii), as one succeeds in messing up yet again.

There is a supernatural element to the play which needs to be addressed; Hamlet meets the ghost of his father.  Unless that is, we believe Polonius when he declares succinctly: ‘Your son is mad’.  Anyone who has wandered around a spooky old building in the dead of night can empathise with the line: ‘Tis now the very witching time of night’ (III:ii) as every creaking floorboard and gust of wind can make us jump.  And such spooky encounters may explain why some actors who have played Hamlet have experienced seeing real ghosts, or at least they thought they did. Whether or not we believe in ghosts, for the sceptics amongst us Hamlet has these words: ‘There is more in heaven and earth...than is dreamt of in your philosophy.’ (I:v) The thought of bumping into any ghost, let alone the ghost of one’s recently dead father is chilling. Without a doubt I would not be even the slightest bit brave were it to happen to me: ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all’ (III:i).

The best advice which can be given to a young actor is given by Hamlet to the travelling players when they arrive in Elsinore: ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action’ (III:ii). Some of the exponents of hammy acting who are daily forced on us, whether on TV or in the debate on Scottish independence should be told: ‘And do not spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker’ (III:iv).  Or indeed these actors of culture and politics could follow Gertrude’s advice: ‘More matter, with less art’ (II:ii). Only time will reveal both the outcome and the success of this debate on the future of Scotland. For the impatient amongst us Hamlet offers this: ‘Would the night were come. Till then sit still, my soul’ (I:ii). Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, one side will be happy and the other side will be left to rue the result: ‘It is not nor it cannot come to good’ (I:ii). As every Scot with a vote undoubtedly feels they have a unique insight into the complex nature of the debate: ‘Though I am native here and to the manner born’ (I:iv) Hamlet seems particularly insightful about the argument: ‘The cat will mew and dog will have his day.’ (V:i) Indeed it all seems to come back to the initial question; ‘To be or not to be’ which arguably is just another way of saying, ‘who knows’?

- Stephen Darcy, Trainee Director (Birkbeck College)

Hamlet previews Sep 19