Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this—special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:—for any thing so o'erdone, 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 feature, Scorn her own—image, and the very age and body of the time, his form and—pressure.
– Act 3, scene 2, Hamlet (instructions to the players)
Hamlet is wrong—dangerously, seductively wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. He wants the performing arts to be natural and instructive. Modest. Pedantic and plain. He wants theater to be public television.
We suffer this nonsense all over the current stage—plays that personify the injustice of whatever-is-currently-on-the-front-page-of-the-newspaper where all the characters are “typical” and uninteresting; embarrassing plays that aging artistic directors seem to believe will mirror whatever they see as the younger generations’ hyper-developed sense of irony; quirky little plays that are so desperate to make us see a reflection of our foibles without seeming immodest that no one ever bleeds, spits, or fucks—or, if they do, their spit becomes a pretty bird and their blood a stunning rainbow and their fucking is delicately kinky and symbolizes—oh, please. No one cares.
The purpose of playing is not to hold a mirror up to nature. First of all, I have my own mirrors thank you very much. If I’ve chosen not to look in to them, then nothing you put on a stage is going to make me. I’m not going to the theater to look in the mirror. I’m going to the bathroom to look in the mirror, and I really don’t want you to come in there with me.
Second, artists who work with words should understand them better. Yes, your audience may reflect on what they have just experienced, but that does not mean that the play was a mirror reflection of their lives. “To reflect,” when it’s done by a person on a subject is a verb that means “to think or care deeply about.” A “reflection” is, in part, a noun that means “the throwing back by a body or surface, light, heat, or sound without absorbing it.” Without absorbing it? Clearly, a good show is not a reflection even while the audience reflects on it. The two words, though similar-sounding, are not the same.
Third, nature isn’t modest. Nature is huge, disturbing, messy, and—if nothing else—exhibitionist, and I expect the performing arts to reflect that better. Don’t suit the action to the word or the word to the action. In life, the action is often a ridiculous overreaction to the word and vice versa. Shakespeare understood that even if Hamlet did not.
Why the fuck do we actually listen to Hamlet anyway? Does the play Hamlet actually give anyone the impression that the character Hamlet has any fucking talent for anything—except, perhaps, making speeches and fencing? Is he a good actor, boyfriend, or son? When he acts crazy, no one but his poor girlfriend believes him. After he uses the play to catch the “conscience of the king,” he rushes straight off to... kill his girlfriend’s father. Good work, H. Well-done. You’ve succeeded in extracting revenge on Ophelia instead of your uncle Claudius.
The fact that we even consider Hamlet one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays teaches us more about the Baby Boomer generation than it does about the performing arts. Different Shakespeare is more popular at different times in history. Hamlet is the Baby Boomer play. Like them, he is thoughtful, self-conscious, navel-gazey. He means well. He definitely sees himself as the center of the universe. He sees everything as a reflection of his struggle, and therefore thinks that every thought he has is worth breaking down to its most exquisite detail. He causes lots of chaos, but for a theoretically good cause. And only death will shut him up, will stop him from dominating the stage. He’s the absolute perfect embodiment of the Baby Boomers.
Can we move on yet, please? ❦