While a lot of this is very good advice – speaking the speech, trippingly on the tongue. . . it does seem that Hamlet has given this entire company a bunch of line readings. It is funny that this speech, this advice to the players, is used so often as actual advice when there is really nothing that will kill a performance more quickly than being read a speech and then told to do it the way I did. The “just do it as I did it” technique has never worked, as far as I know. I mean, Hamlet is not a director, he’s a prince, so he’s not really meant to be giving useful advice to the players, is he?
There is a world of Shakespeare studies that proclaims that this speech is Shakespeare’s advice to his own players – that somehow it’s in the play as implicit criticism of all the actors in the company. But surely reciting a speech as it was pronounced to you didn’t work in Shakespeare’s day any more than it does now. And while not sawing the air too much with your hand is generally good advice – and of course, suiting the action to the word, the word to the action is a good idea, I am suspicious of anything said by a character in a play that begins with generally bad theatrical practice. It feels important to remember that this is Hamlet’s speech to the players, not Shakespeare’s. We have here a Prince of Denmark telling a group of traveling players what to do. The Prince of Denmark has written, perhaps for the first time, a bit of theatrical text. He is an amateur playwright, seized suddenly with a page full of advice for the professional artists suddenly charged with delivering the work. I think it’s important to take any advice he gives with a grain of salt.