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Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Ah, good old William Shakespeare! My students put on a production of Hamlet last weekend. It was so good, it actually inspired me to re-read the original text, and I've been having a ball comparing my reading to the performance and discussing it with my students. Here are some initial random thoughts:

First of all, have you ever noticed how much Shakespeare likes to use actors/fools as a foil in his plays? It struck me while I was watching Hamlet, how essential the acting troupe is to revealing Claudius as Hamlet's father's murderer, and thus propelling the action of the play forward toward its inevitable tragic end. Shakespeare uses the character of the Fool in King Lear for much the same purpose, and of course in A Midsummer Night's Dream the acting troupe plays a central role to the plot. What a curious invention! And I can't help but wonder if Shakespeare himself in Hamlet's speech to the players gives us some meta-analysis of his own craft:

"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 anything 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."

Secondly, how many wonderful one-liners Shakespeare has crammed into this one play! A sampling:

"Brevity is the soul of wit."
"Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;"
"Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment." (by censure, Shakespeare meant here, "measure")
"For the apparel oft proclaims the man."
"To thine own self be true."
"It is a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance."
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio! A man of infinite jest!"
"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;"
"If thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them."

In some following posts, I'll examine some of the more philosophically profound quotes from Hamlet and try to dig deep.

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