Shakespeare as Poet or Playwright?:  The Player’s Speech in Hamlet

Jason Gleckman
Chinese University of Hong Kong

Gleckman, Jason. "Shakespeare as Poet or Playwright?:  The Player’s Speech in Hamlet". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):2.1-13 <URL:>.

  1. Lukas Erne’s recent study, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, usefully challenges several relatively longstanding premises of Shakespearean scholarship.  The first of these challenged assumptions is that whatever hopes Shakespeare had for his own immortality were based on accomplishments such as the publication of his two long poems, his status as a favorite poet of powerful patrons, and his ongoing work in the theatre as a principal playwright, shareholder, and actor in the most prestigious company of players in Renaissance England.  The second assumption, following from the first, is that the proper focus of Shakespearean dramatic scholarship is the plays as they were performed on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, an inquiry perhaps extendable to how Shakespeare intended them to be performed.  From this perspective, examination of Shakespeare’s printed play-texts can provide valuable information about the performance of his plays but is decidedly secondary to the study of these plays as theatre.  In contrast to these approaches, Erne’s work presents a strong case that Shakespeare was not only concerned with writing for the stage but also took a keen interest in the publication of his plays, and indeed wrote with both contexts in mind.   This essay aims to build on Erne’s insights by examining one short segment of Shakespearean drama:  the player’s speech in Hamlet.  This speech, as well as the reactions to it on the part of Hamlet and Polonius, can help us further elaborate the relationship between these two Shakespearean media that Erne has helpfully distinguished -- literary drama for the page and performative drama for the stage -- and may guide us towards a fuller understanding of some of Shakespeare’s own views on these two different modes of production.

  2. As Erne notes (following the argument of Harold Jenkins, editor of the Arden edition of Hamlet [43, 265]), the player’s speech in Act Two of Hamlet provides an important piece of evidence concerning the distinctions between performance text and literary text in Shakespeare’s time.   In modern editions of the play (which usually represent a compilation of the second quarto [Q2, 1604/1605] and the First Folio [1623]), the player’s speech, dealing with the violent killing of Priam, the Trojan king, by Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, continues for twenty-nine lines (2.2.464-493) before the king’s impatient counselor Polonius breaks off the player’s poetry with his blunt prose comment, “this is too long” (2.2.494).   However, in the first (“bad”) quarto of Hamlet (Q1, printed in 1603), the player is only able to read the first six lines of this speech before Polonius interrupts.  Although the omission of twenty-three lines from the player’s speech in Q1 is not in itself particularly noteworthy (since Q1 frequently both omits and corrupts dialogue), it is significant that the first three words cut from the player’s speech in Q1 (“Then senseless Ilium” [2.2.470]) are also cut from the fully restored speech in the carefully prepared Q2.  The best explanation, to quote Erne, is that “the compositor [of Q2] mistook a sign [in the theatrical manuscript] indicating the beginning of a theatrical cut for a sign of deletion” (180).   The omission of these lines from Q1 (most likely derived from a performed text of Hamlet) and their inclusion in the second quarto and folio texts supports one of Erne’s contentions, a conclusion also reached by Andrew Gurr (87):  that some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Hamlet, were so long they must have been abridged in any performance.[1] 

  3. Yet the evidence here suggests an additional conclusion, one perhaps especially pertinent to Shakespeare as a thoughtful playwright and poet.  We see, at least in this example, that a single manuscript was used as the basis of both a performance and a printed text, the manuscript ‘cut’ markings referring to material that was cut from performance (perhaps by Shakespeare and more likely by the Lord Chamberlain’s men acting collaboratively) and the manuscript ‘deletion’ markings presumably indicating material deleted by Shakespeare himself, either in the course of writing a play, preparing it for performance, or preparing it for print.  While it is not possible to determine at what point which markings were made,[2] it seems clear that play manuscripts were sent to the printer with both deletion marks and cut marks upon them.  To imagine Shakespeare pondering this well-marked manuscript of Hamlet, one containing complex inter-delineated instructions for both cuts and deletions, is a scenario supported by the text of the play itself.  For, in the player’s speech, we have a passage that was apparently marked for cutting (but not for deletion), and this passage is followed by the comments of two characters, Hamlet and Polonius, about the very viability of making such cuts.   Exploring this debate in more detail will, I think, shed some light on the subject of cutting plays for performance and also on the relationship between staged drama and poetry in Shakespeare’s art.

  4. Polonius’s comment (“this is too long”) not only refers to the length of the player’s speech.  It might, for instance, wryly comment on the length of the play itself, one of Shakespeare’s ‘long’ plays, estimated to take over four hours to perform using editions preferred by most modern editors (Erne 136; but see Urkowitz  266-9 for a different view).  More importantly, Polonius’s words imply that the speech is long not only because it takes up several minutes of stage time, but because it is tedious.  And Polonius, who dares to counsel kings, does not hesitate to give advice to princes and playwrights; Hamlet’s riposte (“it [the speech] shall to the barber’s along with your beard” [2.2.495]) is a sarcastic attempt to silence Polonius, but also registers an awareness that, like other comments made by the counselor,  this one too has some power behind it.  As the evidence above suggests, the speech in question was indeed written before performance but ‘cut’ when the play was staged.

  5. If we examine Hamlet’s response to Polonius further, we see emerging a different view of theatre than that of Polonius, one which corresponds well to Erne’s suggestion about the distinction between the overlapping, but hardly coextensive, audiences of theatrical plays and printed play-texts.   Hamlet’s characterization of Polonius (“he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry or he sleeps” [2.2.496]) situates Polonius, despite his high social status, squarely into a certain subcategory of theatrical audience types, one Hamlet later excoriates as “groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing by inexplicable dumb-shows and noise” (3.2.11-12).   Using an extended culinary analogy, Hamlet compares such audience members to those with crude palates, who desire only “sallets” and “savoury” morsels in their dialogue (2.2.437-8) and on whom the “caviare” of a fine work of art is wasted (2.2.433).   Hamlet’s ideal audience is a more refined one, “judicious” and even censorious (3.2.26-7), presumably well-educated and literate, and surely wealthy enough not to stand among the groundlings.   Although they attend plays at the public theatre, this group of people surely have other ways to experience drama, such as attending performances at court or at Universities, and also by purchasing and reading drama in print.

  6. Hamlet himself seems to fit into this category.  He is an avid play-goer and can even be viewed as the patron of a theatre company, praising the traveling players and offering them hospitality and protection.  Yet there are signs that Hamlet’s love of drama is not precisely coextensive with a love of theatre.  He praises a play that was disliked by the “general” public (2.2.433) and he mocks both simple audiences and the clowns who play to them.  More importantly, while Hamlet’s laudatory comments about the play containing the player’s speech do not initially indicate whether or not he saw this play performed, when he refers to the “one speech in’t I chiefly loved” (2.2.442), he notes that this speech was possibly “never acted” (2.2.431; emphasis added); this can only mean Hamlet never saw this speech performed as part of a play.   Instead, he apparently encountered the speech previously under the same conditions as he is experiencing it now, as an excerpt, a recitation, a formal rhetorical display that is precisely not acted but spoken, a work of art more appropriate perhaps to the printed page than to the stage.  Indeed, none of the comments that Hamlet makes about the play proves that he saw it; he talks of it as a work that is “well digested” or organized and finely “set down” (2.2.435-6) and he recalls what others have said about the play, comments that, like Hamlet’s own, might well have responded to a printed text than to a theatrical performance.  In fact, Hamlet’s failure to specifically mention that a speech he so loved was cut from performance suggests that, despite his interest in performance, stage plays are not the primary idiom Shakespeare has in mind when considering drama in relation to Prince Hamlet.[3] 

  7. This line of argument can be further supported by noting that the Player’s speech in Hamlet apparently comes from a play best appreciated by reading rather than viewing.  The verse is an extended narrative, not dialogue, its formal diction is unique in the Shakespeare canon, and its primary source, the Aeneid, is as far removed from jigs, bawdry, dumb-shows, and noise as possible.   Moreover, the player’s speech addresses complex philosophical problems, such as whether or not the gods care about human suffering and, if so, how might they respond to it.  Similar issues are also brought up at crucial moments in the Aeneid, for instance in the epic’s first question: “tantaene animis caelestibus irae?”/”Can resentment so fierce dwell in heavenly breasts?” (Virgil 240-1), or more pointedly, in Priam’s anguished cry reported in Aeneas’s own tale to Dido in Book Two of the Aeneid:  “si qua est caelo pietas, quae talia curet, persolvant grates dignas et praemia reddant debita”/”If in heaven there is any righteousness to mark such sins, may the gods pay thee fitting thanks and render thee due rewards” (Virgil 330-1).  So while Shakespeare may have taken some of his Virgilian touches (such as the “whiff and wind of [Pyrrhus’s] fell sword” [2.2.469]) from the popular stage play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, both the content and style of the player’s speech as a whole do not reproduce the mode of an Elizabethan stage play so much as echo, at times powerfully, Virgil’s epic poem itself.[4] 

  8. Thus while it is clear that the disagreement between Hamlet and Polonius on the player’s speech contrasts two conceptions of the playhouse -- Hamlet’s elitist one versus Polonius’s preference for popular theatre -- the exchange also hints at an as-yet unexplored tension between, to use Erne’s terms, staged performance and dramatic text.  Erne has certainly shown that English Renaissance playwrights, especially Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, cared about print production as well as theatrical production, but this claim needs to be further refined, since, as a premise, it can lead to a number of widely differing conclusions.  It  is possible, for instance, that Shakespeare saw no discord between his plays as performed in the theater and published; thus he may have worked on two versions of a play at once, writing a longer, and possibly more carefully prepared, text for print and a shorter one for the theatre -- hence, Gurr’s distinction between a “minimal” text for performance and a “maximal” text for approval by the Master of the Revels (70 and passim); alternatively, as Erne and others imply, Shakespeare may have returned to his earlier work later on and rewritten it for publication (Erne 189).  Yet while neither of these possibilities would make one question Erne’s assertion that “various passages of Hamlet present in the second quarto or the Folio or both were cut in performances,” one might still imagine a creative process on Shakespeare’s part that would undermine Erne’s conclusion that “there is no reason to suppose that the omission of these passages on stage did not have Shakespeare’s approval” (177).   For Hamlet and Polonius’s clashing responses to the player’s speech suggest a considerably less comfortable relationship between printed playtext and theatrical performance than posited in either of the scenarios described above.  Hamlet denigrates Polonius by comparing the cuts he proposes -- cuts that may be made for the purpose of shortening and perhaps tightening up a play to enhance its dramatic effectiveness, to hackwork done at the “barber’s” (2.2.495).  Hamlet’s pun (enhanced by the sound of the possessive) is that an audience composed of those who share Polonius’s tastes is a ‘barbarous’ audience, as ready to pull a counselor’s “beard” (2.2.495) as to silence a player in the middle of his speech.   Polonius, for his part, shows a surprising temerity in cutting short a speech requested by his prince, suggesting his opinions on theatrical appropriateness are so strongly felt they override his usual deference. 

  9. Further evidence of this tension, dramatized within Hamlet, between dramatic playtext and staged performance can be seen by comparing the title pages of Q1 and Q2.   The first quarto appears to represent a play for the theatre, its performance history clearly highlighted on the title page:  “As it hath beene diuerse times acted by his Highnesse ser- / uants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two V-/ niuersities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where” (Shakespeare 13-14).  The second quarto, in contrast, presents itself as a printed text, “enlarged to almost as much / againe as it was” (Shakespeare 14) despite the impracticality of performing it.  Yet, these two quartos do not coexist, in terms of a cultural formation, peacefully and side by side as simply two different modes of drama, literate and theatrical.   Erne does propose that the differences between the first and second quarto title pages enact “a tension between the playhouse and the printing house as stationers simultaneously try to capitalize on the popularity of stage plays and appropriate them to their own medium” (35), yet the tension in question apparently extends to the playwright’s perspective as well, and may account for his presentation of two alternative views in the persons of Hamlet and Polonius.  Thus while there may be no solid evidence for the longstanding view that Shakespeare or his theatre company published Q2 as a direct response to the numerous grotesqueries in the language of Q1, the second quarto does seem to promote itself as an improvement over the first, implying that since it is a “true and perfect / Coppie” the first quarto is false and flawed, insufficiently attentive to the exacting demands of a print culture.[5] 

  10. I would not wish to argue, however, that the tension between printed drama and staged drama can be so easily resolved in favor of one mode or the other, either the printed mode that Hamlet as a character seems to favor or the theatrical mode privileged by Polonius or recent Shakespearean scholarship.  The existence of Q1 suggests, unfortunately, that material highly significant to a play, such as the player’s speech, was expunged from a production; on the other hand, Q2 suggests that such material made the play too long and perhaps too inaccessible to boot.   Both Hamlet’s and Polonius’s positions in other words would ideally need to be accommodated to create an Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre that was both lively and learned.  Yet the very play containing the player’s speech offers an example of a failed effort to appeal to a diverse theater audience; significantly the response to this imagined play is not lukewarm but polarized:   some people loved the play, but others clearly disliked it.  There is even a tantalizing possibility that the play referred to by the player, a particularly fine piece of dramatic poetry that contains at least one speech performed only once at most, is Hamlet itself.    Following negative reactions like those of Polonius -- perhaps in performance, perhaps earlier (the phrase “never acted” implying a cut following rehearsal), the player’s speech, like other material, was excised from the stage, despite the discomfort that such excision might have caused its author.  Thus while the restoration of this “chiefly loved” (2.2.442) speech in Q2 may be seen as Shakespeare’s way of  restoring Hamlet to a more ‘proper’ form in print, this is hardly an ideal solution, and the entire process testifies to the difficulty of reconciling a written playtext to a theatrical one.

  11. The complexities of negotiating the key terms that Erne’s study reminds us of -- printed/literary dramatic text and staged performance -- will provide a rich resource for scholars of Shakespearean drama for some time to come.  To make some further observations on this dichotomy in relation to Hamlet, we see that the proponents of both approaches have a valuable role to play in the construction of a fully artistic sensibility.  For example, Polonius’s impatience with what he considers tedious dramatic recitation marks yet another weakness in his character and further justifies Hamlet’s continual contempt for him.  Yet Polonius’s alertness to tedium may also signal his overall attentiveness and even sensitivity to theatre.  He was, if we believe him, “accounted a good actor” (3.2.99-100), and it is he and not Hamlet who is careful enough to observe that the player has “turned his colour and has tears in’s eyes” (2.2.515-6).  Moreover, Polonius’s response may signal not only his awareness of the visual aspect of theatre but, more significantly, of its aural power.  Especially in a play like Hamlet, in which the ‘ear’ is such a fascinating motif, it is significant that Polonius is moved by the player’s words at least to the point of displaying tenderness and concern.  It is precisely this ability of theatre to move its audience to emotional extremes that made it both so potent and so threatening in Renaissance England.[6]  We might note that even the wicked Claudius is sufficiently sensitive to the spoken word that a mere passing aphorism by Polonius is sufficient to launch the king into an aside on his conscience and his sin (3.1.46-54).

  12. Hamlet’s more literate and textually-focused artistic nature is entirely different from Polonius’s, with its own assets and deficiencies.  Hamlet is highly attuned to literary drama and trained rhetorical eloquence, but perhaps consequently, is insufficiently sensitive to theatrical performance.  Hamlet certainly takes glee in assuming the profession of ‘player’ so successfully; like a cunning Elizabethan or Jacobean playwright, he has managed to sneak something past the authorities (that paranoid politician Claudius who acts in effect as a censorious ‘Master of the Revels,’ pointedly asking Hamlet if there is any “offence” in the play [3.2.227]) and he feels his expert staging merits him a “fellowship in a cry of players” (3.2.271-2).  Yet Horatio demurs (3.2.273), and indeed Hamlet’s reaction to “The Murder of Gonzago,” like his response to the player’s speech on Priam, is surprisingly shallow emotionally.  He is the one who ‘commissions’ that latter “passionate” speech (2.2.428), very likely for the purpose of summoning up some passion within himself, but he is the least affected of its auditors.  The player and Polonius express feeling, but although Hamlet has a “cue for passion” (2.2.555) he cannot take it, perhaps because the very term ‘cue’ comes from a performance idiom that discomfits him.[7]  Hamlet is of course aware of the problem; he calls himself a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal” among other things (2.2.561).  But his efforts to excite himself (“Am I a coward?/Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,/Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face . . .” [2.2.566-8])  only produce rantings more appropriate to a stage Vice, hardly the emotional tenor necessary to inspire a man to avenge his father’s murder.[8]

  13. It is interesting to imagine, however, that perhaps a limited response such as Hamlet’s is all that Shakespeare hoped for from his own theatre.   The phenomenal greatness to which Hamlet’s conception of theatre aspires, the ability to “make mad the guilty and appal the free,/ Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed/ The very faculties of eyes and ears” (2.2.558-560)” is not, in at least one sense, the sort of theatre that actually manifests itself within HamletHamlet’s sole staged theatre performance, The Mousetrap, is its weakest segment, un-dramatic, un-poetic and as effectively dismissed by Gertrude’s dry critique (“The lady doth protest too much, methinks” [3.2.225]) as the mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is by Hippolyta.  Yet the playlet’s very mediocrity may be precisely Shakespeare’s point.  It does not take much to unveil Claudius’s guilt (the example cited earlier suggests likewise), and the theatre does not always need to be so potent as Hamlet imagines it can be.  Even a serviceable drama -- such as The Mousetrap or a truncated Shakespeare play such as that represented by Q1 Hamlet  -- can do “yeoman’s service” (5.2.36), effectively accomplishing its aim and pleasing the man, Hamlet or Shakespeare, who has supervised its performance and serves as the most attentive member of its audience.  In this way Hamlet shows us that the most undeniably effective stage plays, such as The Mousetrap, are not necessarily its finest poetry and (as Polonius may force us to admit), the opposite might be true as well.


[1] The origin, purpose, and relationship of the three primary source texts of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, and F) is an increasingly complicated and hotly debated topic that does not need to be addressed here.  Most scholars agree, however, that Q1 presents a version of the play based on a performance and Q2 presents a version based on manuscript, possibly Shakespeare’s own.   For an introduction to some of the relevant evidence and controversies, see Clayton.

[2] Jenkins, for instance, posits a scenario that involves Shakespeare giving a manuscript to his company (including of course some lines that are rewritten or crossed out), the manuscript being marked by the company for theatrical cutting, and this same manuscript eventually making its way to a printer who was simply instructed to ignore the ‘cutting’ indications (43).  However, there is no reason to discount another possibility, that Shakespeare himself revised this manuscript after performance and before it was delivered to the printer.

[3] As Louis Montrose notes, “it is the elite perspective of the learned and courtly reader and auditor – rather than that of the popular spectator – that consistently characterizes Hamlet’s tastes and his prejudices” (42). Along these lines, Giorgio Melchiori offers the daring argument that Hamlet as a whole was written not for the popular stage but for the University stage where a longer and more learned play would be appropriate.  In this context, Melchiori cites Gabriel Harvey’s brief comment about Hamlet (that, like Shakespeare’s Lucrece, it can “please the wiser sort” [196]) to support his point.  Harvey, Melchiori believes, did not view the play but read it -- although he would have to have done so in manuscript, since the play had not yet been printed at the time Harvey wrote these words, sometime between 1598 and 1601.

[4] Another famous classical text imitated in the Player’s speech is Ovid’s Metamorphoses which not only, like Book Two of the Aeneid, depicts Hecuba sympathetically but also, like the Aeneid, contains specific language particularly close to the Player’s speech; “illius fortuna deos quoque moveret omnes” is one line noted by Harry Levin as especially apt (144).

[5] In this light, Hamlet’s own recitation of the speech about Priam, before it is continued by the player, may offer yet another oblique Shakespearean comment on the caliber of dialogue memorization involved in producing Q1.   As with his comments on players and plays, Hamlet also takes this element of theatre seriously.  He has not only memorized the opening of the player’s speech, but his line, “if it do live in your memory” (2.2.444; emphasis added) challenges the players to see if they can do likewise.

[6]  For a discussion of these sympathetic processes in Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays, including a discussion of the Pyrrhus scene, see James. 

[7] Matthew H. Wikander reminds us that Hamlet “refuses to be known theatrically -- by his actions, his cloak, his sighs, his tears” (297), and Roy W. Battenhouse develops the argument against Hamlet’s theatrical sense even more fully.  To Battenhouse, Hamlet’s very advice to the players, often taken to reflect Shakespeare’s own views, actually signals the temperament of a man who knows little about theatrical acting and, more ominously, little about the relationship between acting and internal states of mind.  For while Hamlet urges the players towards a highly moderated and self-controlled style of performance, Hamlet as a play requires acting of a far different and more emotional sort; indeed, the actor playing Hamlet would not find it possible to follow Hamlet’s advice if he were to properly perform the role.  The extreme emotions required by players are also, Battenhouse argues, those required in life; and Hamlet’s sense that such passions can be continuously tempered, as in Aeneas’s detachment from the events he recounts to Dido, creates both weak drama and a simplistic (naively neoclassical and Stoic) sense of human capacity for emotional restraint. 

[8] Hamlet explicitly seems to be comparing himself to a stage Vice in this portion of his soliloquy, with its references to the plucking off the false beard, the smashes on the head, and the tweaks of the nose -- all of which seem like moments of the basest stage comedy.  In a different but perhaps related context, Robert Weimann has made Hamlet’s affinities with the Vice figure a central element of his famous study on the transition between popular, ‘antic’ stage performance and the more literate, ‘representational’ drama increasingly characteristic of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.

Works Cited

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