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What is Required of the Actor in the Performance of Hamlet

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In this essay I shall identify the necessary skills, resources and expertise required of the actor in the performance of Hamlet. The purpose of this essay is not to arrive at a definite consensus on what the play is about or address the various thematic, political and morality elements. I shall make use of the play to examine the demands made on the actor in building a performance of Hamlet, drawing attention to specific elements of the text that directly influence the actor in creating the role.

A professional actor experiences texts that demand specific skills and approaches to performance. Hamlet, as a piece of dramatic literature, demands knowledge of the context, the influences and objectives of the author, which in turn, gives the actor a foundation on which to nurture a performance. From this foundation, the actor analyses the part, creates the initial structure of a character, and establishes simple relationships with other characters and the world, assembling the character’s inner life and motivations. The rehearsal period is one of research and thorough investigation. Just as critical in this stage is the actors’ more intuitive, instinctive, passionate responses to the text, governed by that more analytical understanding.

The intuitive response to a work is what makes a performance unique, as it draws on the reservoir of desire, drive, physicality, experience and emotions of the actor. A performance of Hamlet should be deeply personal. A finely balanced combination of thorough research, coupled with a surrendering to the native forces within the actor is what creates a vivid performance.


Hamlet is recognised as one of the most challenging texts in dramatic literature. Written around 1600, it has been categorised by scholars as one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. What are the grounds for the problem with this play? The problem lies in the lack of certainty in the drawing of the plot and characters, the degree of ambiguity and diversity of opinion that the play provokes. Under close examination, these uncertain elements cause great consternation amongst literary scholars and equal amounts of delight and innovation amongst actors and directors. This uncertainty and ambiguity stimulates the creative thinking of theatre professionals, provokes discussion, and can lead to a performance of Hamlet that is full of vulnerability and insight into the human condition.

I will address the more certain elements of the play that will assist the actor in his preparation for the part.

A Revenge play

As a background to the general structure of Hamlet it is useful to note that it falls into the revenge play formula. Shakespeare was familiar with the formula having seen various revenge plays and studied the classics including ancient Greek revenge stories at school.

Revenge plays, from the Greeks to the latest Hollywood action blockbuster, have been a popular dramatic formula for centuries. They were a staple of the ancient Greeks, were common in Elizabethan drama before Shakespeare, and typify an enormous amount of modern entertainment. Revenge is something all of us understand profoundly and relate to imaginatively. When we get kicked, instinctively, we want to kick back. Fulfilling that instinctive revenge is somewhat difficult, due to civil laws and a sense of decency. In drama we are permitted to indulge in revenge by projecting these instincts into our hero. The story of Hamlet is based upon the need to avenge a murder in the family. In a classic revenge plot there are no authority figures to appeal to, either because the villain is too influential or those in positions of power refuse to believe in the guilt of the villain. This means the central character has to act alone if any justice is to take place. The play Hamlet follows the conventional revenge play rule. Hamlet’s father, the former king, is the victim; Claudius, his uncle and mother’s new husband, is the villain; and Hamlet, the son of the former king and stepson of the villain, is the avenger. In the early part of the play, Hamlet engages our deepest and most powerful feelings, we relate to his pain and we want him to kill the villain, Claudius. Characteristically, the avenger, Hamlet, assumes his mission straight away spending much of his journey overcoming obstacles, fulfilling his mission by confronting the villain. He finally executes his revenge, bringing the journey to a close.

This journey of revenge is Hamlet’s story, his deliberations, his musings, his passion, his shortcomings, and virtuosity. It is a long struggle for the character of Hamlet, with the action perhaps covering a period of months. It is also a long assignment for the actor, it can be over four hours in duration when performed in its entirety.

Revenge stories are potentially a very satisfying experience for an audience. The actor needs to understand the revenge play formula and the dramatic tension contained within it. Before rehearsals begin, it is essential to recognise the position of Hamlet, the character, inside the dramatic function of the play.


A major issue that surfaces in the early stages of a production when discussion of Hamlet begins, and a central point for much of the critical interpretation that the actor reads in preparation for the part is this: Why does Hamlet delay so long? Why doesn’t he just get out there and kill the king? How do we account for the suffering that Hamlet seems to go through in thinking about his lack of action? This is a core issue and one that makes the play Hamlet so remarkable. Why is Hamlet so persistently guilty about not being able to kill the king? Some commentary on the play suggests that there is no delay, that there is a perfectly justified reason for the inaction. The actor who must create a performance using the text he is given need not entertain these literary theories and hypotheses. Indeed the commentary comes apart when we read the soliloquies; Hamlet agonizes over his inability to kill the king and is constantly berating himself for it, searching for reasons why he is acting the way he is.

I would suggest Hamlet doesn’t understand the reason why he is unable to carry out the revenge. His soliloquies are precious private moments between actor and audience, where Hamlet intimately shares his journey. They are the moments where he drops his “antic disposition” and appears to be saying exactly what he feels. He genuinely struggles. This is one of the main reasons we are interested in this character. Hamlet is in the grasp of something that he cannot fully comprehend, no matter how much he intellectualises the matter.

This introduces another issue the actor must grapple with in order to sort out where he stands with Hamlet, and one that is a great source of invention during the rehearsal period. When Hamlet says something does he really mean it or is he deliberately inventing another reason for procrastinating? Is his concern about the veracity of the Ghost a real concern or just a convenient explanation for his reluctance to kill the king? Similarly, is his excuse for not killing Claudius at prayer a credible reason or just one more excuse? Such questions are crucial to an understanding of Hamlet’s character, yet they are not explicable through the text alone.

The central problem is why Hamlet doesn’t go ahead and kill the king. He vows to do so as soon as he hears the news of his father’s murder from the ghost in Act I and constantly urges himself throughout the play. But it takes him weeks, perhaps months before the revenge is carried out. Why does Hamlet delay? The attempts to deal with this question have sparked a huge volume of literary analysis.

The actor needs to address these questions, as the cast, production team, and audience members will raise these them time and time again. It is important to note that the actor need not answer the questions or resolve the doubt within the play entirely, but must address these to a level of satisfaction and accept that some things will remain a mystery. The exploration may offer opportunities in rehearsal and performance, as something discovered in a moment will reveal a little of the Hamlet conundrum. Therefore, an openness to be inspired and led by the play is required of the actor.


For over four centuries Hamlet has produced a continuing, and vigorous debate about how we are supposed to understand and perform it. Although the dramatic literature of the Greeks has survived longer, no other play can claim as much attention and diversity of interpretation. With no established rules of performance and considerable ambiguity, Hamlet provides the actor an opportunity to be the virtuoso performer, in which to stamp the role with one’s own identity. The biographical history of classical acting is littered with virtuoso Hamlets, “Olivier’s Hamlet” (1948), “Jacobi’s Hamlet” (1980), and “Branagh’s Hamlet” (1996). An entire history of literary criticism could be compiled on the various interpretations of Hamlet.

Because of this ambiguity and diversity of interpretation about the play’s characters and plot, Hamlet offers the actor a great deal of scope for invention. It can be said the range in performances of the character Hamlet is unequalled in all of Shakespeare, and perhaps in all dramatic literature. This diversity allows the actor to follow their instincts, hone their skills, reach into their personal reserves and craft a genuinely individual performance.

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Struggling with the performance of this play is an important and stimulating exercise, because it puts a great deal of pressure on the actor to reach a final interpretation. Even if the objective of a final interpretation is not achieved, which it rarely is, by seriously attempting to command this character, the actor learns an enormous amount about the performance of heightened language and the interpretation of dramatic literature. It compels the actor to address the many issues concerning character and human existence raised in the play, creating in the actor a desire to deal with all these elements in the person of Hamlet, to find some wholeness, some reason.

If one of the important functions of a great performance is to stimulate thinking, and provoke discussion, then Hamlet is the ideal work in which to do it.


“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals -”

Hamlet is described by Ophelia as a model courtier, soldier and a scholar, “Th’ observed of all observers”. This is a character who has mastered many disciplines. Hamlet is physically confident, having matched it with the finest in fencing; he has obvious political instincts, having worked the associations within court to advantage; he is in possession of an inquisitive and well-informed intellect, demonstrated by his academic interests and verbal agility. An actor cannot fabricate Hamlet without possessing significant physical, verbal, emotional and intellectual skills. An essential element in performance is believability. To make the audience believe the character Hamlet, the actor must be finely tuned, physically, emotionally and mentally.

A man of action

Asserting that Hamlet is a man of action does seem inappropriate given the weight of scholarly examination branding Hamlet as the great procrastinator, the melancholy poet too good for this world, the man of “all talk and no action”. However, if we are to create the drama of the story, the quandary must be the fact that we believe Hamlet is quite capable of taking revenge, even though the consummation of his revenge takes place after what seem many weeks of deliberation.

Hamlet should be seen to be capable of taking decisive action when the occasion presents itself. He kills the kings advisor Polonius without any reservation and then, without a moments pause, proceeds to berate his mother over the dead body. He dispatches his university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, without hesitation, actively relishing in turning their trickery and connivance back on themselves. He is an exceptional dissembler, playing the Machiavellian figure amongst the weak willed courtiers. He has absolutely no hesitation in accepting the challenge of combating Ophelia’s brother Laertes in a duel.

The evidence does not seem to bear out the argument that Hamlet is by his very nature incapable of making decisions. On the contrary he is a character that is incredibly motivated, very angry, and a loose cannon. Once he sets his mind to the players putting on his play for the king, tricking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, accepting the duel, or facing the Ghost, Hamlet acts quickly and decisively.

To approach the character from the view of the sad, soft, dreamer is to deny the potency welling inside Hamlet. This welling adds to the drama of the play and is one of the forces that propels the actor through the performance. If Hamlet kills the king in the second scene, or a clumsy simpleton plays Hamlet, we have no drama and therefore no play. The actor must believe within himself, and therefore make the audience believe, that he is a character of considerable resources and once stirred to act is formidable in the execution of that action.


One of the most noticeable qualities of Hamlet is that he has great verbal and communicative skills. These skills are matched by a sharp intellect that challenges, cuts and parries at will. Hamlet has the most soliloquies of any character in all of Shakespeare’s plays. In many of his scenes he gives the impression of being a compulsive talker, a person who processes his experience, grapples with his feelings, and manages other people, mostly through language.

Using words as weapons

Hamlet has many bouts with other characters that consist of word play. He fends off their queries by stabbing their words back at them, twisting their meaning to effect a hit. Hamlet is a person who uses words to protect himself from grappling with the reality of his situation and his need for action. There is a sense that he frequently uses language as a shield to protect himself from interacting with the world. Hamlet has a habit of striking verbally when he perceives someone pressing against him too closely, especially those he accuses of betraying him. His encounters with his girlfriend Ophelia and his mother Gertrude who are concerned for his well being, and truly care for him, are an example of this.

Hamlet’s language reveals that he constantly struggles with something inside, something that torments him, something he would rather not think about but cannot dispel from his thoughts. Hamlet’s language does not reassure him or calm him down it contributes to his suffering. Although Hamlet intellectualises and expresses his thoughts aloud, the motivations for these thoughts are principally emotional. No matter how his mind attempts to rationalise things away, the deeper more primitive motivation constantly nags at him. This is the reason the emotional quality of his language commands so much interest. To the audience it is a sport of some delight if the actor can carry it off. The actor needs superior vocal ability to really command this role. The vocal qualities required to express these complex and visceral thoughts demand routine discipline, intelligence and emotional courage. The actor must know his own natural voice; build on its strengths and address the limitations, then train in order to command the role. The dedication of the actor to develop his vocal instrument for the role is no different than the preparation of an elite sports person, a concert pianist or opera singer. Each task requires discipline to master the skills and techniques necessary to perform.


Through his soliloquies, Hamlet attempts to find some means of expressing what he thinks and feels. He is constantly troubled by his failure to formulate what it is troubling him. He has a habit of summing up issues with sweeping generalisations about the world that it is “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable”. Hamlet’s soliloquies are linked to the serious inner turmoil he experiences. There is a sense in these intimate moments with the audience that Hamlet desperately tries to balance the tension of his inner contradictions. The actor needs to be enveloped emotionally in Hamlet’s soliloquies, exhibit his vulnerability, and master the circumstances of his condition. A soliloquy requires the actor to meld the emotional and intellectual components, investing a great deal of personal commitment in order to convey the experience to the audience.

The audience will respond to Hamlet’s predicament naturally through the scenes with the other characters but principally through the soliloquies. Hamlet has more soliloquies than any other Shakespearean character and it is through these moments that we will shape our understanding of him more than any other element in the play.


In this essay I have highlighted the uncertainty and ambiguity that exists in the text and how these elements can stimulate creativity. I have shown that Hamlet is a challenging assignment for the actor, requiring physical and mental stamina. The play’s basic structure as a revenge story has been acknowledged. This assists the actor in understanding the functional role of the character.

It has been established that the actor need not answer the myriad of questions or solve the mystery of Hamlet, but that exploration may offer creative opportunities in rehearsal and performance. I have emphasised the need for openness, allowing the actor to be inspired and led by the play, submitting to the ambiguity and diversity it offers.

It terms of ability it has been emphasised that the actor must possess significant physical, verbal, emotional and intellectual skills. A superior grasp of heightened language and the ability to interpret dramatic literature and express complex concepts is required.

In concluding, a performance of Hamlet demands that the actor be in command of his emotional and mental abilities demonstrating a rigorous dedication to the role. After all the preparatory work is done the actor must exhibit a generosity of spirit and surrender completely to the moment of performance.

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What is Required of the Actor in the Performance of Hamlet. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“What is Required of the Actor in the Performance of Hamlet.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022,
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