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Updated: Apr 9, 2023

IN ACT 3 of Hamlet, Prince Hamlet offers instruction to a troupe of actors.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as live the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipp'd for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.

Hamlet, 3.2.1-16.

Translation: Pay attention to words. Don't say too much. Let the word lead. Let it do what it needs to do the way it needs to do it, then get out of its way. Educate boldness. Exercise restraint and vigilance, observing the curious politics between words, sentences, paragraphs, and the whole. And watch your volume.

The point is restraint, to bridle passion with moderation. In its arousal, in its torrent, tempest, and whirlwind, you are encouraged to "beget a temperance that may give it smoothness." This smoothness is the entire point of Hamlet's lesson, the "art to reckon my groans." Let passion be ["Let be"]. Let it bleat. Let it weep loudly. Let it curse. Let it love madly. But exercise restraint in execution. This restraint is the soul of a great poem or a great piece of prose, indeed, the soul of any effective line of text. It takes time to master, and it implies, if you are paying attention, a kind of mastery over self, but many valuable lessons are contained within it.

This passage also exposes the writer without discipline, who, insecure of himself and his craft, with reckless inattention to detail, movement, and impact, puts himself center stage, who allows passion to rule his text and not discretion, and with a lamentable and unconvincing LOOK AT ME kind of awkwardness.

Hamlet's instruction serves both the actor and the writer. Writing is, after all, a performance on an English stage. But this lesson applies to anyone who uses language, especially in a volatile, hair-trigger, watch-what-you-say culture, where words are weaponized, analyzed, and poked at with a sharp stick for days. And there is more.

Be not too tame neither, but let your own

discretion be your tutor: 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 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.


It could just as easily have been written that the purpose of writing "is to hold...the mirror up to Nature," that is, to draw from an image its polished likeness, where every metaphor is not only apt and well-considered but says just enough and not everything, where the movement, weight, and volume of a line suits the image being shaped by the writer. Notice, too, how Hamlet softens his instruction with qualifiers. In an attempt not to sound didactic or schoolmarmish, he adds, "the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature..." These phrases adjust his pace. Instead of charging in with instruction, with a judicious few but economically sound phrases to give his words elevation and forward movement he plies them with rhetorical fabric softener. He is demonstrating, in part, the very thing he is instructing, remembering that Hamlet is in a play himself, talking to others in the play about a play within a play. He is insufferably sufficient.

Dramatic or not, this scene offers valuable instruction to the rest of us. I am not sure there is any poet more capable of holding up that "mirror to nature" than Shakespeare. That is why we are awed by him. He gives color, height, animation, vitality, and substance to the unremarkable, making them remarkable, which, in itself, is remarkable. Hamlet's intention is to "catch the conscience of the King." [2.2.633-634] Your target, and mine, is to "catch the conscience" of our audience.


A word about rules. The writer must, at times, stretch, bend, bully, and ignore a rule for the sake of sound or sense. For instance, to start a sentence with a conjunction was once considered poor form according to conventions of style. But someone came along and challenged that convention, and with such liberty, grace, and intelligence the style keepers were forced to augment or drop the rule altogether.

The good writer knows the rules and stays within the rules and can do wonderful things within those rules, even as our esteemed instructor once said, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space." [Hamlet 2.2.260-261] She feels safe. She can experiment all she wishes, as orthodoxy allows. The great writer also knows the rules and also stays within the rules and can also do wonderful things within those rules, but her fences are more virtual, more the idea of a fence than a fence. She doesn't forget or ignore convention. Indeed, she knows the rule intimately, perhaps in ways the good writer cannot. But she is led by her own peculiar vision, her own preference of sound. She challenges the standard with liberty, grace, and intelligence when occasion demands it. She pioneers with intelligence—that, and a polished ear, which she trusts above all things.

If the above instruction by Hamlet/Shakespeare encourages the actor/performer/writer to exercise liberality, it also advises the actor/performer/writer to venture no further in a text than her better judgment demands. That only sounds simple. Such judgment must be educated and nurtured, even that demands a discretionary approach, that is, to educate wisely. This takes time and diligence, but this judgment, once cultivated, will be your best tutor and governor, your better angel.

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