Speak the speech

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"Speak the speech" is a famous speech from Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601).[1] In it, Hamlet offers directions and advice to a group of actors whom he has enlisted to play for the court of Denmark.

The speech itself has played two important roles independent of the play. It has been analyzed as a historical document for clues about the nature of early modern acting practices and it has also been used as a contemporary guide to the performance of Shakespearean drama.[2]

While there is some justification for each of these approaches, they should be distinguished from other, far less valid assertions: on the one hand, that Hamlet expresses the opinions of Shakespeare on the art of acting in a straightforward and unproblematic way; on the other, that the speech offers a proto-Stanislavskian view of the art of acting.[3] The first elides the difference between author and character, while the second ignores the historical specificity of the discourses and meanings attached to theatrical performance.[4]

The speech[edit]

Hamlet: Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you,

trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players

do, I had as lief 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. Oh, 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 whipped for o'erdoing Termagant — it out-Herods Herod.

Pray you avoid it.

First Player: I warrant your honour.

Hamlet: 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

anything so o'erdone 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. Now

this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful

laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the

which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of

others. Oh, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others

praise and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that neither having

the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man,

have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's

journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated

humanity so abominably.

First Player: I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir.

Hamlet: Oh reform it altogether. And let those that play your clowns

speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that

will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators

to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of

the play be then to be considered. That's villainous, and shows

a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready.

Hamlet, (3.2.1-36)


  1. ^ Philip Edwards, editor of the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, argues for mid-1601 as the likely date for the completion of the play (1985, 4-8).
  2. ^ Rodenberg (2002, 63-65) and Hall (2004, 58-61).
  3. ^ See, for example, Merlin (2007, 5).
  4. ^ "[A]ll theatre is 'mimetic' to some degree--but what Shakespeare understood by the requirement (voiced through Hamlet) that the stage "Hold a mirror up to Nature" is very different from the aims of 19th-century naturalistic playwrights" (Innes 2000, 5). Joseph Roach offers a detailed critique of this ahistorical approach to acting theory in The Player's Passion (1985), especially, with reference to the early modern period, the first chapter.

Works cited[edit]

  • Edwards, Philip, ed. 1985. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare. The New Cambridge Shakespeare Ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29366-9.
  • Hall, Peter. 2004. Shakespeare's Advice to the Players. London: Oberon. ISBN 1-84002-411-9.
  • Innes, Christopher D. 2000. A sourcebook on naturalist theatre. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-15228-0.
  • Merlin, Bella. 2007. The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit. London: Nick Hern. ISBN 978-1-85459-793-9.
  • Rodenberg, Patsy. 2002. Speaking Shakespeare. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-70040-2.
  • Roach, Joseph R. 1985. The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting. Theater:Theory/Text/Performance Ser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-08244-2.

Further reading[edit]

  • Berry, Cicely. 2000. The Actor and the Text. Rev. ed. London: Virgin Books. ISBN 0-86369-705-4.
  • Carlson, Marvin. 1993. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Expanded ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-8154-3.
  • Hagen, Uta. 1973. Respect for Acting. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-547390-5.
  • Rayner, Alice. 1994. To Act, To Do, To Perform: Drama and the Phenomenology of Action. Theater: Theory/Text/Performance Ser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-10537-X.
  • Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-3506-2.