Hamlet: stage direction in dialogue

As we’ve discussed before (for some of you, ad nauseum), there’s not a whole lot of stage direction in Shakespeare (though seemingly more here in Hamlet than in the other plays we’ve read thus far). So the director and the actor have to depend upon the dialogue and speeches themselves for guidance.

In some cases, the direction comes later in a description of what was seen by the character (and thus should be seen by the audience). In Act One, Scene One, as the Ghost appears to the sentries a second time, when the cock crows, the actor playing the Ghost should “start…like a guilty thing // Upon a fearful summons” (I.i.148-9). In Act Two, Scene Two, after Polonius has told Claudius that he may have found the cause of Hamlet’s madness, the King relays this information to Gertrude, “He tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found // The head and source of all your son’s distemper” (II.ii.54-5). Since we’ve heard this statement just five lines earlier, with Gertrude in attendance, the clue here is that Gertrude must be distracted from hearing this (though it could be played by Claudius in a demeaning way, as if explaining something to a child). In the final scene, during the fencing bout, somewhere between the stage direction “They play” (V.ii.283 stage direction) and falling of the Queen from the poisoned drink, both Hamlet and Laertes must be visibly injured, as by this time “they bleed on both sides” (V.ii.287). The only stage direction is that they have to exchange rapiers; the clue to injury happens only in the text.

In a few other instances, the direction comes before to show the actor how to act later. When Hamlet talks to Horatio just before the play, he tells his friend what his actions (as well as his own) will be during the play: “Give him heedful note, // For I mine eyes will rivet to his face” (III.ii.83-4). Both actors know their physicality for the scene to come.

Mostly, however, the clues for the the matters at hand…

In Act One, Scene Four, when the Ghost beckons Hamlet, it is obvious that either Marcellus or Horatio (or both) need to physically restrain Hamlet, as he says to them, “Hold off your hands… Unhand me, Gentlemen” (I.iv.80, 84). A similar situation comes when Laertes returns after Polonius’ death, and must be restrained by Gertrude, only to be released upon Claudius’ command: “Let him go, Gertrude… Let him go, Gertrude” (IV.v.122,126).

Early in Act Two, when Polonius is giving Reynaldo instructions for spying on Laertes, the actor playing Reynaldo must at some point stop paying attention, as Polonius interrupts himself, “‘and in part him’ — do you mark this, Reynaldo?” (II.i.15).

Stage directions for Rosencrantz appear in Hamlet’s speech during their reunion scene: “Man delights not me — nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so” (II.ii.278-80 emphasis mine).

Hamlet supplies his own stage direction when giving, fittingly enough, acting advice to the players, “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus” (III.ii.4-5). Here, it’s obvious that Hamlet is demonstrating what he does not want to see the player doing while delivering his lines.

Sometimes, the direction is not only for the actors, but for the prop-master or the set designer, as when Hamlet is railing against his mother: “Look here upon this picture, and on this” (III.iv.53). Here, the actors need something (two somethings, actually) to “look” at.

Laertes describes his own gesture in Act Four, Scene Five, when he says, “To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms” (IV.v.145). To stand there, with arms crossed or hanging limp off to the side, would be laughable.

The final scene is filled with dialogue-based stage direction: Hamlet has Osric put his hat on, “Your bonnet to right use. ‘Tis for the head” (V.ii.80); off again, “But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot” (V.ii.84); and possibly on yet again, “I beseech you remember” (V.ii.90). In the run-up to the fencing bout, Laertes must physically pick up the foils to test them; otherwise, his line “This is too heavy; let me see another” (V.ii.242) makes no sense. After both combatants have been injured, we know that Hamlet must still be holding Laertes’ sword: “The treacherous instrument is in thy hand” (V.ii.299), Laertes tells him. And finally, Hamlet, dying, is still not so weak that he can’t attempt to wrestle the poisoned cup from Horatio: “Give me the cup. Let go. By heaven, I’ll ha’t!” (V.ii.326).

For the actor, young or old, and the director, student or professional, the advice is simple: No stage direction? No problem: the answer is in the “words, words, words” (II.ii.192) of the lines themselves.

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