In Act 3, during play-within-a-play, Hamlet criticizes Elizabethan theater. In particular, the line “Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters” shows the author’s disdain for the traditional acting practices of his era.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, theater was a very popular pastime for rich and poor alike. Most of the plays of that time were either tragedies, dealing with the adventures of heroic protagonists, or light-hearted comedies. These genres were popular with the audience, and heightened emotions during the action helped to keep the theater-goers engaged.
However, there were many aspects to Elizabethan drama that would’ve disappointed modern viewers. First of all, the plays were presenting one-dimensional characters, either epic heroes or comically exaggerated caricatures. The traditional acting style of the era was pompous, and so was the writing style of the dialogues.
Together with elaborate costumes and make-up, it helped to keep the audience interested in the action of the play. At the same time, all these aspects were making the actors appear grotesque, unnatural, and over-the-top.
This is exactly what Shakespeare wanted to change with his own theater, Globe. There he was using new approaches for acting, as well as writing.
Shakespeare was against one-dimensional plots and characters, making use of tragicomedy, which combined the characteristics of the two genres. He was also against the traditional idea that the character’s fate is predetermined by destiny: instead he wanted to show how people are responsible for their own actions.
For Shakespeare, life was supposed to be presented realistically on stage. To achieve it, he had his actors learn only their lines, without knowing what the other characters say. While this tactic was initially caused by practical reasons, such as lack of paper and lighting, it helped to create spontaneous atmosphere on stage. The actors were their own directors, and would often improvise during performance.
At the same time Shakespeare toyed with the idea of artificiality of theater, making his characters acknowledge the presence of the audience, or question the nature of acting.
The traditional ideas of Elizabethan theatre are precisely what Shakespeare is criticizing through Hamlet during the play-within-a-play. The episode itself parodies the way theater reflects real life. In case of Hamlet, it re-enacts the murder of his father. Hamlet is unimpressed by the actors, saying: “Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters.” Then he gives them advice, asking them to act more realistically.
This is how he expresses the Elizabethan idea of naturalism in acting: “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 overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the fist 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.”
Besides the fact, that Hamlet directly translates the author’s ideas about acting, his own intriguing personality was also a challenge to the traditions of the Elizabethan theater.
Shakespeare plays feature complex characters with interesting motivations and rich inner life, and he remains an inspiration for modern readers.