Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts

Monday, June 30, 2014

Things I Don't Get #4: Gilligan's Island Does Hamlet and Carmen

Perhaps no television program is better remembered for silly, cheesy gags than Gilligan's Island. Yes, there's appeal in its warm characters and their plucky attempts to get off their tiny Pacific island, but for a show that only ran for  three seasons and didn't have the opportunity to grow decadent or exhaust ideas, Gilligan had some preposterous plots. With guests ranging from cosmonauts to Zsa Zsa Gabor to the Harlem Globetrotters, from giant spiders to mad scientists, anything was possible on Gilligan's Island.

Yet one of their funniest bits consisted of nothing less than a scene from Hamlet set to the Toreador song from Bizet's Carmen. I don't know how this scene came to be in this show. Maybe it was an experiment or a gag on the part of the cast or writer. Perhaps there is some measure of cleverness in its mix of the serious and silly, high art and low comedy. At the same time though, there's an internal logic to the scene. The use of Bizet's song about the excitement of the bullfights makes an ironical commentary on Polonius' advice to his son for keeping his virtue abroad in France. Does it not seem to mock, and intelligently, the ridiculous Polonius? To boot, Alan Hale Jr., with his sweet-natured face in that bushy beard, isn't even a bad casting choice as the earnest, foolish Polonius. The scene is at once absurd and intelligent,  a clever staging of a serious play, cheekily acted, which is well-received by the characters within the ridiculous TV show. And it's all set to operatic music. Incredible.

It's funny too, and I can't explain that either. Maybe it's Phil Silvers' astonished eyes peeping from beyond the plastic shrubbery, the castaways' bamboo theater, Jim Backus' face as he hams up that last word, the sing-song end rhyme, or just the incongruity of it all (Gilligan as Hamlet!), but the scene is hilarious. Toréador, en garde!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review: Sleep No More


I step into a room built of cardboard boxes. At its center stand two tables, for cards and pool, and making my way between I investigate the far corner. A bar. No sooner do I peek behind than its tender vaults from the shadows. The figure backs me around the bar and once more behind, pours drinks for the two men now beside me. They step over to the card table and with drink, deck, and hammer in hand, begin to play. A king. One man stands, picks up the card, and nails it to a board covered with dozens of others. They continue. A king. The hammer. Now the bartender's bumped the hanging light and it swings like a pendulum, searing my eyes with each pass as it slices the darkness. Before I regain my senses I'm against the wall and two of the men are pushing at one another. They rant and rave and begin to brawl, thrashing one another against the walls and atop the pool table until behind the bar, with a raging rictus of revenge, the tall man cudgels his quarry with the hammer.

I'll forgive you if the scene doesn't conjure an image of Macbeth, but Punchdrunk's production of Shakespeare is less the form of the play than the primal essence. Gone are the tripping words of the Bard, alas! alack!, but so too the trappings of the theater: the acts, scenes, stage, seats. In place of a linear performance we have parallel staging not of scenes but of various moments from the play. One murder is realized as a saloon fight, another a street brawl. A scene of dialogue becomes a sojourn through a silvery midnight wood or a ballroom dance. Instead of seat and stage, masked audience members are free to wander amongst the performances. The twisting, twirling, and hurling dance of the actors supplant Shakespeare's words.

Stitching these elements together is the ruse that we're not patrons at a theater but guests at the mysterious McKittrick Hotel, whose twisted entry corridors shake up the everyday order and lead you to a smoky lounge of peak 1920s elegance. Sip. Mingle. When your number's up you're masked, hushed, and sent on your way through the McKittrick's five floors. The novelty and detail of the sets catch you first. The detail is exceptional and immersive. A room of headless dolls suspended over a crib. (Whose room could this be?) Another of rolled maps with Creasey's history open on the desk. A nurse's room with a lockbox of keys.

You stumble upon a tailor primping himself in his shop. An angry man walks in and a chase ensues. They grapple and now the tailor's walking up the... shouts in the distance?

You see, while the stagings are parallel they're not discrete. You follow the performers around the hotel, intersecting with other performers followed by other guests. On the one hand this adds the frisson of the live and unpredictable, on the other it results in wandering amongst rooms with little knowledge of their purpose. Pretty and jarring as they are, their significance is often more apparent than actual, contributing less to theater than to tone.

Losing the linear structure also jettisons the structured climaxes of recognition and denouement in the Shakespeare. The result is a scramble whose effect comes not from the controlled ebb and flow of thought in verse but from the visceral. There is, however, an exceptional unity of effect owing foremost to the ferocious aplomb and expressive dexterity of the performers and second to the set design. Much is simple curiosity, but the effect is a disjuncture from the ordinary which in in amplifying, immerses you in the boiling emotions.

As a technique, though, the sensually immersive does not engage the spirit as much as the dramatic perfected by Shakespeare. Absent the traditional form and the words of the Bard, Sleep No More doesn't stand so much on its own as, with different tools, amplify certain dimensions of Shakespeare's masterpiece. As that, it's an engaging thrill.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An Overture for Richard?

I am not one of the pesky many perpetually scoffing at programmatic music for being "limited." Yet. . . in this one case I simply must give new purpose to Rimsky-Korsakov's battle music from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. It will be quite a different purpose but I hope you agree one quite a fine fit. 

I propose seeing Korsakov's scene as an overture to Richard III. From the outset the dark winds suggest ill intent and the lengthening line Richard's invasive scheming. The brassy six-note figure evokes here throbbing (and later in the violins, stabbing) as much as marching and the opening wind figure most appropriately accompanies it. The rising range of the orchestration depicts Richard's rise and the rising tension matches his increasing viciousness.  

The spacious and grand theme that follows is the essence of what fascinates us in Richard. It's a soaring and rapturous theme, seductive in its primal heedlessness. Its opening figure is repeated against increasingly martial strings and drums until climaxing in a dazzling and colorful explosion of vigor, violence, and self-assertion. Growing darker and more malevolent, though, the theme is then itself besieged by ferocious drums who hound and snap at it until, put to flight, it limps off. (This dactylic figure could easily also be Richard's horse trotting off.) A baleful shadow of its former glory the theme makes its last overtures now, shrinking after each attempt. Its last gasp is way up in the oboes, and the last bit of energy it expends is on the shock at its fate.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Causa Pulchritudinis

"At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: beauty."

So says philosopher and author Roger Scruton in his 2007 documentary Why Beauty Matters. The radical purpose to Scruton's work is the classical notion that beauty matters, that, contra postmodern cacophilia, beauty is a value in itself as much as truth or goodness. He makes an honest and convincing case for beauty while tracing its genealogy from Plato through its banishment in the 20th century.

I would like, however, to trace and amplify a point slightly glossed over in the documentary. Scruton calls up Wilde's phrase that, "All art is absolutely useless," by which Wilde meant that art is more than useful. Scruton continues, applying Wilde's pointed compliment to mean that today we suffer under the "tyranny of the useful." We have more than utilitarian needs and suffer in not fulfilling them, he argues. I would like to return to Wilde, though, and ask: is all art absolutely useless?

Yes, and I would add that it is even more obviously useless than it might seem.

Let us begin by looking at the famous work of Hamlet since it seems to have a point. For our purposes permit a gross, obscene even, simplification: that the moral of the story is that indecisiveness and delay are bad. (Gasp! Alack! if you must, but stay with me, I beg.) If that is your goal, to demonstrate that indecisiveness is bad, why would you fulfill that goal by writing a four-hour play filled with complicated dialogue? It would be much easier, much clearer and more apparent, to write a simple morality story. What is gained by pages of complicated dialogue, shades of meaning, and a complex plot? Let me put it this way, why is:
To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
so much more full of meaning and portent than
He screwed me! Should I suck it up or kick his ass?
Well, Shakespeare's verse is more meaningful because it is more persuasive and it is more persuasive because it is more beautiful. The logic is the same, but the structure, diction, imagery, syntax, and figurative language of Shakespeare make it seem more important. The ideas take on greater scale and meaning when they are beautiful.

Let us look at another example in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We must first observe that the entire fourth act is unnecessary to the plot since Figaro and Susanna are married at the conclusion of the third. Why conclude the opera titled The Marriage of Figaro with the Count being forgiven by his wife, then? Because all of the distrust and running around of the first three acts is well and good, but it only adds up to the rather uninspiring fact that everyone outwitted the Count. We want a bit more.

Unfortunately, the final scene of forgiveness has only a tenuous element of contrast to tie it to the plot. After all of the intrigues and fits of anger and distrust, even by Susanna and  Figaro, the Countess' act seems different, but why does it seem important somehow? Susanna and Figaro aren't villains, and neither are Bartolo and Marcellina, so why is this contrast necessary? Besides, everyone's mistrust is more heated than malicious. This simple element of contrast, then, is a relatively thin thread with which to conclude a three-hour endeavor whose main plot is already resolved. Mozart makes this finale relevant, to the plot and to us, by making it beautiful. This brief moment of sublime beauty takes on extraordinary dimensions and significance far disproportionate to the plot. This scene does not demonstrate that the Countess does the moral or just thing or that the Count will reform and be a better man or that Susanna and Figaro learn a lesson about marriage. The opera simply says that forgiveness is beautiful and the scene says this by being beautiful.

In the above examples we look at beauty acting as the element of persuasion in art which attempts to make some other point. Beauty persuades us that Hamlet's dilemma is grand and that the Countess' deed is good, but what about art which exists purely to be beautiful?

Take the fifth fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Why is that string of thirty-second notes followed by the dotted figures so full of meaning? More importantly, why does it take on so much more when developed? In fact, why should any figure played in canon, or augmented or what have you, be meaningful? Who cares if something is in inversion? Because the symmetries, rhythmic and harmonic, are beautiful.

Below Botticelli's point is not to describe the birth of Venus or even to show it, but to show beauty. Do we actually care about Venus or her birth?

Why are such symmetries and consonances pleasing to man? Why is, as Marcus Aurelius observed, the cracking of bread and the bursting of a fig a pleasing sight? Marcus' answer was the classical one that such things are naturally beautiful. I'm not sure what scientists hope to discover in asking that question today but is it likely to result in more beauty? The more experiments confirm that people prefer certain shapes and ratios the more the findings, oddly, are interpreted to mean that the pleasure we derive from contemplating and seeing beauty is meaningless. The more some preference is thought to be evolved the more one hear that we "only" prefer it because of such and such.  Yet in truth little seems to hinge on the question. Beauty by nature cannot be made vulgar, unnecessary, or undesirable. Because of its "uselessness" it can never be replaced or outdated. Fragile though it is in our hands, in this respect beauty is indestructible.

If you enjoyed this essay you may be interested in:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mini-Review: Looking for Richard

Directed by Al Pacino. 1996.

Al Pacino walking around Manhattan asking people what they think about Shakespeare was not such a bad idea. It could have been played as a cheap trick setting up some point about how no one today appreciates Shakespeare or how we need to pedestrianize the Bard to make him "more accessible." These strolls through the city, though, avoid such tempting alternatives and instead simply ask people what they know and what they find difficult. Some people think Shakespeare is boring, others complicated. Some people have not heard of him, others can quote a phrase. They all, though, admit to a certain distance, a divide some of the actors we meet later admit to remembering from their first experience with Shakespeare. A ways through trying to explain the plot Pacino himself admits, "I'm confused just saying it to you. So I can imagine how you must feel hearing me talk." This frankness and the admission that the film is as much about the actors trying to find Richard as it is to help the audience is an effective, if not entirely necessary, hook to bring the audience into the endeavor of experiencing Shakespeare.

The film's structure of cutting among discussions of the film with actors and staged scenes is effective. Wisely both types of scene are always cut off before one gets to settled into seeing a film or watching a roundtable. The ability to intersperse actual scenes from Shakespeare, with full costume and music, with discussions, and even overlay them, is a great tool Pacino uses effectively to broaden the scenes, explaining who is doing what without getting caught up in a cycle of explication followed by the scene, followed by explication. . . The highlight of the film, though, is the actors and listening them discuss the film. For those beginning their experience of Shakespeare it is a wonderful resource to see a scene played a few different ways because it demonstrates both how much you have to understand the character to perform him consistently through a play and how there can be different meanings and subtexts to a given word, line, or scene.

Sometimes, though, you'll have a scene of discussion in which nothing is resolved and in which the actors do not seem to have gotten to the heart of the scene followed by a fine performance. One can't help but wonder, how did they get here? Other time's they are really just explaining the plot.
Too some of the scholarly justifications for getting down to the essence of Shakespeare don't quite work. One scholar mentions how it's more important to get to the bottom of every scene than "getting obsessed with the British way of regarding a text." Well what do you do with the text? A scholarly discussion would have been welcome here. Sometimes they merely point at the issue. Similarly, they do not so much explain how the meter works in Shakespeare as they just define what iambic pentameter is. (Because it's a big scary Greek word they even reveal it slowly on the screen.)

For a documentary, or "docu-drama type thing" as Pacino calls it, Looking for Richard is quite light on the critics, historians, and scholars. In one scene Pacino's collaborator Frederic Kimball grows quite adamant about the this point, insisting that the scholars should not get the special privilege of looking into the camera for their scenes if the director's point is to demonstrate that it is the actors who are the true possessors of the material. This seems plausible enough, yet we constantly see the actors scurrying about and quarreling trying simply to comprehend the play. The point Pacino seems to demonstrate is rather in fact that the actor has to become the scholar. Likewise the film's premise that Shakespeare is for everyone is not quite so perfectly true. On the one hand the film does demonstrate the beauty and truthfulness of Shakespeare by doing such a fine job of the acting. Surely the content is for everyone. On the other hand, despite how entertaining the film is, it also does a lot of teaching and explaining. Well if all of this teaching is necessary, then there is an inherent barrier isn't there? The actors need scholars, or to be scholars, the actors need the audience, the audience needs the actors, and so forth. There seems to be more truth in that line of thinking, that there are discrete but overlapping roles, than the egalitarian "we're all in this together" schtick. Such a discussion, however, would have necessitated another about culture, which surely would have bored the audience Looking for Richard was aiming at.

One senses that the director would consider Looking for Richard a success if someone who didn't like Shakespeare enjoyed this film. Yet for that person it took an entire other film, two hours of scholarship dressed up as entertainment, and leaving out the majority of the actual play, to get him into Richard III. I would consider Looking for Richard more of a success if it got someone into reading, studying, seeing, and enjoying the full play.

I enjoyed Looking for Richard very much while watching it, but seemed a tad more shallow after further consideration. That said, it is probably a good introduction for people living only in the 21st century. For people who already enjoy Shakespeare, the discussions are lively, enthusiastic, and frank, and the acting is fine. It was quite a treat hearing Estelle Parsons as Margaret delivering,
O but remember this another day:
When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow:
And say (poore Margaret) was a Prophetesse:
even though what made it to film was a composite and truncated version of Margaret's lines. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Shakespeare and the Roman Regime

Paul Cantor, Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of Shakespeare's Rome, leads a discussion on Shakespeare and the Roman Regime.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Last year we discussed in a pair of essays works of art which we said created the experience they depicted. We saw some which pulled the viewer into the experience. In our discussions regular reader Tom suggested Macbeth as a candidate for this unique group of works. Having finally revisited the play I say: indeed!

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Macbeth: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word:
To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last Syllable of Recorded time:
And all our yesterdays, have lighted Fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief Candle,
Life's but a walking Shadow, a poor Player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
This is just an extraordinary passage, how Shakespeare manipulates time and weaves everyone who partakes in the play together.

There is no more time for tomorrow, for she is dead. There are no more tomorrows. Shakespeare draws us in to the day-to-day-to-day drudgery and then thrusts us, literally, to the end of time. How cruelly effective a way to recreate the feeling that life is simply such a damn repetition forever. So too with his use of the word "yesterdays," which encourages us to think not of the past as a monolith but of all the specific past days of our own, days he asks us to recall only to remind us they carry us to the same end. Shakespeare does not say "all candles will go out" or something similar but rather "Out, out, brief Candle," because the candle will go out. It has to, so it might as well. A "walking shadow." Something of illusory permanence, illusory agency.

Shakespeare weaves us all into this tragedy. First, "all our yesterdays." Then not just Macbeth but "the poor player," the actor himself. At last the teller of the tale, the author himself. (Though this could rightly include both the player and Macbeth.) Who would bother to tell such a futile tale?

No one escapes.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Playing Shakespeare

Selections from  Playing Shakespeare, a series of workshops conducted by John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and featuring Sheila Hancock, Patrick Stewart, Donald Sinden, Michael Williams, and Ian McKellen among others. The whole series is available on DVD via

Playing Shakespeare
Selection I | IIIII | IV

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shakespeare's Death of Priam

One of the pleasures of getting on in years is getting to revisit art. How different a work can seem after more living. How much more truthful, inspiring, and unique they can seem. Everyone has, I think, a variety of relationships with art. Some works become thoroughly internalized and part of one's mental furniture, others seem to grow right alongside you. Some we neglect, unfairly, and others we adore. Sometimes a piece we have read or heard many times suddenly strikes us for the first time with its full force. I had that experience the other day when revisiting Hamlet. Specifically I was surprised by the end of the second scene of Act II in which the prince first meets the players. [See eText]

Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Hamlet greets the players and asks the first of them to play a little scene, "'tws Aenas' tale to Dido; and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam's slaughter:" Hamlet, in trying to cite the line actually plays some of the scene himself.

We should first consider this scene's context within the play. The play-within-a-play feature is of course a famous device and the play Hamlet arranges to test Claudius is quite well-known. Here though is not just an inserted scene but one of radically different style. This difference though seems not to be of form since the scene is not strictly an aside, a dramatic monologue, or an instance of ekphrasis though it shares features of those forms. The difference is instead of style, particularly diction, tone, rhetoric, and syntax. Rather than treating each feature in turn let us look at this act straight through.

Hamlet begins by describing Pyrhhus, the son of Achilles also called Neoptolemus, first as rugged but then as "Hyrcanian." This is interesting in two respects. First it is a dash of the exotic. To the Greeks and Romans Hyrcania, the region surrounding the southern tip of the Caspian Sea (mare Hyrcanum), was distant and exotic, lying at the heart of the Persian Empire. (see Catullus, II.5.) In Aeneid IV Vergil refers to the land's tigers: Caucasus Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres. This association seems to have fascinated Shakespeare too since he uses it not only here but in Macbeth (III.iv) and Henry VI, Part III (I.iv). It quickly evokes exoticism and savage beastliness. Now quite cleverly Hamlet pauses as if he has misquoted the line and begins again without "Hyrcanian." Shakespeare of course gets the effect of the word anyway but he also seems to be making another point. Now of course this use demonstrates that Hamlet has not only memorized this passage, but has confused it with another, apparently one of equal grandiosity. Alongside his rhetorical ability and wit which we see in his normal speech, it's a very subtle hint about Hamlet's education, mind, and personal world.

Now Pyrrhus is "sable," sable meaning dark but also connoting heraldry since sable is a heraldic color. Shakespeare avoids "dark as night" (which must have been cliché as long as "cold as ice") and instead uses "black as his purpose" but still works in the night, compensating for the cliché by 1) separating it from the object it describes, 2) reversing the order of the phrase, 3) metrically making sure you can quickly bounce through it, 4) and using it as a bridge to the following phrase, which too picks up on the darkness in the "couched in the ominous horse."

Shakespeare continues: his dark figure is even more dismal for what he has already done. He is "total gules" i.e. all red with the "blood of fathers, mothers, and daughters." (Specifically gules is the heraldic term for red.) Shakespeare uses a culinary vocabulary to describe the caked on blood, "bak'd, impasted, roasted." Calling Phyrrus "trick'd" refers not simply to him being adorned with blood but to the process of "tricking" (i.e. prefiguring/sketching/notating) a coat of arms on a surface. We ought read tricking as metonymy for the actual act of painting. This would continue the heraldic theme and link Pyrrhus with his father Achilles, (to whom Priam compares him later in Vergil's account.)

The light from the burning city is "tyrannous and damned" as is the death of Priam, i.e. Priam and his city are being dominated and destroyed. The phrase "Hellish Pyrrhus with his eyes like carbuncles," (i.e. reddish-brown gems) is so covered in blood he is "oversized" contrasts with the gentle "old grandsire Priam." The word order also mirrors the sense as "old gransire Priam" is surrounded by Pyrrhus' seeking: the hellish Pyrrhus old gransire Priam seeks.

Now Hamlet, realizing he has gotten carried away with himself, asks the First Player to continue. The groundling Polonius makes the ridiculous and passionless compliment that the prince spoke well and with "good discretion." The First Player takes over.

Old Priam is "striking too short" at the Greeks with his old sword which is "rebellious to his arms" and "repugnant to command." In contrast Pyrrhus is so enraged he swings wide and misses, but Priam falls from the "whiff and wind" and the ferocity of the swing. You can take "whiff and wind" as pleonastic or whiff literally meaning the stench coming off his sword. Shakespeare here personifies the Trojan citadel, "Ilium," which itself reacts to Pyrrhus' blow by collapsing (as in a last-ditch effort) to stop the intruder. While it only "takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear" it catches him amidst his blow, his sword "declining on the milky head of reverend Priam" and he pauses. He stands there as if painted, "neutral to his will and matter," i.e. balanced (and thus still) between what he wants to do and what he can do. Shakespeare follows with classic (or clichéd) references to the calm before the storm and the silence of death. 

Yet even with those not-so-fresh images this scene of Pyrrhus' power paused in hurling Priam's deathblow amidst the flaming ruins of falling Troy achieves a dreadful grandeur. It is as if Shakespeare has drawn a relief for us of this clash from a long-lost epoch. The following analogy has a particularly classical ring:
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars' armor, forged for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword 
Now falls on Priam.
The aside about the quality of Mars' armor, the personification (remorseless hammers) and transferred epithet (bleeding sword) and conclusion in the present tense make this passage especially vivid. Now he aspostrophizes to Fortune and the gods, pleading that they stop the deed. Break "all the spokes and fellies" refers to the notion of the rota fortunae, or wheel of fortune, and the changefulness of fate. Hamlet will again consider fortune in the very next act when he says, "To be or not to be–that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. . ." Shakespeare also uses the image in Henry V, Act 3 Scene VI (a cruel trick of fate and a turn of silly Fortune's wildly spinning wheel) and throughout Macbeth in the form of the doomed Thane's rise and fall. Shakespeare will continue the theme shortly in Hamlet.

At the height of the scene's poignancy Shakespeare now, in brilliant fashion, has Polonius interrupt complaining, "This is too long." Hamlet deftly rebukes him for his lack of taste and sensitivity, "He's for a jig, or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps." The player continues with "the mobled queen" and Polonius notes that he approves of the turn of phrase, still missing the point of the performance.

Shakespeare now paints despairing portrait of Priam's wife, Hecuba. Her head, once crowned, is now mobled (wrapped or muffled) with a clout (rag) and as she runs barefoot up and down she "threatens" the flames with "bisson rheum," or blinding teary-discharge. The archaism of the phrase suggests more of an uncontrollable outpouring than a weeping over some intellectualized matter. Shakespeare calls her "overteemed" and thus sets up a contrast between her and Priam, who are naturally at the ebb of their power and vitality, and Pyrrhus, who is unnaturally engorged ("o'ersized with gore") with strength. The sight, we are told, would cause anyone to cry treason at the cruelty of Fortune:
But if the Gods themselves did see her then,
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husbands limbs,
The instant burst of clamor that she made,
Unless things mortal move them not at all,
Would have made milche the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods."
This climax is perhaps the most simple, and moving, part of the speech, enlarged and made more grand only by the two asides, (When she saw. . . limbs, and unless things. . . not at all.) Anyone, the poet says, should be moved by such a pitiful sight. Except for Polonius, who instead of getting caught up in the speech disapproves of how emotional the player has become, and now we come to our point which Hamlet states shortly thereafter when everyone else leaves. "All for nothing! For Hecuba!" he says. This man has worked himself to tears with pity for a stranger from history and here Hamlet, whose father was murdered and mother stained and kingdom robbed, can say and do nothing. Hamlet in fury and frustration lets loose a torrent of insults against himself before the scene ends with his plot to "catch the conscience of the king."

We must ask now, why this particular scene? We could have had a slightly different speech with seemingly similar effect. For example, if Hamlet had found himself moved at the scene he could have asked, "Why can I be moved by this fiction and not by my own misfortune?" Hamlet speaks approvingly of this piece, that it is more handsome than subtle, modest, without affection, and of honest method. It is of course quite embellished and florid, driven more by imagery and description than deep probing into the psychology of the character, a contrast which seems perhaps untrue until the depths of Hamlet's introspection in the following speech sharpens the contrast.

Perhaps Shakespeare's point in imitating this style is the same as his choice of material,  its distance. Surely the style is moving in some respect, but it is so formal and elaborate it becomes removed and less intimate. Still, though, the player is moved. We know this style was still popular in the dramas of the Admiral's Men, the second most popular troupe (to Shakespeare's own) in London so it was not quite alien and it was certainly well-known through Marlowe's Dido's Lament and Vergil himself. Let us look at these works and then consider anew Shakespeare's point in re-writing the story as he does.

Marlowe's scene emphasizes the theme of fortune:
Achilles' son, remember what I was,
Father of fifty sons, but they are slain,
Lord of my fortune, but my fortunes turned,
King of this City, but my Troy is fired,
And now am neither father, Lord, nor King:
. . .
Jove's marble statue began to bend the brow
As loathing Pyrrhus for this wicked act.
Here Hecuba in a frantic and futile gesture throws herself between her husband and his attacker before she is quickly and easily tossed aside. Also, Priam here pleads with Pyrrhus.

Vergil's account is by far the most graphic, emphasizing the violence and cruelty of Pyrrhus. Priam's son Polites is rushing to his parents with Pyrrhus hot on his heels and is run through just as he gets there. The scene is frenetic and vivid in Vergil. From Book II:
saucius. Illum ardens infesto vulnere Pyrrhus
insequitur, iam iamque manu tenet et premit hasta. 530
Ut tandem ante oculos evasit et ora parentum
concidit ac multo vitam cum sanguine fudit.
Priam rises in outrage, castigating Pyrrhus that his father Achilles treated him better, for while he desecrated Hector's corpse in rage, he honored the suppliant's rights, returned the body, and let Priam return home. Priam then hurls a spear at Pyrrhus which he easily dodges before his cruel reply:
Cui Pyrrhus: 'Referes ergo haec et nuntius ibis
Pelidae genitori. Illi mea tristia facta
degeneremque Neoptolemum narrare memento.
Nunc morere.' 550
Shakespeare's seems now a sort of pasticcio, but one in which he shifts the focus away to Hecuba, famous for her suffering. In fact Shakespeare mentions her in in Cymbeline, Act II, Scene II:
Pisanio, All curses madded Hecuba gave the Greeks,
And mine to boot, be darted on thee!
and in The Rape of Lucretia. . .
To this well-painted piece is Lucrece come,
To find a face where all distress is stell'd.
Many she sees where cares have carved some,
But none where all distress and dolour dwell'd,
Till she despairing Hecuba beheld,
Staring on Priam's wounds with her old eyes,
Which bleeding under Pyrrhus' proud foot lies.
Yet one still wonders why Shakespeare shifted the focus to Hecuba. He does not at all draw on the part in Vergil's telling in which the old king, impotent as he was, rose in anger to throw that spear at Pyrrhus. That scene surely has a parallelism to Hamlet's situation. Yet that would not have worked as well since Priam was a great king of old. Instead, here this humble player has enough command of himself to grow pale and tearful and choked up over nothing, over Hecuba. Hamlet has not failed to live up to the example of Priam, which would be understandable, but up to the player, which makes him still more distraught: Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Additionally, Shakespeare instead of making the speech about Priam as Marlowe does, uses his fall to build to the higher climax of his wife's despair. The outburst of the address to Fortune and the gods accomplishes this amplification, as in fact do Polonius' foolish interruptions.

This little speech, which seems often to get cut in abridged productions, is a most clever and carefully constructed piece, its style and substance both constructed to fit the needs of the larger drama in which it sits. It is dense with description, imagery, and classical figurative devices and while it begins with two traditional themes (arms, and specifically heraldry, and men) its focus takes an unexpected turn. Finally the end to which Shakespeare puts the speech is simply inspired.