Speak the speech, I pray you," Hamlet tells the player, "trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town cryer spoke my lines" (3.2.1-2). (1) Turning from elocution to execution, Hamlet continues, "Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus" (1.4). Most editors girdle "thus" in commas, a typographical hiccup indicating that, here, an action suits the word. For 400 years, this moment of textual apnea has guaranteed the play's modernity by gesturing towards an archaic playing style:
Gielgud, Olivier, Kline, Fiennes: "thus, thus, thus, thus," ad Branagh, ad infinitum. If it is true, as Tyrone Guthrie claimed, that, "Hamlet is always going on somewhere," then in accent variable and gesture indeterminate somewhere a player is always offering a kinetic description of what constitutes precisely too much air sawing (72).
Richard Burbage's unrecoverable semaphore at "thus" signifies the stubborn invisibility of the actors who gave William Shakespeare's words first flesh. Act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet--a scene sufficiently memorable to earn its own shorthand, "The Advice to the Players"--has been many things to many critics: a winking bit of theatrical in-joking; a Donation echo on the purpose of playing; and an exemplary instance of the happy "variety" that distinguished Hamlet to Samuel Coleridge and Dr. Johnson. (2) Most durably, Hamlet's advice has provided scholars a tantalizing glimpse into the style of playing on the Elizabethan stage. "Tantalizing" because for all Hamlet says, he does not say much: in short, 'Not too much; not too little; I know what I like.' Undeterred by thin evidence, scholars have persistently characterized Elizabethan and Jacobean playing in terms predictable--"formal" or "natural"; "rhetorical" or "naturalistic"--and those less so: "presentational" or "ceremonial." (3) Lacking substantive graphical or textual witness, scholars have turned to rhetorical manuals, oratorical tradition, and bald speculation to recover playing methods in the age of Shakespeare. (4) For the longstanding attempt to exhume the Elizabethan actor, Hamlet's advice to the players presents something like forensic evidence.
Most critical discussions of actors and acting on the Elizabethan stage are not even wrong. The terms in which the debate is conducted simply do not mean anything. We never know exactly what we are talking about when we talk about acting. One critic bewails the lack of "comparative evidence, in the form of iconographic or objective critical descriptions, which could tell us how a given actor or company did in fact present particular scenes or moments in plays" (Marker 95). Should an "objective" account one day ascend from a dusty Bodleian volume, it probably would not illuminate the discussion. Witnesses rarely tell us anything about acting because the witnesses usually say the same thing: 'Not too much; not too little; we know what we like.'
For 400 years, Hamlet's advice to the players has been more closely heeded by critics than by players, enabling a paradigm for scholarly work on acting that depends on false binaries to replace the elusive "objective criticism." Hamlet's advice has advanced a Whig history of mimetic style, a history that promotes the plays and players of the Shakespearean theatre as the triumphant fluorescence of sophisticated art over the crudities of the past. Such criticism fundamentally misunderstands trans-historical truths about performance: acting does not get better; it gets different. The best acting is "natural." Bad acting is not. It has always been thus.
Hamlet's advice is therefore a necessary point of departure to ask what precisely was at stake at moments of intra-dramatic acting critiques. …