Hamlet’s first scene famously begins with a question: “Who’s there?”
Good question, Mr. Shakespeare. Who, indeed? Who are the people in this play? Who do they wish to be? And how can I discover the essence of my character? How do I find out who she really is?
This is a tricky subject. Acting teachers have a range of answers that seem to fall into one of two camps:
A) Your character is a complex collection of needs, wants, relationships, physical and vocal attributes, and personal history, about which you should learn as much as possible, primarily from clues in the text.
B) There is no such thing as character. What you call your character is the sum of his/her actions. Discover exactly what he/she is doing in the text, do that with conviction, and the audience will see a believable character.
I’ve spent time in both camps, and now I hang out on the path between them, traveling back and forth to gather wisdom from each.
So how does that help me with Gertrude?
The first camp reminds me that the person I play is multi-dimensional and particular. She’s not a stereotype or caricature. Gertrude is a queen, but she’s not just royalty: she’s a recently widowed woman who has chosen to marry her late husband’s brother. She’s worried about her adult son who seems depressed and, later, manic. Part of my job is to find that kind of information in the text, imagine how it affects her, and internalize her feelings.
But feelings aren’t actions, and my job is to act. So, while the first camp helps me understand my character, the second camp helps me bring her to life.
I can only play Gertrude by playing her actions. When she says to Hamlet, “I pray thee, stay with us, go not to Wittenburg,” she is pleading with her son not to leave home. That’s an action. And until he agrees to stay, there’s tension in the air. When the audience sees Gertrude pleading, they see who she is: a mother who’s worried about her son. Every action she takes tells us more about who she is.
“Who’s there?” is a much bigger question in this play, of course. Who is real, who can be trusted, who is spying, who is lying, who is in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . we could go on and on. And we will go on asking questions of Hamlet, as readers, actors, and theater-goers have done for more than four hundred years.
Right now, though, I’m on a deadline. My only concern — my job — is getting to know Gertrude inside and out.
So that, on opening night . . . she’s there.