In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Hamlet has a famous monologue about how to properly perform a play. During one portion of the monologue, he has some harsh words for people who improvise:

O, reform it altogether. And let those that play
your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;
for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to
set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh
too; though, in the mean time, some necessary
question of the play be then to be considered:
that's villanous, and shows a most pitiful ambition
in the fool that uses it. Go, make you ready.

What's so bad about improvising? Does this passage reflect Shakespeare's view on the issue?

  • 3
    A lot of people, such as John Barton in Playing Shakespeare (if I'm remembering correctly - it's admittedly been a long time since I read the book), have argued that many of the things that Shakespeare plays say about acting do, in fact, represent Shakespeare's view. I don't have the book in front of me, though - I'll try to construct a more complete answer when I have the book in front of me. Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 17:30
  • Excellent question, by the way - glad to have you as part of the site. Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:25

3 Answers 3


Whether this passage reflects Shakespeare's view on improvising is hard to say. However, Sam Plumb made several interesting comments on Shakespeare's Globe blog:

  • Strictly speaking, improvising was illegal since all play texts needed to submitted to the Master of the Revels for approval before they could be performed. (And yes, some plays were sent back with requests to alter passages. And, of course, checking whether actors improvise requires someone to attend a performance with a manuscript at hand.)
  • There appears to be evidence in the first quarto of Hamlet (the so-called bad quarto) "that Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet, may have had to adapt his lines to the contingencies of each new performance. In lines not included in the later quarto and folio texts, the prince makes reference to up-to-the-minute catchphrases from current playhouse fools:"

    And then you have some again that keeps one suit of jests… as thus: ‘Cannot you stay till I eat my porridge?’ and ‘You owe me a quarter’s wages!’ and ‘My coat wants a cullison!’ and ‘Your beer is sour!’

  • There are examples of other play texts containing permissive stage directions such as "Enter Forrester, missing the other taken away, speaks anything, and exit" (The Trial of Chivalry, iii, 3; emphasis added). However, Plumb does not provide any examples from Shakespeare's plays.
  • Robert Armin, who often played the fool in Shakespeare's plays, seems to have been a "pioneer of ‘scripted improvisation’". (Catherine A. Henze has argued that examples of songs as scripted improvisation increased after Robert Armin joined the Chamberlain's Men.)

So there is evidence that there was improvisation in Shakespeare's plays and that some of it had been scripted. Perhaps those lines from Hamlet are aimed at those who took it too far.

  • "permissive stage directions such as ‘speaks anything, and exit[s]’" - I'm pretty sure there's nothing like this in the publications of Shakespeare's plays that have survived to the present day: nearly all the lines are clearly fixed. But who knows what was in Shakespeare's original texts. I've read that a lot of his plays only came to publication through the 'back door', as it were: from actors smuggling texts out of the theatre and selling them to publishers.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 0:19
  • @Randal'Thor I should have made more clear that that example does not come from Shakespeare, instead of just writing "Plumb does not provide any examples from Shakespeare's plays". The example comes from The Trial of Chivalry; I have made this explicit now.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 11:06
  • Oh, I realised that example wasn't from Shakespeare :-) Just saying I doubt there are any examples of this in Shakespeare.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 18:44
  • @Randal'Thor I can't remember any examples either. Perhaps there were examples in Love's Labour's Won or Cardenio ;-)
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 16:18

Christopher Strobbe's answer is excellent, and I'll add this thought because, in my experience, the greatest literature operates on many levels. This is especially important for Dramatic literature, in that stage productions require an actor as vehicle to get the audience to connect with the material, which requires the actor being able to connect to the character's motivations.

While the joke about censors (Master of Revels) would likely have been appreciated by much of the audience at the Globe, it's not sufficient to make the immediate reality of Hamlet in the scene convincing.

Therefore, from the standpoint of the character of Hamlet:

  • The play itself is a trap for Claudius laid by Hamlet, so Hamlet can gauge his reaction and validate his suspicious as to Claudius' hand in the murder of Hamlet's father.

  • If the actors go off script, it could ruin the trap.


Hamlet refers to the improvisation of clowns, rather than of actors in general. His reasoning is explicit: he doesn't want the audience to laugh. The play has a point ("some necessary question of the play"), and he doesn't want it lost on the audience just to satisfy some clown's "pitiful ambition" (to be noticed, attract attention, and possibly patronage).

Shakespeare incorporated clowns into most of his tragedies, including Hamlet. The Gravedigger scene is an excellent example of black comedy, as is the Porter in Macbeth. While Hamlet's "The Mousetrap" doesn't appear to have any comic scenes (we see what is, presumably an abbreviated form of it), it's important to Hamlet that the clowns not change the tone of the play.

Clowning had a strong improv tradition, inherited from Commedia dell'Arte. They would start with a plot outline, but the actual text would be improvised (and it was sometimes called "commedia improvviso"). Shakespeare and his contemporaries often followed old, well-known stories, and wrote specific dialogue for them: it wasn't improvisation, but it reflects the way audiences were coming to see a production rather than a story. The would usually already know the story: Hamlet goes out his way to clue them in with a dumbshow (mime) before The Mousetrap.

There is thus some tension between the clowns, who see it as their job to make people laugh, and the playwright who has a dramatic goal in mind. The clowns can play with the tension created by the dramatic scenes, but if they break it entirely, then the purpose of the play is lost.

Making people laugh is always a hit-and-miss operation. All theater requires actors to feel out what is working for this audience, but comedies get explicit feedback in the form of laughter. The laughter is contagious: it communicates not just to the actors, but to other audience members. (Having one person laugh in an audience is a huge help: a "shill" can be the difference between audiences who are slightly amused and audiences having the time of their lives.) So a comic actor has plenty of motivation, and expertise, to play up to what's working today -- which may be totally different from what worked yesterday.

(Or at the matinee. Matinee audiences are particularly problematic, and actors today often dread them. They have a tendency to pull out all the stops just to get something. For Shakespeare, of course, all performances at the Globe were matinees.)

So I would view Hamlet's talk of improvisation to refer specifically to comedy, and possibly just to this performance of this show. The "Advice to the Players" speech is often taken as coming directly from the author, and there's certainly good reason to take it more generally (especially, as I said, since Hamlet's play doesn't seem to have any clowns). So it may well also be Shakespeare telling Will Kemp to tone it down.

  • Great angle. PS Billy Crystal as First Gravedigger :)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 19:52
  • 1
    Oddly, one of my favorite Gravedigger scenes was Rick Moranis in LA Story(youtube.com/watch?v=jXV79Lo8Krs). It's not exactly a brilliant rendition, but having it stuck there in the middle of an otherwise totally unrelated movie was just wonderfully surreal. Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 22:08
  • Lol--I'd totally forgotten about that. The LA-ification of Shakespeare's grave is Steve Martin at his finest. "I think he wrote 'Hamlet, Part VIII, The Revenge' here"
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 22:14
  • Upvoted, and thank you for the excellent insight about performing Shakespeare. My one recommendation for this answer is to elaborate on what a Matinee is. (Also, I really would like to see more questions and answers on this site that discuss performance; any ideas about how to do this?)
    – user111
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 23:30
  • 1
    That's a good question; I dunno. As an actor I tend to view plays through that lens, but the name "literature" tends to imply something read rather than viewed. Neither lens is superior, but a greater diversity of views would help broaden the site. The StackOverflow base tends to draw from a sitting-in-chairs view. Acting is a not-uncommon hobby for programmers (who make up the initial core of any StackExchange base), but looking outside that base may be necessary to gain more perspective. Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 16:28

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