Hamlet Instructs the Class of 2015

Czachórski, "Actors before Hamlet"

Czachórski, “Actors before Hamlet”

We had our commencement Saturday and heard, along with a heartfelt valedictory speech by a biology major and an inspiring commencement address by ColorOfChange director Rashad Robinson, a passage from Hamlet.

We generally have someone read a poem at our commencements, and this year Michael Ellis-Tolaydo, a prominent Shakespearean actor and director in the Washington, D. C. area, was chosen. Michael is retiring from St. Mary’s after 29 years and has been altogether remarkable. I was concerned after hearing his opening remarks, however.

He told the graduates that, as they go out into the world and apply for jobs, they should heed the advice he always gives his actors: stay true to who you are. My immediate reaction was, “Uh oh, here’s comes Polonius’s speech.”

You know the one I’m talking about. Polonius is counseling Laertes before he journeys abroad, and the joke is that Polonius doesn’t practice what he preaches—something which is true of many commencement speakers, come to think of it. He may tell his son, “To thine own self be true,” but he himself is a panderer and a conniver who is obsessed with appearance. I braced myself for the well-known speech.

I should have known my man better. Although Michael did indeed proceed to read a passage from Hamlet, he chose something else. The graduates got to hear Hamlet’s advice to the players.

Michael did a little editing, dropping topical allusions and the reference to Christians (which I’ve kept in). To the best of my remembrance, here’s what he read:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rages…

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: 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 first 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. Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theater of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed, that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

And then, with the quiet power of an actor who has taken Hamlet’s advice to heart, Michael delivered to the assembled graduates the final line of the instructions:

Go, make you ready.

Exeunt players.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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