to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature

A note on the postmodernism in Hamlet:

I love postmodernism. It is sometimes a perverse and shameful love, but never something I can shake. So whenever I read something that starts churning out irony and meta-commentary and awareness of textuality, my ears (for my ears read) prick up. Re-reading Hamlet for my summer class (for the fourth time), I came across that long, long rant of Hamlet’s in 3.2 and found a new appreciation for what is, for me, a somewhat tired play. The rant includes acting tips such as, “let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them,” and “do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently”—which amounts to “don’t overact,”—but most interesting to me is Hamlet’s assertion of what drama is for:

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. (3.2.15–23)

A few centuries later, literature—and art, more generally—would still be beholden to the idea of the mirror, for realism, and the lantern, for romanticism. In his approximation of Irish literature, James Joyce in 1922 is still on the mirror: “The cracked looking-glass of a servant.” But I can only imagine Shakespeare, sitting at some writing desk and inking out the literature we are still trying to measure up to today, and feeling some sense of hopelessness in the enterprise: if one might read Hamlet’s rant as a shade of Shakespeare’s own feelings, one gets a sense of desperation from it, as if to say, This is what art is for, this is what I am trying to do, this clawing at the air should be heeded.