Hamlet on the Stage in England and the United States
Robert Hapgood
The Title Role
Richard Burbage
Thomas Betterton and David Garrick
John Philip Kemble and Edmund Kean
William Charles Macready
Charles Albert Fechter and Edwin Booth
Henry Irving and Johnston Forbes Robertson
John Barrymore
John Gielgud
Since Gielgud
Supporting Roles and Players
Lesser Supporting Roles
“A coherent whole”: The Unified Production
William Poel’s Experimental Hamlets and the Moscow Art Theatre Production
The 1925 Birmingham Repertory Theatre Production
The David Warner/Peter Hall Stratford-upon-Avon Production
The Mark Rylance/Ron Daniels Royal Shakespeare Company Production
Hamlet at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
The Costumes of Hamlet and Ophelia
Works Cited [note: small caps in the body of this essay indicate authors listed in Works Cited.]

The stage history of Hamlet may be considered as in itself an interpretive variorum. No play has been performed more frequently. Since Shakespeare’s time the play has led a virtually continuous life in the theater. The only extended exception was the period of the Puritan interregnum when all stage performances were banned, and even during that time a “droll” excerpted from the gravedigger-scene was performed (Kirkman, 1932). The play’s performances have been not only frequent but varied, almost overwhelmingly so, providing abundant evidence of its extraordinary openness to interpretation. For very different performers have been able to find in it and in themselves what was dramatically most alive for their very different audiences.
Hamlet’s stage history thus records an on-going process of discovery. When the search succeeds, the play “comes to life”; when it is supremely successful, the production may seem “definitive,” crystallizing the intersection of the play and the contingent circumstances of its production in such a way that this Hamlet seems “the” Hamlet of its era, one that not only reflects but contributes to its cultural milieu. Since players and playgoers change, however, the center of dramatic vitality in the play is constantly subject to redefinition. In due course a prevailing formulation will lose its currency, ossify, and fade. Nothing is more common than for a style of acting that seemed “natural” to one generation to seem artificial to the next, and for a new Hamlet to be praised especially for scuttling the previously successful conventions of the past. John Gielgud felt an early phase in this cycle in his own successive productions of the play. When he first played the part, he explains, he was thought “a very modern Hamlet”; yet only eight years later: “people have begun to say that I am a Hamlet in the classical tradition and I am not sure whether to take this as a compliment or not” (Gilder, 1937, p. 72). As the cycle proceeds and the “definitive” Hamlet begins to seem outmoded, a different center of dramatic vitality will come to be identified, and a new interpretation of the play will supplant the old one in authority. It is the resulting succession of productions in England and the United States that were once widely regarded by their contemporaries as “definitive” that this survey will emphasize.
To celebrate the play's multifariousness in performance, however, is not to reduce it to a Rorschach blot from which a series of cultural constructs have been drawn. That would be to leave the playwright out of the encounter between playwright, player, and playgoer that makes a play a play. Indeed the whole production-history of Hamlet—what has passed and is still to come—may be seen as a working out of the endlessly fertile potentials for drama latent in Shakespeare's originating imagination.

The Title Role
Hamlet’s variability is particularly to be seen in the understanding of the title-role. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1874), W. S. Gilbert (evidently thinking mostly of Edmund Kean, Charles Fechter, Henry Irving, and Edwin Booth) made sport of the fact that the prince is, according to Ophelia,
Alike for no two seasons at a time. Sometimes he's tall—sometimes he's very short— Now with black hair—now with a flaxen wig— Sometimes an English accent—then a French— Then English with a strong provincial “burr.” Once an American, and once a Jew— But Danish never, take him how you will. (W. S. Gilbert, pp. 79-80)
Yet theater critic and dramaturg Kenneth Tynan spoke for many in finding the variability of the role to be a strong point: “The best acting parts (Hamlet is an obvious example) are those which admit of the largest number of different interpretations” (1950, p. 31).
Such multiplicity seems to call forth naturally an inclination to simplify. John Mills quotes “a saying among British actors that there are only two ways to play Hamlet: fast and slow” (1985, p. 285). He himself prefers the terms “hard” and “soft,” finding that “hard” Hamlets tend to share a cluster of attributes such as colloquial, ugly, physical, active, cynical, cruel, angry while in point-by-point contrast “soft” Hamlets are lyrical, beautiful, spiritual, passive, idealistic, tender, and tearful. Marvin Rosenberg (1992) similarly distinguishes between “power” Hamlets and “sweet” Hamlets. Both, however, recognize that there are a great many Hamlets between their two extreme types, who have made their unique combination of traits from each. It seems to me, therefore, truer to the historical record to resist the inclination to simplify and generalize and, to the contrary, to emphasize that a susceptibility to a very wide range of successful interpretations is a characteristic feature of the multifaceted title role.
Richard Burbage (1567-1619—played Hamlet within the period 1600-1619)
Although relatively little is known for sure about the early performance history of Hamlet, a good deal may reasonably be inferred. Richly implicated in the theatrical life of its time, the play is notably self-conscious about its own theatricality in general, emphasized by its incorporation of a play-within-the-play written in an earlier style and Hamlet’s advice to the players (1808-93) and other comments on acting. It also makes particular reference to such current developments in the theater as ad-libbing comedians (1886-92) and the popularity of boy-companies (1386-1408). When Polonius refers to playing Caesar and being killed “in the Capitol” (1958), Shakespeare appears to have been indulging in an in-joke with his Globe audience, who would have recognized that the actor of Polonius had himself played Caesar. The reference must be to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599) because, as ORGEL observes, in all other known versions Caesar was killed in the Forum (1988, p. 10).
In writing a revenge tragedy Shakespeare was reviving a genre that had been in vogue some years before, most notably in Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1587-89) and in an early version of the Hamlet story, now lost, which surviving allusions indicate to have included a ghost crying for revenge. Shakespeare sophisticated this tradition, capitalizing on a deepening in acting styles that had moved from impersonation to “personation,” a term that came into currency at just this time. The latter involved the submergence of self in a role at which Shakespeare’s leading actor, Richard Burbage, excelled, “transforming himself into his part” (Gurr 1980, p. 98). With Burbage’s personating powers at his disposal, Shakespeare could make an unprecedented exploration of his hero’s inner life.
By E. K. Chambers’ account the very first specific performance of Hamlet for which there is a dated record took place off Sierra Leone in 1607 aboard the Dragon, a ship bound to the East Indies. Reportedly, it was performed by the crew as entertainment for a visiting dignitary. The ship’s captain William Keeling seems to have been pleased with it because in the following year, as he wrote in his journal: “I envited Captain Hawkins to a ffishe dinner, and had Hamlet acted abord me: which I permitt to keepe my people from idlenes and unlawful games, or sleepe” (1930, 2:334-5). In London and on tour the play had certainly been done a few years before that.
Everything indicates that Richard Burbage did originate the role of the Prince. “Young Hamlet” is listed as one of his parts in “A Funerall Ellegye on ye Death of the famous Actor Richard Burbedg” and since he was the leading actor in Shakespeare’s company, it would be surprising if he were not the first to play it. The elegy goes on: “Oft have I seen him, leap into the Grave Suiting the person, which he seem’d to have Of a sad Lover...” The “grave” mentioned has often been thought to be that of Ophelia. If so, the lines tell us something about how the graveyard scene was first performed. Since the Prince asks “who plucks off my beard?” (1613) and since Burbage wears a beard in his portrait, it seems clear that Burbage’s Hamlet was bearded. Ophelia’s account of his “doublet all unbraced” (974) confirms that, as was customary, he wore an Elizabethan costume, and the exchanges at the beginning of the second scene, make it clear that he wore black in mourning, including an “inky cloak” (250). John Raynold may have reflected Burbage’s business with Yorick’s skull: “He held it still, in his sinister [left] hand, He turn’d it soft, and stroakt it with the other, He smil’d on it” (Dolarnys Primerose, 1606).
It is tempting but hazardous to try to deduce Burbage’s whole interpretive approach from contemporaries’ passing references and allusions to the play. Conklin made such an effort; yet his influential conclusion that the Elizabethan Hamlet was a straight-forward avenger and malcontent is patently tendentious. His own examples can be read to indicate a much more deliberative hero—as in the frequent early allusions to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy and his contemplations on a skull (1947, p. 9). Since evidence of this sort is so fragmentary and varied, it seems best not to speculate, one way or the other.
Tradition has it that Shakespeare himself played the Ghost. In his 1709 edition, Rowe reports as the sole finding of his investigation into Shakespeare’s acting career that “the top of his Performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet” (1:vi). Statistical support for this tradition may come from Donald Foster's ongoing studies of rare words (those that occur fewer than eleven times in the plays). He shows that the rare words spoken by the Ghost appear much more frequently in plays written after Hamlet than in plays written before, a difference he attributes to Shakespeare's having memorized these words and spoken them frequently in performance. From Foster's lexicons, one sees that the recurring rare words tend to cluster within a line—as in the Ghost's "A couch for luxury and damned incest" (768) or a series of lines: “So lust, though to a radiant angel linked, Will sate it self in a celestial bed And prey on garbage.” There may, of course, be other ways of explaining these recurrences.
It seems likely that the differences among the first three published versions of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, F) reflect differences in contemporary performance. If so, these differences, detailed in the section on “scripts,” point to production values that were at that time felt to be at stake. Q1's arrangement of scenes, whereby Hamlet no sooner resolves to put on a play than he proceeds to do so, puts a premium on straight-ahead action while the Q2 and F arrangement, in which the “to be or not to be” soliloquy and nunnery scene intervene between resolve and execution, daringly moves to a unique rhythm of interrupted action, a pattern that may be seen in many other aspects of the play (Hapgood, 1988, ch. 6).
The differences between Q2 and F similarly reflect a highly sophisticated sense of theatrical effect, showing a concern for subtleties that make particular moments especially revealing. Examples are abundant. In 2.2 Dover Wilson observes that the numerous marks of exclamation in F’s version of the “What a piece of work is a man” speech (1342-57) suggest a declamatory delivery whereas Q2, “without an exclamation of any kind” seems “brooding” (1934, p. 175). In this same scene, the Prince in F is slower to suspect and reject Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than in Q2. In F’s passage 1285-1316, not in Q2, the two dwell on “ambition” in a way that highlights their ulterior purposes whereas the Prince in Q2 surmises much more quickly, and without these pointers, that they were sent for. Perhaps in Q2 he is more intuitive and perceptive than in F or more suspicious; or maybe the toadying of the pair was more overt. Even after this disclosure, the Prince in F at 1384-1408 indulges in more camaraderie about the theater than he does in Q2, which does not include this passage. At the end of the scene, the stage directions in Q2, unlike those in F, suggest that the King’s emissaries linger even after the Prince has bade them farewell. Are they (rightly) suspicious that the Prince is up to something as he huddles with the First Player?
Scholars have detected similar subtle yet telling touches elsewhere in the play. In 4.5 the assignment of speeches and stage management combine to make the Queen in F both stronger and more prominent than in Q2 (Urkowitz, 1988, p. 302). In 4.7 the King in Q2 is more taken by surprise by the letters from Hamlet than in F (Rosenberg, 1992, p. 816). The differences between Q1, Q2, and F are especially suggestive as to performance options in Polonius’s introduction of the actors (1444-7). Q1 reads “Comedy, Tragedy, History, Pastoral,/ Pastoral, Historical, Historical, Comical,/ Comical historical, Pastoral, Tragedy historical.” The humor here is broad, of a muddled mind at sea amid generic categories. Q2 reads “Tragedy, Comedy, History, Pastoral, Pastoral Comical, Historical Pastoral.” This need not be thought humorous at all; at most there may be some mild amusement at Polonius's thoroughness, yet it can be seen as a knowledgeable survey of the actors' specialties by one who fancies himself a connoisseur. It is F that reveals a mind comically carried away by its own propensity to categorize, especially in the four-part hybrid “Tragical-Comical-Historical-Pastoral.” These instances thus suggest a sensitive concern by the play’s first performers for such perennial production values as pacing, rhythm, stage position, character relations, and line readings.
In a more general way, something of the overall impact of the play may be surmised from what is known of contemporary theatrical conditions. At the Globe a number of features must have helped to hold a performance of Hamlet together whether or not anyone was deliberately trying to make that happen. Uninterrupted by changes of scenery, the play’s action could unfold at a rapid pace, aided by stage conventions (asides, soliloquies, and the like) that made for clear and economical story-telling. Players and playgoers shared the same light of the afternoon sun, and since—without being set apart by a proscenium arch—the platform stage extended into the midst of the audience, they shared the same space and breathed the same air. Only in the private theaters, however, was the feeling of shared space so strong as to permit gallants actually to sit on the stage.
At the Globe Hamlet had no need for a designer. The lighting was natural, with torches and candles used to suggest nighttime. As in other plays of the period, the costumes and props were almost entirely of their own time—what today would be called “modern dress.” The set was architectural, simply the stage structure itself. This was not, however, a neutral background for its audience but a versatile one, rich in associations with similar structures that allowed the same facade to suggest a variety of locales. As Kernodle has shown: “More than an arrangement of side doors and inner and upper stages, that facade was itself a symbol of castle, throne, triumphal arch, altar, tomb” (1944, p. 130). At times it could backdrop scenes that took place nowhere in particular. Although in the succession of Tudor stages the Globe had made the transition to a theater solely dedicated to presenting dramas, it may also have carried over associations from the earlier, multi-purpose “playhouse/game-house” buildings that Wickham has shown to have been used not only for plays but also for various sports, including fencing matches (1972, 2: sect ii). The chief atmospheric touches that provide a distinctive setting for Hamlet are verbal. Thus Shakespeare does a little scene-painting when Horatio warns Hamlet of the “dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o’er his base into the sea” (659-60). The suggestion of hell in Hamlet’s reference to the “cellarage” beneath the stage (847) and of the heavens in his reference to the “brave o’erhanging firmament” (1347) on the stage-roof, help to make the platform stage itself seem the middle-earth on which all human lives are enacted. The lightness of touch with which this cosmic context is sketched reflects the confidence Shakespeare felt in the shared understanding with which these suggestions would be received. Taken together these features appear to have resulted in a richly inclusive unity of impact that, when the features changed, it would take stage practice centuries to approximate.
Thomas Betterton (1635-1710—played Hamlet within the period 1661-1709) and David Garrick (1717-1779—played Hamlet within the period 1742-1776)
Hamlet performances during the Restoration period were decidedly and deliberately distinct from earlier ones. In sharp contrast with the Puritan regime that had prohibited performances altogether, theater in general under Charles II (1661-1685) was much more oriented toward the court and its extravagant, Francophile tastes than ever before. Surviving actors who sought to return to the old ways at the Red Bull public theater and to resist the new ones were soon overborne and co-opted. By order of the Crown a monopoly was given to two new theater companies. The large, open-air theaters on the outskirts of London were a thing of the past. The new playhouses—covered, relatively small, and expensive—were built in West End locations more convenient to the court (the King now went to the theaters rather than bringing the productions to him). Royal control at first extended to the repertory of the two patent companies. Previously, Hamlet belonged to the company headed by Richard Burbage because it was written by its house-dramatist, William Shakespeare. After the Restoration, royal order assigned the exclusive right to revive the play to the Duke’s Men, headed by William Davenant. It was one of the leftovers after the other patent company, the King’s Men, had taken the lion’s share of the preferred plays of Beaumont and Fletcher and Jonson, plus several plays by Shakespeare that had already been successfully revived at the time of the division (Thomas, 1989, pp. 7-20). Ironically, it was partly thanks to Hamlet, plus Davenant’s keen sense of current tastes, that his company came to outshine its favored rival. The company’s prompter, Downes (1708, p. 21) records that “No succeeding Tragedy for several Years got more Reputation, or Money to the Company than this.”
One of the chief innovations of Restoration theater was the introduction of movable, perspective scenery, and Hamlet was one of the first to be so mounted. Following French fashion, Ophelia and Gertrude were for the first time played by women rather than boy-actors. These practices immediately took hold and continued to be part of the Hamlet tradition. In general, the Restoration patentees were directed to expunge all profanity, scurrility, and obscenity, and so Davenant did with Hamlet, along with considerable modernization of diction. The play was also involved in some of the competitive shenanigans of rival companies as they struggled to attract audiences. In 1674 it was “adorned and embellished with very curious dances between the acts” (London Stage, 1:225). In 1695 it figured in a scheduling tussle (Cibber, 1740, pp. 113-14).
Compared with other plays, however, the impact of these practices on the performance of Hamlet was, while important, characteristically moderated. Mrs. Betterton, the first female Ophelia, is said by Downes (1708, p. 226) to have received from Davenant ‘such an idea of it as he could catch from the boy-Ophelias he had seen before the civil wars.” The play did not undergo the extensive alterations that were made to The Tempest, nor was it subjected to the plot changes and heavy emphasis on spectacle of Davenant’s adaptation of Macbeth. Perhaps it was felt that the play’s dramatic values were strong enough that the actors did not need an extreme amount of support. Pepys’ first impression of the play hits off the balance: he found that it was “done with scenes very well, but above all, Betterton did the prince’s part beyond imagination” (Diary entry for 24 August 1661). In the portrayal of the Prince too one finds a concern for continuity. Downes reports that Davenant had seen Joseph Taylor act the part and taught Betterton “in every particle of it” (p. 21). Downes also claims that Taylor had been instructed by Shakespeare. Although Taylor’s instruction could not have been direct from Shakespeare (Shakespeare died in 1616 and Taylor did not join the company until 1619—two months after the death of Burbage), Taylor may well have continued the original treatment of the role and that treatment may well have been transmitted to Betterton through Davenant, self-serving as his claims may have been.
Betterton was 26 at this time, and from surviving reports he continued throughout his long career to emphasize the Prince’s own youth. In Steele’s Tatler, Mr. Greenhat reported to Mr. Bickerstaff about Betterton as Hamlet: “had you been tonight at the play-house, you had seen the force of action in perfection: your admired Mr. Betterton behaved himself so well, that, though now about seventy, he acted youth; and by the prevalent power of proper manner, gesture and voice, appeared through the whole drama a young man of great expectation, vivacity, and enterprise” (No. 71, 22 Sept 1709). Confirming Betterton’s accent on youth is the wish expressed by Aston (1889, 2:300-1) that he would give up the part in his later days: “when he threw himself at Ophelia’s Feet, he appear’d a little too grave for a young Student...and his Repartees seem’d rather as Apopthegms from a sage Philosopher, than the sporting Flashes of a young Hamlet.” Whether Aston or Greenhat was right about Betterton’s execution, the intended emphasis on a young and active Prince is clear.
Too much, though, has been made of the omission of some of the lines of self-reproach from the 1676 text that Betterton evidently used. This omission from the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy (1602-15, 1620-8) looks to me like the trimming of elaborations to be seen elsewhere in this edition rather than the indication of an interpretive line. Certainly, Mcmanaway (1969, p. 95) and those who have followed him are mistaken in finding that “The spectator who saw a performance of this Restoration version would never question the valor of the Prince or suspect that he was tardy in driving to his revenge.” To the contrary Hamlet does in this edition say:
I am pigeon liver’d, and lack gall To make oppression bitter, or e’re this I should have fatted all the region Kites With this slave’s offal.... (Q6, 1617-20)
When the king is at prayer, this Hamlet defers the opportunity to accomplish his revenge and delivers the “now might I do it pat” speech (2350-71). The Ghost speaks of whetting his almost blunted purpose (2491), and he himself observes that “conscience does make cowards of us all” (1737).
Steele’s Mr. Greenhat singled out certain parts of Betterton’s performance “which dwell strongly upon the minds of the audience, and would certainly affect their behaviour on any parallel occasions in their own lives”: Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, his “expostulation” with his mother, his “noble ardour” after seeing the ghost, and his “generous distress” at the death of Ophelia. These are not the emphases of a single-minded revenge-hero.
Of these high points it is Betterton’s encounters with the Ghost that have received eye-witness accounts. In the closet scene he is reported to have knocked over a chair (Summers, 1934, p. 283). Another report of the scene detailed seeing Betterton’s countenance, “which was naturally ruddy...thro’ the violent and sudden Emotions of Amazement and Horror, turn instantly on the sight of his Father’s Spirit, as pale as his Neckcloath, when every Article of his Body seem’d to be affected with a Tremor inexpressible.” In sympathy the members of the audience felt the blood “shudder in their Veins likewise, and they in some Measure partook of the Astonishment and Horror” (Laureat, 1740, p. 31). Any suspicion of overacting suggested by this account may be countered by Colley Cibber’s differentiation of Betterton from actors who “tear a passion into rags” at the Ghost’s first appearance and win thunderous applause by their “straining vociferations.” (Of one such, Addison dryly inquired of Cibber “if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a passion with the Ghost, which, though, it might have astonished, it had not provoked him.”) In contrast, Cibber continues, the boldness of Betterton’s address to the ghost was “governed by decency, manly, but not braving; his voice never rising into that seeming outrage, or wild defiance of what he naturally revered.” By such means “he made the ghost equally terrible to the spectator as to himself” (Cibber, 1740, p. 61).
As each of the quoted comments attests, Betterton had an extraordinary ability to make his auditors feel what his character was feeling. That this power was felt by his fellow performers is humorously confirmed by Barton Booth: “When I acted the Ghost with Betterton, instead of my awing him, he terrified me” (Davies, 1784, 3:32).
Betterton was followed by a number of lesser Hamlets. The royal assignment of exclusive performance rights to a single company had soon broken down. Not until the time of David Garrick did a Hamlet dominate as Betterton had. Garrick made the role his own, not because his company owned the play or had been given a monopoly on its performance by the Crown but on his own merit in competition with other interpreters. When he made his spectacular debut as the Prince, the play had for years been regularly in the repertory of the leading theaters, each of which already had its long-standing performer of the role—Barry at Drury Lane, Ryan at Covent Garden.
What were the secrets of Garrick’s success? He shared certain characteristics with the succession of actors who have won recognition as the Hamlets of their eras. Each successful claimant has had virtuoso acting ability; not only has he often been regarded as “the first actor of his time” but he frequently has managed his own company. Typically, his acting style has differed strikingly from that of his immediate predecessor. In some way, also, he must be felt to be authentically in touch with the play or Shakespeare in general, often through involvement in textual debates or through promotion of worthy causes that establish him as Shakespeare’s contemporary spokesman. Certainly a claimant must have it in him to play with conviction some important part or parts of Hamlet’s multifaceted personality. Furthermore his address to the role must mesh with the tastes of his audience; for what makes one production of Hamlet definitive for one generation and another for the next depends as much upon changes in the generations as upon changes in the productions. Garrick was in all these respects superlative.
A particular qualification for most Prince Hamlets has been that they seem “princely,” as princeliness has been variously defined. This concern comes directly from the play, where Ophelia laments the loss in Hamlet of “The Courtier’s, souldier’s, scholler’s eye, tongue, sword, Th’expectation and Rose of the faire state, The glasse of fashion, and the mould of forme” (Q2 1807-9) and where Fortinbras eulogizes him as one who “was likely, had he been put on To have proved most royally” (F1 3897-8). Obviously, a Crown Prince is of perennial interest, embodying as he ideally does the hope of his subjects and the ultimate opportunity his culture affords for an individual to realize his full human potential. But circumstances at the time of Hamlet’s composition, gave special interest to the figure of the Prince since England—with its Virgin Queen—lacked a real heir apparent; indeed this was true of Shakespeare’s whole lifetime to this point. By imagining a Crown Prince in Prince Hal and then in Hamlet, Shakespeare was helping to fill a cultural vacuum, one that was felt more and more intensely as the Queen grew older without naming a successor, reaching a crisis just when he was writing Hamlet. She died in 1603. In Hal, Shakespeare had gone Machiavelli one better: whereas the strategic hypocrisy of the Florentine Prince was of the conventional kind, pretending to king-becoming graces while practicing real politics, that of Prince Hal, presenting himself as a playboy, pretended to a lack of virtue—the better to set off his eventual reformation (I Henry IV, 1.2), a ploy that worked out exactly as planned (Henry V, 1.1). In Hamlet, by the accounts of Ophelia and Fortinbras, Shakespeare seems to have envisioned a ruler in the making, not only a glass of fashion but a paragon a la Philip Sidney, as much at home on the battlefield as at court or in the library.
As it happens, Garrick is the first Hamlet whose princeliness received much surviving comment. Betterton was doubtless decorous in language and deportment, but it was his decency and manliness that stood out for Cibber. Galt (1831, 1:61) did praise Wilkes for showing “the delicacy of a prince” in his treatment of Ophelia; but in other respects he seemed to The Prompter lacking in “weight” (24 Oct. 1735). Why did a concern for princeliness come into prominence with Garrick and his successors? Perhaps it owes something to the fact that, as Thackeray was to emphasize in “The Four Georges” (1860), the Georgian kings were far from being ideal monarchs, reaching a nadir with the Prince Regent. In the absence of a satisfactory real Prince people of their times may well have put a premium on the princeliness of an imaginary one. Whatever the reasons, the concern has persisted, extending through the nineteenth century and, less commonly, up to the present. A reviewer celebrated Gielgud’s “gracious bearing, a princely manner and the imperiousness of a young eagle” (Boston Herald, 18 Oct. 1936); to Tyrone Guthrie these qualities seemed innate: he chose Gielgud as his favorite Hamlet because “his manner is extremely royal” (South Bank Show). I myself recall walking up the aisle at the first interval of David Warner’s 1965 Hamlet and hearing from one cluster of playgoers after another the sibilant verdict: “Not princely!” On the other hand, others found something lordly in his disregard for custom; as Wells (1976, p. 35) sums up their view: “in his very individuality he was truly behaving like a prince, one who had no need to follow convention.” More recently Kenneth Branagh was praised for reviving a concern for this aspect of Hamlet’s personality. Benedict Nightingale declared him to be “the most impressively princely Hamlet I have seen in ages” (Times, 21 Dec. 1992), and Michael Coveney found in his nobility an attempt “to define and reshape a notion of modern royalty” (Observer, 20 Dec 1992).
Garrick’s Prince was energetic and decisive, even more so than Betterton’s. He used acting texts through most of his career that cut passages suggesting irresolution, such as the “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy (2743+26-2743+60). It is true that in the adaptation he devised near the end of his career, this soliloquy was included, yet with a significant difference from the original. Instead of ending “O from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth” (2743+59-2743+60), the adapted version reads: “O from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody all! the hour is come— I’ll fly my keepers—sweep to my revenge.” (Garrick’s first draft had been less determined: “My thoughts be bloody: I will fly my keepers And hie me to Revenge—the game is up—.”) Garrick was said by Davies (1784, Miscellanies, 3:101) to be the first to cut the “Now might I do it pat” soliloquy in act three scene three (2350-71), thus not only sparing the Prince an excess of ardor in damning his enemy to eternal torment but also removing a concrete opportunity to carry out the act of vengeance—that he declined. Garrick’s resolve pervaded his portrayal. Davies observes that his determination to follow the beckoning Ghost (651-71) was “vehemently resolute” (1808, Memoirs, 1:63). Lichtenberg (1774, rpt. 1938, p. 31) praised his rendering of ‘smile and smile, and be a villain” (793) for its “purposeful tone of one bent on immediate action”: “The lips which have smiled thus must be taught gravity by death at Hamlet’s hands (and in no other manner) and the sooner the better.”
Garrick’s Prince was exemplary in his devotion to his father. As Hannah More writes of his portrayal:
Hamlet experiences the conflict of many passions and affections, but filial love ever takes the lead; that is the great point from which he sets out, and to which he returns; the others are all contingent and subordinate to it, and are cherished or renounced, as they promote or obstruct the operation of this leading principle. (1925, p. 47)
More may exaggerate here the impression of control in Garrick’s performance; her account should be balanced with Walter Scott’s general characterization of his style as “impetuous, sudden, striking, and versatile” (1826, p. 214). But everyone recognized his emphasis on Hamlet’s filial devotion, manifested not only in his active and determined pursuit of revenge but also in his heartfelt expressions of grief.
Garrick’s emphasis on action was thus balanced by his brilliant portrayal of Hamlet’s sensitive reactions (Donohue, 1970). This emphasis took part in the age of sensibility then in its heyday, as in Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747) and in Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768). It was Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling (1771), who would write in 1780 that “The basis of Hamlet’s character seems to be an extreme sensibility of mind, apt to be strongly impressed by its situation, and overpowered by the feelings which that situation excites” (Mirror, Edinburgh, No. 99, 17 Apr.). In his reactions Garrick did not, however, seem simply passive; on the contrary his reactions were typically dynamic. Nor were they so “overpowering” as to impede his ability to act decisively. Much of the drama seems to have been in the sometimes contradictory drives compelling a hero who was both a man of action and a man of feeling.
Garrick struck the keynote of mourning at his first appearance. Contemporaries observed how much more he was upset by the loss of his father than by the disgraceful conduct of his mother. In the “too, too solid flesh” soliloquy (313-43), Lichtenberg reports, Garrick was “completely overcome by tears of grief” despite manful attempts to restrain them (1774, rpt. 1938, p. 15). Later subtle pangs of loss were also powerfully projected. In one of the striking transitions for which Garrick was famous, his fulminations against the “treacherous, lecherous” Claudius were interrupted by the sudden “tear of anguish” started by kindless villain” (1621), “which gave a most pathetic softness to the whole passionate ebullition” (Davies, 1784, Miscellanies, 3:68). His sorrow was by no means incapacitating, however; on the contrary, as here, it was his sense of the terrible wrong done his father by the inhumanness of his uncle that led him, in another transition, to the commanding vigor at 1628-9 of “I have heard, That guilty creatures, sitting at a play...” (Davies, pp. 68-9).
In keeping with the central concern with filial love, Garrick’s most memorable moments came at the Prince’s encounters with the Ghost. He was most famous for his stylized “start” at their first encounter (624). Lichtenberg’s famous account of it deserves full quotation:
Hamlet has folded his arms...and pulled his hat down over his eyes; it is a cold night and just twelve o’clock; the theatre is darkened, and the whole audience of some thousands are as quiet, and their faces as motionless, as though they were painted on the walls of theatre; even from the farthest end of the playhouse one could hear a pin drop. Suddenly, as Hamlet moves towards the back of the stage slightly to the left and turns his back on the audience, Horatio starts, and saying: ‘Look, my lord, it comes,’ points to the right, where the ghost has already appeared and stands motionless, before any one is aware of him. At these words Garrick turns sharply and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with his knees giving way under him; his hat falls to the ground and both his arms, especially the left, are stretched out nearly to their full length, with the hands as high as his head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower, and the fingers apart; his mouth is open: thus he stands rooted to the spot, with legs apart, but no loss of dignity, supported by his friends, who are better acquainted with the apparition and fear lest he should collapse. His whole demeanour is so expressive of terror that it made my flesh creep even before he began to speak. The almost terror-struck silence of the audience, which preceded this appearance and filled one with a sense of insecurity, probably did much to enhance this effect. At last he speaks, not at the beginning, but at the end of a breath, with a trembling voice: ‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ (1774, rpt. 1938, pp. 9-10).
Dr. Johnson thought the “start” overdone. Boswell: “Do you think, Sir, if you saw a ghost, you would start as Garrick does in Hamlet?” Dr. Johnson: “No, Sir. If I did, I should frighten the Ghost” (1786, rpt. 1936, Tour, p. 22). But Partridge in Fielding’s Tom Jones was totally convinced: “if that little man there upon the stage is not frightened, I never saw any man frightened in my life” (Bk 16, Ch 5).
What kept the start from being mere “stage trick” was that it was part of a rich complex in which Garrick “preserves every gradation and transition of the passions” (More, 1925, p. 47). He was frightened by the apparition, yes—so much so that his terror “was instantaneously communicated to the audience”—but this terror was mixed with “filial awe” and ‘respect” (Davies, 1808, Memoirs, 1:63). “A fine mixture of astonishment, deference, and resolution” was Wilkes’s analysis (1759, p. 250). In the closet scene Garrick’s reaction to seeing the Ghost (2483) was again marked by “The start—the heave—the stagger—and the stare” (Kelley, Town and Country Magazine, Dec. 1774). Yet when the Queen says the Ghost is but the coinage of his brain (2520), Garrick made it the occasion for still another transition, “turning short from looking after the apparition with wildness of terror, and viewing his mother with pathetic concern” (Gentleman, 1770, 1: 55).
The manners of Garrick’s Prince were a worry to his contemporaries. Davies complained that in giving his advice to the players (1849-93). Garrick was too much the stage manager, lacking the “condescending quality” expected from a “princely monitor” (1784, Miscellanies, 3: 88-9, 79). And he found Garrick’s assumed madness with Ophelia in 3.2 “too boisterous”: “He should have remembered, that he was reasoning with a young lady, to whom he had professed the tenderness of passion” (p. 79). In Smollett’s original version of Peregrine Pickle, too, Garrick’s Hamlet is taken to task for shaking “his fist with all the demonstrations of wrath at his mistress.” Furthermore, he is there said to “behave like a ruffian to his own mother” (Ch 55). Wilkes, though, saw in the nunnery scene Garrick’s “real tenderness for Ophelia, and his ineffectual endeavours to hide it,” and felt that with his mother he maintained “a proper air of filial affection amidst the most bitter reproaches” (1759, p. 250). Perhaps Garrick’s Prince grew more mannerly in the course of his career, or perhaps standards of decorum changed. At a farewell performance, admiring More had no doubt about it: “whether in the simulation of madness, in the shrinkings of despair, in the familiarity of friendship, in the whirlwind of passion, or in the meltings of tenderness, he never once forgot he was a prince; and in every variety of situation, and transition of feeling, you discovered the highest polish of fine breeding and courtly manners” (1925, p. 46).
So definitive were Garrick’s portrayals of Hamlet and other Shakespearian characters that he became in the eyes of many of his contemporaries the Bard’s latter-day embodiment. A 1750 poem has Shakespeare’s ghost looking to Garrick, “my great restorer,” “to vindicate my injur’d song... speak my words and do my meaning right” (London Magazine, June); a 1752 poem exclaimed “SHAKESPEARE revives! in GARRICK breathes again!” (“A Poetic Epistle from Shakespear in Elysium to Mr. Garrick”). The identification of the two reached an ultimate in the Stratford Jubilee that Garrick organized in 1769, a less than totally successful event that even so did much to further the canonization of Shakespeare as the English national poet while elevating Garrick as his prime spokesman (Dobson, 1992).
Most of all, Garrick’s claim to preeminence rested on his style, whose difference from his rivals was nothing short of revolutionary. In contrast to the prevailing statuesque and ponderous manner that had become conventional, Garrick seemed fresh and dynamic. Although his performance was highlighted by bold stage business, virtuoso transitions of mood, and many broken sentences and significant pauses, his contemporaries felt that its most remarkable feature was its naturalness. He avoided altogether the sing-song of his predecessors. In 1775 Joshua Steele devised a musical notation that recorded precisely the differences between the conventionally ponderous intonation of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, swelling with forté and softened with piano, and Garrick’s evener and more conversational style (1969, pp. 40, 60-1).
To More his words appeared to come forth spontaneously: “he seemed himself to be engaged in a succession of affecting situations, not giving utterance to a speech, but to the instantaneous expression of his feelings, delivered in the most affecting tones of voice, and with gestures that belong only to nature” (1925, p. 47). Another observer marveled at how “his matchless eyes anticipate his tongue, and impress the meaning upon us with double force” (Gentleman, 1770, 1:55). Walter Scott hinted that there was something less than probing about Garrick’s “naturalness,” finding that he “made his impression from his skill in seizing and expressing with force and precision the first and most obvious view of his part” (1826, p. 214). But for most spectators, Mr. Partridge, Fielding’s naive playgoer in Tom Jones, must forever have the last word. Decrying Garrick’s reputation as “the best Player who ever was on the Stage,” he protested: “Why I could act as well as he myself. I am sure if I had seen a Ghost, I should have looked in the very same Manner, and done just as he did” (Bk 16, Ch 5).
John Philip Kemble (1757-1823)—played Hamlet within the period 1783-1817 and Edmund Kean (1787-1833—played Hamlet within the period 1814-1832)
In one sense Kemble’s style was distinct from Garrick’s because in its formality it was a throwback to that of Garrick’s statuesque predecessors. Kemble, however, raised this earlier style to another level. In his Journal, Byron commented that “Kemble’s Hamlet is perfect” (19 Feb. 1814), and in a later conversation (Lovell, 1954, p.423) preferred it to that of his successor Edmund Kean. “But,” Byron’s journal entry continues, “Hamlet is not nature.” The same was often said of Kemble. In contrast to Garrick he was seen as the prototype of art as opposed to nature. He was often taken severely to task for the formality of his style, which was repudiated as mere affectation and staginess, artificial ways of seeking plaudits “by starting, stamping; by grimace and tricks” (Morning Chronicle, 6 Oct. 1783). His sister, Sarah Siddons, saw into the problem more deeply, finding at times in his manner—by Walter Scott’s account—”a sacrifice of energy of action to grace” (1826, p. 216). Yet this aspect of Kemble’s style was not without its defenders. His stately manner was so eloquent that Gilbert Austin in his book on gesture extolled it as exemplary: “the perfection and the glory of art, so finished, that every look is a commentary, every tone an illustration, every gesture a model for the statuary, and a study for the painter” (1806, p. 279). One might expect the resulting performance to be very subdued—it was a devotee, for instance, who felt that “the distinctive characteristic of Kemble’s acting was finish” (Robson, 1846, p. 37). Yet in fact it could be theatrically compelling and memorable, well-suited to the ever-larger auditoriums then being built. At Kemble’s first appearance, one observer attested, “You could not take your eye” from the “princely perfection before you” (Port Folio, 16, July 1823, p. 200).
In other respects Kemble was forward-looking. He made a significant advance in dramaturgy. In the Restoration and eighteenth century many of the features which had helped to hold together an Elizabethan production had loosened. The apron stage had receded within the proscenium arch and the flow of the action was interrupted by changes of scenery. Not until Kemble toward the end of the eighteenth century did the English theater begin deliberately to foster once more the coordination of parts that may well have seemed second nature to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Garrick and others, for example, customarily used stock sets for Hamlet; they were chosen to suit individual scenes but not with an eye to overall effect. Kemble introduced scenes especially painted for the play.
For another example, take the performance of the title role, in all its extraordinary length and fascination, surely the single most important unifying factor in any Hamlet. That is a constant. What has changed is what is looked for in that performance. In concept, what Fielding in Tom Jones saw in Garrick was his truth to the behavior of generalized human nature, the ability, as Hamlet put it, to “show virtue her feature.” Similarly, Steele’s Mr. Greenhat thought that Betterton in his portrayal exemplified conduct that in its impact upon the audience “would certainly affect their behaviour on any parallel occasions in their own lives,” serving to introduce the little boy who accompanied him into “the Affections and Passions of Manhood” (Tatler, 22 Sept 1709). In style, commentators in the Restoration and through most of the eighteenth century were primarily concerned with how the leading actor rendered particular speeches and scenes rather than with his overarching interpretive approach. In the latter part of the century, however, literary critics were for the first time extensively engaged in “character analysis,” emphasizing the careful differentiation of what is individual about Shakespeare’s characters and appraising the consistency with which this individuality is rendered. So too on the stage The Morning Chronicle was concerned for “the whole performance” that Kemble delivered, held together by certain lines of continuity: “in which the pensive grief with which the character is introduced, the more impassioned and dignified scenes to which the discovery of his uncle’s guilt gives rise, and the suppressed attachment to Ophelia are distinctly marked” (20 Sept 1799).
The pattern of consistency that Kemble set has in general characterized Hamlets ever since. Hazlitt rebuked his successor, Kean, for its absence: he found Kean’s style “too pointed”—too concerned with the impact of isolated moments to the neglect of the whole (Morning Chronicle, 14 Mar. 1814). In contrast, the portrayal of the Prince by his successor Macready was praised for its “grandeur of sustainment” (Examiner, 11 Oct. 1835). By the end of the nineteenth century, it would be customary for reviewers to define the actor’s distinctive concept of the Prince and then appraise the effectiveness of its application in detail. Hazlitt found “the distinguishing excellence” of Kemble’s acting to reside “in the seizing upon some one feeling or idea, in insisting upon it, in never letting it go, and in working it up, with a certain graceful consistency, and conscious grandeur of conception, to a very high degree of pathos or sublimity” (pp. 129-30).
For Kemble’s Hamlet this predominant feeling was by common consent one of princely melancholy. As the German critic Tieck observed in 1826: “What Kemble brought prominently out was the sad, the melancholy, the nobly suffering aspect of the character” while all the while he “bore himself like a man of high blood and breeding” (T. Martin, 1880, “Eye-Witness,” p. 284). The otherwise critical Morning Post conceded that when his voice is “modulated into the soft notes of the pathetic, it sinks into the heart” (19 Nov. 1785). The more sympathetic Morning Chronicle confessed “In many passages of the part he failed not to ‘cleave our heart in twain’” (2 Oct. 1783). One observer felt that after the king’s departure from the play-within-the-play, Kemble “absolutely electrified me with the passion of his conviction!—he threw himself into Horatio’s arms with a desperation, an agony, a groan that tore his very heart. For my part, I felt as if his sorrow was my own” (H. Martin, 1802, p. 7). In the graveyard scene his “What, the fair Ophelia?” (3434) “was given in a tone of such heart-rending pathos that every eye in the audience involuntarily dimmed with tears” (Alexander Chalmers in 1838; quoted in Buell, 1968, p. 40). Another auditor felt that his voice in this scene “will linger for ever on our ears—with its tones so sepulchral yet so tender—fit music to accompany the solemn thoughts of man’s decay” (Champion, 19 Dec. 1819, p. 810). Small wonder then that Charles Lamb found it difficult “to disembarrass the idea of Hamlet from the person and voice of Mr. K” (1949, p. 561).
By several accounts Kemble’s portrayal of Hamlet reflected his own handsome person and deliberative personality. Walter Scott describes him as “the grave, studious, contemplative actor, who personated Hamlet to the life” (1826, p. 219). Yet—as Scott marvels—he could when he chose play against type and succeed, even with so volatile a role as Hotspur. His Hamlet thus was not only congenial to his temperament but an interpretive choice. Looking back half a century Mary Russell Mitford struck the right balance: “John Kemble is the only satisfactory Hamlet I ever saw—owing much to personal grace and beauty—something to a natural melancholy, or rather pensiveness of manner—much, of course, to consummate art” (1870, 2:336).
Ironically, Hazlitt thought that it was Kemble’s very consistency that caused him to fail as Hamlet. Where Shakespeare’s hero is unique in his “flexibility,” “quick sensibility,” and “a perpetual undulation of feeling,” Kemble played the role “in one undeviating straight line” (Times [London], 25 June 1817). Galt was another who felt that Kemble “too uniformly sustained throughout the whole part the same melancholy mood which had invested him before the interview with the ghost; whereas the poet has clearly indicated that he should be sometimes different” (1831, 2:256). Actually, Kemble’s portrayal was more varied than Hazlitt and Galt suggest. Lamb (1949, p. 558) much admired his skill with “pointed and witty dialogue,” judging that “The relaxing levities of tragedy have not been touched by any since him” and citing among other instances “the playful court-bred spirit in which he condescended to the players in Hamlet.” Tieck praised his handling of Hamlet’s attempt to recall the Pyrrhus speech: “there was a general burst of applause throughout the house, because this forgetfulness, this seeking after the beginning of the verse, was expressed in such a natural way,” thus contrasting with his ”slow” and “measured” delivery elsewhere (T. Martin, 1880, “Eye-Witness,” pp. 284-5). With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, objected a commentator called “The Rosciad,” Kemble was “not only familiar, but gay and smiling” (Public Advertiser, 7 Oct. 1783). Taking a contrary view, Boaden persuasively defends Kemble’s welcoming cordiality to them and points out that his manner changed after he realized the two “were sent to sound him” (1825, 1:99). By the last part of this exchange, H. Martin adds, “he chid their puny jest” with the admirably “dignified” tone of his line “Why then did ye laugh when I said, Man delights not me?” (1802, p. 6).
Kemble’s genteel restraint gave way especially in his scenes with Ophelia and Gertrude. Several commentators objected to his roughness with Ophelia in the nunnery scene. Le Beau Monde took exception to Kemble’s making Hamlet “bang a door on one side, half burst a lock on the other” and did not think “this harsh behaviour to Ophelia gallant or tender enough” (Mar.1807). Yet when watching the play with Ophelia, Kemble was a graceful lover “as he laid himself at her feet—he took her fan, and gallanted it with such easy grace; but soon he turned it to use—speaking to her, his eyes were scrutinising the dark soul of his uncle—behind its sticks he sometimes artfully shaded his observation” (H. Martin, 1802, pp. 6-7). In the closet scene the “smile of exultation” with which he asked “is it the king?” (2407) was one of the most acclaimed points of his portrayal; the Morning Chronicle found in it “an admirable mixture of hope and anxiety” (20 Sept 1799). Davies (1808, Miscellanies, 1:150-1) testifies to the power of this whole episode, “I never saw an audience more deeply affected than by the impassioned scene, between Hamlet and his mother” and H. Martin traces its modulations: “no rant—it was bitter truth, spoke in indignation, with energy, with irresistible force; but passion did not rise till just before the Ghost again appeared, and it gave a fine contrast to the subdued feeling that followed” (1802, p. 7). The dominant and distinctive tone of Kemble’s Hamlet was thus one of melancholy, but it was set off by a variety of contrasting tones.
In addition to his princely manner, Kemble’s claim to authority as a Shakespearian interpreter was strengthened by his pioneering return to a more authentic text. His approach to the text was much more studied than that of his predecessors. His Hamlet was filled with what his conservative critics deplored as “new readings.” A good many of these were in fact old readings, from the original texts, that had been displaced by stage tradition. To cite a few of many examples, his Hamlet spoke of “self-slaughter” (316) rather than “self-murder,” used the expression “might not beteem” (325) rather than “permitted not,” and referred to “the native hue of resolution” (1738) instead of its “healthful face.” He probably did indulge in too many significant pauses (he reduced their number and length over the years) and held stubbornly to idiosyncratic pronunciations. But a number of his original line readings won favor, as did certain bits of business. Although “The Rosciad” (Public Advertiser, 7 Oct. 1783) dismissed as claptrap his “flinging himself on one knee” as he swears to remember the ghost, Boaden (1825, 1:98) felt it “suitably marked the filial reverence of Hamlet,” noting that Kemble’s rival Henderson had adopted the business immediately and to applause.
After Kemble’s retirement, an admirer looked back nostalgically to his heyday. Suggesting that Hamlet “should be played as if in moonlight...a link between the ethereal and the corporeal,” this commentator felt that Kemble played it so: “Tragedy reigned in solemn grandeur then—for the broken starts and rapid familiarities of the new school were in Kemble’s bright time unknown” (Port Folio, 16 July 1823, p. 207). The new school was that of Edmund Kean.
Kean might be thought a throwback to Garrick; Garrick’s widow saw him as such. But he may better be regarded as usurping the role of Hamlet, interrupting the legitimate line of succession. A long-time associate compared him to Napoleon: “reckless, restless, adventurous, intemperate” (Grattan, 1862, 2:195). Whereas Betterton and Garrick had retired before a full-fledged successor presented himself, upstart Kean wrested the position from Kemble by force majeure. The contrast with Kemble was stark. Where Kemble was neoclassic in temperament, Kean was Romantic. Where Kemble’s venue was the Tory Covent Garden, Kean’s was the Whig Drury Lane. Where Kemble was consistent and coherent in style, Kean was disordered and fragmented.
Kean also set himself apart from other previous Hamlets. At times he scored by underplaying what they had highlighted. His vow to speak to the Ghost “though hell itself should gape” (445) was given in “a quick and low tone, which was in total opposition to the manner of every other actor” (Phippen, 1814, p. 98). When the Ghost does appear, unlike earlier Hamlets who were struck with terror, Kean was remarkable because he was “not frightened” (Finlay, 1835, p. 220). On the contrary, he showed “filial confidence in following it” (Morning Chronicle, 14 Mar. 1814).
As revolutionary as Kean was among stage Hamlets, a still larger usurpation in Hamlet interpretation was under way, one in which the primacy of the stage itself as an interpretive instrument was challenged. By this time the novel had supplanted drama as the dominant literary form. With the growth of the reading habit in the public and the increasing availability of inexpensive editions (versions of the plays that now recorded not the practices of the stage but the judgments of scholars), Shakespeare’s plays had themselves more and more come to be seen as works to be understood through reading as well as playgoing. In the course of the eighteenth century a body of critical commentary had developed, based on Hamlet as a reading experience. Usually these commentaries had run in tandem with stage interpretations, as with the parallels already noted of Garrick with Fielding and Mackenzie and of Kemble with the character-analysts. But with the Romantics came a radical break, in which Lamb and Hazlitt (both of them inveterate playgoers) denied the adequacy of the theater to Shakespeare’s imagination as it may be discerned through reading his words.
The reader’s Hamlet that Hazlitt delineated was a character marked not “by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment” (Morning Chronicle, 14 Mar. 1814). Coleridge saw in him “great, enormous, intellectual activity, and a consequent aversion to real action” (Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare, 1808). Both had been anticipated by Mackenzie, who in 1780 had said of Hamlet that Shakespeare “to interest the audience in his behalf, throws around him, from the beginning, the majesty of melancholy, along with that sort of weakness and irresolution which frequently attends it” (Mirror, No. 99).
This way of regarding the Prince was re-enforced by another development in the enlarging Hamlet tradition, for Hamlet had begun his ascent to the pantheon of cultural icons, where like Don Quixote and Faust he would lead a life virtually free of the particular circumstances set forth in the work in which he first appeared. There he was to become the personification of procrastination and overly introspective irresolution, deeply melancholy and forever paralyzed by doubts as to whether “to be or not to be.” Much of the impetus for this view came from Europe, often based on a translated text. Its most influential formulation was the first one: in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahr (written about 1783). In the course of the nineteenth century “Hamletism” became not only a private malady but a general condition with political implications—in “The American Scholar” (1837) Emerson felt his generation “infected with Hamlet’s unhappiness”; to Turgenev and others in Russia the affliction applied to the class of liberal intellectuals made up of refined but “superfluous” men; to Ferdinand Freiligrath (1844) “Germany is Hamlet,” a whole nation too much given to thought in place of action (Spencer, 1964). That such attitudes persist may be seen in Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem on his own “dithering, blathering” over the troubles in Northern Ireland: “I am Hamlet the Dane...smeller of rot/ in the state, infused/ with its poisons, pinioned by ghosts/ and affections, murders and pieties” (“Viking Dublin”).
English stage interpretations have stood in complex interrelationship with such iconic conceptions of Hamlet’s character. The Hamlet of the Romantics had been anticipated by Thomas Sheridan, a minor rival of Garrick in the role, who—as he told Boswell—conceived the Prince to be “a young man of a good heart and fine feelings who had led a studious contemplative life and so become delicate and irresolute,” lacking the “strength of mind to execute what he thinks right and wishes to do” (Boswell, 1950, Journal, 6 Apr. 1763). If this conception informed his own portrayal, it did not make a major impact; Sheridan is chiefly remembered for his elocutionary techniques. Various aspects of the Romantic Hamlet had, however, been portrayed on stage. His introspectiveness had been rendered by Garrick, who appeared “to be uttering his thoughts aloud to himself, without regard either to the manner or the spectators” (Julian Young, 1871, p. 26). Kemble’s melancholy Prince had an introspective, nocturnal air, especially as depicted in Reynold’s painting. In Kean too there was an inwardness, an “appeal to the mind” (Examiner, 20 Mar. 1814), a “sadness of soul” (Procter, 1835, 2:62).
Yet stage Hamlets, then and since, have declined to go all the way with the Romantic readers. It is true that the Romantic view has textual basis in Hamlet’s self-castigation of “my weakness and my melancholy” (1641) and his fault of “thinking too precisely on th’ event” (2743+35). But in limiting itself to this most distinctive phase of Hamlet’s career, it left out of account what no stage Hamlet could omit: the fact that he does not delay forever but in the end accomplishes what he has set out to do and kills the king. Coleridge especially exaggerated the protractedness of Hamlet’s “endless” hesitating and “constant” escape from action (“Lecture XII,” 1811-12) and belittled his accomplishment of his goal as “mere accident” (Table Talk, 1827). While finding Hamlet “incapable of deliberate action,” Hazlitt does grant him the ability to act “on the spur of the occasion, when he has no time to reflect” as in the killing of Polonius; but he significantly makes no mention of the killing of Claudius (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1817). The Romantic view of the role was not to enter fully into the main stream of stage interpretation until Edwin Booth, whose Prince was so sensitive that he was appalled by the success of his own revenge. With Kean there was no such ambivalence. For the most part, his passionate Prince, famed for his fencing, was the opposite of Hazlitt’s restrained figure.
In style, however, Kean was very much of his period, exemplifying the Romantic taste for vivid fragments. As Keats put it of Kean’s portrayal of Richard III: “Other actors are continually thinking of their sum-total effect throughout a play. Kean delivers himself up to the instant feeling” (Champion, 21 Dec. 1817). Donne (1858, p. 173) found this true of his acting in general: “he disregarded unity altogether....He acted detached portions alone, but upon these he flung himself with all his mind and soul and strength, moral and physical.” The contrast to stately Kemble was extreme. As Hamlet “his mode of delivery is the very opposite of Kemble’s,” Tieck commented; “he stares, starts, wheels round, drops his voice, and then raises it to the highest pitch” (T. Martin, 1880, “Eye-Witness,” p. 292). The impression of impetuosity thus created was, however, artful. Kean told Garrick’s widow that “There is no such thing as impulsive acting; all is premeditated and studied beforehand” (Hawkins, 1869, p. 208). Vandenhoff as a boy was carried away by Kean’s acting, even in its decadence: “His style was impulsive, fitful, flashing, abounding in quick transition...carrying you along with his impetuous rush and change of expression.” Yet Vandenhoff emphasizes that “this seeming spontaneity was not chance- work” (1860, pp. 22-3). G. H. Lewes (1875, p. 18) confirms that Kean’s roles were exactly repeated throughout his career and that his preparations included counting the steps between speeches. Ordinary spectators, however, would not have been aware of these backstage techniques; for them seeing Kean act, as Coleridge famously put it, would have been “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning” (Table Talk, 27 Apr 1823).
Certain discrete moments in Kean’s performance were especially telling. His most memorable moment came at the end of his interview with Ophelia. Tieck records in detail how Kean’s repeated injunctions “to get thee to a nunnery”:
were accentuated by him with an ascending emphasis, till it took the tone of a vehement menace and command, rising almost to a scream, with an expression of marked severity in voice, look, and action, after which he retires hurriedly, and has already grasped the handle of the door, when he stops, turns round, and casting back the saddest, almost tearful look, stands lingering for some time, and then, with a slow, almost gliding step, comes back, seizes Ophelia’s hand, imprints a lingering kiss upon it with a deep-drawn sigh, and straightway dashes more impetuously than before out of the door, which he slams violently behind him. (T. Martin, 1880, “Eye-Witness,” p. 293)
Phippen (1814, pp. 100-1) reports that Kean made his return immediately after Ophelia’s “Heavenly powers restore him!” The significance of his return was variously interpreted. To Phippen it showed that “his affection for Ophelia was not eradicated by the perturbation of mind into which he was driven by the advice of the Ghost.” It showed to Finlay “that his severity to Ophelia is involuntary, and a violence to his own feelings” (1835, p. 223). The Examiner saw in it “the humility of a man who thinks he has offended a virtuous being, and kisses her hand, at once to re-assure her and to vindicate himself” (20 Mar. 1814). Hazlitt saw in it a more complex set of emotions simultaneously expressive of “disappointed hope, of bitter regret, of affection suspended, not obliterated” (1957, p. 14). Whatever its precise import the innovation by Hazlitt’s account “had an electrical effect on the house” and “was applauded to the very echo” (Examiner), having dissolved the great part of the audience “into tears of pity” (Phippen, p. 101).
To only a few did it matter that the King then flatly contradicted Kean’s mime: “Love! his affections do not that way tend.” Kean’s ability to project Hamlet’s inner turmoil carried all before it. Similarly, Kean’s naturalistic death by poisoning was much admired. Leigh Hunt’s account is almost clinical:
Intense internal pain, wandering vision, swelling veins in the temple...his eye dilates and then loses lustre; he gnaws his hand in the vain effort to repress emotion; the veins thicken in his forehead; his limbs shudder and quiver, and as life grows fainter, and his hand drops from between his stiffening lips, he utters a cry of expiring nature, so exquisite that I can only compare it to the stifled sob of a fainting woman. (23 Sept. 1831)
Finlay, however, points out the awkward fact that “Laertes and the king, both of whom had been wounded after Hamlet, were lying dead before him” (1835, p. 224).
The play scene was another point of high intensity. Unlike Kemble, Kean did not disguise his surveillance of the King by his attentions to Ophelia; in fact, during most of the play-within-the-play he directly turned his back on her. His overt concentration on the King rose toward a climax as he “crawled upon his belly towards the King” (Herald, 14 Mar. 1814) and openly stared at him, as if “bullying the King into confusion” (Sun, 14 Mar. 1814). This externalizing of Hamlet’s inner state—disregarding ordinary prudence—was capped by his shout of triumph when Claudius exclaimed “lights, lights” (1835, p. 227). Here as with his loving return to kiss Ophelia’s hand and his protracted death agonies, Kean’s style anticipated theatrical Expressionism, projecting Hamlet’s subtext—how the moment felt to him—and disregarding a literal reading of the play for the sake of revealing inner truths.
Nor were such effects confined to the visual. Kean’s verbal projection of Hamlet’s inner life could be very subtle. The author of a letter to the editor in The Examiner (27 Mar. 1814) signed PGP reports the impression that Kean’s “fie on’t! oh fie!” (319) “after a pause of meditation, applied to the hasty marriage of his mother and his uncle.” Since it is some lines further into his first soliloquy before Hamlet actually mentions their marriage, one might question the validity of this impression, even though in other respects the letter is acutely observant. But PGP goes on to make a similar intuitive leap in response to Kean’s brooding delivery of “very like—very like” (435). These words too followed “a profound meditation” as Hamlet digested the implications of the Ghost’s visitation. As spoken, the words did not mean to PGP merely “very like it would have amazed me”: “Mr Kean applied them to the subject of his own thoughts”—that his “prophetic soul” was very likely right in intuiting that his uncle killed his father. Again the reading by PGP of Kean’s subtext must await confirmation, this time until 728. (Later commentators, possibly influenced by PGP, drew the same or comparable inferences—(Champion, 29 Sept 1821; Hawkins, 1869, p. 192). Whether or not PGP’s particular readings are valid, these instances clearly reflect a quality Keats noted in Kean’s Richard III: “we feel that the utterer is thinking of the past and future while speaking the instant” (Champion, 21 Dec. 1817).
William Charles Macready (1793-1873—played Hamlet within the period 1823-1851)
Kean’s reign ended with his death in 1833. Compared to that of his predecessors, it was relatively short, lasting two decades rather than the three of Garrick and Kemble; Betterton’s was nearly four. Although the next dominant Hamlet, Macready, had been acting Hamlet earlier, he did not come into his own until after Kean’s death. It was only in 1835 that Forster made the kind of large claims for Macready’s Hamlet that herald a definitive portrayal (Examiner, 11 Oct). Even then there was something grudging about the preeminence granted him. In his diary entry for his last performance of the part, Macready comments that “the press has been slow to acknowledge my realization of the man” (1912, Diaries, 1: 29 Jan. 1851). Only in retrospect did Lewes realize that Macready stood at “an immeasurable height” when “compared with any one we have seen since upon the stage” (1875, p. 42).
When Macready finally came into his own, the line of player princes resumed its respectability. Where Garrick had risen to a higher social status than that of previous actors and Kemble had sustained an aristocratic lifestyle, Kean had been notoriously disreputable in his private life, a “blackguard,” was Macready’s word for him. Nor had he become an actor-manager in the tradition of Garrick and Kemble; Odell referred to the period of Kean’s dominance (1817-37) as “the leaderless age” (1920, 2:117). In contrast, Macready was very much a member of the legitimate theater establishment, heading the patent theaters Covent Garden from 1837 to 1839 and Drury Lane from 1841 to 1843 (Bate, 1996, p. 111).
Unlike other definitive Hamlets, Macready did not originate a distinctive style. His was composite. To Hackett it compounded “the classical dignity of John Kemble with the intense earnestness and colloquial familiarity of Edmund Kean” (1863, p. 140). Macready himself told Coleman of his “admiration” for Kemble but plainly found Kean more stirring: “oh my—! he could act” (1888, 1:53). At the same time he sought to moderate their excesses (Hazlitt too had found Kean’s Hamlet “as much too splenetic and rash as Mr. Kemble’s is too deliberate and formal”). Macready’s praise of the French actor Talma seems to reveal his own aspirations; he found Talma “not below Kean in his most energetic displays, and far above him in the refinement of his taste and extent of his research, equaling Kemble in his dignity, unfettered by his stiffness and formality” (1875, Reminiscences, ch 15).
In concept, Macready’s Hamlet was an optimist turned pessimist, a “perturbed spirit” who in the end finds a measure of rest and grows patient and trustful. Accordingly, the early acts expressed “the impetuous rebellion of a generous nature when its trust has been cruelly deceived.” In the last act, Macready followed through on his conception and sought to depict, as he put it, “the resignation of a generous nature when the storm has spent itself” (Marston, 1888, 1:80).
The keynote for this reading of the role was repeatedly struck at the outset, beginning even before Macready spoke a word: “Advancing slowly to the very front of the stage, he stood for a moment with dejected eyes, then slowly raised them with a look so expressive of profound grief that few hearts, I think, remained untouched” (Dramatic Essays, 1894, p. 10). In his first soliloquy he conveyed ‘such lone untheatrical sadness that each spectator might fancy he only was privileged to look into the soul of the gentle sufferer” (New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1821). His friend Forster found him “princely” and his “What a piece of work is a man!” (1350-1), “unforgettable”: “so earnest in its faith, and so passionate in its sorrow. Here is the true Hamlet. No wonder the shock of this outraged sense of good should drive him nearly mad” (Examiner, 11 Oct. 1835). In following scenes Marston found his dominant mood to be one of irony and misanthropy, “except for a touch of melancholy tenderness for a lost ideal in Ophelia, or of the courtesy which his princely nature prescribed to his inferiors” (1888, 1:80-1). A concern for variety was a hallmark of Macready’s approach. Lady Pollock found in him:
the flexible impressionable Hamlet of Shakespeare, never strong even when most roused to action, alternately meditative and impassioned, deliberate and sudden; after his highest flights of passion, his spirits fell back, subsiding into the attitude of gentleness which was the essence of his nature, and which was enhanced, after an access of fury, by physical exhaustion. (Pollock, 1885, p. 107)
He himself said that he sought to bring out the “striking contrasts” inherent in his guiding conception—”its passion, its imagination, its irony, its colloquial realism” (Marston, 1888, 1:81).
For Macready, the greatest of these was passion. Reviewer after reviewer marveled at his ability to express and communicate emotion, whether simple or complex, subtle or powerful. In general Kirk testified that “He was in fact the only actor I have ever seen who was always under the apparent influence of the emotion he was depicting.” Yet as the result of years of self-discipline, the emotion was never out of control: “no actor knew better how to regulate the display of emotion, never permitting it to become mechanical, never losing the original impulse, but avoiding all excess.” In Hamlet Kirk instances Hamlet’s first encounter with the Ghost:
the sudden wonder, the deep awe, the increasing agitation as amazement and reverence were overmastered by the desire and resolve to explore a mystery...were so indicated by the fixed but changeful gaze, by the gradual rising of the voice from subdued tones and whispers to loud and penetrating accents, and by expressive but restrained and graceful movements, that a hushed intentness prevailed throughout the house. (1884, p. 614)
Always as here Macready caused the audience to share his feeling. With the Ghost: “he seemed to look and move as in the presence of a supernatural being—his tone had awe and horror in them scarcely of this world” (New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1821) and by such means, another witness testifies, he “impresses the audience with the idea, that they are in the presence of a being of another world” (Theatrical Journal, 29 Aug. 1840). At the climax of the play-within-the-play scene, Macready made the “crawl” toward the King originated by Kean. Marston describes how “with body prone, and head erect, and eyes riveted on Claudius, he dragged himself nearer and nearer to him” (1888, 1:82). A reviewer notes a “strange fire” in Macready’s eyes, which were “fixed with serpent-fascination on the king, every nerve stretched to agony and trembling with expectation” (New Monthly Magazine, l July 1821, p. 333). Another observer adds: “we see the workings of his soul gleam through his eyes; he seems as though he read the thoughts that moved within his guilty uncle’s breast; and when he starts up, and with a cry of exultation follows the craven and flying murderer to the door, the audience seemed relieved from a spell” (Theatrical Journal, 5 Sept 1840). Macready was so intense at this point that he “wrought up the spectators to an almost equal degree of suspense, which the tremendous burst of horrid triumph when the king rose, fully satisfied” (New Monthly Magazine, p. 333).
Macready could also convey subtler progressions of feeling. In his first soliloquy, Macready revealed “the gentle modulations of the soul” (Champion, 19 Dec. 1819): “thought visibly suggested thought, and one image or regret or indignation grew out of the other” (New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1821). He was no less gifted in conveying sudden transitions of feeling. At “Remorselesse, treacherous, lecherous kindlesse villaine” (1621), he “gives the whole of the line, with the exception of the word "kindlesse," in a tone breathing the deepest hatred against his uncle, but the recollection of the irreparable loss he had sustained, coming in all its heaviness upon him, he ejaculates that word in a passionate burst of tears” (Theatrical Journal, 5 Sept 1840).
Most remarkably, Macready was fully equal to delineating Hamlet’s tendency to feel two distinct emotions at once. In his diary he commented on the difficulty of doing so: “The ease and dignified familiarity, the apparent levity of manner, with the deep purpose that lies beneath, which should be marked distinctly in the representation of Hamlet—are so difficult of execution that I almost despair of moderately satisfying myself” (1912, Diaries, 1:242). Others, however, found that he met this challenge admirably. In the play scene, his Hamlet “feigns a jocular mood, speaks sarcastically, whilst the desire to confirm beyond doubt his father’s murder, is welling through every vein” (Theatrical Journal, 29 Aug. 1840). In the closet scene, “he regards his mother as one who still was dear to him but still as one who was about to hear awful truths from his lips” (Theatrical Journal, 5 Sept 1840).
As powerful as were such points of maximum intensity, reviewers were no less impressed by Macready’s quieter moments (New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1821, p. 333). The Morning Post found Macready’s portrayal deliberately lacking in “tragic pomp—in those scenes where he is not acting under the immediate impulse of the passions, or of some more than ordinary excitement” and citing his interviews with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz and the advice to the Players as exchanges “given in the tone and manner of common conversational discourse” (18 Oct. 1823). Marston saw how passion and what Macready himself called “colloquial realism” worked together. He praised both Macready’s “exaltation of passion” and “his power of contrasting it with familiar touches which added to its reality without lessening its dignity” (1888, 1:242).
Charles Albert Fechter (1824-1879—played Hamlet in 1861, 1864, 1870) and Edwin Booth (1833-1893—played Hamlet in 1864, 1870, 1880)
Before his debut in England, Fechter was a highly successful actor in Paris (he originated the role of Armand Duval in La Dame aux camelias), and he brought across the Channel a realism that Londoners found revolutionary. As Charles Dickens observed: “Perhaps no innovation in Art was ever accepted with so much favour by so many intellectual persons pre-committed to, and preoccupied by, another system, as Mr. Fechter’s Hamlet” (Atlantic Monthly, Aug. 1869). He spoke his lines in an “easy, natural, and conversational tone” (Era, 24 Mar. 1861). His stage deportment, too, could become relaxed to the point of seeming casual: reviewers often commented on how, while musing on Yorick’s skull, he perched on a tombstone, “his left leg resting on his right thigh” (Athenaeum, 23 Mar. 1861).
Fechter’s naturalness went deeper. As Lewes explained: “If Shakespeare’s grandest language seemed to issue naturally from Fechter’s lips...the reason was that he formed a tolerably true conception of Hamlet’s nature” (1875, p. 118). The Sunday Times spoke for many in describing this Prince as one whose “manhood is as simple as our own. There stands before us a suffering, sensitive, self-conscious being, who at once lays hold of our sympathies...a thoroughly human Hamlet...as natural as humanity itself” (24 Mar. 1861).
Not that Fechter ever fell short of the “innate nobility” of a prince, “all its expressions, grave or gay, having a mingled grace and dignity” (Weekly Dispatch, 24 Mar. 1861). Lewes found his appearance “delicate, handsome, and with his long flaxen curls, quivering, sensitive nostrils, fine eye, and sympathetic voice, perfectly represents the graceful prince” (1875, p. 119). Clearly there was nothing of Kemble’s hauteur about Fechter’s nobility. He was praised for “those qualities of the amiable and polished gentleman which are particularly manifested when Hamlet discourses with his social inferiors” (Saturday Review, 6 Apr. 1861). “He was affectionate towards Horatio, and chatty with the players, without any surrender of the dignity of the Prince or the self-respect of the gentleman” (Macmillan Magazine, 31 (1874), p. 240).
Fechter’s embodiment of the Victorian ideal of the gentleman Prince was a key factor in his claim on the role. In 1836 Serjeant John Adams had written to Charles Kean about his Hamlet:
you are not enough of the prince—or somewhat deficient in the mixture of condescension and ease which marks the intercourse of a prince of kind and affable disposition with his inferiors. Those who are born to command, acquire a manner which never deserts them, even in their most familiar moments. You are always the gentleman, but not always the prince—Hamlet is both. (John Cole, 1888,1:277)
Evidently Fechter struck a more persuasive balance of the two, although by his time gentlemanliness seems to have been given more weight. Such matters were of immediate concern to Victorians. Prince Albert’s severe regime for the training of young Prince Edward, well-suited to his own bookish nature but not to his son’s, was a matter of public comment (Magnus, 1964, p. 30; E.T. Cook, 1931, p. 268). At Rugby Thomas Arnold had instituted a program designed to fulfill the hopes of Tom Brown’s father, in the novel depicting this program: “If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman and a gentleman and a Christian, that’s all I want” (Tom Brown’s School Days). By 1864 a Parliamentary Commission Report found that such public schools “had the largest share in molding the character of an English gentleman” (Castronovo, 1987, p. 61). Gentlemanliness was frequently a theme in Victorian novels. In Colonel Newcome and Plantagenet Palliser, Thackeray and Trollope personified their perfect gentlemen while the nature of a true gentility is a prominent theme in Great Expectations and other novels by Dickens (Castronovo, 1987; Mason, 1982). Fechter’s Hamlet put a “polished gentleman” and “graceful prince” on the stage.
For some Fechter’s Prince was refined to a fault: “it wants manliness...philosophic fortitude and high resolve”; for Fechter clearly emphasized Hamlet’s softer side: “There is nothing of the soldier about him. His manner is soft and winning, and he is sentimental rather than philosophic; and gently pensive rather than profoundly meditative. Of tempestuous emotion he shows but little sign, and of fierce passion, still less” (Morning Post, 22 Mar. 1861). Indulgent with Polonius, he delivers even “These tedious old fools!” (1262) “more with a shrug of patient pity, than in petulance” (Orchestra, 28 May 1864). He is “entirely prostrated” by grief for his father; with his mother in the closet scene, “he shares to the full the suffering he inflicts.” It is with Ophelia that he is most tender. Instead of bullying her he makes the nunnery scene “a continuous struggle between his affection and his doubts” (Weekly Dispatch, 24 Mar. 1861).
That Fechter’s Hamlet was deficient in the “animal passion” that Lewes (1875, p. 121) felt necessary to tragedy seems to have been generally true. The usually favorable Weekly Dispatch conceded that in his climaxes in general and the play scene in particular “he wants the sustained vigour which is essential to carry the sympathies to the culminating point” (24 Mar. 1861). Thus far had the stage Hamlet come toward the weak and ineffectual figure of the Romantics, less the future king “born to command” than a genteel royal, expert in politesse.
This is not the whole truth, however, about Fechter’s Hamlet. His “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy (1589-1645) was celebrated for its “passion” as well as its “pathos” (Morning Chronicle, 23 Mar. 1961). His “pauses of thought followed by a change of tone” were praised by Clement Scott, especially in this speech (1899, Drama, 1:461). He “worked himself into a phrenzy by the elaboration of every conceivable insult and degradation, suddenly lapses back again into self-consciousness” (Sunday Times, 24 Mar 1861). After “Who does me this?” he came forward, stopped suddenly at “Ha,” then, dropping his arms in despair, said (1616), “I should take it” (promptbook 72). His delivery of those last words was “electrifying” (Morning Chronicle, 23 Mar. 1861).
In the latter part of the play Fechter’s generally mild manner changed dramatically. According to Field, “Fechter’s Hamlet was restrained by reasonable doubt, not vacillation of purpose, and no sooner caught ‘the conscience of the King’ than he could drink hot blood” (1882, pp. 92-3). Furthermore, after the killing of Polonius it seemed to Dutton Cook that “if Fechter’s Hamlet had not been well guarded, he would have killed the King then and there.” It was in that fierce spirit that he finally accomplished his revenge: “Upon the confession of Laertes, the King endeavoured to escape up the right-hand staircase; Hamlet, perceiving this, rushed up the left-hand stairs, and encountering Claudius in the centre of the gallery, there despatched him” (1881, Hours, 2:263).
More than anything else, it was Fechter’s realism that was seen by most of his contemporaries as his most radical innovation. The change was not welcomed in all quarters. When in 1874 the initial allure of Fechter’s style had faded, The Morning Post pointed out “the mistake of supposing that the colloquial style of daily life was suited to the expression of poetic passion, in which the proper test of nature is conformity, not to the accidental and superficial habits of the time, but to the permanent and essential impulses of human feeling, which seeks a loftier manifestation than conventional modes of speech and bearing can supply” (2 Nov. 1874). Earlier, Marston had taken very much the same view, seeing the new style as a lowering of the modern actor’s sights, from “the actor of passions” who must “display the very soul of the character” and “general humanity” to “the actor of sentiment and comedy” who “has but to display the fit conjunction of feelings with the manners of the time.” Interestingly, he looked back to Macready who combined both kinds of acting, finding that Fechter “had the familiar, the colloquial side of Macready; but this, with sentiment and refinement, formed his stock-in-trade. He wanted Macready’s exaltation of passion” (1888, 2:194, 398). To Marston, Fechter thus represented a partial survival of a past greatness. But for most, Fechter’s Hamlet sounded the keynote for the future, and indeed it proved to be the style of acting Shakespeare that would characterize the rest of the century, one in which, as Odell summed it up: “His poetry was to be read more like prose than verse; action was to be toned down; everything was to be refined and gentle” (1920, 2:414).
No Hamlet has been more ‘refined and gentle” than America’s Edwin Booth. He was not the first Hamlet to inherit the part from his father (Junius Brutus)—Charles Kean, son of Edmund, had given a notable portrayal. Nor was he to be the last—H. B. and Laurence Irving would also succeed their father, Henry. But Edwin Booth is the only Hamlet to have surpassed his father in the role. His father might well have agreed. “You look like Hamlet,” he told his son at 19 and urged him to play the part (Shattuck, 1969, Hamlet, p. 3).
Booth put his own touch on the general Romantic reading of the character (he had read both Goethe and Hazlitt). He portrayed a Prince “of a reflective, sensitive, gentle, generous nature, tormented, borne down and made miserable by an occasion...to which it is not equal” (New York Herald, 28 Nov. 1864). Amid the corrupt materialism of the time in America, he may well have seemed to contemporaries the very reverse of the vulgar and reckless yet strong-willed and all-conquering robber barons of industry and business. To Charles Clarke, whose handwritten columns provide an extraordinarily detailed manuscript account of Booth’s 1870 production, Booth’s prince was “a man of first-class intellect but second-class will” (col. 129), resolute in minor matters yet irresolute in major ones. Clarke finds these traits illustrated again and again in the performance. For instance, Booth skillfully mousetraps the king with the play-within-the-play, yet is so overcome by his success that he fails to capitalize on his advantage and follow through to the fulfillment of his revenge. His killing of Polonius, thinking he might be the King, is no more than “the stroke of an impulse” (col. 151); and when he actually does kill Claudius, after a moment of “mad exultation” he looks at the King with a ‘stare of horror, then reels and falters down the steps of the throne” (col. 199); as Clarke concludes: “his conscientiousness was outraged. His will was appalled, for it had overdone itself” (col. 202). Thus did Booth find a way to include Hamlet’s violently decisive actions yet show them to be contrary to his true Romantic nature. He spoke “O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right” (885-6) as to himself, emphasizing “cursed,” “I,” and “born”: he explained that “Tis the groan of his overburthened soul” (Shattuck, 1969, Hamlet, p. 158).
Booth’s Hamlet was “every inch the noble Prince and true-born gentleman; strong, pure, and refined, in soul and senses.” So judged Mary Isabella Stone, who wrote full accounts of performances by Booth in Boston in 1881 and after (1990, p. 2). Consistently, Booth found ways to soften the sharp-edges of Hamlet’s scorn for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, his mother, Osric. The gravediggers’ lack of refinement contrasted with his gentility.
The social decorum of Booth’s student prince was matched by the artistic decorum of his impersonation. Edwin Forrest, his immediate American predecessor in the role, seemed crude by comparison. Booth’s avoidance of conventional “points” and other claptrap was admired. Restraint and good taste were the hallmarks of his approach: his assumed madness was conveyed “more by insinuation...than through intense outbreak” (Clarke, col. 73). Stone discerns the artistry by which Booth gave a “fully felt” portrayal in the opening scenes yet still held himself “within bounds” in order to build a “reserve power” for more intense moments to come (1990, pp. 18-19). The expression of this power could be quite subtle. She remarks on how Booth conveys a “tension of nerves, and sense of effort when Hamlet is with other people and the subsequent relaxation when left alone, or with Horatio” (p. 136). She points out how with Horatio in the graveyard scene “The appearance of anguish of soul is intensified, and this is done not by an increase of demonstrativeness, but by an increase of restrainedness” (p. 121). Repeatedly, Hamlin Garland compares Booth to a marble statue, even with the gravediggers.
Occasional lapses in restraint on Booth’s part were deplored: some took exception to the staginess of his writhing fall at the end of his first interview with the Ghost, which Booth as a consequence toned down (Stedman, 1866, p. 589). Others objected to the impropriety of his falling prostrate after the Ghost’s last exit. On the other hand, some observers felt that Booth was too tame. In 1883 a German critic commented that Booth “stirs us in many a moment of moving pathos, but he never sweeps us off our feet with tragic passion” (Shattuck, 1969, Hamlet, p. 298). While acknowledging a general “want of fire and electricity,” a more sympathetic observer found in Booth’s interpretation not “flashes of lightning” but “a steady light” (Shattuck, p. 91). Clarke’s meticulous record of Booth’s speech and movement confirms this impression: few intriguing original “readings” emerge, but his emphases constantly clarify meaning, providing “a continual elucidation of Shakespere” (New York Herald, 28 Nov. 1864). In addition, contemporaries found a certain kind of poetry. In contrast to the prosaic and overly realistic Fechter, Clarke felt that Booth appealed to our sense of the ideal, “of what might be” (col. 21).
Not that Booth’s Hamlet was without moments of high intensity. His first scenes with the Ghost and the play scene were much praised. But it was the closet scene that was found most powerful, especially when the Ghost appears. Booth in this moment combined “doubt, anxiety, apprehension, and awe” with “a new and agonizing fear that he will now be forced to some act at which his soul revolts” (New York World, 9 Jan. 1876). Yet again, the Romantic interpretation made itself felt, subverting the impact of the Ghost’s call to arms.
Various commentators found affinities between Booth himself and Hamlet. Stedman (1866, p.589) celebrated Booth’s ‘special fitness” for the part, his “full sympathy with it, whether on or off the stage”: “that lithe and sinuous figure, elegant in the solemn garb of sables...the pallor of his face and hands, the darkness of his hair, those eyes that can be so melancholy-sweet, yet ever look beyond and deeper than the things about him.” He argued that the extensive reflective portions of the role cannot be “acted” (“The player must be himself”) and saw in Booth “the gentleman and scholar” that he saw in Hamlet. What is remarkable is that Booth (who grew up as a barn-stormer) was by no means to the manner born. His gentlemanly manner and accomplishments were acquired, through the tutelage of his wife and an early mentor, Adam Badeau. Evidently, with their help Booth was so thoroughly schooled that by the time Stedman wrote of his Hamlet he gave every indication of having become a gentleman himself. All the same Booth revealingly wrote to Badeau around this time that to play the role "I shall be called upon to be genteel & gentle—or rather pale & polite” (Carlisle, 1969, p. 79).
It was in his devotion to his father that Booth was most deeply kin to Prince Hamlet. When his wife died in 1863, he took up spiritualism and received messages not only from her but from his father. It was a miniature of his own father that as Hamlet he wore on a neck-chain, and he sometimes fancied he could hear his father’s voice in that of the Ghost (Shattuck, 1969, Hamlet, p. 7).
By 1870, Booth had made the role his own. He was acclaimed “the accepted Hamlet of the American stage” (New York Herald, 6 Jan. 1870). One key to his success was personal. As an unidentified reviewer summed it up, “Mr. Booth makes one love Hamlet” (Cohen, 1969, p. 71). Comments by Clarke and Stone make it clear that the lovableness of Booth’s Hamlet carried over to Booth himself. Stone speaks of Booth’s ability “to take possession of my faculties and sway my heart and brain at the will of Hamlet” (1990, p. 6). Furthermore, Booth’s approach took part in contemporary cultural trends. It was in accord with the general “feminization” of American culture, as clergy and women writers and readers celebrated such sentimental values as gentleness and a depth and delicacy of feeling (Douglas, 1988). Booth wrote of Hamlet to critic William Winter in 1882, distinguishing between effeminacy and femininity: “I doubt if ever a robust and masculine treatment of the character will be accepted so generally as the more womanly and refined interpretation” (Shattuck, 1969, Hamlet, p. 64). His tenderness toward Horatio was remarkably demonstrative. As Mason observed: “More than any other Hamlet that I have seen, Mr. Booth emphasizes Hamlet’s affectionate intimacy with Horatio. He was constantly close beside him, and showed his affection uninterruptedly, by voice, action, and facial expression” (Mason 110). The detailed accounts by Clarke, Stone, and Garland bear this out. Especially in the 1870 production in Booth Theater, Booth’s Hamlet also took part in the “sacralization” of the arts (opera, classical music, and the fine arts as well as drama and literature) that was separating high brow from low brow culture in America at this time (Levine, 1988). The souvenir brochure for the new theater promised that the play would glorify “our too mundane souls with some of its higher, more heavenly attributes” (Shattuck, 1969, Hamlet, p. 72).
In England, however, Booth was felt—in comparison with Henry Irving—to be “of the old school.”
Henry Irving (1838-1905—played Hamlet in 1874, 1878, 1885 and Johnston Forbes Robertson (1853-1937—played Hamlet within the period 1897–1917)
Irving’s contemporaries were impressed by the originality of his portrayal of Hamlet. He showed that “Shakespeare could be spoken and not ranted” (Theatre, 1 Apr. 1884). One critic took exception to his novel way of “alternately passing between a solemn delivery, approaching to a drawl, and a hurried utterance in a tone of commonplace familiarity” (Academy, 4 Jan. 1879). A different commentator, however, praised how he “glides into” soliloquies (Standard, 31 Dec. 1878); he seems also to have glided out of them, avoiding “the usual perorative inflections” (E. R. Russell, 1875, p. 44). This Hamlet was called “the most conversational the modern stage has witnessed” (Athenaeum, 25 June 1881).
So radical a break did Irving make with the conventions of declamation and point-making that even to fervent Clement Scott the first act of his 1874 Hamlet was a “comparative disappointment”; he seemed to be “neglecting his opportunities.” Only as the performance continued did the realization come to Scott that “We in the audience see the mind of Hamlet” (1905, Hamlets, pp. 32-3). And it was in its revelation of Hamlet’s inner life that Irving was most convincing. He introduced a “psychological Hamlet” (Academy, 18 Sept 1897). The intellectuality of Irving’s Hamlet was much remarked upon. Ellen Terry recounts the way Irving portrayed Hamlet’s first news of the Ghost from Horatio (382-433)—an account John Gielgud would use as a guide for his own performance of this moment (Gilder, 1937, p. 39):
the dreamer becomes attentive, sharp as a needle, with the words: ‘For God’s love, let me hear.’ Irving’s face, as he listened to Horatio’s tale, blazed with intelligence. He cross-examined the men with keenness and authority. His mental deductions as they answered were clearly shown. With ‘I would I had been there’ the cloud of unseen witnesses with whom he had before been communing again descended. For a second or two Horatio and the rest did not exist for him. (Terry, 1932, Memoirs, p. 106)
It was characteristic of Irving’s approach that the “counterfeit presentments” of King Hamlet and Claudius should be in the mind’s eye rather than pictures on a wall or in lockets (Henry Irving, 1879, “Notes...no. 3,” pp. 260-3). W. B. Yeats, who as a boy was indelibly impressed by Irving, would recall his “lean image of hungry speculation” (The Trembling of the Veil, Bk 1).
Nonetheless, The Times felt that Irving’s Hamlet “is essentially tender, loving, and merciful...a fine genial creature, who would willingly have clasped all the world to his bosom” (2 Nov. 1874). In his study book Irving himself commented on Hamlet’s remark about having “Lost all my mirth” (1343): “Hamlet has been a very lively fellow.”
Irving rarely gave direct expression to Hamlet’s stronger feelings. Terry cited “the play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (1645) as the “one moment when his intensity concentrated itself in a straightforward unmistakable emotion, without side-current or back-water” (1932, Memoirs, p. 104). Indeed, Irving was faulted for “the entire absence of tragic passion” (Towse, 1884, p. 666). For his Victorian audience, however, the indirectness of Irving’s expression of suppressed feelings may have added to their impact. In Hamlet’s scene with his mother, “a regretful tenderness mingles with his wrathful denunciations” (Theatre, 1 Feb. 1879, pp. 20-1). With Ophelia, Irving held that “through all his bitter ravings there is visible the anguish of a lover forced to be cruel” (1877, “Notes...no. 2,” p. 530). Especially when Ellen Terry played Ophelia, his audiences were moved by the conflict he projected between love and duty, with duty, in high Victorian fashion, prevailing in the end.
The inner conflicts in Irving’s portrayal of the nunnery scene were so intense that for E. R. Russell they crossed the border between pretended lunacy and “real frenzy” (1875, p. 39); Irving himself wrote of “a flash of frenzy” toward the end of the scene (1877, “Notes...no. 2,” p. 530). It is one of a number of such crises. Irving’s frenzy at the ghost’s visitation is the first outburst about which there is general agreement. Russell sees the “Hold, hold my heart” speech (778-96) as an instance of Hamlet’s way of “fostering and aggravating his own excitements”—a discovery he persuasively finds a “stroke of high genius” on Irving’s part (p. 13). Irving’s delivery built to a climactic outburst at “my tables” (792) that “is hardly distinguishable from hysteria” (p. 30). From this high point Russell records how Irving’s excitement gradually ebbed, though with “now and then a strong wave of the subsiding half-lunacy” (p. 31). Some also found him roused to frenzy by “the sudden tidings of Ophelia’s death” in the graveyard scene (Punch, 11 Jan. 1879). It was at the climax of the play-within-the-play scene that the excitability of Irving’s Hamlet was most theatrically effective. Some, like Towse (1884, p. 666), felt that here too his agitation at times became insane.
Recalling Irving’s performance 55 years later, Phillpotts was able to see three-way connections between his insanity, his intellectuality, and his failure to act. To this “man of rare intellect confronted with just those problems that his supreme order of intelligence is powerless to solve,” the “psychical torment” of his inaction brings “the threat of madness hovering nearer and nearer” (1939, p. 85).
In his emphasis on this threat Irving was very much of his cultural moment. His focus on the private life of a man of pronounced individuality (accentuated by Irving’s idiosyncratic pronunciations and eccentric way of walking, “between a stagger and a slouch”—Macmillan’s Magazine, 1874, p. 240) may be seen as an extreme extension of Romantic subjectivity. But the question of Hamlet’s insanity was a special concern of Irving’s own time. The section devoted to it in the 1877 Variorum edition (Furness) shows a growing preoccupation with the issue, by medical as well as literary authorities: a third of the items date from the 1870s. The intensity of such debates, especially concerning Irving, was satirized by W. S. Gilbert in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1874). Ophelia continues:
Some [hold] that he’s really sane, but shamming mad— Some that he’s really mad, but shamming sane— Some that he will be mad, some that he was— Some that he couldn’t be. But on the whole (As far as I can make out what they mean) The favourite theory’s somewhat like this: Hamlet is idiotically sane With lucid intervals of lunacy. (W. S. Gilbert, p. 80)
By placing his Prince on the borderline of madness, Irving was able to accommodate this intense interest while retaining enough of Hamlet’s heroic fiber to make the finale a triumph not only over the King—whom he slew with “contemptuous brutality” (Daily News, 2 Nov. 1874)—but also over his own mental weakness.
Adding further to Irving’s emphasis on Hamlet’s mental condition was the portrayal of Ophelia by Ellen Terry (1847-1928). In her view Ophelia from the beginning suffers from “an incipient insanity”: “there is something queer about her, something which explains her wits going astray later on” (Terry, 1932, Memoirs, p. 110). Showalter (1991, pp. 77 ff.) has outlined how the portrayal of Ophelia’s madness has often reflected and influenced changing views of madwomen in society at large. But Terry put her own touch on conventional views. Two factors especially shaped her concept. One was textual—the Gentleman’s description of her mad winks and nods (2749-58). The other was a visit Terry made to a madhouse. For the most part the inmates were “too theatrical to teach me anything.” The exception was a girl— “very thin, very pathetic, very young”—who was gazing at a wall, her face vacant but her body expressing that she was “waiting, waiting”: “suddenly she threw up her hands and sped across the room like a swallow” in a movement “as poignant as it was beautiful” (1932, Memoirs, p. 122). Terry’s strong emphasis on pathos may derive from this experience. Also Clement Scott observed her “vacant expression in the eye” and her “grace of movement” (1905, Hamlets, p. 181). Further, the notes in Terry’s studybook stress the suddenness of her mad changes—from quick to slow, bright to sad, laughter to tears.
In the mad scenes, Terry herself marveled at (and reveled in) the theatrical power of “This frail wraith, this poor demented thing” (1932, Memoirs, p. 215). One observer remarked on how the flowers she carried were “one moment heedlessly crushed, and the next smothered with kisses” (Daily Chronicle, 31 Dec. 1878). Another noted her “trick of wiping away her tears with a finger” (Vanity Fair, 18 Jan. 1879). Throughout, “Every broken phrase and strange image is suggested by some recollection of the time before she was distraught” (Toronto Globe, 13 Oct. 1884). “Perhaps the most delicate touch in the whole is her failing to recognize her brother when she comes in with the herbs and wild flowers in her hands. There is a pleasant glimmer of recollection in her features, as of some joy forgotten and to be renewed, but it fades into vacancy, and she again recommences her old-world ditties with the same dull air of endless forgetfulness” (Pall Mall Gazette, 1 Jan. 1879, pp. 10-11). In her rehearsal book, Terry wrote after “sweet Ophelia” (2911): “recog[nize]—Yes?—No—No.”
For her son Gordon Craig the cumulative effect of Terry’s performance was overwhelming: “I could not compare my notions with hers, because mine were all scattered and she hadn’t any—she had no notions—she was the thing itself....When the curtain came down, the thought left with us was not ‘That’s the way to do it,’ but ‘it is the only way to do it’” (1931, p. 172).
Inclusion of Ellen Terry was just one of the ways in which Irving in 1878 clinched the strong claim he had made in 1874 to a place in the succession of player princes. In 1870 Booth had secured his position as the American Hamlet, with a sumptuously mounted production in his own, richly appointed, new theater. In 1878 Irving did the same at the renovated Lyceum. The production ran for 200 consecutive nights (by now the length of a long run had become the measure of a Hamlet’s impact more than the span of years he successfully played the role in repertory—Booth’s 1864 production had run for 100 nights).
Although Irving’s preeminence was further established by his own status in society (he was to become the first English actor to be knighted), his portrayal of Hamlet was not generally regarded as aristocratic. On the contrary, The Daily News objected, instead of “princely ease” he showed “bourgeois cordiality”: he “habitually takes persons of high and low degree, leans on their shoulders, or clasps them around the neck, and is generally rather familiarly confidential than affable and condescending” (2 Nov. 1874). The Sporting Times compared him to a contemporary “swell” lounging in the drawing-rooms of London (7 Nov. 1874). The Times put a more positive construction on the matter: “Dignity in his Hamlet is not a predominating quality. His heart is too large and too kindly to attach much importance to social distinction” (2 Nov. 1874). Clearly Irving’s definitiveness rested on grounds other than its princeliness. It was Irving’s successor who embodied the essence of princely manners for their time: Johnston Forbes Robertson.
Certain of the style-setting Hamlets have had successors who carried on their styles. So Garrick had John Henderson, Kemble had Charles Mayne Young. But only Forbes Robertson achieved anything like the stature of his forbear, Henry Irving, who put at the disposal of his chosen successor his theater, designer, and composer.
Forbes Robertson was by no means merely a copy of Irving. His natural attributes were much better suited to the role. Max Beerbohm observed that “In face, and in voice, and in manner, Mr. Robertson is a heaven-born Hamlet” (1969, More Theatres, p. 487). His audiences loved to hear him speak, comparing his voice to a cello—G. B. Shaw compared it to a bass clarinet. Like Irving there was nothing declamatory about his delivery, but he was largely free of Irving’s idiosyncrasies; his verse (and prose) speaking was said to be “various and delicate, free from the sound-destroying pauses and jerks of Mr. Irving (whose tones he is gradually unlearning), best in the quieter and more limpid passages, easy” (Manchester Guardian, 24 May 1898). In implicit contrast to Irving, Shaw extolled the fact that Forbes Robertson “does not utter half a line; then stop to act; then go on with another half line....; he plays as Shakespear should be played, on the line and to the line, with the utterance and acting simultaneous, inseparable and in fact identical” (1961, p. 91).
What struck Beerbohm as “the keynote of Forbes Robertson’s performance from first to last” was its realism, showing us “a pleasant, high-souled young man, placed in distressing circumstances, and behaving just as one would expect such a person in such a case to behave” (1969, More Theatres, p. 486). Unlike Irving’s, there was no suggestion of genuine madness about Forbes Robertson’s Hamlet, who was “eminently sane” (St. James’s Gazette, 13 Sept 1897, p. 6) and “never loses his head, no more than he loses his wits” (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 18 Sept 1897, p. 106). Even his pretended madness was too “obviously put-on” to deceive anyone (Dramatic World, 1 Oct. 1897, p. 2).
The most distinctive quality of Forbes Robertson’s Hamlet was its cheerfulness. Reviews are filled with such terms as “genial,” “lighthearted,” “affable,” “joie de vivre.” Where Irving had thought Hamlet “a very lively fellow” before the play began, Forbes Robertson extended his good-humor throughout. The Illustrated London News remarked that he told Horatio he would drink deep ‘ere he depart (363) “as if he meant it, not in sarcastic allusion to the King’s debaucheries” (18 Sept 1897). In the silent film version (1913), he gives Horatio’s breast a convivial pat at this point. Delighting in the life of the mind, whether with the players, the gravediggers, or Osric, Forbes Robertson seized on “every opportunity for a bit of philosophic discussion or artistic recreation to escape from the ‘cursed spite’ of revenge and love.” Shaw’s term for the result was “celestial gaiety” (1961, pp. 93, 87).
In contrast was a frequent tone of “gentle melancholy”: The Daily News found Forbes Robertson, “the most pathetic Hamlet of our time” (13 Sept 1897). Besides predictable expressions of sorrow, his injunction to his mother “O throw away the worser part” (2541) was given “with tears in the voice”; he brushed away a tear after the First Player’s recitation (1559), and, William Archer observed, even “Aha, boy, art thou there!” (846) was spoken to the Ghost with ‘respectful melancholy” instead of “feverish freakishness” (World, 15 Sept 1897).
Drawing a comparison with other “gentlemanly Princes of Denmark,” Court Journal (18 Sept 1897) found “none so gentle as Forbes-Robertson.” Clement Scott esteemed his “consummate good breeding” (1905, Hamlets, p. 126). Madge Kendal remembered how at his first entrance, he “kissed his mother’s hand with reverence and then he paid attention to the elder ladies gathered round. That was what only a real prince would do” (1933, p. 134). In the silent film he also bows the ladies out. At the finale (3843) he courteously informed Osric “in apologetic tones and with a return of the well-known smile that he cannot live to hear the news from England” (Crosse, Diaries, 1:143). “Lovable” is a term often applied to Forbes Robertson’s Hamlet—”a great gentleman doing his gentlest and bravest and noblest with sad smile and gay humor” (Legallienne, 1914, p. 513).
To a good many viewers, however, so much “sweetness and light” was too much. Where, The Clarion (18 Sept 1897) wondered, was the “phlegmatic, dubious, morbid, wildly whirling Northman that Shakespeare drew?” The Manchester Guardian complained that unlike Hamlet Forbes Robertson “has very little demon in him” (24 May 1898), and The Athenaeum missed “the conflict of passion and soul which is Hamlet” (18 Sept 1897). Another critic specified the weak points, finding that Forbes Robertson “fails to make one’s flesh creep over the interview with the Ghost, to sound the deepest note of pathos in the farewell to Ophelia, or to touch the highest passion in the reproach of the guilty Queen” (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 19 Sept 1897).
But these criticisms were far outweighed by praise. Shaw (1961, p. 88), who had a formative influence on Forbes Robertson’s conception of the role, especially admired the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy (1590-1645). For present-day eyes and ears it is difficult to put together the film version—showing Forbes Robertson, a tall man with aquiline features who used highly emotive and choreographed gestures (at one point he extends his fists, at another he buries his head in his arms)—with the excerpt recorded at the end of his career, which for the most part sounds remarkably genial. But to his contemporaries the impact was unmistakable. William Archer praised “the way in which he graduates and varies” this speech (World, 15 Sept 1897), and The Daily Chronicle (13 Sept 1897) found that “Here he runs the gamut of the weaknesses of Hamlet’s character. The contempt for himself, after indulging in the most violent language against the King, is most convincingly expressed in the tone with which he exclaims ‘This is most brave’” (1623).
The finale was particularly admired. Its details can be pieced together from many witnesses. Far from Kean’s violent death throes, Forbes Robertson’s pallor is deathlike as he “totters feebly to the empty throne” (Scott, 1905, Hamlets, p. 132). In the silent film he is helped to the throne by Horatio and an attendant. Early in his final speech he takes up the royal scepter and toward the end, with his raised arms and “startled eyes, and then the smile that is beyond earthly things” (Kate Gielgud, 1980, p. 63), he seems divinely inspired in a way that recalled, to a contemporary observer, his “expression of beatific recognition” at “Methinks I see my father” (372). Genteel to the end, he made “The rest is silence,” in “a quiet, exhausted voice” (Stage, 16 Sept 1897), “a touchingly humorous apology for not being able to finish his business” (Shaw, 1961, p. 88). “Then the hands relax and fall to the side, and the face becomes composed and fixed” (Stage, 16 Sept 1897). With “the prince dead upon the throne he never filled,” Scott observes, “Horatio places the crown upon his dead companion’s knees” (Hamlets, 1905, p. 133) “between Hamlet’s lifeless hands” (Evening Standard, 13 Sept 1897). The Daily Chronicle concludes: “The final spectacle at the Lyceum is very imposing, the dead Prince being carried from the scene on the soldiers’ shields, whilst a solemn March is played” (13 Sept 1897). To Legallienne:
as that strange young dead king sat upon his throne, there was something, whatever it meant—death, life, immortality, what you will—of a surpassing loneliness, something transfiguring the poor passing moment of trivial, brutal murder into a beauty to which it was quite natural that a stern Northern warrior (Fortinbras), with his winged helmet, should bend the knee. (1914, p. 515)
As for the revolutionary inclusion of Fortinbras at the end, opinion was divided. Most found it anticlimactic, especially since earlier references to Fortinbras had, as usual, been cut; they missed “the impressive gloom of the tableau which follows Hamlet’s last utterance” (The Court Journal, 18 Sept 1897). But Shaw, who had suggested the innovation to Forbes Robertson, was not alone in finding it praiseworthy. His only reservation was the wish that Fortinbras should “make straight for the throne like a man who intended to keep it against all comers” (1961, p. 91).
After Forbes Robertson England in the first quarter of the twentieth century lacked outstanding new Hamlets. The play was no less popular than before; almost every year saw a production on the West End, at the Old Vic, or at Stratford-upon-Avon. Frank Benson, H. Beerbohm Tree, H. B. Irving, Matheson Lang, John Martin Harvey, and Ernest Milton are among the actors who played the role repeatedly. But apart from the experiments of William Poel, Hamlet happens not to have been on the main line of Shakespearian development during those years. Most notably, it was not among the plays presented by H. Granville Barker in his epoch-making seasons at the Savoy Theatre (1912-14). In 1925, however, came a star performance of major importance.
John Barrymore (1882-1942—played Hamlet in 1922, 1925)
Barrymore boldly seized for himself the mantle of Edwin Booth as America’s preeminent Hamlet. After a delegation of Booth admirers had asked him to shorten his New York run out of respect for the memory of Booth’s record 100 nights, Barrymore deliberately prolonged his engagement to 101. He is also the only American Hamlet, before or since, to have enjoyed real success in London. Of all his roles, Barrymore, who was easily bored, found Hamlet the only one that was always fresh— “a stark, blazing, glorious part” (Barrymore, 1926, ch. 1). Yet he professed to find the Prince’s personality amazingly simple and in no need of explanation beyond Goethe’s formulation in Wilhelm Meister of “a great deed laid upon a soul unequal to the performance of it.” The viewers of his Hamlet, however, saw much more in it than that.
Perhaps what is perplexing about Hamlet’s character seemed self-evident to Barrymore because of a personal affinity. Certainly he looked the part. The Star was one of many who found him “a gracious and handsome prince”: “He has a slight and well-formed figure, is sparing but expressive in gesture, and his voice is full and resonant, capable of a variety of expression and without a trace of American accent” (20 Feb. 1925). So complete was Barrymore’s identification with the role that Ludwig Lewisohn was not the only reviewer to exclaim of Barrymore “he is Hamlet!” He saw between the actor and the character the “inner kinship” of “men who live with their nerves and woes in narrow rooms” (Nation, 6 Dec. 1922).
Far from seeming simple, Barrymore’s Hamlet came across as multifaceted. To Agate it was “nearer to Shakespeare’s whole creation than any other I have seen” (1943, p.247). Jotting his first impressions at the time, twenty year old John Gielgud praised Barrymore’s “tenderness, remoteness, and neurosis, all placed with great delicacy” (1994, Notes, p. 98). Stark Young counted among his accomplishments “the shy and humorous mystery, the proud irony, the terrible storms of pain” (New Republic, 6 Dec. 1922). Many years later Orson Welles, who must have been a boy when he saw him, recalled him as “tender and virile and witty and dangerous” (South Bank Show). Margaret Webster thought he brought to the part a “tragic yearning, a terrible sense of waste and despair, and moments, especially with Ophelia, of great tenderness” (1969, p. 302).
Above all, Barrymore’s Hamlet was intelligent. Anything but the mindless ham-actor of his later “great profile” days in Hollywood, he had studied the part carefully with voice-coach Margaret Carrington and took a fresh approach to it. Like the consensus of reviewers, Agate found the result “informed—and here is the key—by intellectual capacity of a rare order and analytical power of extreme cogency” (1943, p. 247). Barrymore himself saw Hamlet as a man of “extraordinary intellect” (New York Tribune, 14 Jan. 1923). Welles pronounced him “a man of genius, who happened to be a prince” (South Bank Show). Farjeon, however, was not completely won over, finding him “very intelligent” yet laborious: “He does not merely think things, he thinks them out” (1949, p.147).
Others found Barrymore’s delivery too slow on other scores. To Crosse, a devotee of the rapid pace introduced by Granville-Barker’s productions, Barrymore seemed “too slow, dull” —a retrogression: “Shakespeare gains enormously on the stage by being taken quickly, that is the great discovery or re-discovery of recent years” (Diaries, 9:70). In a letter Shaw (1961, pp. 95-7) advised Barrymore that “Shakespeare is the worst of bores” unless played “on the line and not between the lines” with no pauses or miming of the sort in which Barrymore indulged. His pauses could be extreme. When Hamlet welcomes Horatio to Elsinore and learns of the Ghost, his promptbook (154) indicates pauses in 19 of his first 33 lines. Perhaps the performance seemed slow because of a deeper reason. In one of his imaginary letters from dead actors, Stark Young has Garrick remark to Barrymore on “your power to create on the stage not so much the action of a drama as the air of a compelling mood” (1925, p. 136). For all its energy and variety, Barrymore’s Hamlet seems not to have undergone significant development in the course of the play. However that may be, those who felt Barrymore to be overly deliberate were vastly outnumbered by those who like Agate appreciated “the unexampled clarity” of his delivery and its address to “the intelligence of the spectator rather than to his susceptibility to ‘thrills’” (Times [London], 20 Feb. 1925).
To some, Barrymore’s portrayal was too reasonable. Young’s imaginary Garrick calls it “too easy to understand” (1925, p. 131). Time and Tide objects that in seeking to make Hamlet seem “plausible, natural, and credible to the modern mind” Barrymore “subdues all its unreasonable elements” (27 Feb. 1925). Some found his Prince too gracious. Whereas Barrymore regarded Hamlet as “a great gentleman...full of consideration for others” (New York Tribune, 14 Jan. 1923), The Saturday Review missed the “earthy Hamlet, the Hamlet of smutty jest...tortured and torturing, at once allured and revolted by sensuality, capable of cruelty and mouthing terrible words” (28 Feb. 1925). Others, however, sensed a darker side in Barrymore beneath “the glass of fashion” surface. His high-strung neuroticism was often remarked upon. Agate felt something more disturbing: “you have but to scratch the god and the demon instantly appears” (1943, p. 247). Along the same lines Margaret Webster, who played a small role in the London production, wrote later that a “glittering, lithe, demonic quality shone through like flashing steel” (1969, p. 301). This quality is evident in the screen-test Barrymore made much later, where, in delivering the “Now might I do it pat” (2350-2371) soliloquy, he contemplates the king’s damnation with a satanic gleam in his eye.
Several observers detected an oedipal aspect to Barrymore’s portrayal of Hamlet’s relation to his mother (Shaw, 1961, p. 97; Maccarthy, 1954, p. 58; Broun, New York World, 18 Nov. 1922). Although at the time he did not say that that was his intention, his treatment of the relationship clearly had a powerful sexual subtext. He later told his biographer Gene Fowler what was going through his mind when denouncing Claudius in the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy (1619-21): “That dirty, red-whiskered son-of-a-bitch! That bastard puts his prick in my mother’s cunt every night” (Kobler, 1977, p. 180). In the closet scene “he would lay his head in her lap, against her breasts, would caress her cheeks, touch her breasts and thigh” (p. 178). Seduced by his step-mother at fifteen, Barrymore near the end of his life described Hamlet to Ben Hecht as a “mother-loving...pervert,” adding: “How I loved to play him. The dear boy and I were made for each other” (p. 441). To Blanche Yurka (his American Gertrude) he inscribed a portrait of himself: “To my mother from her wildly incestuous son” (191).
Barrymore emphasized Hamlet’s masculinity. He told his director Arthur Hopkins, “I want him to be so male that when I come out on the stage they can hear my balls clank” (Kobler, 1977, p. 174). It was especially his athleticism that reviewers commented upon, comparing him to Douglas Fairbanks, who had in fact helped to choreograph the fencing match. One Laertes after another left the show because of the violence with which Barrymore would be carried away when they fought. Even hockey pads were not enough!
To seventeen year old Laurence Olivier, Barrymore was “amazing”: “Everything about him was exciting. He was athletic, he had charisma and, to my young mind, he played the part to perfection.” Previous Hamlets had been “poetic but castrated. Barrymore put back the balls” (Olivier, 1986, pp. 60-1). As already noted, the performance had a memorable impact on a number of other Shakespearians-to-be. To Gielgud, Wells, and Webster should be added Old Vic director Harcourt Williams, who played a small part in the London production and later testified to its formative influence, especially Carrington’s concern with avoiding declamatory speech and help in finding his own speech-patterns (1935, pp. 20-1). William Poel also praised the fact that Barrymore “talked his part all the way through and got the other actors to do the same” (Speaight, 1954, p. 28). But to none of the others was Barrymore so important as to Olivier. In his film the influence may be seen not only in the oedipal suggestions but in his general athleticism, particularly Hamlet’s final leap on Claudius in the film. Olivier also admired Barrymore’s approach to the verse: “He would vary his pace, but never gabble, was always understandable.” Olivier especially singled out for praise his “way of choosing a word and then exploding it in a moment of passion.” For a few instances among many, in his study-book Barrymore underlines the last word in “would the night were come” (457). In “villain, villain, smiling damned villain!” (791), it is “damned” that is underlined in his promptbook (154), at which he stands up “shrieking in rage.” Most reviewers deplored these and other explosions. Yet there is something to be said for each of them. And, as Olivier remarks, “Perhaps you did not always agree with the choice, but it was constantly riveting” (Olivier, 1986, p. 62). The very unexpectedness of his choice may well have helped to make it so.
For the most part, though, Barrymore’s delivery of his lines seems to have been dedicated to clarifying their meaning. In his recorded version of his instructions to the players, Barrymore himself “mouths” his warning against those who mouth their words (1850). In the closet scene, he points the contrast to his mother’s “you answer with an idle tongue” by stressing “wicked” in his reply: “you question with a wicked tongue” (2388-9). In “Leave wringing of your hands; peace! sit you down And let me wring your heart” (2416-17), he emphasizes “hands” and “heart.” In “This was your husband. Look you now, what follows: Here is your husband” (2447-8), “was” and “is” are accented. This careful elucidation of meaning is very reminiscent of Edwin Booth. Olivier saw in Barrymore “the direct link with Edwin Booth”: and since Edwin’s father Junius Brutus had acted with Edmund Kean, Olivier concluded that thus “The hand stretching down from Burbage finally crossed the Atlantic” (Olivier, 1986, p. 62).
John Gielgud (1904-2001—played Hamlet in 1930, 1934, 1936, 1939, 1944, 1945)
Gielgud played Hamlet in six different productions over a period of sixteen years. A number of other leading Hamlets played the role over an extended period, Betterton for nearly 50 years, Garrick for 34. And often their portrayals changed significantly. At the end Edwin Booth, for example, was—by Hamlin Garland’s account—much more the grey-haired philosopher than before. Tennyson thought that Irving’s second version had not only improved on the earlier one but “lifted it to heaven” (quoted in L. Irving, 1952, p. 316). But none has made as fresh an approach to the role each time as did Gielgud, reflecting not only his own growing maturity but changing times and interpretive emphases.
Of the leading Hamlets profiled thus far, Gielgud stands with Betterton in making his mark at the youngest age. He was 26 when he first played the role at the Old Vic in 1930. Reviewers also found Gielgud remarkable for the anger and disgust he showed toward the rottenness of humanity, his own included. Like Barrymore with his veiled demonic streak, Gielgud brought out the darker side of Hamlet’s nature. He was, as he later characterized himself, an “angry young man of the twenties” (Stage, 1963, p. 57). He was praised for “never seeking to nobilify, never understressing the quick bitterness and brutality of this crawler between heaven and earth” (Graphic, 14 June 1930). The result was a Prince “who has bad dreams” (Sunday Pictorial, 1 June 1930).
Before the twenties, almost all English and American interpreters, onstage and off, had shared Horatio’s high estimation of the “sweet Prince,” even while acknowledging certain faults. The gentrification of the Prince reached an ultimate in the genial and genteel Forbes Robertson. In contrast, Mallarmé in Hamlet et Fortinbras (1896) had already gone to the other extreme, observing how “The black presence of the doubter spreads poison, so that all the principal characters die, without his always taking the trouble to stab them behind the arras.” In 1916 D. H. Lawrence had expressed his aversion for Hamlet as a character “repulsive in its conception, based on self-dislike and a spirit of disintegration”—even Forbes Robertson seemed to him “a creeping, unclean thing” (“The Theatre,” Twilight in Italy). In the same year as Gielgud’s performance, G. Wilson Knight (1930) presented Hamlet as a sickly and destructive Prince, embodying the death principle, in contrast to the “healthy and robust life” of Claudius and his court. Knight later modified his interpretation somewhat, but a similar approach was resumed in 1950 by L. C. Knights who saw Hamlet as fixated on himself, infatuated by revenge, nauseated by sex, disgusted by the sullied world around him, and himself tainted by its corruption (1960). The stage has resisted so negative a view. Alec Guinness acknowledges the total failure of his 1951 attempt to play Hamlet as a ruthlessly Machiavellian Prince—Hobson recalled him as “everything morbid and evil” (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 1966)—an approach heavily influenced by still another literary interpreter, Salvador de Madariaga (On Hamlet).
Gielgud’s non-sweetness did not go to such extremes; because of his youth and sensitivity his Prince remained a sympathetic figure. Yet his bitterness was felt to be distinctive, its novelty enhanced by the fact that for certain performances the conflated text was unabridged, so that previously cut passages such as Hamlet’s bawdy talk to Ophelia and his mother were included.
The full text afforded other advantages. Harcourt Williams who directed the Old Vic production, quotes with approval a critic’s paradox that, because the flow of action is steady and full, “the less that is cut of Hamlet the shorter it seems” (1935, p. 70). Furthermore, it added authoritativeness to this interpretation. Even though the conflation is a construct of latterday scholars since Lewis Theobald (1733), the extended version had taken on an aura of special authenticity, consistent with the Old Vic’s poor-but-pure reputation. When the production transferred to commercial management in the West End, a cut text was used throughout the run.
Gielgud’s next portrayal was in 1934, under his own direction. Although this production was a huge success with the public, reviewers felt that Gielgud’s objective “to penetrate the soul by way of the intellect” (Times, 15 Nov. 1934) was too rarefied, lacking in asperity, and emphasizing what is poetic about the character and the play at the expense of theatrical excitements. The 1936 American production, directed by Guthrie McClintic, was the experience of the role that Gielgud himself remembers as “most thrilling.” Whether it was because Gielgud readjusted the balance in his portrayal or because his youthfulness and relative bitterness were something new for American reviewers, the production was a critical as well as a popular success; the summary Gilder gives of it in her book-length account might have been written of the 1930 portrayal: “his Hamlet is the revolt of youth at the destruction of its faith in truth and decency and love. His Hamlet is also youth itself, with its intolerance, ruthlessness, arrogance and self-absorption” (1937, p. 20).
Ivor Brown liked best the 1939 production, directed by Gielgud for performance at Elsinore Castle and shown briefly in London. This was inspired by Harley Granville-Barker, whose "Preface" to the play reinvigorated Gielgud’s interest in it (Observer, 25 June 1939). Granville-Barker also gave notes to Gielgud at a run-through portrayal which resulted in the elimination of such excrescences as breaking the recorder and taking the king’s sword when he is trying to pray (2346-62). Brown found Gielgud’s Hamlet “a stronger, fuller, more passionate performance” than heretofore: “not only a prince with a vein of poetry; he was a cynic, railer, coarse jester.” In consequence, “The play itself gains in excitement by the earthy vigour of the prince, who seems not so much a moody creature hampered in his task by delicate sensibilities, as a man of strong conflicting passions whose irresolution depends not on lack of will but on the clash of powerful motives” (Observer, 2 July 1939).
To Agate it was the 1944 production that was the triumph culminating Gielgud’s sequence of Hamlets. The 1930 performance had lacked pathos, he felt; the 1934 one supplied that deficiency but because of its lack of theatricality still represented “Everest Half Scaled”; the 1939 one was admirable and “an immense advance upon the performance of five years ago” yet still lacked that ultimate definitiveness that convinced a spectator “that here and nowhere else is the actor to set Hamlet’s world right” (1943, pp. 257ff.) For Agate that conviction came with the 1944 performance: “this is, and likely to remain, the best Hamlet of our time” (Sunday Times, 22 Oct. 1944). Another enthusiast, W. A. Darlington, saw a clear progression from the beginning to the end of Gielgud’s career in the role, as his Hamlet matured from “a sensitive youth, aghast at the wickedness of the world which he had just discovered, to a sophisticated man to whom that wickedness is no surprise” (quoted in Findlater, 1971, p. 201). With the horrors of World War II still in progress, such awareness of the prevalence of human wickedness must have been widely shared. Not everyone agreed with these favorable judgments. The production as a whole, directed by George Rylands, was lack-luster; Tyrone Guthrie thought that “it lacks courage” (Hayman, 1971, p. 146). And concerning Gielgud’s own performance, Kenneth Tynan felt that his “acting lacks stomach and heart” (1950, p. 37). Gielgud himself was dissatisfied with his performance. He felt that it was too much in the line of his previous work with the role, an inconsistent compilation of past features and suggestions by others instead of a fresh and personal address to the part. He preferred the 1945 version that toured the Far East, with make-shift staging and audiences who had never encountered the play before.
For all the differences in emphasis of these various portrayals, certain general characteristics may be seen in them. From the outset Gielgud was greatly concerned with the continuity of the part, to make sure as he moved from scene to scene that a clear, true line of feeling ran throughout. As he commented in 1992, the actor of Hamlet “must, so to speak, not know what is coming next, and really live the part every night” (Stage, 1992, pp. 58-9). In several remarkable pages in his Early Stages (1939), he recalls in stream-of-consciousness style the concerns that ran through his mind as he first played the role. As the “To be or not to be” soliloquy (1710-42) approaches, for example:
one must concentrate, take care not to anticipate, not begin worrying beforehand how one is going to say it, take time, but don’t lose time, don’t break the verse up, don’t succumb to the temptation of a big melodramatic effect for the sake of getting applause at the curtain.... (p.173)

Again, here are his thoughts during the play-within-the-play scene:
Relax if possible, enjoy the scene, watch the Gonzago play, watch the King, forget that this is the most famous of famous scenes, remember that Hamlet is not yet sure of Claudius, delay the climax, then carry it (and it needs all the control and breath in the world to keep the pitch at the right level)—No pause before the Recorder scene begins, and this cannot make the effect it should unless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pull their weight and share the scene with Hamlet.... (p. 174)
In these two excerpts can also be seen the qualities his mother praised in a letter to him: an “exquisite sense of rhythm and proportion” and a constant care to keep himself “in due relation to the play. You can dominate but I have never seen you step out of the canvas to distort the picture” (quoted in Hayman, 1971, p. 65).
Here as elsewhere in the excerpted passages, Gielgud’s comments resemble a rider’s tips on the jumps in an equestrian course. With an acute sense of pacing, he locates amid the difficulties points of ease and naturalness that will leave him something to give to the “last lap.” Throughout he is guided by one overarching purpose: “to keep the story true.”
No account of Gielgud’s Hamlet could omit his verse-speaking, the feature with which his Shakespearian acting has been most identified. From the beginning his speech was praised for its clarity, rapidity, and audibility, even in quiet passages. Its musicality was often mentioned, along with appreciation that “behind the music was an acute intelligence” (Era, 30 Apr. 1930); he “seems to have pondered each line for its meaning” (Manchester Guardian, 29 May 1930) so that “the lines come fresh to the minds of the audience” (Daily Telegraph, 15 Nov. 1934). “When Gielgud speaks the verse,” Lee Strasberg reportedly said, “I can hear Shakespeare thinking” (quoted in Findlater, 1971, p.202).
These results were the product of intense care. Gielgud has explained: “In a verse speech (and often in a long prose one too) I am constantly aware of the whole span of the arc—the beginning, middle and end of the passage. I try to phrase correctly to this main line, I experiment within it for modulation, tone, and pace” (1963, Stage, p. 5). Not until the latter part of his career did Gielgud begin to be charged with “singing” the lines, putting musical effect above meaning. Today his recordings of Hamlet, with their tremolo and calculated climaxes, sound dated and self-conscious, the later ones (where his virtuoso technique is full blown) more than the early ones. But as late as 1944, analytical Kenneth Tynan (Gielgud “resorts too often to a resonant alto headnote”) still found that “The voice is thrilling and bears witness to great suffering; an east wind has blown through it” (1950, p. 37).
Since Gielgud (1946-1990)
Since Gielgud, the English-speaking stage has produced many fine Hamlets, yet so far none has so placed his imprint on the role as to make his interpretation seem “definitive” for his generation. It is Olivier’s film portrayal that has had that kind of impact and influence (see Kliman, 1988).
Stage actors and directors in the latter half of the twentieth century have emphasized the difficulty of the role (by far the longest in Shakespeare). Director John Barton lists some requirements for the Prince:
He must have the capacity to be noble and gentle but also brutal and coarse...; he has to be obviously full of passion but able to stand outside his own passion and be objective about it. He has to have a strong sense of irony, wit, humour. He has to have a deep intellectual energy. He has to have a very volatile temperament, so that you never know what he’s going to be like from one moment to the next... (South Bank Show)
“The demands,” Barton concludes, “are huge.”
The demands of the role include sheer physical stamina. As Michael Pennington observes: “Nobody wants a Hamlet who’s conserving himself, or tired, or unwilling to offer everything, all the time, every time. This is very hard to do eight times a week, or even six.” He finds the first third of the play the easiest because the play carries the Prince rather than the reverse. But “the great middle arc of the play, from the nunnery through to the departure for England, was the most taxing stretch...; this is where the part shakes you like a rat, racing you from one crisis to the next with scarcely time to draw breath” (1985, “Hamlet,” pp. 125-6). Even the quieter last part will require the conflict at Ophelia’s grave and the final duel.
The role can also present a psychological hazard, to which modern actors seem especially vulnerable. Mark Rylance testifies that “you have to touch on certain things inside you that are very difficult—it’s got to be gone through from innocence to consciousness every night” (Independent, 17 Mar. 1989). Pennington has written that playing the Prince “will take the actor further down into his psyche, memory and imagination” than ever before. As he told an interviewer: “It’s impossible not to be changed by the part, and the part, more than most, will be changed by the evidence of your own life” (Manchester Guardian, 17 Sept 1981). As Olivier confided to his son Tarquin, “It is actually yourself that you have to reveal.”
Olivier has warned that the role of Hamlet can “cast you into the depths of despair. Once you have played it, it will devour you and obsess you for the rest of your life. It has me. I think each day about it.” Such obsessions have sometimes exacted a high price. They proved more than Daniel Day Lewis could bear, and he withdrew from the part in mid-run. Even before his withdrawal he predicted: “I think this is the year of my nervous collapse. Hamlet’s a hard part to live with. It conjures up demons in you....This has certainly taken me closer to the abyss than anything else. And I’ve discovered fears in myself, or generated fears, I never knew before—and once they’re there, they’re very difficult to put away again” (Daily Mail, 13 Sept 1989).
An actor may fear the difficulties of the role and doubt whether he has the ability to deal with them. Ben Kingsley was so daunted that he felt physically sick:
I used to stand in the wings and watch my feet and felt I just couldn’t get them on stage. At the centre of the play when you’re exhausted, battling with it physically and intellectually, sweat pouring into your eyes and you’re wondering if anything is achieved, the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy coincides with your sensibilities. (Independent, 17 Mar. 1989)
Jonathan Pryce, whose Hamlet straddled the boundaries between sanity and insanity, fed his personal involvements back into the role; his intensity was at times so overwrought as to seem barely under control. He has disclosed how his portrayal was influenced by a skinhead’s fatal assault with a hammer on his father (Over 21, Sept 1980) and by his experience of seeing visions of his father after his death: “Whether I had seen him, or whether I wanted to see him so much that I’d conjured him up, I don’t know. But that’s how I approached Hamlet, as someone who had seen his own father’s ghost (New York Times, 5 Nov. 1995).
Hamlet’s recurring encounters with mortality have come especially close to home. Pennington recalls how “The death of an old friend over Christmas naturally pulled my centre of gravity over to the scene with the skulls” (Manchester Guardian, 17 Sept 1981). The overlap of performer and role where death is concerned reached an ultimate with Ian Charleson (Day Lewis’s replacement), who played the role while afflicted with AIDS. His director Richard Eyre recalls how his last performance “was like watching a man who had been rehearsing for playing Hamlet all his life. He wasn’t playing the part, he became it. By the end of the play he was visibly exhausted, each line of his final scene painfully wrung from him, his farewell and the character’s agonizingly merged” (1993, p. 132). Hamlet’s suicidally searching interrogation of life’s values has also taken its real-life toll. Commenting on the “raw” and “exposed” commitment the play requires, Kingsley paid tribute to director Buzz Goodbody, who killed herself shortly after their production started its previews: “Buzz got me through Hamlet. For some reason, having examined all the implications of it at a high emotional and intellectual level, she didn’t get herself through Hamlet” (Time-Out, 30 Jan. 1976).
Adding to their difficulties, recent Hamlets have often sought to encompass the whole range of his many facets. But what if Hamlet’s self proves to be no more than its disparate parts, with no single, sustained identity to hold them together? Tarquin Olivier disclosed in a 1993 television interview the insecurity that his father felt about his own identity, an insecurity that lay behind his compulsive drive to play so many different roles on-stage. This compulsion chimes with Olivier’s way of conceiving the Prince as one who, like himself, “had to find other people to be all the time” (Olivier, 1986, p. 79), resulting in a career made up of “a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations.” This conception is not prominent in Olivier’s film version. Yet as early as 1937 it was for Raymond Mortimer the hallmark of his stage portrayal: “he is not so much one man as a whole troupe of players, hero, villain, lover, wiseacre and clown” (New Statesman and Nation, 16 Jan. 1937).
To Richard Burton, speaking of his 1964 performance, this multiplicity was of the essence: Shakespeare “actually put on the stage in one character virtually every emotion of which a man is capable; pity, terror, fear, love, lust, obscenity, virtue, courage, cowardice” (Sterne, 1967, p. 291). Clearly Burton was not depicting Hamlet as a developing character of the sort his director, John Gielgud, was urging on him, a maturing prince who discovers a new resolve at “My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth” (2743+60) and a new serenity at “let be” (3673+1). Nor in the event was he confined to his adoptive father’s single-minded, sure of purpose, “Prince of Decision” formula that he had earlier followed (Richard Burton, 1977; Philip Burton, 1992). Instead Burton was spinning a kaleidoscope that revealed the dazzling range of Hamlet’s feelings.
Such variability extended to Burton’s own performance. Where Gielgud’s Hamlets varied from one production to the next, Burton’s varied from one night to the next. The Electronovision version differs in a number of particulars from the detailed account that Mills gives of an earlier performance (1985, Hamlet, pp. 254-61), and it in turn, as Kliman observes, differs from the sound recording made at the time (1988, pp. 289-94). For instance, Mills found Burton’s “My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth” to be full of the resolve Gielgud had advocated whereas on Electronovision Burton reverted to his earlier less resolute and more rueful approach. In general the filmed version was less freewheeling than before. In an interview with Sterne at the close of the New York run, Burton explained that much depended on his own mood. Some nights he would emphasize Hamlet’s sadness at his first appearance, other nights, his intense anger. At times his rapport with another performer would make the difference, as when in the nunnery scene he would play to the particular mood of the actress of Ophelia, Linda Marsh. Most of all he would vary his performance according to the responsiveness of a given audience. With the nunnery scene, Burton felt, “the audience more or less tells me how to do that....I let them tell me what they want” (Sterne, 1967, p. 290). His interpretive choices in the scene would thus vary with that night’s confluence of factors. Sometimes his reason for breaking with Ophelia was that she lied to him about her father’s whereabouts; at other times it was because he needed to carry out his vengeance alone. Sometimes his reaction to her deception was “one great, sustained, passionate cry”; this drew the most applause, yet sometimes he would “do it in a subtler way, with more self-contained agony.” The resulting spontaneity of Burton’s performance was of the essence. Much of its excitement came from its hair-trigger volatility, the sense Burton conveyed of latent powers, in Hamlet and in himself, which might at any moment be given unexpected expression.
Burton’s approach was at once distinctively his own and very much of his time. In contrast to an eighteenth century view of Hamlet as a representative Man and a nineteenth century view of him as a consistent individual with a few identifying character traits, Burton’s Prince embodied the “spirit of disintegration” that D. H. Lawrence saw in the title-role. His portrayal was so variable as to suggest a twentieth century dissolution of self, in which personal identity was intrinsically unstable and beyond individual control.
It is in adaptations that the disintegrated self of the hero has been pushed to the ultimate; there was a spate of them in the Sixties. In Hamlet Collage (1965) Charles Marowitz set out to ridicule the Prince as “the supreme prototype of the conscience-stricken but paralyzed liberal: one of the most lethal and obnoxious characters in modern times,” making him the laughing stock of the other characters; the play ends with their corpses mocking him “with jeers, whistles, stamping and catcalls” (Marowitz, 1978). In Joe Papp’s ‘Naked’ Hamlet (1968) the final duel is reduced to a game of Russian roulette; when Hamlet happens to shoot Claudius the moment is played for laughs: his attendants topple over one after the other but the King does not accept that he has been shot dead until Hamlet proves it to him by showing him a copy of the play. In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) Shakespeare’s conflicted hero is displaced to the sidelines in favor of a totally divided protagonist, a pair out of Beckett, whose identities are confused and whose destinies are completely out of their control and in any case inconsequential. Shakespeare’s play does flirt with absurdity, but thus far mainstream stage interpretations of the role have not succumbed to it.

The Supporting Roles and Players
Through much of Hamlet’s life in the theater, certainly since the early part of the eighteenth century until the latter part of the nineteenth century, the play’s secondary characters have been regarded as scarcely more than foils for the Prince. The unusual importance that Shakespeare gave his hero (more lines than any other character in all his plays, the most opportunities to disclose his inner life, whether in soliloquy or to confidants) has been pushed in performance to something close to total dominance, resulting in a virtual mono-drama. In 1710 Shaftesbury flatly declared that the play “has only ONE character or principal part” (1:275) and in 1886 an English observer in Paris could still regard it as a praiseworthy novelty that Jean Mounet Sully’s Hamlet was far from being a “one-character piece”: “Nearly all the subordinate characters were admirably acted” they “actually succeeded in inspiring an interest in themselves, which, instead of diminishing, greatly enhanced all that is interesting in the character and position of Hamlet” (Lytton, Personal and Literary Letters in Claude Williamson, 1950, p. 171).
In a less concerted way, English practice too had already about this time begun to change. A number of Ophelias had succeeded in “inspiring an interest in themselves”; a few achieved star status. Although Claudius and Polonius have never been star parts, on an individual basis certain exceptional players made them much more than foils. Often these players had been accustomed to playing leading roles in other plays, and commonly they made their mark with Hamlets who were not of the very highest quality. Thanks to their efforts and the growing use of fuller texts in performance, the autonomous interest of the supporting roles began to emerge.
Twenty-first century audiences take such contributions for granted. It is simply expected that in addition to their relations with Prince Hamlet, the other characters will experience their individual tragedies, that they will take part in a Chekhovian web of relationships with one another, and that together these relationships will create a “world” of Elsinore—all enacted with a strong sense of ensemble. If any of these contributions is lacking it is felt that something is amiss. Yet in the history of Hamlet in performance, each of these features represents an achievement, often hard won.
Ophelia led the way. The role began to be important when Edmund Kean and subsequent Hamlets began to mingle desire for her with the repulsion that had hitherto dominated his treatment of her (sometimes so rough in the nunnery scene—as with Garrick and Kemble—as to be rebuked by reviewers). Of her earlier career in the theater, not much is recorded. Following the boy actresses of Shakespeare’s time, Mrs. Betterton had been the first woman to play the part. Davies thought very highly of Mrs. Susannah Cibber, who played Ophelia for Garrick, finding in her portrayal confirmation of his own reading of Ophelia’s madness as “sweet bells out of tune”: of “sensibility deranged, and deserted by reason. She seems, at times, to recollect her scattered senses; and throws out, though disorderly, truths, solemn and affecting in the most pathetic expression.” He found beyond representation in words her “distressed and distracted look” when she spoke “Lord! we know what we are, but we cannot tell what we shall be” (1784, Miscellanies, 3:127). Shortly after her death the St. James’s Chronicle recalled “her Expression of Grief mixed with Terror at the Behaviour of Hamlet”: “as the Part proceeded, the Actress grew warm, and when once she was seized with a Passion, Whining and Monotony sunk before it” (3-5 Mar. 1772).
There then followed a series of “singing ladies” with whom the melodious delivery of Ophelia’s mad songs was the defining factor. One of these ladies, Mrs. Forster, who as Miss Field played Ophelia at Drury Lane in 1785, is the chief source of the tunes used in most subsequent productions. When the Drury Lane theater, and its library, burnt down in 1812, the melodies were transcribed from her rendition (Seng, 1967, pp. 135-6). A phase in the breakdown of the musical emphasis and a return to more dramatic values may be traced in critical comments on two of Kean’s Ophelias. In 1814 it was Miss Eliza Smith, who was found “interesting” but “Ophelia requires musical talents” (St. James’s Chronicle, 15 Mar. 1814). In 1819 his Ophelia was Miss Carew. She was much admired for her singing ability, yet the reviewer of her Ophelia did not here “think of her as a songstress”; instead he highly praised her acting and her speaking “with a most crisp and uncloying sweetness” (Champion, 19 Dec. 1819, p. 810).
It remained for Ophelia to become a featured role, and now the scene shifts to Paris. In 1827 Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress playing in Charles Kemble’s touring company, made a phenomenal success there as Ophelia. Much influenced by Kean, with whom she had acted, she brought a reality to Ophelia’s grieving madness that was revolutionary in French theater, emphasized by Smithson’s expert mime and broken bits of song. A French spectator recalled: “We scarcely heard the words of her mournful songs—but we all heard and understood, in our souls, the heart-rending sobs, the utter despair which they revealed, the shuddering sigh of her impending collapse. There was utter silence amongst the profoundly moved spectators” (Raby, 1982, p. 66). In 1844 Helena Faucit also scored a Parisian success in the part, although not so spectacularly as Smithson. Her husband declared that before she agreed to play Ophelia with Macready for a brief run the role was one “which no English manager would ever have dreamed of asking a leading actress to play” (T. Martin, 1900, Faucit, p.131). Macready and the French cognoscenti praised her conception of the role (p. 135). Faucit herself wrote of this conception [derived from Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines (1873)], picturing Ophelia as a child of nature, raised among country people (hence her knowledge of racy folk songs) and only recently come to court (1893, pp. 1-21).
Back in London Mrs. Charles Kean was in 1849 playing Ophelia to her husband’s Hamlet:
in the mad scene she gave full effect to the various currents of thought which flow disturbedly through the darkened mind, keeping up all the time the fixed, yet unintelligent stare which is a symptom of the malady; even while crouched upon the ground she sings her snatches of song to herself. (Morning Chronicle, 16 Jan. 1849).
So much for the singing-ladies tradition! By 1864, when Kate Terry triumphed as Ophelia with Fechter, the Orchestra reviewer observed that “Ophelia is generally affected by a star” (28 May 1864).
The star of stars in the role was of course Kate’s younger sister Ellen Terry, who first played Ophelia opposite Irving in 1878. Her approach to Ophelia’s madness is discussed in the section on Irving. Terry was no great admirer of Ophelia’s personality, seeing her as “Shakespeare’s only timid heroine...; her brain, her soul and her body are all pathetically weak.” The keynote of her tragedy is that she is afraid, scared of Hamlet, her father, and “life itself when things go wrong” (1932, Lectures, pp. 165-6).
Reviewers responded to the pathos of Terry’s Ophelia but did not pick up on her weakness, although the actor Martin-Harvey recalled “a poise so frail that one trembled for her sanity, even before she went mad” (1933, p. 29). What Terry deplored as “weak,” her male reviewers praised as “maidenly” submissiveness.
To Dutton Cook, Terry’s “power of depicting intensity of feeling” was a key feature of her success (1893, Nights, 2:175). By her own analysis, however, she was
not capable of sustained effort, but can perhaps manage a cumulative effort better than most actresses. I have been told that Ophelia has ‘nothing to do’ at first. I found so much to do! Little bits of business which, slight in themselves, contributed to a definite result, and kept me always in the picture. (1932, Memoirs, p.122)
These small touches were not lost on her reviewers. They devotedly recorded her “slight change of countenance” at Laertes’ first mention of Hamlet (467) and her “delicate pressure” on the shoulder of kneeling Laertes enforcing their father’s words of advice (Standard, 31 Dec. 1878); her “little frightened start” (531-2) when one of Polonius’s precepts suggested that Laertes might be involved in a quarrel (Montreal Star, 4 Oct. 1884); at “something touching the Lord Hamlet” (555) “her meek embarrassment and momentary pause at the word ‘touching’” and “her reluctance to add the name of “the Lord Hamlet’” followed by her “swift shade of pain and anxiety” at the first indication of Polonius’s displeasure and her “affectionate submission” to his command not to see Hamlet (598-602), coupled with a resulting “deep dejection of spirit” (Academy, 7 Nov. 1874, p. 19). In the nunnery scene the same reviewer noted her “tender” lingering over the love-gifts (1748-57) while Vanity Fair (18 Jan. 1879, p. 33) praised the “pathos and regret” of her “I was the more deceived” (1775). When she replied “At home, my lord” (1786) to Hamlet’s question as to the whereabouts of her father, Oscar Wilde thought he detected an expression of “quick remorse” (Dramatic Review, 9 May 1885), but the reviewer who found her delivery of this line “innocent” (Standard, 31 Dec. 1878) seems closer to the mark since Irving held that “there is nothing in the text or stage directions that convict Ophelia of actual complicity” in the eavesdropping plot (1877, “Notes...no. 2,” p. 525). Terry’s rendering of Ophelia’s final speech in this episode was especially praised: the “indulgent tenderness” of her “catalogue of the graces and accomplishments of her distracted lover” (Academy, 7 Nov. 1874, p. 19) made of the speech an “epitaph, not of her lost love, but of Hamlet’s shattered reason” (Punch, 11 Jan. 1870, p. 10).
The other star Ophelia for whom we have the fullest account is Julia Marlowe, whose Hamlet was her husband Edward Sothern. As she told an interviewer, she regarded Ophelia as very much the high-placed daughter of the Lord Chamberlain, in the eyes of the royal family a suitable bride for the Prince whatever fears her brother and father may have had (quoted in C.E. Russell, 1926, pp. 361-2). As such, her biographer Russell found, ‘she suggested dignity, worth, a self-respect, without loss of sweetness and innocence” (p. 322). As evidence of Ophelia’s “poise” Marlowe cites her efforts to protect Polonius from Hamlet’s displeasure: “she tries both to protect her father and to spare Hamlet. She failed; that was her tragedy, that she always failed. She tried to save the persons she loved, and she could not” (p. 362).
Accustomed to a conventionally passive Ophelia, The Sunday Times found Marlowe to have “almost too much forcefulness of character for Ophelia” (5 May 1907), but clearly that strength was a deliberate part of her intention. The New York Herald was more perceptive: “Here was not a gentle lady going daft to slow music, but a woman of strong passions and fine intelligence who succumbs to a terrible catastrophe” (1904). “Only from a sense of duty...and still struggling with herself” (C. E. Russell, 1926, p. 322) did she comply with the eavesdropping plot: a promptbook directs that when the king and her father withdraw she crosses the stage ‘showing great distress,” “extends hand tenderly toward Hamlet” as he is about to enter, and makes a “hurried exit, glancing back toward Hamlet where he is entering.” It is through the expression on her face as she sees the eavesdroppers momentarily parting their curtains that Hamlet discovers they are being spied upon. Her lie, “At home, my lord,” “seemed wrung out of her by an invisible racking”: “she hated to say it but that knowledge was conveyed to us and not to Hamlet.”
Her final lament when she realizes the loss of Hamlet’s love was especially moving. The Daily Telegraph commented on “her heartbroken sorrow...her eyes, swimming with unshed tears, touched us to the heart. It was a memorable moment which suddenly lifted the whole performance to the height of its great tragedy (2 May 1907). C.E. Russell also found it a “tragic passage”: “For the first time one felt how much of exalted passion lay latent in this neglected character” (1926, p. 323). Another reviewer felt here an admirable “womanly depth of nature” and found her portrayal in general “possessed of womanly attributes which, while immature, told of a nature richer and more potent than Ophelia’s is commonly supposed to be” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 Oct. 1904).
C. E. Russell felt the tragic quality from the outset. Among the “unsuspected profundities” in the role were her short lines “Do you doubt that?” and “No more but so" through which Marlowe conveyed Ophelia’s loneliness—especially, though unaccountably, the fact that her mother was dead—and the foreboding of tragedy to come (1926, p. 324).
For the Boston Evening Transcript reviewer, it was her mad scene that made Marlowe’s performance remarkable. She seemed “another person”:
her wistfulness had waned and grown apprehensive. Her face was strange to look upon...Each moment she seemed about to recover her sanity and ask some searching question. But her face would twitch, her eyes grow vacant, and she would be off on some idle quest, inconsequent yet somehow full of meaning. (28 Nov. 1910)
This reviewer particularly praised “the fitful glances upward at things she could not see, the sudden fits of interest in her flowers, her images of graves to be strewn, above all the sudden happy toyings with the gauzy veil that served for flower basket”: “Miss Marlowe’s Ophelia wrings the heart.” Her handling of the flowers was unique:
she had in her scarf of lace only white rose petals. She gave her “rosemary” and “daisies” and “rue” not to the characters on stage, but half kneeling she offered only the rose leaves to some imaginary person—her father or Hamlet?—and strewed them about her.... (Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 Oct. 1904)
Russell concluded that Marlowe’s “was the first Ophelia in my observation to move an audience to tears” (p. 323).
Why did Ophelia achieve starring status at this particular time? No doubt it was partly because fascination with the play’s love interest was at a peak—Terry felt it necessary to defend Irving against the charge that he “only makes Hamlet a love poem!” (1932, Memoirs, p. 104). Terry’s discreet sex appeal was no small part of her success. Despite Henry James’s Francophile theatrical tastes, he responded to her “embodiment of sumptuous sweetness,” finding her Ophelia particularly “lovely”: “a somewhat angular maiden of the Gothic ages, with her hair cropped short, like a boy’s, and a straight and clinging robe” (1948, p. 143). Martin-Harvey (1933, p. 29) was the most overt in acknowledging her “absolutely irresistible physical attractiveness”: “her long, virginal limbs, her husky voice, her crown of short flaxen hair, her great red mouth”—together they seemed to him ample reason for the anxiety about Ophelia’s honor expressed by her brother and father. Marlowe too conveyed the latent passion in Ophelia’s feeling for Hamlet. When he transcribed the promptbook (143) for one of Marlowe’s performances, Lark Taylor seems to have been responding to it. When she enters, she is reading a scroll containing Hamlet’s love-poems: she “presses it to her breast, looks at it again, presses it to lips”; later she “fondles” the pearls he gave her; before “ha! ha! are you honest?” she “extends arms tenderly” toward Hamlet. Pictures of Marlowe as Ophelia have a distinctly sensuous quality. Both Terry and Marlowe were already stars when they undertook the role and brought to it the same gifts and attention to detail that they devoted to larger parts. When they retired, Ophelia reverted to the featured but less prominent status that still prevails.
Twentieth-century Ophelias have differed from earlier ones in several ways. Especially in recent productions, Ophelia’s sexuality has received much more emphasis than before. For instance, after “and make your wantonness your ignorance” (1801), Jonathan Pryce kissed Harriet Walter brutally, then, as Gilbert records it: “starts pushing her up against the wall, his hand to her breast, then down to her crotch—she and he finally wind up on the floor—he, reeling away in disgust and anger—wiping his mouth in self-disgust” (“Pryce”).
Victorian Ophelias were regularly praised for turning Ophelia’s madness “to favour and to prettiness” (2940), as Laertes puts it. But most twentieth century Ophelias have included less prettiness than the “affliction, passion, hell itself” that Laertes also recognizes in his preceding line. They have especially emphasized strange behavior. Almost clinical was Susan Fleetwood in the 1976 production at the National, with her “abrupt, jerky movements and awkward stances as well as the generally unkempt and chewed appearance of an advanced schizophrenic” (David, 1978, p. 83). In 1982 Dr. Jonathan Miller, applying his medical expertise, directed Kathryn Pogson to use “strange stereotypic movements and curious anorectic gestures as she forced her finger down her throat in an attempt to vomit” (Miller, 1986, p. 116).
Modern Ophelias also tended to be more assertive than their predecessors, although they all in the end obey male authority. Of these Glenda Jackson was the most remarkable. In the 1965 Royal Shakespeare production she was described as self-possessed, neurotic, tough, fierce, harsh, strident, shrill, bitter, acid, full of rancor—“a very modern rebellious personality” with the bearing of “a nurse in a mental hospital” (Theatre World, Oct. 1965). To Penelope Gilliatt, she presented “the only Ophelia I have ever seen that has in it the real, shrivelled, shrewish roots of madness” (Observer, 22 Aug. 1965).
With her father, Jackson’s Ophelia was obedient yet anything but submissive. Reviewers especially noted her explosive response when asked if she believed Hamlet’s tenders of affection toward her (569): she “raps out at her father ‘My lord, I do not know’” (Illustrated London News, 28 Aug. 1965). When mad she wears her father’s robe, which Jackson saw as suggesting “the suffocation of her spirit by her father—that although he had frightened her, she could not escape him” (Church, 1985, p. 110). She does stand up to Hamlet in the nunnery scene; at his “I loved you not” (1774) she shows bitter indignation (Rosenberg, 1992, p. 513). Yet here again she in the end gives way and reveals “a highly sexed young woman cracking under the strain of a disintegrating love affair” (Plays and Players, Oct. 1965). Her final speech in this episode was especially memorable to reviewers for her screeched “Blasted with ecstasy” lines (Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 27 May 1965). It was here that her decisive descent into madness began: “The threads of madness—already there in her first entrance—plait into place as she plucks at her dress and takes great gulps of air” (Peace News, 1965). And her descent continued in the play-within-the-play scene, “fenced in by her lover’s hostility and her father’s lack of understanding” (Birmingham Evening Mail, 20 Aug. 1965). At one point Hamlet forced a sensual kiss on her as an expression of his disgust with sex in general. As Jan Kott explained the plight of Jackson’s Ophelia: “she cannot find her own way, she will not accept anyone else’s...; she loses her way; and can fall back on madness” (Sunday Times, 31 Oct. 1965).
By the next time we see Ophelia her mind has snapped “like a string of her guitar” (SQ 16 (1965), p. 322). (In her madness Jackson entered singing and accompanying herself on guitar rather than the lute of the First Quarto Ofelia. She was as fierce when mad as when sane. She called for her coach (2808-9) “in the rasping tones of an East End harridan” (London Morning Advertiser, 6 Dec. 1965). Only in Laertes’ imagination did she turn all to favor and prettiness. Her suicide, Kott concluded in The Sunday Times, was “the final gesture of revolt” (31 Oct. 1965).
To Gilliatt, Jackson’s Ophelia was “exceptional and electric, with an intelligence that harasses the court and a scornful authority full of Hamlet’s own self-distaste.” In sum “she has all the qualities of a great Prince” (Observer, 22 Aug. 1965).
One of the main obstacles to the emerging autonomy of the secondary characters has been the fact that the Prince has cast each of them in his own version of his tragedy, characterizations that audiences have found so compelling as to make it difficult for supporting performers to take an independent approach and thus “inspire an interest in themselves.” As late as 1897 G. B. Shaw found it remarkable that John Martin Harvey, with Forbes Robertson, “plays Osric from Osric’s own point of view, which is that Osric is a gallant and distinguished courtier, and not, as usual, from Hamlet’s, which is that Osric is ‘a waterfly’” (1961, p. 90).
To performers of Polonius, who has often been taken simply at Hamlet’s estimate of him as an “intruding fool,” this difficulty has been a special problem. During the Restoration and most of the eighteenth century, the part was played by low comedians; Davies lists them by name (1784, Miscellanies, 3: 41). They were aided by the customary cutting of his advice to Laertes. Since then the role has been in a constant state of reclamation from simple buffoonery. William Popple protests the farcing of Polonius’ support of Laertes’ request to leave for France:
He has, My Lord, by WEARISOME petition, WRUNG from me my SLOW LEAVE; and at the last, Upon his will, I seal’d my HARD Consent. I do beseech you, give him Leave to go. Here is the most simple, plain, unstudied, unaffected reply that could be given. Yet how is this spoke and acted? The eyes are turned obliquely and dressed up in a foolish leer at the King, the words intermittently drawled out with a very strong emphasis, not to express a father’s concern, which would be right but something ridiculous to excite laughter.... (The Prompter, No. 57, 27 May 1735)
So strong was this tradition that when, at Garrick’s urging, Henry Woodward attempted a more serious interpretation, dressed in a costume “grave and rich, cloth of scarlet and gold,” it failed: “The character, divested of his ridiculous vivacity, appeared to the audience flat and insipid” (Davies, 1784, Miscellanies, 3:42). Woodward never assayed the role again.
Clearly, simple elimination of the buffoonery was not enough. Other interpreters struck distinctive balances between what is silly about Polonius and what is serious. One recourse was to develop more positive qualities, as when in 1750-1 Macklin “shewed oddity, grafted upon the man of sense” (Gentleman, 1770, 1: 571). Another recourse was to modify Polonius’s folly; so in 1772 Baddeley “never sports with propriety, or through wantonness, degrades this loquacious old Courtier into a buffoon” (Theatrical Review, 1772, 2:18). Charles Lamb’s favorite impersonator of old men, Joseph Munden, saw Polonius as a “pliant and supple courtier and man of the world, ready to accord with any one’s opinion whom he deemed it expedient to flatter.” His son reports that Munden’s “venerable and dignified demeanour” was imitated from old Lord Mansfield, known as “Murray the Polite” (Munden, 1846, p. 48). The resulting portrayal
gives all the polish of the courtier, without the least exaggeration, and yet contrives to do our hearts good with the most refreshing touches of the humorous. The little delighted chuckles with which he delivers his supposed profundities and courtly jests, quite endears to us the prince of prosers. (Champion, 19 Dec. 1819)
However, with Brougham, Fechter’s Polonius, the wheel came full circle. The Orchestra reviewer commended him for not saying “‘very like a whale" (2253) “as though he were cutting a joke” (28 May 1864, p. 551) and in other ways refusing to reduce the chamberlain to “a comic old man.” But in doing so he appears, like Woodward, to have “fallen into the opposite error, divesting the character altogether of humour.... [He] squeezed the fun out of it,” leaving “not a scintilla of drollery” (Morning Post, 23 May 1864).
Most performers of Polonius have been lucky to receive a one-sentence notice. Of the earlier players J. H. Barnes, playing opposite Forbes Robertson, received the most comment, perhaps because he had earlier been a leading man. By his own account his Polonius was
the acting Lord Chamberlain of the court, a splendid father, with a keen eye for the main chance, and a never-failing solicitude for the welfare of his son and daughter; far too wise and prudent to make an enemy of the prince whom he firmly believes to be mad—or very nearly so....On these lines I played him; I venture to assert he was as amusing as he had ever been without losing a particle of his dignity. (1915, p. 216)
Barnes was not universally praised—William Archer found him “far too robust and stolid” (World, 15 Sept. 1897). But taken together his notices confirm that he accomplished his purposes. The Dramatic World concluded that Barnes “presented the two sides of this very complex character most successfully...; whether as fool or sage, Mr. Barnes is quite at home” (Oct. 1897). Other reviewers discerned how the two sides overlapped: to The Morning Leader he was “a cunning old man, hiding a good deal of wisdom and common sense under his loquacity” (13 Sept. 1897); to Clement Scott he was “no senile dodderer, but a man who has been in earlier years a bit of a scholar and student himself, but who had the habitual tendency of old men to bore their juniors with reminiscences” (1905, Hamlets, p. 141). Perhaps he was too sagacious for Forbes Robertson’s Hamlet, whose assumption of an “antic disposition” was half-hearted: “A Polonius so shrewd and far-seeing...would hardly have experienced any difficulty in plucking out the heart of so thinly veiled a mystery” (St. James’s Gazette, 13 Sept. 1897).
It is significant of the autonomy emerging among supporting players that Barnes, honored as he was to be asked to play the part by Forbes Robertson, should have made the condition that he be allowed to interpret Polonius according to his own conception. Not only did Barnes, like the other players just mentioned, give his character an individual identity, but also he understood his role in relation to characters in addition to the Prince, especially his children.
In his extensive playgoing, 1892-1952, Gordon Crosse took a special interest in Polonius, illustrating further potentials in the role. Lyall Swete, with H. B. Irving, was his favorite: “He did not exaggerate the comic aspects of the part, but while bringing out the meanness and weakness of the man showed also how it was possible for him to have attained high office” (Crosse, 1953, Playgoing, p. 25). Beerbohm (1970, Last Theatres, p. 149) praised the way Swete “gives his advice to Laertes exactly as if each axiom occurred to him on the spur of the moment.” In the 1925 modern dress production, Crosse reported, Bromly-Davenport was “suave and wily” (p. 90) while O.B. Clarence, with Alec Guinness in 1938, was “a genial old politician, fussily tactful” (p. 124).
Polonius has even been shown to have a tragic dimension. One of his most praised recent interpreters was Michael Bryant, who in the Daniel Day Lewis/Richard Eyre production depicted an aging patriarch who has long dominated his family and the court but now feels his powers to be waning and compensates with bluster. As a way of asserting his control, he “paces himself very slowly so that instead of being garrulous, he is ponderous” (Literary Reviews, Mar. 1989). In his self-importance, when the King challenges his judgment, he explodes into “uncourtly indignation” (Independent, 18 Mar. 1989) and has “a habit of blurting out blunt truths (‘Your son is mad’)” Manchester Guardian (18 Mar. 1989). A caring parent, he is fond with his son, harsh with his daughter: “for once the advice to Laertes sounds like affectionate good sense” and is made “amusing with nose tapping, hand-holding and an inward groan at all things French and foppish” (Independent, 18 Mar. 1989) while Ophelia is “blasted with angry love and stern admonition” (Plays and Players, May 1989).
Still another aspect of Bryant’s multifaceted portrayal was the philistinism evident in Polonius’s attitude toward theater. About The Murther of Gonzago he is “at first all middle-brow assurance that the drama—not something adults take seriously—will be pleasantly innocuous” (Independent, 18 Mar. 1989). Earlier he had checked “his philistine jeer at the tears of the First Player, hastily joining in the round of applause” (Country Life, 30 Mar. 1989). But the feature of Bryant’s performance that received most praise was the moment when he loses the thread of his instructions to Reynaldo (943-4). This was not merely a momentary memory-lapse; during the “huge panic-stricken pause” (Independent, 18 Mar. 1989), Polonius comes to realize “that age has conquered him” (Hampton, Highgate Express, 24 Mar. 1989). Still shaken by this incident, his delivery of “Or else this brain of mine Hunts not the trail of policy so sure As it hath used to do” (1070-2) revealed to Rosenberg “a shadow of real self-doubt” (1992, p. 378). Taken together these nuances created a rounded impersonation, one that allowed the audience “to view the events at Elsinore through the eyes of Polonius” (New York Times, 26 Aug. 1989).
The role of the King is another that was long reduced to the Prince’s image of him, as no more than a drunkard, lecherous and bloat, though not without a conscience. As a result, the role of Claudius has had to be rediscovered as a major role. Although after the Restoration principal actors played the part, by Garrick’s time the King’s lines were so heavily cut that it was regarded as “truly wretched for an actor” and leading actors refused to play the role (Davies, 1784, Miscellanies, 3: 99). In the first half of the nineteenth century the role was still thought of as “a wretched part” (Cook, 1882, Stage, 2:175). All this was changed by Wilson Barrett, who in 1884 restored much of the text—including many of the King’s lines that had previously been cut—and played the Prince as a very young man with Claudius and Gertrude appropriately younger and more amorous than before. These innovations provided Barrett’s Claudius, E.S. Willard, with the opportunity to show new possibilities in the King. Willard had previously been noted for portraying society villains in modern melodramas, with “a suavity of manner, coupled with a sardonic sneer of bitterest import...and a set of gleaming teeth worth a whole box of make-up to an impersonator of gentlemanly scoundrelism” (Goddard, 1891, p. 241). This background contributed much to his Claudius, who at first came across as a totally self-assured and pleasure-loving king: “full-blooded...instinct with the spirit of court, all lies and lust...caring for nothing but the indulgence of his appetites, audacious in his selfishness, cruel, cynical, contemptuous of the loyal, loving student-soul which he could not even understand” (p. 258). The contrast with Hamlet, wearing black and white, was pointed by the King’s garish costume: “a blue and yellow mantle over a red and yellow tunic with silver edging, red tights, and yellow cross-garters” (Jackson, 1974, p. 193). In the course of the play, Willard portrayed a variety of facets: “whether he was fawning on his wife, or plotting fresh villainy, trying to deceive Polonius, uttering remorse, or watching with anxiety the result of his diabolical duel scheme” (Sunday Times, 19 Oct. 1884). His attempt to deceive Polonius came at the end of 3.1 when he first declared his intention to send Hamlet to England. Speaking “with a sort of guilty suspicion that the old courtier may suspect the scheme he has formed”: Claudius adds, explanatorily (1827), "for the demand of our neglected tribute” (Evening Standard, 17 Oct. 1884, p. 3). But what most impressed reviewers was Willard’s depiction of Claudius’s growing fear of Hamlet. The Stage pointed out how “the triumphant bearing of Claudius in the first act is a fine contrast to the dismay pictured so vividly by the actor when the King hears of Hamlet’s return to Denmark” (24 Oct. 1884).
Later reviewers often looked back to Willard’s Claudius as the precursor in impressiveness and sensuality to that of Oscar Asche, whose sheer physical size and presence made understandable his dominance over Gertrude. “Virile,” “rugged,” “burly,” “brutal,” “barbaric,” Asche depicted “a militant King instead of one on the defensive,” whose “imposing personality” in the play scene made him stronger than the Prince: “at this point the drama centres in the King, not in Hamlet” (Sunday Times, 9 Apr. 1905). The Academy saw him as “one of those powerful animals from whom the Ophelias of the world would, as this Ophelia did, shrink in horror in the unguarded truth of madness” (8 Apr. 1905). Yet Asche was far from muscle-bound. Crosse saw in his performance opposite Frank Benson a complex mixture of traits: “the sensuous nature of the man, the savageness mingled with cunning, and withal a sufficient measure of dignity and royal bearing” (Diaries, 2:122). When Asche played the role opposite H. B. Irving, he was also praised (Stage, 6 Apr 1905) for his rendering of “the writhing of a murderer’s heart,” especially in his “offense is rank” soliloquy (2312-48). His “resonant” verse-speaking throughout was often commended. The Daily Mail remarked on how Asche “makes every syllable interesting” (5 Apr. 1905), and Beerbohm found him the one member of the prosy H. B. Irving cast who “does remember that Shakespeare wrote the part in blank verse—does speak rhythmically, and with reverence for sound” (1970, Last Theatres, p. 148).
Twentieth century interpreters of Claudius, literary as well as theatrical, sought to humanize the King. Critic G. Wilson Knight saw in him “a host of good qualities...distinguished by creative and wise action, a sense of purpose, benevolence, a faith in himself and those around him, by love of his Queen....In short he is very human” (1930, pp. 37-8). On stage Alec Clunes, who played the role opposite Paul Scofield, presented him as a tragic figure in his own right. Like Willard and Asche before him, he possessed in abundance key qualities that Hamlet’s “mighty opposite” must have: the regal strength, bearing and plausibility necessary to ruling Denmark, the speaking ability to deliver powerfully his numerous lines, the sex appeal necessary to winning Gertrude, and the capacity to go to pieces in the end. Clunes’s “majesty” was often mentioned, and Plays and Players remarked that “as with the best kind of con-man, it was hard to believe this man to be a villain” (Jan. 1956). The Times found that in the whole cast “Only Mr. Clunes is able, while bringing out to the full the mental alertness which goes with Claudius’ smiling villainy, to speak the verse musically” (9 Dec. 1955). To The Sunday Times it was “No wonder Gertrude responded to him: the Life Force brims out of him into irrepressible smiles and laughs” as the two “really look as if they were enjoying their honeymoon” (11 Dec. 1955). His greatest critical admirer was Kenneth Tynan, who summarized his tragedy as that of “a man who committed a crime passionel after an internal battle which has left scars on his conscience....We watch the slow crumbling of a man of action, who has created through crime a new universe which now falls, stone by stone, about his ears.” Like his predecessors, Clunes was able to show the transformation in the crumbling king. But he went beyond them to reveal something pitiable about Claudius. For Tynan, “the line about Gertrude— ‘I could not but by her’—rings a bell-note of pure pathos.” And there was something gallant about the moment when “To quell Laertes’ rebellion he collects himself, weary yet still majestic. This lonely man engages once again in plotting, of which he is still a master, like the gouty Napoleon at Waterloo” (Observer, 11 Dec. 1955).
Gertrude is a more important supporting role than her relatively few lines might suggest; for she appears in more than half the scenes and is treasured by all the men in her family. Early performers of the part were valued most for their queenliness. Hannah Pritchard, with Garrick, was singled out for special praise. Wilkes “never observed her to descend into the familiar in the Queens of Hamlet or Merope” (1759, p. 284). Davies, who found the Queen “a character of dignity, not without a mixture of passion” and held that a good performer must play the part with “propriety,” praised Pritchard for her exact “attention to all the less, and seemingly unimportant, business of the Queen” (1784, Miscellanies, 3:116-17). When the Ghost appeared in her closet, she turned her head slowly around and “with a certain Glare in her Eyes, which looked everywhere, and saw nothing, said ‘Nothing at all, yet all that’s here I see!’ which gave an Expression and Horror to the Whole not to be described” (St. James’s Chronicle, 20-22 Feb. 1772). After Mrs. Pritchard, Davies complains, “present eminent actresses reject the part, as if it were beneath them” (p. 116).
Mrs. Charles Kean, was also praised for her attention to detail. Marston specifies instances that reflect a well-thought-out concept, emphasizing the Queen’s sense of wrong-doing:
Her air of apprehensive melancholy, born of secret guilt; her looks of wistful yearning, at times suddenly repressed, toward her son; the obvious compulsion she put upon herself, in the closet-scene, so much being at stake, to ‘lay home’ to him his offences; the divining, shown by a quick, averted look, of his terrible impeachment ere it had well begun; the mechanical way in which her one or two phrases of resistance were urged, and her complete breaking down before the consciousness of her guilt and the eye of reason. (1888, 1:229)
For the most part, though, the Queen’s role during this period was commonly “left to any one who looks matronly enough, and is slurred over,” a practice that made Fechter’s Queen, Miss Elsworthy, remarkable for her “haughty, impulsive, and perfectly regal” manner (Orchestra, 18 May 1864, p. 551). She is exceptional among Gertrudes, too, in being played as Claudius’s accomplice in the murder of her husband (Cook, 1881, Hours, 2:261).
Later performers were much concerned with why the scandalous liaison between Gertrude and Claudius occurred in the first place. To go along with his own exceptionally young Hamlet and Willard’s proportionately younger King, Wilson Barrett made the Queen exceptionally young as well: “Miss [Margaret] Leighton looks exceedingly handsome as the Queen, and one could more easily understand the strong measures which the King had taken to replace her first husband in her affections than when the part is played by an elderly lady” (Truth, 23 Oct. 1884, pp. 631-2); her voice was described as “purring” (Shakespeariana, 1887, 4:30). The sexual attraction between Willard and Leighton was palpable. So must it have been between Asche and Maud Milton, who played Gertrude in 1905 with H. B. Irving as a matron in her mid-forties “of opulent Titianesque charms” (Sunday Times, 9 Apr.). Fanny Morant, with Edwin Booth, indicated “delicately but unmistakably that strong under current of voluptuousness” that “bewitched Claudius to crime no less than his ambition” (New York Times, 9 Jan. 1870).
In Gertrude’s relations with Hamlet, the chief focus during this period was on the propriety of the harsh rebukes that the severe son delivers to his erring mother. Nineteenth century acting editions regularly ended the closet scene with the couplet: “I must be cruel only to be kind Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind” (2554-5), thus cutting Hamlet’s charge that Gertrude keep it secret that he is “But mad in craft” (2564) and her promise to do so. As O’Brien (1992) has shown, this cut and others prevented Gertrudes of that period from showing the transfer of the Queen’s loyalties from Claudius to the Prince in the latter part of the play that O’Brien finds the original texts to invite. Indeed, Hamlets of the time often graphically rejected reconciliation. At the end of their exchange, Fechter “reverentially” kissed the miniature of his father. When Elsworthy, his Queen, “outstretched her arm and would embrace her son, he held up sternly the portrait of his father; the wretched woman recoiled and staggered from the stage” (Cook, 1881, Hours, 2:262). It was an innovation when Irving did not shrink from the blessing of Georgina Pauncefort’s “weak, sensuous, affectionate” Queen (Academy, 7 Nov. 1874) but instead lifted her up when she knelt at his “I’ll blessing beg of you.” At his “so again, goodnight” (2553) his studybook directs: “Queen kisses him.”
Most modern Gertrudes have been beautiful and highly sexed. In 1925, for example, Barrymore complimented Constance Collier on having “invested this character with sensuous beauty, enhanced by a certain full-blown provocativeness” (1926, ch. 4). In the thirties Gertrude’s scandalous conduct began to be explained by portraying her as complacently insensitive to moral compunctions. This was the emphasis of Laurie Cowie, Gielgud’s Gertrude in 1934 and 1939, who regarded it as a completely new interpretation (Glasgow Evening Citizen, 16 Apr. 1935). Punning outrageously on Cowie’s name, Darlington admiringly described her Queen “as a woman with senses but no mind, luscious as a lollipop and shallow as a puddle on the road and with the easy good-nature of a cow” (Daily Telegraph, 29 June 1939, p. 10). James Agate took specific exception to Darlington’s admiration for this way of conceiving the role because “Hamlet in the absence of any sentient partner in the Closet Scene is reduced to fighting with his own shadow” (Sunday Times, 2 July 1939). In 1957 The New Statesman praised Coral Browne, whose Hamlet was John Neville, for her “lush and graceful beauty combined with her deep and sexy voice” (28 Sept.). The Financial Times found her “notably fine voiced” and “especially good at communicating such elusive states of mind as her recognition of Hamlet’s madness and (the Oedipus question again) her brooding doubts upon the dark side of her own maternal feelings” (19 Sept.). This last feature prompted Tynan in The Observer to term her Queen “maternally voluptuous” (22 Sept.).
Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s Gertrude is notable for seeing the Ghost. In the Pennington/Barton production, Hamlet grabbed the Queen’s head in the closet scene and forced her to look “On him” (Pennington, 1996, Guide, p. 102n), at which Leigh-Hunt to her horror actually saw the Ghost, but then repressed the experience (Daily Mail, 18 Sept. 1981). Rosenberg adds that she put her hands over her ears when the Ghost spoke and that Leigh-Hunt supported this interpretation to him by citing Gertrude’s reference, at the beginning of the next scene, to “what have I seen tonight” (2591), which she delivered “with a shudder” (1992, p. 698).
Until the twentieth century the emphasis in portraying Gertrude’s relationship with her son had been very much upon his attitude toward her. Particularly since World War II more attention than before has been paid to her attitude toward him. Often the attachment of mother to son has had more or less explicit incestuous overtones. When Judi Dench, with Daniel Day Lewis, asked “What shall I do?” (2556) she addressed the question to herself, “acknowledging the discovery within herself of unsuspected depths she could not fathom.” During the preceding speech her “climactic kiss” with Hamlet had been “a naked and mutual acknowledgement of desire that shocked her” (ShS 24, 1991, p. 196).
Whether incestuous or not, Gertrudes have emphasized her active transfer of loyalty from Claudius to Hamlet in the latter part of the play. Often her withdrawal from the King is projected by her refusal to join him when he repeatedly calls for her to “Come” with him at the end of a scene as in 4.1 and 4.7 or when they exit separately. At the end of 4.1, for instance, in Maurice Evans’s “G.I. Hamlet”: “King attempts to place a wrap which he has taken from the chaise longue around the Queen’s shoulders. She shrinks from his touch and, after a momentary look of disgust, rushes from the room. ‘My soul is full of discord and dismay.’ The King is left standing alone, contemplating the wrap still in his hands, as the scene dims out” (1947, p. 142). So decisive a break at this point is perhaps premature. After all Gertrude at the beginning of the scene calls Claudius “mine own lord.” With Alec Clunes, Claudius with Redgrave, the break came in 4.5, with his appeal to “Gertrude, Gertrude, When sorrows come, they come not single spies But in battalions” (2815-16). He gave at this point “A heart-cry made doubly moving by his refusal to overstress it and by Gertrude’s rejection of his outstretched hand” (Observer, 11 Dec. 1955).
The role of Gertrude, however, still awaits a performance widely regarded as one “for the ages.”
The same may be said of Laertes, even though between the time Irving played the part to Fechter’s Hamlet and Branagh played it opposite Roger Rees, a number of other future Princes have used Laertes as a stepping-stone to the title role. Of these, the largest success was scored by Michael Redgrave in Olivier’s stage version. Wearing a thin mustache and a “startling” red wig, he brought a great deal of vigor and spirit to the role, so much so that in the “damaging impetuosity of his sword play” at the end he several times cut Olivier in the head. What further distinguished his performance was his “sincerity” throughout and the fact that “he has an unusually wide emotional range for an English actor” (Time and Tide, 16 Jan. 1937). At first, it was his “boyish warmth” that stood out. Although he and Ophelia exchanged glances and giggled during most of Polonius” few precepts, at “this above all” Redgrave turned suddenly serious and touched his father’s hand with a gesture of affection (Daily Telegraph, 6 Jan. 1937). In response to later events, Redgrave was convincingly “fiery in anger and moving in sorrow” (Stage, 7 Jan. 1937). By and large, however, reviewers have paid remarkably little attention to the role. Perhaps Shakespeare built a “foil” quality into his depiction of the other young-man-out-to-revenge-his-father’s-death; or perhaps player-Princes have seen to it that Laertes stayed in their shade.
Lesser Supporting Roles
Among the “under parts,” as they used to be called, the Ghost has received special attention. From the first, “special effects” have been lavished on its appearances and disappearances. In Shakespeare’s time, a trapdoor may well have been used for his descent into the “cellarage” (l.5.151). Also Lawrence has argued that the Ghost’s entrances in the first scene were through a trap (1927, pp. 105-7). Certainly, in eighteenth century practice a trap was used for both entrances and exits. In Humphry Clinker (1771), for example, Mrs. Tabitha Bramble presumes to compliment Quin on his performance “at Drury Lane, when you rose up through the stage, with a white face and red eyes.” With the aid of modern elevators, trapdoors can still startle audiences into new awareness. In the closet scene of the 1976 Albert Finney/Peter Hall production, the Ghost’s ascent by the trap was masked from the audience by the prince and queen; David describes the complex effect when the Ghost thus, unexpectedly, appears:
Hamlet, by now kneeling at his mother’s knee, looks at the Ghost over her shoulder; she, all tenderness for her son suddenly seized in this paroxysm of madness, has no consciousness of his father’s presence. The three reactions, Hamlet’s intense, Gertrude’s all maternal solicitude, the Ghost in painful hope against hope that sufficient memory of their bond may linger in his wife to make her aware of him, built up a strange chord.... (1976, pp. 81-2)
Various spectral lighting devices have been employed. At Shakespeare’s original Globe with its natural light, the silent Ghost’s power at its first appearance may have been projected chiefly through the reactions of the guards and especially by the conversion of Horatio, whose skepticism is immediately changed to belief. Their faces would have been fully visible, whereas in modern productions all is often dark and obscure. Forbes Robertson’s device of shining a yellow light on the faces of the Ghost’s observers, however, only reminded a reviewer of the glare of headlights (Daily News, 23 Apr. 1930). Harcourt Williams, director of the 1929 Gielgud, was more successful, situating the guards around a brazier whose light revealed their faces while the Ghost remained in the shadows (1935, p. 155). Phelps at Sadler’s Wells showed at the rear of the stage a castle by moonlight with beacon pillars: “The front of the stage forming a portion of the ramparts is kept very dark, the Ghost enters, moves slowly across the stage in an angular direction towards the beacon pillar, behind which it glides, when a burst of light shows it melting away in the far distance” (Theatrical Journal, 12 Oct. 1844). Gauzes have been artfully employed to simulate the ghost’s eerie dematerialization. Towse recalled how in Fechter’s Lyceum production (1864) “the ghost stood behind a large concealed wheel which, when started, caught up, at each revolution, a fresh piece of some almost transparent stuff, artfully tinted to match the background, until the requisite thickness was obtained. The ghost apparently melted into thin air” (New York Evening Post Magazine, 20 Dec. 1919).
In the 1965 Royal Shakespeare production the Ghost was represented by a ten-foot high contrivance on wheels, with a large head and movable arms, swathed in a long gown; all but obscured by shadows and smoke, it seemed to glide, noiselessly, of its own volition. Director Peter Hall has since thought better of it; he recently spoke of the device to Michael Pennington—who pushed and steered the mechanism—as a “folly of his youth” (Independent, 2 Nov. 1994). Yet at the time L. C. Knights compared it to an “archaic presence” (quoted in Observer, 19 Dec. 1965) while Harold Hobson felt it to be “quite terrifying” (Sunday Times, 22 Aug. 1965). The most telling moment came when the Prince, played by David Warner, who stands well over six feet, reached up to the Ghost, like a small child, and was folded in its gigantic arms, where he remained through most of their interview.
In addition to spooky music, special sound effects have also been deployed. Davies speaks of Barton Booth’s “noiseless tread, as if he had been composed of air” (1784, Miscellanies, 3:32), an effect created simply by wearing felt soles. Gentleman felt that the Ghost’s role “is most admirably written, and according to the idea we form of supernatural utterance” and most performers have tried to carry out this idea in one way or another: Quin spoke with a “solemnity of expression” (1770, 1:58). Barton Booth spoke with a “slow, solemn, and under, tone of voice” (Davies, p. 32). When Macready gave a concert reading of the play, his Ghost “neither growled, nor droned, nor dragged the time, but his tones seemed to come from another world. They were audible, quite audible; but they were without resonance” (Pollock, 1885, p. 41). Half a century later, Courtenay Thorpe, playing the Ghost with Ben Greet’s company, was admonished for his lack of “the deep sepulchral tones which seem to be an essential attribute of the ghost” (Graphic, 15 May 1897); G. B. Shaw, however, heard something original in his delivery of “the weird music of that long speech”: “the spectral wail of a soul’s bitter wrong crying from one world to another in the extremity of its torment” (1961, p. 89). This was at the beginning of Thorpe’s career; his style may have reflected that of his father, “a preacher who had the reputation of saying the Lord’s Prayer so dramatically that the congregation sobbed” (Terry, 1932, Memoirs, p. 125). Some thirty years later he came back from retirement to play the Ghost for Barrymore in London in very much the same vein, with a voice “still seared with purgatorial fires” (Time and Tide, 27 Feb. 1925). Desmond MacCarthy compared his tones to “the wind in a chimney” (1954, p. 25); The Saturday Review found in them “the agony of damnation....Mr. Thorpe made the night hideous as Mr. Barrymore made it beautiful” (28 Feb. 1925). Some reviewers, though, found Thorpe too “mellifluous” and his enunciation “with its excessive prolongation of consonants” to be “so bizarre that it must, we think, have frightened the early village cock” (Times, 20 Feb. 1925).
With David Warner Patrick Magee spoke with a “graveyard voice” (Sunday Times, 22 Aug. 1965), as if “from another world” (Tablet, 11 Sept. 1965). Such stylization has often seemed apropos to “supernatural utterance,” especially when the style is that of an earlier era. Hence the assignment of the role to Gielgud with Burton and Richard Chamberlain, to Pennington with Stephen Dillane. When Scofield himself played Hamlet (1948), Esmond Knight was his Ghost, whose labored breathing was in itself expressive. According to Tynan, “consternation rippled across the whole audience” as Knight struggled for breath: “an agonized inhaling as if he were scouring up the deepest fumes of hell to bear the noxious pain of his message to Hamlet’s ears” (1950, p. 113).
Verbal effects have also emphasized the modern idea that the Ghost is a projection of Hamlet’s own psyche. In Zeffirelli’s stage version the Ghost was “a projection of the Prince’s super-ego,” in which an epileptic Hamlet mouthed commands whispered from the wings and spoke aloud many of the Ghost’s lines himself (Times, 16 Sept. 1964). Later Ghosts have some times been altogether disembodied. On Barrymore’s American tour during the closet scene a white light enveloped the Prince and a picture of Reginald Pole as the Ghost was projected onto Hamlet in the closet scene “to convey the effect of the Ghost taking possession of Barrymore” (promptbook 156). The Ghost was reduced to a bright light in the Nicol Williamson stage production and in the Burton/Gielgud production to “a great black shadow which suddenly took shape above the stage” (Gielgud, 1992, Acting, p. 41); the Ghost’s words were recorded by Williamson and Gielgud. In the Jonathan Pryce production (1980), directed by Richard Eyre, the Ghost was totally invisible. Inspired by the film The Exorcist, Pryce throughout the play delivered all the Ghost’s lines himself: “he writhes, shudders, sways as he churns out his father’s words from the depths of his bowels” (Sunday Telegraph, 6 Apr. 1980).
As Horatio, Godfrey Tearle supported Henry Ainley in an all-star production in 1930. “Manly,” “loyal,” “burly-tender,” his “quiet distinction,” “muted integrity,” and “grave and commanding” demeanor contrasted with Ainley’s outbursts (Empire News, 27 Apr.). James Agate also saw in him the “unalloyed spirit which Hamlet might so easily have been” (Sunday Times, 27 Apr.).
A very young Alec Guinness made his name as Osric and Reynaldo. When he first played Osric, with Gielgud in 1934, he was by his own description “very water-fly” (1985, p. 69), but with Olivier in 1937 he was “an admirable popinjay and wisely not effeminate” (Observer, 10 Jan. 1937). Beneath his “pretentious elegance” (Guthrie, 1962, Shakespeare, p. 288) was a “pathetic insecurity” and “the hint of a courtier’s craft” (Audrey Williamson, 1948, p. 85). With Olivier his Reynaldo seemed to his director Tyrone Guthrie “a gentleman’s gentleman whose extravagant primness did not prevent one seeing that he was a snake in the grass” (p. 188).
First Gravediggers rarely fail, especially when they play with a dry humor (the role does not offer many laugh-lines). For forty years in the eighteenth century, B. Jonson’s “jokes and repartees had a strong effect from his seeming insensibility of their force” (Davies, 1784, Miscellanies, 3:135). From roughly 1780 to 1830, First Gravediggers sought laughs by doffing one waistcoat after another before getting to work. Sprague, who gives a full account of this custom, which started in the provinces then came to London before dying out, quotes a description of the business as performed at Covent Garden in 1811: “After beginning their labour, and breaking ground for a grave, a conversation begins between the two grave-diggers. The chief one [Fawcett] takes off his coat, folds it carefully, and puts it by in a safe corner; then, taking up his pickax, spits in his hand,—gives a stroke or two,—talks,—stops,—strips off his waistcoat, still talking,—folds it with great deliberation and nicety, and puts it with the coat,—then an under-waistcoat, still talking,—another and another. I counted seven or eight, each folded or unfolded very leisurely, in a manner always different, and with gestures faithfully copied from nature. The British public enjoys this scene excessively...” (1944, pp. 175-6). Rosenberg records a revival of this practice in a 1985 Toronto production; the gravedigger kept searching the pockets of successive waistcoats until in the seventh “he found what he had been looking for—a stub of cigar to smoke” (1992, p. 832).
An especially interesting Guildenstern was that of William Redfield in the 1964 production starring Richard Burton and directed by Gielgud, more for what went on backstage during rehearsals than for the final performance. Redfield was already an experienced and highly regarded actor when he undertook the role; doubtless he is the only Guildenstern ever to have received fifth billing. At first all went exceptionally well between Gielgud and Redfield, but before long problems began to arise. From Richard Sterne’s journal of the production and Redfield’s own account of the experience one can follow how the two differed about virtually every scene Guildenstern was in. Where Gielgud felt that Guildenstern should be “smug with achievement” at the beginning of 3.1, Redfield resisted because his report to the King was one of failure (1966, p. 85). In the exchange after the play-within-the-play, Redfield was exaggeratedly servile and alarmed until Gielgud directed him to “bully” the Prince (p. 90). Their chief point of difference came when Redfield sought to go beyond the “cunning booby” Gielgud saw in Guildenstern (Sterne, 1967, p. 113), finding more and more ways to bring out something downright sinister in his conduct. He became so overtly threatening that finally Eileen Herlie protested that her Gertrude would not have tolerated so hostile a companion for her son. And Gielgud put an end to that line of interpretation with a note pointing out to Redfield that his Guildenstern had become a “thug” (p. 140).
Beneath such differences was a more fundamental disagreement. As Gielgud plaintively recalled his experience of working with American actors on this production, “All they wanted was motivation”:
characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Salarino, and all those lords in the historical plays, are not developed individually, but can be turned into effective cameos if clever actors play them. In America I was attacked after every rehearsal by desperate actors asking ‘What is this character about?’ I fear that, in the end, my ill-tempered reply would be ‘It’s about being a good feed for Hamlet.’ (Gielgud, 1980, p. 87)
Redfield was doubtless one of that desperate number. Gielgud was holding to an older idea of what the actor of a small part should contribute, while Redfield, eager to make the most of an association with Gielgud, whom he had long revered, kept trying to make his role more than a “cameo” or “good feed for Hamlet”—taking the newer approach of creating an individual with a life of his own.
In addition to individualizing the supporting characters in Hamlet, the modern stage has spun a web of interrelationships among all the characters, with the family as an institution the central nexus. The Ghost has come to be seen not just as a spectral or kingly figure but as a father and husband as well. For the Branagh/Noble production, its assistant director, Colin Ellwood, explained that they saw the Ghost much more as “Young Hamlet’s father” than as “Old Hamlet’s spirit”; as played by Clifford Rose he was “very solid,” “very human” (Cahiers Elisabethains, Oct. 1993, p. 76). Various recent productions have suggested marital problems between Gertrude and her first husband—that he was too old for her or too distant. Polonius too has to a greater degree than before come to be seen as a family man as well as a royal counselor. As a parent he may seem overly protective and intrusive, yet he does retain the devotion of his children. Crosse perceptively congratulates Walter Hudd, with Michael Redgrave’s Hamlet in 1949, for making it plausible that “such a man as Polonius should be so dearly loved by his children that his death drives one of them into rebellion and the other into madness” (1953, Playgoing, p. 12). In the 1980 Pennington/Barton production the feeling was reciprocated by Tony Church’s warm and loving Polonius. In this portrayal, Church has explained, he knew perfectly well during his parting advice to Laertes that “his children were smiling behind his back” but “did not mind.” It was “the anger of a loving father” at the mistreatment of his daughter that fueled the intensity of his later hatred of Hamlet (1985, pp. 109, 112).
In the 1965 David Warner/Peter Hall production, Church had earlier played Polonius as a wily politician among wily politicians. In 1980, he spoke the line “To thine owne selfe be true” (543) in a fatherly way, “as a simple moral truth which I knew my son would share with me.” In 1965 he had spoken the line “as a direct appeal to naked self-interest” (p. 109). The difference illustrates the way the portrayal of a supporting role may interpenetrate with the imagined milieu of a production. Church also adds a detail in which one may see how character and imagined milieu may interact with the ensemble style of presentation. When his 1965 Polonius proved to be not as funny as hoped, Hall directed that instead of wine everyone should drink schnapps—”and very quickly.” As a result, Church reports, “in one day, I doubled my speaking-rate: Polonius started to speak with the panache and lightning intricacy of the best, albeit most eccentric, of university lecturers. The reactions to him of King, Queen, and Hamlet speeded up as a result, points were scored lightly and efficiently, and the laughter started” (p. 107).
Another example of such interactions is provided by Frank Vosper as Claudius. As discussed in the section on the 1925 Birmingham Repertory modern-dress revival, he was like E. S. Willard another “gentlemanly scoundrel,” driven by his “undisguised desire for his Queen” (Sketch, 3 Sept. 1925). What set him off from all previous kings was his 1920s costume and grooming. As he explained at the time: “I play him clean-shaven, silver-haired at the temples, and—I hope—fairly soigne: in fact I have attempted to make him sufficiently attractive to account for Gertrude’s frailty” (Vosper, 1925). Almost every reviewer agreed that he succeeded; as Era put it: “He wore his ‘spats’ well and smoked a cigarette with that ‘stage’ ease that is so wonderful to watch. No wonder Gertrude adored him” (29 Aug. 1925). As Vosper further remarked, his King was no longer swamped in “robes, the farouche beard and moustaches, the improbable looking crown (usually a size too large or small).” A reviewer testifies: “the psychology of the character emerges and from the moment Claudius interviewed his emissaries to England I sat guessing as to what he was going to do” (G. K. Weekly, 5 Sept. 1925). Only in his attempt at prayer, where Vosper was wearing a purple silk dressing gown (perhaps reminiscent of traditional kingly robes?), did the old “king of spades” conventionality return. In contrast, in 1934 opposite Gielgud, Vosper played the role in period costume, this time reminding reviewers of Holbein’s King Henry VIII, a role he had recently played in “The Rose without a Thorn.” They found his red-headed, well-spoken Claudius dark, sinister, ruthless, subtle yet dignified and kingly in his “splendid villainy” (Independent, 24 Nov. 1934). The Evening Standard observed that “His very face seemed to change and become whiter and grosser, and more hideously masklike as the rottenness within slowly spread” (15 Nov. 1934). Crosse saw Vosper in both productions and was pleased “to see how skillfully he suited the part to the different requirements of the two styles—the realistic and the romantic” (Diaries, 15, Nov. 1934).
Other roles have been no less responsive to the prevailing atmosphere of the production of which they are a part. In addition to Redfield there have been many sinister Guildensterns. He and Rosencrantz have often added to the dark tone of a milieu in which self-serving, lying, and spying are endemic. After the play-within-the-play, their ruthlessness has sometimes become overt. With Paul Scofield in 1948, director Michael Benthall made them “prickly with menace. The two spies, immaculate in evening dress, advance on Hamlet with swords lazily at guard; he hysterically jests with them, edging towards escape between the pillars; only to discover, by a gleam of helmet and another and yet another advancing figure, that the whole palace soldiery is joining in the man-hunt. The sense of trappedness is complete” (Tynan, 1950, p. 113). In his modern dress production in Minneapolis, Guthrie at first planned to be even more menacing, bringing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on “with revolvers drawn, ‘meaning business’” with Rosencrantz “rude and brash” in a “steely voice” (Rossi, 1970, p. 25). As Hamlet ran off, a wild shot was to be fired. Later Guthrie abandoned the revolvers and showed the “encirclement of Hamlet by the King’s guards” by having them train flashlights on his face in the dark (p. 56).
Reynaldo is another of their ilk. In the Ben Kingsley/Buzz Goodbody production (1975), for example, Charles Dance in general submitted to Polonius’s instruction “with obsequious contempt” (Times [London], 5 Feb. 1976). He delivered this line with “a deprecatory, cocky little half-sneer, as if to say, ‘Don’t tell me how to suck eggs. I’ve learned all I can from you about the business. Why don’t you retire and let me take over?’ He is a thrusting junior executive” (Times Higher Education Supplement, 13 Feb. 1976). The exchange contributed to “a climate of suspicion and intrigue” (Observer, 8 Feb. 1976). Directing Burton, Gielgud “conceived of Osric as a spy sent by the King, and...his affected manner was only assumed as a trick” (Sterne, 1967, p. 49); at times he spoke “with a menacing undertone” (p. 271). Nor have prospects been brighter for Denmark under its new Norwegian ruler: most recent portrayals of Fortinbras have been decidedly ominous. In the Kingsley/Goodbody production in which he also portrayed a snide Reynaldo, Charles Dance’s “menacing young Fortinbras” was totally without conscience. He appeared “at the end in the battle-dress of an elite officer, smiling as he caresses the poisoned, blood-stained sword which has betrayed both opportunism and idealism” (Observer, 6 Jan. 1975).
The relative autonomy of the supporting characters, and their interrelation with one another and their surroundings, have often thus done much to create an Elsinore independent of Hamlet’s partial view of it. The resulting sense of an encompassing world has been one of the chief ways in which today’s theater has expanded its perspective to something like Shakespearian proportions.
“A coherent whole”: The Unified Production
In 1977 The Sunday Times confidently dismissed the Derek Jacobi stage Hamlet as “nothing but bits of ‘business’” whereas “a Shakespeare production today must be a coherent whole” (5 June 1977). Such a production was characterized by a conscious concern for overall impact, in which direction, design of sets and costumes, and interpretation of roles by the leading actor and the supporting cast were fully coordinated. This ideal developed gradually, its main phases being evident in Hamlet’s stage history.
From the beginning to the present, the chief unifying factor in Hamlet productions has been the title role and the style of its performance. In many productions, indeed, the dominant position that Shakespeare gives the Prince has been pushed to something close to total dominance. Slower to develop, however, was a concern for coherence in the supporting roles so that they were performed in a manner consistent with one another and with the title role. In his time Garrick was exceptional in his attempts to impart his own style of acting to his supporting casts. That his success was less than total, however, may be seen in the disparities in style between his “natural” approach to the Prince and the twice-too-loud, conventional portrayal of the King that so impressed Mr. Partridge in Tom Jones. Kemble and Macready did their best to rehearse their casts but encountered stubborn resistance by the actors, and their efforts accomplished little. In this, as in many other respects, Fechter was far ahead of common English practice, especially in crowd scenes where each person seemed “to take up his position as it were by accident.” Irving did rehearse the cast of his Hamlet (Booth made no special efforts in that way), but his instruction was always in how he himself would act the part. Even in 1884 it was a matter for comment that Wilson Barrett’s decision to play Hamlet as very young was accompanied by his casting an appropriately younger Claudius and Gertrude.
If ensemble was only beginning to be a concern in England at that time, the appropriateness of scenery, costumes, and lighting was well advanced. The original dominance of the acted word, with its address to the active imaginations of the auditors, had more and more given place to literal, visual appeals. By the middle of the nineteenth century the various archeological mountings of Macready and Charles Kean had introduced an emphasis upon overall effect, although the consistency was most often to the historical period depicted rather than to the special atmosphere of a given play. With Hamlet it was Fechter’s elaborate production that had the greatest impact, “with massive architecture of the Norman style, and the dresses of the medieval Danish period,” creating an atmosphere of “rugged strength” (Lloyd’s Weekly, 28 May 1864). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “bluff fellows, with thick beards, coarse leggings, and cross garters—and the other personages are after the same model” (Times, 23 May 1864). Entering into the Scandinavian atmosphere, Fechter himself was famous for his flowing blond wig, but the chief effect must have been one of contrast, as his soft style of acting stood out against his Viking-like surroundings.
As actor-managers in their own theaters, Booth and Irving were able to crystallize in their Hamlets methods of creating an overall unified effect that had been evolving in the course of the nineteenth century. They employed set designers who were making names for themselves in their own right, Charles Witham for Booth, Hawes Craven for Irving, artists whose emphasis was more on the picturesque than on strict archeology. Of Booth’s 1870 Hamlet, Nym Crinkle (ordinarily no enthusiast) had to praise “the harmony...the interdependencies...of the whole work...the most amazing combination of all arts that our stage has ever seen” (World, 9 Jan. 1870).
In his review of Irving’s 1878 production, Moy Thomas argued that “what is wanted on our stage is...an overruling authority, capable of reducing the whole representation to just proportions” (Academy, 4 Jan. 1879, p. 17). Like the other actor-managers who would follow him, Irving exercised just such “an overruling authority” over this Hamlet—rehearsing its actors, over-seeing its costumes, sets, and music. But his concern was, like Booth’s, less with “the whole representation” as such than with providing a setting for his own performance of the starring role, an approach that held sway until the mid-twentieth century.
William Poel’s Experimental Hamlets (1881-1914) and the Moscow Art Theater Production (1912)
Overlapping with the prevailing actor-manager style of staging was an emerging approach based on a still more encompassing definition of unity. As star Hamlets deployed more and more of the arts of the theater (costume, scenery, lighting) in their support, these arts grew increasingly important in their own right. Ironically, their growing importance contributed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the rise of the director and designer, who often came to have as much or more to say about the staging of Hamlet as did the actor of the Prince. For as the total dominance of the Prince and the actor who plays him diminished, the ideal of a fully unified production addressed to the whole play gained in importance.
In these developments William Poel’s four experimental productions of Hamlet played a key part. He insisted that “It is the play as an epitome of life which is interesting the mind of Shakespeare, and not the career of one individual, even though the whole play be influenced by the actions of that individual” (Lundstrom, 1984, p. 33). Poel also led the way toward modern “high concept” productions, where the hand of the director was especially evident. At first this was shown in the Elizabethan style of staging he employed (no scenery, a thrust platform, a boy Ophelia, Elizabethan-style costumes, the First Quarto text). The 1914 version, a frank adaptation, emphasized the historical allusions Poel thought Elizabethans would have seen in the text—so that, as S. R. Littlewood described it: “we saw a pompous old lady, enthroned and gorgeously appareled, while at a table at her feet among other gallants sat her handsome young husband. Naturally it all came upon one in a flash... Queen Bess and old Polonius-Burleigh, and Raleigh and Essex” (Daily Chronicle, 27 Jan. 1914).
During this same period, Gordon Craig (1872-1966) led the rise of the designers of sets and costumes. Reacting against the pictorial approach—whether archeological or picturesque—Craig’s abstract designs would revolutionize twentieth century staging. Like his father E. W. Godwin, who designed Wilson Barrett’s Hamlet in the older archeological style, Craig saw his role as extending beyond mounting a production to an interpretive authority usually reserved for the director (Jackson, 1974).
In the last part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the Continent, led by the Saxe Meiningen company’s concern for ensemble and Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art], had in general led England and the United States in the movement toward fully integrated performances. Yet as it happens there was only one top-quality production of Hamlet of this sort during that time, at the Moscow Art Theater. It was the product of the stormy collaboration between Craig and Konstantin Stanislavsky, the exponent of psychological realism and practical man of the theater, with Vasili Kachalov’s portrayal of Hamlet torn between the two approaches. It is customary currently to emphasize the shortcomings and lack of integration in their work, and it is true that the three men were not themselves wholly satisfied with the final result. Yet, as Grigori Kozintsev observes, they were united by a common aspiration toward a new, higher, more complete truth than had hitherto been achieved in a theater (1966, p. 167). What they produced was a success at the box-office, it excited thoughtful critical controversy at the time and ever since, and it has had an incalculable impact on the style of subsequent productions.
To read the reconstructions of their Hamlet by Senelick (1982) and Morgan (1984) is to realize how much of what was most original about Craig’s conception was in fact put on stage and was understood by its viewers. His vision of the falsity and corruption of the Danish court was effectively conveyed by the tarnished gold costumes and decor. It is true that his intended effects were not always accomplished in exactly way the way he envisaged. He had pictured the entire court covered by a single golden cape, with the characters’ heads protruding through holes in it. When this proved impracticable, Stanislavsky had individual mantles made that, when spread, gave “the impression of a monolithic golden pyramid.” The sense of cosmic scope that Craig wanted—where the key conflict he saw between the spirit and the material world could be suggested—was achieved by the use of mood lighting and the tall, movable screens that were his most original contribution. He had wanted the action to be continuous, with the screens repositioned by invisible stagehands before the audience’s eyes; but after much experiment and a disastrous crashing of the screens, Stanislavsky had to abandon this idea and have a curtain drawn for scene changes. Craig had wished that the Players might fly in through windows (he had seen Chinese jugglers make their entrance by sliding down a tightrope); Stanislavsky had them enter in swaggering procession, to the sound of flutes, cymbals, hautboys, and drums, gaudy in their painted costume-trunks and scenery, carrying banners, masks, and ancient musical instruments. The three most powerful scenes in this production—the first court scene, the Mousetrap, and the finale—were all performed very much as Craig had directed.
No doubt the differences in approach could be drawbacks, as in the misplaced realism with which Stanislavsky treated Laertes’ rebellion and the gravediggers. In general, the supporting players were weak. Yet for a play that is itself as varied as Hamlet is and in a production where design is, like Craig’s, seen more as a metaphor than a setting, some creative tension among its parts can be enriching. Kachalov’s Hamlet is a case in point. All concerned accepted Craig’s vision of the play as a “monodrama,” largely controlled by the point-of-view of an unusually strong Hamlet, who embodies the mystical powers of the spirit. Differences arose, however, as to how this vision would be realized in performance. Craig, for example, speculated about keeping the Prince on-stage throughout the performance and dreamed of an alluring, muse-like spirit of death with whom Hamlet would at times commune, especially in the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Neither of these ideas prevailed. Where Craig compared Hamlet to a mountain “almost motionless,” Stanislavsky saw him as much more active and demonstrative. To illustrate a point in rehearsal, he would occasionally act the part; of his rendering of the “advice to the players” scene, a cast-member wrote: “This was not Craig’s abstract Hamlet, striving to overcome his despised earthly existence....Stanislavsky showed Hamlet to be virile, full of human nobility and restrained passion” (Senelick, 1982, p. 143).
Kachalov’s portrayal, however, was ultimately his own. With Stanislavsky’s help he stripped away convention and false emotionalism to find a convincing psychological truth. The inwardness, stillness, spirituality, and strength that Craig saw in Hamlet (his costume was like that of a monk) became in Kachalov the extreme reserve of a determined man of principle, who suffered deeply and was exactingly demanding of himself. Even when not soliloquizing he often spoke as if to himself. Only at moments of highest intensity was this restraint abandoned, as when Kachalov was possessed with frenzy immediately after the Ghost’s long speech in 1.5 and after the play-within-the-play, where he danced “in a delirium of intoxicated triumph.” Craig rightly held that Kachalov’s portrayal “was not my Hamlet, not at all what I wanted!” But he had to concede that “It was interesting, even brilliant” (Senelick, p. 188). The same might be said of the whole production.
The 1925 Birmingham Repertory “Plus Fours” Production
Following Barrymore’s success, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre later in 1925 brought to London another landmark production of Hamlet. Nicknamed “Hamlet in plus fours” (knickerbockers), it was well ahead of its time, not only in its controversial use of modern dress but in its concern for an overall unity, balancing and integrating the work of director H. K. Ayliff, designer Paul Shelving, Colin Keith-Johnston, who played Prince Hamlet, and a strong supporting ensemble. Its sponsor (today he might also be called the “artistic director” of the company) was Barry Jackson, who was directly in the line of William Poel. The project indeed received Poel’s explicit blessing, particularly its emphasis on the revenge plot and “the even cast with no intrusion of the ‘star’ tradition” (qtd in Cochrane, p. 118). Griffith, one of its most ardent supporters, went so far as to claim that this Hamlet was “not a play about one person nor a play about six of them, but a play about twenty people, each as vitally interesting as the other” (1927, p. 62). This, though, was to exaggerate the leveling of roles. Keith-Johnston was not the star yet certainly the “leading man,” with a distinctive interpretive slant. As Griffith observed, he spoke his lines in an “earnest, worried” way “as though torn in undertones from his heart” (p. 65). He was “morose rather than melancholy”; “to be or not to be” was hammered out “argumentatively as he strides up and down” (Spectator, 5 Sept. 1925). Contrasting the new Hamlet with traditional portrayals, The Manchester Guardian judged that the earlier ones had “missed the actuality of youth at odds with the universe and turned ugly in its anger. They remained remote in their beauty, and this Hamlet is very close in his ugly railing” (26 Aug. 1925). Entering into the spirit of post-World War I disillusionment, Keith-Johnston was anything but a sweet prince. Recalling the disenchanted mood of Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Ivor Brown felt that this ‘snarling prince” with his “cynical world-hatred” was “the right diet and medicine for an age of heart-break houses...This was the first heart-break Hamlet I have seen and the best” (qtd in Cochrane, p. 119).
The other role that especially stood out was that of Claudius, played as a suave sophisticate by Frank Vosper in a way (discussed in the section on “Supporting Players”) that threw fresh light not only on the role but on the whole play. When Claudius is portrayed not as the monster Hamlet hates but as a much more attractive figure, then Hamlet’s hesitancy about killing him is more understandable. As Palmer observes: “One can even doubt, as Hamlet was inclined to doubt at times, whether such a pleasant gentleman could be really a murderer after all” (1925, p. 682).
It was, however, Shelving’s costumes that were the talk of London; details were even recounted in fashion magazines (Cochrane, 1993, p. 109). Reviewer after reviewer testified to the initial shock of the first court scene, which resembled the throne-room of a pre-war Balkan court, with the king in white tie and waistcoat, the courtiers wearing monocles and smoking cigarettes, the ladies overdressed, with one short, stout, tired dowager conspicuous in her magenta velvet and tiara, and Hamlet, “a sullen little figure” in a lounge suit and wearing a wristwatch. At this point, as Vosper testifies, “the house simply sizzles with surprise and criticism” (Theater World, Oct. 1925). Some reviewers especially felt a disparity between the modern clothing and the Elizabethan language.
But soon, Vosper continues, the ‘sizzling” stopped. A few diehards maintained their resistance to the end. Young John Gielgud at the time dismissed it in a word, “Unspeakable” (1994, Notes). The Stage sniffed that “one does not put the Hermes of Praxiteles into a billy-cock hat” (27 Aug. 1925). But of the many who came to scoff, most were converted to the production concept. Such conversions exactly fulfilled Jackson’s hope. As he explained in the program, his intention was not novelty for novelty’s sake but to clear away the strange costumes and acting conventions in order to make Shakespeare’s play available to all as “a real conflict of credible human beings” (Sunday Times, 30 Aug. 1925).
The use of modern dress was thus only the most obvious feature of the unifying approach that governed every aspect of the production: to treat Hamlet “as a modern play.” As such it was felt to appeal especially to the young. Palmer rejoiced at hearing “the younger generation talking of the tragedy as one talks of a play by Pirandello or Mr. Galsworthy (1925, p. 678). Other commentators pointed out a direct parallel to the finale of Noel Coward’s The Vortex. Appreciation, however, was by no means confined to the young. The Sunday Times judiciously summed up the overall impact: “A certain matter-of-factness of diction, combined with the absence of gesture and pose, do give a certain added humanity and life, even if sometimes at the expense of majesty” (30 Aug. 1925).
As novel as the modern dress seemed then, in the long view it could be seen as a throwback to the costuming principle that prevailed from Burbage to Garrick. In the same way still another important production of this time, J. B. Fagan’s 1924 Oxford University Drama Society Hamlet, set in the early sixteenth century with costumes based on Dürer, could be seen as a throwback to Poel’s Elizabethan-style costuming. Yet in the light of subsequent developments both may be regarded as transitional instances of an encompassing trend which still prevails, in which costumes and set may suggest any time and place that enhance the interpretive statement being made by the director and designer. So the play has been set in the eleventh century (Leslie Howard, 1937), 1520 (Gielgud, 1934), 1620 (Gielgud, 1935), Regency (Richard Pasco, 1966), early Victorian (Paul Scofield, 1948), Edwardian (Branagh, 1993), modern “Ruritanian” (Guthrie, 1938).
The David Warner/Peter Hall Stratford-upon-Avon Production (1965)
Looking at the last half of the twentieth century, Tice Miller estimates that there is “not a single important city in continental Europe where Hamlet has not been revived since World War II” (Leiter, 1986, p. 118). In Western Europe, the play was treated either as standard fare for consumers of high culture or as material for inventive directors to adapt to their own purposes. In 1964, in Rome and later on a tour that included London, Franco Zeffirelli designed and directed a production whose unmistakable point was to present Hamlet as a modern man, wearing jeans and a charcoal sweater, in a set whose cyclorama stretched the eye “to an infinity of nothingness”— “a blank universe in which man can rely on nothing but himself.” Hence Hamlet’s problem was not how to perform the specific act of revenge but “how to engage in human life at all” (Times, 16 Sept. 1964). As trendy as this sounds, the production was praised also for its solid character-development: the Queen ages visibly; Laertes “grows up before our eyes.”
In England Hamlet’s political implications had traditionally been minimized. Since Restoration times the Fortinbras story had been drastically reduced if not, as in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century, cut altogether. For the most part, Hamlet has sailed serenely past the sort of close involvements with contemporary politics experienced by other Shakespearian plays. For example, it was not one of the half-dozen that were explicitly adapted to capitalize on the Jacobite scare in the early 1720s (Branam, 1956, pp. 62-3). Nor has its performance been suspended for political reasons, as was King Lear because of the madness of George III. The nearest Hamlet came to such immediate involvement in politics was the Astor Place Riot in New York City. The riot was the outcome of bad feelings toward Macready nursed by the American actor Edwin Forrest, who several years before had conspicuously hissed Macready’s handkerchief-waving business in Hamlet. In this celebrated bit of business at Hamlet’s “I must be idle” (1946), Macready “assumed the manner of an idiot, or of a silly and active and impertinent booby, by tossing his head right and left, and walking rapidly across the stage five or six times before the foot-lights and switching his hankerchief—held by a corner—over his right and left shoulder alternately, until the whole court have had time to parade and be seated” (Hackett, 1863, p. 158). His “light jocularity of manner” was “well calculated to disarm suspicion” (Britannia, 23 Mar. 1840, p. 187), yet “ill concealing, at that instant, the sense of an approaching triumph” (Examiner, 11 Oct. 1835, p. 644). It was at this point “that the American actor Edwin Forrest hissed Macready, “a mighty hiss...like that of a steam engine” (Coleman, 1888, 1:32), protesting what he called the English actor’s “fancy dance” or “pas de mouchoir.” Macready considered the handkerchief waving a high point of his performance. During his American tour in 1848, he recorded in his diary: “Acted Hamlet with care and energy; took especial pains to make the meaning of ‘I must be idle’ clear; which was followed by cheers on cheers after the first applause, when it was understood by the house that this was Mr. Forrest’s ‘fancy dance.’ Oh fie! fie!” (1875, Reminiscences, p. 606). By the time of the Riot in 1849, jingoistic and lower vs. upper-class hostilities had been added to the personal rivalry. But they had nothing intrinsic to do with the politics of Shakespeare’s Elsinore: the Riot, in fact, occurred during Macready’s performance of Macbeth.
Yet by 1959 G. K. Hunter was concluding his survey of twentieth century literary interpretation: “in Hamlet we are face-to-face with an oppressively true picture of social breakdown” (CritQ, 1:32), and in 1989 Michael Billington would declare in his round-up of recent productions that “Hamlet is a profoundly political play, one that deals...with the whole question of the governance of society” (Guardian, 21 Nov.). A milestone in this development was the 1965 Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet, directed by Peter Hall. In a program essay extracted from Hall’s talk to the cast when rehearsals started, he summed up his initial production concept:
For our decade I think the play will be about the disillusionment which produces an apathy of the will so deep that commitment to politics, to religion or to life is impossible...[Hamlet] is always on the brink of action, but something inside him, this disease of disillusionment, stops the final, committed action.
Hall thus applied to Shakespeare’s play the critique of student apathy often voiced by editorial writers in the Fifties and early Sixties, who wished like Hall for “the ordinary, predictable radical impulses which the young in all generations have had.”
By this time it was expected that the director would thus define the overall concept and atmosphere for a production. Among mid-century directors of Hamlet, Tyrone Guthrie had been especially aggressive in doing so, making bold use of oedipal interpretations with both Olivier and Guinness. He also did much to further the subtle development by which the hero’s surroundings were seen not merely as background but as milieu. Writing of the Olivier stage Hamlet, W. A. Darlington credits Guthrie’s direction with creating “that unity of atmosphere which builds itself up, touch by subtle and original touch, and makes one aware of an intelligence at work behind the scenes” (Daily Telegraph, 6 Jan. 1937). In performing these functions Guthrie and other stage directors paralleled the contemporary concern of literary critics such as Spurgeon (1935) and Mack (1951-2) to identify those recurring images in Hamlet (such as those of hidden disease) and other patterns (such as insistent questions) that contributed to “themes” with philosophical implications and together comprised a surrounding “world.” In the study as on the stage, interpreters were thus looking beyond the individual experiences of the characters toward larger unifying features. In his 1989 article, Billington would go so far as to say that “Elsinore itself, rather than the character of Hamlet, has now come to seem the play’s determining factor.”
The director’s responsibilities in satisfying these concerns were specified in 1949 by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who presented it as an already accomplished fact that it is the director
who will decide what it is he believes the play has to say and how he believes the dramatist tried to say it—who will, in fact, decipher and then make explicit by his control and co-ordination of casting, setting, costuming, balance, proportion and tempo that emotional-cum-intellectual statement and atmosphere which is real ‘unity.’ (ShS, 2, 1949, p. 17)
Although Hall exercised the director’s authority in these areas vigorously, he did not become dictatorial. The play itself resisted a simple working-out of Hall’s concept (after all, the Prince at long last does kill the King). Hall himself seems to have had a productive ambivalence about his own concept. On the one hand, he spoke in his statement about the play as a “clinical dissection” of the failures of the younger generation. On the other hand, he seems to have treated this concept as no more than a starting point in the production process, for his Prince Hamlet, embodying that failure, proved to be immensely sympathetic. At 24, David Warner, although very much under the direction of Hall, seems to have had a more precise feeling than did the director for the real attitudes of his generation. He showed a potential for action that was prophetic of the student uprisings to come at the end of the decade. In 1993 Hall reflected that Warner’s performance “completely expressed the spirit of the young of that period, gentle but dangerous” (Hall, 1993, Exhibition, p.188). Harold Hobson acknowledged that Warner did at times “wave his arms like a scythe, howl to the moon, and go after the king at a most unrefined gallop”; yet at the final duel, he shows “an obvious superiority of nerve and skill”:
He is spare, controlled, deadly, and most royally confident. For a long time he stands perfectly still, hardly troubling to move his sword, smiling unforgivably, while the active, sweating Laertes tries in vain to get at him from all angles....He goes to his death, unreconciled, unabsolved, but also unabsolving; in a word, most princely, most exalted, judging as well as being judged. (Sunday Times, 22 Aug. 1965)
Clearly it was more than Warner’s long red scarf and Oxford-style half-gown that won the production a cult status among the young.
Many of their elders appreciated it as well, despite early negative reviews protesting Warner’s lack of conventional princeliness. Its admirers testified to the production’s power to make them see the play as if for the first time. Robert Speaight declared that Warner “effortlessly” fulfilled the most important criterion for a Hamlet—that he be “a misfit about whose fate we must care passionately from the beginning to the end of a very long play” (SQ 16 (1965): 321). Ronald Bryden put his finger on the reason for the audience’s involvement, observing that Warner plays the Prince “as a real student, learning as he goes along. It’s this that gives the production its marvellous new life: he feels each line back to freshness, lives each scene as if for the first time....It’s hard to convey the excitement of seeing him make each discovery” New Statesman, 27 Aug. 1965). Warner, for example, spoke his soliloquies directly to the audience, seeking understanding—and finding it. He later testified that the rapport he experienced while playing the role at times approached a religious experience: “A lot of actors say there are moments, maybe just once in a split second in your career, you get next to God. There is this ONENESS—one moment where every single member of the audience is THERE, together with yourself, where you feel everybody is in tune, one split second...” (Maher, 1992, p. 62). To Penelope Gilliatt, the emphasis in the “to be or not to be” speech that Warner gave “the insolence of office” seemed to be speaking “for a whole debunking generation” and thus imprinting “an image of a pale, defiant boy, immensely tall and thin, trying to live with some sort of honest sense of dimension in an Elsinore where his elders pretend that their flat pretences are enough” (Observer, 22 Aug. 1965). Along the same line, John Russell Brown cites “Here they come” when Hamlet is being pursued by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in which Warner gives the words “a contemporary inflection that marks ‘they’ as a composite description of restrictive and uncompromising authority” (ShS, 19, 1966, p. 113).
It was in its anti-establishment attitudes that the production most directly reflected Hall’s original concept. Brewster Mason’s smooth, bland Claudius was an able, though corrupt, administrator and diplomat, “his oversize white hands turned palm upwards in a continual gesture of ‘political’ reconciliation” (Leiter, 1986, p. 140). In public he remained self-possessed at the showdown when he calls for lights, stopping the performance “with angry impatience—not startled guilt—when its continuation becomes an impertinence” (Daily Mail, 20 Oct. 1965). Tony Church’s Polonius was the “shrewd, tough, establishment figure” Hall called for, complete with “a clubland drawl” (Times [London], 20 Aug. 1965). He also harbored a streak of prurient sexuality; as Church puts it, “The heavy, moralizing father wanted the details of Hamlet’s behaviour to Ophelia, and of Laertes’ escapades in the brothels of Paris.” Adding greatly to his gravitas as councilor was “the intense concentration with which Claudius listened to his every word” (1985, pp. 107-8). Church told Stanley Wells that “he had in mind both Lord Burleigh and Mr. Macmillan, chief ministers of the two Elizabeth’s” (Wells, 1976, p. 32). John Bury’s set, with its huge spaces, ebony-like walls and grey and black marble-like floors suggested “a busy centre of Government and social glitter” (Times [London], 20 Aug. 1965), but was not overtly suspect. “Much better,” Speaight remarked, “for Hamlet to scent the corruption under a facade of sobriety” (SQ 16 (1965): 320). Only later did the wall panels revolve to reveal a collection of nude paintings (Birmingham Mail, 20 Aug. 1965).
But it was the Prince’s relationship with his father that provided the most intriguing ambivalences. Clearly, Hall wanted to emphasize the prince’s inadequacies. The player king’s crown proves too big for him and slides down his nose. He is far from being the king his father was. Yet is this a bad thing? To The Times “the Ghost’s call for vengeance is an invitation to involve himself in the life of action from which lies originate” (20 Aug. 1965) and to L. C. Knights “he is drawn more and more into the world of blood and revenge—a kind of regress” (quoted in Observer, 19 Dec. 1965). Hence the element of fear that Warner projected. He was at his best when scared, Gilliatt felt, as when he “prayed softly before he wheels round to face his father’s ghost.”
Warner’s laughter during his last speech was variously interpreted. Beyond Jan Kott’s idea of general absurdity, commentators discerned differing ironies: that circumstances had allowed him to carry out his father’s mission without his having to commit himself to it (Mills, 1985, p. 266); that “it was over at last, that action had been forced upon him” (Trewin, 1987, Five & Eighty, p. 133) ; that he “has finally achieved the princeliness he aspired to by dying” (Bryden, New Statesman, 27 Aug. 1965); that it should be young Fortinbras of Norway who—of all people—should end up ruling Denmark (Speaight, SQ 16 (1965): 320); that Hamlet has bequeathed such a “muckup” to his successor (Brien, Sunday Telegraph, 22 Aug. 1965). His last gesture, however, when he kissed his father’s miniature, left no room for ambiguity. The final image indeed had an iconic quality:
The four captains kneel on either side of the body. Awkwardly they hoist it on their shoulders, its arms outflung as if in horizontal crucifixion. As they pick their way upstage through heaped bodies, pale courtiers and dumbfounded soldiery, its head lolls behind them, staring back sightlessly at the audience. The lights dim, the stage darkens, a faint spotlight clings with a halo of luminosity to the receding arched throat and hanging head...[It] deliberately ends with the image which has closed every Hamlet you remember, formally conventional as a Byzantine icon. Hamlet has become Hamlet, statue, legend, the starry Prince (New Statesman, 27 Aug. 1965, p. 295).
In subsequent years, England has been quicker than the Continent to recognize the limitations of an all-controlling directorial concept. Too insistent a concern for unity can easily harden into a flattening uniformity. By 1974, Peter Brook had come to see that “the overall unifying image was much less than the play itself...; a play of Shakespeare, and therefore a production of Shakespeare, could go far beyond the unity that one man’s imagination could give, beyond that of the director and designer” (1987, pp. 78-9). In his 1976 Hamlet Peter Hall, too, was trying to break free from the expectation that a “simple thesis” should govern all: “What the critics have grown used to in this country, and I am as responsible as anybody, is a simplistic theory grafted on each production” (1984, Diaries, p. 239). By 1985 Roger Warren was praising the Roger Rees/Ron Daniels production precisely because it was “the least slanted” Hamlet he had seen, one that left “any larger significance to emerge from the telling of the story itself” (SQ 36 (1985): 79). Yet, as this production illustrated, an altogether neutral directorial approach may not be best either; there can be dramatic value in an overall interpretive line as long as it is not too insistent. In the 1965 RSC Hamlet, as in the 1912 Moscow Hamlet, a broadening enrichment happened quite spontaneously, where a strong director, a strong designer, a strong leading actor, and a strong supporting ensemble have interacted. The cross-currents that resulted from such interplay cancelled out what was reductive about them individually, leaving room for more of Shakespeare to come through.
The Mark Rylance/Ron Daniels Royal Shakespeare Company Production (1988)
The overall effect of the Craig and Warner productions had a loose unity that may be distinguished from the tighter unity exemplified by the 1925 modern-dress version and by the 1989 Royal Shakespeare Company touring production, directed by Ron Daniels with Mark Rylance as Hamlet. Designer Antony McDonald’s set focused boldly on its two thematic emphases. The dizzyingly out-of-kilter window and walls suggested a world that was dangerously “disjoint and out of frame”; Rylance likened it to “a palace tilting into the ocean” (Gilbert, “Rylance”). In particular, it expressionistically projected the Prince’s deranged sense of surroundings that were radically “out of joint”; reviewers felt strongly the atmosphere of a mental institution, an effect heightened when Rylance appeared in stained, striped pajamas and stockings to deliver the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. As Daniels explained to interviewers, the other thematic emphasis looked upon the play “as an inter-personal set of reactions within the family” (Newcastle upon Tyne Evening Chronicle 26 Sept. 1988). Hence the prominence of a large bed, not only in the closet scene but in the whole play-within-the-play sequence: Claudius’s attempt to pray took place on the bed; he glanced at it when he spoke there of “my queen.”
The two themes of course intertwine. King Hamlet is depicted as a loving husband—his Ghost protectively cradles Gertrude’s unresponding shoulders. But as a father he is stern and remote. When the Prince seeks to comfort the grieving Ghost, he pulls away, then takes his son by the collar to demand “if thou hast nature in thee....” Clearly, it is with his mother, played by Clare Higgins, that Hamlet has had a loving relationship—the closet scene will climax in an oedipal kiss that takes them both by surprise. But at first her affections are very much directed toward her new husband, who dotes on her. The Queen’s refusal to admit that her son has a mental problem is stubborn. As Higgins summed up Gertrude’s regal attitude, “We don’t have mental illness in the royal family” (Gilbert, “Rylance”). She sees the Queen as “someone who chooses to be silent...; she is in such denial at the beginning of the play—about her husband’s death, her sudden re-marriage to his brother, Hamlet’s grief and his behaviour—that for her to speak would be too dangerous” (Cox, 1992, p. 72). When she finally does admit the truth about her son at 2593, she screams it out: “Mad as the sea and wind” (SQ 41 [1990]:107). Higgins’ Gertrude regards Ophelia as “an image of my younger self—forbidden to speak, controlled and manipulated by those around her.” When Ophelia breaks her silence through madness, the Queen sees her own choices to be insanity or death: “As she sees everyone around her destroyed and corrupted, she chooses her own death, and re-claims herself” (Cox, 1992, pp. 72-3).
Although Peter Wight’s Claudius was at first patient with his difficult stepson, he is more and more appalled as he realizes the risk that Hamlet poses and the enormity of what he himself has done; after the play-scene he goes to pieces, giving way alternately to impolitic panic and rage. When the insolent Prince is washing off Polonius’s blood in a tin bathtub (4.3), he tries to extort the whereabouts of the body by dunking Hamlet’s head in the bath-water, nearly drowning him.
This family situation leaves Rylance’s Hamlet very much alone, vulnerable and suffering—to Helene Barratt his voice had “that peculiar vibrato of someone just about to burst into tears” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 Apr. 1989). He actually does weep a number of times. At “what an ass am I” (1623), for example, he weeps in hopeless bitterness, having cried out “O vengeance” from a fetal position, “as if conscious of his own impotence” (Manchester Guardian, 28 Apr. 1989). Desperate to escape, he is first seen, isolated and small, slumped, wearing a black overcoat, looking out the large askew window, shabby suitcase packed, and ready for departure to Wittenberg.
From this first appearance on, Rylance was an appealing figure, a boy surrounded by much taller men. As he has explained: “At the beginning you see him in a public situation, a very public situation, which is very painful to him, in a room that’s full of memories of his father who has died, with his mother with another man” (South Bank Show). When it comes time for his first soliloquy
he wrenches out ‘O that this too sullied flesh would melt...’, his back turned to us as if he cannot bear to look us in the eye as he speaks....He does not turn towards us until he speaks of his father: ‘so excellent a king,’ he explains, holding out a photograph of his father. He speaks directly to us, his face pleading for us to agree.... (Plays and Players, June 1989)
Throughout his soliloquies Rylance’s complete sincerity created a remarkable rapport with the audience, which he treated as his confidant. He told Rosenberg that when Hamlet comes to moments of confusion, as in “to be or not to be”: “that is a question—isn’t it?—There must be to and fro between the actors and the audience” (1992, p. 207).
This was a humorous Hamlet. Rylance could be subtle (he paused in a wryly self-deprecatory way before comparing himself to Hercules) or gross (he twice “mooned” Polonius), even sick (as he jauntily dragged off dead Polonius, he bid his mother a final “good night” through teeth clenched on his dagger). His ridicule of Claudius was particularly telling. After the success of his mousetrap he jubilantly capered on the bed on which the players had enacted the murder of Gonzago, the property crown on his head and a pillow about his middle in mockery of the “bloat” king. At “Come, for England” at the end of the bathtub scene (4.3), he jumped into the bath and mimed paddling himself in a boat. So intense was Rylance’s kinship with the court jester Yorick that he continued to carry the skull with him, for luck, during the fencing match.
This Hamlet was notably sympathetic to others. He comforted Horatio after his distraught “wondrous strange” (861), Ophelia after the nunnery exchange, his mother at the end of the closet scene, as he tucked her in bed. Yet the audience’s own sympathies for Rylance’s Hamlet were not unmixed. Indeed, reviewers felt it a prime strength of the production that it refused to over-simplify (TLS, 5 May 1989); that it made one wary of absolutes (SQ 41 [1990]:105); that through its evenhandedness it gained a “hard emotional authenticity” (Sunday Times, 30 Apr. 1989). Rylance’s appeal was especially tested by his outbursts of frenzy. In the nunnery scene, hurt and furious at Ophelia’s lie about her father, he curses her at “if thou wilt needs marry” and “throws her to the ground, straddling her, putting his hand up between her legs...then spitting in her face, and rubbing it around as if to erase the ‘painting’ that he accuses her of” (Gilbert, “Rylance”). In the closet scene his rage at Polonius/Claudius is even more frenzied, as he repeatedly stabs the eavesdropper through the bed sheets. Earlier he had pretended to stab Polonius in the same way at “It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf” (1960-1). Covered with blood, he gloats “A bloody deed,” putting the phrase “in inverted commas” (TLS, 5 May 1989).
Rylance’s Hamlet was clearly not simply assuming an “antic disposition.” At “It hath made me mad” (1802), he sometimes banged his head on the wall or clutched his head with terrifying self-awareness (Manchester Guardian, 28 Apr. 1989). It was the Ghost’s visitation that caused his madness: at “I have sworn’t” he cut his hand with his sword and smeared the blood on his forehead. He was frenetic during the subsequent swearings and almost collapsed after “O cursed spight, That euer I was borne to set it right” (885-6). The actor’s knowledgeableness about mental illness was confirmed by a patient in Broadmoor Hospital, who wrote to the Manchester Guardian (28 Dec. 1989) that Rylance “was able to capture every aspect of a person’s slip into the world of psychopathic, manipulative paranoia....Many of us here in Broadmoor are able to understand Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind because we have experienced such traumas.”
The play’s progressions were graphically underlined. As in the First Quarto, “to be or not to be” came before rather than after the soliloquy that ends “The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (1643-4). Daniels explained: “We have restructured the piece so that it builds to a crescendo...” (Newcastle upon Tyne Evening Chronicle, 26 Sept. 1988). Rylance’s costumes reflect his situation. Having worn an overcoat, then his pajamas, he dresses up for the play-within-the-play, sporting a white dinner-jacket with a flower pinned on and a white scarf over his pajama-top; but he soon strips them off and plays the closet scene in an undershirt.
Hamlet’s brief departure from Elsinore and sea adventure decisively mark his return to sanity and growth to maturity. No longer stooped over, he stands up straight. He wears pirate garb—a red shirt, white trousers, and a neckerchief. For the fencing match, the court is in black (still in mourning for Polonius and Ophelia). When Hamlet has put on his fencing jacket, he is all in white. At the end Rylance addresses “You that look pale and tremble” to the offstage spectators, and thus “once again”—Gilbert finely observes—”establishes that rapport with the audience which so marks this performance” (“Rylance”). In the South Bank Show, Rylance explained his final view of Hamlet thus: “He comes to some kind of peace, and I guess that’s part of the reason that makes it a tragedy. He’s actually reached the state of a prince at the time that he dies, and you should feel he would make a wonderful king.”
Hamlet at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
During the last decade of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first, Hamlet was a popular as ever. It was a play that players wanted to do and playgoers wanted to see. Hardly a year went by without a major new performance of the tragedy in London or Stratford-upon-Avon. Sometimes there was more than one. This interest was by no means confined to these venues. A number of the productions originated elsewhere or were designed to tour. In 1992 it was Kenneth Branagh who played the title role; in 1993, it was Alan Cumming; in 1994, Stephen Dillane; in 1995. Ralph Fiennes; in 1996, Michael Maloney; in 1997, Alex Jennings; in 1999, Paul Rhys; in 2000, Simon Russell Beale and Mark Rylance; in 2001, Adrian Lester and Samuel West—an unusually rich set of Hamlets. Many of these actors had admirers who proclaimed them the Hamlets of their time. Each of them, though, also had his detractors. And no one of them was decisively recognized as definitive. Taken together, however, their performances and the productions in which they starred can provide a composite picture of how Hamlet was done on the English stage at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Not only in popularity but in other ways as well, Hamlet’s perennial strengths remained intact. As always, its plot thrilled audiences. It seemed not to matter whether, as was most common, the various directors chose to present full-length versions lasting more than four hours or cut the playing time to three hours or less; whatever its length, the play retained its power to catch its reviewers up in its climaxes and sustain their attention throughout—to such an extent that for some it was as if they were seeing the play for the first time. This was partly because of the built-in dynamism with which the story unfolds. Partly it was because directors were careful to sustain the pace and flow of the action: Directors Peter Hall (with Dillane), Philip Franks (with Maloney), and Giles Block (with Rylance) were especially praised for the way each scene melted into the next. Only Jonathan Kent (with Fiennes) was felt to set too “dizzying” a pace, particularly in Fiennes’ headlong rendering of “to be or not to be.” Furthermore, audiences were engaged by the successive phases of Hamlet’s inner action, whether it led to philosophical acceptance of his destiny (as with Branagh, Rhys, and Rylance) or shrugging despair (as with Dillane and Jennings).
No less than before, the 400 year-old lines that Shakespeare gave his brilliantly articulate Prince continued to be eminently speakable. Regularly, in fact, it was for their verse-speaking that players of the title role were most praised. The most notable exception was Paul Rhys, whose verbal sensitivity was at times carried to self-conscious extremes. Other Hamlets of this period more successfully made Shakespeare’s words their own. Especially in the soliloquies, their language often seemed to commentators to be “new minted”—as if the speaker were “thinking aloud.” Cumming, for example, vividly showed the dawning of the idea of catching the king’s conscience by staging a play: it seemed to come to him “suddenly out of the blue.”
Not that these Hamlets delivered their lines in anything like the same ways. Clearly, Shakespeare’s words have lost none of their ability to accommodate alternative readings. With Maloney it was his wild volatility that they chiefly registered whereas with West it was his coolly analytical intelligence. Cumming revealed the hyperactivity of an adolescent mind. whereas Branagh exemplified a mature sobriety.
By their intonation these Hamlets could invest a single word with special meaning. Dillane conveyed his despair at the betrayal by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he insisted on extracting from them whether they were “sent” for or no (1335). Jennings gave an edge to his query before the fencing match as to whether the foils “have” all a length (3725). More than any of the rest, Russell Beale was singled out for the clarity and subtlety of his way with Shakespeare’s words. For example, he noted with irony the “dexterity” (341) with which his mother posted to incestuous sheets.
The whole role of Hamlet proved as subject to interpretation as it has through the ages. Like their predecessors, these Hamlets capitalized on the multifaceted qualities Shakespeare gave the Prince. For example, it was the youthfulness of “young Hamlet” that Cumming, like Betterton, emphasized; Branagh, like Garrick, was especially concerned to project his princeliness; Rhys, like Macready, was at first overcome by grief. Like Irving. Rylance walked the fine line between antic and real madness, while, like Forbes Robertson, Russell Beale emphasized the good nature of the “sweet Prince.” As with Gielgud early in his career, anger was a key factor in the portrayals of several of these Hamlets. Nightingale, for example observed how Dillane‘s anger “turned outward in mockery and inward in self-contempt” (Times [London], 7 Nov. 1994). As with Burton early in his career, Maloney and Jennings were men of action, confronted by external obstacles more than inner doubts. Although none of the eleven Hamlets surveyed in this section was especially introspective or melancholy, in other respects they might be regarded as a miniature variorum of interpretive options perennially latent in Shakespeare’s texts.
Certain performance trends that began in the latter part of the nineteenth century were carried further in the recent productions. Designers continued to be important. They were free to put a performance in a large grey box (Alison Chitty with West) or on a traverse stage (Es Devlin, with Rhys)—both arrangements underlined the isolation of the characters. Sets were typically abstract and virtually devoid of scenery. Designers occasionally ventured symbolic effects. Julian McGowan (with Maloney) put an open grave at the front of the stage and a warrior statue at the rear (this Elsinore was very much on a war-footing). Tim Hatley (with Russell Beale) deployed a pile of large suitcases, which—along with a candelabra that went up and down—were fussily rearranged to indicate changes of scene. Bob Crowley (with Branagh) moved from fastidious Edwardian detail in the first part of the play into surrealism: a field of dried up wreathes from Polonius’s funeral dominated the last act.
In accordance with the practice since the 1920s that allowed the play to be set in any era, costumes and décor for the productions being surveyed were mostly modern or Jacobean. With Cumming, designer Bonnie Christie mixed the two. Claudius and Polonius were in Elizabethan robes as were Gertrude and Ophelia, while the Players were mod and Fortinbras wore a flak jacket. Stretching eclecticism to an ultimate, Cumming himself appeared first in cloak, doublet, and hose, then changed to a baggy black T-shirt, Lycra cycling shorts, and black boots.
As became usual in the twentieth century, all the supporting characters in these productions had identities independent of their relationship with the Prince. Of them all, Polonius, almost always conceived as a wily courtier, was far and away the part whose players were most praised. Outstanding performances of the other roles were also noted. Of these Michael Pennington was found remarkable for bringing out the resemblances between his dithering King and Dillane’s Prince. Jane Lapotaire as Queen (with Branagh) scarcely took her eyes off her son, as if literally living by his looks. It’s rare for the actor playing Horatio to be noticed at all, but Richard Linterne (with Rhys) was again and again extolled by reviewers for his portrayal of him as a virile, stubble-chinned, sure-footed, quietly reliable man of the world. In general the members of the supporting cast in this last production, directed by Lawrence Boswell, were exceptionally strong, both in their individual portrayals and in their interactions. Suzanne Bertish as Gertrude powerfully charted her estrangement from Donald Sumpter’s conscience-stricken yet coolly lethal Claudius and her transfer of loyalty to Hamlet. Robin Soans as Polonius was not only an explosively energetic courtier but a fond father to vigorous Laertes (Christopher Bowen) and a moving Ophelia (Megan Dodds), whom he nevertheless exploits. By eye contact and the conviction with which they spoke their lines, these actors created a compelling sense of the inner lives of the two families whose tragedies the play presents.
Such ensemble interaction was largely missing from the other productions. Instead of placing the Prince in a web of relationships, the turn-of-the-century Hamlets tended to focus more on him as an individual and less on his surroundings. Of course, this did not constitute a throwback all the way to the monodramas of earlier centuries where Hamlet and the actor playing him were all-dominating. Yet more than in the recent past, renewed prominence was given to the star playing the title role while the importance of the director was reduced.
It’s true that Warchus (with Jennings) and Brook (with Lester) sought as if in the heyday of directors’ theater to impose their views of the play through heavy cutting and rearrangement. Caird and his designer Hatley (with Russell Beale) sought to create a heavily Christian atmosphere through medieval choral music and a cathedral-like set that featured a large suspended cross. It was to their Hamlets, nonetheless, that reviewers gave most attention. The hand of other directors was most evident in small touches. For Maloney grotesque puppets did the Prologue to the play-within while for West Horatio shot a home video of the proceedings which when blown up revealed the reactions of the King and Queen. For Rhys an army of small, Chinese-style terracotta soldiers suggested Fortinbras’ forces while for Cumming they were depicted by footage from the Falkland conflict shown on a TV screen.
The most striking reversion to earlier practice in several of these productions was the cutting of Fortinbras. Since Forbes Robertson restored him to the cast, it had been customary during the rest of the twentieth century for him to conclude the play as called for in Shakespeare’s texts, often—since he is Norwegian—to ironic effect. Spotting a trend, reviewers deplored his omission, feeling that with Fortinbras went the whole political dimension of the play. Significantly, Brook, with Lester, not only cut Fortinbras but also cut “Prince of Denmark” from the title. Even productions that included the Norwegian Prince often played down this dimension. A good many reviewers therefore welcomed the 2001 production directed by Steven Pimlott (with West), which not only restored Fortinbras but also strongly emphasized the politics of Elsinore. Indeed, some reviewers felt that Pimlott had gone too far in treating Hamlet as a cold, hard play about power.
Did any of the Hamlets of this period bring something distinctively new to the Hamlet performance tradition? One such innovation was the black comedy that was emphasized to an unusual degree by Dillane and Rylance. Shakespeare gave his Prince a keen wit, and most Hamlets have exercised it; but few have provoked as much laughter as these two. Some of their clowning was simply playful, as when Dillane imitated a crab walking backwards and cheated during the fencing match. He not only mocked Polonius the character but wickedly mimicked the orotund style of Donald Sinden who played the part. Rylance also frequently amused his audience with light humor. When Hamlet jibes at the groundlings who are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows, Rylance first invited those standing in the pit of Shakespeare’s Globe to laugh at their own expense. Then, with masterful timing, he sprang the playful trap. Eying those who had been laughing the loudest, he added, “and noise.”
The antics of the two black humorists could also turn gross, as when Rylance, recycling business from his 1988 performance, thrust his buttocks at Polonius and when Dillane made his mother smell the rank sweat of an enseamed bed. It was in the aftermath of Polonius’s death that their comedy became most extreme. Rylance punched a bloodstained bag that his horrified pursuers, and the audience, assumed to contain Polonius’s head; when he took the “head” from the bag it proved to be a cabbage, which he tossed in the air. His clothes stained with Polonius’s blood, Dillane took them all off: he was naked except for the Player King’s crown. And then, depending on Dillane’s mood at the moment, he either streaked off, strolled off jauntily, or strode off purposefully. Or if the moment didn’t seem right, he did not strip naked at all. Not that comedy was all there was to either portrayal: with remarkable facility, both actors could switch convincingly from comedy to more serious concerns.
The other distinctive innovation distinguished Russell Beale from previous Hamlets: namely, an intense nostalgia, a yearning for an earlier time when his nuclear family was still intact. The inspiration for this innovation appears to have come from Charlotte Jones’s then new Humble Boy, a companion production to Hamlet in which Russell Beale also played the lead, with the same director and some of the same cast. Its hero was driven by the same yearning. In the closet scene Russell Beale’s Hamlet had his wish come briefly true. He was touched at the same time by his mother and the ghost of his father. For just that moment, when the only child was again united with his parents, a look of total bliss crossed his face.
In the long line of Hamlet stage performances, how in sum are the turn-of-the-century productions likely to be remembered? That period may well be seen as a time when the Hamlets were outstanding but the Hamlets less so. Certainly a remarkable number of the very best British actors of their generation starred in the title role. Since their interpretations were sound, if not definitive or very innovative, the Prince’s individual tragedy was well served. So was the play’s plot, thanks to the various directors who saw to the rapid flow of the action. In this they were often greatly aided by the uncluttered sets provided by their designers. To a degree these sets and the costumes also helped to suggest an encompassing environment. Yet in other respects it was precisely in the suggestion of larger contexts that almost all the productions were weak. Although certain outstanding supporting actors brought out the personal tragedies of their characters, the supporting casts in general were simply not strong enough to form an ensemble whose interactions could create a distinctive social world—an Elsinore. Furthermore, by and large the state of Denmark—threatened by war from abroad and dangerous insurrection at home, embroiled in domestic and international intrigue—scarcely figured in most of these productions, particularly those in which Fortinbras was omitted. As a result the play’s resonance was typically limited to the Prince’s personal tragedy or at most to the downfall of two families. It is to be hoped that productions to come in the new millennium will rise closer to the full scope of Shakespeare’s originating imagination.
The Costumes of Hamlet and Ophelia
As Hamlet, Burbage clearly wore black. Ophelia's description at 974-7 confirms that, as was the general custom, he wore the clothing of his own time, as distinguished from “period costume” of medieval Denmark. In that sense he was the first Hamlet to wear “modern dress,” a practice that was to continue for the next two centuries. After the Restoration illustrators seem to be reflecting stage practice in picturing Hamlet as wearing contemporary attire, and we know that Betterton wore a neckcloth because, by a contemporary account, when he saw the Ghost his ordinarily ruddy face turned “as pale as his neckcloath” (Laureat, 1740, p. 31). Until the latter part of the 18th century, Hamlet's costume continued to be that of “a modern gentleman in a black suit such as might be seen any day in the Mall”—as John Doran described Charles Macklin (1864, 2:421). Accordingly, Garrick kept Hamlet's reference to his “mourning suit” as in the players’ texts from 1676 on rather than “inky cloak” from the literary editions of his time. Controversially, however, Garrick modified conventional style by following the elegant fashion of the French court (Lichtenberg 1974, rpt. 1938, p. 21). Other parts of his costume were essential to the effect of his famous “start” at first seeing the ghost: his hat, to be knocked off with a “grace and elegance” that successors could only aspire to (Sprague, 1944, p. 139), and his wig, whose hairs may well have been wired to stand on end (Roach, 1982).
The next phase in Hamlet costuming was inaugurated by Kemble in the early 1780s. Just as he replaced modernized vocabulary with original readings (restoring “inky cloak,” for example), he was the first of the latter-day Hamlets to wear garb suggestive of Shakespeare's own period, variously referred to as “Vandyke” or “Old English” or “stage Elizabethan.” His basic costume of doublet and short, stuffed breeches with tights, plus a prominent medallion of his father, predominated for the next fifty years. His regalia also included garters, a blue ribbon symbolizing the order of the Elephant, and a baldric; in the graveyard, as in Thomas Lawrence's famous portrait, he wore a cloak and sable-plumed hat (Pentzell, 1972, pp. 81-5). Such trappings were modified by leading Hamlets who followed this style, such as Young and Kean. Dickens satirized it in the garb of Mr. Wopsle, the would-be tragedian in Great Expectations (Chapters 27 and 31), with his obligatory hat, feathers, ribbon, star, cloak, stocking “disordered” by a very neat and ironed fold in the top and white napkin (to dust his fingers after handling Yorick’s skull).
The third phase accompanied the archeological style of decor and simulated medieval Denmark. In 1838 Charles Kean was the first Hamlet to wear a tunic with hose, soon followed by Macready and most other Hamlets until the mid-1920s. There were of course individual variations. Booth made conspicuous use of the cross-gartering characteristic of the early period, Wilson Barrett was notorious for his plunging neckline, Irving modified the medieval look of the tunic with Renaissance touches, including a jeweled sword-belt and a furred open jacket indoors or a furred cloak outdoors. He drew ridicule by affecting a plumed hat a la Kemble.
The fourth phase has been self-consciously eclectic. There have been a number of “modern dress” productions. Colin Keith-Johnston not only wore “plus fours” in the last act of the Birmingham Repertory production of 1925 but had earlier worn wide, baggy trousers known as "Oxford bags" and a dinner jacket. Usually Hamlet wears two costumes at most, but in 1938 Alec Guinness was dressed variously as “a sort of Salvation Army bandmaster, as an undergraduate at Keble [College, Oxford], as a lean intellectual in a lounge-suit. In the play scene he is a Guards' officer, and eventually he comes to handle Yorick's skull in the impertinent jersey and jack boots of a fisherman” (Manchester Guardian, 12 Oct). Many twentieth century Hamlets have worn garb of the Early Modern period, whether on the model of Dürer (as with the puffed sleeves, short surcoat, and slashed tights that Gyles Isham wore in the influential 1924 Oxford University Dramatic Society production) or of Van Dyke (as in Gielgud's 1935 costume in New York). More recent Hamlets have worn the clothing of later periods. In 1966, wearing his Regency costume, Richard Pasco was very much the Romantic poet cast upon the thorns of life. In 1948 Paul Scofield wore an early Victorian frock coat, narrow strapped trousers, and fly-away tie that set Kenneth Tynan thinking of Matthew Arnold and his Scholar Gipsy (1950, p. 111). In 1992 Kenneth Branagh's formal, upright Prince wore an Edwardian uniform, with a black armband, before being confined in a strait-jacket. In 1964 Burton wore contemporary street-clothes—slacks and a V-necked shirt—as if in rehearsal (D.A. Russell, 1956; plus Mander and Mitchenson, 1958, “Correction”).
Hamlet’s assumption of an “antic disposition” has often been reflected in his costume. Ophelia describes his altered attire and behavior at 974-7. In 1604 Anthony Scoloker alludes to a character who “puts off his cloathes, his shirt he only weares” (hamletwork.org CN for 974-6). Lichtenberg describes Garrick's dishabille: “his thick hair disheveled and a lock hanging over one shoulder; one of his black stockings has slipped down so as to show his white socks, and a loop of his red garter is hanging down beyond the middle of the calf” (1938, p. 16). It appears that during the Restoration period and 18th century, Hamlet's stockings were traditionally “down-gyved.” The frontispiece to Rowe’s 1709 edition, which may well reflect performance in Betterton's time, shows his stocking fallen down. At mid-century The Connoisseur observed: “The players are afraid we should lose sight of Hamlet's pretended madness, if the black stockings, discovering a white one underneath, was not rolled half way down the leg”(19 Sept. 1754). In the late 1790s, prints show Henry Johnston thus attired. In 1838 it was regarded as a controversial “new reading” when Charles Kean entered “without any disorder of dress” (Dramatic Essays, 1894, p. 45; also Cole, 1860, 1:282); perhaps it seemed out of keeping with the tunic and hose he was introducing. After that the practice appears to have become much less common, and to Gielgud in 1937 it seemed “almost impossible, in any costume, to follow Ophelia's detailed account...without continually distracting the audience” (Gilder, 1937, p. 32). Later Hamlets have felt freer in marking his antic change. Warner wore spectacles and a funny hat. In 1992-93 Branagh donned a straitjacket “as a prop that goes with his double talk” (Shakespeare Bulletin, Fall, 1994, p. 7); later the King would use it as a forcible constraint on his “mad” nephew.
Ophelia’s madness has regularly been reflected in her appearance and manner. Q1 directs: “Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing.” When Ellen Terry played the role it was customary for Ophelias to wear white in the mad scenes. She entertainingly tells of, quite innocently, proposing to wear black instead. Irving after much diplomatic hemming and hawing over a period of days at last sent an intermediary who expostulated “My God! Madam, there must be only one black figure in this play, and that's Hamlet!” She wore white (Terry, 1970, Memoirs, p. 123-4). Clement Scott was struck by her first appearance, “in her clinging white robe, her fair, clustering hair, and a lily branch in her hand” (1905, Hamlets, p. 182n). Julia Marlowe's promptbook indicates that she “carries delicate white scarf over left arm, holds lute in right hand” (she accompanied her singing on the lute). In contrast, Forbes Robertson's mad Ophelias did wear black: Mrs. Patrick Campbell wore a black veil over a white dress and his wife Gertrude Elliott wore complete black (Mander and Mitchenson, 1955, Hamlet, p. 111). Modjeska wore “a colored silk gown” (Phelps, 1977, p. 97). Lillian Gish, with Gielgud in 1936, wore an orange stocking, like an opera-glove, over her left hand and arm (Gilder, 1937, p. 199); the idea came from seeing a “bag lady” wearing nylon stockings for gloves (Rosenberg, 1992, p. 774). The attire worn by later Ophelias has made her strangeness still more graphic. By 1964 Gielgud was taking exception to “the wild indecency” in recent productions, “with Ophelia tearing off her clothes and clutching all the gentlemen”; nonetheless, later in rehearsal he urged Linda Marsh to “wear your blouse right open”; he went on to wonder delicately if she might be willing “just to wear the brassiere and the skirt” before rejecting the idea: “You might look like the Playboy Bunny of Elsinore” (Sterne, 1967, pp. 16-17, 92-3). In 1965 Glenda Jackson playing opposite Tony Church's authoritarian Polonius wore her dead father's robe, signifying his suffocating influence; in 1980 Carol Royle with Church this time playing a much kindlier Polonius also wore his robe, recalling the business at 1.3.136 and signifying that she had been overpowered by too much paternal love (Church, 1985, p. 110). Elaborating on the pattern, Joanne Pearce in the Branagh/Noble production does not wear her father's topcoat as she did at the end of 1.2 but his bloodstained evening suit.

N. B. This survey reworks portions of my "Introduction" to HAMLET: Shakespeare in Production. Cambridge UP, 1999.
Full bibliographical accounts of promptbooks and study books up to 1960 are given in Charles H. Shattuck, The Shakespeare Promptbooks, and in “The Shakespeare Promptbooks: first supplement,” Theatre Notebook, 24, 1969, pp. 5-17. Numbers in parentheses for these materials refer to Shattuck’s listing.
Works Cited
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Burton, Richard. “Interview.” Playboy, Sept. 1963, 51-63.
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Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. OUP, 1930.
Church, Tony. “Polonius in Hamlet.” Players of Shakespeare. Ed. P. Brockbank. Cambridge, 1985, 103-14.
Cibber, Colley. An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber. Ed. B. R. S. Fone. Ann Arbor, 1968.
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