Hamlet in performance

Hamlet in performance

"Hamlet" by William Shakespeare has been performed many times over since the beginning of the 17th century.

hakespeare's day to the Interregnum

Shakespeare wrote the role of Hamlet for Richard Burbage, chief tragedian of The Lord Chamberlain's Men: an actor with a capacious memory for lines, and a wide emotional range.Taylor (2002, 4); Banham (1998, 141); Hattaway asserts that "Richard Burbage [...] played Hieronimo and also Richard III but then was the first Hamlet, Lear, and Othello" (1982, 91); Peter Thomson argues that the identity of Hamlet as Burbage is built into the dramaturgy of several moments of the play: "we will profoundly misjudge the position if we do not recognise that, whilst this is Hamlet talking "about" the groundlings, it is also Burbage talking "to" the groundlings" (1983, 24); see also Thomson on the first player's beard (1983, 110). A researcher at the British Library feels able to assert only that Burbage "probably" played Hamlet; see [http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/playhamlet.html its page on "Hamlet"] .] Hamlet appears to have been Shakespeare's fourth most popular play during his lifetime, eclipsed only by "Henry VI Part 1", "Richard III" and "Pericles". [Taylor (2002, 18).] Although the story was set many centuries before, at The Globe the play was performed in Elizabethan dress. [Taylor (2002, 13).]

"Hamlet" was acted by the crew of the ship "Dragon", off Sierra Leone, in September 1607. [Chambers (1930, vol. 1, 334), cited by Dawson (2002, 176).] Court performances occurred in 1619 and in 1637, the latter on January 24 at Hampton Court Palace. [Pitcher and Woudhuysen (1969, 204).] G R Hibbard argues that, since Hamlet is second only to Falstaff among Shakespeare's characters in the number of allusions and references in contemporary literature, the play must have been performed with a frequency missed by the historical record. [Hibbard (1987, 17).]

Restoration and 18th century

The play was revived early in the Restoration era: in the division of existing plays between the two patent companies, "Hamlet" was the only Shakespearean favourite to be secured by Sir William Davenant's Duke's Company. [Marsden (2002, 21-22).] Davenant cast Thomas Betterton in the central role, and he would continue to pay Hamlet until he was 74. [Thompson and Taylor (2006a, 98-99).] David Garrick at Drury Lane produced a version which heavily adapted Shakespeare, saying: "I had sworn I would not leave the stage till I had rescued that noble play from all the rubbish of the fifth act. I have brought it forth without the grave-digger's trick, Osrick, & the fencing match." [Letter to Sir William Young, 10 January 1773, quoted by Uglow (1977, 473).] . The first actor known to have played "Hamlet" in North America was Lewis Hallam, Jr. in the American Company's production in Philadelphia in 1759. [Morrison (2002, 231).]

John Philip Kemble made his Drury Lane debut as Hamlet, in 1783. [Moody (2002, 41).] His performance was said to be twenty minutes longer than anyone else's and his lengthy pauses led to the cruel suggestion that "music should be played between the words." [Moody (2002, 44), quoting Sheridan.] Sarah Siddons is the first actress known to have played Hamlet, and the part has subsequently often been played by women, to great acclaim. [Gay (2002, 159).] In 1748, Alexander Sumarokov wrote a Russian adaptation focusing on Prince Hamlet as the embodiment of an opposition to Claudius' tyranny: a theme that would pervade Eastern European adaptations into the twentieth century. [Dawson (2002, 185-7).] In the years following America's independence, Thomas Abthorpe Cooper was the young nation's leading tragedian, performing "Hamlet" (among other plays) at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and the Park Theatre in New York. Although chided for "acknowledging acquaintances in the audience" and "inadequate memorisation of his lines", he became a national celebrity. [Morrison (2002, 232-3).]

19th century

In the romantic and early Victorian eras, the highest-quality Shakespearean performances in the United States were tours by leading London actors, including George Frederick Cooke, Junius Brutus Booth, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready and Charles Kemble. Of these, Booth remained to make his career in the States, fathering the nation's most famous Hamlet and its most notorious actor: Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth. [Morrison (2002, 235-7).] Charles Kemble initiated an enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the French: his 1827 Paris performance of "Hamlet" was viewed by leading members of the Romantic movement, including Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, who particularly admired Harriet Smithson's performance of Ophelia in the mad scenes. [Holland (2002, 203-5).] Edmund Kean was the first Hamlet to abandon the regal finery usually associated with the role in favour of a plain costume and to play Hamlet as serious and introspective. [Moody (2002, 54).] The actor-managers of the Victorian era (including Kean, Phelps, Macready and Irving) staged Shakespeare in a grand manner, with elaborate scenery and costumes. [Schoch (2002, 58-75).] In stark contrast, William Poel's production of the first quarto text in 1881 was an early attempt at reconstructing Elizabethan theatre conditions, and was set simply against red curtains. [Halliday (1964, 204) and O'Connor (2002, 77).]

The tendency of the actor-managers to play up the importance of their own central character did not always meet with the critics' approval. Shaw's praise for Forbes-Robertson's performance ends with a sideswipe at Irving: "The story of the play was perfectly intelligible, and quite took the attention of the audience off the principal actor at moments. What is the Lyceum coming to?" [George Bernard Shaw in "The Saturday Review" 2 October, 1897, quoted in Shaw (1961, 81).] "Hamlet" had toured in Germany within five years of Shakespeare's death, [Dawson (2002, 176).] and by the middle of the nineteenth century had become so assimilated into German culture as to spawn Ferdinand Freiligrath's assertion that "Germany is Hamlet" [Dawson (2002, 184).] From the 1850s in India, the Parsi theatre tradition transformed Hamlet into folk performances, with dozens of songs added. [Dawson (2002, 188).] In the United States, Edwin Booth's "Hamlet" became a theatrical legend. He was described as "like the dark, mad, dreamy, mysterious hero of a poem... [acted] in an ideal manner, as far removed as possible from the plane of actual life." [William Winter, "New York Tribune" 26 October 1875, quoted by Morrison (2002, 241).] Booth played Hamlet for 100 nights in the 1864/5 season at the Winter Garden Theatre, inaugurating the era of long-run Shakespeare in America. [Morrison (2002, 241).] Sarah Bernhardt played the prince in her popular 1899 London production, and in contrast to the "effeminate" view of the central character which usually accompanied a female casting, she described her character as "manly and resolute, but nonetheless thoughtful... [he] thinks before he acts, a trait indicative of great strength and great spiritual power." [Sarah Bernhardt, in a letter to the London "Daily Telegraph", quoted by Gay (2002, 164).]

20th century

Apart from some nineteenth-century visits by western troupes, the first professional performance of Hamlet in Japan was Otojiro Kawakami's 1903 "Shimpa" ("new school theatre") adaptation. [Gillies "et al" (2002, 259).] Shoyo Tsubouchi translated "Hamlet" and produced a performance in 1911, blending "Shingeki" ("new drama") and "Kabuki" styles. [Gillies "et al." (2002, 261).] This hybrid-genre reached its height in Fukuda Tsuneari's 1955 "Hamlet". [Gillies "et al." (2002, 262).] In 1998, Yukio Ninagawa produced an acclaimed version of "Hamlet" in the style of Noh theatre, which he took to London. [Dawson (2002, 180).]

Particularly important for the history of theatre is the Moscow Art Theatre's production of 1911-12, on which two of the 20th century's most influential theatre practitioners, Constantin Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig, collaborated. [Craig and Stanislavski were introduced by Isadora Duncan in 1908, from which time they began planning the production. Due to a serious illness of Stanislavski's, the production was delayed, eventually opening in December of 1911. See Benedetti (1998, 188-211).] Craig conceived of their production as a symbolist monodrama, in which every aspect of production would be subjugated to the play's protagonist; the play would present a dream-like vision seen through Hamlet's eyes. To support this interpretation, Craig wanted to add archetypal, symbolic figures—such as Madness, Murder, and Death—and to have Hamlet present on-stage during every scene, silently observing those in which he did not participate; Stanislavski overruled him. [On Craig's relationship to Russian symbolism and its principles of monodrama in particular, see Taxidou (1998, 38-41); on Craig's staging proposals, see Innes (1983, 153); on the centrality of the protagonist and his mirroring of the 'authorial self', see Taxidou (1998, 181, 188) and Innes (1983, 153).]

Craig wanted stylized abstraction, while Stanislavski wanted psychological motivation. Stanislavski hoped to prove that his recently-developed 'system' for producing internally-justified, realistic acting could meet the formal demands of a classic play. [Benedetti (1999, 189, 195). Despite the apparent opposition between Craig's symbolism and Stanislavski's psychological realism, the latter had developed out of his experiments with symbolist drama, which had shifted his emphasis from a naturalistic external surface to the inner world of the character's "spirit". See Benedetti (1998, part two).] Stanislavski's vision of Hamlet was as an active, energetic and crusading character, whereas Craig saw him as a representation of a spiritual principle, caught in a mutually-destructive struggle with the principle of matter as embodied in all that surrounded him. [See Benedetti (1998, 190, 196) and Innes (1983, 149).]

The most famous aspect of the production is Craig's use of a single, plain set that varied from scene to scene by means of large, abstract screens that altered the size and shape of the acting area. [See Innes (1983, 140-175). There is a persistent theatrical myth that these screens were impractical, based on a passage in Stanislavski's "My Life in Art"; Craig demanded that Stanislavski delete it and Stanislavski admitted that the incident occurred only during a rehearsal, eventually providing a sworn statement that it was due to an error by the stage-hands. Craig had envisaged visible stage-hands to move the screens, but Stanislavski had rejected the idea, forcing a curtain close and delay between scenes. The screens were also built ten feet taller than Craig's designs specified. See Innes (1983, 167-172).] These arrangements were used to provide a spatial representation of the character's state of mind or to underline a dramaturgical progression across a sequence of scenes, as elements were retained or transformed. [Innes (1983, 165-167).]

The kernel of Craig's interpretation lay in the staging of the first court scene (1.2). [Innes (1983, 152).] The screens lined up along the back wall and were bathed in diffuse yellow light; from a high throne bathed in a diagonal, bright golden beam, a pyramid descended, representing the feudal hierarchy, which gave the illusion of a single, unified golden mass, with the courtier's heads sticking out from slits in the material. In the foreground in dark shadow, Hamlet lay as if dreaming. A gauze was hung between Hamlet and the court, so that on Claudius' exit-line the figures remained but the gauze was loosened, so that they appeared to melt away as Hamlet's thoughts turned elsewhere. The scene received an ovation, which was unheard of at the MAT. [Innes (1983, 152).] Despite hostile reviews from the Russian press, the production attracted enthusiastic and unprecedented worldwide attention for the theatre and placed it "on the cultural map for Western Europe." [Innes (1983, 172).]

"Hamlet" is often played with contemporary political overtones: Leopold Jessner's 1926 production at the Berlin Staatstheater portrayed Claudius' court as a parody of the corrupt and fawning court of Kaiser Wilhelm. [Hortmann (2002, 214).] "Hamlet" is also a psychological play: John Barrymore introduced Freudian overtones into the closet scene and mad scene of his landmark 1922 production in New York, which ran for 101 nights (breaking Booth's record). He took the production to the Haymarket in London in 1925 and it greatly influenced subsequent performances by John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. [Morrison (2002, 247-8).] Gielgud has played the central role many times: his 1936 New York production ran for 136 performances, leading to the accolade that he was "the finest interpreter of the role since Barrymore." [Morrison (2002, 249).] Although "posterity has treated Maurice Evans less kindly", throughout the 1930s and 1940s it was he, not Gielgud or Olivier, who was regarded as the leading interpreter of Shakespeare in the United States and in the 1938/9 season he presented Broadway's first uncut "Hamlet", running four and a half hours. [Morrison (2002, 249-50).]

In 1937, Tyrone Guthrie directed Olivier in a "Hamlet" at the Old Vic based on psychoanalyst Ernest Jones' "Oedipus complex" theory of Hamlet's behaviour. [Smallwood (2002, 102).] Olivier was involved in another landmark production, directing Peter O'Toole as Hamlet in the inaugural performance of the newly formed National Theatre, in 1963. [Smallwood (2002, 108).]

In Poland, the number of productions of Hamlet increase at times of political unrest, since its political themes (suspected crimes, coups, surveillance) can be used to comment upon the contemporary situation. [Hortmann (2002, 223).] Similarly, Czech directors have used the play at times of occupation: a 1941 Vinohrady Theatre production was said to have "emphasised, with due caution, the helpless situation of an intellectual attempting to endure in a ruthless environment." [Burian (1993), quoted by Hortmann (2002, 224-5).] In China, performances of Hamlet have political significance: Gu Wuwei's 1916 "The Usurper of State Power", an amalgam of "Hamlet" and "Macbeth", was an attack on Yuan Shikai's attempt to overthrow the republic. [Gillies "et al." (2002, 267).] In 1942, Jiao Juyin directed the play in a Confucian temple in Sichuan Province, to which the government had retreated from the advancing Japanese. [Gillies "et al." (2002, 267).] In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the protests at Tiananmen Square, Lin Zhaohua staged a 1990 "Hamlet" in which the prince was an ordinary individual tortured by a loss of meaning. The actors playing Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius exchanged places at crucial moments in the performance: including the moment of Claudius' death, at which the actor usually associated with Hamlet fell to the ground. [Gillies "et al." (2002, 268-9).]

creen performances

The earliest screen success for "Hamlet" was Sarah Bernhardt's five-minute film of the fencing scene, in 1900. The film was a crude "talkie", in that music and words were recorded on phonograph records, to be played along with the film. [Brode (2001, 117).] Silent versions were released in 1907, 1908, 1910, 1913 and 1917. [Brode (2001, 117)] In 1920, Asta Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman who spends her life disguised as a man. [Brode (2001, 118).] Laurence Olivier's 1948 film noir feature won best picture and best actor Oscars. His interpretation stressed the Oedipal overtones of the play, to the extent of casting the 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as Hamlet's mother, opposite himself as Hamlet, at 41. [Davies (2000, 171).] "Gamlet" ( _ru. "Гамлет") is a 1964 film adaptation in Russian, based on a translation by Boris Pasternak and directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. [Guntner (2000, 120-121).] John Gielgud directed Richard Burton at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1964-5, and a film of a live performance was produced, in "ELECTRONOVISION". [Brode (2001, 125-7).] Franco Zeffirelli's Shakespeare films have been described as "sensual rather than cerebral": his aim to make Shakespeare "even more popular". [Both quotations from Cartmell (2000, 212), where the aim of making Shakespeare "even more popular" is attributed to Zeffirelli himself in an interview given to The South Bank Show in December 1997.] To this end, he cast the Australian actor Mel Gibson - then famous as Mad Max - in the title role of his 1990 version, and Glenn Close - then famous as the psychotic "other woman" in "Fatal Attraction" - as Gertrude. [Guntner (2000, 121-122).]

In contrast to Zeffirelli's heavily cut "Hamlet", in 1996 Kenneth Branagh adapted, directed and starred in a version containing every word of Shakespeare's play, running for slightly under four hours. [Crowl (2000, 232).] Branagh set the film with Victorian era costuming and furnishings; and Blenheim Palace, built in the early 18th century, became Elsinore Castle in the external scenes. The film is structured as an epic and makes frequent use of flashbacks to highlight elements not made explicit in the play: Hamlet's sexual relationship with Kate Winslet's Ophelia, for example, or his childhood affection for Ken Dodd's Yorick. [Keyishian (2000 78, 79)] In 2000, Michael Almereyda set the story in contemporary Manhattan, with Ethan Hawke playing Hamlet as a film student. Claudius became the CEO of "Denmark Corporation", having taken over the company by killing his brother. [Burnett (2000).]


"Hamlet" has been adapted into stories that deal with civil corruption by the West German director Helmut Käutner in "Der Rest is Schweigen" ("The Rest is Silence") and by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in "Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemeru" ("The Bad Sleep Well"). [Howard (2000, 300-301).] In Claude Chabrol's "Ophélia" (France, 1962) the central character, Yvan, watches Olivier's "Hamlet" and convinces himself—wrongly and with tragic results—that he is in Hamlet's situation. [Howard (2000, 301-2).] In 1977, East German playwright Heiner Müller wrote "Die Hamletmaschine" ("Hamletmachine") a postmodernist, condensed version of "Hamlet"; this adaptation was subsequently incorporated into his translation of Shakespeare's play in his 1989/1990 production "Hamlet/Maschine" ("Hamlet/Machine"). [Teraoka (1985, 13).] Tom Stoppard directed a 1990 film version of his own play "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead". [Brode (2001, 150).] The highest-grossing "Hamlet" adaptation to-date is Disney's Academy Award-winning animated feature "The Lion King": although, as befits the genre, the play's tragic ending is avoided. [Vogler (1992, 267-275).] In addition to these adaptations, there are innumerable references to Hamlet in other works of art.


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