Hamlet, prince of Denmark on stage - Hamlet, prince of Denmark

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Hamlet, prince of Denmark on stage
Hamlet, prince of Denmark


Most people who know their Shakespeare are surprised and disconcerted by the cutting of so much material when they see the otherwise admirable film of Hamlet by Laurence Olivier (1948): all of Fortinbras’s role and the negotiations with Norway, all of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a good deal of Act 4, and still more. The supposed reason, that a film must cut heavily to make room for visual material and to be of an acceptable length, is of course true in the main, but it overlooks the long history of the play in production. Many of the same cuts prevailed from the Restoration until the later nineteenth century as a way not only of shortening a long play but of highlighting the role of Hamlet for the lead actor.

Even in its own day, Hamlet (with Richard Burbage in the title role) must have been heavily cut, especially in the fourth act; the unauthorized quarto of 1603, though garbled presumably by the actors who helped to prepare a stolen copy, appears to be the report of a shortened acting text. During the Restoration, the published edition of the version that diarist Samuel Pepys saw and enjoyed five times during the 1660s was offered to its readers with a warning: “This play being too long to be conveniently acted, such places as might be least prejudicial to the plot or sense are left out upon the stage.” This Hamlet, prepared by William Davenant and acted by Thomas Betterton at intervals from 1661 until 1709, took out some 841 lines, including most of Fortinbras’s part, Polonius’s advice to Laertes and instructions to Reynaldo, much of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the scene between Hamlet and Fortinbras’s captain (4.4), and other matters, though the appearance of Fortinbras at the end was retained. Betterton’s successor, Robert Wilks (active in the part until 1732), went further by removing Fortinbras from Act 5 entirely, concluding the play instead with Horatio’s farewell and eulogy to his sweet prince. This ending was the only one to be seen on stage from 1732 until 1897. An operatic version of Hamlet in 1712 bore even less resemblance to Shakespeare’s play, taking its inspiration chiefly from Saxo Grammaticus’s Historia Danica, the twelfth-century narrative from which the history of Hamlet derives.

David Garrick used for a time a version of the Wilks text from which he also cut Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 3, scene 3 (“Now might I do it pat”), and all mention of Hamlet’s voyage to England. Then, in 1772, Garrick ventured to remove nearly all of the fifth act. In Garrick’s Hamlet the protagonist never embarks for England at all, having been prevented from doing so by the arrival of Fortinbras. Laertes, hindered by a shipwreck, never gets to France. Laertes is a more estimable person than in Shakespeare’s play, since he is entirely freed of the taint of plotting to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword. Hamlet and Laertes fight, but without the poisoned sword; Claudius tries to intervene in the duel of the two young men and is slain by Hamlet, who then runs on Laertes’s sword and falls, exchanging forgiveness with Laertes as he dies. Horatio, after attempting to kill Laertes in revenge, is persuaded by the dying Hamlet to accept the will of Heaven and to rule jointly with Laertes. The gravediggers are not needed since Ophelia’s burial is omitted, Gertrude is not poisoned but, we are told, is in a trance and on the verge of madness from remorse. We do not hear of the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Garrick’s intention in all this novelty seems to have been to ennoble Hamlet by pairing him in the last scene with a worthy opponent, by reducing the bloodthirstiness of his killing of Claudius, and by omitting all mention of his part in the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Classical decorum was served by excising long gaps of time and travels into other lands, and by refusing to countenance the comedy of the gravediggers in a tragic play. Garrick restored the soliloquy, “How all occasions do inform against me” (4.4), again enhancing the role of the protagonist, along with some of Polonius’s advice to his son.

Garrick called his alterations of Hamlet “the most imprudent thing” he had ever done. Although he was “sanguine” about the results, modern audiences are more likely to feel that the Romantic era was not an auspicious time for the play. In addition to Garrick’s adaptations, German actors in England at the end of the century provided the play a happy ending, with the Queen’s illness warning Hamlet in time. John Philip Kemble, acting the part at various times from 1783 to 1817, cut the play back to a series of well-known theatrical vignettes, prompting critic William Hazlitt, while admiring Kemble’s acting, to complain that Hamlet is better not acted at all.

As if to confirm Hazlitt’s worry about the often empty theatricality of the nineteenth-century stage, a chief preoccupation of the time was to add pictorial splendor to stage production. Actor-manager William Charles Macready, at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1838, won praise for “a series of glorious pictures.” Charles Kean, who in 1838 had a great success acting Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, lavished money and attention on the fortress of Elsinore in his own production of the play at the Princess’s Theatre in 1850. With his customary passion for scenic elaboration, he showed, among other scenes, a guard platform of the castle and then another part of the platform, the royal court of Denmark and its handsome theater, the Queen’s “closet” or chamber, and the ancient burying ground in the vicinity of the palace to which Ophelia was borne with impressive if maimed rites. Nineteenth-century illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays testify to the age’s interest in pictorially detailed reproductions of the play within the play, Ophelia’s mad scenes, and other emotionally powerful moments in Hamlet. Ophelia became a favorite subject for the visual arts, in the theater and out of it, perhaps because she was so well suited, like the Lady of Shalott, for pre-Raphaelite interpretation. Pictorialism in the theater thus accentuated the trend, already seen among earlier actor-managers, toward highlighting the play’s great iconic moments at the expense of the rest of the text. Ophelia became a leading role for actresses such as Julia Bennett, Ellen and Kate Terry, and Helena Modjeska, especially in the latter part of the century.

Charles Fechter appears to have been the first, at the Princess’s Theatre in 1861 and then at the Lyceum Theatre in 1864, to garb Hamlet not in the velvet and lace of an English aristocrat, but in Viking attire appropriate to the play’s Danish setting, which was matched with surrounding sets in primitive and medieval decor. His Hamlet was flaxen-haired; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were bearded Scandinavian warriors in coarse cross-gartered leggings. Much of the action took place in the large main hall of Elsinore. Edwin Booth in America and Henry Irving in England were the leading Hamlets of the late century. Booth appeared first in the role in 1853, in San Francisco, winning instant renown both in America and abroad. In 1861, in Manchester, England, he played Hamlet to Irving’s Laertes. Three years later, Irving himself first played Hamlet, and he continued in the role until 1885. Irving chose a decor of the fifth or sixth century, though not rigorously so, and his costumes retained the attractiveness of Elizabethan dress. Hamlet’s first encounter with his father’s ghost was impressively set in a remote part of the battlements of the castle, amid massive rocks, with the soft light of the moon filtering onto the Ghost while hints of dawn appeared over the expanse of water to be seen in the background. The scenes on the battlements showed the illuminated windows of the palace in the distance. The funeral of Ophelia took place on a hill near the palace. Irving portrayed Hamlet as deeply affected by his love for Ophelia in a sentimental interpretation that gave prominence to Ellen Terry’s Ophelia. Irving made little of Hamlet’s voyage to England or his encounter with Fortinbras’s captain, devoting most of Act 4 instead to Ophelia’s mad scenes and ending the play with “The rest is silence.” These descriptions suggest the extent to which the actor-managers of that age turned to favorite scenes for their theatrical effects, cutting much else to accommodate the ponderous scenery.

Beginning with Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s restoration of the Fortinbras ending in 1897, as he was encouraged to do by George Bernard Shaw, twentieth-century directors have generally shown more respect for the play’s text than did their predecessors. In 1881 at St. George’s Hall, William Poel had already directed a group of amateur actors in a reading of the play based on the 1603 quarto, and in 1899 Frank Benson staged an uncut composite Folio-quarto text (something never acted in Shakespeare’s day) at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. These were experimental performances and not rigorously followed since, though Harcourt Williams directed John Gielgud, in his first Hamlet, at the Old Vic in 1930 in a production without significant cuts. Tyrone Guthrie successfully produced the play in an uncut version, which starred Laurence Olivier, at the Old Vic in 1937, and Olivier himself directed an uncut Hamlet at London’s National Theatre starring Peter O’Toole in 1963. At the same time, directors have turned away from the nineteenth-century sentimental focus on Hamlet’s delay and love melancholy to explore ironies and conflict. Hamlet in modern dress, beginning with H. K. Ayliff at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1925, and followed by, among others, Tyrone Guthrie in 1938, in another production at the Old Vic, explored the existential challenges of the play in the context of Europe between two world wars. Freudian interpretation played a major part in Laurence Olivier’s film version of 1948, as evidenced by the camera’s preoccupation with Gertrude’s bedroom and by the intimate scenes between mother and son. Olivier’s cutting and rearranging of scenes owed much to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century traditions, as we have seen, even while his camera work found new ways to explore the mysterious and labyrinthine corridors of Elsinore Castle. Joseph Papp’s Hamlet (Public Theater, New York, 1968) went beyond Olivier in an iconoclastic and deliberately overstated psychological shocker, featuring a manacled Hamlet (Martin Sheen) in a coffinlike cradle at the feet of Claudius’s and Gertrude’s bed. Grigori Kozintsev’s Russian film version of 1964, using a cut text by Boris Pasternak, found eloquent visual metaphors for Hamlet’s story in the recurring images of stone, iron, fire, sea, and earth. Among the best Hamlets have been those of Richard Burton (in 1964 at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater, directed by John Gielgud), Nicol Williamson (in 1969 at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, directed by Tony Richardson), and Derek Jacobi (in 1979 at the Old Vic, directed by Toby Robertson) portraying the protagonist as tough and serious, capable of great tenderness in friendship and love, but faced with hard necessities and pursuing them with fierce energy.

The melancholic, pale, introspective Hamlet of Kemble and the lovestruck prince of Irving have thus seldom been seen on the modern stage, though Olivier recalls the tradition of melancholy with his voice-over soliloquies, and John Gielgud’s sonorously spectral voice excels in the meditations on suicide. The play is now more apt to be satirical, even funny at times, presenting a mordant and disillusioned view of life at court, as in Peter Hall’s 1965 production at Stratford-upon-Avon, or in Jonathan Miller’s more austere Hamlet at London’s Warehouse Theatre in 1982, both of which disturbingly portrayed a world in which, as Hall wrote, “politics are a game and a lie.” Polonius, long regarded in the theater as little more than a “tedious old fool,” as Hamlet calls him, can reveal in performances a canniness in political survival that fits well with this matter-of-fact and philistine outlook. The scenes at court lend themselves to contemporary political analogies: Claudius can become the Great Communicator, adept at public relations gimmicks, the darling of television, while the creatures who bustle about him do their part to “sell” Claudius to a complacent court and a thoroughly skeptical Hamlet. As the outsider, Hamlet is likely to be the rebel, a misfit, and justly so, in view of what he sees in Denmark. Stacy Keach, in Gerald Freedman’s Hamlet at New York’s Delacorte Theater in 1972, was neither melancholy nor vulnerable; rather, he was bitter, shrewd, and, as the drama critic of the New York Times wrote, “hell-bent for revenge.”

In 1977, outside of Berlin, Ulrich Wildgruber’s Hamlet was even more wild and unpredictable, cutting up Polonius’s corpse and throwing it out the window in Peter Zadek’s iconoclastic production.

The Romanian director Liviu Ciulei directed Hamlet at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 1978, with obvious political intent. His Denmark was a paranoid, militaristic state, where public order was literally undermined by the visible catacombs beneath the raised main stage. Hamlet came up from below to overhear Claudius praying, only the most obvious of the threats that the regime cannot prevent from arising. A very different version of the play was staged in Cologne, Germany, the following year: Hansgünter Heyme’s “electronic” Hamlet. For Heyme, the play became an image of our disorienting technological world. The safety curtain, always down, had eighteen television monitors projecting the action on the stage from a video camera that actors turned on others or back upon themselves. An actor mimed the role of Hamlet, while his speeches, spoken by the director, were amplified through the theater. The tension between the familiar language of the play and the extraordinary visuals of the production worked to undercut the very idea of tragedy itself in a world where electronic images are more real than flesh-and-blood reality.

Heyme’s production obviously influenced Heiner Müller’s remarkable seven-and-a-half-hour Hamlet/Maschine, performed in Berlin in 1990. This combined Müller’s own translation of Shakespeare’s play with an original play by Müller, Hamletmaschine, to produce a theatrical event finally about the end of modernity itself. An almost autistic Hamlet wandered among television monitors, an alienated and isolated figure amidst the corruption of the court. A gauze replica of a giant ice block seemingly melted, its dripping amplified in the theater, as the sign of the inevitable dissolution of this world. In the second part, the action on stage in modern dress was set against a time tunnel stretching back to the Renaissance, which was understood as the point of origin of our own modernity, which itself had now reached its necessary end.

Far more traditional was Adrian Noble’s Hamlet, which opened in London late in 1992 at the Barbican and later moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. Noble played the Q2 text almost uncut, and the performance ran well over four hours. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was marked by the depth of his love for his dead father. His melancholy, like his brutal treatment of both Gertrude and Ophelia, derived from his deep sense of violation, which narcissistically he assumed he alone felt. Two years later, Peter Hall directed Hamlet at the Gielgud Theatre in London. Stephen Dillane’s Hamlet was a brilliant mimic and angry comedian whose humor served to antagonize those who provoked it. In this production, Donald Sinden’s Polonius was a shrewd and powerful politician, while Michael Pennington’s Claudius was an aggressive and obviously dangerous figure whose propensity to drink made him only the more fearsome. This was a world in which Hamlet had much to fear, and his characteristic mockery seemed, if merited, all too ineffective until the very end, when he emerged in full and terrifying control. He stabbed Claudius first in the leg to immobilize him, before he finally killed him with a vicious sword thrust through his back. The same season saw another London Hamlet. Jonathan Kent directed Ralph Fiennes in the title role at the Almeida Theatre, in a production that eventually made its way to New York. Fiennes’s Hamlet was impetuous and unreflective, impatient for the future. His soliloquies seemed less evidence of a subtle intelligence genuinely grappling with a moral problem than a sign of a mind caught up in its recurring obsessions. His callous treatment of Gertrude and Ophelia reduced both of them to some form of madness: Francesca Annis’s sophisticated and stylish Gertrude became a virtual catatonic, while Tara FitzGerald’s Ophelia was reduced to acting out an aggressive sexuality.

In the summer of 2000, John Caird’s Hamlet opened at the Lyttleton Theatre in London and later transferred to the larger Olivier. Starring Simon Russell Beale, Caird’s production completely cut the Fortinbras scenes and indeed most of the play’s political aspects. For Caird, Hamlet was a play of family trauma. If the conception seemed attenuating, Beale’s performance was among the most widely acclaimed of the modern era. His Hamlet was somewhat older and far less physically compelling than most Hamlets—indeed of an age with Claudius (Peter McEnery), the old King’s here much younger brother. Beale’s Hamlet seemed truly depressed, meek until driven to rage by the bland unfeelingness of the Queen (Sara Kestelman). He combined a prickly disaffection with a genuine self-loathing. His was a quiet Hamlet, lacking the arrogance and the rant that have become the mark of the character, and only belatedly finding the willingness and energy to act his vengeance as the terrible toll of betrayals mounted.

As originally staged, Hamlet must have made good use of the handsome Globe Theatre, where it first appeared. Without scenery, the Globe offered its spectators an impressive evocation of an idea of order, with the heavens above, hell below the trapdoor, and on the main stage the ceremonial magnificence of the court of Denmark. Claudius’s appearances are generally marked by ritual, by the presence of throne and crown, by an entourage of obsequious courtiers. Yet Claudius has vitiated all this seeming order by his secret murder, and Hamlet’s presence is a continual reminder that all is not well in Denmark. Hamlet attires himself in black, acts strangely, insults the courtiers, makes fun of their ceremoniousness, and prefers to be alone or on the battlements with Horatio and the guard. The Ghost’s appearances, too, betoken inversions of order; he reminds us of a greatness now lost to Denmark as he stalks on, usually through the stage doors, in armor and in the full light of day during an afternoon performance at the Globe. He also speaks from beneath the stage. The performance of Hamlet’s “Mousetrap” play is a scene of rich panoply that is once again undercut by the secret act of murder now represented in a mimetic drama for the King who is also a murderer. The final scene of Hamlet is Claudius’s most splendid moment of presiding over the court, until it is suddenly his last moment. The play’s reflexive interest in the art of theater is everywhere evident, in Hamlet’s instructions to the players and in his appraisal of himself as an actor, as he explores all that it might mean to “act.” Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with his own theater very much in mind, and, paradoxically, precisely this has allowed it to remain so vibrantly alive on the modern stage.