Stage history

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Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of Hamlet from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.


Hamlet has one of the most unusual of earliest recorded performances. It was performed in 1607 on board the East India Company's ship, The Dragon, lying off the coast of Sierra Leone. The captain notes in his journal that the acting of it kept 'my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep'.

On dry land, the play's theatrical success and popularity has continued unabated since its first performances in the early 1600s. The title page of the 1603 quarto edition tells us that it has been played 'by his Highness Servants in the City of London, as also in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere'. Court records note that it was performed before King James in 1619 and before King Charles in 1637.

At the Globe playhouse (the venue for which it was written) a simple, uncluttered, thrust stage allowed for swift, fluid action and a concentration on language. Music, fine costumes and appropriate props helped the action on. The pillars at either side of the stage and the balcony at the rear provided useful concealment for the play's many spies. The ghost would have entered, as did other contemporary stage ghosts, through the trap door in the stage, which also supplied the grave for Ophelia. Ophelia and Gertrude, would, of course, have been played by boys, giving extra edge to Hamlet's attacks upon women's false faces. Richard Burbage was the fortunate actor for whom the leading role was written. Shakespeare wrote to capitalize on the actor's extraordinary, versatile gifts: the superb vocal technique needed to deliver long blank verse speeches,an ability to communicate both high emotion and high intelligence as well as the physical stamina and grace to make a success of the fencing match at the end of a very long play.

Hamlet is the most complex and coveted role in classical theatre, attracting the leading actor of every age, and a few actresses as well, including a comically inventive Sarah Bernhardt, in the late nineteenth century, and Sarah Siddons, the great tragedienne of the late eighteenth century, who must be one of the few players to have tackled not only Hamlet but Ophelia, too. The play has rarely been off the stage throughout the 400 years since it was written and its stage history is accordingly extensive.

Thomas Betterton was in his mid twenties when he first played Hamlet in 1661 and he held on to the role for the next half-century. According to contemporary accounts, he continued to persuade audiences that he was a 'young man of great expectation, vivacity and enterprise' even when he was well into his seventies. At the start of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, the Hamlet of Master William Betty, a true 'little eyas', took London by storm at the tender age of 13.

Although the text of Hamlet was not subject to the kind of longlasting adaptations inflicted upon other of Shakespeare's plays in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was, nevertheless, shortened: long speeches were curtailed, bawdy references, including those of the mad Ophelia, were decorously cut. From the seventeenth century through to the end of the nineteenth century, the play's political strand, centring on Fortinbras and his threatened invasion, was removed from the staged version of the play. Although this cut has still sometimes been made in twentieth century productions, it is now rare for theatre directors to choose not to engage with the play's astute exploration of political manoeuvrings. It is precisely this dimension that has prompted so many performances of Hamlet in Eastern European states in recent decades, providing a provocatively relevant analysis of the constraints of tyranny.

David Garrick, the predominant actor-manager of the eighteenth century, was very much a man of his time in focusing on the family and on filial emotions in his interpretation of Hamlet. Audiences were thrilled by the naturalism and emotional power of Garrick's acting, particularly in the tender expression of love for his dead father, and his contagious terror in his encounter with that father's ghost. Georg Lichtenberg, an enthusiastic theatre-goer of the time, describes how, in mourning for his dead father, Garrick's Hamlet is described as 'completely overcome by tears of grief…'So excellent a King' is utterly lost; one catches it only from the movement of the mouth, which quivers and shuts tight immediately afterwards, so as to restrain the all too distinct expression of grief on the lips, which could easily tremble with unmanly emotion'. On seeing the Ghost, Garrick's 'whole demeanour is so expressive of terror that it made my flesh creep even before he began to speak'. (Ever the professional, Garrick left nothing to chance and devised a special chair for the closet scene so that, on springing up from it on seeing the Ghost, it consistently toppled over with a satisfyingly startling crash. Likewise, he wore a cunning wig so that his hair could always be relied upon to stand as 'quills upon the fretful porpentine' just as the Ghost says they should.

All the leading actors of throughout nineteenth century proved their mettle in Hamlet : John Philip Kemble was a melancholy and rather too stately a Prince (he was described by Hazlitt as playing it 'like a man in armour'), Edmund Kean expressed eager love rather than terror on meeting the Ghost and his love for Ophelia remained evident even though he was forced, by circumstances, to reject her. The dominant Hamlet in the late nineteenth century was undoubtedly Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre. Described by Yeats as a 'lean image of hungry speculation', he skilfully played Hamlet's volatility - fits of melancholy alternating with fits of cheerfulness - together with his courtesy, pathos and wit. It was difficult to tell at times whether Irving's Hamlet was really mad or only pretending to be. Ellen Terry, as Ophelia, was brave enough to give a harsh edge to her character's distress: she played her madness in a disturbingly painful way, at odds with the tradition of a pretty and pathetic child.

Hamlet was brought startlingly up-to-date in H.K.Ayliff's production at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1925. The play held its mirror up to nature, as Hamlet requires that it should, and, in place of doublet and hose, there were plus fours, flapper dresses and bobbed hair: the Danish court were as fashionably dressed as their Midlands audience. Influenced by the theatrical work of William Poel and Harley Granville-Barker, the director's aim was to return to the immediacy of effect and the swift style of its original production. Polonius was no longer played as an old fool but as a domineering father and shrewd councillor. Ophelia's sexually explosive mad scenes were the direct result of the persistent suppression of her natural desires and wishes by the men around her – the audience was offered no refuge in a picturesque and sentimental portrayal of a disordered mind. This was one of the many psychologically astute interpretations that would influence future productions of the play.

John Gielgud is the actor of the twentieth century most closely associated with Hamlet. He played the role five times between 1930 and 1944, and also directed Richard Burton as the Prince in New York in 1964. Aged 25 when he first took on the role, Gielgud brought out the character's youthful changeability and mercurial speed of thought. As always, Geilgud's superb vocal technique and expressive tone won praise but, as he returned to the role over the years, he was far more than a sweet and noble Prince, consistently bringing a sharp intelligence to bear on the complexities of the part.

Laurence Olivier played an athletic and fiery Prince in Tyrone Guthrie's full text production at the Old Vic in 1937. This production was remarkable for its interpretation of Hamlet's delay based on Freud's analysis of the Oedipal complex, in which the son unconsciously desires to kill the father and possess the mother. In this reading, Hamlet cannot bring himself to punish Claudius since his uncle has actually fulfilled what Hamlet obscurely knows to be his own illicit desires. Director and actor opened up the play's psychosexual meanings. From this point on, the marital bed has rarely been absent from Act 3 Scene 4, with its electric encounter between mother and son.

Hansgunther Heyme's production in Cologne in 1979 was fearlessly committed to an exploration of the boundaries between illusion and reality. His actors videoed each other with hand-held cameras which then multiplied every action via a wall of television monitors. Hamlet himself was represented by two actors, one of whom spoke the lines of Schlegel's classic translation from the auditorium while his alter ego remained onstage, a prisoner of his coarse sexual fantasies.

In Richard Eyre's production at the Royal Court in 1980 there was no Ghost to be seen. Instead its terrifying speeches were wrenched out of Jonathan Pryce's Hamlet as he writhed in the grip of a psychic possession. This required the bold decision to cut the opening scene, with its careful confirmation of the Ghost's objective reality.

Having played Hamlet on stage to great acclaim in 1977, Derek Jacobi directed Kenneth Branagh in the Renaissance Theatre Company's production in 1988. In a startling interpretation of the play's closing moments, Fortinbras's command, 'Go bid the soldiers shoot' was obeyed by his armed guard promptly killing Horatio and the other lords of the Danish court.

Hamlet continues to fascinate directors, actors and audiences alike. There have already been several notable stage productions this century, including the incisively intelligent Hamlet of Simon Russell Beale for John Caird at the National Theatre in 2000, the metaphysical explorations of Adrian Lester in Peter Brook's Bouffe du Nord production in 2001, and Trevor Nunn's production in 2004, at the Old Vic, in which a cast of unusually young actors was led by the 23 year old Ben Whishaw.

For more on RSC stagings of Hamlet, see Productions 1948 - 2008 »

Hamlet on film

  • In 1948 Olivier directed and starred in a film version closely following the Oedipal interpretation of his stage performance, but this time cutting Fortinbras to maintain a tight focus on the family dynamics.
  • The Russian director, Grigori Kozintsev, produced a powerful and highly atmospheric version of the play on film in 1964, with Innokenti Smoktunovsky as the Prince.
  • Nicol Williamson played Hamlet and Mariane Faithfull Ophelia in Tony Richardson's film version of his production, originally staged at the Roundhouse in 1969.
  • Derek Jacobi reprised his stage performance for the BBC TV Shakespeare series in 1980, directed by Rodney Bennett.
  • In 1990, Franco Zeffirelli presented a colourful and strongly cast version of the play, set within the huge stone walls of a Scandinavian castle, with a charismatic Hamlet from Mel Gibson. Like Olivier, Zeffirelli recognised that, cinematically, Shakespeare's long and complex play benefits from radical cutting. His version cut Fortinbras and delivered a highly charged picture of dysfunctional families.
  • Six years later in 1996, Kenneth Branagh did the opposite, directing (and starring in) a full text film of the play, set in the Edwardian period and exploiting the architectural splendours of Blenheim Palace for the Danish court.

Written by Rebecca Brown
Photo by Suzanne Worthington shows Hamlet (Vaneshran Arumugam) reading while Polonius talks to him in the 2006 Baxter Theatre Company production of Hamlet in collaboration with the RSC © RSC

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