The Big Question: What's the story behind Hamlet, and is it the ultimate test for an actor?

Arifa Akbar
Monday 07 October 2013 06:19

Why are we asking this now?

Because Jude Law has just put his name to the long, stellar list of actors (female included) who have trodden the boards as Shakespeare's soliloquising Dane. Law received decidedly mixed reviews for his performance in Michael Grandage's production, and critics drew comparisons between him and David Tennant's acclaimed turn at the Royal Shakespeare Company last year.

What's behind the story of Hamlet?

The basic storyline probably stemmed from the Danish legend of Amlet, preserved by the 3rd-century chronicler, Saxo Grammaticus, which was subsequently retold by the 16th-century scholar Francois de Belleforest. The legend tells the story of a dissident Danish prince seeking revenge for his father, the king's murder. It is also believed to have sprung from a lost Elizabethan play known as the Ur-Hamlet, written around 1590 by Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare wrote his play between 1599 and 1601 and it is one of his most "worked" plays, which he revived time and again. Three different early versions have survived; the First Quarto, the Second Quarto and the First Folio. The title role was almost certainly created for Richard Burbage, a leading tragedian of Shakespeare's age. In subsequent centuries, it has been played by highly-acclaimed actors of each successive age.

So is it his most important play?

If some argue that it is second to King Lear – among them Prof Stanley Wells, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – most people agree that it is the most significant in terms of its enduring popularity. Not only was it instantly popular in its own time, it has influenced generations of artists, writers and musicians over the centuries. "It was a popular play when it was first written with numerous references to it after it was written – many more than usual," said Prof Wells.

Hamlet's character is regarded as the blueprint for a kind of figure who has since been heavily duplicated in the literary canon. "He is perhaps the first prototype for the great suffering romantic hero," said Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC.

Is there any disagreement?

Yes, Voltaire famously thought the play was fatally flawed, branding it "disgraceful" except for some rare strokes of genius. Prof Wells conceded that it defied all the rules of neo-classical literature; it is not fully unified or tightly constructed, it veers off into great digressions, and as the longest of Shakespeare's plays – and one of the longest of all the plays in the British repertoire – almost every theatre and film director has shortened it for the stage or screen productions.

Was Shakespeare at the height of his powers at the time?

He penned the play in mid-career, at a time of heightened creativity when he had just finished writing a sequence of comedies as well as Julius Caesar. While sketching Hamlet, he was simultaneously writing As You Like It and Henry V, a process of juggling comedy and tragedy which Michael Boyd believes come together in Hamlet, when "everything gets distilled."

What's the extent of versions of Hamlet?

There have been a dizzying number of film adaptations with some of the greatest actors in starring roles, from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh. The earliest screen success for the play was Sarah Bernhardt's five-minute film of the fencing scene, produced in 1900. There were an extraordinary number of silent-film versions – five coming out between 1907 and 1917.

In 1920, Asta Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman who spends her time disguised as a man. Laurence Olivier's 1948 film noir Hamlet, which stressed the Oedipal undercurrents in the play, won best picture and best actor at the Oscars (he was cast, aged 41, against the 28-year-old actress, Eileen Herlie, who played Hamlet's mother).

Gamlet, a 1964 film adaptation in Russian based on a Boris Pasternak translation with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich, won praise from Olivier. Sir John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh are regarded as great Hamlets, while Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet starring Mel Gibson is commended for its novelty value in casting a Hollywood hunk as the melancholy prince.

Women have played the lead part in an estimated 160 productions, while the play has often been adapted for political purposes, especially during the Communist era, when there were a series of productions in which Hamlet was portrayed as a dissident rebel against the state."One Romanian production that came to the National Theatre showed the king and queen as Ceaucescu and his wife, who were heavily caricatured," recalled Prof Wells.

Which actors are thought to have given their finest performances in the role?

Henry Irving revived Hamlet in the 1880s in a performance now regarded as legendary. More recently, David Warner's Hamlet, in a 1965 RSC production, received sensational reviews and was transferred to the Aldwych Theatre months later and revived once again the following year.

What other artistic creations has the play inspired?

Operas (including one by Ambroise Thomas), a symphonic poem by Tchaikovsky, writing by Goethe, 19th-century burlesques of the play and a short parody by Richard Curtis called Skinhead Hamlet.

Why do actors relish playing the part so much?

The Prince, who Mr Boyd described as "a handsome, heroic juvenile lead who is interesting at the same time", and the most intelligent of Shakespearean heroes, is naturally a draw for actors who want to showcase the full range of their talents. The role has come to be seen as something of an actor's Everest. "It's a part in which an actor can show all his talent except singing and dancing, even though Hamlet does sing at one point," Prof Wells said. "He is handsome, lyrical and has a great deal of passion and it has the widest emotional range of all Shakespeare's roles. The popularity of the play is partly down to the popularity of the lead role." Not only that, but the Prince is on stage for two thirds of the play, saying its most significant lines and some of the most memorable soliloquies in the theatrical tradition including the "To be or not to be" speech.

In addition, Queen Gertrude and the ghost of the king are considered among the most challenging and thrilling roles in acting, with Judi Dench among actresses whose careers have encompassed playing both the Queen and Hamlet's love interest, Ophelia.

Can it really be thought of as a comedy?

According to Prof Wells, who recently gave a lecture on the wealth of comedy in Hamlet, "it's not a comedy but it is Shakespeare's most comic tragedy. It's the most shot through with comedy, with characters such as the gravediggers and Osric. Prince Hamlet himself shows great wit and humour."

Is Hamlet a part every actor must play to prove himself?


* The central character is on stage for two thirds of the play so has to maintain immense stamina.

* Hamlet has the widest emotional range of all of Shakespeare's heroes with some of the best soliloquys in dramatic literature.

* The power of the soliloquies make the role stand out.


* He is a juvenile rebel prince so there is a limit to who can pull the part off physically.

* Some experts argue that King Lear is Shakespeare's 'ultimate challenge' to actors.

* Many great actors have shunned the role in preference for the play's more villainous or comic characters.

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