The day we see Hamlet die in the theatre, something of him dies for us. He is dethroned by the spectre of an actor, and we shall never be able to keep the usurper out of our dreams.Maurice Maeterlinck (1890).
Shakespeare's day to the Interregnum
Shakespeare almost certainly wrote the role of Hamlet for Richard Burbage. He was the chief tragedian of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with a capacious memory for lines and a wide emotional range. Judging by the number of reprints, Hamlet appears to have been Shakespeare's fourth most popular play during his lifetime—only Henry IV Part 1, Richard III and Pericles eclipsed it. Shakespeare provides no clear indication of when his play is set; however, as Elizabethan actors performed at the Globe in contemporary dress on minimal sets, this would not have affected the staging.
Firm evidence for specific early performances of the play is scant. What is known is that the crew of the ship Red Dragon, anchored off Sierra Leone, performed Hamlet in September 1607; that the play toured in Germany within five years of Shakespeare's death; and that it was performed before James I in 1619 and Charles I in 1637. Oxford editor George Hibbard argues that, since the contemporary literature contains many allusions and references to Hamlet (only Falstaff is mentioned more, from Shakespeare), the play was surely performed with a frequency that the historical record misses.
All theatres were closed down by the Puritan government during the Interregnum. Even during this time, however, playlets known as drolls were often performed illegally, including one called The Grave-Makers based on Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet.
Restoration and 18th century
The play was revived early in the Restoration. When the existing stock of pre-civil war plays was divided between the two newly created patent theatre companies, Hamlet was the only Shakespearean favourite that Sir William Davenant's Duke's Company secured. It became the first of Shakespeare's plays to be presented with movable flats painted with generic scenery behind the proscenium arch of Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. This new stage convention highlighted the frequency with which Shakespeare shifts dramatic location, encouraging the recurrent criticisms of his violation of the neoclassical principle of maintaining a unity of place. Davenant cast Thomas Betterton in the eponymous role, and he continued to play the Dane until he was 74. David Garrick at Drury Lane produced a version that adapted Shakespeare heavily; he declared: "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". The first actor known to have played Hamlet in North America is Lewis Hallam. Jr., in the American Company's production in Philadelphia in 1759.
John Philip Kemble made his Drury Lane debut as Hamlet in 1783. His performance was said to be 20 minutes longer than anyone else's, and his lengthy pauses provoked the suggestion that "music should be played between the words". Sarah Siddons was the first actress known to play Hamlet; many women have since played him as a breeches role, to great acclaim. In 1748, Alexander Sumarokov wrote a Russian adaptation that focused on Prince Hamlet as the embodiment of an opposition to Claudius's tyranny—a treatment that would recur in Eastern European versions into the 20th century. In the years following America's independence, Thomas Apthorpe Cooper, the young nation's leading tragedian, performed Hamlet among other plays at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and at 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.
From around 1810 to 1840, the best-known 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 notorious actor, John Wilkes Booth (who later assassinated Abraham Lincoln), and its most famous Hamlet, Edwin Booth. Edwin Booth's Hamlet 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". 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.
In the United Kingdom, the actor-managers of the Victorian era (including Kean, Samuel Phelps, Macready, and Henry Irving) staged Shakespeare in a grand manner, with elaborate scenery and costumes. The tendency of actor-managers to emphasise the importance of their own central character did not always meet with the critics' approval. George Bernard Shaw's praise for Johnston Forbes-Robertson's performance contains 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?"
In London, Edmund Kean was the first Hamlet to abandon the regal finery usually associated with the role in favour of a plain costume, and he is said to have surprised his audience by playing Hamlet as serious and introspective. In stark contrast to earlier opulence, William Poel's 1881 production of the Q1 text was an early attempt at reconstructing the Elizabethan theatre's austerity; his only backdrop was a set of red curtains. Sarah Bernhardt played the prince in her popular 1899 London production. In contrast to the "effeminate" view of the central character that 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".
In France, Charles Kemble initiated an enthusiasm for Shakespeare; and leading members of the Romantic movement such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas saw his 1827 Paris performance of Hamlet, particularly admiring the madness of Harriet Smithson's Ophelia. In Germany, Hamlet had become so assimilated by the mid-19th century that Ferdinand Freiligrath declared that "Germany is Hamlet". From the 1850s, the Parsi theatre tradition in India transformed Hamlet into folk performances, with dozens of songs added.
Apart from some western troupes' 19th-century visits, the first professional performance of Hamlet in Japan was Otojirō Kawakami's 1903 Shimpa ("new school theatre") adaptation. Shoyo Tsubouchi translated Hamlet and produced a performance in 1911 that blended Shingeki ("new drama") and Kabuki styles. This hybrid-genre reached its peak in Fukuda Tsuneari's 1955 Hamlet. In 1998, Yukio Ninagawa produced an acclaimed version of Hamlet in the style of Nō theatre, which he took to London.
Constantin Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig—two of the 20th century's most influential theatre practitioners—collaborated on the Moscow Art Theatre's seminal production of 1911–12. While Craig favoured stylised abstraction, Stanislavski, armed with his 'system,' explored psychological motivation. Craig conceived of the play as a symbolist monodrama, offering a dream-like vision as seen through Hamlet's eyes alone. This was most evident in the staging of the first court scene. The most famous aspect of the production is Craig's use of large, abstract screens that altered the size and shape of the acting area for each scene, representing the character's state of mind spatially or visualising a dramaturgical progression. The production attracted enthusiastic and unprecedented world-wide attention for the theatre and placed it "on the cultural map for Western Europe".
Hamlet is often played with contemporary political overtones. Leopold Jessner's 1926 production at the Berlin Staatstheater portrayed Claudius's court as a parody of the corrupt and fawning court of Kaiser Wilhelm. In Poland, the number of productions of Hamlet has tended to increase at times of political unrest, since its political themes (suspected crimes, coups, surveillance) can be used to comment on a contemporary situation. Similarly, Czech directors have used the play at times of occupation: a 1941 Vinohrady Theatre production "emphasised, with due caution, the helpless situation of an intellectual attempting to endure in a ruthless environment". In China, performances of Hamlet often 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. In 1942, Jiao Juyin directed the play in a Confucian temple in Sichuan Province, to which the government had retreated from the advancing Japanese. 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. In this production, the actors playing Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius exchanged roles at crucial moments in the performance, including the moment of Claudius's death, at which point the actor mainly associated with Hamlet fell to the ground.
Notable stagings in London and New York include Barrymore's 1925 production at the Haymarket; it influenced subsequent performances by John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Gielgud played the central role many times: his 1936 New York production ran for 132 performances, leading to the accolade that he was "the finest interpreter of the role since Barrymore". Although "posterity has treated Maurice Evans less kindly", throughout the 1930s and 1940s he was regarded by many 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. Evans later performed a highly truncated version of the play that he played for South Pacific war zones during World War II which made the prince a more decisive character. The staging, known as the "G.I. Hamlet," was produced on Broadway for 131 performances in 1945/46. Olivier's 1937 performance at The Old Vic was popular with audiences but not with critics, with James Agate writing in a famous review in The Sunday Times, "Mr. Olivier does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.". In 1937 Tyrone Guthrie directed the play at Elsinore, Denmark with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Vivien Leigh as Ophelia.
In 1963, Olivier directed Peter O'Toole as Hamlet in the inaugural performance of the newly formed National Theatre; critics found resonance between O'Toole's Hamlet and John Osborne's hero, Jimmy Porter, from Look Back in Anger.
Richard Burton received his third Tony Award nomination when he played his second Hamlet, his first under John Gielgud's direction, in 1964 in a production that holds the record for the longest run of the play in Broadway history (137 performances). The performance was set on a bare stage, conceived to appear like a dress rehearsal, with Burton in a black v-neck sweater, and Gielgud himself tape-recorded the voice for the Ghost (which appeared as a looming shadow). It was immortalised both on record and on a film that played in US theatres for a week in 1964 as well as being the subject of books written by cast members William Redfield and Richard L. Sterne. Other New York portrayals of Hamlet of note include that of Ralph Fiennes's in 1995 (for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor) – which ran, from first preview to closing night, a total of one hundred performances. About the Fiennes Hamlet Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that it was "...not one for literary sleuths and Shakespeare scholars. It respects the play, but it doesn't provide any new material for arcane debates on what it all means. Instead it's an intelligent, beautifully read..." Stacy Keach played the role with an all-star cast at Joseph Papp's Delacorte Theatre in the early 70s, with Colleen Dewhurst's Gertrude, James Earl Jones's King, Barnard Hughes's Polonius, Sam Waterston's Laertes and Raúl Juliá's Osric. Sam Waterston later played the role himself at the Delacorte for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and the show transferred to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1975 (Stephen Lang played Bernardo and other roles). Stephen Lang's Hamlet for the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1992 received positive reviews, and ran for sixty-one performances. David Warner played the role with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1965. William Hurt (at Circle Rep Off-Broadway, memorably performing "To Be Or Not to Be" while lying on the floor), Jon Voight at Rutgers, and Christopher Walken (fiercely) at Stratford CT have all played the role, as has Diane Venora at the Public Theatre. Off Broadway, the Riverside Shakespeare Company mounted an uncut first folio Hamlet in 1978 at Columbia University, with a playing time of under three hours. In fact, Hamlet is the most produced Shakespeare play in New York theatre history, with sixty-four recorded productions on Broadway, and an untold number Off Broadway.
Ian Charleson performed Hamlet from 9 October to 13 November 1989, in Richard Eyre's production at the Olivier Theatre, replacing Daniel Day-Lewis, who had abandoned the production. Seriously ill from AIDS at the time, Charleson died eight weeks after his last performance. Fellow actor and friend, Sir Ian McKellen, said that Charleson played Hamlet so well it was as if he had rehearsed the role all his life; McKellen called it "the perfect Hamlet". The performance garnered other major accolades as well, some critics echoing McKellen in calling it the definitive Hamlet performance.
Hamlet continues to be staged regularly, with actors such as Simon Russell Beale, David Tennant, Angela Winkler, Samuel West, Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, and Christian Camargo, performing the lead role.
In May 2009, Hamlet opened with Jude Law in the title role at the Donmar Warehouse West End season at Wyndham's Theatre. The production officially opened on 3 June and ran through 22 August 2009. A further production of the play ran at Elsinore Castle in Denmark from 25–30 August 2009. The Jude Law Hamlet then moved to Broadway, and ran for 12 weeks at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York.
In 2013, American actor Paul Giamatti won critical acclaim for his performance on stage in the title role of Hamlet, performed in modern dress, at the Yale Repertory Theater, at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
The Globe Theatre of London initiated a project in 2014 to perform Hamlet in every country in the world in the space of two years. Titled Globe to Globe Hamlet, it began its tour on 23 April 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. As of 21 June 2014, the project had performed in 21 different countries.
Benedict Cumberbatch is scheduled to play Hamlet for an exclusive 12-week run at the 1,156-seat Barbican Theatre beginning in August 2015. The play will be produced by Sonia Friedman, and directed by Lyndsey Turner, with set design by Es Devlin. It has been called the "Most In-Demand Theatre Production of All Time", after selling out in seven hours when tickets went on sale to the public on August 11, 2014, more than a year before the play is scheduled to open.
Film and TV performances
The earliest screen success for Hamlet was Sarah Bernhardt's five-minute film of the fencing scene, produced 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. Silent versions were released in 1907, 1908, 1910, 1913, 1917, and 1920. In the 1920 version, Asta Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman who spends her life disguised as a man.
Laurence Olivier's 1948 moody black-and-white Hamlet won best picture and best actor Oscars, and is still, as of 2013, the only Shakespeare film to have done so. His interpretation stressed the Oedipal overtones of the play, and cast 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as Hamlet's mother, opposite himself, at 41, as Hamlet. In 1953, actor Jack Manning performed the play in 15-minute segments over two weeks in the short-lived late night DuMont series Monodrama Theater. New York Times TV critic Jack Gould praised Manning's performance as Hamlet.
Shakespeare experts Sir John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh consider the definitive rendition of the Bard's tragic tale to be the 1964 Russian film Gamlet (Russian: Гамлет) based on a translation by Boris Pasternak and directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. Innokenty Smoktunovsky was cast in the role of Hamlet; he was particularly praised by Sir Laurence Olivier.
John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a Broadway production at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1964–5, the longest-running Hamlet in the U.S. to date. A live film of the production was produced using "Electronovision", a method of recording a live performance with multiple video cameras and converting the image to film. Eileen Herlie repeated her role from Olivier's film version as the Queen, and the voice of Gielgud was heard as the Ghost. The Gielgud/Burton production was also recorded complete and released on LP by Columbia Masterworks.
The first Hamlet in color was a 1969 film directed by Tony Richardson with Nicol Williamson as Hamlet and Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia.
In 1990 Franco Zeffirelli, whose Shakespeare films have been described as "sensual rather than cerebral", cast Mel Gibson—then famous for the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies—in the title role of his 1990 version, and Glenn Close—then famous as the psychotic "other woman" in Fatal Attraction—as Gertrude. In contrast to Zeffirelli, whose Hamlet was heavily cut, Kenneth Branagh adapted, directed, and starred in a 1996 version containing every word of Shakespeare's play, combining the material from the F1 and Q2 texts. Branagh's Hamlet runs for around four hours. Branagh set the film with late 19th-century 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 Yorick (played by Ken Dodd).
In 2000, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet set the story in contemporary Manhattan, with Ethan Hawke playing Hamlet as a film student. Claudius (played by Kyle MacLachlan) became the CEO of "Denmark Corporation", having taken over the company by killing his brother.
Notable made-for-television productions of Hamlet include those starring Christopher Plummer (1964), Richard Chamberlain (1970; Hallmark Hall of Fame), Derek Jacobi (1980; Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC), Kevin Kline (1990), Campbell Scott (2000) and David Tennant (2009; Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC).
A 2014 Bollywood film Haider, starring Shahid Kapoor, Tabu and Shraddha Kapoor, and directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, is adapted from Hamlet. The movie on its release on October 2, 2014 received major critical acclaim, garnering wider attention from media.
There have also been several films that transposed the general storyline of Hamlet or elements thereof to other settings. There have also been many films which included performances of scenes from Hamlet as a play-within-a-film. See Hamlet on screen for further details.