Hamlet, Prince of Denmark



  • Shakespeare's classic revenge tragedy, almost certainlythe best-known play in the English language. It was written and firstperformed in about 1600; according to tradition, Shakespeare himself played theghost of Hamlet's father.

    The plot is derived from a story told by the 12th-century Danishhistorian Saxo Grammaticus and expanded in Fran├žois de Belleforest'sHistoires Tragiques (1582). There was also an earlier Elizabethan playon the subject, now lost, which may have been by Thomas Kyd.Shakespeare's play centres on the enigmatic, inward-looking character of Hamletand his struggle to avenge his father's death by killing Claudius, his father'sbrother and murderer, now married to Hamlet's mother Gertrude. Actors, directors,and critics have differed fundamentally in their interpretations of Hamlet'scharacter and the events of the play; for example, while many have found themain interest of the drama in Hamlet's psychological inability to carry outhis revenge, others have found no evidence of undue 'delay'. Likewise, thereis no consensus about whether Hamlet feigns madness (as he himself claims) orbecomes really mad, and no agreement about why he is so horrible to hissweetheart Ophelia, who goes mad and drowns. The tragedy ends with the deathsof Gertrude, Ophelia's brother Laertes, Claudius (killed at last by Hamlet),and Hamlet himself.

    The role of Hamlet is the longest (1530 lines) and most covetedin the Shakespearean canon. Max Beerbohm called it "a hoop throughwhich every eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump". Thosewho have jumped include David Garrick, Edwin booth, Richard Burbage, Henry Irving, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Ian Charleson, and David Tennant. Thomas Betterton took on the role in his seventies; Alec Guinness played it with a beard in 1951 to cries of outrage. Sarah Bernhardt's performance as Hamlet in 1899 caused the Punch critic to remark that all the production needed for perfection was Irving as Ophelia. Edmund Tearle (1856 - 1913) was the fattest Hamlet, "a mastodon in tights", who always raised a laugh when he soliloquized, "O, that this too, toosolid flesh would melt."

    According to John Gielgud, who played the part moreoften than any other actor, "Hamlet is not a role that an actorshould ever be asked to portray for a hundred performances on end."His 1934 London production, however, ran for 155 consecutive performances,beating all records since Irving.

    A playbill issued in 1793 by the manager of the Theatre Royal,Kilkenny, announced "Hamlet by Mr Kearns who, between the acts,will perform several solos on the patent bagpipes ... Opheliaby Mrs Prior, who will introduce several favourite airs in character,particularly 'The Lass of Richmond Hill'."

    The phrase it's (like) Hamlet without the Prince (of Denmark)is used when the person who was to have played the principal role in somesituation is bizarrely absent. Shakespeare's play was performed withoutthe Prince in 1787 at the Richmond Theatre, when an inexperienced actor namedCubit suffered an anxiety attack and refused to go on stage. Sir Walter Scottwas present and said the audience thought the play much improved. see alsoG.I. Hamlet.