Living with Hamlet: Part One
By Quinn Mattfeld
Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, actor Quinn Mattfeld will be writing blog posts about what it is like to play the role of Hamlet. This is the first of three such posts.
As an actor, what can I say about Hamlet that hasn’t already been said (and far better) by countless literary critics, theatre critics, philosophers, poets, et. al.? Surely, if there is a way to think of or articulate Hamlet, it has been thought and articulated long before I even knew the play existed. But one of the many beautiful things about being a Shakespearean actor is that we know these plays were intended to be heard not read. In fact, the only people who were ever supposed to have read the plays were actors.
So while the play, as it exists on the page, has been poured over for nearly half a millennium by legions of analytical minds far superior to my own, as an actor I know that there is a difference between reading Hamlet, and living with Hamlet.
Four times a week for almost four months this summer, I have the unparalleled privilege and honor of playing the greatest character in Western literature for thousands of people. For the next few months, as I have for the last few, I will live with Hamlet.
Though this is my third time playing the role, I have learned exponentially more this time through. Every production of Hamlet is different. And every performance within that production is also a new and different experience for an actor (and the audience).
Our job as actors, as is the task with any ritual, is to perform an action for the thousandth time as if it were the first. What naturally emerges from such a prolonged level of intensity and investment is a kind of spontaneous creative impulse within the framework of the story. In those places where I expect to find myself laughing, I may instead find myself moved to tears and vice versa. Often a word will leap into my ear in a way that gives it a depth and resonance it never previously had. A look, a gesture, a movement emerges or fades in some way unexpected but perfectly appropriate for this Hamlet, on this day and no other.
This is what it means to live with Hamlet.
All of these experiences are teaching me that this role, perhaps more than any other role in the canon, cannot be confined to the character as it exists on the page. Hamlet is a perpetual unfolding of revelation. The play begins with a question. The word “question” itself appears more in Hamlet than any other Shakespeare play. The character and the play itself are a relentless search for truth and so to live with Hamlet is to live between spiraling pillars of doubt and discovery.
It is a journey of intimacy and investigation that even the most brilliant scholars will never know unless they step into Hamlet’s boots and experience it for themselves.
Living with Hamlet is the kind of journey that every actor dreams of taking, a journey I look very much forward to continuing into the fall.