Speaking the Speech: The Greatest Hamlets
By Kathryn Neves
Of all the great characters out there, there’s no role so highly coveted as Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark. His complex psyche and his beautiful language make him the Holy Grail of acting careers. And from the time Shakespeare set down his pen all the way to today, some of the world’s finest men and women have stepped into Hamlet’s shoes.
Richard Burbage was the first man to play Hamlet. In fact, most people speculate that the role was written for him. He was described as one of the best actors of the era, appearing in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as Ben Jonson’s, John Webster’s, and others. We don’t know a lot about his portrayal of Hamlet, but we do know that it was enough to spur him on to huge popularity—so much so that when he died, the outpouring of grief threatened to overshadow the official mourning for Anne, queen consort to King James I, who died ten days earlier! Burbage is a character in this season’s Utah Shakespeare Festival production of The Book of Will.
Hamlet was very popular when it finally came to America. The first recorded American Hamlet was played by Lewis Hallam, Jr., in 1759 in Philadelphia. In later years, Hamlet would be performed by countless American actors, but perhaps the most famous of all of them was Edwin Booth. Some historians called Edwin Booth the greatest Hamlet in the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1864, he starred in a production of Hamlet that came to be known as the “Hundred Nights Hamlet”; it was the world record for a Hamlet run until 1922. In fact, Hamlet became his signature role. However, most of his achievements have been overshadowed over the years; just after the Civil War ended, his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Still, even today, many people consider Edwin Booth to be the Great American Hamlet.
Hamlet was not only popular in England and America. The play was fairly popular in France in the late 1800s; one of the most prominent actors on the Continent performed an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to great acclaim in 1899: her name was Sarah Bernhardt. Surprisingly enough, Bernhardt was not the first woman to play Hamlet. That honor belongs to Sarah Siddons in 1778. Still, Bernhardt’s Hamlet was very influential. She became incredibly famous for it, to the point that when films were invented, she became the first Hamlet to ever appear on film; it was a five-minute silent film of the fencing scene between Hamlet and Laertes.
John Barrymore was another famous Hamlet. He was the man who broke Edwin Booth’s record of the longest running Hamlet; Barrymore’s ran for 101 performances. His role as Hamlet cemented him as “the greatest living American tragedian,” as expressed by a reviewer in Brooklyn Life. The performance was a huge success; of his role, Barrymore said that Hamlet was “a normal, healthy, lusty young fellow who simply got into a mess that was too thick for him.” He played Hamlet as an ordinary man, which appealed to audiences everywhere, while at the same time bringing psychological complexity to the character. The New York Herald even said that it was a performance “that will be memorable in the history of the American theater.” He played Hamlet again later on, and even performed the role in a radio version.
And of course, you can’t speak of Hamlet without mentioning Laurence Olivier. He played Hamlet both onstage and on film. One of his stage productions onstage was actually at a castle in Elsinore, reminiscent of the play’s setting. This became a tradition in later years, even as recently as 2009 with Jude Law in the lead role. In 1948, Olivier decided to do a film version of Hamlet, which he both directed and starred in. It was a huge success, and even won the Oscar for Best Picture—and Olivier himself took home the Best Actor Award for the role.
There have been modern actors, too, who have taken up the mantle of the Prince of Denmark. Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a film version of the play in 1996. He didn’t cut a single word from the play, which meant that the film runs over four hours. Don’t let that scare you away, though; the film is considered one of the greatest Hamlets ever recorded on camera. Before that, of course, was Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, which is one of the more popular screen adaptations of the play. And even more recently we saw David Tennant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott perform the role.
We’ve had some great Hamlets here at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, too: Howard Jensen, Peter Webster, Scott Glasser, Sam Tsoutsouvas, T. Scott Cunningham, Martin Kildare, Brian Vaughn, and Danforth Collins all brought unique and brilliant things to their incarnation of the Dane.
Shakespeare’s amazingly complex characterization of Hamlet has enthralled audiences for centuries, and will for many years so come. So make sure to see Hamlet in our 2019 season. It’s a play—and it’s a character—and you won’t want to miss it.