Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

HAMLET: In Performance

April is Hamlet month this year at the Folger! Our upcoming performance, opening April 21st, has us so excited for the Bard’s Greatest Tragedy!

The play has been examined in a myriad of ways, so instead of trying to cram it all into one entry I will begin with notable performances of Hamlet.

Hamlet recently played to sold out crowds on Broadway with a bold production from London

Jude Law as Hamlet, Fall 2009

starring Jude Law, which was called “athletic,” “electric,” and “full-throttle.”  Hamlet is very often seen as a thinker; an inactive, introspective, indecisive young man – but this Hamlet was charged with action and feeling in a world filled with shadows and dark voids.

For all his thoughtfulness, Hamlet is a compelling character, one whom many actors have portrayed both on stage and in film. Notable film adaptations include the staged 1964 version starring Richard Burton and John GielgudKennth Branagh’s 1996 epic, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 rough-edged period piece (also known as the “Mel Gibson” Hamlet), and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modern take starring Ethan Hawke.  Each of the actors playing Hamlet on film bring something different to the table: quiet contemplation, frenzied inner struggles, and cold calculation among them. Each Hamlet is searching for the character who has remained a puzzle to actors since Richard Burbage recited the role in the 16th century.

Sarah Siddons was the first actress to take on the role in the 18th century, but was not the last.  Many famous actors like Edwin Booth and David Garrick took up the mantle of the troubled Dane to great acclaim from their peers.

A college colleague, Megan Reichelt, introduced me to this poem by Carl Sandburg that seems apt to this discussion: What is it about Hamlet that keeps actors asking questions, and what makes his character so interesting to portray?  Which portrayal of Hamlet that you have seen was of particular interest to you, and why?

“THEY all want to play Hamlet.
They have not exactly seen their fathers killed
Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill,
Nor an Ophelia dying with a dust gagging the heart,
Not exactly the spinning circles of singing golden spiders,
Not exactly this have they got at nor the meaning of flowers—O flowers, flowers slung by a dancing girl—in the
saddest play the inkfish, Shakespeare, ever wrote;
Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s
skull in the hand and then to say over slow and say over slow wise, keen, beautiful words masking a heart that’s
breaking, breaking,
This is something that calls and calls to their blood.
They are acting when they talk about it and they know it is acting to be particular about it and yet: They all want to play

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