Hamlet (1917) Yale/Appendix B


History of the Play

The stage history of Hamlet is practically that of the English-speaking stage itself. Almost all the great actors of England and America, from Shakespeare's day to this, have appeared as the Prince. In addition, for the past one hundred years, it has been frequently played in the principal European countries. It is safe to say that no other play of Shakespeare's has been more often performed.

Richard Burbage, the leading actor of Shakespeare's company, was undoubtedly the first Hamlet. From the meagre accounts of his style of acting which have survived, we may infer that, like subsequent great interpreters of the part, he was distinguished for the ease and naturalness of his art.

After the Restoration, Thomas Betterton achieved great fame in this rôle. He was instructed in his interpretation by Sir William Davenant, who had seen the Blackfriars' company act the play. Betterton for the first time introduced scenery into Hamlet, and, if we are to trust the Quarto of 1676, established many of the traditions subsequently followed in acting versions.

David Garrick was the leading interpreter of Hamlet during the middle portion of the eighteenth century. He first appeared in the part on November 16, 1734, and continued to play it many times until he left the stage in 1776. Garrick introduced alterations of his own into the text, the chief of which was the omission of the churchyard scene (V. i.), but he was not followed by others in this. The latter years of the eighteenth century saw what many to this day consider must have been the greatest Hamlet of them all, John Philip Kemble, with his sister, Mrs. Siddons, as Ophelia. Kemble restored the text as written by Shakespeare and abolished the Garrick innovations.

The nineteenth century has witnessed, in England and America, a number of excellent Hamlets, of whom the best remembered are Edmund Kean, Macready, Samuel Phelps, Fechter, Edwin Booth, Sir Henry Irving, Wilson Barrett, Sir Herbert Tree, Martin Harvey, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and E. H. Sothern. In addition to the list of famous Hamlets, many of the leading actresses have, at one time or another, played Gertrude or Ophelia.

The most artistic and remarkable of the modern productions of Hamlet was that designed a few years ago by Gordon Craig for the Art Theatre in Moscow. Nor is there any indication that the popularity of this play upon the stage has dimmed. It still remains the test of the summit of achievement for the art of a tragic actor.