recent success of two distinctly different interpretations of
has once more opened the old Shakespearian controversy: Was the
Melancholy Prince insane, or merely simulating madness the better
to trap the murderer of his kingly father? The discussion revives
memories of the great Hamlets that have crossed the world's mimic
stage and of others who were not so great.
Burbage was born in 1567 and died in 1619. He was the best
known actor of the Elizabethan stage, and played the principal
parts in Shakespeare's pieces. By a
curious coincidence, the actor, like the author, was born in
the little town of Stratford-on-Avon. At an early age he appeared
as a player, and by the time he was twenty, had established a
reputation. During the next dozen years his fame steadily increased.
With his brother, Cuthbert, he built the Globe Theatre, in London,
celebrated for its connection with Shakespeare. This theatre
was a summer playhouse, the one at Blackfriars, which was roofed
in, being utilized in winter. In this venture Burbage had Shakespeare
as a partner, both being members of the Lord Chamberlain's company
of players. Burbage created many famous rôles, and, from
"A Funeral Elegy," of which several versions exist,
it seems certain that he was the original Hamlet, Othello, and
Says the elegiast--
- He's gone, and with him what a world is dead,...
- No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
- King Lear, the grieved Moor, and more beside
- That lived in him have now forever died.
And Austin Dobson has a rondeau in which we are reminded that--
- When Burbage played, the stage was bare
- Of fount and temple, tower and stair;
- Two backswords eked a battle out;
- Two supers made a rabble rout;
- The Throne of Denmark was a chair!
- And yet, no less the audience there
- Thrilled through all changes of Despair,
- Hope, Anger, Fear, Delight, and Doubt,
- When Burbage played!
WHAT a fascinating subject to contemplate! Yet how incongruous
to imagine "the melancholy Dane" playing opposite a
"female impersonator"! There were no women on the stage
in Shakespeare's time and the part of Ophelia was created by
a boy with a falsetto voice. When the lads' voices "changed,"
they relinquished feminine rôles for masculine ones. Juliet
became Romeo, Portia became Shylock, and Ophelia became Hamlet.
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!
Betterton was born in 1635 and died in 1710. He was apprenticed
to a bookseller who subsequently organized a theatrical troupe.
In this way the young man was transferred from a shop to the
stage. In 1661 he was a member of Sir William Davenant's company,
at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, and soon became a favorite,
despite the natural disadvantages of a low voice, small eyes,
and an ungainly figure. The best contemporary judges, such as
Steele, Cibber, Pepys, and Pope, enthusiastically proclaim the
excellence of his interpretations. His repertoire was an extensive
one, including many of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet being especially
admired. Early in his career he was sent to Paris by Charles
II, to study the French theatre, with a view to improving the
English, this visit familiarizing the young actor with the work
of Molière. When he played the
part of Alvaro, in "Love and Honor," the king graciously
lent his coronation robes. And yet, such were the standards of
the day, at no time in his stage career did Betterton recieve
a larger salary than four pounds a week! To us the thought of
a "twenty dollar Hamlet" seems preposterous. But autre
temps, autre moeurs!
Garrick was born in 1717 and died in 1779. His first appearance
was at the Goodman's Fields Theatre, where he at once attracted
attention. In fact, he created a furore. Gray declared that the
town was "horn-mad" about Garrick. After a time, the
actor assumed the management of Drury Lane Theatre, and, during
a connection that lasted twenty years, he produced a great variety
of plays, including twenty-four by Shakespeare. Many of these
pieces were "altered" and "adapted" to suit
the convenience or conceit of the "star." For instance,
Garrick added a dying speech to the text of "Macbeth,"
played the part in modern dress and took great liberties with
"The Merchant of Venice." Tate Wilkinson wrote that
Garrick's production of Hamlet, in 1773, was well received at
Drury Lane Theatre, even by the galleries, "though without
their favorite acquaintances, the grave-diggers!" Pitt declared
that Garrick was the best actor the English stage had ever produced.
Pope avowed that Garrick had no equal, and would have no rival.
Horace Walpole added that there were a dozen dukes of a night
to see Garrick's performance. Grimm extolled Garrick as the first
and only actor who came up to the demands of his imagination.
Johnston said, in his "Lives of the Poets," that the
death of Garrick had eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished
the public stock of harmless pleasure. The famous actor was buried
in Westminster Abbey, at the foot of Shakespeare's statue. But
think of Hamlet without the grave-diggers! Every bit as bad as
Hamlet without the Ghost!
JOHN Philip Kemble was born in 1757 and died in 1823. He was
the eldest son of Roger Kemble, and was a brother of Sarah Siddons.
He was educated for the priesthood, but, at the completion of
a four-year course, he turned from the pulpit to the playhouse,
adopting the stage as his profession in 1776. Gradually he made
a name for himself as a capable performer, and this combined
with the great fame of his sister, led to an engagement at Drury
Lane Theatre, where he made his first appearance in 1783, as
Hamlet. He was well received, but it was not until 1785, when
he played Macbeth, that he actually shared in the honors bestowed
upon Mrs. Siddons. Brother and sister appeared together as King
John and Constance, and as Othello and Desdemona, being hailed
as the greatest actor and actress of the day. His elocutionary
art, his fine sense of rhythm and emphasis enabled him to excel
in declamation, but physically he was incapable of giving expression
to impetuous vehemence and searching pathos. One of his greatest
triumphs was in his own version of "Coriolanus," the
character of "the noble Roman" being especially suited
to "the noble Kemble." His appointment as manager of
Drury Lane Theatre, in 1788, enabled him to clothe the characters
with less respect for tradition and more regard for correctness.
Up to that time actors hadd appeared in contemporary costumes,
and Kemble himself enacted Hamlet and Macbeth in satin knee-breeches,
and a powdered periwig. The word "anachronism" was
unknown in those days--apparently!
Henry West Betty was born in 1791 and died in 1874. He lives
in theatrical history as "The Infant Roscius."
From early childhood he was remarkably precocious. He manifested
an aptitude for memorizing dramatic verse, and this accomplishment
was encouraged by his talented mother. Witnessing a performance
by Mrs. Siddons, he resolved to become an actor, and so, in 1803,
when he was twelve years of age, he made his stage début.
During his first month in the theatre he played four different
parts, each the principal rôle in a production. One of
these was Romeo. His success was extraordinary, and he added
Hamlet to his repertoire! These appearances were at Belfast and
Dublin, and in 1804, when he was thirteen years of age, he made
his London début, at Covent Garden Theatre. The troops
had to be called out to preserve order, so great was the crush
to obtain admittance. Ireland had been enthusiastic, but England
went into ecstasies. Covent Garden engaged Master Betty for twelve
performances, at fifty guineas each. Immediately afterward, Drury
Lane engaged him for twenty-eight performances at seventy-five
SUCH salaries were without precedent. During the Drury Lane
engagement the gross receipts amounted to more than seventeen
thousand pounds. George III presented him to the queen and the
princesses. On one occasion the House of Commons adjourned in
order to be in time for the performance of Hamlet. The town lost
its head completely. A provincial tour was followed by a London
reappearance, in 1805, when twenty-four performances were divided
between Covent Garden and Drury Lane. In 1808, he made his last
appearance as a boy-actor. After studying at Cambridge University,
Betty returned to the stage, in 1812, meeting with merely moderate
success in London, although he continued to tour the provinces
until 1824, when he retired to enjoy the fortune acquired during
the early popularity. We "moderns" can only marvel
that a thirteen-year-old Romeo and Hamlet could ever be taken
seriously, or regarded as anything but a "freak" exhibition,
like "the Living Skeleton," etc...
Berhardt, noted delineator of exotic heroines, also presented
herself as--Hamlet! Audiences were attracted out of sheer curiosity,
and criticisms were penned more in sorrow than in anger. Facetious
fellows declared that the title-rôle should be changed
to Hamlette or Hamletina, wondering if the next impersonator
of the Prince of Denmark would be--Vesta Tilley! But Bernhardt
was not discouraged or dismayed, and proceeded with other masculine
parts, including L'Aiglon and Shylock, playing the latter rôle
with a beard, which was ridiculed as being "literally, the
A most remarkable performance of Hamlet was given some years
ago in London, when J.C.M. Bellew, an English clergyman, father
of Kyrle Bellew, the well-known actor, entertained an audience
of invited friends with a presentation of the Shakespearian tragedy,
in which the actors played their parts in pantomime, while the
revered gentleman sat in the place generally reserved for the
leader of the orchestra, and recited all the lines of the characters!
During the height of "the aesthetic craze," while
Oscar Wilde was hailed as "the
high priest" in England, Edmund Russell resolved to become
"the high priest" in America. He gave lessons in deportment,
teaching people how to sit down and stand up in an aesthetic
manner. He was taken up by smart society, and became a fashionable
fad. But he sighed for new worlds to conquer, so announced an
appearance at Wallack's Theatre. He was to be an aesthetic Hamlet!
When the star appeared, the friends applauded and the foes hooted,
but before long the whole house united in laughing outright,
for Mr. Russell bent over and ripped his tights, at the same
time almost losing his toupée! As a wag remarked at the
time, Edmund Russell split more than "the ears of the groundlings!"