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From Page to Stage

Updated Monday 7th December 2009

How does the casting of Hamlet effect our perception of the play? Hannah Lavery explores different performances of Hamlet and introduces questions to study the play further.

David Tennant as Hamlet Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

From ‘Editing Shakespeare’s Plays’ by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor AA306 Shakespeare: Texts and Context, pp. 155-165, edited with additions by Hannah Lavery

It is not only editors who ‘play around with’ the text of a Shakespeare play. Directors and actors often feel free to create their own texts. The ‘editing’ of the texts for performance may involve cutting, conflation or amalgamation of several versions, or even rewriting.

If the play is Hamlet, those involved with performance almost always begin by shortening the printed text from which they are working. This is partly for practical reasons: the longest text (Q2 plus parts of Folio) takes around four hours to perform (you may want to watch the Kenneth Branagh production from 1996 to see a ‘full’ version)! But the decision to cut parts of the play will inevitably impact on the story and characterization.

On the whole, the history of cutting in Hamlet has been designed to affect our view of the central character, either ennobling Hamlet’s character or else concentrating attention on his psychological, emotional or spiritual condition. On the other hand, if we read one of the text versions we find that there is also a wider context for the action of the play.

The play opens with Denmark preparing for war, ‘So nightly toils the subject of the land’ (1.1.71). Claudius negotiates something approaching a peace with Young Fortinbras relatively early in the play (2.2.76-80), and Norway’s troops are given passage through Denmark, finally appearing on stage briefly at 4.4 in Q2. In the final scene, young Hamlet names Fortinbras as the successor: ‘th’election lights/ On Fortinbras’ (5.5.297-8). So, whilst much of the play seems to focus on the character of Hamlet, and how he handles the crimes of his and other families within the context of the court, the overall context for the play is one of external warfare and threats to national identity. The choices a director makes in terms of the play text will impact on how these issues appear to the audience.

From at least Thomas Betterton’s production in the Restoration (1676) to Matthew Warchus’s production for the RSC in 1997 a lot of the political material has been cut to emphasise instead the family and psychological drama, which has dominated contemporary Western readings of the play. However, productions staged in Eastern Europe and Russia, in particular, have focussed on the political elements of the Hamlet story, exploring the representation of an individual who feels trapped within a corrupt state and family: ‘Denmark’s a prison’ (2.2.239). Some productions have used this idea to frame the staging and set of the play.

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Whatever the words delivered, it also matters what kind of actor plays Hamlet, and how he is played – the very act of casting initiates a distinctive interpretation. The age and physical appearance of the actor inevitably constrains the kind of Hamlet communicated to an audience. In 1709, Thomas Betterton acted Hamlet at the age of 74 and there have been many female Hamlets, beginning with Sarah Siddons in 1777. Whoever plays the part, the characterization and style of delivery will create the play anew.

Such business is an element in what we might call the visual text of the play. In constructing this text, as well as deciding how and when to move the actors around the stage, a director must choose the historical period in which to set the play – if s/he does not reject altogether the idea of setting it in an historical period, or perhaps in the present day. Again, this choice will affect how the play’s actions are perceived by the audience.

Let’s think about Gregory Doran’s production of Hamlet in relation to these issues:

  • What effect does the casting of David Tennant have for the representation of Hamlet (e.g. his age, looks, his physical performance of the lines?) How might the play differ if Hamlet were to be played by an older man, or a woman?
  • What choices are made for the set, sound effects, and lighting for the opening scene of Doran’s production?
  • How do these choices relate to a reading of the play as about family and/or politics?

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