Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition

Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition

Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition

Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition

Synopsis

John Mills spotlights the various ways in which the role of Hamlet has been performed over almost four centuries. He launches this work with the first Hamlet portrayal, that of Richard Burbage, and then, in chronological order, describes and analyzes the Hamlets of the other actors who make up the great tradition of English-language Shakespeare acting. Mills devotes an entire chapter to each actor, focusing on acting style, text interpretation, theatrical and critical influences, popular and critical responses, and more. He offers a scene-by-scene account of the central figure's performance, with special emphasis on business and line-readings.

Excerpt

The history of Hamlet on the stage is vast; to tell anything like the whole story would doubtless require several volumes. I therefore decided, early in my exploration of the historical materials, to deal only with portrayals of the play's central character, to write not a stage history of Hamlet but a stage history of Hamlet. Even that topic quickly proved unmanageable without further delimitation. At least a slim volume, I found, could be written solely on the several women and children who have acted the role of Hamlet. These exotic but peripheral figures having been excluded, other categories to be omitted came more or less readily to mind: foreign-language Hamlets, however well received; amateur Hamlets, however well-intentioned; and Hamlets by actors of "the second rank," however well connected (e.g., Charles Kean, H. B. Irving).

All this lopping off, some if it effected with considerable reluctance, left me with a study in the shape here presented, a study of Hamlet as impersonated by actors who collectively make up "the great tradition" of English-language acting of Shakespeare in general and of Hamlet in particular. In borrowing the notion of a "great tradition" from F. R. Leavis' study of the English novel, I run less risk of controversy than he did. The roster of the great Hamlets, prior to the twentieth century at any rate, is not much in dispute: Richard Burbage, Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, John Philip Kemble, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Henry Irving, Johnston Forbes-Robertson--one calls the roll with little fear of contradiction. Even among Hamlets of the first half of the present century, the preeminence of John Barrymore, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier seems a settled matter. Devoting separate chapters to the Hamlet portrayals of each of these major figures, considered in chronological order, seemed the natural organization for a study of the main cur-

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