Gielgud's Hamlet

By Berry, Ralph | Contemporary Review, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Gielgud's Hamlet


Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (1.5.166-67)

THIS is one of those hackneyed quotations that Hamlet, famously, is full of: but what does it mean? Everything depends on the stress, and the actor has to choose between 'your' and 'philosophy', or play safe with a balancing act. (Richard Burton emphasized 'dreamt'.) Gielgud stressed 'philosophy', avoiding, says J.C. Trewin, that great connoisseur of the part, 'the snubbing intonation --impossible with this actor -- where a minor Hamlet would come down like a load of bricks on "your"'. (Five & Eighty Hamlets, p. 179) Trewin is right. 'Your' suggests a certain intellectual disdain, which is levelled at a friend, Horatio. 'Philosophy' suggests that Hamlet is distrustful of intellectual investigation. ('Humanism', in the Renaissance, stood for science.) So 'your' is not really the choice for a refined and hyper-aware sensibility, which even in a crisis cannot be guilty of what might be construed as discourtesy to a friend.

And there you have Gielgud's Hamlet, 'as firmly the central performance of its age as Forbes-Robertson's had been'. (Trewin, p. 34) That is an exceptionally rare order of judgment. Nowadays we take it for granted that no one owns Hamlet. Actors give it their best shot, and move on. John Gielgud played Hamlet over 16 years, from April 1930 to February 1946, a life-effort generally taken to comprise four Hamlets. He made the part his own.

Of those four Hamlets, Gielgud thought that the first was best. It is often the case with major parts: what one gains with age and experience one loses with youthful fire and elan. That's not absolute: I saw Gielgud's last Prospero (1974) and thought it much superior to his previous Prospero (1957). He knew more, and Prospero needs that inner bite of experience. The more betrayals one lives through, the better one plays Prospero. But Hamlet is open to the attack of a young man, and Gielgud, aged 26, brought an astonishing freshness to the role. He seemed to be encountering the words for the first time - as indeed he was - and exploring hitherto unknown regions of meaning.

Intelligence coupled with voice, that was Gielgud's forte. His voice had been likened to an oboe, the Elizabethan hautboy. It became a Stradivarius handled by a master. Of his speaking, Gielgud said in interview: 'I study the shape, sound, and length of the words themselves, and try to reproduce them exactly as they were written'. This is no kind of barren 'musicality', sounds undirected by thought. It is a doctrine of formal values guided towards meaning. Gielgud's was classic verse speaking.

Men are trapped by their virtues. That wonderful melodic line of Gielgud, that voice that seemed to caress meanings as it passed by, was the target of criticism. He was inevitably compared with Olivier. I don't want to revisit the time when a perpetual war, as between Guelphs and Ghibellines, raged between supporters of Gielgud and Olivier. But certainly now Gielgud is getting excellent reviews - they go with obituaries - while Olivier, in his grave for a decade, is getting consistently poor ones. One needs to redress the balance. A good start is 'To be or not to be', widely available for each actor. Olivier's reading (for the film) is intense, dramatic, genuinely contemplating suicide. Gielgud's is much smoother, psychologically detached, nowhere near suicide. At 'Who would fardels bear' Gielgud shares the emphasis between 'who' and 'fardels'. Olivier gives more weight to 'would'. Nobody knows what a fardel is, other than that one doesn't volunteer to bear it; so there's a dramatic logic in striking at the verb, as Olivier did, with its active sense of distaste. (Nicol Williamson took the emphasis a stage further. His snarling, Tyneside student repeated the phrase: 'Who would fardels bear? Who would fardels bear?') Gielgud shunned that intensity of feeling, Olivier welcomed it. …

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