The role of Hamlet is one of the most intellectually and emotionally demanding for an actor: as Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor mention in their detailed introduction to Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis even withdrew from the role in 1989, mid-run, after he allegedly began ‘seeing’ the ghost of his father, the former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who had died in 1972.
But despite – or, perhaps, because of – this emotional intensity and complexity, actors down the ages have been keen to put their own stamp on the role, including David Garrick (who had a special wig that made Hamlet’s hair stand on end when the ghost of his father appeared), Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Mel Gibson, Sarah Bernhardt (one of many women to portray the Prince of Denmark: see the image below), Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves, Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, and even John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
As you’ll no doubt have noticed, several of the actors mentioned here are female, and there is a long tradition of women playing Hamlet, stretching as far back as the eighteenth century. It’s something that Tony Howard has charted in his brilliant book Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction. The idea of a woman playing the Danish prince is especially interesting, because Hamlet as a character is a man who seems to despise women, who detests what he perceives as his own femininity, who verbally abuses his mother, contributes to Ophelia’s madness and suicide, and who seems to feel emasculated by the situation in which he finds himself.
And that situation revolves around the murder of his father by his uncle: a crime which Hamlet is tasked with avenging. Hamlet is often characterised as ‘a man who cannot make up his mind’. Indeed, the publicity for Laurence Olivier’s celebrated 1948 film of Hamlet made much of this description of Hamlet’s character. The words that tend to come up when people try to analyse the character or personality of Hamlet are indecisive, delaying, and uncertain, with ‘inaction’ being the key defining feature of what Hamlet actually does during the play. Certainly, the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought Hamlet’s main fault was his indecision: he detected ‘an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it’ – i.e., Hamlet is better at thinking about doing things than actually doing them.
But is this fair? As Jonathan Bate among others has pointed out, Hamlet doesn’t exactly delay. At least, not without good reason: he doesn’t delay because he is indecisive or lacks courage, but for a very practical reason. As we mentioned in our summary of the play, Hamlet cannot be sure that the Ghost really is the spirit of his dead father, and not some fiend that’s been sent to cause mischief and goad him to murder. So he needs to find out whether Claudius really is guilty of murdering Hamlet Senior, and thus whether the Ghost can be trusted.
This is why he doesn’t go off and kill Claudius straight away: he has to devise the trick involving the play-within-a-play, enlist the help of the travelling players, and then stage the thing. When the play’s been staged and Claudius has revealed his guilt, Hamlet heads off to kill him – only to find his uncle at prayer, and so unable to avenge his father without sending Claudius straight to heaven, a fate he hardly thinks his uncle’s crime deserves. So he has to put off the murder.
Then he does actually kill Claudius – or thinks he has, at least – when he stabs the figure lurking behind the arras in Gertrude’s chamber. He’s got the wrong man, of course (it’s actually Polonius) but Polonius is most certainly dead, so if it had been Claudius (as Hamlet believed) he’d have avenged his father.
After Polonius’ murder, Claudius realises that Hamlet’s on to him, so he sends him to England, planning to have his nephew murdered – so once again, through no fault of his own, Hamlet isn’t choosing to delay, but having delay thrust upon him. As soon as he can, he escapes his captors, killing his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the process, and heads back to Denmark, where he finally manages to kill Claudius and avenge his own father’s murder. As Bate and others point out, the only reason we think Hamlet delays is because he keeps talking about delay: he performs indecisiveness rather than actually being uncertain of what he needs to do. In other words, Hamlet is far harder on himself than he should be: in putting off the killing of Claudius, he is arguably being fair, cautious, and sensible, even if he interprets his own behaviour as cowardice or a failure of resolve.
Hamlet the misogynist?
Hamlet’s treatment of the two female characters in the play, Gertrude (his mother) and Ophelia (his betrothed), has led to the accusation that Hamlet the character is something of a woman-hater. The two principal scenes which are relevant here – Exhibit A and Exhibit B, if you will – are the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ speech he makes to Ophelia, and the scene in Gertrude’s chamber, where the Ghost reappears to Hamlet and the Prince denounces his mother for conspiring with Claudius.
However – and without wishing to whitewash Hamlet’s uglier touches altogether – it’s not as simple as all that. Hamlet hates himself, or is at least very harsh on himself, as much as he is hard on the women in his life. When he tells Ophelia to ‘get thee to a nunnery’ (where ‘nunnery’ can either be taken literally or be interpreted as a euphemism for ‘brothel’), it is, as the ensuing speech makes clear, because he believes women’s problem is not that they themselves are flawed but that they give birth to such useless, worthless men:
Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all. Believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
Ophelia’s problem, for Hamlet, lies not in herself but in what Danish society will encourage her to do: marry and give birth to ‘sinners’. All men, even Hamlet himself, are ‘arrant knaves’. If this is misogyny, it is misogyny of a very specific sort: the worst thing about women, Hamlet says, is that they keep repopulating the world with horrible men.
The scene between Hamlet and his mother in her chamber is a little different. Here, Hamlet the character is more clearly expressing distaste at his mother’s remarriage to Claudius. But he dislikes his mother’s remarriage even before he finds out Claudius has murdered his father. The fact that she has moved on so quickly angers him.
Hamlet the actor?
Finally, Hamlet is the actor’s part: the part every male actor (and, as already mentioned, many female ones) want to play, to give their interpretation of, put their stamp on. It’s easy to see why: not just because Hamlet the character is a thinker, a philosopher of sorts, one who embodies the intellectual as well as the emotional (and, as we’ve already seen, is actually more a man of action than he’s often taken to be).
But he’s an ‘actor’ as well as an ‘act-er’, we might say: as well as acting on his instincts far more than we are led to believe, he also acts: he puts the antic disposition on to convince Claudius and Gertrude that he may be mad and to give himself time to plan his revenge, meaning an actor playing the role of Hamlet often finds themselves acting at the very idea of acting: the actor is playing Hamlet, a character who is himself putting on a part. As the long speeches between Hamlet and the players demonstrates, Hamlet the man fancies himself as something of an actor, and he provides the First Player will very specific instructions as to how to recite the speech in the play to be performed in front of the King (see the beginning of III.2).