Critics complain we’ve had enough of Hamlet
Benedict Cumberbatch is to play Shakespeare’s troubled prince next year, tracing the steps of the world’s finest actors. But do we neglect other great plays by staging Hamlet too often?
In his endlessly quoted ‘to be, or not to be’ speech, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ponders whether there is life after death. But Shakespeare's most famous character has been asking this question now for 400 years — proof of his and the play’s immortality. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the play refuses to be put to rest.
From 17th-century heart-throb Richard Burbage to modern stars David Tennant and Jude Law, playing this leading man has always carried prestige. Now, to the delight of thousands of social media users, Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch has just announced he will be the next big name to play the part in a London production set for next year.
Yet if the whole of Hamlet were performed it would take four hours to finish, so almost every production cuts numerous lines, entire characters and whole scenes. There are also three contrasting versions of the play, and scholars are still arguing over which is the ‘real’ script. It is an awkward play to have such a reputation.
One theatre critic says its enduring appeal is that it confronts us with timeless questions about life and death. And while Hamlet is being performed constantly, it can be done in so many different ways; Hamlet has been a moody teenager, a tortured genius and an indecisive buffoon and even a schizophrenic. As one university professor puts it, ‘Hamlet is always a new play, and frequently the best one around’.
But are the constant big-name stagings of this one play in the best interests of the theatre as a whole? In the 1590s, Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe was thought the superior playwright, and until the 18th century Ben Jonson had a far better reputation. Might it be better to let these less well-known writers have the chance to be appreciated again? The same critic who praises the play’s timelessness also asks the question: do we need a break from the Dane?
Good night sweet prince
Many say that playing Hamlet is one of the defining moments of an actor’s career, and it is only natural that Cumberbatch would want to join the list of great performers from the past. Big names can create interest in a classic work among an audience who would not normally care about it, and if they do, they may well go on to explore other dramatic treasures.
Others think Hamlet is a long and difficult play and audiences might be inclined to develop a love of theatre and literature if they could start with something easier. Some seasoned playgoers say they would much rather see celebrities acting in forgotten works like the plays of Richard Brome, than turning up in Elsinore each year. We should celebrate all the works that literature has to offer, not just the most famous one.
- Is the most famous play in the world, Hamlet, also the best? Or is it produced too much?
- ‘A ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat.’ Is Shakespeare well served by the reverence his plays are shown?
- In pairs, decide on what you would most like to see staged in a theatre. It could be an adaptation from a book or a film. Plan and script a short scene: if you have time, perform it for the class.
- Research the other playwrights mentioned in the article. List their three most famous works, and what they were about. Then, if you are feeling really ambitious, try reading some of the plays.
Some People Say...
“Our obsession with Shakespeare makes us neglect other great works of literature.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I don’t want to watch or read any Shakespeare!
- Trying to understand his plays can be difficult because the language often seems unfamiliar. However, more than 85% of Shakespeare’s language is still used today. Critic Claire Brennan compares it to watching a new sport: while at first you do not know the rules, patterns in the language soon appear and soon everything seems to fit into place.
- I thought Shakespeare did not write his plays anyway?
- Shakespeare, like almost all the playwrights of his time, collaborated when writing some of his plays. This has been accepted by academics for over a century. However, almost all serious scholars dismiss the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare’s works were entirely written by someone else.
- Richard Burbage
- The most famous actor on the Elizabethan stage, Burbage was the George Clooney of his day. It is thought many of the swordfighting scenes in Shakespeare’s early work were put there because Burbage was a renowned swordsman. The only thing written on his tombstone was the poignant stage direction, ‘Exit: Burbage’.
- Three different texts survive from Shakespeare’s lifetime: the action-packed first ‘Quarto’, a longer, more philosophical second ‘Quarto’ and the ‘Folio’ version. Each includes lines and scenes missing in the others.
- A hugely successful playwright who may also have been a government spy, Christopher Marlowe’s life is shrouded in mystery and he was killed aged 29, supposedly after a quarrel over a bill in a tavern.
- Many critics have long thought Jonson envied Shakespeare, and though there is little evidence of this, printed versions of Jonson’s plays often comically complain about his live audiences for not being intelligent enough to understand the subtleties of his work.
- Richard Brome, a long-neglected playwright is only just starting to receive the attention he deserves. His most famous play, ‘The Antipodes’, involves a young would-be traveller being tricked into thinking he has journeyed to a place where everything is bizarrely backwards.
- The royal castle in Denmark in which Hamlet is set. Hamlet is the prince whose father, the King is dead. His mother is married to his uncle, now on the throne, as the play begins.