Hamlet, the First Time Around

John Bell (1963)

Most artists are shy about discussing their individual works. Some, especially painters and musicians, refuse to, point blank. Actors seem more prone to talking about themselves, but often this does not elucidate matters. Any creative effort should be able to stand on its own feet without the props of explanation and excuse. So in writing this, I have no desire to answer the various criticisms offered against my performance or join the critical fray raging around the play itself. I wish instead to record my impressions and experiences while performing the role and the problems it entailed. This will necessitate some sort of diatribe on my conception of the part, which I shall endeavour to keep mercifully brief. No doubt I shall alternate between understatement and long-windedness; but I beg the reader’s patience in advance, suggesting that it is always difficult to be articulate about one’s own performance, especially in such close retrospect.

In searching for a suitable title to this essay, I hit on the above because it is vaguely expressive of my hope that in perhaps ten years’ time I shall have another opportunity to play the Prince of Denmark. My reason for hoping this is that in ten years’ time I shall be able to give a great deal more to the role and consequently derive much more satisfaction from playing it. My recent attempt at the part was, to me, far from being a triumphant and exhilarating adventure. It was more in the nature of a prolonged and exhausting struggle; a battle into which I entered with a good deal of trepidation every night of the run. And I always came off second best; every night some or other of the big moments eluded me, leaving me with a general feeling of frustration sometimes amounting to despair. I was allowed to enjoy only a couple of golden moments by way of consolation. It was like attempting the conquest of some inaccessible mountain-range, every night starting at the bottom, forcing a painful passage to one peak, only to see a succession of equally challenging summits stretching into the mists of infinity. In most plays the actor has a “big scene”. He carefully builds to it and then gracefully retires from the field. With Hamlet, every scene is a “big scene” and after the exhausting scene with the Ghost in the first Act, I shuddered to think that the play, the closet, the graveyard and the momentous final scene were yet to come, with the various soliloquies scattered along the way. How great was my envy of the gay Barrymore who found the part “easy”: “You can play it standing, sitting, lying down, or, if you insist, kneeling … it makes no difference as regards your stance or your mood. There are within the precincts of this great role, a thousand Hamlets, any one of which will keep in step with your whim of the evening.” This is the voice of the great and mature actor, with years of experience and training behind it. And this is why most actors play Hamlet when in their middle thirties or forties. For a young actor, I have concluded, a performance of Hamlet is an invaluable but extremely painful experience.

Even before rehearsals began I had cause for apprehension. I winced every time someone said “I shall be looking forward to your Hamlet”, knowing that inevitably I must be disappointing in one or several important aspects. Aware of the many and various things people expected in a performance of Hamlet, my only hope of salvation was to forget them all and endeavour to find my own honest and personal interpretation, shaking the dust and accretia off nearly every line to find its exact meaning; not forsaking tradition when it appeared to be in the right, but always holding it suspect, at arm’s length. This process was harder than it sounds. I found myself taking for granted a surprising number of phrases, which if examined literally, word for word, shed some new ray of light on the character. It was a highly necessary process, not only to ensure an individual performance (and not one composed of scraps culled from other Hamlets), but because of all roles Hamlet is the one demanding the utmost personalisation. Granville-Barker pointed out that there is no use trying to act Hamlet—the actor must realise himself in Hamlet. One cannot carry the day with a “clever” performance based on tricks and mannerisms. If tragedy is to be achieved, the audience must be aware of a real living man on the stage, peeling off his outer skins until his true inner being is mercilessly revealed. Three times in the play Hamlet asks to be left alone so that he can think; so that he can assess what has just happened, comment upon it, chorus-like, and find in it some meaningful lesson which he can apply to himself. The audience must share his urgency to be left alone, and must want to share his thoughts. If instead they groan “here he goes again… another soliloquy!”, the actor has failed. Gielgud recalls how one night when he came to “How all occasions…” in Act Four, a gentlemen in the front row produced and resignedly wound a large watch.

The actor playing Hamlet must make a personal odyssey through grief, self-disgust and mental anguish to some sort of state of acceptance. Just what kind of acceptance this will be will depend upon the actor’s own personality and how he has channelled it through the events of the play. For some it will be a stiff-lipped stoicism, for others a fatalistic embrace of the inevitable, for others still a joyful release into a happier world. Hamlet’s torments cannot be those of some fictitious being. The actor must recall some sort of parallels from his own experience. This is so of any role, but intensely so of Hamlet. The universality of such feelings as filial love and disappointment, fears of inadequacy, “The pangs of despised love” and puzzlement about death make Hamlet very much an Everyman figure whose sufferings must first be intensely felt by the actor and then conveyed convincingly to the audience. Hamlet’s problems are much more closely akin to our own than are Macbeth’s, Othello’s or Lear’s. The actor’s responsibility is a frightening one. He is not only the mainspring of the play’s action; he is also the only character with whom the audience can fully sympathise and identify itself.

I hesitate to treat with such brevity a subject surrounded by so much controversy, but will try to summarise some of the chief aspects of the play and the character which shaped my performances. I was grateful, for a start, for a production which attempted to emphasise the play’s essential Renaissance character. We were to be unhampered by producers’ gimmickery in terms of novel settings or stage devices. Our director, Mr. Tom Brown, had a reassuring faith in the power of the text, a concern for simplicity and fluidity and for a clear line of narrative. The design sought to be immediately identified as Renaissance in feeling with no indication of exact time or place. In other words the director stated that the play was about the Renaissance and Hamlet, a man it produced. This was the starting point of my interpretation of the role—Hamlet as “a Renaissance Prince”. The term carries vast connotations. Before going on to discuss these, however, I wish to state a belief that Hamlet is only fully realised when performed as a Renaissance tragedy, and performed uncut, at that. The play’s “digressions” on the nature of kingship, the revolution of the players and the social customs of the age are essential to the play’s Renaissance character. When Hamlet is performed in modern dress the above can be dispensed with, but then so can much of the play’s meaning. I see no virtue in performing the play in modern dress, except once in every two or three decades, just to shake off the musty conventions which dog classical tragedy and remind actors and audiences that the play is not some antiquated ritual but a living piece of action. Performing it in Restoration, Edwardian or Victorian settings is nothing more than cuteness. If the play has any contemporary comment to make it is to be found in the words and not in the donning of a bowler hat or blue jeans.



The placing of Hamlet in a setting closely related to Shakespeare’s own life and times meant an emphasis on the following points. Firstly, the clash of medieval faith and Renaissance scepticism. This is manifest in Hamlet’s indecision about the Ghost. My Hamlet never quite decided whether the Ghost was a soul from Purgatory, according to Catholic medieval doctrine; the devil working through his weakness and melancholy, according to Protestant belief; or, as Macbeth would put it, “a false creation, proceeding from a heat-oppressed brain”—a rationalist’s view. Secondly, Hamlet indulges in Renaissance ltalianate ideas of revenge when he decides to take revenge on Claudius’ soul as well as on his body, and puts the doctrine into practice when dealing with the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Thirdly, he sees himself as “passion’s slave”, losing the eternal Renaissance battle between reason and passion. Of all the aspects of the Renaissance man, this was the one which supplied most of my motivation. It made me decide to emphasise Hamlet’s neuroticism, his sudden outbursts of exaltation or frenzy which the Queen describes as “mere madness”. His storming at Ophelia in the “nunnery” scene was such an outburst. Motivating it was his resentment at being avoided for “this many a 

Screenshot 2018-09-15 17.17.28.png

day” and then offered back his love tokens; his intense sexual bitterness occasioned by his mother’s “incest”, and his suspicion that Ophelia was a spy. Her weak and obvious lie to his “Where’s your father?” triggered off his fury. A similar outburst occurred in the “closet” scene. Hamlet had to work himself into an angry state before facing his mother (“Let me be cruel”); but as soon as there was a noise behind the arras his frenzy led him into rash action. The further anger and disappointment on discovering the dead Polonius was turned against his mother and all his disgust and bitterness unleashed. Dragged from pessimistic nostalgia in the graveyard to heart-broken grief at the news of Ophelia’s death, another “towering passion” was set in motion by Laertes’ violent display of emotion. The same hyper-sensitivity was transformed into a crazy exhilaration after the Ghost’s appearance on the battlements and after the King’s confession of guilt in the “play” scene.

I was always conscious of stressing Hamlet’s youthfulness, rarely investing the soliloquies with the sombre reflection an older Hamlet might give them, but playing them more in the manner of an uncomprehending child asking the eternal “why’s” and angry at getting no answer. With the bitter intolerance of youth my Hamlet lashed his mother’s frailty; he protested against the “whips and scorns of time” with fiery resentment, not the more mature man’s deep rooted cynicism. Only with the skull of the jester and the dismissal of the deaths of his two schoolfellows did I suggest a growing hardness and a cynical acceptance of the futility of life. I showed him, like a child, trying to escape into a make-believe world in “O what a rogue and peasant-slave”, and I took literally the motives of delay suggested by “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil” and “…am I then reveng’d to take him in the purging of his soul?” An older Hamlet might well make these merely excuses for his inadequacy.

In the early stages of rehearsal, I found my main concern was with things to avoid: clichés of presentation in inflection and business. I managed to do without a lot of the traditional tricks of the trade, but had to retain the time-honoured lockets in the closet scene. I had quite a lot of trouble too with the eternal question in acting Shakespeare, that of the “word music”. For the most part I tried to avoid sonorousness. The soliloquies do better without it, and have to be spoken meaningfully, not musically. But some passages demand it. The exchanges with the Ghost (e.g. “Do you not come your tardy son to chide?”) are invested with such an organ-swelling grandeur proper to the circumstances. I learned to have an even more profound respect for Shakespeare’s use of grammar and figures of speech and am convinced it is in these rather than rhythmical incantation that the secret of his emotive power lies. By making all the verbs active, by filling the nouns and adjectives with colour, one finds the true feeling and meaning of the passage. Here is a prime example:

“The King doeth wake tonight and takes his rouse.

Keeps wassail and the swaggering up-spring reels;

And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,

The kettle-drum and the trumpet thus bray out

The triumph of his pledge.”

Here, every noun and verb is invested with emotive colour and then allied to the wonderful alliteration, convey Hamlet’s mocking disgust. Something similar occurs in practically every speech in the play and the imagination is kept active, endeavouring to give every word its full force.

The soliloquies are always a problem to get across to an audience, which one must be fully conscious of and yet pretend is not there. It is particularly difficult in a small theatre with the audience so close. I did not dare look them in the face for fear of being put off; and besides, audiences get very embarrassed, I find, if their eyes and the actors chance to meet. For a while I found myself talking to the side walls and ceiling, but this was worse than useless, so at last I trained myself to talking just a little above their heads. I had to appear to be thinking, while actually talking, and only in the last couple of weeks did I begin to achieve anything like the stillness and controlled power the soliloquies demand. They required a tremendous amount of preparation before every entrance because nearly every time Hamlet enters he is in a different mood to the one in which we last saw him and in the interim something important has happened to him.

On the whole the most disconcerting but sometimes exciting thing about the performance was that it simply refused to be set. In most parts after the rehearsal period the actor knows what he is going to do and does virtually the same thing every night with occasional slight variations. This is the most desirable thing, but in playing Hamlet I frequently found it impossible. This was especially true of the first soliloquy and the scene immediately following when Horatio tells Hamlet about the Ghost. I am sure that this never played the same way twice. To begin with I generally found latecomers straggling in during the soliloquy and often got angrier than I had intended. This would send the soliloquy into a different realm of feeling altogether and I was in a fine stew by the time Horatio, Marcellus and Bernado arrived. Some nights I found myself interrogating them quietly and suspiciously, other nights violently, loudly. They often looked as puzzled as I about the way the scene was playing, but at least this meant it always had a certain spontaneity. I frequently reset the soliloquies during the run, but I never set any of them to my complete satisfaction. It was tremendously exciting to feel that the grip of the play was so strong that it was leading me off in some new direction. I just kept on playing the scene and hoping it would somehow arrive safely at its destination. I am sure that any play of the stature of Hamlet is a tremendous strain upon the cast both emotionally and intellectually, and therefore performances are bound to vary. I remember one night doing something approximate to a cartwheel after getting a spark out of “To be or not to be” for the first time. This was not simply a lucky accident but the rare magical fusion of a lot of hard work and “something in the air”.

One could go on performing Hamlet for years, always finding something new and always benefiting from it. For the role is not only one worthy of great exploration; it is also a wonderful acting exercise. Because it demands such simplicity, directness and force of raw emotion, I had to eliminate any number of mannerisms and faults of style. The major problem was to achieve complete physical and vocal relaxation while simulating neurotic tension. My own personal tension in the early weeks of the run resulted in such idiosyncrasies as a jerking head, hunched shoulders, stiff hands and pointing with the chin. I set about to eliminate these faults one by one, and had reasonable success by the end of the run. Other technical tasks I set myself were working on verbs one night, or nouns and adjectives, even conjunctions, making sure they were all doing their job. I also worked on a number of different themes and tried to carry one through fully each night. Among these were “am I a coward?”, “what is a man?”, the revenge theme, the mother theme (how many times and in how many different ways does Hamlet use the word “mother”!), “passion’s slave”, death fixation and so on. These were all present every night of course; it was a matter of fortifying them individually while not ignoring the others or destroying the balance. But having a definite theme in mind helped me establish a steady line through the character, without which it was likely to be incoherent. 

Some nights I worked especially on exits and entrances making sure that I was really coming from and going to somewhere with a definite purpose—not just stepping on and off stage. In the early weeks of the run I gave myself a good two hours on stage before the performance began, for technical exercises and to get the imagination in working order. Later, I still gave myself at least half an hour to “limber up”. I found it helpful too, to run quickly through the play, noting the climaxes and changes of feeling and character. This way I didn’t finish up like a certain member of the company who, on the first night just before the play began said: “I’m ready to go on now, if someone will give me a brief idea of the plot.” After a moment’s consideration another actor replied: “Well, it’s about this gravedigger…”