Did Shakespeare use visual effects?

Stagecraft has a fascinating and interesting history. The way we portray spectacle on stage has changed a lot since the advent of television and movies, which utilize computers and animatronics, etc. to create impossible things that could never be is shown live. In a way, the pre-recorded nature of film and TV gives theater practitioners an advantage because the more clever they are with their stagecraft, the more impressive it is for the simple fact that it is live- happening right now in front of an audience.

What I want to do with this post is to speculate whether, with the technology of the time, if Shakespeare could have used some kind of visual spectacle to portray otherworldly creatures, such as the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth

The conventional wisdom

Contemporary accounts of the Globe theater mention two trap doors, one in the ceiling for angels and gods, and one in the floor for ghosts or devils.

Most books I’ve read on Elizabethan stagecraft say that the theaters of this era were very minimalistic in design. They had trap doors, they had galleries, they had a primitive flying rig, and they had music and some simple sound effects, but most of the experience was watching the actors, their costumes, their bodies, and hearing their voices hence ‘audience’- audio, “To hear.”

Professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University explains the way the ghost probably haunted the Globe Theater in 1600.

We are told there wasn’t much visual representation of spectacle and fantasy on Shakespeare’s stage, which which is is odd because there are some pretty fantastical elements in his plays, especially Hamlet and Macbeth, where the former calls for a ghost and the latter calls for a ghost, witches, and a literal goddess to appear on stage. How may one ask, was this achieved back in Shakespeare’s day, the late 1590s and the early 1600s? The conventional wisdom is that the ghosts in Hamlet and the ghost in Macbeth came through a trap door in the stage known as Hell.

If you’re you go to the Globe now you can see this actual trap door being used. It used a primitive pully system to open up in the middle of the floor. The ghost would ascend to the stage through a small step ladder. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is described as wearing a suit of armor and being very pale. Banquo’s ghost is described as having long hair dappled with blood.

Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet in Macbeth’s honor. Based on this hypothesis it’s likely that a banqueting table was brought out into the middle of a stage to conceal the ghost, to make it more of a surprise when it ascends onstage through the trap door, but the effect to modern taste would be rather dull. However impressive the performance, this cannot stand up to the stunning nature of visual effects using computer technology, motion capture, et cetera. I wanted to see if there are any Elizabethan theatrical illusions that would still have been accessible to Shakespeare back in the 1590s.

Idea #1: A Smoke-monster ghost?

My research began with this video from the YouTube History Channel Atun-Shei Films, where the author traces the history of film, (both as photography and film as a projection). He cites at the start, an incident in 1536 where a supposed necromancer appeared to conjure a ghost for an unsuspecting rube. According to The Lives Of the Necromancers, the solution was achieved by creating huge clouds of smoke within the theater space, (which was the Colosseum) and then using a primitive camera obscure to project a frightening image Into this space.

Sketch for an early camera obscura, dated 1544 by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Camera Obscura is a term is it Latin for dark chamber the principal had been discovered for century had existed for centuries bit is for centuries but only in the 1530s this was the 1st recorded example of it being used to create a theatrical illusion.

The question is, could Shakespeare’s company have performed the same illusion with the technology of the day? Honestly, I find it rather unlikely that Shakespeare’s audience would’ve put up with huge clouds of smoke in a wooden amphitheater. Still, the fact remains that primitive projection technology existed back in Shakespeare’s day, which means a director could reasonably implement it in a production of Hamlet or Macbeth, even under the constraints of Original Practices.

Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth

So the question remains, is there a visually striking way to represent the ghosts that could actually work in Shakespeare’s theater. My first idea is…

Idea 1: Glow In the Dark Paint

Paul Scoffield as The Ghost in Hamlet (1990, dir. Franco Zefirelli). Notice that he appears to glow pale blue.

Glow-in-the-dark paint wasn’t invented until 1908, but there are some rocks that naturally glow such as hackmanite and phosphorus.

https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-figured-out-how-this-natural-stone-glows-in-the-dark/amp

Theoretically, Shakespeare’s company could have crushed this rock into a powder and made it into a paint that glowed onstage. There is precedent for this- in The Hound Of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes discovers that the terrifying ghost-hound is merely a large dog painted with phosphorescent paint:

In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was
lying stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it
was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of
the two–gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even
now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping
with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed
with fire. I placed my hand upon the glowing muzzle, and as I
held them up my own fingers smouldered and gleamed in the darkness.

“Phosphorus,” I said.

“A cunning preparation of it,” said Holmes, sniffing at the dead
animal. 

Doyle, Part IV.

Though this paint would potentially make a terrifying effect, this would be impossible at an outdoor theater during the day. This makes it unlikely that Shakespeare used glow-in-the-dark paint at the Globe, as most of the performances took place in the afternoon. That said, both Hamlet and were written just at the point in which Shakespeare’s company was in the process of acquiring an indoor theater, the Blackfriars.

The Blackfriars and Shakespeare’s stagecraft

Almost all of these ideas would depend on Shakespeare having access to a theatre in which he could control the lighting. As you can see, the Blackfriars was lit with candles and its indoor nature meant that performances weren’t dependent on sunlight. Greg Doran, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has theorized in the past that maybe while his company was preparing to move into the Blackfriars, Shakespeare was changing his material to make it both literally and figuratively darker.

In the reconstructed Blackfriars, (where I studied and interned for three years), there is a trap-door and flying rig like the Globe, so the conventional trap-door ghost can and has been utilized there. I would also argue that in the Blackfriars unlike the Globe, there was a chance for more variety of theatrical illusions- perhaps a smoke projection, magic lantern, or even…

Idea 3: A Pepper’s ghost

A Peppers Ghost is a stage illusion that dates back to the 19th century. It uses the principle of refracted light to project the image of a ghost on top of a piece of glass. This image will appear translucent and could be very impressive to an audience at the Blackfriars! As you can see in the diagram below, the actor could be under the stage in the trap door standing in front of a mirror, and the glass sheet could be used to project his image to the audience. The only concern would be that this could limit the blocking of the other actors, and it might not make the ghost visible to the audience members in the upper galleries, but it would still be an impressive visual effect that uses scientific principles known in the 17th century.

Pepper's ghost diagram
Pepper’s ghost diagram.

Pepper’s Ghost illusions are still used frequently in theme parks, trade shows, and concerts where singers interact with “holograms.” As a special Halloween treat, (or trick as the case may be), I’ve included a video that will allow you to make your own Pepper’s ghost at home. If you choose to make one, leave me a comment!

So, in conclusion, though we are taught that Shakespeare’s theater often reveled in simplistic theatrical designs, I personally think that there is more room to explore low-tech theatrical illusions like these, especially at companies like the Globe Theater and the American Shakespeare Company, which pride themselves on using Shakespeare’s original staging practices. Live theater has dodged giving up its ghost for 2,000 years by exploring the limits of live theater through movement, voice, story, music, and yes spectacle. I think theater practitioners, even Original Practitioners should keep innovating new kinds of spectacular means to keep creating fresh interpretations of Shakespeare, that still keep within the spirit of the play’s original time and place.

Bonus: If you want to learn more about the stage illusions of Shakespeare’s company, click here to listen to That Shakespeare Life Podcast with Cassidy Cash. In this episode, she interviews theater professor Frank Mohler, who describes how thunder and flying effects were done in the 17th century, using records of the period, and his own experimentation.

New Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

In this 9 week course, students will discover Shakespeare’s greatest characters- Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and others through games, dramatic readings, and interactive projects! -The class is designed to be ala carte- you can learn about all these plays, choose a specific play to focus on, or do the entire course. Each class will have a game of some kind, an engaging quiz, and a short explanation of the setting, characters, and motifs of one or more plays. Each class will also include a close reading of a famous speech.

Course Structure

Background on the Tragedies- the Wheel of Fortune

I will explain the basic structure of Elizabethan tragedies and the concept of Fortune, which is a motif Shakespeare uses in all of his tragedies. I will also debate the concept of “The Tragic Flaw:” the notion that otherwise good people are brought down by single character flaw. Finally, we will quickly summarize the premise behind all 11 of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The Greek Plays

I will summarize Shakespeare’s two tragedies that are set in ancient Greece and provide commentary on their themes and ideas. I will also draw parallels between the Ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides and Shakespeare, with a particular emphasis on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s beliefs on the function of tragedy, which influenced every major drama for the last 2,000 years.

The Roman Plays- From Republic to Empire

We will take a bloody, backstabbing journey to ancient Rome, and discuss how Shakespeare shows through these four plays the dissolution of a republic into an empire. We will discuss the themes of democracy, dictatorship, mob rule, and savagery. Plays covered: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus.

“Hamlet”- The man at the crossroads

We will explore the universality of this timeless tragedy, and do close readings of his famous soliloquies.

 “Macbeth: The Tower built on lies-

In addition to the character and his speeches, I’ll draw parallels to the history behind the play, including witchcraft in the Jacobean era, and the Gunpowder plot against the king!

“Othello”- The Lovers and the Devil

I will talk about how Shakespeare dramatizes race and prejudice in the context of Othello’s struggle with prejudice and his own jealousy.

“King Lear”- The Blind Fools and the Hermit

I will discuss the complex plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy about old age, blindness, betrayal, and families ripped apart by greed.

Think Like a Director

 I will teach the students to think like a director and develop a concept for the characters, set, lights, etc. I’ll also briefly take you through famous productions of these great tragedies by the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.

Special Offer

Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Tragedies: The Fates of Men and Nations” with coupon code HTHESG5B2Q10 until Dec 31, 2022. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-tragedies-the-fates-of-men-and-nations-xKCYUkC9 and enter the coupon code at checkout.

How did Hamlet’s Father Die?

I’m helping to direct a young actor playing Hamlet and we’re going over the “O That This Too Too Solid Flesh” speech. Going over the text, it occurred to me: what happened to Hamlet’s father?

Shakespeare makes it clear that Claudius poisoned Hamlet’s father with a vial of poison that he put in the king’s ear:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 796-805.

The Ghost calls the poison “cursed hebannon,” which fis a poison that Shakespeare made up. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s original source for Hamlet makes no reference to poisoning, but that the king was stabbed in front of his own court. I think Shakespeare might have changed this simply because Queen Elizabeth was concerned about assassination herself, and Shakespeare didn’t want to make it look like he approved of assassination. Then again, maybe he changed it so that the murder didn’t seem like a repeat of Julius Caesar, (which Shakespeare’s company performed the year before Hamlet, (Source: New York Times, 1982).

The Ghost describes how, when the poison went through his ear canal, he experienced violent swelling, sores, and unimaginable pain. He actually compares himself to Lazarus, Jesus’ friend in the Bible who died of leprosy.

And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 807-811.

Detail from “The Raising of Lazarus” by Rembrandt c. 1630

Sadly, Leprosy is still prevalent in third world countries so its symptoms are still very well understood: CONTENT WARNING: DISTURBING IMAGES IN THIS VIDEO

The poison is made up, but could such a poison actually exist? I found a wonderful article from the Journal of ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat), where the author John Riddington Young posits the kinds of real-world poisons that might have this horrific effect on Hamlet’s father.

What actual poison was used? Shakespeare states, “the juice of cursed Hebenon” [6] but sadly, there is no such drug. Did he mean hemlock, or perhaps henbane? Laurence Olivier actually substitutes the name hemlock in his 1948 film. Belladonna, aconite and nicotine have all been suggested, but the most likely culprit is taxine from the yew tree. It is a deadly poison and its Old English name was heben. Shakespeare would certainly have known of it; he says in Richard II, archers bend ‘their bows of doubly fatal Eugh’ [7] (implying that apart from the arrows killing foes, there is an intrinsic toxicity in the wood).

JOHN RIDDINGTON YOUNG:
“History of ENT – Murder most foul, strange and unnatural”

I found a case study of a real case of Yew poisoning that emphasizes that it is incredibly fast-acting, “Fast as quicksilver”, that it can be misdiagnosed as another poison (like a snake bite, as Claudius later claims), and that it has no known antidote, the perfect way to kill a king:

. The taxine alkaloids (for example, taxine A, 2-deacetyltaxine A, isotaxine B, 1-deoxytaxine B) derived from p-dimethylaminohydroxycinnamic acid are the effective poisons of the yew [1]. In chemical terms, the compound is structurally related to veratrine, and the presence of an unsaturated lactone group makes this group of alkaloids similar to digitalis. Poisoning with the latter may be falsely diagnosed during a toxicological examination. Cardiac disturbances after intoxication by yew are ascribed mainly to the alkaloids paclitaxel and taxine B, affecting sodium/calcium permeability in cells [2]. The taxine alkaloid is absorbed through the digestive tract very rapidly, and the signs of poisoning manifest themselves after 30 to 90 minutes. An infusion made from 50 to 100g of needles is considered to be fatal [35], as no antidote is known.

Vališ, M., Kočí, J., Tuček, D. et al. Common yew intoxication: a case report. J Med Case Reports 8, 4 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1752-1947-8-4

So if you are playing Hamlet, in addition to the sadness and anger you feel after losing your father, you could also feel revulsion and pity at the painful, disgusting and cowardly way he was murdered. Truly, “MOST FOUL STRANGE AND MOST UNNATURAL.”

Remembering Kevin Conroy or: Is Batman “Hamlet?”

I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of actor Kevin Conroy, world-renowned as the voice of Batman and Bruce Wayne on Batman The Animated Series, the Arkham Asylum games, and many others. Conroy is definitely my favorite Batman, and as I and many others have said before, there are Shakespearean tropes in the Caped Crusader. From the very beginning, Conroy drew inspiration from a particular Shakespearean play, the melancholy prince, dressed in black, who seeks to revenge his father’s murder: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

I did a cold audition, I had never done an animated voice before. I said the only exposure I’ve had is the Adam West show from the 60’s and they said “NO! NO! NO! That’s not it.” I said ZIP POW POP and they said “NO! It’s, think film noir, think the 40’s New York. Think dark, think a kid who just watched his parents get murdered and spends his life avenging their deaths and he lives in the shadows. He’s got this dual personality and he’s never resolved this torture of his youth. I said you are telling the Hamlet story, this is heavy stuff. And he said yeah, no one has ever said that before, but yeah I guess it is. This is like a classic archetypal, Shakespearian tragedy. So I just used my theater training and put myself into that head (Batman voice) And I got into this very dark place and came up with this voice. (Regular Voice) And as I did it I saw them all running around in the booth. And I thought well either I did something really bad or something really good because I hit a nerve, I know I hit a nerve. And they came out and they said well we’ve seen about over 600 people and how would you like to do the part?

Kevin Conroy

It makes sense that Conroy would use Shakespeare to flesh out Batman. He was a veteran of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, and performed in Hamlet several times. He even played the prince himself for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1984. Yet I don’t think Conroy’s decision to make Batman a sort of modern-day Hamlet was entirely based on just his past experiences with Hamlet.

“Batman is basically the American version of Hamlet,” Affleck said. “We accept that he’s played by actors with different interpretations.”

Ben Afleck, Entertainment Weekly, 2015.

Batman and Hamlet are basically Revenge Tragedies; age-old stories that began with Oedipus Rex and the Orestia in ancient Greek plays, where a hero must lift a plague on his society by avenging the death of a parent (usually the father). This kind of play was very popular in Shakespeare’s day and included a host of others such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, The Spanish Tragedy, Locrine, The Dutchess of Malfi, and later The Revenger’s Tragedy.

But Hamlet, like Batman, is an avenger. He didn’t make Denmark rotten. That was Claudius, and if Claudius self-punished like Oedipus, Claudius would be a tragic hero too. But Claudius is just a garden-variety villain, and so Denmark needs a hero to set things right. Enter Hamlet. He’s “tragic” only in the sense that he dies, and since he dies after completing his heroic mission, he dies triumphant. But unlike the deaths of Claudius, Oedipus, and Macbeth, his death isn’t necessary to restore order. It’s just an epilogue.

Chris Gavaler, The Patron Saint Of Superheroes. “Something is Rotten In the State Of Gotham.”

As this clip above indicates Hamlet is unique among revengers because his conflict doesn’t come from the machinations of his villain; he’s stopped by his own internal conflicts. Batman is more active than Hamlet, but he also wrestles with internal conflicts and Conroy plays these conflicts with a lot of subtlety and nuance. To illustrate this conflict, let’s look at some great clips from the series!

Batman admits he wanted Revenge: “The Curious case of Hugo Strange”

In this episode, Dr. Strange (not the Marvel Superhero), uses a dream-reading machine to try and blackmail Bruce Wayne, and inadvertently discovers his secret identity. Not only does this episode dramatize Wayne’s literal worst nightmare, (someone figuring out who he is), it also touches on the pain of his past and how even though now Batman is a deputized agent of the law who never kills, he began as an angry, vengeful vigilante, like Hamlet:

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.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene i.

Batman’s Conflict With His parents.

In this clip from the animated movie Mask Of the Phantasm (1993), a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne feels a conflict between his obligation to avenge his parent’s death, and his budding romance with Ms. Andrea Beaumont:

One can almost sense an Ophelia- Hamlet-like conflict where Bruce knows his quest to avenge will consume him, and leave no time to pursue romance. In all revenge tragedies, the hero has to avenge alone, or at least without the support of a spouse or partner. Hamlet also makes the choice to cut Ophelia out of his life, though it’s not clear why. It could be he’s worried that Claudius will harm her, it could be he’s worried she’s compromised since her father tried to spy on him, or it could simply be that he doesn’t trust her. It’s up to the actor and director to “Pluck the heart of Hamlet’s mystery.”

Royal Shakespeare Company Text Detectives discuss the possible interpretations behind the “Get Thee To a Nunnery Scene.”

Eventually though, the choice is made for him, and Bruce Wayne completely commits to his quest to battle the crime in Gotham, as this epic scene from “Mask of The Phantasm” shows:

Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene v.

Hamlet and Batman’s Demons

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

What’s truly unique about the animated version of Batman is that it’s the only one that takes time to show Batman’s complex relationship with the ghosts of his parents. As previously discussed, Bruce Wayne’s desire to revenge their death and to punish the wickedness of Gotham is what spurs him to keep fighting as Batman, but he also wonders many times if he’s doing more harm than good. He’s also tempted to forget them and try to lead a normal life, like in the episode “Perchance to Dream,” (which itself is a quote from Hamlet). Above all, the animated show knows that, since children are watching this show, they will connect with Batman’s fear of not living up to his parent’s expectations, a fear to which every child can relate.

In the first season episode “Nothing To Fear,” the villainous Scarecrow exploits Batman’s fear of disappointing his parents by drugging him with a fear toxin, causing Bruce to hallucinate that his father is berating him and calling him a failure. Hamlet gets a similar ghostly chewing out in The Closet Scene:

Father’s GhostDo not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv

While The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father is mostly supportive in this scene, Hamlet worries many times in the play if Claudius is in fact innocent, and the Ghost is a demon sent by the Devil to get him to kill an innocent man, and thus damn him for eternity. This uncertainty is the same that Batman wrestles with, as he confronts his own demon-like apparition. Batman then defiantly responds to this fiendish hallucination with one of the most iconic lines in the series:

Only a consummate professional like Conroy with his grounding in Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular could portray such an iconic character. Many fans of Batman like me believe that Conroy’s portrayal was the peak of the franchise, and I feel fortunate that it came out when I was a child. I mourn Conroy’s loss, yet as Mr. Affleck mentioned in the quote above, like Hamlet, the character of Batman has many possible interpretations, and though Conroy will always be my favorite, I hope new and exciting interpretations will arise from the shadows in time, bringing this complex, Shakespearean character to a new audience.

“Good Night, Sweet Prince and flights of bat wings fly thee to thy rest.”

References

https://gizmodo.com/the-batman-hamlet-crossover-that-never-was-5876735

https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2008/jul/23/thedarkknightbatmanisaha

https://bleedingcool.com/movies/batman-as-hamlet-with-kevin-conroy-and-loren-lester/#google_vignette

My Top 10 FAVORITE Hamlets

I’m delighted to share with you my recommendations for the best Hamlets committed to film! I was pretty strict with my criteria which left a few Hamlets out, so if I missed yours, let me know in the comments.

In order to make this list:

  1. I have to have seen the whole thing. Sadly that excludes a lot of unfilmed productions or films I haven’t got around to seeing.
  2. The interpretation has to take a unique stance on the play.
  3. The actor has to have a clear grasp of the part.
  4. I personally have to like it. This is subjective, and I will make it clear if something is my opinion, or if I think this interpretation works for classes or private viewing.

By the way, if you’re a teacher, I’ll be sure to mention which productions work for classes, and which, for whatever reason, do not. I also can recommend Common Sense Media to give you a good idea what age group this film works best for:

So, without any further adieu (get it?):

The Good Hamlets

#10: Arnold SChwarzenegger in “Last Action Hero”

I would love to do a full review of this movie. When it works, it is actually a thoughtful deconstruction of the action movie genre, and as this clip shows, the movie concedes that Hamlet was actually the first great action hero. Schwarzenegger is really funny as an action movie parody of “Hamlet,” and everything he does is pretty cathartic for bored school boys who have to read the play in class. Plus, as a funny easter egg, the teacher in the scene who is showing Olivier’s Hamlet on the screen is played by Joan Plowright, who played Gertrude IN THAT FILM, and was married to Olivier in real life!

#9: Bart Simpson in “Tales from the Public Domain”

It’s absolutely astonishing how many Shakespeare easter eggs are in this little episode! How they make fun of medieval history, (the Danes were in fact Vikings in the early middle ages), Elizabethan theater, (when Bart does a soliloquy and is surprised that Claudius can hear him), and the way they compress Shakespeare’s longest play into a five minute episode is masterful satire.

In addition, the cast is perfectly chosen among the Simpsons’ core cast. Long-time viewers know that Moe has wanted to sleep with Homer’s wife for years, so making him Claudius is a brilliant choice. Plus, Dan Castellaneta steals the show with his over-the-top performance as the ghost, which actually reminds me of a 1589 review of Hamlet by Thomas Lodge:

“[He] walks for the most part in black under cover of gravity, and looks as pale as the vizard [mask] of the ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!”

THOMAS NASHE, “PREFACE” TO ROBERT GREENE, MENAPHON, (1589)

In any case, this clip is a great way to introduce anyone to Hamlet and I highly recommend it.

#8: Austin Tichenor in “The Complete Works of Shakespeare- Abridged”

Part 1 of a 4 part series of clips from “The Complete Works Of Shakespeare (Abridged)” Starring Austin Tichenor, Reed Martin, and Adam Long.

This show is very special to me- in around 1997 my parents went to England and brought home a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). I’d only read “Romeo and Juliet” previously and through this show, I gained an appreciation for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Seeing the plays through parody made them seem less lofty and stuffy, and made me want to see and read the original works. This is especially true for “Hamlet,” which occupies the second half of the show, where Hamlet is portrayed by Austin Tichenor.

Tichenor wins my award for “Hammiest Hamlet,” which is just delightful to watch. He clearly takes the part WAAAY too seriously, as evidenced by how emphatically he demands solemn silence from the audience while he attempts to do “To Be Or Not To Be.” Tichenor also serves as the pedantic straight man who tries to keep the show moving and academic, while mediating between his bickering co-stars Adam and Reed. This wonderful Three-stooges dynamic makes every minute of the show fun and frenetic. However, the cast makes it very clear that they are making fun of Shakespeare with love; they never mock the play, they inform as well as entertain, and occasionally they even move the audience as Adam does at the end. In short, this show helped me form my approach to Shakespeare, and it’s largely through Tichenor that I read Hamlet at all, so he’s to blame for this website.

#7: Richard Burton, 1964 (stage production directed by John Gielgud).

With the advent of TV and film making theater seem obsolete, directors knew they had to do something drastic in order to get people to come to the playhouses. Enter John Gielgud, one of the greatest Hamlets of the early 20th century, who directed Richard Burton in a highly-acclaimed production with minimum sets and with actors wearing rehearsal clothes. The idea was to let Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ performances be the focus, and save spectacle for film and TV. This approach has been adopted by many theater companies since, including a few I’ve been a pat of.

Burton has a lot of energy and manic physicality in his portrayal and it makes his Hamlet engaging to watch. Plus Gielgud himself as the ghost is almost operatic to hear. I highly recommend any theater fan to watch it, though it might not translate in a classroom much.

# 6: Laurence Olivier, (Film 1948)


I have my issues with Olivier as an actor and apparently I’m not alone:

I find Olivier’s acting over-the-top, lacking in emotion and subtlety, and I think his directing is generally self-centered. He rarely deigns to give close-ups to anyone but himself and a lot of the scenes he directs are filmed like stage plays. That said, Olivier’s Hamlet is really good. SIr Laurence talked to Ernest Jones about the theory that Hamlet might have had an Oedipus Complex and created a unique and well-thought-out interpretation for his Hamlet. First off, casting his real-life wife Joan Plowright as Gertrude, fills the Closet scene with uncomfortable tension. He also did a great job making the ghost seem as imposing and accusatory as possible, as well as making Claudius as disgusting as possible.

You get the idea that this film is how Hamlet sees the world with its dark and shadowy towers, representing Hamlet’s melancholic mind, his imprisoned spirit, and his dark desires. Also as many people have pointed out, Gertrude’s bed chamber looks like a female organ, making the Oedipus theory even more explicit.

Even I have to admit that Olivier nailed the “To Be Or Not To Be,” Speech. He squirms at his own Oedipal fantasies, and contemplates jumping off the battlements in a captivating and subtle way. The performance and cinematography is iconic, and it makes me grudgingly admit Olivier, for all his faults, is still one of the best Hamlets of all time.


I would recommend this film to every Shakespeare film fan and any hardcore Shakespeare scholars. I would caution against showing the whole thing in a class however, since it’s black and white, and again, I find Oliver’s delivery very old-fashioned.

#5: Paul Gross, (StratforD Festival, 2000)

Thus far, I’ve mainly reviewed British and American Hamlets. Paul Gross is one of Canada’s most celebrated actors who gained fame as one of the best Hamlets at Toronto’s Stratford Festival. Unlike most Hamlets who go for the humanistic prince version of Hamlet, Gross plays him with sort of an animal intensity, like a wounded bear who will growl at you if you get in his way.

I have to admit I broke my own rule with this one- I haven’t really seen Gross’ portrayal, but I believe I saw it well-represented in his role as Geoffery Tennent, the Shakespearean Actor-turned madman-turned director in the Canadian TV show “Slings and Arrows.” This amazing dark comedy portrays the ins and outs of a Shakespeare Company from the normal problems of mounting a play to backstage drama, even the funding and marketing gets focus! Basically, the show is The Office for Shakespeare nerds, except for one ghostly cast member (no spoilers).

4. Benedick Cumberbatch / John Harrell

I couldn’t make up my mind between these two Hamlets, so I’m listing them together (guess that makes me Hamlet too). One is one of the most accomplished Shakespearean actor in recent memory, an RSC alumn, and a Hollywood star to boot, Benedick Cumberbatch.

Left- Benedick Cumberbatch as Hamlet, National Theater. Right- John Harrell at the Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton VA.

Both these actors have similar strengths- they’re both tall and imposing with aquiline features. They are also highly physical performers. I talked in my lecture on Richard III about how Harrell performed the role of Gloucester with his legs tied together and a bowling ball strapped to his hand. Appearance-wise- Harrell and Cumberbatch are so similar, that it’s actually a joke at the ASC that they must be long-lost twins.

That said, when it comes to their approach to Hamlet, these two actors couldn’t be more different. Cumberbatch focused on Hamlet’s emotional turmoil- he was tortured and angry, full of youthful angst and volatility. This particular production is sort of an anachronistic mash-up of modern and period, which gives it a sort of dream-like quality that I really enjoy. Like Richard Burton, the director knows how to stage a play differently from a movie or TV show, which is especially important with this actor, since we can see him on all those platforms.

Nor should they have. Full of scenic spectacle and conceptual tweaks and quirks, this “Hamlet” is never boring. It is also never emotionally moving — except on those occasions when Mr. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is alone with his thoughts, trying to make sense of a loud, importunate world that demands so much of him.

By Ben Brantley
New York Times, Aug. 25, 2015

John Harrell on the other hand is a more mature and subtle Hamlet, more interested in saving his hide than contemplating his navel. This Hamlet masks pain with humor and sardonic wit and it translates to all his relationships with the King, Queen, and courtiers.

John Harrell as Hamlet, American Shakespeare Center, 2011

Rather than a sour, dour, morose, obtuse, naval-gazing Hamlet, this prince was cunning, cynical, devious, sarcastic, and very much enjoying his feigned madness, his chess game with the king, and his fencing bout with Laertes.

Eric Minton

https://www.shakespeareances.com/willpower/onstage/Hamlet-11-ASC11.html

#3: Papaa Essiedu, Royal Shakespeare company

Trailer for Hamlet at the Kennedy Center

OK, I have to admit that I didn’t see this whole production either, but it’s so cool and the acting is so good I wish I had! Papaa Essiedu is an electrifying blend of wit, sadness, manic excitement, and rage. His fresh take on a role that can be rather dour is why even the little I’ve seen of his performance makes it one of my favorites!

#2: David Tennet, RSC 2009

Tennet does an incredible job of encapsulating Hamlet’s quick wit, giddy excitement, frailty, fury, and frustration, especially with himself. I love the fact that he does “To Be Or Not To Be” in a superhero T-Shirt. In a way, this Hamlet is constantly wishing he was more of the action-movie type that Schwartzenegger parodies at the top of this list. Like Harrell, Tennent’s Hamlet masks his pain with humor, but you can see him struggle with it and try to pull himself out of despair. All these Hamlets find a way to nail at least one aspect of the character, but Tennet in his short 3 hours on the stage, manages to highlight all of them.

I recommend this version for any viewer in any classroom. It’s beautifully shot, extremely well acted, fast-paced, funny, and exciting. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Honorable mentions: Anton Lester, Ian McKellen, MiChelle Terry, and Sir John Gielgud

I haven’t seen any of these Hamlets and have been unable to locate any clips, but I have the deepest respect for all of these actors, so I thought I’d highlight them here.

I’d also like to give special mention to Michelle Terry. Gender-blind productions of Shakespeare get a lot of flack that is undeserved, and there’s nothing wrong with a female Hamlet. To quote Geoffrey Tennet in Slings and Arrows: “Shakespeare didn’t care about anachronism, and neither should we.”

I didn’t include Ms. Terry in this list, simply because I wasn’t able to get to the Globe, and I wanted to focus on productions that people can watch for free. If you wish, you can watch her 2018 performance on the Globe Theater’s steaming website:

https://player.shakespearesglobe.com/productions/hamlet-2018/

#1: Kenneth Branaugh


You probably saw this coming. I’ve made it clear in other posts that I absolutely love Branaugh’s Hamlet, after all his film was one of the first Shakespeare movies I ever saw and the first one I really enjoyed. I discuss in detail why I love this movie the best in my review of the film, but to summarize, I think the direction is incredible, the music is excellent, the cast is nearly perfect, and Branaugh himself puts a huge amount of love, craft, skill, experience, and maybe a little madness into his portrayal of the character. I know Branaugh isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; other Hamlets on this list might be more enjoyable, fun, or subtle, for you. But for me, Branaugh’s will always be my favorite.