To be or not to be Hamlet

'Who's there?... Nay answer me' Act I, Scene I Hamlet

In light of BBC2’s broadcast of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and Tom Hiddleston’s RADA performance of the troubled prince, Lottie Amor considers whether in the current theatrical world there are just too many Hamlets.

‘They are the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical, tragical-comical-historical…’ etc etc…We all know how Polonius goes on. But is there some truth to this need for ‘the best actors in the world’ when it comes to Hamlet? By far the most demanding play, with the eponymous hero featuring as the role most desired by budding actors, Shakespeare demonstrates his unquestionable talent in offering endless scope for actors and directors to capture an endlessly complex hero.

The announcement of Tom Hiddelston’s Hamlet coming to the West End signals the third production of Hamlet at one time in London alone, not to mention off West End, regional, Broadway, and the rest of the world. Hiddleston's version will be joining Andrew Scott's luminous Hamlet in Robert Icke's sensational production at the Harold Pinter; accompanying them both is a stripped down Hamlet at the Park Theatre, starring Gyles Brandreth. Yet all of this is still in the wake of Benedict Cumberbatch’s blockbusting Hamlet in 2015, the fastest selling theatre performance of all time. This all leads to the question: is this too much of a good thing?

Andrew Scott's 'luminous' performance  

Andrew Scott's 'luminous' performance  


By the early 20th century, the great Shakespearean scholar John Dover Wilson could famously say that "There are as many Hamlets as there are actors that play him". There is, after all, a long line of performers- male and female- to prove his point. The quick-witted yet grieving central figure cannot possibly appear the same at each performance- can he? Indeed, neither can the play ever be the same play; whether it be the long, meditative second quarto, the more streamlined folio or the action-packed first quarto – every production must be reinvented, which is precisely why I never tire of seeing a new company’s take on it.

Yet, why all the fuss about there being too many Hamlets? The beauty of the Bard’s legacy is that there is no single work which dominates his canon. While most great artists have a seminal work—Da Vinci and his Mona Lisa, Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, Beethoven and Symphony No. 5—this is not true for Shakespeare. You only have to ask which is Shakespeare’s most popular play and a huge debate arises. Eric Minton has produced the most comprehensive list to date of Shakespeare’s most performed productions. It has been estimated that, due to its length, somewhere in the world Hamlet is being performed every minute of every day. Yet, despite current stirrings in London, Hamlet is in fact the 4th most performed play in the world, preceded by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night.

Of course, Hamlet’s tragedy is one of the best- if not the best-of Shakespeare’s plays. Its great moments of introspection and doubt fiercely contrast the lull of predictability perpetuated by other plays and tragic-heroes, villainous and farcical alike. No wonder actors line up to mine the infinite possibilities of his thought. The Hamlets being performed currently are pulling a lot of attention because of their A-list casts (and, in my opinion, because of Andrew Scott’s practically perfect portrayal of the Danish prince), but don’t forget that there are plenty of other stellar Shakespeare productions to see other than Hamlet: King Lear at the Globe, or the RSC’s Titus Andronicus to name a few.

Laurence Olivier's seminal Hamlet

Laurence Olivier's seminal Hamlet


Poor Benedict Cumberbatch was at the brunt of a terrifying fandom, regretfully raising the question of whether the audience were actually interested in Shakespeare’s play at all, or if they were simply there to see their beloved Sherlock in real life. But even if Cumberbatch was able to enlighten a smattering of his audience to the wonders of Shakespeare’s work then I think it’s a triumph in many ways. Whether it’s a five-star-Hamlet or an amateur, I return to my earlier point: no two Hamlets can ever be the same. I believe, so long as there remains an interest in Shakespeare, which there clearly is, there can never be too many Hamlets.

Lottie Amor, English Literature Student