When we think about Shakespeare on the stage we usually imagine two different historical moments: ‘then’ and ‘now’. ‘Then’ is Shakespeare’s lifetime, when Richard Burbage, the original Hamlet, first spoke ‘To be or not to be’ from the stage of the Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside. ‘Now’ is the present moment, whether for audiences at the Folger Theatre or the artistic team planning next year’s season at Tokyo’s Globe Theatre.
We believe that Shakespeare belongs to his time and to our time. But what about the times in between? In the First Folio the playwright Ben Jonson wrote that his friend William Shakespeare belonged to ‘all time’. He was right: Shakespeare does belong to all time—but never in the same way.
Here’s one example. In the 1860s an Anglo-French actor named Charles Fechter took London by storm when he played Hamlet as a friendly blond-haired Danish prince. The 1861 production ran for an astonishing 115 consecutive nights when other theatres performed two or three different plays each week to attract audiences.
Spectators who arrived night after night at the Princess’s Theatre wanted to see a new sort of Shakespearean tragic hero, neither the brooding aristocratic Hamlet embodied by the haughty tragedian John Philip Kemble at the beginning of the century nor the sedate bourgeois Hamlet conveyed by William Charles Macready and Charles Kean in the 1840s and 1850s.
Suddenly, here was a ‘thoroughly human Hamlet’, as a leading London newspaper put it. When Fechter’s Hamlet put his arm around his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, perched on a gravestone, sat on the ground with the lowly comical gravediggers, and almost kissed Yorick’s freshly unearthed skull—startling behavior, never before seen by an English audience—many felt that the greatest role in the Shakespearean repertoire had new life breathed into it at the very moment when it was in danger of expiring.
Today we might assume that every Hamlet will be colloquial, familiar, and down to earth—a prince, yes, but with the common touch. No one, however, assumed any such thing until Fechter first dared to play the role that way, two and half centuries after Shakespeare created the part. Indeed, it was Fechter’s fresh performance—and that of his American contemporary Edwin Booth—that cemented the image of an approachable Hamlet.
Consciously or not, that image has influenced performances ever since, including Ben Kingsley’s emotionally vulnerable Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1975, Ben Whishaw’s lovable waif-like Prince of Denmark at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2004, and the RSC’s 2008 production in which David Tennant casually wrapped himself up in a wooly cap and scruffy parka. Think also of Aidan Quinn’s rebel-with-a-cause Hamlet at Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre in 1985 (instead of declaiming ‘To be or not to be’, he spray-painted it on the set), or Ethan Hawke’s techno-geek tragic hero in Michael Almereyda’s low-budget film Hamlet (2000).
It is indisputable that many modern interpretations of Hamlet owe something—not everything, but something—to the legacy first bequeathed by the little-remembered actor Charles Fechter during the reign of Queen Victoria. Do theatre artists and audiences today recognize that legacy’s existence and its power over them?