One of the oldest theatrical legends about Shakespeare is that he played the ghost in Hamlet. We know that Shakespeare was both an actor and a playwright, but we have no idea whether he acted this small, but memorable role. Yet if he did, he certainly would have enjoyed the “closet scene” between Hamlet and Gertrude (Act 3, Scene 4) in which the ghost appears for the third and final time. What Shakespeare might have most enjoyed was writing a scene that included a portrait of himself.
When Hamlet demands that his mother “Look here upon this picture, and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers”, he is showing her images of the murdered King Hamlet and the murderous King Claudius. In so doing, Hamlet draws a stark contrast between his virtuous, god-like dead father (“See what a grace was seated on this brow”) and the guilty brother who killed him and then married his widow.
Was there an actual portrait of William Shakespeare on the stage of the Globe Theatre when the King’s Men performed Hamlet? Probably not, given what we know about the absence of moveable scenery in public playhouses at the time. Still, it’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare not just writing a part for himself, but writing his own physical likeness into the world of the play, and a flattering likeness at that.
For posterity, however, this scene presents a problem: Shakespeare tells us that there are two images—one of old Hamlet, one of Claudius—but he tells us nothing about their shape or size. They could be full-length portraits, busts, medallions, or even coins. They might be imaginary. Shakespeare doesn’t provide any answers.
Every production of Hamlet has to answer the question for itself. For hundreds of years, the convention was to assume that the images were real and thus should be shown onstage. Nicholas Rowe’s illustrated edition of Shakespeare from 1709 (above, left) provides an early example. Two full-length portraits hang on the upstage wall of Gertrude’s bedroom. Possibly inspired by Thomas Betterton’s Restoration staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy, this illustration was generally disregarded by subsequent generations of actor-managers. After all, it was rarely possible for the actors playing Claudius and old Hamlet to resemble portraits which were most likely taken from property-room stock.
A more pragmatic approach, which became dominant in the eighteenth century, was for Hamlet to carry two medallion portraits. This choice had the advantage of simplicity (no need for expensive portraits that might or might not look like the actors) and it promoted a choice bit of stage business: Hamlet could thrust the medallions in his mother’s face, daring her to confront the fact that her current husband killed her first husband. The medallions have had staying power, particularly in films of Hamlet. Laurence Olivier used them in 1948 and Kenneth Branagh did the same in 1996, both times showing the portraits in close up.
On the nineteenth-century stage, practice varied. William Charles Macready, in the 1830s and 1840s, transformed the Queen’s closet into a royal art museum that included portraits not only of Claudius and old Hamlet, but also of Gertrude and Prince Hamlet. In an image worthy of Gothic fiction, the Ghost emerged from within—and then retreated back into—his own portrait. In Charles Fechter’s production in the 1860s, Gertrude wore a cameo of Claudius around her neck so that Hamlet could tear it off and furiously throw it on the floor. The American actor Edwin Booth (pictured below), toward the end of his career, in the 1880s, split the difference: Gertrude wore a miniature of Claudius and Hamlet pointed to a full-length wall portrait of his late father.
Henry Irving—the most celebrated Victorian actor-manager and the first actor to be knighted—disregarded all these precedents when he first played Hamlet at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1874. Famously, he gestured toward the audience, as if the portraits hung on the stage’s imaginary “fourth wall”. Through his innovative staging, Irving made the scene deliberately ambiguous: the portraits were either part of the illusory theatrical world or they were hallucinations in Hamlet’s tortured mind.
Yet here’s the genius of Irving’s directorial choice: whichever option a spectator chose, the scene still made sense. In the first scenario, the audience is invited to obey the rules of theatrical illusionism. If Hamlet sees something, then it must be there. We imagine that the portraits are hung on the invisible fourth wall. In the second scenario, the audience is privy to the distorted reality of the character Hamlet. The portraits may be hallucinations, but the character himself is genuinely hallucinating. We imagine that the portraits are visible to Hamlet, but not to anyone else.
The reason that both choices “work” is that both require the audience to remain conscious of the performance as a performance. By not physically representing the images of old Hamlet and Claudius, Irving, the actor-manager, was reminding his audience of the essential role that they play in creating and sustaining the onstage world. In short, theatre is not theatre without the presence—and power—of the audience.
Where did Irving get an idea like that? Maybe from the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V, when the Chorus entreats the audience at the Globe to play its proper part: “For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings”. The audience creates what it sees. That is exactly what happened in Irving’s production of Hamlet nearly three hundred years later, when the audience members had to conjure up the portraits in their own minds. Irving was criticized for breaking with theatrical precedent—the more scenery, the better—but what he did was in total harmony with Shakespeare’s vision of the theatre.