Not of an age: The history behind Ian McKellen’s Hamlet

Ian McKellen as HamletIn June, Ian McKellen will take the stage as the title character in Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor. McKellen is no stranger to the role: he played Hamlet in Prospect Theatre Company’s touring production a half century ago. It may seem surprising to find an octogenarian—McKellen turns 82 this month—playing the part of the Danish Prince. Yet McKellen’s undertaking hearkens back to an earlier age of theatrical performance, and in that sense he is in good company, following in the footsteps of some of history’s most renowned Shakespearean actors.

One such actor was Thomas Betterton, who was born just a few years before the English Civil War (his father worked as an under-cook for King Charles I) and grew to become an iconic figure on the Restoration stage. His career spanned five decades, and he is known to have played Hamlet until the age of seventy-four. Few actors in history have achieved such distinction among contemporaries. He was one of the favorite actors of Samuel Pepys, who raved about Betterton in his diary on a number of occasions; Alexander Pope remembered Betterton’s “grave action” in his Imitations of Horace. According to a eulogy by Richard Steele, published in the The Tatler after Betterton’s death, the famed actor “ought to be recorded with the same respect as Roscius among the Romans.”

Thomas Betterton as Hamlet
Betterton as “Hamlet” [graphic]. Folger ART Box B565 no.1
Betterton was praised for many roles, Shakespearean and otherwise, but none more so than Hamlet. In his diary entry for Monday 31 August 1668, Pepys wrote that he had seen a production of Hamlet with which he was “mightily pleased,” and “above all, with Betterton, the best part I believe, that ever man acted.” The Restoration theatrical impresario Colly Cibber likewise raved about Betterton’s Hamlet in his published memoir. Of the scene in which Hamlet first sees the Ghost, Cibber recalls Betterton’s masterful performance: “he open’d with a Pause of mute Amazement! then rising slowly, to a solemn, trembling Voice, he made the Ghost equally terrible to the Spectator, as to himself!” Cibber goes on to say that Betterton captivated the audience “by a temper’d Spirit,” rather than “by mere Vehemence of Voice.” “In this,” Cibber concludes, “none yet have equall’d Betterton.”

In the generation that followed, Betterton would be succeeded by the actor and theater manager David Garrick, who remains perhaps the best-known Shakespearean of the eighteenth century. Garrick first took the leading role in Hamlet in 1742, when he was twenty-five years old, but he continued playing the part until 1776, at the age of nearly sixty. Garrick was in fact so invested in Hamlet that he substantially revised the play. His alterations were not always met with approval—one later critic recalled Garrick’s “famous and Gothic mutilation of Hamlet”—but regardless of how one views them, they testify to a deep, lifelong engagement with the text. And contemporary audiences certainly didn’t find them unforgivable: as had been the case with the aging Betterton at the beginning of the eighteenth century, London theater patrons continued to clamor for Garrick’s Hamlet up until the end of his life—even though he had, at least in the traditional sense, outgrown the part.

David Garrick in the character of Hamlet
Mr. Garrick in the character of Hamlet. 1769. Uncataloged Garrickiana Maggs No. 193h

To some degree, the question of Hamlet’s age arises less from the play’s performance history than from the ambiguity of the text itself. In Act 5, when Hamlet asks the Gravedigger how long he has held his job, the Gravedigger responds that he began “that very day that young Hamlet was born” (5.1.152-53). A dozen lines later, he tells Hamlet how long he has resided in Denmark: “I have been / sexton here, man and boy, thirty years” (5.1.166-67). If we assume that these two dates coincide, then a little logical deduction would indicate that Hamlet is thirty years of age. But these textual clues are not particularly clear, and they are complicated by the fact that, to generations of readers and theatergoers, Hamlet has felt more like a teenager, or someone in his twenties; he is a university student, after all, and his uncle has managed to prevent him from taking the throne. Considered from that perspective, it may seem odd to find McKellen playing the part of a decidedly moody Wittenberg undergraduate.

Yet McKellen will be taking his rightful place among a long and distinguished tradition of older actors playing Hamlet—a tradition that extended well into the nineteenth century with actors like John Philip Kemble, who took his final bow as Hamlet at the age of sixty. Near the end of his life, Thomas Betterton apparently remarked that “he was yet learning to be an actor.” This was not, I suspect, a reflection of a lack of accomplishment or critical acclaim, but rather an acknowledgement of the idea that an actor can always sharpen his skill. It is tempting to wonder whether McKellen, an undisputed master of his craft, would agree with Betterton’s sentiment. In this case, it may well be the members of the audience who learn something about what it means to play Hamlet—and what it means to be an actor.

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