‘Hamlet’ on Stage: The Art, The Craft, The Drama

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Watching Hamlet on stage is a phenomenal experience. Shakespeare takes his stagecraft to another level. But how did Shakespeare use the stage during his time? How was it done with more ferocity in Hamlet than in any of his other dramas?

Painting from 1789 showing Hamlet and Horatio with the ghost.
When putting Hamlet on stage, it looks like Shakespeare is putting his entire knowledge about the stage into this play. (Image: Robert Thew/Public domain)

It is a cliche that playing the role of Hamlet on stage is the most desired part for every actor who has been traditionally trained. One thing is sure—the role of Hamlet requires extraordinary strength from an actor. If someone can successfully play the role of Hamlet on stage, then he has reached the shrine of great acting. The most distinguished actors of the Shakespearean plays like Edmund Kean, Henry Irving, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Laurence Oliver, Stacy Keach, Derek Jacobi, and Kenneth Branagh have been widely acclaimed for their performance as the young Danish prince.

But the play is not dramatically great just because it has something great at the center, but Hamlet on stage achieves more greatness because of its obsession with drama, stagecraft, and acting. It plays with the whole scope of the prospects of the theater. This is no surprise as Shakespeare has been seen dramatizing the moments of theatricality many times. For example, during the interaction between Prince Hal and Falstaff, the play within the play device or the play-acting is dominant. And it is also seen in other moments of staging in Richard II or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, it is present everywhere in Shakespeare.

But when putting Hamlet on stage, Shakespeare takes it to another level. It looks like he is putting his entire knowledge about the stage into this play. As if theatricality is at the center of his exploration of the possibilities in a play. This means the employment of the stagecraft tool. So what is required is to collect all the tools and techniques of the stagecraft and apply them to this play.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Defining Moments of Hamlet on Stage

What one actually wants to know is how did Shakespeare use the stage, or acting, or what in Shakespeare’s time was called ‘playing’ as a key theme throughout the play? And it can be seen that Hamlet on stage does this more intensely than any of the other play by Shakespeare. Still, other plays participate in this to some extent. Therefore, learning to use this tool for Hamlet, will incalculably help with the understanding of every other play of Shakespeare.

It is helpful to look at three groundbreaking moments of theatricality or playing that take place in Hamlet on stage, to understand how exhaustively this dynamic is woven into the play and how helpful this tool can be while evaluating Hamlet. The three defining moments are: the speech given by the player ping, Hamlet’s own speech to the players, and the mousetrap performance given before the king.

When in the middle of Act 2,  Hamlet is told by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the players have reached Elsinore for performing, he becomes unusually excited. It becomes quite apparent that this young man gets pleasure in the theater. He has a good knowledge of their work and asks them many questions regarding their profession and status.

Learn more about politics as theater in Henry IV, Part I.

Hamlet Meets the Players

When Hamlet sees them on stage, he welcomes them cheerfully and shouts, “You are welcome masters. Welcome, all. I am so glad to see thee well—Welcome good friends.” And he is friendly with most of them. He instantly asks the chief player to “give us a taste of your quality. Come, a passionate speech.”

The picture shows John Barrymore as Hamlet in 1922.
John Barrymore playing Hamlet in 1922. The role of Hamlet requires extraordinary strength from an actor. (Image: Francis Bergman/Public domain)

Then the player asks Hamlet on stage which speech he wants to hear, and he begins to describe a speech he once gave in a play that many people did not like. It looks like Shakespeare wants to convey that his best plays are not the most popular. And as Hamlet puts it, “the millions” do not value the best of the dramatic art.

Hamlet mainly remembers the speech that the prince of Troy, Aeneas gave to Dido, the queen of Carthage where he narrates the story of the killing of King Priam at the sack of Troy by Pyrrhus and the Greeks. Hamlet says, “If it live in your memory, begin at this line—let me see, let me see—” and he then proceeds to recite, from memory, without flaw, a 15-line speech that he apparently only heard a few times many years ago! It shows that Hamlet is a young man who is passionate and obsessive about the theater. And not only acting but about the whole notion of acting, playing, and performing.

The Play within the Play in Hamlet

During the second scene of the play, in his first soliloquy, Hamlet on stage wishes he could kill himself because he is agonized by two things. The first is the death of his dear father two months earlier, and the second is his mother suddenly marrying his uncle who is his father’s brother. For him, this is an act that has horrific repercussions and he keeps thinking about it fanatically.

“O most wicked speed,” he exclaims to himself, “to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!”

Such thinking is somewhat abnormal because marriage with a brother-in-law is hardly considered as incest except for in the Old Testament and some parts of Elizabethan culture. But Hamlet thinks it is incest and hence a prohibited thing. As so many scholars have observed, Hamlet was obsessed with his mother’s sexuality and thought that by marrying his uncle, she had betrayed both his father as well as him.

Therefore, he selects a speech from the players that describes how a wife mourns the death of her husband who has been murdered. It is as if Hamlet on stage, is using theater as an instrument to fulfill his wish. He asks for what he would like his mother to provide. The player king gives the speech passionately and is crying at the end of it while describing the queen’s grief.

A poster of 'Hamlet' staged in America in 1884.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first staged in 1609. This poster of an American production is from the year 1884. (Image: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith. of Cleveland, Ohio./Public domain)

This speech transforms Hamlet. After all the players and characters leave Hamlet on stage and he is alone, he starts talking to himself. This is a continuous occurrence in this play. At the end of every scene, everyone leaves Hamlet on stage, all alone, and he delivers a strong monologue. This time he criticizes himself because he sees the difference between himself and the passion and the force of the player. Hamlet condemns himself because he is not able to appear the way he feels.

So Hamlet decides to do something. And what he does is acting. He decides to use stagecraft to prove the guilt of his uncle Claudius. Hamlet asks the players to perform a play in front of the king and the court that night that will recreate the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius. So he becomes both, the writer and the director of the play.

All this confirms that he is an ardent devotee of the theater and has clear ideas about how the play should be enacted. And it has been said for centuries that this reflected Shakespeare’s thinking and that with Hamlet on stage, people often see a lot of Shakespeare in this character.

Learn more about the core thematic elements that drive the history plays.

Common Questions About Hamlet On Stage

Q: When was Hamlet staged first?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first staged in the year 1609.

Q: Who was the first actor to play Hamlet on the stage?

A little more than 400 years ago, Richard Burbage was the first actor who played the role of Hamlet. He also played the roles of Othello, Macbeth, and Lear.

Q: What is the reason that most actors want to play Hamlet?

The character of Hamlet is considered to be the ultimate in acting. Displaying a wide range of emotions, a complexity in the character, and evoking a sense of empathy are some of the traits that attract actors to play Hamlet.

Q: Why is Hamlet seen as a masterpiece?

Hamlet depicts the ethical and political corruption of the era and moves around concepts of revenge and psychological issues.

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