Constructing Hamlet: Harrowing, Haughty and, only recently, Human

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.

Hamlet (2000). Directed by Michael Almereyda. Shown: Ethan Hawke (as Hamlet). Photo: Larry Riley. Miramax/Photofest. © Miramax.