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Kemble as Hamlet: London Drury Lane Theatre, 1785

Hamlet has a uniquely rich and complex stage history reflecting the fascination which the principal character has aroused in every kind of critic, partly because the exceptional use of his soliloquies draws compelling attention to his elusive subjective identity. The ambiguities of the hero and the plot have opened infinite interpretative options, and it is possible that this diversity provides a challenge deliberately created by the playwright to incite audience interest. After all, like the Oedipus of Sophocles, this play has elements of one of the great literary forms: the detective story. It appears that a major crime has been committed in the state which the hero is compelled to investigate, but in the process he finds that his own integrity is severely challenged by his own involvement in homicide. The recurring uncertainty of proving concealed guilt and of responding to what is uncovered may well be the real subject of both plays, and might be more stressed as a major concern of the play. The play's multiple structure invites this view, since it presents no fewer than four children losing fathers through violence, each responding in significantly different ways: Ophelia by losing her sanity in suicide, Laertes by pursuing injudicious violence against others, and only Fortinbras ultimately surviving to achieve his goals without further crime. One possible production option may be not to surrender entirely to the hero's point of view, but to recognize and enjoy the script's fascinating shifts of tone and situation, while recognizing in the end that, if Hamlet is killed, by that point he has achieved some greater awareness of a less hectic and distraught response to life's vicissitudes than he began with.

Hamlet: Russian Actors Nikolai Massalitinov and Olga Knipper (wife of Anton Chekhov) as Claudius and Gertrude
Hamlet: Russian Actors Vasili Kachalov and Olga Knipper as Hamlet and Gertrude
Hamlet: The Final Scene of Edward Gordon Craig's Production
Hamlet: J. Hoffman's Set for Hamlet
Hamlet: John Barrymore as Hamlet and Blanche Yurka as Gertrude
Hamlet: John Gielgud as Hamlet
Hamlet: John Gielgud as Hamlet and Judith Anderson as Gertrude
Hamlet: Tyrone Power as Claudius and Tyrone Power Sr. as Polonius
Hamlet at Elsinore Castle
Hamlet: Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in an Old Vic Production of Hamlet
Hamlet: Leslie Howard as Hamlet
Hamlet: Maurice Evans as Hamlet
Hamlet: Horst Caspar as Hamlet
Hamlet: Shakespeare at the Deutschen Theater, Berlin
Hamlet: Shakespeare Production in 1945 Berlin
Hamlet: Richard Burton as Hamlet



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BBC Archive: Talking Hamlet | Actors discuss playing Shakespeare's Dane

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond