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Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies

Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies

by Mary Z. Maher

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In Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies (Iowa, 1992), Mary Maher examined how modern actors have chosen to perform Hamlet's soliloquies, and why they made the choices they made, within the context of their specific productions of the play. Adding to original interviews with, among others, Derek Jacobi, David Warner, Kevin Kline, and Ben Kingsley, Modern Hamlets and


In Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies (Iowa, 1992), Mary Maher examined how modern actors have chosen to perform Hamlet's soliloquies, and why they made the choices they made, within the context of their specific productions of the play. Adding to original interviews with, among others, Derek Jacobi, David Warner, Kevin Kline, and Ben Kingsley, Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies: An Expanded Edition offers two new and insightful interviews, one with Kenneth Branagh, focusing on his 1997 film production of the play, and one with Simon Russell Beale, discussing his 2000-2001 run as Hamlet at the Royal National Theatre.

Editorial Reviews

From John Gielgud in 1936 to Kevin Kline in 1990, various English and American actors describe how they have dealt with the challenges and problems of delivering the soliloquies in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Also considers the film versions with Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. No index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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University of Iowa Press
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Studies Theatre Hist and Culture Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Copyright © 2003 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-826-5

Chapter One

JOHN GIELGUD: The Glass of Fashion

Because of his extensive and varied experience with Hamlet, John Gielgud owned the role of the prince in a way that no other twentieth-century actor could. As James Agate wrote of Gielgud's 1944 production, "Mr. Gielgud is now completely and authoritatively master of this tremendous part. He is, we feel, this generation's rightful tenant of this 'monstrous Gothic castle of a poem' ... I hold that this is, and is likely to remain, the best Hamlet of our time." Gielgud played the role of Hamlet more than five hundred times in his long and distinguished career. He was one of the few modern actors who simultaneously performed in and directed himself as Hamlet. And in 1964 he was director of the play with yet another actor in the role, Richard Burton.

Gielgud read a draft of this essay before publication, adding his own insights, information, and commentary. His chart below delineates the places and occasions where his performances of Hamlet and his directorial involvement with the play occurred:


Director/Design 1. Old Vic, London, 1929-30. Entirety and Harcourt Williams cut version. Production moved to Queens (Elizabethan dress) Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, for short season.

2. New Theatre (now the Albery), London, John Gielgud 1934. Then toured big provincial English (Durer-Cranach-Holbein cities. Design by Motley)

3. Empire Theatre, New York, 1936-37. Guthrie McClintic Moved to St. James's Theatre. Opened in (Van Dyck design by Jo Toronto, played also Rochester, Washington, Mielziner) Boston, Baltimore.

4. Lyceum Theatre, London, 1939. Kronberg John Gielgud Castle (for one week), Elsinore; open-air performances in courtyard.

5. Tour of troop performances in the Far John Gielgud East, Karachi, Madras, Colombo, Rangoon, Singapore, Cairo, Delhi, 1944.

6. Haymarket Theatre, London, 1944-45. George Rylands, In repertory with Congreve's Love for Cambridge Professor Love, Midsummer Night's Dream, Webster's of English Duchess of Malfi, Maugham's The Circle.

7. Directed Burton in New York, 1964, John Gielgud Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Also Toronto, (Modern dress) Boston, Washington.

Gielgud's view of the chief character, his mode of playing, and much of his stage business set the fashion for Hamlets in the decades to come. In discussing the acting of a scene in the 1936 production, Bernard Grebanier asserted: "Because of the great prestige of Gielgud's wonderful production, it has more or less become a tradition to play the scene ... in the same way." In a 1988 television documentary titled "John Gielgud: An Actor's Life," the narrator said, "His memorable assumption of some roles has stamped an impression so deep that other actors have found it difficult to erase." As a model for others, Gielgud cannot be overestimated. Here, indeed, was a definitive Hamlet.

Gielgud came to the role steeped in its nuances and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of past performances. A member of the famous theatrical family of Terrys, he "knew by heart the vivid description in Ellen Terry's memoirs of how Irving played it." But when asked if he had modeled his performance after anyone, he replied,

No, I didn't. I thought I had. I thought I would copy all the actors I'd ever seen, in turn, and by then I'd seen about a dozen or fifteen Hamlets [including H. B. Irving (Sir Henry's son), Ernest Milton, Henry Baynton, Arthur Phillips, Colin Keith-Johnston, and John Barrymore]. Of course, [the elder, Sir Henry] Irving was my god, although I'd never seen him.... I didn't try to copy, I only took note of all the things he'd done and looked at the pictures of him and so on. But when it came to the Vic, the play moved so fast and there was so much of it that I suddenly felt, "Well, I've just got to be myself," and I really played it absolutely straight as far as I could. Of course, I was fortunate in that ... Hamlet had never been allowed to be given to a very young actor until I played it. It was the kind of prize that an actor, when he went into management at the age of forty or fifty, H. B. Irving, for instance ... allowed himself.

Gielgud seldom borrowed performance ideas from other actors for his Hamlet and only rarely from what he knew of Irving. He knew what other actors had done because that was the norm for actors, as well as theatre critics, in his age. But he felt that his portrayal was based on his own personality rather than anyone else's version.

Gielgud played his first Hamlet in 1929, at the age of twenty-six, and his last in 1945. This essay will focus on his 1936 production because it was the best-documented. In that production, Gielgud's acting of the role was neither as melodramatic and passionate as Barrymore's, nor as bloodless and delicate as Leslie Howard's. Howard's Hamlet opened in New York within a month of Gielgud's. The press created a "War of the Hamlets," thus generating publicity and box office sales for Gielgud's, which the critics refer red. Indeed, he was in top form for this second shot at it:

The most thrilling Hamlet for me was the production in New York in 1936, because I felt I was on my mettle. It was my first big chance in America, and I was presented by an American management with an all-American cast.... Rehearsals were thrilling because everyone seemed so excited about my performance.

Critics reviewing the production spoke of his restraint from bellowing and ranting, his intellectualism, and his "modernizing" of the role, which appears to mean not only a simplicity and a spontaneity in the acting of it but also a retention of the doubleness of Hamlet's character. Gielgud kept the sardonic humor and the occasionally violent language; he remained noble, still very much the prince, yet he did not lack fire. Certainly, his performance choices suggest a volatile Hamlet. The play-within-the-play scene was unusually active: He actually held a manuscript (presumably the "dozen or sixteen lines" he asked the First Player to insert) and thumped out the meter of the lines as the players spoke. He also walked around during the performance of "The Mouse-trap," dropping pointed phrases into the ears of both king and queen. As the playlet closed, he leaped onto the king's empty throne, shouting triumphantly, waving the manuscript in the air and ultimately tearing it to tiny pieces, which he threw like confetti. He even took snuff from a silver box and then offered some to the gravedigger in that comic scene. The combination of melodramatic and realistic effects accounts for his being labeled both traditional and nontraditional. The public admired the performance, and the play ran for more than four months. He was feted lavishly in New York and afterwards on tour.

The production had opened at the Empire Theatre in New York and then transferred to the St. James's Theatre. It ran from October 8, 1936, to January 30, 1937. The 132 performances were produced by Guthrie McClintic and designed by Jo Mielziner. The design was "in the period," meaning Renaissance in style. It is the most thoroughly documented of the actor's portrayals because of Rosamond Gilder's book John Gielgud's "Hamlet," in which she attempted to create a "verbal portrait" of the production, a scene-by-scene description of both gestures and blocking as he played the role. The opening chapter discussed character conception in a generalized way and was followed with notes from the actor himself. Gilder's descriptions were a compiled account of what Gielgud most often did during each segment of the play. Although parts of it wax poetic in admiration of Gielgud, the book is nevertheless a remarkable endeavor in the annals of theatre history.

Gilder's account provides a sense of the actor's journey through the play. In the first "act" of the play (the production was divided into two acts, or nineteen scenes with one intermission), Gielgud was manic but never totally mad, and within the second half he presented an integrated personality who had come to terms with what he had to do. Gielgud mapped out certain "shocks," histrionic moments of realization, such as the Ghost's revelation of murder, which built to the firm resolution in the seventh soliloquy, "How all occasions do inform against me" (IV.iv.3 2-36).

Gielgud performed the first soliloquy ("O that this too too sallied flesh," I.ii.129-59), as if anguish were its chief tonal quality. It followed a court scene which was rendered intimate and domestic since the courtiers and attendants exited at I.i.63 once the official business concluded. Consequently, Hamlet's discussion with Claudius and Gertrude was decorously private, yet he clearly indicated that he disliked his uncle. After the king and queen exited, he began his soliloquy by making an important transition for the audience, effecting a change between the character's outer persona as presented to Gertrude and Claudius and the private self, who suffered from events. Gilder observed: "As the doors close behind them, the mask of manners that has protected Hamlet's face drops."

Gielgud continued the soliloquy by walking slowly upstage and coming to rest at the end of the council table. Finally, he turned and looked outward but did not make contact with the audience. On "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," each word dropped a note lower than the one before. As he began "so loving to my mother," the tempo accelerated as nausea about the recent marriage filled him. On the beat that ended "Let me not think on't," he covered his face with his hands. Unable to still his mind, he surged on obsessively: "a little month" began a build to the climax of "incestious sheets." On the final two lines, he sank back "into apathy and hopeless sorrow." The soliloquy was delivered with two major vocal builds, some general slow movement about the set, and variety in emotion using horror and growing disgust as sizzling punctuation marks within a context of depression or "dull bitterness."

In this soliloquy, Gielgud felt that pauses should be omitted except at the "natural places" marked for breath or when there were "full stops" (i.e., end-stopped lines). A short pause was needed before "Frailty, thy name is woman" and a more definite break required before the summarizing couplet at the end. Nevertheless, there should be a drive through the speech at an unswerving speed as "thoughts and exclamations succeed each other."

Gielgud wrote about the first soliloquy as one of the most exciting for the actor because it "seem[ed] to set the character once and for all in the audience's minds." His actor's instincts told him that its position of primacy made it extremely important in establishing the audience-actor relationship. Once he had spoken, the actor could not make major changes in the character conception. Gielgud described the speech as a reaction to the first of a series of "shocks and surprises" that accumulate in the play. He felt that Hamlet, placed in an impossible predicament, found his way to his fate through episodes like this one. Since the actor spoke to himself (avoiding eye contact with individuals), he had no other need than to be truthful. The audience was eavesdropping on his agonies.

The second soliloquy (at I.v.92-112) was clearly the second major shock in Hamlet's Denmark. It followed a very dramatic appearance by the Ghost, which ended with Hamlet's body lying on the ground racked with sobs. Gilder described the atmosphere: "The quick step and harsh quick words are the outward sign of all that has been growing in him since he heard of the Ghost, the tension that rises steadily, notch by notch, like a tightened violin string till it cracks at the Ghost's departure."

Gielgud was aided by scenic effects here. The stage was darkened, and there was the eerie sound of wind blowing as Hamlet appeared on the ramparts. After the exchange between Ghost and son, Gielgud fell to his knees, his hand extended to the departing creature as lights blacked out for a hushed pause. Soon lights came up again faintly, and the soliloquy began with an "animal wail of pain":

He turns on himself, self-lacerating, driving unpityingly ... little by little, he raises himself on one knee. He is bruised, beaten; only his will remains and forces him up, governing even the "distracted globe" which is indeed overburdened to the verge of frenzy. "Ay, thou poor ghost" brings again the note of tenderness and pity, pity for the dead and for his father in his torment. The second "Remember thee" is an oath. The words that follow come quickly, rising in a swift crescendo of dedication to the final "yes, by heaven" which brings him to his feet. A pause, and then the infamy sweeps over him. "O most pernicious woman!" His first thought, even before Claudius and murder, is of her. Then his mind turns to Claudius-to the morning scene of flattery and smug smiles, to the laughter and revelry below at this very moment. His voice breaks with anger at such villainy. He moves to the right, almost to the spot where the Ghost had stood. On the tablet from which he has just wiped all "trivial fond records," on his brain seared by the Ghost's revelations, he will register this shame. The phrase ends on a high, hard challenge: "So, uncle, there you are," as he strikes his forehead with his hand.

Then, deep and very quiet, the oath of consecration, "Now to my word." Both hands clasp the sword-hilt. The blade gleams in an arc as he raises it to his lips. He stands straight as a lance, the silver line above his head piercing heavenward in salute. Slowly, with finality, with full and weary prescience, he lowers the sword, "I have sworn 't."

Gilder's description of the soliloquy and her use of the word "frenzy" indicates that Gielgud enacted a total collapse, a physical shattering as well as mental chaos. The soliloquy was as personal as a nervous breakdown. It was therefore not shared with the theatre audience. He was deeply shaken but managed to restore his equilibrium through the ritual resolve of the final vow.

Gielgud's notes mention two pieces of business. To record in the "table of my memory," he "banged [his] head" at "So, uncle, there you are," since that phrase marked the conclusion of a long beat. Gielgud wanted his hands and body free from notebooks or other properties throughout the speech in order to use gestures which demonstrated the full physicality of the moment. He had earlier contrived to relieve himself of his cloak at the beginning of the scene, just in case it should hamper expression.

For the third soliloquy ("O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" II.ii.550-605), Gielgud followed a through-line of action which began in the previous scene with the players. He had read and been convinced of the appropriateness of Harley Granville Barker's logic that references like "the unnerved father falls" as well as the mention of Hecuba and the "mobled Queen" (Gertrude, he felt) should explicitly be reacted to by Hamlet. After the Hecuba speech, he took a very long pause to study the player's face as if he saw within the man a reflection of his own dilemma. This set the audience up for the forthcoming comparison of the player's emotions to Hamlet's emotions, a major propellant in the thrust of the third soliloquy. Hamlet reprimanded Polonius in telling him how to treat the players, making his rebuke an "explosion" rather than advice, since tension had mounted under his skin during the player's speech. All of the players exited, and Hamlet drew one of them aside to ask for some "dozen or sixteen lines" to be inserted into the Gonzago play.

Then followed a piece of business which helped Gielgud make the transition into the soliloquy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remained onstage to continue talking with Hamlet; however, "with a swift, repelling gesture, he dismisses them." He then took a long pause, his back turned to the audience, and leaned on his hands on the table. This gesture endowed the first line "Now I am alone," with special meaning: in his desolation, he shared his anguish with no one. This also gave him preparation time for the burst of bottled anger that launched the whole first section of the soliloquy.

"O, what a rogue" began a torrent of self-deprecation, and Gielgud continued a vocal build to "damn'd defeat was made," whereupon he fell on a stool. But the battering of self had not stopped. He plunged into the short questions with vehement speed, rising quickly on "Who does me this?" There was a third build; this time his body shook with anger, the pitch of his voice rose up on "treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" On the famous climactic "Oh Vengeance!" he grabbed his dagger and smashed it into the doorway; the dagger fell from his raised arm, and his body melted onto the top step with a pitiful bleat, "Fie upon it! Foh!" A long pause ensued in which only sobbing could be heard.


Excerpted from MODERN HAMLETS & THEIR SOLILOQUIES by MARY Z. MAHER Copyright © 2003 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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