Richard Burton on Playing Hamlet

From the Archives   Richard Burton on Playing Hamlet
 
On the eve of opening what would become a legendary production of Hamlet on Broadway April 9, 1964, Burton wrote an essay about the Prince of Denmark for Playbill.
Richard Burton in Hamlet
Richard Burton in Hamlet ©NYPL for the Performing Arts

If one man believes that Hamlet is the tragedy of a man who cannot make up his mind and plays it that way—then that is, for three and a half hours, what Hamlet is. If another believes him to be a frustrated soldier, envious of “the delicate and tender Prince… with divine ambition puffed,” then that is what he is. If another chooses to mince delicately on high heels, scornful and scorning, to his deadly appointment with Laertes’ rapier, then that is what Hamlet is. These actors have but to have enough power of personality to command your attention and their Hamlets are for a couple of hours what these actors choose to be, or cannot help being.

Someone once told me that the first Hamlet you see is the one that dominates the rest of your life. I’ve asked this of other people and apparently it is not true. In my case however it is. The first Hamlet I ever saw was in 1944 at Oxford. The actor was [John] Gielgud. I was lucky. I saw—and see in my memory—the golden renaissance Prince, witty, scholarly, loving, high-poetic; infinitely, smilingly, and heart-breakingly melancholy. His was indeed so near perfect a performance that he nearly killed my ambition. “Who could match him?” I thought. “Who could match him?” It was Sir John himself who later on when I became friends with him persuaded me, by inference more than by direct statement, that every man is his own Hamlet, that Hamlet (assuming that there is the initial talent) is so massive that there is room for all.

Who in two or three hundred words, or for that matter, two or three thousand books can throw light on Hamlet? Thousands of volumes, philosophical, psychological, idolatrous, religious, political, and hate-filled have been written about this most inconsistent and disjointed creation of Shakespeare. He is so illusive that he can be (and has been) played as a homosexual, as a man of action (someone once told me that Olivier’s performance of Hamlet was the best performance of Hotspur he had ever seen), as demoniacal, as one suffering from satyriasis, as a poet, as an intellectual, as a brilliant but tragic comedian and so on through endless permutations of these and many other labels. He has even, as we all know, been played by women. My own theory, if you can call it one, is that no actor has ever been right or perfect as Hamlet, and that everybody has been right and perfect. Let me quickly qualify this by adding that any weaknesses or strengths of the individual actor will be exaggerated under the blinding light of this most searching of parts. You’ll see the man reveal himself for what he is when the great Prince gets at him—exciting, vulgar, envious, perversely witty, obscene, poetic, exotic, brave, cowardly, cynical, romantic, empty, mystical, posturing, lovable, charming, self-pitying—a combination of some or all of these things and more, or that most dreaded revelation of all—prosaic, inadequate and dull.

I have played Hamlet many times and in many ways. I played him first with no thought of his inconsistencies but with sheer delight in the verbal magic of each individual scene. I later played him with some attempt to connect up all the apparent incongruities. (I found this exhausting and feel back easily into self-pity.) I played him again, as Hugh Griffith put it, as a Welsh preacher, bewildered but determinedly sonorous in the labyrinthine ways of Elsinore. I tried him once as a crafty (but poetically gifted) politician, anxious that never again would anyone pop in between the election and my hopes. I am, at the time of writing, playing Hamlet again and there is no knowing in this production (and no Hamlet has been given greater freedom or more help from a director) how this Hamlet will turn out. But whatever the verdict, I hope that whatever happens, I will not qualify for the last three words of the previous paragraph.

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