• Eddie Hewitt

A History of Hamlets

Past performances galore

Many celebrated actors have played this role over the centuries. A host of star names over the past few years. Everyone has their favourites.

Strangely, I have only seen two live performances of Hamlet. The first, as an undergraduate on an exciting trip to the National Theatre, with Daniel Day Lewis as the Prince and Judi Dench as his mother, Gertrude. Some years later, I turned down the chance to see Imogen Stubbs in the lecherous, incestuous role of the Queen, thinking she was not advanced enough for this senior part, wishing she had been cast as Ophelia instead. I have never forgiven myself.

Daniel Day-Lewis with Judi Dench (Gertrude) in 1989

Ben Whishaw with Imogen Stubbs (Gertude) in 2004

But, we are talking about princes. In particular, the unhappy prince who finds himself too much in the sun. There have been so many Hamlets. Frequently, several on stage or screen in the same year throughout the decades. Every actor who is anyone seems to need to play the Dane in order to justify his thespian credentials. The earliest on record was Richard Burbage, In Shakespeare’s day.

Richard Burbage, the earliest recorded Hamlet

In modern history, Ben Kingsley and Laurence Olivier took on the challenge. In more recent times, Ken Branagh, Mark Rylance, David Tennant, Ben Whishaw, Jude Law and Benedict Q Cumberbatch, with Q cumber devotees nightly in the front row. Then there was Rory Kinnear; not a patch on his dad in the entertainment circle, but also a fine actor. The biggest name lately has been Tom Hiddleston.

Laurence Olivier, on screen, 1948

Kenneth Branagh, a serial Hamlet performer, seen here on screen with Kate Winslet (Ophelia) in 1996

Mark Rylance, another frequent Hamlet, with Yorick, at The Globe (1988)

Benedict Cumberbatch, a favourite with his b'a'tches, in 2015

photo: Tristram Kenton

You will have spotted several knights of the realm in the names above, as well as a few commoners. The next pictures you see will fall into the latter category.

Rory Kinnear in 2010

And Roy Kinnear, with Gene Wilder, in Charlier and the Chocolate Factory, 1971

Well, it's all about the dad.

There have been many more actors picking up the skull in Yorick’s grave, including actresses. Maxine Peake stands out, but she was not the first female prince, nor the last. Sarah Bernhardt played the part in 1899. Michelle Terry, recently appointed Artistic Director at the Globe Theatre, cherry-picked the lead role for herself in a move demonstrating boldness and outstanding leadership. In this ‘gender-blind’ production, Shubham Saraf played Ophelia.

Maxine Peake in 2014

Sarah Bernhardt in 1899

Michelle Terry with James Garnon (Claudius) at the Globe, 2018

Shubham Saraf as Ophelia at the Globe, 2018

Globe photos: Tristram Kenton

Earlier this year, Paapa Essiedu, my second live Hamlet, reprised his role as the troubled son bound to avenge his father’s most unnatural death. Essiedu appeared on tour, away from the traditional grand Shakespearean venues, but in the finest of companies. He first played the Prince in this RSC production in 2016. As far as I can ascertain, Essiedu is the first black, African Hamlet in a major UK or US production. He is certainly the only black actor in the list of Hamlets below. If anyone knows differently, please email me with details via the Connected Cultures website.

Paapa Essiedue on tour with the RSC (2018)

photo: Manuel Harlan

Perhaps the most unlikely prince of all was a real prince who, in 2016, performed one line in the BBC celebrations for Shakespeare's 400th birthday. A host of pretend princes led the way on stage, all asking the same existential question. You know the one. And finally, to the apparent annoyance of the proper actors, hahaha!, Bonny Prince Charles strode onto the stage and asked that question his way.

First in line to the throne. A night with the stars at the BBC in 2016

A final note. When Hamlets come they come not single spies….

Especially in 1948, 1980, 1989 and 2000. And often, when the RSC mounts a production, a rival appears on stage at the National. This play really is the thing.

Year Actor Theatre

1601 Richard Burbage The Globe

1864 Henry Irving

1899 Sarah Bernhardt

1922 John Barrymore

1930 John Gielgud

1948 Laurence Olivier Movie

1948 Paul Scofield RSC

1948 Robert Helpman RSC

1953 Maurice Evans TV movie

1958 Michael Redgrave

1961 Ian Bannen RSC

1964 Richard Burton Broadway

1964 Christopher Plummer BBC TV

1965 David Warner RSC

1970 Alan Howard RSC

1970 Richard Chamberlain ITV

1970 Ian McKellen TV movie

1975 Ben Kingsley RSC

1980 Jonathan Pryce Royal Court

1980 Michael Pennington RSC

1980 Derek Jacobi TV movie

1980 Eric Morecambe TV Special

1984 Roger Rees RSC

1988 Kenneth Branagh Phoenix

1989 Daniel Day-Lewis National

1989 Ian Charleson National Theatre

1989 Mark Rylance RSC

1982 Christopher Walken American

1990 Mel Gibson Movie

1990 Kevin Kline New York

1992 Kenneth Branagh RSC

1994 Stephen Dillane Gielgud

1995 Keanu Reeves Manitoba

1995 Ralph Fiennes Broadway

1996 Kenneth Branagh Movie

1997 Alex Jennings RSC

2000 Ethan Hawke Movie

2000 Mark Rylance The Globe

2000 Simon Russell Beale National

2000 Campbell Scott TV movie

2001 Samuel West RSC

2004 Toby Stephens RSC

2004 Ben Whishaw Old Vic

2008 David Tennant RSC

2009 Jude Law Wyndham’s

2010 Rory Kinnear National

2011 Michael Sheen Young Vic

2013 Jonathan Slinger RSC

2014 Maxine Peake Royal Court

2015 Benedict Cumberbatch National

2016 Prince Charles et al BBC

2016 Paapa Essiedu RSC

2017 Tom Hiddleston Vanbrugh

2017 Andrew Scott Almeida

2018 Paapa Essiedu RSC

2018 Michelle Terry The Globe

Penultimate knight

John Gielgud in 1930

Last knight:

Ben Kingsley in 1975

© Eddie Hewitt 2018


The Connected Cultures Hamlet special:

Review of the RSC’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire

The African Hamlet

Words Words Words: favourite lines from Hamlet

In a Nutshell: Hamlet - the Story

The RSC: Hamlet

Hackney Empire: Hamlet

The Globe: Hamlet

© 2020 Eddie Hewitt. All rights reserved.