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Shakespeare & Beyond

Hamlet wasn't always the prince with the common touch

David Tennant as Hamlet
David Tennant as Hamlet

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.


Do we, in fact, /know/ that Burbage did not play Hamlet casually?

John W. Kennedy — May 8, 2016

I’m fairly sure that the play indicates this “common touch” already. Consider Hamlet’s invitation to Horatio and Marcellus (who just became his sworn co-conspirators) at the end of Act I to exit with him: “Come, let’s go together” (1.5.212). Hamlet, a prince, would never exit alongside those who were not of his rank. A “common touch” was, I should think, perhaps not on the stage until the era described above, but was certainly on the page.

Alicia W — May 14, 2016

There is nothing ‘common’ about Hamlet, neither his mind nor his philosophy. What we are talking about is his ‘humanity’, which is infinitely more important than his so-called commonness

Alexander Barnett — December 15, 2016