Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

John Barrymore: A bridge to Shakespearean actors past

Photograph of John Barrymore as Hamlet
Photograph of John Barrymore as Hamlet
Photograph of John Barrymore as Hamlet

John Barrymore as Hamlet. ART File B281 no.2 PHOTO. Folger Shakespeare Library.

John Barrymore is sometimes passed over in the lists of great Shakespeare actors. He was a light comedian and matinee idol who made a serious bid for respect with Broadway productions of Richard III in 1920 and Hamlet in 1922. His commercial and artistic success in both title roles, while not uncriticized, was considerable, and in retrospect it now appears that Barrymore was an important transitional figure in our understanding of the evolution of Shakespearean performance styles.

In John Barrymore: Shakespearean Actor, Michael A. Morrison argues that Barrymore “was the first to reinterpret time-honored roles in light of modern psychological theory,” and that his “dynamic portrayals…helped to revitalize Shakespearean acting and production in America and Great Britain.” Barrymore appears to have had his feet planted firmly in both the 19th and 20th centuries: He inherited a family acting tradition that went back two generations to Great Britain (and included his siblings Lionel and Ethel and, later, film star granddaughter Drew), but he was also a post-World War I American flush with success and attuned to emerging understandings of psychological motivation through the work of Sigmund Freud. According to Morrison, Barrymore can be viewed “as a revolutionary bridge between Victorian and modern methods of acting” and “should thus be considered in light of the bravura acting of Edwin Booth and Henry Irving.”


I played the part of Barrymore in a community theater production and have performed many soliloquies
as an amateur actor

Herbert Gould — April 26, 2019

The Richard Burton Hamlet is also available on Amazon Prime!

Sam — April 26, 2019

Is not true that Barrymore left no recording of his Hamlet. Selected speeches were recorded on 78 rpm records and in 1937, he starred in a 45 minute radio series of six of Shakespeare’s plays, the first two episodes being he stage triumphs, Hamlet and Richard III. People may learn more about these shows here:

Mike Jensen — April 28, 2019

It’s great to have John Barrymore recognized for his Shakespearean performances. I would note that we do have both audio and visual evidence of his Shakespearean acting, though in small doses. He made a number of recordings of Shakespearean soliloquies, of which the best is the 1928 rendering of “Now I am alone” from “Hamlet.” In 1933, Barrymore made a screen test, in color, of parts of several scenes from “Hamlet,” including the meeting with the ghost. In 1929, he acted out a soliloquy from “Henry VI, Part III,” in a film called “Show of Shows.” On the radio, he appeared with Orson Welles in the tent scene from “Julius Caesar.” Slim pickings, but it’s nice to have something. (Most of this material is on Youtube.

Michael Anderegg — May 1, 2019

[…] in the form of actor and Stratford Festival alum William Shatner, who brought an authentic (and weirdly old school) Shakespearean swagger to the 23rd century. Shatner established a boldness in performance that […]

Shakespeare in Star Trek: quotes, plot lines, and more references — August 27, 2019

I have an early gouache portrait believed to be Barrymore by James Montgomery Flagg
signed by J.M. Flagg but dated earlier than most suggest Barrymore was performing Shakespeare, June 18,1902 which was Flagg’s 25th birthday and Barrymore’s 20th. Any thoughts will be appreciated.

Karen Flagg — January 12, 2020

In 1961 I bought an RCA Victor LP celebrating 60 years of that record company and besides various classical music highlights, it had John Barrymore’s 1928 recording of the “O What a Rogue and Peasant Slave Am I” soliloquy from “Hamlet”.
To say I was blown away may be an understatement. I listened to it and just knew that what I was hearing is the way Shakespeare should sound. The sound of his voice and the underlying passion was monumental. I realize to some extent I was judging it the way I would judge an opera aria recording, probably because to a large extent it was like an aria recording. Based on that recording and, of course, a host of movies, John Barrymore became my favorite actor of all time. Obviously, I never saw Barrymore do “Hamlet” live and there is no recorded document of a complete “Hamlet” with him. (I believe on the original 78 the other side was the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, but I haven’t heard it. It should be noted that in the 30s he made a number of radio appearances doing scenes from Shakespeare plays, which later appeared on records, but while those recordings are good, they can’t compare with the recording made nearer to the time he played the role on Broadway and in London.) Yet, somehow my gut tells me that Barrymore was the Hamlet Shakespeare would have most approved of, but, of course, that’s just my opinion.

Leslie R Epstein — July 2, 2021

Laurence Olivier thought Edwin Booth (John’s older Brother) was the best American actor doing Shakespeare. Interesting, there must be some early film footage or recordings before his death I assume and probably some theatre gossip as well. He died 1893.

Rob — February 10, 2022