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. 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 instance: 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. Today, we might assume that every Hamlet will be colloquial, familiar, and down to earth—a prince, yes, but with the common touch. However, no actor played the role that way until two hundred and fifty years after Shakespeare wrote it.
Yet the image of an informal Hamlet has shaped performances ever since, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 production, when David Tennant casually wrapped himself up in a wooly cap, scruffy parka, and burly orange sweater. Many modern interpretations of Hamlet owe something to the artistic legacy bequeathed not by Shakespeare but by a little-remembered actor in the reign of Queen Victoria.
Surprising things can happen in the interval between "then" and "now."