Hamlet: How to Perform Hamlet

How to Perform Hamlet
How to Perform Hamlet. Vasiliki Varvaki/E+/Getty Images

Hamlet is considered to be the greatest part in English drama and many actors strive to play "The Dane" for the kudos it brings them.

Playing Hamlet can be the pinnacle of a male actor’s career: he has the most lines of any other protagonist and the plot is focused around Hamlet and his travails. Hamlet is a tortured soul and is very introspective, the play is all about him and his inner thoughts – manor from heaven for an actor.

If you can perform Hamlet, then you can perform anything.

Hamlet is a daunting role as you are going to be compared to the great Hamlet’s that have come before you!

Who Has Played Hamlet?

Famous actors who have played Hamlet include:

Hamlet's Madness

Hamlet is a man on the verge of madness who is agonizing over his life and trying to decide when, if and how to avenge his murdered father - this dilemma generates wonderful material for an accomplished actor.

Daniel Day-Lewis famously dropped out halfway through a performance having indulged too enthusiastically into the madness of the character. 

What Makes Your Hamlet Unique?

Actors often feel a sense of trepidation when taking on this role, as there is a huge amount of very recognizable and quotable material to get through.

The ghosts of previous Hamlets "taunting you from the wings" and the agony of how you are going to distinguish your Hamlet as your own.

Part of this struggle is of course shouldered by the Director but you are bearing the brunt as the ‘face’ of the play.

There have been romantic Hamlets, adolescent Hamlets, angry Hamlets, tender, introspective, destructive you name it. The mixture of the heroic and anti heroic must be allowed to coexist in the performance as Brannah asserts on a radio 3 interview from 1996 about the role on the BBC.

Hamlet has been described as a role which ‘uses every single acting muscle that the performer can give’, (BBC Radio 4 Review of Hamlet 6 August 2008) however it has also been described as ‘hospitable’ because the role is so dense that it is forgiving in a way that there is always something more you can give to it and it is impossible to do it all perfectly.

Think About the Audience

Being such an iconic role, the audience come with an expectation of how the role should be played, how Hamlet should speak, behave and look. It is essential for the actor to win the audience round and convince them of their version of Hamlet.

John Gielgud played the role and directed it and been a regular audience member, he has been associated with the role throughout his career.

In an interview with the BBC about the role (The Third Programme 16th May 1954) he said:

“It’s a play of shocks and surprises...but the most important thing seems to me is that he is a simple character but he is put in an impossible predicament. His character develops in a very natural way but in a very surprising way to himself and to the audience... The play is packed with incident, packed with poetry and packed with character but yet one seldom, if ever, sees the play performed where it is properly balanced and every part has its right relation to every other part [sic ].”

An actor is often drawn to the role to demonstrate that he has made it, that he has joined the illustrious club of actors who have played the greatest role but it does come with its own pitfalls of expectation and complexity.

The main question for an actor is will the audience accept and embrace your version of Hamlet?