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Is a great actor defined by his Hamlet?

1953. A production of Hamlet at the Old Vic, the great London theatre. In the title role, the actor Richard Burton, who was destined to become one of the titans of stage and screen acting, just then stepping out from the shadow cast by great Hamlets Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

1977. Derek Jacobi steps into the role as Hamlet. This is the moment he has dreamed of ever since 1953, when, as a schoolboy, he saw Burton at the Old Vic. “That was what convinced me, if I needed any convincing,” Jacobi says, “that I wanted to be an actor.”

At one of Jacobi’s Hamlet performances, another young man who dreams of being an actor visits him backstage. That young man: Kenneth Branagh.

1988. The torch of Hamlet is passed once again, when Branagh “hires” Jacobi to direct him in the defining role for the Renaissance Theater Company in Birmingham. Branagh was just about to break out with his Henry V film — still, for my money, one of the greatest Shakespeare movies ever made.

So it is with great interest that I viewed the documentary Discovering Hamlet, in which camera crews were given complete access to the rehearsals for the Jacobi/Branagh production of Hamlet. The 53 minute doc, narrated by Patrick Stewart, plus several bonus features, including a recent interview with the documentarian Mark Olshaker and Jacobi, becomes available on DVD on Feb 1st from Athena and Acorn.

Olshaker and his cameras were there to witness Jacobi, such a confident actor, shakily feeling his way into directing. And the cameras capture Branagh’s exuberance at being unleashed into the role, his absolute reverence for his idol, Jacobi, and the crushing moment where he realizes that the role of Hamlet is quite possibly larger than any actor could ever conquer.

Thanks to the random happenstance that I’m working on the DVDs for both Julie Taymor’s The Tempest and the animated spoof Gnomeo & Juliet, I’ve gotten into an awesome Shakespeare kick of late. I was even inspired to create a list of books which Shakespeare read.

In thinking about the ways in which Shakespeare has impacted world culture over the last 400 odd years, I’ve come to believe that his plays, especially Hamlet, are used as a yardstick in all kinds of domains. The great Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate has gone so far as to suggest that our very definition of the word “genius” has been fit to the dimensions provided by Shakespeare.

As Discovering Hamlet makes clear, Shakespeare’s words go very deep, right down the bone of human emotions. But I will confine myself, for the moment, to just one question.

Is a great actor defined by his Hamlet?

I would make the case that the theatrical tradition of playing Hamlet is now being passed down on film. I have not been able yet to get ahold Jacobi’s version, which was captured by the BBC in 1980. But he clearly has a deep understanding of the text, including a very logical but radical idea to have Hamlet perform the “to be or not to be” soliloquy directly to Ophelia.

Watching Hamlet (1996), which Kenneth Branagh both directed and starred in, you can clearly see where he’s borrowed ideas from Jacobi, not least in moving the setting to the near past, yet not quite contemporizing it, as Michael Almereyda did, in the Hamlet (2000) starring Ethan Hawke.

I still prefer Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) to Branagh’s, Mel Gibson’s (1990) or, most recently former-Dr. Who and RSC player David Tennant (2009). What seems clear to me is that Hamlet can’t but continue to be a defining role for an actor, because it so frequently performed. This is as close as a one-to-one comparison as we’ll ever get between Olivier and Branagh. This is where the germ of what defines an actor is separated utterly from the chaff of everything else that surrounds him, including time itself.

An actor will never get a meatier role than Hamlet. He will never again get so clear a chance to see how he measures up to those legendary actors of the past. And that is why it is irresistible for both actors and audiences to assay this role. Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” We may one day say the same of some of the great film performances of Hamlet.


  1. Awesome review! I want to see this now!! I agree with almost everything you said in this thoughtful write-up (David Tennant rules).

  2. Josharian Taylor

    March 31, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    hamlet was ugly

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