20th Century Stage Performances 20th Century Cinematic Performances 20th Century Television Performances

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, often shortened to Hamlet, is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare at an uncertain date between 1599 and 1602. Set in Denmark, the play dramatises the revenge Prince Hamlet is called to wreak upon his uncle, Claudius, by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet. Claudius had murdered his own brother and seized the throne, also marrying his deceased brother’s widow.

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and is considered among the most powerful and influential works of world literature, with a story capable of “seemingly endless retelling and adaptation by others”. It was probably one of Shakespeare’s most popular works during his lifetime, and still ranks among his most performed, topping the performance list of the Royal Shakespeare Company and its predecessors in Stratford-upon-Avon since 1879.

The story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was derived from the legend of Amleth, preserved by 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum, as subsequently retold by the 16th-century scholar François de Belleforest. Shakespeare almost certainly wrote the play for his fellow actor, Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of Shakespeare’s time. In the 400 years since its inception, the role has been performed by numerous highly acclaimed actors in each successive century.

The play’s structure and depth of characterisation have inspired much critical scrutiny. One such example is the centuries-old debate about Hamlet’s hesitation to kill his uncle, which some see as merely a plot device to prolong the action, but which others argue is a dramatisation of the complex philosophical and ethical issues that surround cold-blooded murder, calculated revenge, and thwarted desire. More recently, psychoanalytic critics have examined Hamlet’s unconscious desires, while feminist critics have re-evaluated and attempted to rehabilitate the often maligned characters of Ophelia and Gertrude.

20th Century Stage Performances

Notable stagings in London and New York include John Barrymore‘s 1925 production at the Haymarket; it influenced subsequent performances by John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Gielgud played the central role many times: his 1936 New York production ran for 132 performances, leading to the accolade that he was “the finest interpreter of the role since Barrymore”. Although “posterity has treated Maurice Evans less kindly”, throughout the 1930s and 1940s he was regarded by many as the leading interpreter of Shakespeare in the United States and in the 1938/9 season he presented Broadway’s first uncut Hamlet, running four and a half hours. Evans later performed a highly truncated version of the play that he played for South Pacific war zones during World War II which made the prince a more decisive character. The staging, known as the “G.I. Hamlet”, was produced on Broadway for 131 performances in 1945/46. Olivier’s 1937 performance at The Old Vic was popular with audiences but not with critics, with James Agate writing in a famous review in The Sunday Times, “Mr. Olivier does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.” In 1937 Tyrone Guthrie directed the play at Elsinore, Denmark with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Vivien Leigh as Ophelia.

In 1963, Olivier directed Peter O’Toole as Hamlet in the inaugural performance of the newly formed National Theatre; critics found resonance between O’Toole’s Hamlet and John Osborne‘s hero, Jimmy Porter, from Look Back in Anger.

Richard Burton received his third Tony Award nomination when he played his second Hamlet, his first under John Gielgud’s direction, in 1964 in a production that holds the record for the longest run of the play in Broadway history (137 performances). The performance was set on a bare stage, conceived to appear like a dress rehearsal, with Burton in a black v-neck sweater, and Gielgud himself tape-recorded the voice for the ghost (which appeared as a looming shadow). It was immortalised both on record and on a film that played in US theatres for a week in 1964 as well as being the subject of books written by cast members William Redfield and Richard L. Sterne.

Other New York portrayals of Hamlet of note include that of Ralph Fiennes‘s in 1995 (for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor) – which ran, from first preview to closing night, a total of one hundred performances.  Stacy Keach played the role with an all-star cast at Joseph Papp’s Delacorte Theatre in the early 70s, with Colleen Dewhurst‘s Gertrude, James Earl Jones‘s King, Barnard Hughes‘s Polonius, Sam Waterston‘s Laertes and Raúl Juliá‘s Osric. David Warner played the role with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1965. William Hurt (at Circle Rep Off-Broadway, memorably performing “To Be Or Not to Be” while lying on the floor), Jon Voight at Rutgers, and Christopher Walken (fiercely) at Stratford CT have all played the role, as has Diane Venora at the Public Theatre.

Ian Charleson performed Hamlet in 1989, in Richard Eyre’s production at the Olivier Theatre, replacing Daniel Day-Lewis, who had abandoned the production. Seriously ill from AIDS at the time, Charleson died eight weeks after his last performance. Fellow actor and friend, Sir Ian McKellen, said that Charleson played Hamlet so well it was as if he had rehearsed the role all his life; McKellen called it “the perfect Hamlet”.

20th Century Cinematic Performances

1948: Laurence Olivier 1964: Richard Burton 1969: Nicol Williamson
1976: Tony & David Meyer 1990: Mel Gibson 1996: Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet-1948Released May 6, 1948 (UK)

Hamlet is a British film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, adapted and directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier. Hamlet was Olivier’s second film as director, and also the second of the three Shakespeare films that he directed. Hamlet was the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is also the first sound film of the play in English.

Olivier’s Hamlet is the Shakespeare film that has received the most prestigious accolades, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. However, it proved controversial among Shakespearean purists, who felt that Olivier had made too many alterations and excisions to the four-hour play by cutting nearly two hours’ worth of content.

The film featured Jean Simmons as Ophelia, and the likes of John Laurie (Dad’s Army), Anthony Quayle and Christopher Lee as Guards. Patrick Troughton appeared as the Player King, Peter Cushing as Osric and Stanley Holloway as Gravedigger.

Richard Burton’s Hamlet (1964)

Hamlet_(1964)Released September 23, 1964

Richard Burton’s Hamlet is a common name for both the Broadway production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy that played from April 9 to August 8, 1964 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and for the filmed record of it that has been released theatrically and on home video.

The production took place because of a lighthearted agreement between Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole while they were filming Becket. O’Toole decreed that they should each play Hamlet afterwards under the direction of John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier in either London or New York City, with a coin toss deciding who would be assigned which director and which city. O’Toole won London and Olivier in the toss, with Burton being assigned Gielgud and New York. O’Toole kept his part of the agreement, appearing as Hamlet under Olivier’s direction in the premiere production of the Royal National Theatre later that year, and Burton approached producer Alexander H. Cohen and Gielgud about mounting a New York production.

Because Burton disliked wearing period costumes, and for aesthetic reasons of his own, Gielgud conceived of a production performed in a “rehearsal” setting with an incomplete set and the actors wearing what appeared to be street clothes. Gielgud also opted to depict the Ghost as a shadow against the back of the stage wall, voicing the character himself on tape (since he was unavailable while the production was in performance).

The production was a financial smash, achieving the longest run for the play in Broadway history at 137 performances, which broke the previous record set by Maurice Evans‘s GI Hamlet in the 1940s.

A filmed record was created by recording three live performances on camera using a process called Electronovision and then editing them into a single film. By contractual agreement, all prints of the film were to have been destroyed after its theatrical run. However, by chance, a single print was discovered in Burton’s garage following his death, and his widow allowed it to be distributed on VHS, and later on DVD. The film was originally titled Hamlet, but the VHS and DVD covers read Richard Burton’s Hamlet.

Hamlet (1969)

Hamlet-1969Released April 9, 1970 (UK); December 21, 1969 (US)

Hamlet is a British film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, starring Nicol Williamson as Prince Hamlet. It was directed by Tony Richardson and based on his own stage production at the Roundhouse theatre in London. The film also stars Anthony Hopkins as King Claudius, Judy Parfitt as Queen Gertrude, Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia, and Gordon Jackson as Horatio.

The film, a departure from big-budget Hollywood renditions of classics, was made with a small budget and a very minimalist set, consisting of Renaissance fixtures and costumes in a dark, shadowed space. A brick tunnel is used for the scenes on the battlements. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father is represented only by a light shining on the observers. The film places much emphasis on the sexual aspects of the play, to the point of strongly implying an incestuous relationship between Laertes and Ophelia.

Hamlet (1976)

Featuring Quentin Crisp as Polonius and Helen Mirren as Ophelia, this film version contained graphic male nudity and homosexual themes. It was never given a general release in movie theatres, only playing very limited engagements and was never released at all in the U.S.

British twin brothers, Anthony & David Meyer played Hamlet/Laertes.

Hamlet (1990)

Hamlet-1990Released April 19, 1991

The extraordinary adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of vengeance and tragedy.

Hamlet is a drama film based on the Shakespearean tragedy of the same name, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Mel Gibson as the eponymous character. An international co-production between the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, the film is notable for being the first film produced by Icon Productions, a company co-founded by Gibson.

Notable Cast Members

  • Mel Gibson as Prince Hamlet
  • Glenn Close as Queen Gertrude
  • Alan Bates as King Claudius
  • Paul Scofield as the ghost of King Hamlet
  • Ian Holm as Polonius
  • Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia
  • Nathaniel Parker as Laertes
  • Michael Maloney and Sean Murray as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  • Trevor Peacock as The Gravedigger
  • Pete Postlethwaite as the Player King


Hamlet (1996)

Hamlet_1996Released February 14, 1997 (UK); December 25, 1996 (US)

Hamlet is a film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as Prince Hamlet.

The film is the first unabridged theatrical film version of Hamlet, running just over four hours. The setting is updated to the 19th century, but its Elizabethan English remains the same. Blenheim Palace is the setting used for the exterior grounds of Elsinore Castle and interiors were all photographed at Shepperton Studios, blended with the footage shot at Blenheim.

Hamlet has been regarded as one of the best Shakespeare film adaptations.[2][3][4][5] However, it was not a box office success, grossing just under $5 million on a budget of $18 million.

Notable Cast Members

  • Kenneth Branagh as Prince Hamlet
  • Derek Jacobi as King Claudius
  • Julie Christie as Gertrude
  • Richard Briers as Polonius
  • Kate Winslet as Ophelia
  • Michael Maloney as Laertes
  • Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras

Plus: Robin WilliamsGérard Depardieu, Timothy Spall, Reece Dinsdale, Jack Lemmon, Brian Blessed, Billy Crystal, Don Warrington, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, Judi Dench, John Mills, and Ken Dodd.


20th Century Television Performances

1953: Maurice Evans 1963: Christopher Plummer 1970: Richard Chamberlain
1980: Derek Jacobi 1990: Kevin Kline

Hallmark Hall of Fame: Hamlet (1953)

This live TV performance, preserved on kinescope, broadcast in the US on April 26, 1953, starred Maurice Evans as Hamlet.

Hamlet at Elsinore (1963)

Hamlet at Elsinore is a British television version of Shakespeare’s play produced by the BBC in association with Danish Radio. Winning wide acclaim both for its performances and for being shot entirely at Helsingør (Elsinore in English), in the castle in which the play is set, it is the only version (with sound) of the play to have actually been shot at Elsinore Castle. This programme was recorded and edited on video tape (2″ quadruplex) and not ‘filmed’ and was the longest version of the play telecast in one evening up to that time, running nearly three hours.

The Canadian actor Christopher Plummer took the lead role as Hamlet and earned an Emmy Award nomination for his performance. In supporting roles were Robert Shaw as Claudius, Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras, Roy Kinnear as the Gravedigger and Michael Caine, in his only Shakespearean performance, as Horatio. Sutherland, Caine and Shaw were, at the time, almost completely unknown to American audiences, and just before the presentation’s first U.S. telecast, Plummer began to gain popularity in the U.S. because of his appearance in the 1965 musical film The Sound of Music.

Clips of the programme are very rarely shown on television, and Plummer himself expressed a wish for it to be commercially available. It was released on Region 1 DVD by the BBC and Warner in 2011.

Hallmark Hall of Fame: Hamlet (1970)

This TV performance, shot on videotape, broadcast in the US on November 17, 1970, starred Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet and Michael Redgrave as Polonius.

BBC Television Shakespeare: Hamlet (1980)

The BBC Television Shakespeare is a series of British television adaptations of the plays of William Shakespeare broadcast by BBC Television. Transmitted in the UK from December 3, 1978 to April 27, 1985, the series spanned seven seasons and thirty-seven episodes.

Initially the adaptations received generally negative reviews, although the reception improved somewhat as the series went on, and directors were allowed more freedom, leading to interpretations becoming more daring. Several episodes are now held in high esteem, particularly some of the traditionally lesser known and less frequently staged plays.

Hamlet, first broadcast on May 25, 1980, starred Derek Jacobi in the lead role, supported by Claire Bloom, Patrick Stewart, Eric Porter, Lalla Ward, Patrick Allen, Jonathan Hyde, Ian Charleson, and Peter Benson.

New York Shakespeare Festival: Hamlet (1990)

Shakespeare in the Park (or Free Shakespeare in the Park) is a theatrical program that stages productions of Shakespearean plays at the Delacorte Theater, an open-air theatre in New York City’s Central Park. The theatre and the productions are managed by the Public Theater and tickets are distributed free of charge on the day of the performance. Originally branded as the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF) under the direction of Joseph Papp, the institution was renamed in 2002 as part of a larger reorganisation by the Public Theater.

The 1990 performance of Hamlet starred Kevin Kline.