It can hardly be disputed that in the twentieth century, Hamlet has “acquired the status of a myth!”1This “myth” has inspired dramatists to make and remake the play according to their own individual perspective of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Critical responses to Hamlet, the “Mona Lisa of literature”2 has been so extensive and stunningly different in their approaches to the “problem” of the Prince of Denmark. Apart from the “literary” critics and their scholarly interpretations, there are “theatre” critics like Kenneth Tynan who was a force to reckon with in the world of the theatre in the present century. This perspective leads logically to the interpretation of the character of Hamlet on the stage by the actor, and the greatest actors of the twentieth century have spoken about their own approach to the portrayal of “the man who could not make up his mind,” to use the description of perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor of our time-Sir Laurence Olivier. The invoking of the name of Olivier in whose name a theatre has come into existence opens up another perspective, that of the cinema, Shakespeare and Hamlet in the present con text on the screen. In addition to these perspectives, the “myth of Hamlet” has also encouraged the writers of detective fiction to use the “myth” in their own way. For example, Hamlet, Revenge by Michael Innes 3(J.I.M. Stewart) which has been described as a “clas sic of its kind” and The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake (C. Day Lewis) may be mentioned. There is even a curious book which pokes fun about the whole Hamlet critical industry in a creative context which purports to be a “journal of Claudius.” John Turing’s book My Nephew Hamlet4 can be classified neither under the “critical approaches” to Hamlet nor under the creative experiments that have arisen out of the play. The author of the book has set himself the formidable task of “rescuing Claudius from the odium of four centuries” and he proceeds to do it with gusto and his tongue firmly in his cheek, he adopts the epistolary technique and it is difficult to make up one’s mind whether to consider this work an ingenious intellectual exercise or an enormous leg-pull at Shakespeare scholarship. However, these are the “multiple perspectives” that the present writer has in mind and the following brief statement is an account of some of the insights that the twentieth century can claim.


First, Hamlet, in the context of the dramatic literature in the twentieth century. Six plays, all of them based on Hamlet, can be mentioned. In 1931, a one-act play entitled Mousetrap by J. Darmady5 was published. It is a whimsical look at “The Play within the play” in Hamlet. Another play of the 30s In a Glass Darkly by Hugh Ross Williamson6, published in 1936, makes Shakespeare’s Hamlet itself a play within the play that the chief characters are watching. Bernard Kops’ The Hamlet of Stepney Green7, a three-act play which was first presented by the Meadow players at Oxford in May 1958, is rather in the nature of a “parody,” a quasi-musical, described as “A sad comedy with some songs.” If this play can be talked about in the context of a “parody,” St. John Hankin’s The New Wing at Elsinore8 is a hilarious “Sequel” where Hamlet’s “tragic flaw” is highlighted by a capital joke:

Alas, poor ghost! his fatal indecision

Pursues him still. He can’t make up his mind

Which rooms to take-you’re never safe from HIM!

The fifth play which takes off from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is The Marowitz Hamlet.”9 Unlike the other plays just mentioned this version is a “collage.” This collage version has a provocative introduction which says, “In the collage, the dead king is mixed with the living king and then again with the Player King… the past with the present, the actual with the illusory.” However, the most interesting take off from Hamlet in the twentieth century is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead10 which has been termed “an existentialist post-script to Hamlet.” The mainspring of Rosencrantz and Guil denstern Are Dead “is the perception-surely a compassionate one that the fact of their deaths mattering so little to Hamlet was something that ought to have mattered to Shakespeare.”11 Stoppard himself makes a very modest statement about his use of Hamlet for play. He says, “I have enormous difficulty in working out plots, so ac tually to use Hamlet or a classical whodunnit, or another play (which I am afraid I’ve just done again) for a basic structure, takes a lot of the pressure off.”12 However, what Stoppard has done with Hamlet is much more than using the play for “a basic structure.” Indeed, the play makes Hamlet an extremely contemporary play by the new inter pretation that emerges from Stoppard’s version, Tynan in his chapter on Tom Stoppard says, “The English critic C.E. Moutagne described Hamlet as ‘a monstrous gothic castle of a poem, full of baffled half lights and glooms. This is precisely the setting of Rosencrantz and Guildensten: it takes place in the wings of Shakespeare’s imagina tion. The actor-manager who meets the two travelers on the road to Elsinore says that in life every exit is ‘an entrance somewhere else. In Stoppard’s play, every exit is an entrance somewhere else in Hamlet.13 These, in brief, are the perspectives that emerge from a look at the use of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by the twentieth century dramatists who have written their own plays based on Hamlet.


To turn to the critical perspectives on Hamlet in the twentieth century. Since the names of the critics on Hamlet is a legion and since special collections of critical essays like the Twentieth Century Interpretations series have come out, in the context of the multiple perspectives only a few of the important names are mentioned. Eliot’s discussion of the play in “Hamlet and His Problems” in the context of the “objective correlative” and his pronouncement, “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure,”14 the discussion of the “Place-Structure and Time Structure” in Hamlet by Harley Granville Barker,15 Theodore Spencer’s discussion of how an “awareness of the difference between appearance and reality could be used in the creation of dramatic character and situation,”16 all these have contributed significantly to Hamlet criticism, L.C. Knights’ approach to Hamlet in the context of “a fixation of self-consciousness,17 Ernest Jones’s analysis of Hamlet in the context of Oedipus Complex18, C.S. Lewis’s ‘Hamlet-The Prince or the Poem,19 are too-well known as critical approaches to the study of Hamlet in twentieth century. However, Dover Wilson in What Happens in Hamlet says, “The attitude of Hamlet towards Ophelia is without doubt the greatest of all the puzzles in the play, greater even than that of the delay itself, a fact which should long ago have created suspicion that in the course of three centuries Shakespeare’s original intentions have somehow been obscured.” While in a quick survey of the multiple perspectives on Hamlet there is no room to go into details about any one perspective, what is of particular interest to the present writer is the conclusion that Dover Wilson reaches, “Hamlet must have overheard what Polonius said to the King20


While these critical attitudes to Hamlet are significant in the twentieth century context, the criticism of Hamlet on the stage-the production aspect-must not be overlooked. Only a couple of refer ences to British productions in Kenneth Tynan’s brilliant analysis will be referred to here. Before that, just to put theatre criticism into the twentieth century perspective, a reference to Hamlet on stage in 1905 and Hamlet in the 1930s. J.C. Trewin, surveying Hamlet productions of the season of 1905-6 says, “Martin Harvey, whose Hamlet, in its romantic, emotional surge, the provinces had met already, arrived at the Lyric Theatre during May…. It was a time when Hamlets multi plied…. H.B. Irving, who had got in first, playing for Asche and Stuart was an actor of an edged intellect. Brought up in the shadow. of greatness, he had to be compared with his father: a comparison he encouraged by playing several of his father’s parts. His Hamlet of 1905 had a naturally lovable nature embittered.”21 In the thirties, it is interesting to note that Hamlet was produced in modern dress by Tyrone Guthrie, “Guthrie, innovating at the Vic, went into his season with a complete modern dress Hamlet…. Modern dress, I do not greatly care for’ he had said in a 1933 interview. Now he off the commonplace accessories and accretions-even if he could not resist wet umbrellas and dripping mackintoshes at Ophelia’s funeral- and held to a formality of uniforms and court costume for the men and long dresses for the women: the atmosphere of some Puritanian palace levee. At the centre (but not overwhelmingly so) of this lucid and coherent revival was Alec Guinness’s Hamlet, very young (he was only twenty four) and without any glint of the stagier bravura22 It is in this brief glimpse of Hamlet productions in the first half of the present century that we come to observe Hamlet on the British stage after 1950. Reviewing the 1955 production of Hamlet with Paul Scof field playing the leading role, Tynan observes, “As he proved seven years ago at Stratford, no living actor is better equipped for Hamlet than Paul Scoffield. On him the right sadness sits, and also the right spleen: his gait is a prowl over quicksands: and he can freeze a word with an irony at once mournful and deadly. He plays Hamlet as a man whose skill in smelling falseness extends to himself, thereby breeding self-disgust.23 In 1958, speaking of another great actor’s interpretation of Hamlet, Tynan wrote, “Mr. Redgrave presents man fearful of rousing the sleeping demon within him. This Hamlet is a prison from which fury escapes, in wild frustrated spasms. Mr. Redgrave’s Hamlet, like his Lear, is most convincing when closest to madness.24

Speaking about the interpretation of the role of Hamlet on the stage as observed by theatre reviewers leads one naturally to the actors’ own attitude to the role and how they looked at it. It is inter esting to learn how Hamlet the play launched one of the most dynamic actors of our time in his career of acting. Tynan, writing about Sir Ralph Richardson, says, “Sir Frank Benson and his renowned Shakespearean company appeared at the theatre Royal and Richardson went to see them in Hamlet.” This was “the decisive moment that moved my compass,” Ralph Richardson wrote later. “I suddenly realized what acting was and I thought: By Jove, that’s the job for me.”25 The challenge of the role of Hamlet is such that it is not only a “Mona Lisa” for the critic but it is a “Mona Lisa” for the actor too. Indeed, such a famous and accomplished actor like Sir John Gielgud shares his honest misgivings about a successful portrayal of the Prince of Denmark on the stage. He confesses, “The last production of my first old Vic season was Hamlet. It was exciting to have the chance of playing it after all, but I did not think it likely that I should give an interesting performance…. How mad should Hamlet be? So easy to score off Polonius, to get laughs… then the intricate scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and my favourite prose speech in the play “what a piece of work is man! “The arrival of the players, easier again, natural, true feeling, but the big soliloquy is coming in a minute, one must concentrate, take care not to anticipate, not begin worrying beforehand how one is going to say it, take time, but don’t lose time, don’t break the verse up, don’t suc cumb to the temptation of a big melodramatic effect for the sake of gaining applause at the curtain-Nunnery scene. Shall it be a love scene? How much emotion? When should Hamlet see the King? 1 feel so much that I convey nothing. This scene never ceases to baffle me.”26 This, from an actor who is acknowledged as one of the greatest Hamlets ever-in fact greater than Sir Laurence Olivier in the role of Hamlet, according to Kenneth Tynan. He says, “Gielgud and Olivier, from their earliest days in the profession were that god send to critics, a pair of perfect opposites. You could list their qualities in parallel columns.



Poct Mind

Spiritual Feminine

John Philip Kemble










Edmund Kean

Extrovert Metal


Concerning the great Shakespearean parts that both actors have played, the critical consensus is that Gielgud has defeated Olivier as Hamlet and Romeo while Olivier has knocked out Gielgud as Othello, Antony and Macbeth.”27 However, what is interesting here is that Hamlet is conceived in terms of “Air, Poet, Mind, Spiritual and In trovert.”


The film media which is an inalienable part of the twentieth cen tury has contributed considerably to the understanding of Shakespeare. The unforgettable opening of Sir Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V where the audience is introduced to the exact nature of a Shakespeare production in a theatre, of Shakespeare’s own time is of great educative value. What is explained in page after page of a printed book was made to have an immediate visual impact and opened new doors of understanding. It is this film media that has helped a large number of people to meet Hamlet interpreted with as much variation as in the stage productions. For example, the mag nificent rendering of the speeches of Hamlet in Olivier’s film-in spite of Tynan’s judgment just quoted-was so much in contrast to Maximillian Schell’s brooding, melancholic Hamlet bringing out all his “scandinavian gloom.” Christopher Plummer’s Hamlet which was filmed at the Elsinore castle itself creating the “authentic atmos phere” is in contrast to the Hamlet in modern dress of Richard Bur ton which brought out the contemporary relevance of Hamlet as an “angry young man.” Thus the film versions of Hamlet add an impor tant perspective to Hamlet in the twentieth century.


To sum up, these ‘multiple perspectives’-Hamlet and the Dramatist, Hamlet and the Literary critic, Hamlet and the Reviewer of the Stage Production, Hamlet and the Actor, Hamlet and the film media-make one aware of how great, complex and challenging a work of art Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in the twentieth century context. Just to mention an instance, the “Nunnery Scene” is given primary importance by Hugh Ross Williamson in his play In a Glass Darkly, it is discussed at length by Dover Wilson the literary critic, it baffles the great actor John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier in his film version which follows Dover Wilson’s conclusion that Hamlet overhears the plot against him. Thus these multiple perspectives interpenetrate the various contexts in which Hamlet is perceived in the twentieth cen tury.


1. M.C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare the Craftsman, The Clark Lec tures, 1968 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), p. 140. 2. T.S. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems,” in Twentieth Century In terpretations of “Hamlet,” ed. David Bevington (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968), p. 24.

3. (Gollancz, 1937; Penguin, 1961).

4. (London: J.M. Dent; South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Bar nes, 1967).

5. In One-Act Plays of Today, fifth Series. Selected by J.W. Marriot (London-Toronto-Wellington-Sydney: George C. Harrap 1931), pp. 175-98, In The Seven Deadly Virtues-In a Glass Darkly-Various 6.

Heavens. A Play Sequence (London: Constable, 1936).

7. In Three Plays (Penguin). 8. In The Drama Bedside Book, H.P. Rubinstein and J.C. Trewin

(London: Victor Gollancz, 1966), pp. 351-58. Charles Morowitz, The Morowitz Hamlet and the Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (Penguin). 9.

10. (London: Faber and Faber, 1967).

11. Clive James quoted by Kenneth Tynan in his book Show People (New York: Berkley Books, 1981), p. 70. 12. Tom Stoppard, New Theatre Voices in the Seventies, Sixteen Inter

views from Theatre Quarterly’ 1970-80, ed. Simon Trussler (Lon don: Eyre and Methuen, 1981), p. 64. 13. Kenneth Tynan on Tom Stoppard in Show People, p. 69.

14. In David Bevington, p. 24. 15. Ibid., pp. 27-31. 16. Ibid., p. 32.

17. Ibid., p. 65.

18. Ibid., pp. 107-8.

19. Ibid., pp. 109-10.

20. Quoted from J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet in Ham let. Enter Critic, ed. Claire Sacks and Edgar Whan (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1960), pp. 266-77. 21. J.C. Trewin, Shakespeare on the English Stage, 1900-1964. A Sur

vey of the Productions (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1964), pp.


22. Ibid., pp. 177-78.

23. Kenneth Tynan, Curtains (New York: Atheneum, 1961), p. 110. 24. Ibid., p. 217.

25. Kenneth Tynan on Ralph Richardson in Show People, p. 12.

26. John Gielgud’s statement in Actors on Acting, The Theories,

Techniques and Practices of the World’s Great Actors, told in their own words, ed. Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy (New York:

Crown, 1970), p. 400.

27. Kenneth Tynan on Ralph Richardson in Show People, pp. 3-4.