To See or Not to See? Portraying Hamlet in the 18th Century

Editor’s Note: At the annual Shakespeare on the Lawn performances this June, Historic Kenmore will present Hamlet. The following blog post looks at the actors who played the most famous of Shakespeare’s roles during the 18th century. Details about attending the performances at Kenmore can be found at the end of this entry.

Since the time when Richard Burbage of The Chamberlain’s Men first performed the role originally written for him by William Shakespeare, actors have long desired to play Hamlet.  As a character, Hamlet must convey both a flamboyant madness and a subtle deception, deliver long speeches of blank verse, and ultimately end the play with exhausting fight scene and tragic death. These highs and lows have made actors covet the complex role for centuries.

In the 1700s, Hamlet was wildly popular in London in part due to famous portrayals by different actors. At the beginning of that century, Thomas Betterton was still portraying the young Prince of Denmark as he had first done on London stages back in 1661. Although his portrayal of the young Dane spanned 50 years, theatre-going Londoners still praised Betterton’s Hamlet into the eighteenth century.

If there was one name to know on the London stage in the 18th century, it was David Garrick. As a writer and actor, he was synonymous with celebrity. Garrick’s portrayal of Hamlet in the 1740s was one of the performances that made him into that celebrity. He would go on to perform his own adaptation of Hamlet, which omitted Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s deaths, readjusted act breaks, and reintroduced much of Shakespeare’s original text. The original text had slowly been stripped away throughout the 1700s due to the play’s length. It was Garrick’s unique theatricality that inspired him to employ a striking feature.  During the scene when Hamlet first meets the Ghost he wore a special wig with hair that could stand on cue to signifying his terror.

Garrick as Hamlet

Etching of David Garrick in Hamlet from Dramatic Characters, or Different Portraits of the English Stage, 1773. Public Domain. Credit: Wikipedia

Not to be out done by men, actresses of the 18th century were also known to perform Hamlet on English stages. In what were known as ‘breeches roles’ at the time, it was common to see actresses step into men’s roles. However, this was far more common in comedies than in tragedies. Both Fanny Furnival (the first recorded female Hamlet) and Charlotte Charke (daughter of playwright and poet laureate Colley Cibber) played the role of Hamlet, albeit never on a London stage. The most famous eighteenth century female Hamlet to tread the boards was Sarah Siddons, who brought a respectability and gravitas to the role that raised the public esteem of actresses across England.

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1755-1831)

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1785) by Sir Thomas Gainsborough . Public domain. Credit: National Gallery, London

While these different depictions of Hamlet are fascinating, they never crossed the Atlantic. In fact, the first group of professional actors would not perform in the colonies until 1752. At the center of this London Company of Comedians was the Hallam family. They came to the American Colonies in search of audiences seeking quality professional theatre. On September 15, 1752, their first performance was The Merchant of Venice in Williamsburg, Virginia. That evening would also be the debut performance of the young Lewis Hallam Jr., son of the company’s manger and leading lady. Lewis would go on to become the leading man of the company.  In the first recorded performance of Hamlet in the colonies in Philadelphia on July 27, 1759, the playbill lists 17-year-old Lewis in the title role.  He and his company would tour the colonies for the next 15 years until the American Revolution forced theatre from our shores.

Company of Comedians - Va Gazette

Hallam’s Company of Comedians announcing their intention to perform in Fredericksburg in The Virginia Gazette on April 30, 1752.

Not all colonial Americans had the opportunity to see Hamlet upon the stage. Theatre was banned in Massachusetts throughout the colonial time period. Thus, Williamsburg was a frequent stop of Hallam’s company, which came to be called the American Company of Comedians. Of all the recorded performances in Virginia’s capital city, Hamlet is not listed, however. This does not mean that the likes of George Washington and Fielding Lewis could not have seen it.

In fact, a playbill from May of 1771 reveals the American Company of Comedians performed in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This surviving playbill includes a handwritten addition of two performances, All in the Wrong and Hamlet. While the playbill does not include that evening’s cast, we can safely assume Lewis Hallam Jr. played the title role opposite Nancy Hallam as Ophelia.  We wrote about Nancy here last summer.

If people are familiar with any words of Shakespeare, those words are most likely the beginning of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “to be or not to be?” But the real question for Shakespeare’s theatre going audiences has always been “to see or not to see?”  Ultimately, the decision was made based on the actor (or actress) playing the famous Dane named Hamlet.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Hamlet Poster

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