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Hamlet Through the Ages

John Gielgud

By Corrie Glanville

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has graced both screen and stage countless times. With 1,495 lines, the gloomy Dane is Shakespeare’s most verbose and some might say his greatest role. So actors (both male and female) naturally want to tackle this iconic hero. From classically trained Brits to American movie stars, here is a (very) brief survey of some of the more popular Hamlets brought to life in recent years.

John Gielgud

Though Lawrence Olivier directed and starred in the 1948 film version for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor, his colleague John Gielgud played the role over 500 times. He appeared on stage in six different productions from age 26 to 44, and was considered by many to be the definitive Hamlet of his generation. Fortunately, you can hear Gielgud’s glorious diction on a 1948 live BBC recording that The Times pronounced “utterly compelling, crystal clear, totally absorbing, with a classic quality that reflects the utter rightness of the interpretation.”

Richard Burton

Gielgud’s involvement with Hamlet wasn’t limited to being an actor; he also directed Richard Burton in the hugely successful 1964 Broadway production. Utilizing a minimalistic approach, in part because Burton apparently disliked period costumes, Gielgud staged Hamlet in a rehearsal setting with the actors in simple street clothes. Without visual distractions, the emphasis was entirely on the mesmerizing Burton.  While there was a black and white film version of Burton’s Hamlet released in movie theatres, the initial reception was tepid. Now available on DVD, the picture quality is far from pristine, but thankfully the sound is excellent so we can hear every consonant of Burton’s unmistakable voice.

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