Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
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Charles Kean as Hamlet
The following article was originally published in Hamlet From the Actor's Standpoint. Henry P. Phelps. New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1890.

Charles Kean as HamletCharles Kean (1811-1868), the son of Edmund Kean, first played Hamlet in London, at Drury Lane, January 8, 1838. His former appearances in London had not been successful, and this, after some years in the provinces, was looked upon as his real début in the great city. He had to contend, as he did through life, with the memory of his father, but he won much praise from the critics of the time. It was admitted, however, that his Hamlet was too tearful for the best effect. He acted the part for twenty-one nights during this engagement, to a total of £6,236. He had never seen his father in the part, and his "business" was his own. His fencing was much praised. On the whole, it was thought that he was more melodramatic than Shakespearian.

Mr. James H. Hackett, who was extremely fastidious in his taste for Hamlets, says:

"Charles Kean's Hamlet discovers various proofs of a defective ear, by sundry false emphases, bad cadences and misplaced pauses; his personation was remarkable for clap-trap effects with which it superabounds; in short, it was a tissue of bustle, rant and posturing; his person underwent unceasing locomotion, and was not in repose even during the profoundest of the metaphysical soliloquies."

So much for the criticism of one who essayed the part of Hamlet himself, and not with superabounding success either. Mr. Kean was highly complimented by J. G. Lockhart, the biographer of Sir Walter Scott; by Serjeant Talford, Serjeant Adams, J. H. Merivale, and others, all of whom are on record in Cole's "Life and Times of Charles Kean" (1860).

The Morning Post (London) said, in substance, that Mr. Kean tried to combine the romantic style of acting Hamlet, of which Edmund Kean was the prominent representative, with the classic style, of which Mr. Young was the most distinguished professor, but that the romantic predominated.

A year later the Post said:

"In relation to Mr. Kean's Hamlet, there will be always conflicting opinions. Our own is that it is of a very high order. Unequal, it is true, but at times full of fire, at times, of feeling; never violating proprieties, and often producing fine effects. Let us, however, add that Hamlet is to our mind the most difficult part within our knowledge of all the conceptions of Shakespeare; that Mr. Kean's own father misread it, and gave us a startling performance instead of a true one; that John Kemble did not master all its fine subtle delicacies, and that Charles Young alone of all whom we have seen play it, brought it nearest anything like an even and equable perfection."

The following excerpt was originally published in Some Famous Hamlets. Austin Brereton. London: David Bogue, 1884.

Kean's Hamlet was at least a careful, polished, and efficient performance. As a whole, it was considered a striking, energetic, skilful interpretation, undeformed by any such marked blemish as would mar the general good effect it created. But he was too lachrymose, and the extreme slowness of his enunciation threatened, on more than one occasion, to wreck the performance. His delivery of the soliloquies was painfully slow, and some of his pauses were so prolonged that the point of the sentence was lost. Of course his scene with the Ghost was effective, but his intelligence was not prominently marked until after his interview with the spirit, when his manner of talking to his friends was admirable. But he made no impression in the famous soliloquy beginning "To be, or not to be," and that passage commencing "I am myself indifferent honest" was spoken so rapidly that it was quite impossible for the audience to follow his words. In the play scene, however, he succeeded in forcibly affecting spectators by the burst of exultation when Hamlet discovers the guilt of the King. Strange to say, Charles Kean's greatest effect in Hamlet was created by his

Is it the King?

in the closet scene when Hamlet has killed Polonius. The voice of anxious inquiry, the attitude, the depth of eager expression with which he endowed this passage were extremely effective. He fenced with consummate skill, but his death scene was needlessly protracted and unnecessarily painful. His Hamlet appears to have been a melodramatic performance rather than a Shakespearian one. Nor did he throw any new light upon the character or the play. Mr. G. H. Lewes does not specially allude to Charles Kean's impersonation of Hamlet, but no doubt he had that amongst the other Shakespearian performances of the actor in his mind when he wrote "he has added nothing to the elucidation of the characters; he has given no fresh light to players or public; but he has greatly improved the scenic representation, and has lavished time and money on the archaeological illustration of the plays. He has striven for public applause by appealing to the public taste; and he has gained that applause."

The following essay was originally published in Dramatic Essays. John Forster. London: Walter Scott, 1896.

Mr. CHARLES KEAN having selected this theatre [Drury Lane, January 8, 1838] for his appearance in London, performed Hamlet on Monday night. The audience was a crowded one, and gave him a recepton on his entrance such as few actors in their palmiest days of triumph have received. The pit rose at him, and a "sea of handkerchiefs" waved welcome from the boxes. The object of such hearty kindness could not have been other than deeply affected by it, and traces of emotion were still visible when the first lines of Hamlet were spoken, such as Hamlet himself needed not to have shown. Mr. Kean did not rally till a flourish of trumpets had relieved the stage of Mr. Baker and his attendants, when he threw out the first lines of the soliloquy, "O that this too too solid flesh would melt," with a passionate fervour that was admirable. The close of the soliloquy failed to realize the hope this inspired in us, and the manner of saying, "Frailty, thy name is woman," as if for a lesson to all the women in the house, did not supply by its solemnity the familiar bitterness of Hamlet.

But let us remark at once, before speaking further in detail, that the impression left upon us by this performance of Mr. Charles Kean--if not that it was an embodiment of Hamlet--most certainly was that the London stage has received a rich acquisition in the person of a vigorous, self-possessed, and most graceful actor, whose youth stretches out a long line of promise which we shall hope to see thoroughly redeemed. Mr. Kean will not object to such a description as this when he remembers how much he has already achieved by study, by courage, and the gallantest perseverance. It is in the nature of the noble art he has even now obtained so high a place in, to give its professors greater and greater materials of success as their age matures, their sphere of observation enlarges, and humanity in all its shapes comes more distinctly within their view.

What we felt to be the pervading mistake of this performance of Hamlet we will at once describe. It was too uniformly slow and elaborate; the same pitch-key of sad sound prevailed too much throughout; when any change or relief was introduced it was strained at too hard; and the general effect conveyed was something extremely unlike the feeble and variable purpose, the quick sensibility, the thoughtful melancholy, the indolent philosophy of the real Hamlet. We know the temptations which every actor has in such a character as this to exaggerate its subtle and delicate shading for the purpose of the stage; but Mr. Kean, as it appeared to us, attempted these exaggerations in the wrong places. The reliefs which Shakespeare has suggested to the deep but wayward melancholy of Hamlet are obvious enough. His passion for thinking includes every form of thought--the fantastic, the satirical, the "wild and whirling," even the hectic shapes of gaiety. He is very fond of the art of acting, and practices it himself quite as much for the love he bears to it as in the hope of removing further from him the sad realities. He is a prince, who shakes hands with the humble players as with his old friends and schoolfellows--a lover, who finds himself obliged to counterfeit hate in the hope of alienating both himself and his mistress from a passion that had suddenly to both become hopeless--an avenger, who is called upon to act and flies to every sort of excuse to avoid action--a friend, in whose heart friendship survives every other emotion and becomes the last comfort of the hour of death.

Mr. Kean is always graceful, but never sufficiently familiar in speech or bearing: and he underacts the friendship and overacts the love. When he converses with Horatio on his first entrance from Wittenberg, he stands in the center of the stage and Horatio in one corner of it--when he instructs the player (which he does extremely well) he holds him at a still greater distance, though we fancy Hamlet at that instant more than ever familiar with his old player friend--when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visit him, he makes a violent and abrupt "set" at them, whereas it is one of the very nicest points of Hamlet to keep up, throughout that scene, the quiet demeanor of conscious detection and cool observance, yet of friendly familiarity. The second scene with these old schoolfellows was better played, and the look at Rosencrantz on the words, "Sir, I lack advancement," was an admirable thing.

It is not difficult to trace to their source the majority of Mr. Kean's mistakes in this arduous performance. It will be found, we think, that his chief power with an audience lies in effect of emotion and of sudden gusts of passion, and his own consciousness of this is betrayed in a habit of emphasizing his level passages too much, of throwing them into startling contrast by long pauses, and of laying forceful and pathetic stress on lines that need no such aid. Thus parts of his scene with the Ghost were full of excellent emotion, though we highly dislike his elaborate removal of his cap on the mention of the word "father"--some passages of the soliloquy, "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I," were also given very finely--and nothing could be better in conception or execution than the burst upon the words, "What a piece of work is man;"--and yet in all these cases the emotion was prolonged so far beyond the natural point that it assumed at last the appearance of a trick. The speech after the disappearance of the Ghost, for instance--the words he then addresses to his friends, which in their tearful slowness could never have passed for "wild and whirling"--the formal and melancholy precision with which he specially addresses Horatio--the entire misapprehension of the charming scene at Ophelia's grave, where he seems inclined to shed tears for the clay of "Imperial Caesar," and addresses his remonstrance to Laertes in sad and solemn slowness--his most laborious and elaborate trifling of Osrick--are all illustrations of our objection.

In the scene of Hamlet's reappearance at the palace after meeting his dead father, Mr. Kean entered without any disorder of dress, and the "new reading" has been applauded. [Bunn remarks on this point: "It is literally a relief to see a Hamlet not resorting to the vulgarism of having a stocking dangling at his heel, to prove the distemper of his mind."] It is a very silly reading notwithstanding. We do not care if the disorder is intimated by an ungartered stocking, the usual mode, or any other and better; but intimated, or rather distinctly expressed, it most surely should be. It is not only essential to the general conduct of the scene, but specially alluded to by almost everyone on the stage. Ophelia describes him to her father--

"With his doublet all unbrac'd,
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankle"--

and afterwards deplores that the "glass of fashion and the mould of form" should be so "quite down"; while the King himself tells his old schoolfellows that neither "the exterior nor the inward man resembles that it was." Another "new reading," really admirable, has been objected to--where in the fine soliloquy that closes the second act he changes his tone upon the epithet "kindless"--

"Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!"

and by some tears of anguish at the word, expresses at once both Hamlet's pure and refined nature, and the weakness and sensibility of his temper. But this was not a new reading, though admirably rendered by Mr. Kean. Mr. Macready first gave it fame on the modern stage, and Garrick had startled an audience with it in older times. How often, in applauding living actors, we applaud also the posthumous merits of the dead! but it is pleasant, reflecting upon this, to fancy we may sometimes be applauding even the suggestions of Shakespeare himself to the actors of his own time. The celebrated old prompter Downes indeed distinctly says, with reference to this very part, that "Mr. Betterton took every particle of his Hamlet from Sir William Davenant, who had seen Mr. Taylor, who was taught by Mr. Shakespeare himself." However this may have been, the performance was certainly the masterpiece of that greatest of actors--Betterton.

We have said that Mr. Kean overacted Hamlet's love. He wept and sank with his face upon Ophelia's arm when he told her that "he did love her once," and his voice prolonged itself into tremulous softness when he rushed back to her to give her "a plague for her dowry." We are aware that the elder Mr. Kean infused the same affectionate tenderness into his worst upbraidings, and was much and most undeservedly praised for it. The scene, as Shakespeare designed it, needs no such refining to give it sense and the deepest sorrow. Taken as an artifice of love to wean Ophelia from him, and to stop the continuance of that affectionate intercourse which a supernatural visitation had forever forbidden in this world, the apparent brutality of the gentle and princely Hamlet throughout the interview is in truth the secret of its most afflicting pathos. The first thing said by the King after leaving the concealment from which he has heard and seen the interview is decisive as to his impression--

"Love! his affections do not that way tend!
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness"--

which the King could not have said, if he had seen Mr. Charles Kean instead of Hamlet. The actor may be allowed indeed to counterfeit this affected hate and brutality to Ophelia awkwardly, and the scene will be all the better for it; but counterfeit it he must, or the scene is nothing.

It is somewhat curious that the first actor who introduced the tender style of playing this scene was Wilks, the rival of Betterton. "Wilks," says Davies, "preserved here the feelings of a lover and the delicacy of a gentleman." But then we know, from a very interesting passage in Colley Cibber's Apology, that Betterton's Hamlet was the reverse of Wilks', and we recollect the anecdote told by Downes. "When an actor," says Cibber, "becomes [i.e., appears becoming in] and naturally looks the character he stands in, I have often observed it to have had as fortunate an effect, and as much recommended him to the approbation of the common auditors, as the most correct or judicious utterance of the sentiments. This was strongly visible in the favorable reception Wilks met with in Hamlet, where I own the half of what he spoke was as painful to my ear, as every line that came from Betterton was charming; and yet it is not impossible, could they have come to a poll, but Wilks might have had a majority of admirers. However, such a division would have been no proof that the pre-eminence had not still remained in Betterton."

We may remark in conclusion that this is not inapplicable to Mr. Kean's performance, which with all its faults is very interesting. He looks the youthfulness of the character, and is as graceful as the Prince of Denmark himself might have been. For ourselves, however, we look to see the more effective qualities and characteristics of his acting better brought forward in other parts, of greater violence and suddenness, and of more decisive passion. With cordial and unaffected sincerity we wish him all the success (and it will not be slight) which his talents and unconquerable energy very richly deserve.

January 14, 1838.

The following essay was originally published in Dramatic Essays. George Henry Lewes. London: Walter Scott, 1896.

Of all Shakespeare's male characters, Hamlet is the most fascinating, the most perplexing, the most various, and the most thoroughly identified in the national mind with its creator's genius. No wonder, therefore, if it has at all times been the ambition of actors to represent it; no wonder if actors, one and all, have failed to personate it in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. We have seen many Hamlets, both in England and in Germany: one played this scene well, another uttered that soliloquy to perfection, but they all, without exception, impressed us with a sense of incompleteness, and, to some extent, of misconception.

This by way of preface to a consideration of Charles Kean's Hamlet--by far the best now on the English stage. Twice within the week we have watched it carefully, and all that follows will be understood as the expression of a deliberately formed opinion. Charles Kean has, by arduous labor and constant practice in a very few parts, secured for himself all that stage practice can give a man, and it may well be supposed that he has not studied and played Hamlet many hundred nights without having by this time settled, in his own mind, the meaning of every passage, and the effect which he is capable of giving it. Some years ago we thought his Hamlet a very poor performance. It has become great in comparison, but it still falls short of that standard which is set up in our minds, it does not "body forth" the poet's creation, it does not throw light upon the dark because profound passages of the text, it does not leave us satisfied. At the opening of the play Hamlet is grave with the gloom of a father's sudden death, and the gloom is deepened and embittered by the indelicate marriage of his mother with his uncle. The world has become weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable to him. Woman has, in the person of his mother, been smitten from the pedestal whereon his love had placed her, to fall down and worship, and her name has become the synonym of Frailty. Were it not that God had "fix'd his canon 'gainst self-slaughter," this gloom and bitterness would seek an issue in death; but he resolves to suffer all in silence. In the representation of this settled sorrow Charles Kean is unsurpassed. The tones of his voice in which he answers, "Ay, madam, it is common," and "I prithee do not mock me, fellow-student; I think it was to see my mother's wedding," together with the look of painful disbelief of Horatio--as if his soul, throwing off its load for a while to interest itself in friendship, was suddenly checked, and flung back again upon the woe it tried to escape--were most effective touches. But this state of Hamlet's mind is only preparatory. It bears the same relation to the subsequent acts as the solemn, ghostly opening scenes, with their awful revelations, bear to the scenes of madness and crime which follow. The play opens on the platform of the castle of Elsinore. It is the depth of midnight; the sentinel pacing to and fro is nipped with cold, and shivering with vague terrors: not a mouse stirring! The silence is broken only by the regular footstep on the platform, and the hoarse sullen murmurs of the Baltic raving below. On this scene appears the Ghost. He reveals the crime which sent him from the world, and then the storm and terror of the play begins; then come the madness of Hamlet, the conviction of the King, the murder of Polonius, the ravings of Ophelia, the gravediggers casting skulls upon the stage and desecrating the graveyard with their jesting, Ophelia's funeral interrupted and disgraced by a hideous quarrel, and, finally, the general massacre of the last scene! The same ascension from settled gloom to wild and whirling horror and madness may be seen in Hamlet. After the visitation of the Ghost, Hamlet is a changed man. His sorrowing nature has been ploughed to its depths by a horror so great that his distended brain refuses every alternate moment to credit it: the shock has unsettled his reason. If he is not mad, he is at any rate in such a state of irrepressible excitement that to feign madness seems the only possible relief to him. This is the point where our differences from Charles Kean's version take their rise. He may not agree with us that Hamlet was really mad; though, unless Shakespeare is to be set down as a bungler, we think that we could bring a mass of evidence wholly irresistible to prove that Hamlet was in a state of cerebral excitement not distinguishable from insanity; but we waive the point, and admit that he was perfectly sane, and still the fact remains that, after the revelations of the Ghost, Hamlet must be in a totally different condition of mind from what he was before. The difference Charles Kean does not represent. The same gloom overshadows him when alone; the same expression of face accompanies him. Instead of the agonized soul of a son in presence of an adulterous mother and a murderous uncle, he exhibits the concealed sorrow of the first act, diversified only by the outbreaks of assumed madness. He does not depict the hurrying agitation of thoughts that dare not settle on the one horror which, nevertheless, they cannot escape. The excitement, even as simple excitement, is not represented; and thus neither the meaning of the assumed madness, nor the effects of the Ghost's revelations are apparent in his acting. Indeed, Charles Kean seems to have no mastery over emotion. He can portray a fixed condition of mind, but not its fluctuations. He can be passionate, sorrowful, but he cannot let the emotions play in his face and tones. There are flashes, but no fusion. All the early portions of Hamlet he plays with a subdued melancholy which is perfectly in place and very effective; but one detail will explain our objections, and it shall be taken from the very scene where the change is most imperative. The Ghost having narrated his terrible story vanishes, leaving Hamlet in a state of bewildering horror. To show how completely unsettled Hamlet's reason is by the apparition, we need not refer to his incoherent ramblings which draw forth Horatio's remark, we will refer to his language in addressing the Ghost as "old truepenny!" "old mole!" and the "fellow in the cellarage,"--imagine Hamlet sane, and speaking thus! The language indicates a bewilderment and distraction which the actor should make apparent in his manner; but so far from this, Charles Kean kneels to the Ghost as he departs; remains sobbing with his hands covering his face for a few seconds, as if grief, not horror, were the feeling of the time, and makes a literal application of the words--

"Hold, hold my heart;
And you my sinews grow not instant old
But bear me stiffly up!"

rising at the last line. All which we hold to be a misconception of the situation. Throughout the rest of his performance we miss the one essential element of a changed condition (madness or not, it matters little) consequent upon the revelations of the Ghost. It is vehement enough--sometimes too vehement--but not wild enough--an important destinction. Nor is this wildness the only omission. Hamlet's subsequent career should be impregnated with the horror, the feverish desire for revenge, and the alternations of doubt as to whether, after all, he is not the plaything of his own imagination, whether the Ghost's story is true or not: thus his tone of thought should not only be agitated, it should be intensified. Charles Kean is not mad enough, not skeptical enough, nor intense enough. There is one "point" which he makes, and is applauded for, which we cannot understand. In the famous outburst, "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I," he delivers the words--

"Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!"

with great vehemence until he comes to the word "kindless," and then, pausing, sobs it forth into his handkerchief, as if his uncle's unkindness had then, for the first moment, occurred to him. But, surely, Hamlet is in no mood for tears: his sorrow lies too deep for that; and, moreover, the word "kindless" here, we take it, means not "unkind," but "inhuman." Kind is frequently used by the old writers in the sense of nature, thus in Ferrex and Porrex:--

"In kinde a father, not in kindlinesse."

Our space forbids entering upon the other details we noted both for approval and dissent; but we will say, generally, that we not only miss in the performance the psychological modifications above noted, but also the princely courtesy and grave gaiety, like a smile on a sad face, of Shakespeare's Hamlet when he unbends. The scene with Ophelia is the best, after the opening scenes, and plainly indicates the heart that is breaking underneath the harshness; there is also more wildness in this interview than elsewhere. On the whole, Charles Kean's Hamlet, though not the Hamlet of Shakespeare, as we understand him, is a far more satisfactory performance than Macready's: it lies very open to criticism as a conception, no less than in its details of execution; but it is an elaborate and in many places effective representation of a part in which no man thoroughly succeeds, and few men altogether fail.

October 12, 1850

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