We now come to the Hamlet of the most illustrious actor of the British stage, David Garrick (1716-1779). He acted the character [of Hamlet] for the first time at Dublin in the summer season of 1742, being then in the twenty-sixth year of his age and in the first flush of his success on the stage. His Ophelia was Peg Woffington. So great was the excitement aroused by him in the Irish capital that the citizens were affected with what was known as the "Garrick fever." Here, also, he received for the first time the name of Roscius. On returning to London, he repeated his impersonation and made another great success. Garrick, like Betterton, made his greatest effect in the scenes with the Ghost. When he first saw the vision, the fear with which he seemed to be filled immediately communicated itself to his audience. His expostulations, though warm and imperative, were yet restrained by a filial awe. The progress of his impassioned sensation, until the Ghost beckoned him to retire, was accompanied with an admirable mixture of terror and reverence. His resolution to obey the repeated invitation, by "courteous action," of the Ghost to withdraw was determinate, but his following of the vision withal was full of awe and apprehension. When Garrick left the stage after Hamlet's first scene with the Ghost, the deafening applause of the audience continued until the impressive reappearance of the two characters. The great excellence of his Hamlet, as of all the characters he impersonated, proceeded from the manner in which he preserved the consistency of his part. His Hamlet was distinguished throughout the play by the note of filial piety struck in the first scene with the Ghost--a characteristic sign, of which the actor never lost sight. The soliloquies of Hamlet, so distinguished by their indications of the peculiar and pathetic feelings of the mind, and their varieties of sentiment, were delivered by Garrick with incomparable effect. The strong intelligence of his eye, the animated expression of his whole countenance, the flexibility of his voice, and his spirited action riveted the attention of his audience. According to his biographer, Thomas Davies, he most excelled in the speech at the end of the second act:
O, what a rogue  and peasant slave am I!
His final exhortation to his mother, in the closet scene, was ardent and pathetic, and excelled only in delicacy and elegance by Wilks and Spranger Barry.
Garrick's excellence in the Ghost scenes has been immortalized by Fielding in his "Tom Jones," in the chapter in which he describes the visit of the literal-minded Partridge to the playhouse. The visitor is completely taken off his guard by the truth and nature of Garrick's Hamlet, and when the Ghost, clad "in complete steel," appears, he shares the terrors of the "little man upon the stage," and even is so affected as to attempt a justification of his cowardice to his companion. "Nay," he says, "you may call me coward if you will; but if that little man thee upon the stage is not frightened, I never saw any man frightened in my life. Ay, ay; go along with you! ay, to be sure! Who's fool then? Will you? Lud have mercy upon such foolhardiness!" But it is in the criticism of Partridge at the conclusion of the performance that the highest tribute is paid to the art of the actor: "He the best player! Why, I could act as well as he myself! I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did. And then, to be sure, in that scene, as you called it, between him and his mother, when you told me he acted so fine, why, Lord help me, any man--that is, any good man that had such a mother--would have done exactly the same. I know you are only joking with me; but indeed, madam, though I never was at a play in London, yet I have seen acting before in the country; and the King for my money; he speaks all his words distinctly, half as loud again as the other. Anybody my see he is an actor." No better proof of the naturalness of the actor could be given than this. It shows how completely he was master of the art which conceals art. That Fielding did not exaggerate the effect of Garrick's acting may be gathered from the anecdote related by Macklin, and received by him from Dr. Johnson, concerning the Lichfield grocer who came to London with an introduction to Roscius from his brother, Peter Garrick. The man went in front of the house first, where he was, like Partridge, completely deceived by Garrick's acting as Abel Drugger. On the player's first appearance he remained for some time in doubt as to whether it could be he or not. At last, being convinced by the people around him that it was really David whom he saw, he felt so disgusted by the mean appearance and mercenary conduct of the performer, which, by a foolish combination, he attributed to the man, that he left the theatre and went out of town without delivering the letter. On returning to Lichfield, Peter Garrick naturally inquired of the grocer if he had seen his brother, when he was hesitatingly informed that the letter had never been delivered. "To say the truth," the tradesman observed, "I saw enough of him on the stage to make that unnecessary; he may be rich, as I dare say any man who lives like him must be, but"--delivering himself of a tremendous oath--"though he is your brother, Mr. Garrick, he is one of the shabbiest, meanest, most pitiful hounds I ever saw in the whole course of my life."
An admirable description of his excellence in Hamlet is given by Hannah More: "The requisites for Hamlet are not only various, but opposed; in him they are all united and, as it were, concentrated. One thing I must particularly remark--that, whether in the simulation of madness, in the sinkings of despair, in the familiarity of friendship, in the whirlwind of passion, or the meltings of tenderness, he never once forgot he was a prince, and in every variety of situation and transition of feelings you discovered the highest polish of good breeding and courtly manners. To the most eloquent expression of the eye, to the handwriting of his passions on his features, to a sensibility which tears to pieces the hearts of his auditors, to powers so unparalleled, he adds a judgement of the most exquisite accuracy, the fruit of long experience and close observation, by which he preserves every transition and gradation of the passions, keeping all under the control of a just dependence and natural consistency. So naturally, indeed, do the ideas of the poet seem to mix with his own, that he seemed to be engaged in a succession of affecting situations; not giving utterance to a speech, but to the instantaneous expression of his feelings, delivered in the most affecting tones of voice, and with gestures that belong only to nature. It was a fiction as delightful as fancy and as touching as truth. A few nights before, I saw him in Abel Drugger, and had I not seen him in both, I should have thought it as possible for Milton to have written Hudibras, and Butler Paradise Lost, as for one man to have played Hamlet and Abel Drugger with such excellence."
The following article was originally published in Hamlet From the Actor's Standpoint. Henry P. Phelps. New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1890.
Like some other great actors and managers, Garrick attempted to improve on Shakespeare. The first act of Hamlet he thought too long, and so ended it with Hamlet's expressed determination to watch for the Ghost. The third act was extended to the fourth. But little change was made in the language or scenery till the fifth act, in which Laertes arrives and Ophelia is distracted, as in the original. The plotting scenes between the King and Laertes to destroy Hamlet were entirely changed, and the character of Laertes rendered more estimable. Hamlet, having escaped from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, returns with a firm determination to avenge the death of his father. The grave-diggers were absolutely thrown out of the play. The audience were not informed of the death of Ophelia, and the Queen, instead of being poisoned on the stage, was led from her seat and said to be in a state of insanity, owing to her sense of guilt. When Hamlet attacks the King, the King draws his sword and defends himself, and is killed in the encounter. Laertes and Hamlet die of their mutual wounds.
Garrick contended that, according to Shakespeare, the King was stuck like a pig on the stage, whereas by giving the murderer courage he did not lessen the meanness of his character. But, says Davies, the spectators would not part with their old friends, the grave-diggers, and soon called for Hamlet as it had been acted before.
Biographia Dramatica:"HAMLET. Altered by Mr. Garrick. Acted in Drury Lane, 1771. This alteration was made in the true spirit of Bottom the Weaver, who wishes to play not only the part assigned to him, but all the rest in the piece. Mr. Garrick, in short, had reduced the consequence of every character but that represented by himself; and thus excluding Osric, the grave-diggers, etc., contrived to monopolize the attention of the audience. Our poet had furnished Laertes with a dying address, which afforded him a local advantage over the prince of Denmark. This circumstance was no sooner observed than the speech was taken away from the former and adopted by the latter. After the death of the player, the public indeed vindicated the rights of the poet, by starving the theatres into compliance with their wishes to see Hamlet as originally meant for exhibition. Mr. Garrick had once designed to publish the changes he had made in it, and (as was usual with him in the course of similar transactions) had accepted a compliment from the booksellers, consisting of a set of Olivet's edition of Tully; but, on second thought, with a laudable regret to his future credit, he returned the acknowledgment, and suppressed the alterations. In short, no bribe but his own inimitable performance, could have prevailed on an English audience to sit patiently and behold the martyrdom of their favorite author."
A story was at one time in circulation that Garrick's copy of these alterations was buried with him, but Mr. Kemble had in his library what Boaden believed to be the very copy of the play upon which these alterations were made.
Boaden thus describes them:
"He cut out the voyage to England, and the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; he omitted the funeral of Ophelia, and all the wisdom of the Prince and the rude jocularity of the grave-diggers. Hamlet bursts in upon the King and his court, and Laertes reproaches him with his father's and his sister's deaths. The exasperation of both is at its height, when the King interposes; he had commanded to Hamlet to depart for England, and declares that he will no longer bear this rebellious conduct, but that his wrath shall at length fall heavy upon the Prince. 'First,' exclaims Hamlet, 'feal you mine;' and he instantly stabs him. The Queen rushes out imploring the attendants to save her from her son. Laertes, seeing treason and murder before him, attacks Hamlet to avenge his father, his sister and his King. He wounds Hamlet mortally, and Horatio is on the point of making Laertes accompany him to the shades when the Prince commands him to desist, assuring him that it was the hand of heaven which administered by Laertes that precious balm for all his wounds. We then learn that the miserable mother has dropped in a trance ere she could reach her chamber door, and Hamlet implores for her an hour of penitance ere madness ends her. He then joins the hands of Laertes and Horatio, and commands them to unite their virtues (as a coalition of ministers) to 'calm the troubled land.' The old couplet as to the bodies concludes the play. All this is written in a mean and trashy common-place mannder, and, in a word, sullied the page of Shakespeare, and disgraced the taste and judgment of Garrick."
Back to Hamlet: The Actors
- Garrick used to say "wretch."