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Edmund 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.

Edmund Kean as HamletOn March 12, 1814, Edmund Kean (1787-1833) appeared for the first time in London as Hamlet. Miss Smith (afterward Mrs. Bartley) was the Ophelia; Dowton, Polonius; Bannister, the Grave-digger, and Raymond, the Ghost. The curiosity of the public relative to the new actor suffered no abatement, and the receipts that evening were £660. The critics differed as to the performance. He did not in his appearance answer the previous notions of Hamlet, because it had been the custom to associate with the character a grave, noble, attenuated form, the ideal personification of grief. However, he represented ably the better part of the princely Dane--the intellectual part.

To quote Barry Cornwall:

"We beheld, or rather felt, the real sadness of the soul, the nobility of his nature, his filial affection, his spirit lost in starry contemplation--in abstraction from the things that be. We saw 'the rapt soul sitting in the eyes.'

"Mrs. Garrick, who went to the theatre every night of Kean's engagement, was not, it seems, entirely satisfied with his personification of Hamlet, and wrote to him requesting him to call upon her. He went, and she placed him in her husband's chair. It was the only chair that she would allow him to sit in, and she said that she would keep it solely for him. At the same time, she insisted that in the closet-scene he was too tame--that is to say, tamer than her husband. She made him act it over again with her, and play it in her 'husband's manner.' He was tired to death of this instruction second-hand, but did not altogether disregard it. In fact, he acted the closet-scene afterward in 'Garrick's manner,' and never satisfied himself or others. He always considered Hamlet to be his best part; he had studied it more than any other, and was outrageous at having been coaxed into playing it in a manner contrary to his judgment."

Hazlitt said of Kean's Hamlet:

"It was too strong and too pointed. There was often a severity approaching to virulence, in the common observations and answers. There is nothing of this in Hamlet. He is, as it were, wrapped up in the cloud of his reflections, and only thinks aloud. There should, therefore, be no attempt to impress what he says upon others by any exaggeration of emphasis or manner; no talking at his hearers. There should be as much of the gentleman and scholar as possible infused into the part, and as little of the actor. A pensive air of sadness should sit unwillingly upon his brow, but no appearance of fixed or sullen gloom. He is full of 'weakness and melancholy,' but there is no harshness in his nature. Hamlet should be the most amiable of misanthropes. There is no one line in the play that should be spoken like any one line in Richard; yet Mr. Kean did not appear to us to keep the two characters always distinct. But to point out the defects of Mr. Kean's performance is a less grateful but much shorter task than to enumerate the many striking beauties which he gave to it, both by the power of his action and by the true feeling of nature."

James H. Hackett, the famous Falstaff, says of Mr. Kean's Hamlet:

"Of all the attempts to act Hamlet which I have seen, Mr. Kean's pleased me most. In Hamlet's advice to the players and in the strictly declamatory portions of the character, Mr. Kean did not particularly excel, but he seemed to me to have inspired and more ably to illustrate the soul of Hamlet than any actor whom I have seen in the part; its intellectuality and sensitiveness were wrought into transparent prominency; every particle of its satire was given with extraordinary pungency; its sentiment was on each occasion very impressively uttered, and the melancholy was plaintively toned and sympathy-winning; the action was free and natural and never ungraceful, the passion heart-stirring, and the poetry was read with correct emphasis and a nice ear to rhythmical measure; yet Kean's Hamlet, which surprised and enraptured me, I discovered, to my surprise and chagrin, was not particularly appreciated by the most intelligent of our New York audiences."

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