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John Philip Kemble as Hamlet
The following article was originally published in Hamlet From the Actor's Standpoint. Henry P. Phelps. New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1890.

John Philip Kemble as HamletJohn Philip Kemble (1757-1823) played Hamlet on his first appearance at Drury Lane, September 30, 1783. He discarded the Garrick version, the bills announcing the play as originally written by Shakespeare. Boaden, his biographer, says his Hamlet was decidedly original. He had seen no great actor whom he could have copied. The criticisms that he evoked from what were called "new readings" were many. It is admitted that he was naturally slow and contemplative, and his utterances tardy. It was said by some that his pauses were too long; but all agreed that he was far removed from being commonplace. One critic said he was "too scrupulously graceful." Points wherein he differed from Garrick and from Henderson have been carefully noted by Boaden.

Mr. Kemble played the part in a modern court dress of rich dark velvet with a star on the breast, the garter and pendant ribbon of an order, mourning sword and buckles, with deep ruffles; the hair in powder, which in scenes of feigned distraction flowed disheveled in front and over his shoulders.

His brother Stephen (1758-1822), "the big Kemble," as he was called to distinguish him from the great Kemble, also played the part quite frequently, the more so, perhaps, because his wife was such a charming Ophelia. He dressed the character in an old-fashioned black coat, breeches, vest, buckle-shoes and a flowing auburn wig.

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

Hazlitt complained of a want of flexibility in his interpretation. "There is," he wrote, "a perpetual undulation of feeling in the character of Hamlet, but in Mr. Kemble's acting there was neither variableness nor the shadow of turning. He played it like a man in armour, with a determined inveteracy of purpose, in one undeviating straight line." But Kemble improved in his acting as he grew older, and, later on, Hazlitt found much to admire in his Hamlet: "There he was, the sweet, the graceful, the gentlemanly Hamlet. The scholar's eye shone in him with learned beauty; the soldier's spirit decorated his person; the beauty of his performance was its retrospective air, its intensity and abstraction; his youth seemed delivered over to sorrow. Later actors have played the part with more energy, walked more in the sun, dashed more at effect--piqued themselves more on the girth of a foil; but Kemble's sensible, lonely Hamlet has not been surpassed." When Dr. Doran wrote, there were still alive old playgoers who told him of a grand delivery by Kemble of the soliloquies; a mingled romance and philosophy in the whole character; an eloquent by-play, a sweet reverence for his father, a remembrance of the prince with whatever companion he might be for the moment, of a beautiful affection for his mother, and of one more tender, which he could not conceal, for Ophelia.

On the occasion of Kemble's first appearance as Hamlet, the spectators exclaimed, "How very like his sister!" and he certainly bore a striking resemblance to the "divine Siddons." His person seemed to be finely formed, and his manners princely; but on his brow there hung the weight of "some intolerable woe."

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