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

Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852)Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852), father of Edwin Booth, at his first benefit in New York played Hamlet and Jerry Sneak the same evening! Hamlet was his favorite part.

Gould says of it:

"The total impression left by Mr. Booth's Hamlet at the time of its occurrence, and which still abides, was that of a spiritual melancholy, at once acute and profound. This quality colored his tenderest feeling and his airiest fancy as well as his graver purpose. You felt its presence even when he was off the stage. As the Clause mirror defines, refines, and tones the landscape, so Booth's impersonation left a saddened and mysterious charm to the vast world of Hamlet's thought and observation."

Mr. Hackett says:

"Mr. Booth read Hamlet with a good degree of understanding, and he had a fine intellectual eye and cast of countenance (1831), but his voice was nasal, the action of his arms awkward--they seemed as though they were pinioned at the elbows; he was below the medium stature and had very bandy legs, and his gait and bearing were not susceptible of depicting any personal dignity; indeed, such were Mr. Booth's natural impediments that no human genius could surmount, or blind an intelligent spectator, or cause him to forget them, and esteem his personation of Hamlet satisfactory or tolerable."

Booth having been kind to a horse-thief named Fontaine, alias Lovett, confined in the Louisville jail, and paying counsel to defend him, although the case was hopeless, Lovett bequeathed his skull to the actor, requesting him that he would use it on the stage in Hamlet, and think when he held it in his hands of the gratitude his kindness had awakened. Accordingly, after the thief had been hanged, the skull was sent to Mr. Booth's residence. He was not at home, and Mrs. Booth, finding the horrible gift left at the house, had it sent back forthwith to the doctor who had prepared and delivered it. In 1857 the doctor sent the same skull to Edwin Booth who used it a few times in the graveyard scene and then had it buried.

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

Booth's Hamlet had many beauties and some defects. He possessed many physical advantages for the character. In his youth, his figure, from the waist upwards, was perfect: the chest massive but not heavy, the head firmly set, and the face often lit up with a singular spiritual beauty, the grey eyes being alternately filled with fire, intelligence, and splendour, and, anon, with the most fascinating dreamy softness. But against these beauties of person he had the disadvantage of coarse and awkwardly-shaped limbs--a defect that frequently spoilt his best assumptions. In Hamlet, where there are so many scenes of repose, this defect was the more glaring, but even then his magnetism won the entire attention of his audience. With his voice he could express tenderness, terror, anger, or sarcasm at will. This gift, so indispensable to a perfect rendering of Hamlet, he often neglected altogether, and never took full advantage of it. He hurried carelessly over the soliloquies, impatient to reach the point at which, by some rapid action or passionate gesture, or the delivery of a single word, he could powerfully impress his audience. This fault was the less excusable as Booth was an accomplished scholar and an elocutionist of rare and surpassing excellence, unlike Kean, who was comparatively uneducated, and had little or no power of elocution unless he was fired by some strong emotion, when the music of his voice moved all hearers. "His splendour," writes an authoritative critic, "was most irregular. Although, no doubt, his performance, as a whole, was pre-arranged in his mind and regulated, as all matters of art which hope to endure must be, he still trusted, to a great extent, for the carrying out of his effects, to the impulse of the moment. He had, consequently, like all men of this class, his moments of inspiration. There were times when the auditor, following him through Hamlet, would have to travel for hours over a flat, level, and murky waste, waiting for some touch of grandeur to relieve the desolate, evenness, when suddenly would come across the gloom a flash which, though you cried, Behold it, it was gone--a flash of genius that electrified the audience, and burned its mark on every memory. On other nights, when in the mood, his splendour would be sustained, and all the lovely lights and shades of Hamlet's character, the profound and over-wrought sensibility--the moody waywardness of temper, whose sadness breaks off into melancholy mirthfulness, where the passionate outbursts of indignation and grief lapse into idle speculation--would find most exquisite interpretation. In the passages of tenderness, and in those in which Hamlet, overcome with the forlorn sense of desolation, and bewildered with all that is going on around him, and his own peculiar relation to it, contemplates his existence, Booth found his greatest excellence. He seemed to linger with special love on those velvety spots of tenderness, as in the scene with Ophelia, with which Shakespeare delights to relieve his landscape. In the expression of passion he was superb. At times, so possessed was he with the spirit and influence of the power he would portray that, in his eagerness, he clutched the passion by the blade and terrified the audience with the gash. He had the rare art of discovering the most subtle changes of feeling, and of marking those slight variations of expression which take place on the turn of a thought or the impulse of a fancy. No other actor, perhaps, has produced so all-powerful and overwhelming an impression by a single word or look. In the utterance of a word, in a sudden look, Mr. Booth has thrilled his audience with awe, and realized the very height of that intensity which is the greatest characteristic of genius. Mr. Booth, like Mr. Kean, was also a master of all those external accomplishments which could serve to beautify his art, and the grace and elegance with which he played his part in the passage of arms in Hamlet might well challenge the compliments and admiration of the King."

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