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

Thomas Betterton as HamletOf Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), the second great Hamlet, there is more definite knowledge. Pepys records in his diary:

"May 28, 1663--To the Duke's house, and there saw Hamlet done, giving us fresh reason never to think enough of Betterton.

"Aug. 31, 1668--To the Duke of York's play-house, and there saw Hamlet, which we have not seen this year before, or more; and mightily pleased with it, but above all with Betterton, the best part, I believe, that ever man acted."

When we consider the rather light estimate in which this amusing old critic held the plays and characters of Shakespeare, this is praise indeed. Betterton first played Hamlet when he was twenty-six years old. The Ophelia was Mistress Sanderson, said by some authorities to have been the first woman actress on the English stage. With her he was in love, and soon afterward they were married. AT first he played Hamlet in the dress of a courtier of Charles II, and later with streaming shoulder-knots, cocked hat and powdered wig.

It was Betterton who, when manager, and annoyed at one of the early performances of Colley Cibber, ordered five shillings to be deducted from his pay, but learning that he received no salary, still maintained discipline by putting him on the pay-roll at ten shillings a week and fining him five for punishment. Cibber and Addison were loud in his praise as an actor. Yet it was written of him (by Anthony Aston) that he "had an ill figure, large head, short, thick, neck, stooped shoulders and long arms. He had little eyes, broad face, a little pock-marked, corpulent body, thick legs, and large feet. His voice was low and grumbling, yet he could tune it by an artful climax which enforced universal attention, even from the fops and orange girls."

Surely, this is hardly the glass of fashion and the mould of form, but the description, if ever it approached truth, did so only in his old age, for he was on the stage fifty years. He is burried in Westminster Abbey.

Robert Wilks (1670-1732) won some reputation as Hamlet. Colley Cibber tells us that when in company with Mr. Addison they were both surprised at the vociferous manner in which Wilks spoke to the Ghost. This was greatly censured by them both. Barton Booth, one day at rehearsal, reproached Wilks for this: "I thought," said he, " Bob, that last night you wanted to play fisty cuffs with me; you bullied that which you ought to have revered. When I acted the Ghost with Betterton, instead of my awing him, he terrified me. But divinity hung about that man." To this rebuke Wilks, with his usual modesty, replied: "Mr. Betterton and Mr. Booth could always act as they pleased; he, for his part, must do as well as he could."

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