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

William Macready as HamletWilliam Macready (1793-1873) first played Hamlet in 1811, at Newcastle, at the age of eighteen. He says of it:

"A total failure in Hamlet is of rare occurrence. My crude essay, like those of many others, was pronounced a success; but the probing inquiry and laborious study of my after life have manifested to me how little was due to my skill in that early personation. The thought and practice I have through my professional career devoted to it, made it, in my own judgment and in those of critics whom I had most reason to fear and respect, one of my most finished, though not the most popular of my repertoire."

Nevertheless he says elsewhere that in America no play drew so much money as Hamlet when he appeared in it.

George Henry Lewes says:

"His [Macready's] Hamlet I thought bad, due allowance being made for the intelligence displayed. He was lachrymose and fretful; too fond of a cambric pocket handkerchief to be really affecting; nor, as it seemed to me, had he that sympathy with the character which would have given an impressive unity to his performance--it was 'a thing of shreds and patches,' not a whole."

Hackett on Macready's Hamlet:

"Mr. Macready continues after Hamlet's opening scene to weep and whine too much, and resorts to his handkerchief too often; moves about the stage too often and too briskly, and in too clerk-like a gait for one of a princely education, leisurely habits and a contemplative turn of mind; his manner is also generally too hurried and restless, and he imparts to the features a spasmodic expression in many of their variations. In speaking he seldom used his left arm, but kept it under his cloak; in short, his manner generally wanted ease, was seldom graceful, and never exhibited the repose characteristic of a philosophic mind."

James E. Murdoch on the same subject:

"As a well-painted picture, harmonious in its details, well executed in perspective, perfect in light and shade, and striking in its objective point of sight, natural in tone and color, appropriately framed and artistically hung, fills the eye of the beholder with pleasure, so was Macready's Hamlet an object of infinite delight to the auditor. It was almost universally considered the masterpiece of England's most artistic and intellectual tragedian. Yet in a dramatic sense, from the standpoint of natural effect, it was merely a picture of the melancholy and still intensely impassioned child of sorrow and affliction. We mean that it was such a picture that one might stand before it entranced in a generalism of human sympathies, and yet it lacked any strongly individual or central point of affinity. How often do we hear the remark, 'That is a beautiful or highly finished picture of such or such a one,' or 'that is a speaking likeness of my friend; he talks to me from the canvas, and yet, I confess, it might be more artistically executed in detail.'"

In the scene with Horatio just before the entrance of the court who assemble to witness the play, Macready, at the words,

"They are coming to the play; I must be idle,"

waved a handkerchief and skipped about the stage performing what Edwin Forrest called the pas de mouchoir. This so offended the taste of the American actor when he saw Macready in Edinburgh that he hissed, an act which was indirectly the cause of one of the most lamentable episodes in the history of the theatre. Macready, in his diary, says:

"Edinburgh, March 2 (1846)--Acted Hamlet with particular care, energy and discrimination. On reviewing the performance I can conscientiously pronounce it one of the very best I have ever given of Hamlet. At the waving of the handkerchief before the play, and 'I must be idle,' a man on the right side of the stage hissed! The audience took it up, and I waved the more and bowed derisively and contemptuously to the individual. The audience carried it although he was very staunch to his purpose. It discomposed me, and alas! might have ruined many; but I bore it down. I thought of speaking to the audience if called on, and spoke to Murray about it, but he very discreetly dissuaded me. Was called for and very warmly greeted. Ryder came and told me that the hisser was observed and said to be a Mr. W---- who was in company with Mr. Forrest!

"March 3. Fifty-three years have I lived today. Both Mr. Murray and Mr. Ryder are possessed with the belief that Mr. Forrest was the man who hissed last night. I begin to think he was the man."

Forrest was the man. He made no denial, but on the other hand, in the newspaper controversy that followed, attempted to justify himself in so doing. The quarrel grew hot between the two actors, and when Macready appeared in his country two years later it was taken up with great fierceness, both by the men themselves and by their injudicious friends. Finally, the contest culminated in an attempt to drive Macready from the stage while he was playing at the Astor Place Opera House in New York, in May, 1849. A riot took place, the National Guard were called out, and they being attacked by the mob, fired, leaving thirty dead bodies on the ground, and wounding several as many more.

Forrest retained his critical habit till late in life; and when Barry Sullivan was playing in this country his innovations were shown to be very distasteful to the veteran who occupied a box at the Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia.

As Barrett tells us:

"He had shown his dislike of many changes in the production of Hamlet, during the first two acts, and his bearing had attracted the attention of Sullivan and the audience. Hamlet bided his time, and when he came to a point in the second act which he thought offered him the opportunity he wanted, he took Guildenstern and Rosencrantz aside, and advancing toward the box in which Forrest sat, pointed his finger at him and said in the words of the text: 'Do you see that great baby yonder? He is not yet out of his swaddling-clouts.' Mingled hisses and applause were the actor's reward for what was certainly 'a hit, a palpable hit,' although perhaps not in the best taste."

James Rees, one of Forrest's biographers, who, as a rule, defends him in everything, blames him for hissing Macready, not merely on the ground of bad taste and discourtesy, but for the reason that a fancy dance, as Forrest calls it, was not out of place for Hamlet to perform in his state of mind, which, as Mr. Rees holds, with Charles Kemble, was insanity. Mr. Rees says further that the dance was not original with Macready, but that he had seen it done at the Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, years before, but by what actor he does not say.

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

During his visit to New York, Macready recorded that he lay on his sofa at the hotel, "ruminating upon the play of Hamlet; upon the divine spirit which God lent to that man, Shakespeare, to create such intellectual realities full of beauty and power, inheriting the ordinary wickednesses of humanity, the means of attracting so strongly the affections and wonder of men. It seems to me," he added on this occasion, "as if only now, at fifty-one years of age, I thoroughly see and appreciate the artistic power of Shakespeare in this great human phenomenon."

Macready was a thorough artist, very conscientious, greatly in earnest, and very careful about all the resources of his art. His voice was powerful and extensive in compass, and capable of delicate modulation in quiet passages, though with a tendency to scream in violent ones. According to George Henry Lewes, his voice possessed "tones that thrilled, and tones that stirred tears. His declamation was mannered and unmusical; yet his intelligence always made him follow the winding meanings through the involutions of the verse, and never allowed you to feel that he was speaking words which he did not understand." His person was good and his face expressive. His Hamlet was studied and correct, according to his own comprehension of the character, but his portrayal of it was monotonous, harsh, and severe. In those parts of the play where action and passion are appropriate, he succeeded; but in the more subtle and refined passages he was cold and uninteresting. His greater hit was made in the play scene, which he always acted with power, and he did not fail in making a striking effect in the scenes with the Ghost. But he scolded Ophelia and ranted at his mother. He made no good impression by his delivery of the soliloquies; as rendered by him they were the mere cold declamations of the practiced elocutionist. Mr. Lewes, whilst making due allowance for the intelligence which his impersonation displayed, was of the opinion that his Hamlet was absolutely bad. "He was lachrymose and fretful; too fond of a cambric pocket-handkerchief to be really affecting, nor, as it seemed to me, had he that sympathy with the character which would have given an impressive unity to his performance; it was 'a thing of shreds and patches,' not a whole."

The following excerpt was originally published in Dramatic Essays. John Forster. London: Walter Scott, 1896.

Mr. [William] Macready's Hamlet is a noble and a beautiful performance. It is infinitely finer than it used to be, more subtle and various, multiplied and deepened in its lights and shadows, with its sudden and brilliant effects harmonized to the expression of profound feeling, lofty yet gentle, the grandest sustainment of imagination and sensibility we have ever witnesses on the stage. We considered Mr. Macready highly successful in this character before seeing him last Wednesday, yet he illustrated then what it is to study Shakespeare with a love unwearied by success. But genius may well be its own rival, for it has no other. We venture to think, without a shade of misgiving, that this performance was the noblest approach that the stage can present to Hamlet, as he exists in the wonderful creativeness of Shakespeare's fancy. Vivid delineations of moments of passion, we have seen equally fine, fragments of possibly superior beauty in the acting of the late Mr. Kean--but never such a grasp of thought, never such a sustained exhibition of single, profound, and enduring passion, cast in the yielding and varying mould of imagination. Mr. Macready was indeed the princely and heart-broken philosopher, the irresolute avenger, the friend of Horatio, the lover of Ophelia.

Hamlet is more than this, it is true; but we must recollect the palpable intervention of the stage. Mr. Macready cannot exhibit that which "passeth show." We try in vain to conceive of an actor that should present with effect the exact Hamlet of Shakespeare. There is that in it, considered deeply in the closet, with which eye, and tone, and gesture have nothing to do. Supposing we had an actor who could subdue all sense of his art, could consent to sacrifice all dramatic point, all severe effect, all brilliant antithesis of action--who, with grace, wit, chivalrous and princely bearing, profound intellect, and a high faculty of imagination, could yet merge all these in a struggle of sensibility, of weakness, and of melancholy, and bear them with him about the stage, "like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh,"--suppose such an actor upon the stage, who, with these accomplishments, chooses to show them only in such a struggle, using them unconsciously, and to himself not to others--who abstracts himself from the audience, the actors, and the theatre, and, wrapped in a veil of subtle intellectual refinement, only, as it were, reflects aloud--supposing, we say, all this, which might alone serve to the realization of the book Hamlet, of his solitary musings, his silent thoughts, his "light-and-noise-abhoring ruminations," we are more than half-inclined to think that his audience might fancy he had little business where he was, and take to hissing the pointless and unprecise performance. We do not say they would be wrong. The necessities of his art limit the sway of the actor. It is evident to us that Mr. Macready has as true and profound a sense of the character of Hamlet as it would be possible to entertain, and that where he sacrifices anything of this, he is only surrendering to his art as much as is necessary to secure his own triumph. He is the Hamlet of our fancies reconciled to our waking thoughts. For this we pardon an occasional over-display of the resources of his art, such as Hamlet might never have indulged.

The impassioned and heart-breaking sorrow with which Mr. Macready opened the play in the firsti soliloquy was a noble foundation for the entire structure of the character. This quick and passionate sensibility he never lost sight of, whether under the influence of supernatural visiting, or goaded by the desire of earthly vengeance. If Mr. Macready's performance had suddenly closed in the soliloquy of "Oh! what a rogue and peasant slave am I," at the words--

"Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, KINDLESS villain!"

we should have needed no better assurance of the power of his genius to cope with this wonderful character. Where he tempers this quick sensibility during his intercourse with Horatio, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and with Ophelia, by the gentleness of the scholar, the schoolfellow, the friend and the lover, we feel the apologies that are due for the weaknesses and inconsistencies of Hamlet. In all this Mr. Macready, as it seemed to us, touched the highest point of perfection. His affection for Horatio and his reliance on his judgment were marked and exclusive, and throughout excellently sustained--in the third act more especially, during the progress of the play scene, and at last in the agonies of his death, when his care is chiefly for him. In his intercourse with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Mr. Macready happily kept up the quiet demeanor of conscious detection, of cool observance yet friendly familiarity, hitting one of the very nicest points in Hamlet, without the intrusion of any violence or severe abruptness. We shall never forget the tone with which he broke into "What a piece of work is man!" so earnest in its faith, and so passionate of its sorrow. Here is the true Hamlet. No wonder the shock of this outraged sense of good should drive him nearly mad. "That ever he was born to set it right!" No wonder his purpose failed by "thinking too precisely on the event!" No wonder that, even with his motive and his cue for action, he should remain indolent and undecided, "unpregnant of his cause and can do nothing"--excess of thought absorbing his faculty of action. If ever this was expressed on the stage, it was expressed by Mr. Macready. If ever the subtle madness of Hamlet, which is not madness, and yet not an assumption, which might rather stand for the over-subtle workings of the intellect, for the awful though quiet action of the sources of wit and madness, passing through the brain alone, and witnessed only in changes of metaphysical emotion, and in the dejected ruins of a noble presence and universal accomplishment, "blasted by ecstasy"--if ever this was presented upon the stage, it was presented by this great actor. His scene with Ophelia was truly exquisite. It was the realization of Mr. Lamb's opinion (On the Tragedies of Shakespeare), that the scene is "a profound artifice of love, to alienate Ophelia by affected discourtesies, so to prepare her mind for the breaking off of that loving intercourse, which can no longer find a place amidst business so serious as that which he has to do." It was indeed not alienation, but distraction purely, and such it made itself felt by her--not anger, but grief assuming the appearance of anger--love awkwardly counterfeiting hate, "as sweet countenances when they try to frown."

In the scene with the Ghost, Mr. Macready still sustained the burden of this surpassing character. Nothing could be more true than his restless walk up and down on the platform before the terrible appearance, or than the solemn and awful effect of his adjuration afterwards. He sinks before that preternatural visitation. The burst of human energy he gives way to, when his friends endeavor to oppose him, was, as a momentary wild relief, and in the bold and awful contrast into which it throws the "Go on, I'll follow thee," extremely grand and effective. The variety, the power, and the brilliant animation of the play-scene were daring and fine to the last degree. His manner of turning from Horatio, as he hears the approaching footsteps of the King--"They are coming to the play, I must be idle"--his quick and salient walk up and down the front of the stage, waving his handkerchief as if in idle and gay indifference (This was the action which Forrest, the American actor, hissed, calling it a _pas de mouchoir_.), but ill concealing, at that instant, the sense of an approaching triumph--was one of those things Shakespeare himself would have done had he acted Hamlet. The whole scene was masterly; its bitterness fearful--"your Majesty and we that have free souls, it touches us not!"--and its energy quate appalling. Mr. Macready made us feel, what is literally the case with Hamlet, that his power exhausts itself here. His attitude as the King hurries off, was a noble commentary on that subtle purpose of Shakespeare. As he stands there, in the flushed excitement of a triumph, we feel that he is satisfied with the discovery alone. It was an earnest to Horatio and to all, that the success of his experiment was his greatest aim, and that to act upon it was as far from his thoughts as ever. In the same exquisite apprehensiveness of Shakespeare was the loud bullying of himself, to thrust down the thought which would at once have disabled his act, as he rushed to stab through the arras--and his fine, breathless change of tone, as he rushes back with "Is it the King?" This scene, and his conduct to his mother throughout, was marked by profound discrimination.

If we might hazard an objection to a performance so truly great as this, it would be to the delivery of the celebrated Soliloquy on Death, as too quiet and deliberate, and to the reception and intercourse with the players, as not sufficiently familiar. Why did not Mr. Macready recognize them cordially, at least his "old friend,"--for does not Hamlet shake hands with his schoolfellows before the players enter, and assign as his reason, "lest my extent to the players, which, I tell you, must show fairly outward, should more appear like entertainment than yours?" He has his reason for this familiarity, as he reasons for all he does, and for all he does not do.

This praise of ours, which we have meant to be as enthusiastic as it is sincere, we have yet felt to be inadequate to the occasion. We conclude as we began by characterizing Mr. Macready's performance of Hamlet as the most perfect achievement of the modern stage--in depth, in originality, in truth, in beauty, and in grandeur of sustainment. Its expression is altogether equal to its conception. [Macready's own note on this performance is: "Acted Hamlet, to judge by the continued interest and the uniform success of all the striking passages, better than I ever played it before. Forster ... thought it, as a whole, the best he had ever seen."

October 11, 1835.

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