The Tragedy Around “Hamlet”

Brad Miner | January 18, 2022

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was written when William Shakespeare was 36 years old. His first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, c. 1590, was written when the playwright was 26; his last, The Two Nobel Kinsmen, c. 1614, when he was 50.

The genius of Shakespeare’s work makes it difficult, probably impossible, to name one play as greatest. Nearly every speaker of English with at least a high-school education (and many without a diploma) knows the titles: The Taming of the Shrew; Richard III; Romeo and Juliet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Merchant of Venice; Henry V; Julius Caesar; Othello; King Lear; Macbeth; The Tempest. And those are just a dozen out of forty-two.

But, really, it’s Hamlet, isn’t it? It’s the most performed of all the plays – in the theater and on film. The role is a milestone in the career of every actor (and some actresses too), from Richard Burbage to Edwin Booth; from Mel Gibson to Kenneth Branagh; and from Sarah Bernhardt to Ruth Negga.

I believe many productions have miscast the lead. Burbage (of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) was the first actor to get the role, likely when he was 35. Booth (the greatest American actor of the 19th century) first played Hamlet in his twenties and was 58 when last he did. Gibson was 34 in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, and Branagh was 36 in his own version.

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