Benedict Cumberbatch

I heard the other day that Benedict Cumberbatch (aka. Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange, and Smaug) is going to be playing Hamlet in London towards the end of 2014. There is much excitement about this, on a par with that surrounding David Tennant’s Hamlet with the RSC in 2009.

This way of talking about somebody‘s Hamlet made me think of something Charles Lamb wrote about the unavoidable limits of performing Shakespeare on the stage:

[…] such is the instantaneous nature of the impressions which we take in at the eye and ear at a playhouse, compared with the slow apprehension oftentimes of the understanding in reading, that we are apt not only to sink the play-writer in the consideration which we pay to the actor, but even to identify in our minds in a perverse manner, the actor with the character which he represents.

On the surface, it looks like the tendencies Lamb describes here are still very much alive today. We’re not going to see Cumberbatch in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but rather just to see Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. We go to see the character connected with the famous actor, and not the play, the complete expression of Shakespeare’s mind. Do we remember who, for example, played Ophelia to Tennant’s Hamlet? Or do we know the Claudius to Cumberbatch’s prince?

There’s another way of thinking about this though. Cumberbatch doing Hamlet is so important because it can be taken as a claim for his acting powers: he is of sufficient status and skill so as to be ready to undertaken one of the greatest plays in the English language. Would as many people be as eager to go see Cumberbatch’s Dr Faustus as his Hamlet? Perhaps not. Seen from this angle, then, the play and its playwright are just as important to the creation of the event as the choice of actor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock
Leaving Lamb behind us, the phrase ‘Cumberbatch’s Hamlet’ also brings up another issue. How much can the person who is directing this production of Hamlet change the text, move a scene, encourage a particularly stylised way of presenting emotion? The audience, after all, have not come to see the director’s Hamlet but Cumberbatch’s acting of it. On top of this, they will want Cumberbatch’s Hamlet to be a coherent whole so as to be able to talk about this actor’s version of the dane, and to compare it with other actors’ takes on the character, such as David Tennant’s, Jude Law’s, or Laurence Olivier’s. If this Hamlet is Cumberbatch’s, that is to say, above all the property of the actor (just as eighteenth-century actors literally owned the text of their parts), then the director can only do so much: his audience’s expect a Hamlet to emerge coherently from the play, not several possible Hamlets.

Comparing this to eighteenth-century thought and expectation about, say, Garrick’s Hamlet, we find some differences. Lamb may have been right to criticise Garrick and others for associating “in a perverse manner” his name with the character he played, but this association did not result in the kind of pressure for an actor to give his single, coherent Hamlet to the world that Cumberbatch must feel. Rather, eighteenth-century audiences valued the rapid changes of emotion, the swings between the melancholy and the manic that Garrick’s sprightly form was so good at, and remember not so much the whole man as presented bit by bit the length of the play, but rather the particularly striking moment: when Garrick’s Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (immortalised in Fielding‘s Tom Jones) or when, frustrated with Gertrude, the young prince knocks over a chair (an inherited piece of stage business captured in many paintings and engravings).

I wonder if, come autumn 2014, we could still watch Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in such a way, praising specific moments of virtuoso performance and caring less for any overall impression of the character…

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