Masks of Hamlet

In Alan Howard's eccentric Hamlet (1970), the possibility of violence always threatened. His black-clad figure stood out startlingly from the white dress of the rest of the cast, and his behavior was similarly unaccommodating. "Few modern Hamlets have felt the tragedy more deeply." (Nottingham Evening Post, 6.5.1970) Or reacted against the court more discordantly. His director, Nunn, saw Hamlet as a "study in alienation, with a deep gulf between thought and will, will and performance." Descriptions of Howard's action suggest a mind if not diseased then dangerously distracted. "The Prince is a manic-depressive ....... Both Ophelia and the Queen are in danger; his attack on Polonius is the fiercest in memory." (Birmingham Post, 6.5.1970)

I found myself agreeing with the Daily Telegraph that Howard had discovered one of the secrets of acting: he always kept one wondering what he would do next. This is, of course, also Hamlet's own secret: he is unpredictable, not only to the audience, but also, deliberately, to Claudius. The more irrational Howard-Hamlet seemed, the more dangerous he was. As the irrational adolescent he was doubly disturbing: he united the alarm of the unreachable, uncontrollable mind with the anarchism of youth.

Howard was able to give a direction to the character's mysterious eccentric growth.One observer saw

the full development of the human being. Act by act his Hamlet moves from a pathetic, waif-like child to a semi-unbalanced, role-playing adolescent, and finally to the quiet certainty of new-found maturity.

Howard told me he felt Hamlet's transformation began when the player's speech showed him the way to release himself, then continued in the loosening of pressure after the Mousetrap, and finally in the "trip" to England, where he

went through his Gethsemane. At first Hamlet was close to madness: but when he came back, the rest of the court is maddened, and he is sane.

The Masks of Hamlet, pp.151-152, Marvin Rosenberg, University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Playing Shakespeare/Hamlet