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Introduction to William Shakespeare
Illustrations to the play
The illustrations are taken from the H. R. Forrest Collection, 76 folio volumes of illustrations to Shakespeare up to 1890. There are three volumes illustrating Hamlet, the first an extra-illustrated edition of the text, the second the illustrations. These include title pages, artists' impressions of scenes from the play and portraits of famous actors.
They are followed by photographs from important productions by Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Criticism, texts, production material and film versions of the play of video and DVD are all available in Birmingham Libraries, many can be borrowed for use at home.
The title page of Rowe's 1709 edition shows the 'Closet Scene'; Hamlet is upbraiding his mother for having married Claudius, Hamlet's uncle. The Ghost of Hamlet's father intervenes. Hamlet sees the Ghost of his father, the Queen does not:
Queen: To whom do you speak this?
Hamlet: Do you see nothing there?
In the 18th century actors wore contemporary dress of that time when they played Shakespeare.
Hamlet: I'll call thee Hamlet
King, Father, royal Dane. O answer me!
The play throws up many dilemmas: Is this the ghost of Hamlet's father, or is it an apparition sent by the Devil? Has Hamlet's uncle murdered his father or is he innocent? Hamlet's will is paralysed by uncertainty.
Hamlet: 'Unhand me, gentlemen,
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!....
Marcellus: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Act I scene 4.
Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
'Unhand me gentlemen!
By heaven I'll make a ghost of him that lets me...'
Fuseli created this dramatic image of Hamlet following his father's Ghost for Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, which opened in London in 1789 and contained a collection of paintings from Shakespeare commissioned from the most important artists. Copies of the most popular paintings were engraved and used to illustrate some of the many 19th century editions of Shakespeare's works.
Ophelia runs mad on hearing that Hamlet has murdered her father, Polonius:
I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him I th cold ground. My brother shall know of it&good night, ladies
The actress shown is probably Harriet Smithson, a well known Irish actress, who played Ophelia in Paris in 1827 where Berlioz fell in love with her.
This is the famous scene where Ophelia sings her mad, but meaningful, songs, giving wild flowers to the King and Queen:
Theres rue for you, and heres some for me..
Kemble was another famous Hamlet. He trained for the priesthood, but discovered his true vocation when he joined an acting company. His first London appearance was as Hamlet at Drury Land Theatre in 1783, and became one of the great tragedy actors of his time. His sister, Sarah Siddons, was also very famous for her Shakespearean roles.
Henry Irving 1838-1905
Sir Henry Irving, brought up a strict Methodist in Cornwall, became the most famous late 19th century actor, performing with Ellen Terry and his company at the Lyceum Theatre in London, and on tour. Irving's Hamlet was dignified and melancholy, and was probably an important influence on the most well known Hamlets of the 20th century, particularly Sir John Gielgud.
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 1925.
Sir Barry Jackson's 1920s modern dress productions of Shakespeare at Birmingham Repertory Theatre were very influential.
In Shakespeare's time actors wore modern dress of the day whatever the play they were acting in.
However, by the middle of the 19th century the fashion was for theatres to try to re-create the period of a play. For Shakespeare this mostly meant that the plays were performed in Elizabethan dress.
Sir Barry Jackson wanted to re-create the contemporary feel of the plays familiar to Shakespeare's audience. To do this he set his productions in the modern period, the 1920s.
Modern dress Shakespeare continues to be very controversial, some people love it and some audiences hate it. Probably the best known recent modern dress Shakespeare productions are Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet and the English Shakespeare Company's productions of the History plays.
Mr. Bennett as Hamlet 1820, Tuppence coloured
Hand coloured prints of actors in their most famous roles used to be sold as souvenirs, like photos of film stars today.
They could be bought either 'penny plain' or 'tuppence coloured'. Hand-colouring prints was a cottage industry, often done at home with the children all helping.
Sir Barry Jackson and Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive 1913 - 1970
The Birmingham Shakespeare Library