The Attendant Prince

No true Hamlet is ever of one tradition alone. There is too much conflict of view for a definitive version to remain unchallenged. The velvet doublet and hose romantic outsider beautifully enunciating much-treasured verse was satirised even at is Victorian height. The late Romantic, “Lawn Tennyson” presentation has been superseded by modern portrayals of internal conflict. The backdrop can be only a bleak landscape that offers no consolation.

The playing of Hamlet to the modern actor is a challenge wholly different kind from any facing Sir Henry Irving. In place of panache and mellifluous speaking the modern actor may hear Churchill’s startled observation backstage to Richard Burton: “That was a very virile Hamlet.” Virility may not be a quality we especially associate with the ineffectual dithering that is traditionally seen as character flaw that fells the tragic hero. But dithering is not a heroic quality. Nor is it a tragic quality. It was Burton’s feeling that another approach was due for consideration.

The force of intellect and imagery in the verse is a constant, but experience and shame wrought from history reflect upon the way the words are acted and are heard.

In a career punctuated by errors of judgement, Richard Burton offered several interpretations, each one refining and redefining how the part may be played, all true both to the poetry and to flesh of the play. Embodying the conflicts in the earlier versions, by 1964 in New York may be said to be living them. Time’s reviewer noted: “A thinking man’s Hamlet…What Burton does is to turn sensibility into sense, modulate a phrase so that it rings with present meaning rather than bygone eloquence.”

If human feeling, for good or ill, is timeless, its sensibility is mutable. No two generations are alike in the lessons learned and unlearned from experience. Richard Burton was not Richard Burbage. There are four centuries transforming the meanings made of words on paper. The force of intellect and imagery in the verse is a constant, but experience and shame wrought from history reflect upon the way the words are acted and are heard. Richard Burton’s Prince is a man who knows too much. The spirit of the dead has spoken to him, and he cannot pretend that life is for the living. It is a Hamlet of his century, though he reaches back into the myths from which both history and poetry emerge.

“A modern reflection upon Hamlet,” Burton was to write, “is that it is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind. To choose a possible will-o’-the-wisp, to risk death by drowning in its pursuit, let us postulate that there is ‘within the precincts’ a Hamlet who not only could make up his mind, but who knew very well what he was about.”

The challenge is directly aimed at Olivier whose film of Hamlet begins “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” Generations of schoolchildren have passed examinations by writing of the Prince’s procrastination. It is a given, an unchallengeable truth that Burton explicitly calls into question if only for the sake of a refreshing vitality that the museum of accepted verities cannot display.

Burton’s postulation is radically aware of the play that lies with the play, the vision beyond the image. In this view of Hamlet the Prince passes through mirrors. He becomes the conscience of the king, rather than his avenger. This Hamlet is much greater than himself. He has within him a knowledge he has yet to know.

It is the “yet” that makes the tragedy. Hamlet’s predicament is his need to wait, against all the presages of his situation. He has the need to wait upon what he alone can bring. He must act, even though he cannot act. His problem is absurd. It makes him look foolish. The tragedy is that he knows that life is mocking him.

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