The man who knew Yorick ...and Laertes ...and

9th February 1996 at 00:00
HAMLET: A User's Guide By Michael Pennington Nick Hern Books Pounds 18. 99

Michael Pennington has played most of the major roles in Hamlet and he draws on these experiences in his affectionate, revealing guide to the play. Heather Neill reports

In 1994, Sir Peter Hall's latest production of Hamlet moved into the Gielgud Theatre, the recently renamed Globe, in London's West End. The reviews were favourable and audiences enthusiastic, but conditions for the actors had a lot in common with Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

Prostitutes worked the doorways behind the theatre, the emergency exit was an impromptu street pissoir. "A rat or two was sighted... and one night Voltemand inadvertently sat on his costume and rose to find a mouse squashed inside it."

This description comes from the conclusion of Michael Pennington's Hamlet: a User's Guide, and is final proof, if any were needed, that his book has more to do with the flesh and blood of performance than the scholar's study. But, redolent as it is of greasepaint, sweat and dusty plush, it has more to tell the student, theatre-goer or would-be director than many a treatise smelling of the midnight oil.

Pennington played Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet's murdered father in Peter Hall's production (with Stephen Dillane as Hamlet). He had already tackled the title role as a student at Cambridge in 1964. A year later he was Fortinbras in Hall's first production, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, when David Warner made Hamlet a rebellious student in a flying college scarf. In 1969, he was Laertes to Nicol Williamson's Prince and, in 1980, graduated to Hamlet himself in John Barton's Stratford-upon-Avon production.

By now, reckons Pennington, discussing the book last week, he knows how the "engine" of the piece works, "which bits are quick in coming, which get the load along".

Despite having reached the older generation of Hamlet characters (he jokes that "there's only Polonius left"), Pennington is still a romantic figure, the kind of actor that a coterie of middle-aged ladies will follow around the country. He was a joint founder (with Michael Bogdanov) of the English Shakespeare Company, and is well-known for a variety of classic and modern leading roles, on stage and television.

Pennington describes the rhythm of Hamlet. "It's dangerous to make musical comparisons, but there are surges and retards - and it's interesting to note when the rhythm has gone wrong."

He analyses moments such as the "Closet scene" in Act IV. Hamlet and the rest of the court have watched The Murder of Gonzago put on by the visiting Players at Hamlet's request. Its plot parallels the murder of Hamlet's father by his brother, Claudius, the present king, now married to Gertrude, Hamlet's widowed mother.

There is uproar as Claudius brings the performance to an abrupt end and rushes from the scene. Hamlet fails to kill his uncle at prayer a few minutes later and bursts into his mother's bedroom to confront her. During their emotionally charged exchange (some find suggestions of incest here), Hamlet again sees his father's ghost and kills the meddling Polonius who is eavesdropping behind the drapery (the arras) and whom Hamlet mistakes for his uncle.

Pennington describes how the actor feels at this point and how that might affect interpretation: "Much in the performance crystallises here, and a careful balance needs to be kept between black comedy and heroic emotion. A kind of existential flipness is opening out in Hamlet - 'I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room' - and it is tempting to make comic capital out of it. The danger is that it can turn into facetiousness. Just as he dares his friends to laugh in the face of death (the funeral baked meats and the marriage tables), Hamlet is now drawing the audience into his own moral vertigo by means of sinister burlesque. Calculated bathos is attractive to actors - in the classics it's a way to modernise; but be careful, be sparing."

For Gertrude - and this is the player's only real chance to shine - the scene marks an emotional watershed and for the audience it is "a great purge", says Pennington.

His ability to see all points of view, to be practical and objective at the same time, justifies his admirers' claims that his scene by scene account of the play is in direct descent from Harley Granville Barker's Prefaces, published earlier this century.

Hamlet has entered further into popular mythology than any other play by Shakespeare, probably than any other classic. Tommy Cooper appearing on television, dressed in black and clutching a skull is immediately identifiable; "To be or not to be" must be the most frequently quoted Shakespearian line (except, perhaps, for the habitually misunderstood "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?").

But who is Hamlet? Part of the play's fascination, and one reason why the role is so challenging for actors, is that Hamlet can be almost anything, adopting the cloak of different personalities according to the player and the director's requirements. As Pennington writes: "What can a man say about his own Hamlet? The part is like a pane of clear glass disclosing the actor to a greedy audience."

In conversation, he says he finds the character "more and more off-putting. There are whole areas of behaviour that are difficult to accept - his treatment of women, the cavalier dispatching of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even his behaviour towards Horatio, a masterservant relationship masquerading as friendship. Then there is his self-absorption - he's very unpolitical."

The Romantics admired Hamlet's sensibility, which is really no more, thinks Pennington, than "moral woolliness". Yet, even though (in Pennington's words) "sympathy collides with moral shock" in our attitude to Hamlet, by the end of the play, despite everything, we are securely on his side: we want Hamlet to win and we mourn his death.

The most important reason for this is what Pennington calls the "candour" of the soliloquies. The first is in Act I, Scene 2, beginning: "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew."

Pennington writes: "Hamlet is left alone - one of the theatre's great potencies... The speech is jarring, unstable, a chaos of feelings unresolved by language, studded with unpredictable imagery. Elegiac at first, nearly sentimental: 'How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world. Fie on't, ah fie...' it swings into the morbidly unforgiving. "

Pennington adds an actor's insight in by noting that he found it the hardest of the soliloquies to play. "I was gratified in 1980 to get a letter from a psychiatrist who often dealt with excessive grieving... and who approved the symptoms he saw: the voice falling away, a tendency to hallucinate, overwhelming fatigue."

Pennington points out "the formal boldness" of the soliloquies, "the hundreds of questions asked of the audience - it is almost a two-sided dialogue, in the 'Rogue and peasant slave' particularly. There is an intimacy; you identify with him. It is a trick played on you and you do become him. Yet there is a shock, an intense moral shock. There is an argument in your head about the person you are watching - but by the end of the play he is undoubtedly our man. It's a wonderful close as he says 'Tell my story'. It's tremendously self-important, but moving too."

"To be or not to be", dreaded by actors because the audience is likely to be muttering along too, is "a grace note, not strictly necessary". It has a distancing effect: "It hasn't a personal pronoun in it."

The Polonius family is, according to Pennington, "a fascinating case-study". Laertes, Polonius' son, the swift and successful avenger, in contrast to Hamlet, is "a thankless part, an engine part", there to drive the story. But the other parts raise questions and lead to a variety of interpretations. There is no female influence; the woman who was mother to Ophelia and Laertes is never mentioned. "Does Ophelia's madness proceed from cossetting or because she has been ignored, is alienated and lonely? Polonius gives her not a word of affection," Pennington points out. Nevertheless, "Tony Church managed to make Polonius a loving family man." He is certainly a "fixer" and striking the balance between bumbling fool and scheming politician has always presented the actor with a challenge.

Pennington's Claudius was a memorably detailed study of an ambitious, passionate man who, in suffering guilt and remorse, is not wholly unsympathetic. He says now: "Shakespeare went three quarters of the way towards Macbeth with Claudius and then he drops him. With more soliloquies and disclosures he could have been as great. He and Hamlet should be mighty opposites." Claudius is a politician, more efficient as a ruler than Hamlet would have been, reckons Pennington. And, unlike his father, Hamlet has no military skill. Pennington thinks it ironic that Fortinbras, the fighting machine, orders a soldier's funeral for Hamlet.

Fortinbras is also worthy of notice: "We're interested in Fortinbras now.We're very alert to the moral ambiguities of Hamlet and Hamlet's political destructiveness." Fortinbras' appearance, which used to be seen as a return to order after the chaos and corruption of the Elsinore court, its royal family wiped out, does not constitute "a facile resolution", says Pennington. It is not easy to guess what life in Denmark will be like in future.

When Pennington played Fortinbras in 1965, he doubled as part of a gigantic Ghost. In 1994 he played the whole Ghost and found the experience surprisingly gratifying - the speech describing his murder to Hamlet was "as difficult and challenging as the whole of Claudius". This speech is annotated line by line in the book and summed up as "a hell of a 10 minutes to play."

More than one Hamlet has found this paternal confrontation almost unbearable and Pennington admits that "it is terribly upsetting, very harrowing. Shakespeare hits on something. I think it is the remorselessness of the Ghost."

The theatricality of Hamlet - the pretence at madness, the importance of the Players, the emphasis on the distinction between acting and taking action - has often been observed and particularly interested John Barton in 1980. Pennington adds another idea: that Hamlet is given to mimicry, that he adopts other people's language or, as he puts it in one of those revealing footnotes, he speaks in all their tongues "with the theatrical flourish of the Players, the bluntness of the Gravediggers, in the out-Osricking of Osric."

Pennington speaks of Hamlet like an old friend who can sometimes be "maddening". He doesn't avoid the inconsistencies and thoroughly dislikes the final scene in which "deaths fall over each other. It really is awful. He could write like a pig sometimes."

In the end, though, Pennington leaves an impression of love and respect and a sense that the exploration will never be complete. Acting Hamlet is, he says, "like a yapping dog approaching a bear at a stake - you make your mark and get out of the way."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today