A Young Actor Doing Hamlet Badly

When I was in sixth grade we read “Hamlet” and put on an in-class production of the abridged version of the play. I played Hamlet. I was eleven years old and even at that tender age I was very aware that I did not do a good job. At that point, I had only just recently conquered my old foe: illiteracy. I took painstaking effort to learn all of my lines. The way my English teacher had us audition was by having everybody in the class read the famous, “To be or not to be speech” out loud and then everyone got to vote on who they wanted to see play Hamlet. I ended up landing the lead role by reading the famous speech in a British accent and being way over the top, which of course everyone thought was hilarious. I desecrated what is most likely the most well known dramatic soliloquy in all Western Theatre and possibly the world. And with that inauspicious beginning, I proceed to absolutely butcher William Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

It’s almost inconceivable to imagine an eleven-year-old kid mailing in a performance so half-assed that it would put Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole’s drunkest onstage antics to downright shame. I consciously put in a horrible effort. I tanked the show. I mumbled through all my lines in my crappy British accent as fast as I could possibly say them. I was the most apathetic and disinterested Hamlet of all time. I barely moved on stage. Imagine if you will a completely detached, disinterested, and frosty Hamlet just going about his business. My Hamlet shuffled aimlessly through Elsinore Castle without batting an eye or giving second thought to a damn thing. My Hamlet was the coolest without the slightest display of anything that could even have the outside chance of being mistaken for a real human emotion. My Hamlet approached life in the terrifyingly all too casual way that professional murders do. When I killed Polonius, it was epically cold. “Dead for a ducat…dead…” I did that line so matter-of-factly it completely summed up my eleven-year-old analysis of the character: just an emotionless, surly, and sarcastic sociopath. I was history’s saddest, most withdrawn Hamlet of all time.

When we were done with our study of “Hamlet”, I could tell that I had let down my whole English class. They expected me to lead an absolutely disrespectful and gloriously insipid and juvenile romp through this great tragedy. I chose instead to be just plain bad. Nobody ever said anything to me about it but I could tell everyone was kind of miffed that I didn’t make it funny. I didn’t make fun of “Hamlet” like I did in my “To be or not to be” audition. I didn’t just do a bad job on purpose for the sake of saving my participation grade. I did a bad job because I realized something very important as an actor while I was killing myself over learning all those damn lines: you cannot keep up your eccentric and idiotic shtick if you’re going to be onstage for the vast majority of the play. The lead actor can’t just hit the same button and expect the same laughs and keep his audience interested. Being one-noted and going for cheap laughs is so much worse than just being boring and awful. Trying too hard is a grievous error especially when you are purposefully going out of your way to make the worse acting choice possible. In this case, the choice was between mocking “Hamlet” and killing a bad joke over and over and over again or mailing it in and trying to get through it as quickly and relatively painlessly as possible.

“Hamlet” the play itself is all about choices and specifically in the “To be or not to be” speech it is about the thought process and motivation for making those choices. I learned an invaluable lesson in that class as an aspiring actor, entertainer, and performer about making choices. An eleven-year-old is in way over is head when he takes on the role of “Hamlet” but I also think every actor needs to approach the role the same way in which I was forced to approach it. An actor really has to decide whether or not they really can be Hamlet. Had I realized this earlier, I would have tanked my audition to guarantee myself a nice and easy spot as Bernardo or one of the other guards. No heavy lifting. Just get really scared when the ghost spooks you! I could’ve even gotten away with being a subversive and distracting Bernardo and gotten my precious laughs. But this was not the case. My sixth grade English teacher was on to something by conducting the auditions in the way that she did by making everybody have to really dedicate some time to reading and interpreting the “To be or not to be” speech. That speech will make or break a Hamlet. To a lot of people, that speech is “Hamlet.” That speech is all that some people even know about Shakespeare. If you can’t figure out as an actor how you want to do that soliloquy then you should seriously consider backing down and giving up on the role because not only is it extremely well known and highly regarded culturally, but it really is integral to the character and the play itself. This play is cerebral.

I have to admit that “Hamlet” is not my favorite of Shakespeare’s work. At the risk of sounding like an unrefined contrarian, I do not like “Hamlet.” I don’t just dislike “Hamlet” because of how it devastated any shred of confidence my dopey sixth grade self had, but there’s something about the title character that did not resonate with me then and continues not to resonate with me today. My issues have evolved as I’ve gotten older and more learned, however my core issues with Hamlet remain.

I’ve never liked the character in any capacity. Even in sixth grade I thought he was whiny and too often insufferable. Every time I’ve read it since, it always strikes me at some point that Hamlet is also thirty-three years old. That is pretty old to be so disagreeable and cantankerous. The argument everyone likes to ponder about Hamlet is whether or not he is pretending to be insane. Because of the way I feel about him, I feel like if he has gone insane then he’s soft and my inner, super, hardcore, West Texas High School football coach says that he should nut-up and be a man and quit moping like a punk. He’s thirty-three for god sakes. Jesus was thirty-three when he got tacked up and he didn’t whine about it! And according to Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ” ol’ Jesus took quite a beating.

Speaking of Mel Gibson, I like his Hamlet the best because he’s a psycho and clearly wants to do something funky to his mom. I thought Kenneth Branagh was terrible. He was just weird. To me, it’s almost like Branagh is too intelligent to play such a hotheaded man-child. Gibson actually is a crazy person in real life and is possibly the greatest rage-oholic of his generation. To the horror of every educated person I’ve ever discussed this with, I’m not afraid to admit Mel Gibson is my favorite Hamlet.

So then there’s also the case that Hamlet is simply acting insane to get his revenge on King-Uncle-Father Claudius. Little more than kin and less than kind! I have way less empathy for Hamlet if this is his plan to get revenge. It’s objectively stupid as evidenced by absolutely everybody winding up dead by the end of the play. Could things have possibly gone worse? No, definitely not. My inner red-state high school football coach says Hamlet’s a grown-ass man and this is just idiotic behavior. It’s distracting and achieves nothing. Hamlet’s acting like a rookie. Thirty-three years old and he’s playing pretend and gambling with peoples’ very lives? That’s a little old to be pouting and playing pretend to get your way.

All of that said, by the time I’ve gotten to Act 3 Scene 1, I’m just waiting for Fortinbras to come in like a boss and smite all these chumps. But my personal opinions and my feelings are beside my point. I feel like Hamlet is the most difficult role for an actor in all theatre because it is the ultimate role in all theatre. Everybody knows it even if they haven’t read it. It’s like the “Casablanca” of theatre in a way; it is the origin of all the clichés that came after it. But what’s strange about the play and the role is that it is so cerebral and such a fascinating and in-depth study of the human psyche that it requires not just a good actor but also a smart actor.

I think if there were any actor who I’d actually cast as Hamlet it would have been Toshiro Mifune—who I think is the Japanese Marlon Brando—or I would have cast Tupac Shakur. Both of those actors to me are explosive and I’ve seen them in roles where they are convincingly blind with rage and still compelling and sympathetic. I would not cast Brando as Hamlet. Brando is very good at portraying a character who struggles with their own vulnerability but he is too laconic to be Hamlet. Hamlet is verbose. The man is wordy. Brando is anything but wordy. I think Tupac would have been a great Hamlet because when you listen to his music you hear a man express his inner pain yet try to hide behind his carefully crafted façade of masculinity and strength. Tupac was also a verbose man and easily one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. I would fight anybody and to death if they argued with me that Tupac wasn’t top ten poets of the twentieth century. Now that is something I’d rage about. Getting revenge for my dad’s ghost? I’d be hard pressed to find it in me to muster up some kind of motivation toward seeking vengeance.

I can’t put myself in Hamlet’s shoes. I couldn’t back in sixth grade, and I can’t do it now. I think, interestingly, that one thing that makes me think that Tupac would have made such a great Hamlet was because he never lived to be thirty-three years old. Tupac was murdered when he was only twenty-five. That’s insanely young considering how much art he was able to produce both in film and in music. Tupac had the fury of a young, hotheaded man. Tupac was also a classically trained actor who attended Baltimore School for the Arts where he actually performed some of Shakespeare’s plays. I think he could play Hamlet either way too. He could play truly insane Hamlet or he could play a calculating Hamlet and be convincing as either. I think this is a valuable opinion as a man who has absolutely no love for the role or the play. I would kill to have seen Tupac as Hamlet and I think there are a lot of people out there who would agree with me. Check him out as the character Bishop in the movie, “Juice.” The man would have been the greatest Hamlet of all time.

I respect William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a great tragedy but I do not enjoy it. I think it’s overdone. When I first read it ten years ago, I had very high expectations going in and I came out very disappointed. I was only eleven years old and just barely literate and even I had some preconceived ideas about what “Hamlet” was all about. Everybody knows “Hamlet.” That’s a big part of why I’d say it’s a difficult role to play. Everybody sees it differently and everyone has their own vision of Hamlet. I would prove this point by challenging any actor to use “To be or not to be” as their core audition piece for any audition they go to. Nobody who wants a job in theatre would even dare to do that. That takes either some monumental irrational confidence and audacity, or actual insanity. Furthermore, in that soliloquy alone, how do you recite lines that everybody knows by heart and make them sound like your own? How do you make that speech sound new to people who have heard it a billion times or more? I argue it’s got to be the most difficult task in all of theatre. Back when Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole were doing it, Burton would just leave the speech out completely when he was playing Hamlet. Although Burton probably left it out because he was drunk and just wanted to irritate people, I can totally see why an actor would make the choice to go ahead and skip it for the sake of their overall performance.

An actor can either do it or he can’t. That might be the only two kinds of actors there are: those who can be, and those who cannot be Hamlet. “To be or not to be” really is not only the starting place for approaching this role but also it is the question. Do you have what it takes to be Hamlet? If you end up accidently landing the role of Hamlet and realize to your own horror half way through learning your lines that you have absolutely no business playing Hamlet, then all you can do is pray to your maker that your sixth grade English teacher will not force you to go through with it. My participation grade in our sixth grade rendition of “Hamlet” ended up being a “B-minus.” That’s probably the most generous review I’ll ever get in the aftermath of a performance that was nothing short of a horrible failure. In retrospect, that totally unearned “B-minus” was actually my teacher thanking me for not making an utter fool of myself for the sake of petty laughs trying to make “Hamlet” into a comedy. Don’t make “Hamlet” into a comedy. To this day, I think I owe the bright future of my career to making the unprecedentedly wise choice as a young actor not to do that. As a young actor who did Hamlet badly, the lesson here is this: when in doubt, save yourself the slings and arrows and sea of troubles and instead do the wise thing and choose not to be.

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