John Bell on performing Hamlet

I first encountered Hamlet when I was eight, the year Olivier’s film came out. My mother took me to see it at the now-demolished Lyric cinema in Newcastle. The event had such an impact on me that I can still remember the heat of the footpath outside the cinema, the feeling of going down the dark stairs, a general sense of the film’s moodiness and haunting music, a thrilling sword fight and moments of luminosity that I believed for years afterwards that the black and white screen had burst into colour. I was deeply moved by the vocal cadences of Olivier and the enigma of this strange, melancholic, ironic and somewhat androgynous hero/anti-hero.

So when the textbooks were handed around in the classroom some seven years later, I was ready for it. At the age of fifteen I felt I had got Hamlet in one, understood the whole thing, and on one level I had. What transported me then was the gothic, primitive yet complex world of intrigue and a visceral response to treachery and the supernatural. I found the play thrilling, disturbing and a huge release from the workday drudgery of school and domesticity.

Olivier’s screen performance no doubt had a lot to do with it; a combination of effete narcissism and violent derring-do – it was understandably appealing to an adolescent. There are other points of contact too: the violent mood swings, the desire to be alone and indulge in introspection, sexual possessiveness of the mother and jealousy of the parents’ relationship, cheeking authority, contempt for one’s elders (in this case Polonius), fondness for philosophizing on the Big Question, an ineptness in handling one’s first sexual relationship (Ophelia) and the need for a buddy (Horatio), sibling rivalry (Laertes) and a shallow cynicism about things outside one’s experience. What does Hamlet know of the insolence of office or the law’s delays?

In the fifty-odd years since that first experience, I have encountered many Hamlets, played him twice, directed the play three times (so far) and boned up on all the latest theory as it relentlessly churns off the presses. I feel that my first response to the play and its hero has in no way been diminished. My mind now contains a hefty portfolio of alternative actors and interpretations, but they are all fruit off the same tree.

(page 178, 179)


The biggest challenge for facing the actor who would be Hamlet is to make the part your own. It’s good to have a knowledge and respect of tradition and to study the great actors of the past. It will remind you of what a great privilege it is to play a role like Hamlet and humble you to think of how many fine actors have exceled in it and thrilled audiences for the last four hundred years.

But you must not get cowed by tradition or hung up on it. When your turn comes you have to put all that to one side and look at the role as if it’s never been played before and you have no idea of how it’s going to come out. You start with a clean slate and begin to identify with the role.

But that doesn’t mean limiting it to your own personality and frame of reference. You can’t scale it down to fit your own comfort zone. Rather, you have to go out to it, stretch yourself wide, open yourself to all possibilities by applying the old what if exercise: what if I met my father’s ghost? What if I found out that he’d been murdered? How would I feel if my mother hurriedly married my uncle, a man whom I despised? What would I do if I found out he’d murdered my father? How would I feel if my girlfriend committed suicide? They are all very big what ifs and demand a huge stretch of your imagination and emotional response. You’ll find discrepancies between your own reaction and what Hamlet does. Your feelings about revenge, about the afterlife, about honour, may not accord with his. That’s where the acting comes in: to step into Hamlet’s shoes, see the world through his eyes, make his what ifs your own.

Most Hamlets don’t go far enough. I haven’t seen many who convinced me they had seen a ghost. I haven’t seen many who convinced me they loved Ophelia. A lot of Hamlets flatten the role out, try to create a consistent ‘character’. But there is no ‘character’, just a series of situations, reactions, decisions, impulses that, when added up, give us a Hamlet. Forget about ‘consistency’, which is such an abstract notion. Play each scene, each situation for what it gives you. In this he’s loving, in this scene, bloody-minded; in this one suicidal, in this one jokey and light-hearted. In this scene he is cruel, in this one kind. In this one sluggish, in the next hyperactive. Just as we are in life – inconsistent. In Hamlet’s case the inconsistencies are heightened by his superior brain and the extreme situations he finds himself in.

(page 183, 184)


Incidentally, I’ve always felt that ‘To be or not to be’ doesn’t belong to the play – at least not where it occurs. That’s an odd thing to say, because in one sense ‘To be or not to be’ encapsulates all of  Hamlet and is as much a signifier of the play as Yorick’s skull. Its philosophical tone is very much in the spirit of the play overall and sounds like the sort of thing Hamlet would have said at Wittenberg, in a seminar maybe, before he came home. It has a Protestant emphasis on ‘conscience’ and negates purgatory,  ‘from whose bourn no traveller returns’ (a rather difficult thing to say after he’s seen the Ghost). But it comes at a very odd place in the play. Last time we saw Hamlet he was all fired up with excitement about his plans to stage the play and ‘catch the conscience of the King’. Why this sudden and irrelevant relapse?

It’s also a difficult piece to stage. Polonius and Claudius withdraw having planted Ophelia to ambush Hamlet. He walks on and soliloquizes for some time before noticing her. Either she takes refuge somewhere and reappears at the end of the soliloquy or else she hovers around, pulling focus while he utters it.  And poor old Polonius and Claudius are stuck behind the arras wishing he’d get on with it.

It proves far more dynamic if you take the soliloquy out and bring Hamlet straight into confrontation with Ophelia as it’s set up to happen. No time out for a soliloquy. But of course simply cutting it is hardly an option. Audiences would demand their money back. But when I’ve directed the play I have found it very useful to put ‘To be or not to be’ earlier in the piece, in the middle of Act II, Scene 2. Polonius has just told Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet is mad and spends hours walking in the lobby. They then spot him approaching, book in hand, and withdraw so that Polonius may interrogate him. This seems to me the perfect place to pop in ‘To be or not to be’, as if Hamlet is chewing over a thesis in the book he has been reading. It is not a passionate, urgent speech, but academically discursive. It leads very well into the dialogue with nosey Polonius: ‘What do you read, my lord?’ Hamlet” “Words, words, words…”

But I can never get over the feeling that it was a speech that Shakespeare pulled out of a drawer and snuck into Hamlet.

(page 190, 191)


These are extracts from On Shakespeare by John Bell

You can purchase the book, here.

As part of atyp‘s monologue program,The Voices Project, 10 young actors take on the most famous monologue of them all in TO BE To find out more, click here.

Read leading Shakespeare tutor and actor Sarah Woods on the making of TO BE, here.

You can also listen to a great interview, here, on Radio National’s Artworks, in which actors Ewen Leslie and Garry McDonald discuss how they brought new life to their roles as Hamlet and Polonius in Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent production.


As co-founder of Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre Company, John presented many productions of landmark Australian plays including David Williamson’s Travelling North, The Club and The Removalists. He also initiated an Australian Shakespeare style with Nimrod productions such as Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth.

In 1990 John founded The Bell Shakespeare Company where his productions have included Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard III, Periclesand As You Like It, as well as Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. His Shakespeare roles have included Hamlet, Shylock, Henry V, Richard III, Macbeth, Malvolio, Berowne, Petruchio, Leontes, Coriolanus, Prospero, King Lear and Titus Andronicus. Most recently he preformed the role of the Professor in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya, presented in association with Bell Shakespeare.

John Bell is an Officer of the Order of Australia and the Order of the British Empire. He has an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the Universities of Sydney, New South Wales and Newcastle and in 1997 he was named by the National Trust of Australia as one of Australia’s Living Treasures. In 2010 he was awarded the Sydney Theatre Award for Lifetime Achievement in recognition of his extraordinary career as an actor, director and producer.

His autobiography, The Time of My Life, was published in 2002.

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Categories: Actors, Monologues, Performing, The One Sure Thing, The Voices Project, To Be


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3 Comments on “John Bell on performing Hamlet”

  1. January 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    Reblogged this on Making It. and commented:
    “To Be or Not to Be…” A very thought-provoking, analytical and insightful look into Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by John Bell of Bell Shakespeare.

  2. February 4, 2012 at 4:31 am #

    Thanks for the extract. I tried emailing through the answer for the John Bell competition and I am getting nothing but bounce backs from your email address.

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