Hamlet's AgeHamlet has always been played by middle aged men, no doubt because of the difficulty of the roll. In this age of recorded productions isn't it time for a 16 year old Hamlet?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Richard Burbage was Shakespeare’s friend and the leading actor in many of his plays. He was born in 1568. Hamlet was written and staged around 1602. Burbage would have been 34 at that time. Shakespeare had to explain why Hamlet looked so old, so he had the gravedigger explain that Hamlet was 30. I have always thought that Shakespeare inserted a few lines of dialogue in the scene with the gravedigger in order to establish that Hamlet was thirty years old and justify the fact that Burbage was obviously no young college boy. Shakespeare could have cast a young man in the role, but he had written an extremely complicated role requiring acting expertise and first-class elocution and must have wanted someone he was sure would do it justice. The young men in his company often played women! Where would he have gotten a really gifted professional male actor who was only, let's say, twenty years old? Maybe there are plenty such actors in Hollywood who would love to get a leading role in a new production of Hamlet, but Shakespeare's choices were probably very limited in his day. The article on Burbage in Wikipedia shows a portrait of Burbage in his heyday, and he not only looks plenty old but looks as if he has had a long, hard life. Shakespeare could have had another reason for wanting Burbage in his production of Hamlet: Burbage was a star--not unlike Mel Gibson and Laurence Olivier. Burbage's name would sell tickets. That's show biz.


William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I suspect that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet he intended the hero to be a young man. After all, he is a college student and apparently hasn't even finished college at Wittenberg. He should be like the character played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate--a young man who has learned a lot in school but doesn't learn about reality until he gets out of school. I further suspect that Shakespeare had to establish that Hamlet was thirty years old because he planned to cast a man in the role who was at least thirty and probably older, as Sir Laurence Olivier was when he decided he wanted to play the role in a movie. Laurence Olivier was forty when he made his film version of Hamlet--and he looked it! The only reason we have for thinking of Hamlet as a thirty-year-old is a few lines spoken by the gravedigger, who very awkwardly explains that he became a gravedigger the same year Hamlet's father defeated Fortinbras and that was the year Hamlet was born, which was thirty years ago. If Hamlet is thirty, that makes his mother seem older, which hardly accords with what we are told about her lusty behavior with Claudius. And what about Hamlet's contemporaries, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and Horatio? Are they all thirty-year-old men as well?

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with much of what has already been posted, and I would add that Hamlet still being a student at age thirty seems at least a bit unlikely. I must admit that hearing that Kelsey Grammer was going to play Hamlet on Broadway was disconcerting, to say the least. Too old. Also agree that the amazing Kenneth Brannagh was an extraordinary Hamlet but made it just in time. We may not know Hamlet's exact age or the exact time span of this play, but we do know these are the impetuous actions of a younger man, not an older one. Eighty percent of the lines spoken in this play are Hamlet's; it is a demanding role but also requires someone with a depth of character which only comes from having lived a bit longer than a decade and a half. It has to be someone who can offer a complete spectrum of emotions (which is probably why Mel Gibson failed so miserably in the role).

Hmmm...rienzi, I would encourage you to do a little exploring of this Oedipal idea, as there has been plenty written. I don't particularly adhere to the idea, but many do. The Brannagh movie version did not give much if any credence to it, but the popularly released Mel Gibson version did.

mitchrich4199 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have always been confused as to Hamlet's age. There are some theories that the play runs from when he is approximately 18 in Act I to when he's 30 in Act V. We know that he's 30 because of what the sexton says. When asked by Hamlet how long he's been a grave-maker, he says he became a sexton on the day Hamlet was born, which was also the day that "our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras." He then says that he "[has] been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years." By calculation, Hamlet would have to be 30 at the end of the play.

That being said, I like the 18 - 25 range. I believe that Kenneth Branagh decided to film Hamlet in the mid-nineties because he was running out of time to make it believable that he could be Hamlet. He completely changed his look and his body to fit the part. This, I think, supports the idea of an 18-25 year old portrayal better than anything.

susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Even though there is some ambiguity in the play as to  Hamlet's age, I think the play works best if Hamlet is a young man.  Hamlet's youth and inexperience make the likelihood that he was passed over as his father's successor more plausible.  On film, however, it seems that Hamlet is played by a 30-something (or older actor), and the play just does not work that  well, no matter how skilled the actor.  A  Hamlet with all the angst of a young adult, repulsed by his mother's actions and chafing under the yoke of a corrupt stepfather would be very welcome.  I think 16 is a little young, but certainly an actor between 18 and 25 could play the part.  I'm with rienzi, it's time for a skilled young actor to play one of the greatest roles ever created. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't know... it seems like you would need to be more mature and more experienced to have any chance to do a good job with all the nuance and emotion that has to go into the character.  Sure, you could have lots of takes, etc (though that might make everyone else in the cast and crew angry), but could a person that young really do a good job with the role?

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet's not being married, his relationship with his mother which leans somewhat in the direction of an Oedipal complex, and his indecision seem to prompt reader's to envision a young man, especially considering the setting of the late medieval period.

rienzi | Student

Hamlet's not being married, his relationship with his mother which leans somewhat in the direction of an Oedipal complex, and his indecision seem to prompt reader's to envision a young man, especially considering the setting of the late medieval period.

There is nothing in the play that is "Oedipal".

rienzi | Student

Although editors of the play tend towards the word "sexton" in 5.1, a review of the received texts, namely the 2nd Quarto and the Folio, use the words "Sexten" and "sixteene", respectively. The 1st Quarto makes no mention of this passage. One thing though is clear. In all three texts numbers throughout the play are grossly inconsistent. Having said that, personally, I like the word "sixteene" because it is consistent with Hamlet's behavior particularly before Act 5. Further, the term "Sexten" ( "sexton" is used in the Arden 2nd ed.) is problematic.

First, a gravedigger or clown can hardly be considered a sexton. A sexton is a church official not a clown. Compare this gravedigger to the Sexton in Much Ado About Nothing. There is no comparison. Second, the gravedigger goes into great detail at the beginning of the scene to tell us he is a gravedigger. Not only is the term "sexton" never used, no duties as a sexton are ever mentioned. Third, the sentence does not use the indefinite article "a" before "sexton". Its prose not blank verse so meter is not a factor. To read the sentence as edited claims the gravedigger has been "[a] sexton here man and boy..." A boy sexton?  No, the sentence should read, "I have been sixteen here man and boy thirty." This means its the gravedigger who is thirty and he has been digging graves for sixteen years.