Goodnight Sweet Prince: A Reflection on Hamlet

Barbican Theatre's Poster for Hamlet

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Hamlet at the Barbican Center, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This show has been sold out for over a year. People fly in from all over the world just to see this performance because they are huge fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, mostly from his work in Sherlock

Me? I’m a bigger fan of Hamlet. After all, my degrees are in British Literature with a focus on the Renaissance Era, and Hamlet is my all-time favorite play. I know it inside and out. I’ve seen many adaptations and portrayals by some of the greatest actors of our time. 

Before I saw Cumberbatch as Hamlet, I liked his work. I could even say I loved his work. He’s brilliant as the high-functioning, sociopathic, consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. I’ve also seen a few of his films since then, and I have not once been disappointed. I recognized his talent, and I considered him a fine actor among many.

After Hamlet, my respect and admiration for him has grown exponentially.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

His impeccable delivery and eloquent execution left me breathless. The emotional depths to which he delved required ardent focus, profound dedication, absolute courage, and extraordinary talent. His heartfelt performance touched my very soul, as he captured the essence of the melancholy Dane like no other I’ve seen. He must’ve been emotionally and physically exhausted after such an exceptional performance. I know I was. Exhilarated and exhausted all at once, humbled at being in such close proximity to creative genius. The remnants of which still heave my heart a week later.

Such passion and intense emotion left me feeling drained, and strangely sad. No, not sad. It’s a feeling I can’t quite describe. Since that night, I’ve been trying to articulate the sensation and label it, but I have yet to do so.

Still, it lingers.

When I can’t find the words to express my experience, I have a tendency to talk and talk and talk, trying out words here and there–rather, trying on words to see what, if anything, defines the emotion, gives voice to the thoughts.

After the show, I watched the hordes of “Cumber-babes,” as they call themselves, crowd around the stage door to wait for him to emerge. Many other actors came out and walked past the hundred-or-so (mostly) women pressing themselves against the crush-barriers, who hardly glimpsed in their direction. I wondered how they felt. Perhaps they felt as invisible as I did, or more so since they just performed in the same play as Cumberbatch, only without acknowledgement of their own talent. Without fans wanting their autograph.

On the other hand, perhaps they were relieved they could get off work and just go home to their privacy and families.

Maybe a little of both.

As I made my way around the edge of the crowd, I saw Leo Bill, the actor who played Horatio leaving. No one even looked at him, but I said, “Well done,” as he passed me. He turned, surprised, and replied, “thank you” with the sound of soft gratitude.

I wish I had talked with him more.

Then another passed. An older actor named Karl Johnson who played King Hamlet and the Gravedigger. Someone I wouldn’t know by name until now, but I certainly recognized him from many films and TV shows throughout the years (Rome, Mr. Turner, among many others). Perhaps not the celebrity of Cumberbatch, but still a well-known, working actor in British theatre, TV, and film.

He passed by everyone without notice and disappeared into the London night. I wanted to talk to him, too; but I didn’t. He was far from me, and I didn’t want to chase after him. Maybe others thought the same.

I had a chance to get Ciarán Hinds autograph and picture, as most everyone had left after Cumberbatch made his appearance, but I didn’t. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would just be bothering him (even though he was signing and posing for others with a genuine smile).

I felt humbled. Inadequate, somehow.

My groupie days died with the cassette tape, but I found myself still in awe of these people. Just people, like you and me. People with drive and focus and talent. I’ve met my share of famous people, having worked in both the literary and film worlds, but there is still something quite intimidating about it for some reason.

I’ve respected Hinds’s work before this (Rome, Game of Thrones, among many others), and his portrayal of Claudius was excellent. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Well done.” I couldn’t speak loudly enough to ask for a picture or autograph. I tried once, but my words were so soft, they dissipated in the misty London air.

When it was all over and I parted from my friends, who had been assertive enough to get autographs and/or pictures with Cumberbatch and/or Hinds, this indescribable feeling really weighed on my heart. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

There I was, alone on the tube. It was near midnight in this remarkable city, and I had just seen the best performance of Hamlet in my life. I had just made new friends. I had just been in the presence of profound dedication and talent, and I was humbled. I was invisible. I felt as if my own flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, or perhaps it already had. 

This amazing night full of passion and profound depths of emotions quickly became empty, a stale promontory.

A week later, I’m still grasping for meaning, for understanding.

Certainly the proximity to such creative genius, both in the timeless work of Shakespeare and Cumberbatch’s impeccable execution of the melancholy Dane, held up a harsh mirror to my own life and creative failures. Missed opportunities and overall insignificance. Shame and self-loathing. 

Yet, I yearned to be in that theatre once more. I longed to capture the swell of emotion as my soul cried and laughed with Hamlet. Instead, I replayed his soliloquies over and again in my mind, trying to hold on to every word, every moment of ecstasy.

I again saw the tears fall on his cheeks, watched his eyes crinkle with laughter, clutched my own heart in his palpable grief. I spoke “To Be or Not To Be,” emphasizing the words as he did, attempting to remember each intonation, each accent, each eloquent syllable.

If only I could bottle such perfect moments and taste their bittersweetness again and again when I’m feeling low. If only I did not have to say goodnight to that sweet prince. If only I could be illuminated by his brilliance. If only some rosemary would bring me remembrance. If only I could for once not merely be in close proximity to greatness, but that I could grasp it, absorb it, become it.

After writing the above, I’ve realized that perhaps it’s none other but the main, facing my mediocre reality after experiencing the emotional depths into which Cumberbatch took me. 

It’s merely the decompression of a touched and troubled soul, longing for inspiration once again. The rest is silence.

24 Comments Add yours

  1. laurapreble says:

    Gorgeous writing!! I felt exactly this way…a sense of deep longing laced with elation and melancholy. So incredibly grateful to have been in that room, in that moment, witness to the brilliance of both Shakespeare and the cast, including but not exclusively, Benedict Cumberbatch. But I, too, had that soul-shaking emptiness, the fear perhaps that what I had done or will do will be nothing but sound and fury. I guess all we can do is be grateful we were given a glimpse of the divine, and I, too, keep replaying it in my head. Lovely, lovely piece.

    1. Thank you, Laura. That means so much to me, especially coming from you. The entire experience affected me more deeply than I had originally realized, as if it was just beneath the conscious surface. The longing continues. xo

    2. Melinda Baines says:

      Beautifully expressed. Those moments when you are witness to something which transports your soul are so few and far between. Pure theatre and pure acting are one of those blessings.

      1. They truly are, indeed. Thank you for reading and for the compliment.

  2. Melinda Baines says:

    Thank you for an objective yet emotion filled review. I have been reading many reviews, all in awe of the production but I have only really focused on those from people going in who love Shakespeare rather than the actor/s. I have spoken to others lucky enough to get tickets and all have simply raved about both the production and the performances. It seems as though we may have one of the definitive readings of the play and in Cumberbatch, perhaps the best rendition in the last 20 or more years. Someone who recalls seeing David Warner on stage believes that Cumberbatch is the only actor playing Hamlet who has reached that level of complete ‘oneness’ with the text. I can hardly wait to see this in a few weeks.

    1. That’s an excellent way to put it, and quite accurate: “the only actor playing Hamlet who has reached that level of complete ‘oneness’ with the text.” Also with the character.

      Definitive, indeed.

      His performance exceeded Branagh’s in my opinion. Exceeded everyone I’ve seen. I’m baffled at the press’s reviews. It’s almost as if they saw a different show. They’re being overly harsh, methinks.

      I understand that Jude Law got a Tony for his portrayal of Hamlet, but I did not have the good fortune to see it.

  3. rattilia says:

    For me, as an non-Shakespeare-expert and a non-native speaker, it was the most beautiful amazing production. I’d never expected theatre to be like this.
    Reading some very elitist article on Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet of some people who seem to think you’re only allowed in a Shakespearean play if you’ve studied it no less than 10 years…

    I’m thinking: If theatre and Shakespeare is not for non-experts what’s the point of it then?

    Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliance in my eyes is that his Hamlet felt totally real to me. Like a real life person, not only a role in a play.

    The whole production is magical. I was totally gripped, sitting on the edge of my chair to get as many details as possible. And I wasn’t even sitting in the front rows of the stalls.

    I’ll come back in October an then I’ll be sitting in the front of the stalls. I’m more than excited!
    Can’t wait to see it again live in the Barbican. And I’ve already booked the NT live screening and two encore screenings.
    That’s how amazing Benedict’s Hamlet and the whole cast and production is to me!
    Loved every second!

    1. Personally, I have no patience or time for elitism.

      I’ve already booked two encore screenings, too. Hope to see it live again this week. I’ll do all I can to make that happen.

  4. rattilia says:

    And I forgot to mention: I love your emotional post! 🙂

    1. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it!

  5. Jill barker says:

    Thank you for posting these wonderful thoughts about Benedict’s Hamlet. For me, he can do no wrong and I have followed his career for years. He is simply sublime as an actor and has the ability to get under the skin of every character he plays . Unfortunately his huge success and popularity tells against him with many critics. There is huge envy of anyone this successful and too many critics are totally elitist in their approach to all the arts. If it’s popular it can’t be any good. And any actor who can attract thousands of young people to see Shakespeare is obviously lowering the tone. I bet Shakespeare would have loved his performance . After all, he wrote for the masses not the elite. It is wonderful that so many people have raved about his performance . I found it illuminating that one critic awarded 4 stars, saying that he did so because his 17 year old daughter adored it , otherwise he would have given it 3 ! I am lucky enough to be going on September 16 , then to the cinema screening on October 15. I can’t wait!

    1. You are going to love it. I bet Shakespeare would’ve loved his performance, too.

      When I first read the reviews before opening night, I wondered if they had seen the right play.

      Unfortunately due to these kinds of elitists, the director moved To Be Or Not To Be from its audacious place at the opening to closer where it is in the play. It was shocking at the beginning, indeed, but it really worked with this show. It set the stage for hamlets state of mind and the tone of the play.

      It’s location in the performance now I find awkward, and I think something is lost (seeing it both ways now). Still, BC’s execution is impeccable.

      You will love it.

  6. Audrey says:

    I am a young, lithe 58-year old cumberbabe who discovered this man in January 2014 when Season 4 of Sherlock came out and became obsessed ever since. I live in Los Angeles and will only get to see the NT version of Hamlet in October. I’ve read almost every Hamlet review that’s come out and have been disheartened by the consensus, with many critics blasting the production while praising Ben’s performance. None of their praise, however, has been as detailed and generous as the praise that you have given him here.

    The fact that you have seen many performances of Hamlet and Ben’s has touched you the most deeply is so thrilling to me, especially since some critics complained that the play was entertaining, but did not move them emotionally. I wonder if you could speak to where you think the disconnect lies in the disparity among these experiences of the play. Perhaps it speaks to the complaint that his interactions with other characters took a back seat to the energy he put into Hamlet’s soliloquies. Is it mostly the soliloquies you are responding to, or do you not make that distinction, valuing the play as a whole? Also, did you think that the production values drowned out the flow and impact of the drama in any way? This was a common complaint

    I find it fascinating that, as an expert in Hamlet, you preferred ‘To be or not to be’ as the show opener. I’m sure many would consider you to be an “elitist” since you are a professor, yet you were comfortable with this moving of the text to the beginning, while other critics said that it didn’t work at all. What about this placement of the text worked for you?

    People also criticized Hamet’s ‘antic disposition’, saying it was puerile and didn’t really depict a faked descent into madness. Did you enjoy this part at all (his comic side) or was it a distraction for you?

    I know I’m asking you a lot of questions, but your take on Ben’s performance really matters to me because you are a successful author and someone to be taken seriously. Also, Ben has had a rough year and hasn’t been in a good place mentally or physically (you may have noticed his gauntness), so I’m very concerned for him. I want to believe that he’s giving the performance of his life and all his struggles will be rewarded in the end.

    By the way, I saw your selfie with Ben on Tumblr before I found this site and your reviews and found it more captivating that many of the others he’s taken with other cumberbabes at the Stage Door. Ben looks so sweet in his pic with you and you look so happy. Don’t know if you think he’s cute and charismatic or just love his acting, but I know I’m smitten.

    Sorry for rambling, would love your feedback.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and questions, Audrey. No need to apologize for rambling. I thrive on discussions like this.

      First, I’m no expert on Hamlet, that’s for sure. I have taught it at the college level, but I’m far from a proper scholar. That said, this is the play I know the best, partly because I indentify with Hamlet on so many levels.

      I truly enjoyed his “antic disposition,” especially the comic side. As for 2BR02B (to use Vonnegut’s abbreviation), it was definitely a shock to see it as the opener. I first wondered if I had missed the first half of the play. I momentarily felt as if I wasn’t emotionally ready for it, but Ben took me there quickly. It really set the mood for the play and for his state of mind. 2BR02B hits me deeply because I’ve stuggled with suicidal ideation for much of my life, also brought on by a traumatic experience. I know how Hamlet feels.

      Not only is he grieving his father’s untimely death, but he does not have the support of anyone around him. Everyone is telling him to cheer up, cast off that inky cloak! When one does not have the support of their community after such damaging events, it becomes a secondary trauma.

      On top of the sudden loss of his father, he also feels betrayed because of his mother’s behavior. So it compounds the trauma, and trauma is cumulative. Throughout the play, he experiences more and more betrayal: the discovery of his uncle’s actions, being emotionally abandoned by the woman he loves, being betrayed and “played” by his dear friends. The only person who stays true to Hamlet is Horatio. Everyone else betrays him.

      Hamlet is quite alone, unable to trust anyone.

      When they moved 2BR02B to later in the play (still not in its proper place), it lost something because of its new position and the proximity to a very comic scene. Hamlet is dressed as a toy soldier when he delivers it now, and somehow all that bright color takes away from the sombre tone of that most famous speech. It didn’t feel like a natural place. Why would he be particularly contemplating his existential conundrum after such antics with Polonius? It didn’t fit there. It fit better at the beginning (or where it is supposed to be).

      Since I live with PTSD, I can recognize his decent, not into madness, but into dark acceptance. He meets death ready, knowing on some level it is the only peace he will find. For when one has endured what he has (including the loss of his mother and his lover, both somewhat due to his actions), the prospect of surviving afterwards is daunting.

      The way virtually everyone he loves treats him shows that the treatment of those with intense emotions hasn’t changed much in 500 years. Focusing on his depression and suicidal ideation as a symptom of mental illness rather than a reaction to the psychological injury illustrates the discomfort we as a culture has with raw emotion, grief, and pain, not to mention the stigma around mental illness and injury that still exists today.

      I recently read a review here in London that says how Ben showed us what a horrible person Hamlet really is, but I couldn’t disagree more. He’s not a horrible person; he’s a tormented one: psychologically injured and grappling for understanding, for meaning, for purpose.

      As for critics saying they weren’t emotionally touched, I found it to be deeply emotional, but on a subtle level. It wasn’t obvious, like the experience of Les Miserables, where I start crying from the first note and continue until the last. This was profound on a subconscious level, like it was just beneath the surface. It’s why it took me a week to process it. I suspect that many people aren’t comfortable enough with their emotions, judging from a lifetime of experiences with most people unable cope with uncomfortable emotions without muting them with drugs/alcohol or running away from them no matter what the cost.

      His interactions with other characters were some of my favorite parts. Certainly the soliloquies were delivered with skill and depth, but his interactions with other characters sometimes touched me more. His pleading with Gertrude after the play within the play was tender and showed genuine love and concern for his mother. His confrontation with R & G was one of my favorite parts. He tells Guildenstern to play the pipe and then lashes out with fury and pain at the betrayal, knowing they’ve been playing him since their arrival. Powerful.

      The production as a whole was visually stimulating with some fine performances (and some mediocre ones). The sets were gorgeous. Although I wasn’t thrilled with Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter is still my favorite Ophelia), her crazy scene was excellent. I audibly gasped when she walked off stage, but I won’t say anymore lest I ruin it for you.

      I’m so sorry to read he’s had a rough year. I know he got married and had a baby, but that’s about all I know. Hamlet is an extremely demanding role, both emotionally and physically. He must be exhausted. Just judging from the amount of work he’s put out over the past few years, I don’t know how he has the time or energy for a personal life.

      He does look sweet in the selfie. How wonderful you saw it on Tumblr. I do think he’s quite handsome; however, that attraction intensified after Hamlet. Not sure about the charismatic part, as I haven’t really seen much of him outside of his performances, nor do I know much about his personal life. I’ve become very wary of charm and charisma over the years anyway.

      I think you’re right in saying that the critics have been overly harsh because of his popularity. So many people can’t get past their own resentment over someone else’s success, so they feel they must tear them down. I can’t speak to his character as a human being, for he is as likely to be a narcissist as a genuine, kind person, but he’s earned the recognition and accolades he’s received for his professional skill, dedication, accomplishments, and talent.

  7. Audrey says:

    Christine, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post in such detail. Your personal connection with Ben’s performance touches me deeply. And I appreciate your delineation of Hamlet’s emotional arc as the story progresses. I’m not as familiar with the play as some people and this really explains his situation to me. Interestingly, a recent second review that I read in the Guardian complained that his portrayal never showed a near descent into madness and called Ben’s Hamlet a bit to rational.

    1. Hamlet is incredibly intelligent. He “knows a hawk from a handsaw.” His “antic disposition” is calculated for a specific purpose. Personally, I think Hamlet is the most sane person in the play.

      He’s crippled by grief and betrayal; he’s not crazy. It’s almost as if his “antic disposition” is a defiant mockery in the face of the mental illness stigma. Like “you think me crazy? I’ll show you crazy!”

      Too often our culture, obsessed with what I like to call the Cult of Positivity, considers any show of “negative” emotional depth as an indication of something wrong instead of something natural, even courageous.

      Sorry. 🙂
      I could go on forever.

      I’m pleased my reflection and explanation touched you. I hope you enjoy Hamlet as much as I did. I have a feeling you will.

  8. jaggedrain says:

    Your description of how you felt made me think of the Afrikaans word ‘heimwee’ which doesn’t translate well, but is a sort of sadness for a thing past, with joy that the thing existed at all, and a desire to experience it again.

    What a lovely review.

    1. Wow! That word is perfect! Thank you for sharing!

      I’m so pleased you liked the review.

  9. Jill Barker says:

    Well, I saw Hamlet last night and thought Ben was incredible . He made Shakespeare so understandable as if the words just flowed naturally . Powerful, tormented, angry , he WAS Hamlet , so totally at one with the part that there was never a sense that he was an actor playing a part. The sense of betrayal by his mother and friends and the constant inability to act decisively against his uncle were clearly portrayed . The audience were riveted every moment he was on stage , by his athleticism, sheer physical strength and grace and the way he involved us all in his heartbreak and indecision. He looked younger than his 38 years – how did he keep hopping on to tables and his amazing fencing scene was definitely what would be expected of a much younger man. Of course Ben has proved over and over how strong he is physically -think of his Frankenstein and the way he contorted his body for long periods of time . I know he actually sustained joint problems as a result and actually suffered dislocations which needed medical treatment .
    I am going to see Hamlet in the cinema on October 15th and I can’t wait because the camera work will bring into focus close up studies of all the characters . I saw Tennant at Stratford doing Hamlet and Richard II and I thought he was excellent , but it was amazing how much more you saw on film. I do hope there will be a DVD of this production like the one of Tennant’s Hamlet , but of course they will balance up whether there is a greater income from annual cinema releases like they do with Frankenstein or actually releasing the DVD.
    I do have some reservations about the overall production though. My sister , who is an avid theatre goer, summed it up for me. We both thoughtBen was incredible ,but he simply blew away the rest of the cast . He was dazzling but I felt that he was not well supported . Tennant at Stratford was bouncing off Patrick Stewart as His uncle , and Gertrude was incredible . But Ciaran Hinds was not powerful enough and lacked the charisma of Stewart. It was actually difficult to hear him at times and he failed to convince me that this was an evil man who was happy to kill his own brother and put Hamlet to death. The scene between Ben’s Hamlet and Gertrude was far less charged than the scene at Stratford, and I thought this Ophelia was weak. In spite of Ben’s best efforts the relationship between them never sizzled and again, I think this was due to failings in the rest of the cast. I wanted to strangle Horatio ; the final lines he delivered , some of the most beautiful lines in the play , ” Good night sweet prince, may flights of angels take thee to thy rest” , were so prosaic .
    I’m surprised Ben didn’t leap up and throttle him.
    So in conclusion I found myself partly agreeing with the critic who said about Ben, ” He is a five star dazzling Hamlet in a third rate production” . Perhaps it was the size of the Barbican stage that dwarfed the voices of the cast . It is a huge space, maybe with mikes they would all have come over more clearly . However, I heard every word Ben said but he has an amazing voice and impeccable Shakespearean diction due to his classical training . Very few actors have his gifts and in my opinion it showed .
    So I can’t wait to see it again on film to see if the rest of the cast can be heard more clearly .
    One funny coincidence , Una Stubbs was sitting in my row a couple of seats along. When she and a friend came in, we stood up for them to pass us and of course recognised her instantly. I said hello , and that I’d met her at the Sherlocked event in April . She laughed and gave me a hug. So that was wonderful. Obviously there to support her boy , ( as she calls Ben ). She has known him all his life since she was a close friend of his actress mum, Wanda Ventham. Apparently she used to push him in his pram!! I bet she was very proud to see his amazing performance.

    1. I bet Ms. Stubbs was proud of Ben. His performance was stunning. I’ll be back in London in mid-October, and I might see it a third time if possible. Unfortunately, I will miss it at the theatre. Although it just occurred to me that I will be in Dallas on the 15th. Perhaps I can find a ticket there.

      Thank you for your review. I agree with many points of it. I haven’t yet seen Cumberbatch in Frankenstein, sadly, but I hope to do so as soon as possible. Perhaps they will make a DVD of that as well.

      I’ve truly never seen a more compelling performance. It’s been over a month, and Ben’s Hamlet stays with me, in every breath.

  10. Audrey says:

    Christine, have you seen the Hamlet NT Live version? I saw it 2 weeks ago in Los Angeles. Since I didn’t have the opportunity to travel to London to see the play, I’d love to get your thoughts on how the 2 compared to each other. Having seen photos of the set, it seems like the NT Live version filmed a lot darker than real life and many aspects of the set weren’t captured true-to-life. It was thrilling to see the close-ups of Benedict that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see had I been at the Barbican with less then ideal seats. I’m wondering if anything was lost for you in the NT Live version vs being at the play. Ben gave me goosebumps throughout NT Live and I just didn’t want his performance to end. He was so charismatic onstage that I wanted to take him home with me somehow. I heard that they may have re-edited NT Live to show more full shots of the stage. I have booked 2 encore viewings in November and December. I just can’t let go.

    1. I have seen it, and I hope to see it again and again.

      The NT Live version was amazing. In some ways better than the live performance, as you got to see the close up expressions, which made the performances even better. It, of course, lacked the overall energy that a live performance brings, but it was a fine production.

      I don’t think it filmed darker. It was a dark play with a dark set.

      I truly know what you mean by not being able to let go and to somehow “take him home” with you. Don’t you see? You have taken him home with you. That performance, his passion and dedication are now a part of you. You hold on because of how his performance made you feel, the emotions he triggered and tapped into. This performance will remain a part of you, as it will remain a part of me.

      See it again and again. Revel in the majesty and magnificence of it.

      May you find peace.

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