Hamlet's Crawl

In 1856 Lewis Carroll attended a performance of Hamlet at the Princess Theatre with Charles Kean playing Hamlet. Carroll wrote in his diary that "Kean was best in the play scene (evidently grouped from Maclise's picture)" (I, 73). Carroll refers here to Daniel Maclise's The Play Scene in "Hamlet," a painting first exhibited in 1842 at the Royal Academy to great critical acclaim. A curious aspect of Maclise's picture is the contorted figure of Hamlet--in this painting an "Irish ruffian," according to John Ruskin--who lies twisted, half on his side, half on his stomach, chin in hand, intently watching Claudius. In this scene Hamlet traditionally lies at the feet of Ophelia as the play-within-the-play commences, but how do we account for Hamlet's odd contortions in the Maclise painting?

Charles Kean's production of Hamlet in 1856 so strongly resembled the composition of Maclise's painting of 1842 that Carroll could recall it after such a long time and note it in his diary, recording an obvious example of how a painter could influence an actor. These relationships are, however, more complex, and Maclise records in his painting details from an earlier actor and a production of Hamlet that he had seen before he painted his picture. The mutual influences of pictures and productions are a bit hazy, but we can piece together a tradition in both pictures and productions that is based on a blatantly theatrical device--what Dover Wilson criticized as a "vulgar trick"--called "Hamlet's crawl."

Daniel Maclise's painting depicts William Charles Macready in his 1823 production of Hamlet (Buell 64 and Hughes 272, n. 64). Maclise's Hamlet, with his high forehead, long dark hair and distinctive features, indeed resembles pictures of Macready. More telling, however, is his twisted position at Ophelia's feet. Macready's portrayal of Hamlet in the play-scene (III. ii) was noted for the way in which the actor crawled towards Claudius and finally jumped up in triumph at the moment of the King's cry for more light. John Marston in Our Recent Actors (1888) judged Macready "superb" in this scene, especially in the way in which he slithered towards the King; "with body prone, and head erect, and eyes riveted on Claudius, he dragged himself nearer and nearer to him" (Mills 100). Preparation for the crawl, based on the scene as it was played by Macready, may explain Hamlet's position at the center of the Maclise's painting.

Macready cannot take the dubious credit for inventing the crawl; that distinction traditionally goes to another, earlier Kean--Edmund, not Charles--who introduced it in his production of Hamlet in 1814. This earlier example of Hamlet's creeping progress towards Claudius did not meet with critical favor; the reviewer for the London Herald, for example, thought the whole business tasteless:

During the mimic representation, Mr. Kean so far forgot that inalienable delicacy, which should eternally characterize a gentleman in his deportment before the ladies, that he not only exposed his derriere to his mistress, but positively crawled upon his belly towards the King like a wounded snake in a meadow, rather than a Prince openly indulging himself in moral speculation in the salon of a royal palace (Mills 83).

Seventy years later Frank Marshall in his Study of Shakespeare still laments this traditional stage business; at the point in the play when Hamlet says, "'A poisons him i' th' garden for his estate,"

most of the actors, that I have seen in the part of Hamlet, are wont to execute what I must venture to call the most vulgar piece of melodramatic absurdity which can be conceived. They crawl on their hands and knees from the feet of Ophelia to the King, whilst the poisoner is speaking his short speech on the stage. . . . Tradition, deriving itself from Edmund Kean, is said to justify this astonishing piece of business. (43-4)

Like so much in matters of critical taste, everyone hated the crawl except the paying public, and they loved it. Thus Kean's crawl towards Claudius in the production of 1814 became a standard bit of stage business for almost a century. Daniel Maclise depicts in his painting of 1842 a traditional nineteenth-century interpretation of Act III, scene ii of Hamlet that theater-goers anticipated and perhaps even demanded.

When Edwin Forrest, another noted player of Hamlet, took his production of the play to America in 1829, he lay on a couch during the play-scene, thus eliminating the opportunity to crawl about on the floor. A reviewer for the newspaper in Cincinnati, Ohio, expressed his satisfaction on seeing the "miserable crawling" done away with in Forrest's production (Mills 118). Forrest had, nevertheless, bowed to tradition and public taste at least once in his performance of the scene; a contemporary illustration, now in the Theatre Collection of the Harvard College Library, shows him on the floor scooting towards the King and pointing a fan at him.

Like the slither, the fan had become one of Hamlet's props in this scene. Different actors had Hamlet at various times peeping from behind the fan as he watches Claudius, chewing the fan in agitation as the tension mounts, or, like Forrest, using it to point accusingly at the King. (For further discussions of the crawl, the fan, and the play-scene in general, see Hughes, 58-61, and Sprague, 157-59.)

Edwin Booth in his 1870 production likewise did away with the crawl and simply lay at the feet of Ophelia. But in earlier productions he too incorporated the crawl in his performance; look closely at this illustration from about 1864 that depicts an earlier production by Booth, where his creeping towards Claudius is so pronounced that the carpet upon which he lies is rumpled as he drags it along with him.

In this illustration of Booth's performance, as with the other images we have considered, the reactions of Claudius and Gertrude, as they watch Hamlet slither serpent-like towards them, are a mixture of alarm, defensiveness and guilt.

The last of the renowned slitherers was Sir Henry Irving; he resisted the tradition until 1874 when he reintroduced the crawl in his production of Hamlet. He freshened the scene somewhat by making Hamlet appear so totally involved in gauging the reactions of Claudius that he almost unconsciously moves towards the king in a "snaky crawl" and, according to one account of the scene, "hisses" his lines. The audience gave Irving a standing ovation after the scene. Perhaps intimated by this tour de force by Sir Henry, no notable actor after him played the scene in the same way. The critics, as you might imagine, were not unhappy with the omission of the crawl; the reviewer for the London Times approvingly noted that Johnston Forbes-Robertson "does not wiggle across the floor in his eagerness to watch the King, but retains a rational degree of composure" (Mills 181). The crawl, "this most vulgar piece of melodramatic absurdity," thus ended with Irving and the nineteenth-century, but it did have one notable curtain-call in this century when Richard Burton resurrected it in a 1953 production. Burton, seated at the feet of Claudius, rolled over and crawled briefly as he spoke a few lines before standing up. Compared to Irving's performance, Burton's gesture seems only half-hearted.

The acid remarks of so many critics makes one wonder why the tradition of the crawl, recorded vividly in both pictures and productions, took so long to fall into disuse. As we noted earlier, the answer probably lies in the approving response of audiences, enthralled by the threatening, reptilian implications of the slithering Hamlet. Audiences, notes Marvin Rosenberg, "did not see hands and knees: rather the sinister gliding of a serpent . . . . The crawl had the advantage of winding the tension tighter inch by inch, as both the stage audience and theatre one, watching Claudius nearing panic, followed Hamlet's inexorable movement toward the climactic face-to-face . . . . In the crawl, Hamlet was able, as he promised Horatio, to rivet his eyes to Claudius' face; when he moves around it is harder not to break the connection" (582).

A footnote: this is a postcard published by the Ernest Nister Company of London around the turn of the century. The image of Hamlet's slither was by now so thoroughly a part of the popular conception of the way this particular scene ought to look that everyone--even those who had never been in a theater--could see it as it was so often performed. And for just a penny at that!