Burbage's Father's Ghost



Biographical criticism of Hamlet has focused on the deaths of Shakespeare's father and son. Such criticism is underwritten by deep theoretical commitments to Shakespeare's authority, but undermined by the biographical evidence, which permits no clear link to Hamlet. There is a far clearer biographical connection between Hamlet and the actor who played him. Richard Burbage had lost his own father, the famous actor and playhouse-owner James Burbage, not long before the canonical texts of Hamlet were created. Some of Hamlet's audience would know that fact well.

Some form of Hamlet had been performed at James Burbage's Theater in his lifetime, possibly with Richard Burbage as Hamlet. Reviving the part after James Burbage's death would invite at least some of the audience to view Richard's performance as transparently autobiographical. The play works to deflect such presumptions. Hamlet's emphasis on Hamlet's interiority and its insistence that theatrical expression is always incomplete, leaving some crucial residue of emotion unexpressed, artfully defuses its star actor's celebrity, allowing him space to distinguish between his self and his character. The Hamlet we know strategically denies biographical reading. [J. J. M.]