“The play as written is 4 1/2 to five hours long,”
“Depending on the staging, a full, uncut production of Hamlet can last four to five hours.”
“Uncut, Hamlet runs a good five hours”
Or does it?
Those few random statements I found in articles online are everywhere. Reviews, books, classroom lectures, essays, and in people’s mouths. Where does this number come from?
How many of the people who say this have seen an uncut Hamlet, I wonder. I must confess that I have not seen an uncut version ON STAGE, but here’s what I do know:
- Arkangel’s audio Hamlet, uncut, includes plenty of music between scenes, as well as before and after the play with credits, etc — 3 hours, 25 minutes
- BBC Hamlet, uncut, with Derek Jacobi — 3 hours, 30 minutes, including intro and end credits.
- Kenneth Branagh’s “complete” Hamlet – uncut, plenty of cinematic sequences between text, extra action, and feature film length opening and closing credits! — 4 hours and 2 minutes.
So how could an uncut production take five hours?
In general films move faster than theatre does. It’s quicker to show something than to say something. But the BBC complete works series is basically filmed versions of the stage play, just on a sound stage and not in front of an audience.
What about scene changes? If you have a different complicated and giant set for every scene, sure, you’ll probably add an hour with scene changes… but who’s gonna do that? With a well designed unit set with smaller bits and pieces brought on and off for locations it’s not too difficult to keep the action moving with minimal or no pauses.
How about when Hamlet was first performed? For starters, we don’t know which text was used when it was performed in Shakespeare’s day. The text from the First Quarto, Second Quarto, and First Folio are all of various lengths. The most “complete” Hamlet that you’ll see in most published editions today is around four thousand lines of text, and close in length to any of the three versions of the play that I mentioned above. And if that full text was used, it is speculated that plays were acted at a much brisker pace than they are today. Perhaps in the 18th century, with more theatrical technologies and the use of spectacle becoming popular, it is possible that there were different complicated giant sets for every location and an hour was added on… but that extra time has very little to do with any performing, or anything to do with the text itself.
I have a feeling that the 5 hours long myth is meant to “wow” the audience, and make them be thankful before the curtain rises that they will only be seeing an edited, 2 and a half hour version.