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Richard Burton as Hamlet

For Shakespeare's 450th birthday, we're going back 50 years to see what was done for his 400th birthday celebrations. In 1964, renowned Shakespearian actor Richard Burton took on the role of Hamlet, which went on to be one of the most acclaimed performances of the character.

Helen Cook
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A version of Hamlet starring icon of the 1960s, Richard Burton, opened on Broadway, New York, on 9th April 1964. The 400th anniversary year saw many productions of Shakespeare’s plays take place all over the world but this one was to feature on the front cover of Life Magazine and so perhaps epitomises the ‘Shakespeare mania’ that was going on at that time. The same year Peter O’Toole also played Hamlet at the National Theatre, London, under the direction of the great Laurence Olivier.

Richard Burton Life Magazine
A selection of objects from our 1964 themed Treasures Exhibition, including Life Magazine.

The Burton production, directed by John Gielgud, was performed as if in ‘dress rehearsal’ so the actors were not in the period costume which it’s said Burton disliked wearing. It was a smash hit (helped no doubt by his high profile romance with another 1960s icon, Elizabeth Taylor) and enjoyed a record breaking run.

Interestingly, Burton was not a newcomer to Shakespeare having visited Stratford-upon-Avon as a young, relatively unknown actor in 1951 to play Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 and the title role in Henry V, and also having played Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre in 1953.

Other interesting (but unusual) Shakespearian performances of 1964 include comedian Benny Hill playing Bottom in a television production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Beatles appearing in a spoof of Act V, Scene I of the same play.

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