Double Casting?

So Patrick Stewart played both Claudius as well as Hamlet’s ghost in the David Tennant production that we’re all still talking about.  I’m told that this is common practice.  Fair enough.  Never really thought about it one way or the other.

My question for discussion, though, is … why?  I understand a live theatre troop having to double up on actors because they don’t have the bodies, or need to keep costs/resources/complexity down or whatever the real world reasons are.  I’m not talking about that.  When you’ve got plenty of budget and big name stars to work with, double casting to begin with is clearly a choice.  To double cast the major roles obviously has a point, such as the fairly obvious one when we see Theseus and Hippolyta double cast with Oberon and Titania in Midsummer.

So then, why Claudius and his brother?  What’s the point of that particular choice?  Is it to show that Hamlet’s issues with Claudius are really unresolved issues with his dad?  Is it to suggest that Hamlet’s dad and his brother were so close in physical resemblance that we can forgive Gertrude for essentially replacing the former with the latter?  Hamlet several times plays up the differences between his father and Claudius (the line “like Hyperion to a satyr” comes to mind), so is it to draw a stark contrast to that, to suggest clearly to the audience that they weren’t really so different after all, and Hamlet just wishes that they were?

Any other “well known” double cast decisions you want to talk about?

20 thoughts on “Double Casting?

  1. Well, I don't know if you could call this well known, but Osric and the Player Queen also doubled up in that production…!

  2. This production of Hamlet could have greatly benefitted from the directorial prowess of Peter Quince who, as we all know, rejected Nick Bottom's suggestion that he could perform the roles of Pyramus, Thisby *and* the Lion!

    But as for players with multiple parts, I can think of two: the actors who played the Moon and Wall in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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  3. I really like double-casting. It's not , of course, something one has to do by any means, but because Shakespeare's troupe certainly did it (he had about fifteen actors to play the over-thirty roles in Anthony and Cleopatra) we do miss out on some of the fun of Shakespeare by rejecting it.

    Claudius/ Ghost is a textbook example of what I'd call the "ironic double-cast." It's a doubling of roles that are repeatedly presented as foils but never share the stage. This results in an irony that only the audience, not the other characters, is privy to. In the Claudius/Ghost case, it also lets a second talented actor (like Patrick Stewart) compete with Hamlet for the top billing. It keeps it from being a one man show, so to speak.

    Other notable ironic double-casts are Posthumous/Clotten in Clymbeline and, more comically, Duke/Doctor Pinch in Comedy of Errors. I've played the latter an it is a lot of fun, as there's a scene where Antipholus of Ephesus gives a long, unflattering description of Doctor Pinch to the Duke. The audience laughs because they are aware I'm the same actor.

    Regarding Polonius as Gravedigger: Ron Cook did a fantastic job in those two roles in the Broadway Hamlet starring Jude Law. I think the reason for that double-cast is not irony, but conservation of actors. Both parts call for an older actor skilled at comedy, and giving the Gravedigger part to Polonius saves space backstage and gives Polonius something to do after he dies relatively early in the show. Why does it work out so well? Probably because Shakespeare meant it to, if you ask me.

  4. Something I didn't mention in my review. It also bothered me a great deal that the Ghost was not "ghostly" at all. And you also mentioned the ghost suddenly taking on corporeal qualities–grabbing Hamlet–it didn't make me shudder. It made me wince at the lack of forethought that it might indeed distract by doing just what it did to me.

    I don't know why there seems to be a need to double the role, other than
    something having to do with actor ego or misconceived direction. (The latter
    being an item there seemed to be no lack of in this production). It seems to be one of those modern "conventions" people have grown to accept as "tradition" because some famous actor did it once. It makes absolutely no sense in the context of the text. As you lay out here, it cuts against the grain of every comment made about who the ghost IS.
    BTW it's believed that Will himself was the first actor to portray the ghost. I've never read anything about the possibility that he found it necessary in any way to also double as Claudius. And those were the times when doubling was in its heyday as something of a very practical necessity. And if economics is the governing factor, it makes more sense to double the Player King–another role thought to have been Shakespeare's.

  5. See, doubling the ghost with the Player King makes all the sense in the world, as that is the very role the Player is playing, he might as well look like him. I also kind of dig (ha!) the idea of doubling with the second gravedigger (the one who exits), I think that'd make for an interesting opportunity for a late double take from Hamlet, like "That guy looked strangely familiar …"

  6. Interesting you should mention…it's been common practice for the actor playing Polonius to also play the 1st gravedigger (or "clown").

  7. See, I wouldn't love Polonius as the gravedigger, for two reasons. I'd rather not have the father discussing the death of his daughter so callously as they do (even though he's not technically Polonius at that point). Second, I saw an interpretation during an outdoor show last year that I quite liked, where Ophelia's body is left lying there in the grass at the end of the scene, and Polonius as a ghost of his own comes out, wakes her up, and then they exit together. I'm sure that's got no basis in traditional interpretation, I just happened to like it. Nice reminder that, despite Polonius' issues, they are in fact father/daughter and there is a relationship there.

  8. We walk a fine line when it comes to desensitizing audiences from what they're accustomed to and what was common in Shakespeare's day. Should it be done? Most definitely. I'm also a big advocate of actors speaking directly to the audience in aside or soliloquy.

    But to me, there's a big difference between what can happen on a stage and what happens when the camera is the audience. The particular doubling in question didn't seem to work out very well at all. The problem was compounded by the simple fact that no attempt was made to make the character a "ghost" and further, the "ghost" "came alive" so to speak. Capt. Picard come from the grave–with a white goatee. If that is ALL that's done in this "special" case in a trade-off for someone's "top billing" well, I feel sorry for Sir Patrick for his thinking he might need it.
    But if some forethought had been given to the through line, perhaps the moment to make the ghost a corporeal figure would have been less unbelievable or jarring if, possibly, it had become flesh and blood at an earlier date.
    Marc. Shall I strike at it with my Partizan?

    Hor. Do, if it will not stand.

    Also, as I mentioned, I'm not aware of any extant info indicating that the ghost would also have played Claudius, even in Shakespeare's troupe. The possibility of lots of doubling permutations will always exist, of course, and I've doubled actors in every production I've produced and/or directed. But that's the stage.
    But if the attempt was to make it "theatre" simply by turning a blind eye to the fact that it was not in fact theatre…well then, it's no surprise, given the fact that Mr. Doran had the chutzpah to unthinkingly "edit-down" what is arguably the most famous soliloquy in the English Language.

  9. You have to keep in mind that this production was first cast for the stage and that the film came after. I saw the stage production in Stratford and the fact that the same actor is playing both parts is not nearly as distracting on the stage. Honestly of all the films of Hamlet I've seen I think they deal with the ghost scenes better than most, they accept their limitations and avoid the melodramatics of Branagh's ghost scene which just come off as cheesy. Again the ghost scenes much more ghosty on stage.

    Whether they had a reason or not for the double casting I don't know for sure. And While I don't think Doran needs to justify the choice I can think of at least one reasons. It is clear that the brothers look alike (same actor) but it is also clear that they were very different kings Doran intentionally makes old Hamlet a Warrior King, this is clear both in the text of the play and in the way that this production dresses old Hamlet. Claudius is a very different kind of king, he is a politician, again this is present in the text, but it can be played up or down and Doran intentionally played it up.

    In some ways I think that having the roles played by the same man actually draws a much stronger contrast between the two roles than if they are played by separate actors. They may look the same, but they were very different men and I believe that is one of the things that Doran was trying to show.

  10. Oh and interesting bit of trivia. In Shakespeare's time it is unlikely that the two roles were double cast. However, there is extant evidence showing that Shakespeare (who lets not forget was an actor) did play the role of the ghost.

  11. I disagree on one point, Sarah, and that is that "Doran doesn't need to justify the choice." I agree that he's not obligated to handhold every audience member until they get it, but at the same time I think he has an obligation to the audience to put stuff on stage for a reason. I wouldn't appreciate him making decisions with a coinflip or a "Wouldn't this be cool? This'll drive em bonkers, nobody's ever done this before, there's no reason for it" mentality. We have Beckett for that. 🙂

  12. Duane. I wasn't at all suggesting that Doran made these choices on a whim or that he had no thought behind them. Just because he has reasons for the choices he made, and I believe he does, doesn't mean he's going to spell them out for us. I attended the director talk for this show back in 2008 and it was very clear that he knew what he was doing and that his choices all had a great deal of thought and research behind them. I simply meant that I do not believe he needs to come out and explain all of his choices as a director point by point. Additionally if you read my entire post I did mention one very strong possibility for the double casting, which Doran did breifly touch upon in his talk.

    I think that one important thing to remember is that very often a directer has a specific reason that they chose to do something, and an audience member may interpret that choice in a different way. However this difference of interpretations is not a bad thing, each person has their own experience of a performance and to tell them specifically what to think at each moment would defeat the purpose of going to the theatre.

    I also should say that I find nothing at all surprising about the double casting. Shakespeare is routinely double cast and each director has his or her own reasons for doing so. When I said I was unsure about whether or not he had a purpose in doing so I could have been more specific in saying that I am unsure what category that purpose fell under. Directors make choices and whether they be practical in terms of the amount of time on stage for particular actors or whether they play a more central role in how the play is understood, a good director is always making choices.

    Also Breckett is a pretty bad example to give of someone just doing what ever the heck they want. Although his plays appear very haphazard you are probably aware that they are meticulously blocked and in order to put on one of his productions a theatre company is legally obligated to follow the blocking provided in the play.

  13. Sarah wrote…"I saw the stage production in Stratford and the fact that the same actor is playing both parts is not nearly as distracting on the stage."

    I think I wrote something about that in the post directly above your first one. Certainly this might have been considered, given the need to translate from one genre to another? I didn't have to see it to know it works better, and there are knotty problems to consider when making the transfer from stage to film–and you confirmed it–it's elementary theatrical knowledge. You'd think this would have been a matter for forethought of major importance to a director of Doran's status. And yet…"damn the torpedoes."

  14. Sometimes Duke Senior is doubled with Duke Frederick in As You Like It. Brian Blessed played the pair in Branagh's film, and I've seen live productions do this as well.

    I like this choice. The two men never appear on stage together, so it's not a problem logistically. It's also a fun challenge for the actor to play the two roles. Most importantly, though, if the actor gets it right, the doubling really highlights the distinction that Shakespeare is making between the honest freedom of the forest and the constraining artifice of the court.

    Of course, Blessed got it right.

  15. Bill wrote…"Of course, Blessed got it right."

    Important point you hit on there, Bill.:)
    And I imagine, so did the director who chose the concept in casting him in both roles.
    And as far as highlighting FOR Shakespeare, the "distinction" between Claudius and the former King, he does it quite well enough himself in his play called Hamlet without any help–or should I say, muddying?. Duane brought it up in the very beginning–the Words. Apart from the comment I made confirming it, I think this important point was passed over by everyone else.

  16. Hi. Really like the discussion here.

    I just saw this Hamlet yesterday, and I thought the double casting was a good call. Firstly, this production really brought out the possibility that Hamlet is actually insane. Also, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me that in the subtext of the play, Hamlet is very conflicted about avenging his father, hence the endless temporizing. Also, Claudius has taken his father's place, and keeps identifying himself as Hamlet's father… in a sense, Hamlet is being asked to kill his father. Throughout the play, he can't just live and be happy as everyone tells him to, because his father is hanging over him — to fix this, he is supposed to kill his (surrogate) father, who is to blame for the situation.

    If you say that in some way, Claudius and Hamlet Sr. are one and the same figure — a father figure who must be slain for the son to live — you have the subtext of the play that made it so fascinating for Freud.

  17. There was some interesting double casting in Dundee Rep's 2006 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream": Irene Macdougall and Okon Ubanga-Jones played Hippolyta and Theseus and Titania and Oberon, emphasizing the parallel complicated relationships of the couples.

  18. The Dundee Rep production highlighted the play's too-often-ignored hallucinogenic side and lost-innocence ending. Macdougall's Hippolyta wasn't exactly a willing bride-to-be and her Titania was a woman put through it and debased when Oberon's retaliatory strike against her backfires disastrously, as, lust-stricken, she's impelled to make love to an ass.

  19. Just one comment on the Dorn "Hamlet": I liked very much the emphasis on poison in this production. Claudius's poisoning of his brother figuratively poisons every relationship in the play (e.g., Hamlet and Gertrude's and Hamlet and Ophelia's) and the very state of Denmark itself, culminating in the ending's quadruple poisoning of Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius.

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