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Derek Jacobi: a special kind of Hamlet in the BBC's Shakespeare Plays

By Arthur unger / November 7, 1980

'Tis a pity Hamlet never got to be king. That's not Shakespeare speaking, but Derek Jacobi, the actor who plays the melancholy Dane (I promised myself I wouldn't use that hackneyed phrase but here i am utilizing it already) in the new BBC "Shakespeare Plays" production (Monday , 8-11:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

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"He would have mada a fine monarch," mr. Jacobi told me the other day. "According to Ophelia, before Hamlet went mad, he was a true Renaissance prince who probably would have made a wonderful king. . . ."

Mr. Jacobi, pronounced JackOby, with the accent on the Jack, ("My great grandfather was German") speaks about Shakespearean characters as if they were living, breathing people today.

"It is one of the inconsistencies of 'Hamlet' that the monarchy is an elected one . . . and wouldn't necessarily have passed from father to son. Claudius was elected by council. Claudius ism the people. If the people liked Hamlet the people would vote for Hamlet. So it wouldn't necessarily follow that on his father's death Hamlet would become king. Claudius got in ther first while Hamlet was still at school at Wittenburg. Claidius was already counting the votes. But I do think Hamlet would have done rather well if he had evere made king."

Mr. Jacobi is, at present, playing the lead in "The Suicide," an anti-establishment (especially the Soviet establishment) play written by Nikolai Erdman in Russian in the 1920s, supressed there and only now being rediscovered and produced all over the world. But Mr. Jacobi claims he is nonpolitical, quite satisfied with the British monarchy.

"At the moment it is riding particularly high, isn't it?" he says uneasily. "I think Prince Charles is a good idea, enormously popular. The worry is that what happened to Edeward VII will happen to Charles -- Elizabeth may reign so long that he'll be an old man by the time he becomes king.

"I suppose if I am anything political, I am right wing. I vote for Margaret Thatcher. i'm not committed to either side but I veer toward the right. I would hate to live in a real socialist state, however. 'The Suicide' is giving me an awful taste of what it must be like . . . always observed, always having to conform to somebody else's philosophy of life. But here I am getting political. . .," he interrupts himself.

So, back to Hamlet, where Mr. Jacobi feels more at ease. He says there are all kinds of Hamlets -- political, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical, psychological. But they can't all be done simultaneously, he believes. An actor must choose one area for emphasis. Which has Derek Jacobi chosen?

The answer is self-explanatory when one has seen his BBC Hamlet -- Jacobi has made him a repressed, emotionally disturbed Hamlet, a Hamlet who explodes into frenzy whenever his control slips a bit.

"Really, it is the personality of the actor playing the role which is the determining factor. You don't actually have to play the character, you play the situation in which Hamlet finds himself and your own personality, your own outlook, takes over. That's why the part is played differently by so many different actors, all doing perfectly valid interpretations. Hamlet is universal man, he is all of us.

"I've found that I put myself as a person in hamlet's situation and, rather than acting, I have reacted."

Mr. Jacobi seems a bit disturbed about his own explanation. "But I find analyzing him more difficult than playing him. I am an instinctive actor. I could much more easily get up now and demonstrate it for you than find the right words to explain what i do."