Hamlet Uncut is 5 Hours Long!

“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.

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  1. Ken in Albuquerque Aug 6, 2008

    One of the many Shakespeare-related myths is that the BBC versions of the plays are uncut. The BBC Hamlet has considerable cuts in every act of the play.

  2. A.K.Farrar Aug 6, 2008

    I sat through a ‘cut’ Hamlet that was over 4 hours and a half (with intervals) and many a cut one feels much more.
    Speed of delivery was certainly different – but what wasn’t played in Shakespeare’s time is the ‘un-cut’ text we now have.

    What is noticeable in it are the repeats and mismatches.

    Shakespeare texts as printed were rarely what you heard on stage – as I recently mentioned elsewhere, Hamlet gives us the classic reason for believing texts were adapted and changed for individual performances – Hamlet changes ‘The Mousetrap”.

    The Hamlet text is questioned – and often regarded as the least complete Shakespeare text precisely because it is not reflective of a performance but contains far too much for a satisfying theatre experience (especially if you are standing in the theatre on a January day and the light is fading fast.

  3. simon webb Jun 26, 2011

    I was recently in a Hamlet that ran 2 3/4 hours, with 7% cuts (in other words, folio) plus intermission. We followed the tradition espoused by Peter Hall, which is an oral tradition shared by actors, all the way back to Garrick and Macklin. Also the work of Patrick Tucker, in trying to understand the performance realities of Shakespeare’s actors. I gotta say, at that speed, it’s like standing up in the roller coaster – hair-raising! And it made more sense to our audience (eg “There were lots of words I didn’t know, but I GOT everything!”) We often try to slow up for those tricky or obscure words and passages – forgetting that most of those words were coined by Shakespeare himself, and if they are strange to us, they were completely new to his audience. Hearing this stuff for the first time must have been like getting slapped awake with a wet towel!

    By simple math, I calculate that, at the tempo of our Hamlet, Merchant could run 2 hours, Comedy of Errors (the shortest and earliest) only 80 minutes, and Tempest (the last and second shortest) about 98 minutes. That’s short enough to give any director plenty of room for self indulgence, without hacking the text in order to keep it under 5 hours!

  4. Anne May 4, 2014

    Spot on with this write-up, I seriously think this siote needs a great
    deal more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more,
    thanks for the advice!

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