Michael Caines at the Times Literary Supplement:
No gravediggers. No funeral for Ophelia. No voyage to England. At the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on December 18, 1772, David Garrick did “the most imprudent thing I ever did in all my life”, and staged a new and much-altered version of Hamlet. At the age of fifty-five, he was to rejuvenate the prince he had first essayed in Dublin some thirty years earlier, at the outset of his career. Garrick’s was a lifelong experiment with the role: this latest alteration of Shakespeare was at least his third improvement on the decades-old acting text of Robert Wilks and John Hughes. It included almost 630 lines previously unheard in the eighteenth-century theatre. Yet it also ditched what Garrick was pleased to call the “rubbish of the fifth act”, in favour of some rubbish of Garrick’s own devising. “And now shall you feel my wrath – Guards!”, he has Claudius exclaim – to which Hamlet gamely retorts with a fatal stab and a cry of “First feel mine!” Gertrude exits, pursued by a fear (of her own son); imprudently, he impales himself on Laertes’s sword. Horatio and Laertes (not Fortinbras) are left to bury the dead.
Garrick’s Hamlet was a popular triumph. The Westminster Magazine’s reviewer was not alone in believing that “The tedious interruptions of this beautiful tale no longer disgrace it”. Most critics, however, then and now, have tended to howl about what he did to the play – tended, that is, to see only the squashed fifth act rather than the largely restored other four.