“Did Hamlet Have an Affair with Ophelia?” “In My Theater Company, Invariably”

John Barrymore? Walter Sichel? William Powell Frith? Anonymous Scene-Shifter? Johnston Forbes-Robertson? Arthur Machen? Cedric Hardwicke? Errol Flynn?

Dear Quote Investigator: The theater world has long been known for complex tempestuous relationships between cast members on and off the stage. One comical tale concerns the ambiguous relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia presented in William Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy.

An inquisitive theatergoer asked a well-known stage manager, “Did Hamlet have an affair with Ophelia?” The manager quickly responded, “In my company, always”.

Would you please explore the history of this tale?

Quote Investigator: In 1923 “The Sands of Time: Recollections and Reflections” by Walter Sichel appeared. The author relayed a story he heard from the painter William Powell Frith who died in 1909. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1923, The Sands of Time: Recollections and Reflections by Walter Sichel, Chapter 8: Editorship—and After, Quote Page 238, Hutchinson and Company, London, England. (HathiTrust Full View) [/ref]

At one time he delighted to go behind the scenes of the theatre and chat with the scene-shifters. One of them appeared very intelligent, and Mr. Frith asked him if he had ever himself been a player. He had, in the provinces. Had he ever acted Shakespeare? Of course he had, he had played in ‘Amlick, he had, indeed, acted the chief part.

“Very interesting,” said Mr. Frith, “please tell me what is your conception of Hamlet’s relation to Ophelia. Did he, so to speak, love her not wisely but too well?“I don’t know, sir, if ‘Amlick did, but I did,” was the unblushing answer.

The key line was delivered by an anonymous thespian who also worked as a member of a stage crew. This family of anecdotes is highly variable in expression; thus, the origin is difficult to trace.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1924 the “Books and Art” section of “The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune” included an article discussing Walter Sichel’s book. The newspaper reprinted Frith’s tale about Hamlet and Ophelia; thus, it achieved further distribution.[ref] 1924 October 12, The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (Star Tribune), ‘An Attic Salt-Shaker’ by W. Orton Tewson, Quote Page 11, Column 3, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

In 1929 popular syndicated columnist Walter Winchell presented a different story in this anecdote family. Prominent English actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson delivered the punchline in this version:[ref] 1929 December 21, The Morning Post, On Broadway by Walter Winchell (Syndicated), Quote Page 34, Column 1, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

While touring the hinterland in his Shakespearian repertoire company, Forbes-Robertson used to lecture before the lady social clubs in every town where he appeared in a play. At the end of each talk he invited members of the audience to ask any question they might desire.

In one town a lady arose and asked: “Did Hamlet really have an affair with Ophelia?”

To which the actor replied: “Well, when I played Hamlet he did.”

In 1932 the notable fantasy and horror writer Arthur Machen wrote a letter which referred to a version of the anecdote. A pertinent excerpt from the letter appeared in the limited-circulation periodical “Faunus” in 2001[ref] 2001 Spring, Faunus, Number 7, Edited by Mark Valentine and Ray Russell, A Palimpsest of The Three Impostors! by Roger Dobson, (Excerpt of an unpublished letter dated June 15, 1932 from Arthur Machen to Frederick Carter seen by Roger Dobson), Start Page 9, Quote Page 14, Publisher: The Friends of Arthur Machen. (Verified with scan of page 14 and data from philsp.com; thanks to Douglas A. Anderson and Dennis Lien) [/ref] and was reprinted in a later collection in 2015:[ref] 2015, The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors by Roger Dobson Edited by Mark Valentine, Essay: A Palimpsest of The Three Imposters by Roger Dobson, (Originally published in FAUNUS magazine #7, Autumn 2001), (Excerpt of an unpublished letter dated June 15, 1932 from Arthur Machen to Frederick Carter seen by Roger Dobson), Quote Page 55, Publisher: Caermaen Books and Tartraus Press, North Yorkshire, UK. (Verified visually by Dennis Lien) [/ref]

“Pray, Sir, is it your opinion that . . . er . . . anything . . . has occurred between Hamlet and Ophelia before the curtain rises?” The Old Actor: “In my time, sir, invariably.”

In 1949 “Fun Fare: A Treasury of Reader’s Digest Wit and Humor” printed a version of the Frith anecdote:[ref] 1949, Fun Fare: A Treasury of Reader’s Digest Wit and Humor, Section: Stage Interludes, Quote Page 104, The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

“Very interesting,” said Mr. Frith. “Tell me — what is your conception of Hamlet’s relation to Ophelia? Did he, so to speak, love her not wisely but too well?

“I don’t know, sir, if ‘Amlet did,” was the unblushing answer, “but I did.” — Walter Sichel, The Sands of Time

In 1961 actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke published a memoir titled “A Victorian in Orbit” which included this instance of a student questioning a stage manager:[ref] 1961, A Victorian in Orbit: The Irreverent Memoirs of Sir Cedric Hardwicke by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as told to James Brough, Chapter 3, Quote Page 34, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

The student, clearly a forerunner of the Method and its insistence on motivations, wanted to know, “Did Hamlet have an affair with Ophelia?” The manager did not have to wrack his brains to answer that. “In my company, always,” he replied.

In 1975 film critic and historian Richard Schickel published a collection of interviews with influential movie directors including Raoul Walsh who was a close friend of actor Errol Flynn. Walsh relayed a version of the anecdote from Flynn who credited the prominent actor John Barrymore. Walsh referred to “John Barrymore” as “Jack Barrymore”, and Flynn referred to “Raoul Walsh” as “Uncle”. The following episode occurred in 1942 at the time of Barrymore’s death:[ref] 1975, The Men Who Made the Movies: Interviews with Frank Capra, George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, and William A. Wellman by Richard Schickel, Section: Raoul Walsh, Sub-Section: Flynn and Barrymore, Quote Page 50, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

I was up at Errol’s house and he’d been drinking quite heavily. We’d heard that Jack Barrymore died that day. There was a couch there where Barrymore used to sit. Jack would tell us his wild stories about his travels.

So he was all saddened by the death of Barrymore, and he said, “Uncle, I can see the old fellow sitting there now telling us his most marvelous tales, like the great story he told when somebody asked him if Hamlet had had an affair with Ophelia. And he said, ‘Only in the Chicago company.’” And Flynn said, “How I miss the old fellow.”

In 1979 Michael Freedland published “The Two Lives of Errol Flynn”. The author included a slightly different version of the anecdote that Flynn heard from Barrymore:[ref] 1979 (Copyright 1978), The Two Lives of Errol Flynn by Michael Freedland, Chapter 8: The Edge of Darkness, Quote Page 105, William Morrow and Company, New York. (UK edition published in 1978) (Verified with scans of 1979 edition) [/ref]

Flynn used to ask him: “Was there really an affair between Hamlet and Ophelia?”
“Only in Cleveland,” said Barrymore.

In 1989 “Broadway Anecdotes” by Peter Hay attributed a variant joke to Barrymore centered on Romeo and Juliet instead of Hamlet and Ophelia:[ref] 1989 copyright, Broadway Anecdotes by Peter Hay, Chapter 5: When Giants Walked the Earth, Quote Page 82, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper in 1990 paperback)[/ref]

After his success in Hamlet, Barrymore gave some college lectures on Shakespeare and his plays. In the question and answer period that followed the talk, a student asked whether Romeo and Juliet, young as they were, could have enjoyed a full physical relationship. “They certainly did in the Chicago company,” Barrymore recalled.

In 1997 “The Observer” published a profile of actor Ralph Fiennes and included an instance of the joke:[ref] 1997 February 16, The Observer, The Observer Profile: Top of the world, Ma: Ralph Fiennes, Oscar romeo, by Michael Coveney, Quote Page 20, Column 2, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The old gag in answer to the academic query ‘Did Hamlet ever sleep with Ophelia?’: ‘Only on tour, dear boy’ . . .

In conclusion, a member of this family of anecdotes was circulating by 1923. The crucial line was delivered by an anonymous stagehand who had also played Hamlet according to the painter William Powell Frith. In 1929 powerful columnist Walter Winchell credited Shakespearian actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson with the punchline. Some versions of the anecdote were likely apocryphal.

There is a substantive evidence that John Barrymore told a version, but he may have been simply entertaining his friends with a modified instance of an existing story.

Image Notes: “Hamlet and Ophelia” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti circa 1858. Public domain image accessed via Wikipedia. Image has been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Dennis Lien whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Lien pointed to the 1932 letter of Arthur Machen mentioned in the 2015 citation. Thanks also to Douglas A. Anderson who helped verify the 1932 letter in the 2001 periodical. Additional thanks to Nigel Rees who discussed this topic in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” in 2001. Rees pointed to the 1961 and 1989 citations. In a personal correspondence to QI, Rees remarked that some modern instances employ the line “Only on tour”.)

Update History: On June 6, 2019 the 1997 citation was added.

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