Benedict Cumberbatch is the victim of a flattering form of typecasting—as the consummate brainiac. After playing Sherlock Holmes in the hit BBC series, supersmart supervillain Khan in Star Trek, and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch will take on the most intellectually agile character that Shakespeare ever wrote. He’ll spend 12 weeks this summer and fall on the Barbican stage playing Hamlet in a new production by director Lyndsey Turner. It is the fastest-selling ticket in London theater history: Almost a year before the rise of the first curtain, all advance seats sold out within minutes. (Fortunately the Barbican has held back 100 tickets per show at about $15 each via same-day purchase; details will be announced closer to opening night.)
The race to see Cumberbatch isn’t without precedent. He’s the latest in a long line of British thespian heartthrobs to interrupt a burgeoning Hollywood career to play the conflicted Prince of Denmark—from Richard Burton to Kenneth Branagh to Ralph Fiennes to Jude Law. What drives them to make such a mad gesture, one worthy of the character himself?
As Stephen Greenblatt, the author of the best-selling biography Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, points out, the role’s simplest allure is its size: Hamlet has the most lines of any character in the canon and is onstage for most of the play. It’s also exceptionally multifaceted, requiring the actor to love, be loved, hate, kill, and be killed over the course of the evening. “Hamlet is the only one of the great tragedies in which there is no clown,” Greenblatt says. “Hamlet plays the clown to his own prince, a fascinatingly complex challenge for an actor to figure out.”
The rock star–ish appeal of the role was evident from the outset. The play was a blockbuster hit with contemporary audiences and has remained a seat-filler for more than four centuries, according to Greenblatt. “It’s a little bit like The Godfather,” he says, “simultaneously a tremendously gripping murder-revenge story yet also something morally, intellectually, and spiritually complex.” From August 5 to October 31 at the Barbican, Silk Street, London; hamlet-barbican.com.