VYSOTSKY Vladimir Semenovich

22 of May 2016
The second Asian Shakespeare Association conference “All the World Is His Stage: Shakespeare Today” will take place on 1–3 Dec 2016, New Delhi, India.
Database "Russian Shakespeare"
Moscow University for the Humanities
Vladimir Semenovich Vysotsky
Vladimir Semenovich Vysotsky enacting Hamlet

Vladimir Semenovich Vysotsky [25.01.1938, Moscow — 25.07.1980, Moscow] was a talented Soviet poet, prose writer, singer-songwriter, theater and screen actor.

V.S. Vysotsky left his mark as an “all-rounder”: many people highly appraise his poetry and songs, the others adore his genius for acting in numerous roles on screen and stage, much more people consider him as an iconic figure of the past century. Many Shakespearean admirers rate him as one of the great performers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet of the 20th century.

V.S. Vysotsky as Hamlet

It is difficult to overestimate V.S. Vysotsky’s contribution to the history of “Russian Hamlet”. The character, which the actor-poet crafted on the stage of the well-known Taganka Theater, is certainly a significant phenomenon in the thesaurus of world theater. In the context of my investigations into Hamlet as a constant of Russian culture this interpretation claims to be carefully analyzed, inasmuch as, in my opinion, Vysotsky as Hamlet is a glaring example of how the eternal images of the world culture can reflect states of mind that prevail in this or that society.

Just as in the well-known movie directed by G.M. Kozintsev, the translation by B.L. Pasternak was chosen for the production. It is evident that the theatrical public of that time was associating the figure of the poet-translator who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1958 with the problem of the opposition between the poet and the powers that be in many instances. The audience could not have not drawn attention to the congenial, in many respects, Pasternak’s version of “Hamlet”, such a great was the yearning for a new poetic word that was raising the eternal issues of existence among Soviet intelligentsia.

The actors’ costumes were also a novelty for the theater-goers — jeans and sweaters. In those times this could be easily considered as propaganda of the Western mode of life by the censorship. On 19 November, 1971, the full-dress run-through of the performance took place[1], and on November 22 the production was discussed in the Head Department of Culture at the Executive Committee of Moscow Council[2]. Besides the director and official establishment who were supervising the sphere of culture, the Chairman of the Shakespeare Committee of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR A.A. Anikst was in attendance. The support and academic standing of the Shakespearean scholar contributed to the favourable decision of the Commission[3]. However, many “punch items” were pointed out. E.g., some commissioners raised their voices against V. Vysotsky in the title role. But Y.P. Lyubimov managed to defend the actor[4].

The opening night of “Hamlet” with V.S. Vysotsky in the role of “the son of the former King, and nephew of the present King” took place on November 29, 1971 at the Moscow Taganka Theater (director — Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov; translation by Boris Leonidovich Pasternak; stage designer — David Lvovich Borovsky; music by Yuri Markovich Butsko; Claudius, the King of Denmark — Veniamin Borisovich Smekhov, Aleksandr Shalvovich Porokhovshchikov; Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother — Alla Sergeevna Demidova; Polonius, the King’s chief counsellor — Lev Arkadievich Steinreich; Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter — Natalia Petrovna Saiko; Laertes, Polonius’s son — Ivan Sergeevich Bortnik, Valery Aleksandrovich Ivanov; Horatio, Hamlet’s friend — Leonid Alekseevich Filatov; Rosencrantz — Ivan Vladimirovich Dykhovichny, Igor Alekseevich Petrov; Guildenstern — Alexander Mikhailovich Vilkin).

The production received favourable reviews on the whole, in particular, by A.A. Anikst and A.V. Bartoshevich. The latter noted that the performance was reflecting the tendencies of the world theater of those years when more and more directors were discarding the Romantic interpretations of the Shakespeare legacy and were increasingly showing it in realistic colours. However, in a short time the Soviet theatrical media just ceased to mention the “Hamlet” at Taganka. Apparently, after such eulogistic responses to the performance, which had been made by acclaimed Shakespeareans, it was too late to set forth squelchers. But the Soviet censorship could no longer allow publications of new similar reviews in Aesopian language in the official editions[5]. The production became forward-looking for the Soviet stage of those times. It reflected the states of mind not only of the audience, but also of the reviewers who certainly were feeling a particular protest against the “rot” of the Soviet state, but nevertheless they did not close down the performance.

Many admirers of V.S. Vysotsky’s talent point that the part of Hamlet became one of his major roles and maybe it was the peak of his dramatic gift. This can be justified by the fact that the poet was expressing his vision of the image of Hamlet, his destiny and tragedy during many of his performances of various years. There are several dozens of audiotapes where the actor is trying to present his conception of one of the most complicated tragic characters in the world’s drama to the audience both from the first and third persons[6].

The theater-goers were agreeing with a single heart that V.S. Vysotsky was acting the role in a strikingly convincing manner. The only episode that some of the viewers were doubting about was the well-known soliloquy “To Be or Not to Be”: “It is funny that Vysotsky succeeded in all but the key To Be or Not to Be. I was sitting at the performance in the first row, watching and listening to how the legendary bard was repeating this soliloquy three times, now in whisper, then in a loud voice. And all three times it was „amiss“. Vysotsky could only „be“” (translation is mine. — B. G.)[7].

Critic V.M. Gaevsky noted that the soliloquy was not the fundamental for the performance, as Hamlet-Vysotsky was facing a “narrower” dilemma: to die quietly like a mouse or properly like a knight. “The path of Hamlet is from disgrace to beauty, from the mousetrap to the duel, from rat race to showdown fight” (translation is mine. — B. G.)[8]. Playing with the light and shadow and actively using the capabilities of the famous rough-textured stage curtain made by D.L. Borovsky, Y.P. Lyubimov was showing some flashbacks of the childhood and adolescence of the Prince where the peace and harmony of life had been reigning. These flashbacks were strengthening the awareness of the tragicalness of human entity, which it was impossible to wipe clean, having thrown the past like drafts into the fire. In V.M. Gaevsky’s opinion, V.S. Vysotsky was acting in such a manner that the audience had an impression that Hamlet was insistently trying to recover from this sense all the time, living fitfully and through endless trials of new things: “The playwright for one day, lover for one evening and maybe student for one term” (translation is mine. — B. G.)[9]. This Prince is not seduced by worldly glory and blessed love in the bonds of marriage. More exactly, he does not want to walk along this way, because all his reason is concerned with another point — the issue how to wash out the blots on his escutcheon: “The lad in jeans who is rushing about and devouring his heart, who is knocking his head against a brick wall, shouting at his mother and is just about to beat up his fiancée — he is not a madman, not a troublemaker, but a captive of his honour. Lyubimov staged a tragedy, in which everything is subjected to one thing — the imperative need of Hamlet’s soul to wipe out disgrace from himself and from everything around him”[10] (translation is mine. — B. G.).

The performance and his protagonist Hamlet-poet became one of the significant milestones of the theatrical history of the USSR. The production appeared to be a reflection of the spiritual and mental feelings of the intellectual stratum of the Soviet society of the 1970s. A.A. Anikst used to recall about this “Hamlet” on Taganka Square the following: “…A heavy woollen stage curtain that was moving like a creature, but of course, Vysotsky was amidmost. Hamlet. He was sitting on the floor near the backdrop of luminous stage, in black clothes; he had a guitar in his hands. If the Prince of Denmark is associated with a musical instrument, then maybe it is a flute, the one that Guildenstern who has been trying to „play“ Hamlet cannot play. But — the guitar?! In such a way the essence of the new Hamlet was set right away. For those who were thinking “academically” both Vysotsky and the guitar were blasphemies in Hamlet. But for those who was living at present day the performance and the image of the hero discovered certainty at first glance. This is our Hamlet, the human being of our times. It had been known: all Hamlets were suffering of the fact that „the time is out of joint.“ This Hamlet will suffer of the pain and pangs of our time… <…> The truth is in his favour. And again the image of the Prince of Denmark joins the image of the poet, not only of the actor. Hamlet is indignant and so is Vysotsky, Hamlet is mocking and so is Vysotsky, Hamlet is mourning and so is Vysotsky. Hamlet perishes and wins and so does Vysotsky”[11] (translation is mine. — B. G.).

In summary, it is possible to draw a conclusion that V.S. Vysotsky was a splendid catch of the director for the part of Hamlet. It is difficult to imagine another actor of those years who could live the life of Hamlet-poet in such a deep-felt and psychological manner on stage and who was able to die in the name of spectators’ catharsis every time.

V.S. Vysotsky took the stage as Hamlet the Dane for the last time on July 17, 1980. After only 8 days the actor’s heart died within him.

“Hamlet” at the Taganka became a theatrical legend long time ago. And the “Hamlet with a guitar”, V.S. Vysotsky, played a significant role in this repsect.


[1] In some sources, it is said that on this day the premiere of “Hamlet” directed by Y.P. Lyubimov took place. But on the official site of the theater there is the date of November 29, 1971. Inasmuch as the higher-level civil servants were talking over the production on November 22, then it is possible to presume that the full-dress run-through took place on November 19 and only some privileged persons could attend it, in particular, A.A. Anikst (see: Kul'gavov V. G. «Moi Gamlet» // Kul'gavov V. G. Vladimir Vysotskii — akter, poet i ispolnitel' avtorskoi pesni. Irkutsk, 2002. URL: (retrieved on 1 December, 2011).

[2] See, for instance: Abeliuk E. S., Leenson E. I. Teatr i tsenzura // Abeliuk E. S., Leenson E. I. Taganka: Lichnoe delo odnogo teatra. M. : Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2007. S. 318.

[3] See, for instance: Brodskaia E. V. Spektakl' Iu. P. Liubimova «Gamlet» v sovetskoi presse nachala 1970-kh godov // Vestnik Rossiiskogo gosudarstvennogo gumanitarnogo universiteta. 2011. 6. S. 124.

[4] See: Shcherbakov A. Interv'iu dlinoi v dvenadtsat' let (1976–1988) : Interv'iu s Iu. P. Liubimovym // Teatr. 1988. 7. S. 143–148; Abeliuk E. S., Leenson E. I. Retrospektiva // Ukaz. soch. S. 83.

[5] See: Brodskaia E. V. Op. cit. S. 126.

[6] See, for instance: Vladimir Vysotskii: «Inogda mne kazhetsia, chto ne khvatit sil» [Electronic resource] // Izvestiia. URL: (retrieved on 7 April, 2011).

[7] Kedrov K. Shekspirova fleita [Electronic resource] // Ekho planety. URL: (retrieved on 29 October, 2011).

[8] Gaevskii V. M. Gamlet // Vysotskii na Taganke. M. : V/O «Soiuzteatr» STD SSSR, 1988. S. 49.

[9] Ibid. S. 50.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cited by: Vysotskii V. S. Ia konechno vernus' : Stikhi i pesni. Vospominaniia. M. : Kniga, 1988. S. 41–43, 46.

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B. N. Gaydin

The article was written and published within the framework of the project "The Image of Hamlet as a Constant of Russian Culture" with the support of the Russian Foundation for the Humanities (grant No. 11-34-00221a1).

Citation: Gaydin B. N. Vysotsky Vladimir Semenovich [Electronic resource] // The World of Shakespeare: An Electronic Encyclopaedia. URL: [2011].