Monday, March 4, 2013

Who's There? Hamlet in Hamlet

“Who’s there?”
Hamlet in

                      “Who’s there?”
                      These words start the play, a play filled with questions.  These words are also used to open the introduction of the Norton edition of Shakespeare’s complete works.  I read the intro after having chosen the title of this essay so I’m not plagiarizing. Nor is it much of a coincidence.  Scholars, critics, playgoers and movie watchers have long been asking the question, “Who is Hamlet?”  And many have noted that though we can find many answers we still don’t know who he is.  Even Professor Harold Bloom writes fifty pages and doesn’t really say much.
                      So why should I try? The simple answer: how can I not? I don’t aim to solve any mysteries or come up with any eurekas but I can’t deal with the play at all until I’ve sorted out a few puzzle pieces.
                      So who’s there in the play?  Who is this guy Hamlet?  Somewhere in his roles as the son of a father, the son of a mother, a lover, a student and a prince there must be some kind of answer. Otherwise he’s a nobody, and nobody is a nobody. Not in reality. Not in Shakespeare.

Son of a father
                      We meet the father, as a ghost, before we meet the son.  We meet the son grieving the death of his father.  Excessively, say his mother and stepfather.  Hamlet’s first long speech insists that his grief is deeper than what can be seen.  His stepfather/uncle Claudius then calls it “unmanly grief” to which Hamlet does not reply but here is one of the key issues in Hamlet’s relationship to his father. Old Hamlet was a soldier, and an aggressive one.  We have already seen that: “He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice,” and that he was valiant: he “did slay this Fortinbras” (Horatio in Act 1.1). Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, calls his father Hyperion, the Titan sun god, and then – and this is important – says that Claudius is no more like old Hamlet “than I to Hercules.” He says to Horatio that his father “was a man…I shall not look upon his like again,” (Act 1.2) especially not in himself.  Adolescent Hamlet does not live up to his macho father.
                      He tries, though, in his meeting with the ghost, or at least he promises:

Haste, haste me to know it, that with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love
May sweep me to my revenge. (Act 1.5)

                      This satisfies the father who finds him “apt” but even here we see the hesitation, the contradiction. As swift as meditation? Meditation, by definition, takes time. And that’s what happens. Hamlet dithers around, not avenging his father as a son should, must, according to their rules, so he asks himself, “Am I a coward?” and the answer, in his mind, is yes: “I am pigeon-livered and lack gall…what an ass am I” who resorts only to words like a whore or a scullion (Act 2.2).  He sees himself in these despised female roles instead of the aggressive masculine avenger role demanded of him.  By society, to be sure, but more importantly of himself.
                      Much could and should be said, and has been said, about Hamlet’s idealization of his father as a husband and a king but here it would only emphasize his sense of inferiority.  This can be seen in his other roles as well.

Son of a mother
                      If one’s father was a perfect example of a masculine man, what does one do with a mother who, immediately upon becoming a widow, marries someone else, someone not nearly as manly, someone who instead of a warrior is…a statesman? A talker? Someone who is in fact more like young Hamlet than old Hamlet?
                      In this convoluted situation one (read Hamlet) would hate her and use society’s worst weapon against her – her sexuality.
                      And this is what Hamlet does.   Almost in the same breath with which he expresses his grief over the death of his father Hamlet rants against the marriage of his mother and uncle.
                      Hamlet is very clear on the question of incest here and considering his vulnerability as a grieving adolescent that’s reasonable but the issue was very ambiguous. In some times and societies a widow was expected to marry the brother. In this case it could also be seen as necessary – Denmark was again being threatened by Norway and a strong king united with a strong queen was vital. Immediately. Claudius himself expresses this: “…now our queen, / Th’ imperial jointress of this warlike state” (Act 1.2). But Hamlet doesn’t see this.  He sees betrayal: his perfect father loved his virtuous (though lusty) wife who jumps from royal bed to incestuous bed. We already see that Hamlet is confused about his mother. His father loves her devotedly, or seems to, but Hamlet sees her devotion as “hang[ing] on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ By what it fed on” (Act 1.2). “Appetite”, i.e. lust, not love. But in her marrying Claudius she is frail: “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Too weak to…? Yes, to what? Withstand the pressures of state, in need of a royal couple? Why not? But Hamlet more likely sees her frailty as giving into Claudius.  There is, in any case, a hint of Hamlet feeling, in spite of his harsh words, that it isn’t entirely her fault, but it is her weakness.
                      Almost a whole page about Hamlet’s mother and I haven’t even written her name.  Gertrude. The Queen of Denmark. It is important to remember that.  She’s not only a mother and a wife but a head of state.
                      But Hamlet doesn’t see this, he sees her only as his mother and his father’s wife, and he sees her as failing at both.  We can almost excuse him. He’s blinded by grief and resentment.  He’s neither the first nor the last to hate and resent both remarrying parent and married stepparent. And it is as son to a mother that we are dealing with Hamlet here.
                      Shakespeare doesn’t tell us much about their relationship when Hamlet was a boy.  As a queen she probably didn’t have much to do with him but there is no indication in the play of any earlier conflict.  The problem though is that Gertrude did not maintain the role Hamlet demanded of her, grieving widow.  He’s selfish, as children and grievers tend to be. He’s confused and scared (ghosts will do that to a person).
                      Hurting, frightened, feeling inferior and inadequate, unsure of his masculinity, Hamlet does what young men (and old) do in that situation.  He becomes violent.
                      The closet scene.
It is very important to read this scene, Act 3.4, carefully.  Gertrude is often interpreted as weeping and wailing and repenting her own evil.  This is wrong.  She is angry.  Here, more than ever, she is authoritative. She loves her son but she is hurt by and tired of his outrageous behavior.  “Have you forgot me?” She is saying, “I am your mother, you are a child. I am a queen, you are my subject.”
Hamlet’s reply: “You shall not budge,” and Gertrude’s “thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho!” is usually shown by Hamlet throwing her down on the bed then killing Polonius. When Hamlet then replies to her horrified reaction that it’s no worse than killing a king, Gertrude is stupefied. “As kill a king?” We believe her – she hadn’t known Claudius had killed old Hamlet, but young Hamlet still rants on about her dreadful act and Gertrude is truly puzzled at his passion: “What have I done…Ay me, what act,/ That roars so loud and thunders in the index?”
Hamlet tells her. And tells her. And tells her. You betrayed my perfect father with disgusting Claudius and it can’t be for love (would that have been OK?) because you’re too old (ah, kids, they say the silliest things).
Now is when Gertrude is usually shown as weeping and wailing and repentant. Yes, she knows her hasty marriage is a problem and his words make that impossible to ignore: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul…” Yes, his words are painful, “These words like daggers enter in mine ears. / No more, sweet Hamlet.”  Yes, she wishes he would shut up.  She is well aware of the Christian view of women’s sexuality as evil and sinful and society’s bawdy acceptance of lust. She is troubled by her own role in this painful paradox and so Hamlet’s neurotic accusations hurt. Her “heart is cleft in twain” as indeed is unavoidable in a society (like our own) that demands that a woman is sexy and sexless at the same time. 
But she is not reduced to a blubbering old sexpot as she is sometimes portrayed.  As soon as Hamlet starts acting like he’s seeing a ghost, which we know he is but she doesn’t, Gertrude takes over again and tries to calm him down and to bring him back from his madness. And when they have calmed down somewhat, Gertrude says, “What shall I do?” The portrayals I have seen show that Gertrude is more or less begging Hamlet to guide her but I think this is wrong. I think she is asking herself, what do I do now with this cruel mad hurtful son?
It’s an exhausting confrontation for both of them and though there is much more that could be said, here I will have to limit myself to the observation that in the end, Hamlet’s rage at his mother has been spent. His last words to her, when she has died and he is dying, are, “Wretched queen, adieu.” No longer hateful, or incestuous, but wretched.

                      We only see Hamlet and Ophelia together in two scenes and if we only had what we see there to go on we could only say, “She’s better off without him.”  Maybe she is but that doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other. Not that it did either of them any good.
                      From what Ophelia says at various times, Hamlet has been a loving and honorable wooer.  He has been generous with his feelings: “He hath…of late made many tenders/ Of his affection for me” (Act 1.4).  He has been “honourable” and he has been serious: he  “…hath given countenance to his speech…/ With all the vows of heaven”  (Act 1.4). Ophelia at least has seen nothing mad, insulting or untrustworthy in Hamlet’s feelings for her before the play opens.  Still, she obeys her brother and father and breaks with him.
                      And he goes mad.  He comes to Ophelia, pale, shaking, his clothes disheveled, looking “As if he had been looséd out of hell/ To speak of horrors” , “he raised a sigh so piteous and profound” and then he left her, his eyes lingering on hers (Act 2.1).
                      “Mad for thy love?” Polonius thinks immediately. Ophelia thinks this might be the case. Very possibly but another possibility to consider is that Hamlet regards her not only as a sweetheart but as a friend he can turn to with his torment, but since she has broken with him, he finds he cannot speak to her, of their love or anything else.
                      In the next scene Polonius reads Hamlet’s letter aloud to Claudius and Gertrude. It’s clearly a love letter:
 “To the celestial and my soul’s idol…

…Doubt thou that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not the art to reckon my groans. But that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him. Hamlet.” (Act 2.2)

                      From the anguish of the tone it seems that he gave this letter to her after she had broken with him. And his love and anguish seem to go deep. Why then do we hear nothing at all from Hamlet himself about Ophelia?
                      Several major scenes pass, including the meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in which Hamlet describes Denmark as a prison and thereafter proclaims, “I have of late, and wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth” (also Act 2.2), Hamlet’s fishmonger dialog with Polonius, the players’ arrival, and Hamlet’s “Am I a coward/the play’s the thing” soliloquy.  Only thereafter, and after “To be or not to be”, in which Ophelia herself is not named but “the pangs of disprized love” are among the slings and arrows listed, do Hamlet and Ophelia meet on stage for the first time.
                      It’s a heartbreaking scene. Ophelia must reject the love she believes was real. Hamlet contradicts himself from one line to the next.  He did love her, he didn’t. She’s beautiful but beauty can’t be trusted. Love is only bawdiness. Love is a sin. I am worthless. All men are worthless. Women can’t be trusted, they hide themselves under cosmetics. Go to a nunnery, don’t marry. Don’t have kids. Marry a fool. No more marriages. Nunnery/brothel?
                      No wonder Ophelia despairs over the young man she has loved!

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
 The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
 Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
 The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
 Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
 And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
 That sucked the honey of his music vows,
 Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh;
 That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see! (Act 3.1)

                      In Olivier’s film version of Hamlet this soliloquy is cut and Ophelia is simply left weeping piteously on the floor. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the Olivier version.  Ophelia is not a wimp. In this soliloquy she reveals herself as a very unhappy (of course) but astute and analytical young woman.
                      One would wish to spare her further painful confrontations with her hurtful lover but no.  They meet at the play.  She tries to remain aloof but Hamlet is all over her, manic and insistent.  Their exchange is bitter. And it ends with Ophelia’s last words to him, “Oh, the king rises.” They never meet or speak again.
                      If we can disregard Ophelia’s later song about the maid whose lover would have married her if she hadn’t gone to bed with him as just that, only a song and not her own experience – as in many cases in the play, Shakespeare leaves us uncertain - and even if it has happened, the scene at the production of “The Mousetrap” ends what was surely at one time a tender love relationship that could have led to a happy marriage, as Gertrude and probably the two young lovers had hoped for.  If Laertes and Polonius hadn’t pushed Ophelia into breaking with Hamlet and thereby convincing him that women and their love cannot be trusted, it might have been that Ophelia’s love and friendship could have helped Hamlet through his torment. If only.
                      Instead she is driven to madness and death. Hamlet too.  Because surely silly Polonius is partly right in interpreting Hamlet’s irrational behavior at least partly caused by Ophelia’s rejection.
Hamlet as a lover is as complex and tragic as he is as a son.

                      Love and hate as intertwined in each other are thus a major part of trying to figure out who Hamlet is. I could end this essay here feeling that a significant start had been achieved in defining Hamlet.  But love isn’t everything, not even together with hate. Two more facets must be looked at, however briefly.
                      Hamlet is a student. This is established early in the play.  And not just some schoolboy.  He is, or was, studying at one of the most prestigious and demanding universities of the time (i.e. Shakespeare’s time).  This is the dawn of the era when discussion, debate and analysis were not limited to theological issues and biblical texts but to the material world around us and to the essence of the human condition.  In all of his soliloquies – in fact in almost everything he says in the whole play – Hamlet is intellectually working his way through sticky, even painful issues.  Death versus life, of course, love and/or hate too, sublime love versus foul sexuality, political power versus resistance, structured society versus chaos.  There isn’t much he misses and he does it according to the rules of academic debate.  He thinks. He reasons. He’s a scholar.  Even about his most passionate obsessions.  This, he thinks, is his weakness.  A man who thinks instead of acting is unmanly.  In spite of the admiration and respect expressed by others throughout the play for his role as a student, the demands on him are to abandon his studies.  The ghost doesn’t say, “Go back to school.”  Claudius and Gertrude don’t say, “Go back to school.” They tell him to stay. So he stays. He becomes a dropout.  But he can’t stop thinking. He is a scholar to his very depths.  Is it this which is his downfall? Or is it this which lifts him above his own disgust and despair? Is the answer to both questions yes?

Finally I would like to look at one of Hamlet’s most visible roles that somehow disappears in the shuffle.  How can we miss it?  Already in the title we’re told he’s a prince.
To be sure, this is mentioned frequently throughout the play. Laertes and Polonius insist on telling Ophelia she isn’t good enough for him because he’s a prince and she’s just a….whatever she is. Daughter to a royal advisor who is undoubtedly of the aristocracy anyway.  And Gertrude doesn’t see any problem.
The other princely aspect is that Hamlet is always “my lord” and never the 16th century version of “dude”.  His friends are not his equals and he doesn’t treat them as such.  They are there to serve and support him (Horatio) or betray him (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).
What I find puzzling though is the primary role of prince – to succeed to the throne at the death of the king – doesn’t even seem to be an issue here. King Hamlet dies, Prince Hamlet should become Hamlet II. Right?  But nowhere can I find does Hamlet express any serious interest in becoming king himself, no personal resentment except for a brief mention in Act 5 that Claudius took the throne that should rightfully be his.  Hamlet, in spite of his title, is not the once and future king.

So who’s there?
                      In trying to clarify the character of Hamlet, even a little bit, we find that we can. Sort of. To a point.  But not really. Of all the words, words, words at Hamlet’s command, constant and harmonious are not among them. He is an explosive bundle of obsessions, pain, wit (both in sense of humor and intellect), grief, anger, cruelty, sarcasm, longing.  He is, in every way, brilliant.
                      But he is also young (even if we see him age inexplicably in Act V).  He is growing up.  He is struggling to wend his way through the turbulence of his structured childhood falling apart and giving way to life in all its tormenting ambiguity, in all its contradictory demands on a young man.
                      It’s enough to drive anyone mad. And that’s been the big question for a few hundred years. Is Hamlet crazy? Well, it depends on your definition. There is, Polonius points out, a method to it anyway.  He is driven, like Ophelia, to whatever diagnosis is applicable by the conflicting demands put on him and in the end none of the roles he has tried or been forced to play have brought him any peace.  He dies, which is what the whole play has led up to, and he is resigned – “let be” – and he anticipates nothing more, or so we could interpret, “The rest is silence”.  But though he says it he doesn’t want silence for those left living. He wants Horatio to tell his story and Horatio will. Supportive loyal friend that he is however, in the end, Horatio loses the role of historian to the military hot-headed Fortinbras who steals Hamlet’s identity by turning him into a soldier, the least of the roles he has been asked to play.  The silence that should have brought Hamlet peace denies everything he was.

Works cited:
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
While not quoting other scholars, I am indebted to the following for information and inspiration:
·         Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare - the Invention of the Human. 1998.
·         Bruster, Douglas. To Be or Not to Be. 2007.
·         Coyle, Martin, editor. Hamlet – Contemporary Critical Essays. 1992.
·         Dotterer, Dick, editor. For Women: Pocket Monologs from Shakespeare. 1997.
·         Earley, Michael and Philippa Keil, editors. Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues, the Women. 1988.
·         Erickson, Peter. Rewriting Shakespeare Rewriting Ourselves. 1991.
·         Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. 2001.
·         Greenblatt, Stephen. Introduction to the Norton Edition.
·         Knight, Wilson. The Wheel of Fire. 1930 and 1989.
·         Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. 1964.
·         Neill, Michael. “’He that knowest thine’ – Friendship and Service in Hamlet”. From A Companion to Shakespeare’s Work – the Tragedies. Edited by Jean E. Howard and Richard Dutton.  2003, 2006.

Spin-offs and Hamlet related films seen:

·         Withnail and I, 1987.  Director: Bruce Robinson. Cast: Withnail - Richard E. Grant; “I” -  Paul McGann. I don’t remember where I read or heard about the Hamlet connection in this movie or if I remember it from seeing the movie about twenty years ago.  The only connection is at the end when the out of work actor Withnail quotes the “I have of late” soliloquy. It’s very appropriate to his despair at that point. 
·         Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, 1991. Director: Nicholas Meyer. Cast:  the original TV cast plus Chang – Christopher Plummer and many others.  If I remember correctly Chang is the only one to spout Shakespeare quotes but he certainly spouts a lot of them.  I knew it! Science fiction and Shakespeare are a given!
·         The Glass House, 2001. Director: Daniel Sackheim. Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Leelee Sobieski, Diane Lane, Bruce Dern, Kathy Baker. The most obvious connection to Hamlet is that Sobieski gets a school assignment to write about it, Skarsgård writes the paper for her plagiarizing Harold Bloom (how cool is that!) and she gets caught.  Otherwise there are some parallels to brother murdering brother (in this case best friends) to take over kingdom (money) and offspring (daughter) getting revenge.  You don’t have to run out and buy the DVD or anything but if you come across it it’s watchable.
·         To Be or Not To Be, 1942. Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack and a lot of other actors I’ve never heard of.  World War Two, Poland, a troupe of actors who end up playing the roles of their lives. A touch of humor, a touch of tragedy, a lot of history and beautifully filmed in black and white. Carole Lombard is superb.
·         Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1990. Director: Tom Stoppard. Cast: Rosencrantz – Gary Oldman; Guildenstern – Tim Roth; the Player – Richard Dreyfuss; Hamlet – Iain Glenn; Claudius – Donald Sumpter; Gertrude – Johanna Miles.  This is such an ingenious film and the acting is so good that it can be thoroughly enjoyed even without having a clue about Hamlet.  But knowing the play makes it even more brilliant. A must see, again and again, and again.
·         In the Bleak Midwinter, 1995. Known as A Midwinter’s Tale in the US. Director: Kenneth Branagh.  Cast: Michael Maloney, Julia Sawala, Nicholas Farrell, Richard Briers, Celia Imrie, Mark Hadfield, Jennifer Saunders, Joan Collins, John Sessions, Gerard Horan. This is a movie for actors who love acting, movie lovers who love Shakespeare and everybody who likes a happy ending.  An out of work gang of actors doing Hamlet doesn’t seem to be a perfect set-up for a feel-good movie but Branagh makes it work.  Like he does everything.

Film versions of Hamlet seen in order seen this time around:
·         BBC, 1980. Directed by Rodney Bennett. Cast: Hamlet – Derek Jacobi; Claudius – Patrick Stewart; Gertrude – Claire Bloom; Ophelia – Lalla Ward; Horatio – Robert Swann; Polonius – Eric Porter;  Laertes – David Robb; Ghost – Patrick Allen; Rosencrantz – Jonathan Hyde; Guildenstern – Geoffrey Bateman; Fortinbras – Ian Charleson. This is probably the best production of the BBC box and with actors like Jacobi, Stewart and Bloom it would be hard not to be.  It’s not perfect – Jacobi overdoes it at times (and besides I can’t stop wondering why he believes someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays) and Stewart is too macho and not remorseful enough, but the production doesn’t cut major parts, the minimalist stage settings emphasize the play’s stark grimness and when the play is over, a feeling of overwhelming sadness lingers.
·         Zeffirelli version, 1990. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Cast: Hamlet – Mel Gibson; Claudius – Alan Bates; Gertrude – Glenn Close; Ophelia – Helena Bonham-Carter; Horatio – Stephen Dellane; Polonius – Ian Holm;  Laertes – Nathaniel Parker; Ghost – Paul Scofield; Rosencrantz – Michael Mahoney; Guildenstern – Sean Murray; Fortinbras – nobody, the role was cut; gravedigger – Trevor Peacock. This is quite a good version in spite of Mel Gibson, one of my least favorite actors. He does OK here but there are so many actors who would have been better.  Helena Bonham-Carter gives, as always, an outstanding performance although many of her (Ophelia’s) most important lines were cut. In fact much of the play’s scenes were cut or mixed up, making this a good action drama but not the profound masterpiece that Hamlet is. Like all of Zeffirelli’s films this is lavish and colorful and somewhat likeable.
·         Almereyda version, 2000. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Cast: Hamlet – Ethan Hawke; Claudius – Kyle MacLachlan; Gertrude – Diane Venora; Ophelia – Julia Stiles; Horatio –Karl Geary; Polonius – Bill Murray;  Laertes – Liev Schreiber; Ghost – Sam Shephard; Rosencrantz – Steve Zahn; Guildenstern –Dechen Thurman; Fortinbras – Casey Affleck (barely); gravedigger – Jeffrey Wright. Hamlet in a techno corporate setting works just fine.  Ethan Hawke is a very convincing Hamlet, young and sullen. Julia Stiles is also sullen. It fits Ophelia.  Much of the cast is good, though MacLachlan and Venora are disappointing as Claudius and Gertrude. The visual aspect is very effective. In spite of the flaws, I like this version.
·         Olivier version, 1948. Director: Laurence Olivier. Cast: Hamlet – Laurence Olivier; Claudius – Basil Sydney; Gertrude – Eileen Herlie; Ophelia – Jean Simmons; Horatio – Norman Wooland; Polonius – Felix Aylmer;  Laertes – Terence Morgan; Ghost - not listed ; Rosencrantz  - nobody, the part was cut; Guildenstern - nobody, the part was cut ; Fortinbras - nobody the part was cut ; gravedigger - Stanley Holloway. Oh I know it’s a classic and won Oscars for best picture and best actor but it just doesn’t hold up.  From the very first frame you can see it’s a fake – Denmark doesn’t have any mountains! Heaven knows I don’t demand strict realism in the movies I watch but there has to be some logic.  The swirling fog in the enormous castle with endless stone staircases is dramatic enough.  And Olivier? Either expressionless to the point of ho hum to hammy to violent and incestuous. And a vampy, lascivious Gertrude. So, so wrong. I’ve tried to like this film, really I have. But I don’t. Sorry.
·         RSC version, 2009. Directed by Gregory Doran. Cast: Hamlet – David Tennant; Claudius – Patrick Stewart; Gertrude – Penny Downie; Ophelia – Mariah Gale; Horatio –Peter de Jersey; Polonius – Oliver Ford Davies;  Laertes – Edward Bennett; Ghost – Patrick Stewart; Rosencrantz – Sam Alexander; Guildenstern – Tom Davey; Fortinbras - Robert Curtis; gravedigger - Mark Hadfield.  A very intense Hamlet set in the here and now.  David Tennant crackles; he takes Hamlet’s madness further than most.  Penny Downie is the best Gertrude so far and generally this is a powerful production. Worthy seeing many times.
·         Brook version, 2002. Director: Peter Brook.  Cast: Hamlet – Adrian Lester; Claudius – Jeffrey Kissoon; Gertrude – Natasha Parry; Ophelia – Shantala Shivalingappa; Horatio – Scott Handy; Polonius – Bruce Meyers;  Laertes – Rohan Siva; Ghost – Jeffrey Kissoon; Rosencrantz – Asil Raïs; Guildenstern – Rohan Siva; Fortinbras – nobody, not included; gravedigger – Bruce Meyers.  Adrian Lester is the star of the production and he really is a star. A subdued, thoughtful, anguished Hamlet who is mostly in control but sometimes not. It is painful and beautiful to watch Adrian Lester.  The other stars of the play are the colors. Minimalist but intense. Red, black, white, gold. A disappointing Gertrude, she doesn’t seem to even like Hamlet. Otherwise, a very strong production, with a strong international cast from several continents.
·         Kevin Kline version, 1990. Director: Kevin Kline. Cast: Hamlet – Kevin Kline; Claudius – Brian Murray; Gertrude – Dana Ivey; Ophelia – Diane Venora; Horatio – Peter Francis James; Polonius – Josef Sommer;  Laertes – Michael Cumpsty; Ghost – Robert Murch; Rosencrantz – Philip Goodwin; Guildenstern – Reg E. Cathey; Fortinbras – Don Reilly; gravedigger – Macintyre Dixon. After a stiff start this version takes off. Kline does a fine interpretation, the cast is generally good, though Gertrude tends to be negligee-off-the-shoulder and not as good as the role demands. Diane Venora is possibly the best Ophelia ever. The dark minimalist stage setting works very well.
·         Branagh version, 1996. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Hamlet – Kenneth Branagh; Claudius – Derek Jacobi; Gertrude – Julie Christie; Ophelia – Kate Winslet; Horatio – Nicholas Farrell; Polonius – Richard Briers;  Laertes – Michael Mahoney; Ghost – Brian Blessed; Rosencrantz – Timothy Spall; Guildenstern – Reece Dinsdale; Fortinbras – Rufus Sewell; gravedigger – Billy Chrystal.  What can I say? The competition is tough but Kenneth Branagh just can’t be beat.  It seems this movie will always have the top listing in my heart. It’s flawed, yes, but each and every one of the cast – especially Branagh of course but also especially Julie Christie – are just so good!  In his introduction to the DVD Branagh says an actor doesn’t play Hamlet, Hamlet plays the actor.  This could be said of them all. “Natural” doesn’t even begin to describe it. OK, I’ll quit there.

Seen on stage: no, amazingly.


  1. I have had the pleasure of seeing "Hamlet" with Adrian Lester and was mightily impressed with the man. This is definitely not Brook's "Hamlet". It's Adrian Lester's. It matters not that he looks like he's going to plunge into some of Bob Marley's greatest hits. Understated but very subtle and altogether extremely powerful performance. It will repay re-visiting. Fabulous diction, too; one could easily take a dictation and write down the whole part (or what's left of it).

    In the beginning I was unpleasantly surprised by the heavy abridgement and the vast liberties taken the play, but this wore off rather quickly. The cutting is actually supremely well done, hardly noticeable if one is not intimately familiar with the original. If Peter Brook is responsible for this, as I suppose he is, this is his greatest contribution to this production.

    I have always liked productions which emphasize the personal struggles of the characters, meanwhile dispensing with the largely irrevelant (and not terribly prominent, let's admit) politics. It's been seriously suggested that politics in "Hamlet" - as well as in "Lear", by the way - really matter so much that one just can't cut them without an irreparable loss. I think this is tosh. Politics are just a spice, not the main dish.

    I also loved the international cast. An Indian Ophelia is a very fresh touch indeed. Another clever one is to have the old Hamlet and Claudius played by the same actor; this eliminates any part that physical attraction may have played in Gertrude's infatuation, so makes the situation more interesting. Rosenkrantz (or was it Guildenstern? always confuse these two) is a very exotic-looking fellow, too.

    No one from the supporting cast is any match for Adrian Lester. But, then again, no other character is any match for Hamlet either. All give good performance - except, I agree, the rather dull Gertrude. But it's Adrian's show all right. Shakespeare wanted it that way, and so did Brook. Terrific interpretation, hard to find but worth searching for.

  2. So glad you found it and enjoyed it so much. The full movie review will be showing up on the movie blog in a few weeks. I'm slowly catching up. But we seem to be in happy agreement this time!

  3. These days I have been on a kind of Hamlet diet, so it occurred to me to set the stage for our future discussions of the different movie versions which we may continue under the respective posts on the Movie Blog. This looks like a nice place for an overview.

    As long as nobody takes it seriously, this is going to be a remarkable debate. As usual, Ruby and I inhabit, if not different planets, certainly the different poles of one planet. Olivier's "Hamlet" is the worst she has ever seen (I'm correct in asserting this, aren't I?), and Branagh's is - well, it's not the worst I have ever seen, but it is among my least favourite adaptations (surpassed in this sad contest by Kline and Hawke only). To set the wheels in motion, I must say that the objection against the mountains in Olivier's movie strikes me as petty. Unrealistic it may be, but it is certainly not illogical. This is like saying that Shakespeare's play is fake because there never was such a guy as Hamlet in Denmark's entire history.

    I have yet to revisit Jacobi (because I've seen it only once and a long time ago) and to see Tennant for the first time (he looks very promising on excerpts level), but from the rest eight adaptations one firm conclusion can be drawn immediately. All of them have something to offer, each one is worth seeing at least once, probably more than that. The play is so overwhelmingly powerful and complex - that it can survive everything, however hideous, and what's more, it can - and does - benefit from bewildering diversity of interpretations, especially but not only in regard to the Prince.

    The greatness of "Hamlet" is also its curse. There's no such thing as perfect or definitive "Hamlet". There never was, there never will be. Only mediocrity enjoys perfection and definitive interpretations. If I am forced to choose but one "Hamlet" for my desert-island exile, yes, you guessed right, I'll go with Olivier's. It is not perfect. Far from it. It has a host of defects, some are function of the times (the cuts, some of them rather disfiguring), and some are there by Larry's insistence (those lame pro-Oedipal kisses with Gertrude that so much dilute an otherwise much more fascinating relationship). It is just the version I like best, mostly if not entirely for sentimental reasons.

    Maybe the curse is a blessing in disguise. No definitive version means - well, it means more versions, more friendly arguments, more fun. It may also mean more spiritual profit for everyone of us.

    1. Other than small details about which versions are the best/worst etc we are in complete agreement :-) Especially about us being poles apart! And that it will be great fun. I really hope that many other blog visitors - both Shakespeare Calling and the movie blog - will join the discussion - don't be shy! My review on the Olivier version should be up next week I hope and all the others in turn. Mel and Ethan went up yesterday.
      PS Of course my complaint about Olivier's mountains is petty but that's the first thing I shouted out when watching it - it came from the heart :-) Now on to the next comment...

  4. By way of conclusion, I may briefly state why Hawke, Kline and Branagh are the Hamlets I feel I will return least often to, and add a few words about four versions not mentioned above.

    Kevin and Kenneth share one grave fault: too much ham. I like ham, especially with eggs, but shouting maniac is not my idea of Hamlet. Both have some terrific moments, of course, especially Kenneth whose movie, moreover, is as visually amazing and textually complete as no other (least of all Kevin's cave-like production), but taken as a whole neither appeals to me strongly enough to say at the end something as meaningful as "WOW".

    As for Ethan, I actually like the guy a lot (perhaps for sentimental reasons because "White Fang" is a childhood favourite of mine, but that's another story). I think he is an excellent Hamlet, but I am considerably disappointed with just about everything else in this movie. Nobody from the supporting cast is any match for Ethan, to begin with; the abridgment and re-arrangement, though skilful enough as far as continuity is concerned, sometimes border on butchery and farce; last but not least, Almereyda's modern setting lacks the power and the originality of Luhrmann's and Loncrain's whose "R&J" and "RIII", respectively, are still my standard how plays should modernized. They fulfil the two ultimate conditions that every such treatment should meet: 1) aesthetic appeal of its own; 2) increased dramatic intensity compared to the original setting. Almereyda's attempt fulfils only the first condition - and only to some extent.

    Additional versions:

    "Hamlet at Elsinore" (1964), recently released on DVD for the first time, shot on location as evident from the title, and including a tantalising cast such as a very young and very handsome Christopher Plummer (Hamlet), the only Shakespearean incarnation of Michael Caine (Horatio), and - I'd love to see that! - Robert Shaw (Claudius), this must be fascinating. I haven't seen it, because it's a bit hard to come by. You can obtain some idea from the several scenes on YT:

    Hamlet and Ophelia:

    Hamlet and Getrude:

    To be, or not to be:

    "Hamlet" (1969) with Nicol Williamson as the most sardonic Hamlet ever captured on film, a very young Anthony Hopkins as a lusty Claudius, gorgeously blue-eyed (but horribly white-faced) Judy Parfitt as an equally lusty Gertrude, Marianne Faithfull as an Ophelia with a sense of humour, and Mark Dingam as a classic Polonius in the "old fool" style. It's available complete on YT, so you can watch all of it for free:

    NB. Please be warned that: 1) it's extremely fast-paced (it's amazing how much of the play they could squeeze in two hours); and 2) Tony Richardson has some bizarre ideas of direction, for example extreme fondness of close-ups.

    "Hamlet" (1964) with Richard Burton as the most feverish, hectic, and hysterical Hamlet ever captured on film, in this case a crude b&w footage shot during a performance in front of a live audience. Memento from Burton's legendary Dane on Broadway in 1964. Fascinating opportunity to compare Eileen Herlie's Gertrude with the one she played 16 years earlier for Olivier. Hume Cronyn is the most hilarious Polonius I know. Linda Marsh is a terrible Ophelia, neither smart nor pathetic. A good deal of it is on YT:

    To be, or not to be:

    O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I:

    Hamlet and Polonius:

    Hamlet and the Ghost (John Gielgud, no less, who also directed)

    Final scene:

    1. Thanks for all the links! They will be interesting to check out. I hope you add comments to each of the movies I review as they come up on the movie blog. I'll add my comments there.

  5. There wasn't enough space left for this one.

    "Gamlet" (1964). "Hamlet" in Russian is weird to the extreme, but this one has not become classic for nothing. Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy is a superb Dane from the brooding and introverted school. The other star is the director Grigory Kozintsev (who later made also a terrific "King Lear", albeit with another actor in the title role) who creates a hauting visual symphony in black-and-white, perhaps inspired by Welles and Olivier but no less original. Music by Dmitri Shostakovich. There's little on YT, sadly:

    Hamlet and the Ghost:

    Hamlet and Yorrick:

    The inset play:

    1. I would dearly love to see this version but nobody seems to have it. Thanks for these links too!