“Hamlet,” or “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” William Shakespeare, app. 1600. Read, not the version shown here, but from my leather-bound William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, published by Gramercy Books in 1975. Bonus reviews of four Hamlet movies and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
William Shakespeare (assuming that was his name and person) was a poet and playwright who lived from 1564-1616, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. He was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatrical company. There is not much known about his life or about the man (leading to speculation about actual authorship), but it is clear that he is one of the most influential artists of all time, unrivaled in talent, insight, and range, let alone quality output. Shakespeare’s works have generated countless story-lines, character types, expressions, and even words, making him an immense force in modern language, writing, playacting, and art.
The story of Hamlet was based on the Dane Amleth, recorded in history by Saxo Grammaticus. Shakespeare might have written an earlier telling of the story, known today as Ur-Hamlet, and three distinct versions survive today, each with particular omissions and inclusions. “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest play, one of his most complex (leading to wide and various interpretation) and respected, and his most popular during his lifetime. It is known as the most filmed story in history, after Cinderella, and leads many theaters in number of performances over time.
There are different ways to approach plays as literature. Even a simple reading of play reviews on Amazon will show that some believe a reading of a play can add to it, while others see the performance of the play as the true actualization. I tend to believe more in the performance as the thing, so I am not sure that reading is really the fairest way to judge a play. However, what performance would you judge a play on, anyhow? Perhaps a conglomeration of the performances? Or a perfect performance idealized by a professional read of the play? That’s a bit too abstract for us, so I’ll just stick to judging the play by my read and then chatting about any video performance I could get my hands on.
Now, due to passage of time between Shakespeare’s writing and the modern man, most people can not just pick up Shakespeare and read it without help. To us, the language is archaic and difficult, and there are plenty of allusions and assumptions that need notes to fill us in. On the other hand, since Shakespeare is taught widely in English-speaking schools and still culled for movies and other entertainment, many of us can eke our way through. I happen to love Shakespeare, so my returning to his works over time has left me with an ability to read it straight, for the most part. However, it is helpful to many to read a synopsis of the play before reading the play, keeping a resource handy to interpret certain passages or confusing words. Unfortunately, full appreciation of Shakespeare is lost on all but the experts, since we are so far removed from his times and his culture. However, even a vague understanding can lead to vague awe.
I find myself impressed by how many thoughts and phrases emerge from “Hamlet.” Within four lines appear “Neither a borrower nor lender be,” and “To thine own self be true.” The text is rife with common quotations and high points of theatrical history. However, it is not one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. When I started to read it (again; I’ve read it before), I was confused by Hamlet’s character, not sure whether he is mad or not and so forth. By the time I was done with my reading and all my viewings, I found Hamlet to be a spoiled prince baby, repugnant in the way he deals with others around him, as if they are cheap or mere playthings. It’s also not my favorite Shakespearean storyline, because, although it is pregnant with great twists and turns, it sort of lacks a flow which makes some of his other plays sleeker.
But of course, “Hamlet” is one of the standards of world literature, and I would not skip it or ignore it just because the Prince of Denmark is confusing or juvenile. Better critics than I put it right at the top of their lists. And anyway, part of the experience is in the interpretation, in seeing it performed, which leads us to the movies I could find.
Hamlet, 1990, with Mel Gibson. I started with this one because I was pretty sure it was the classic school-viewed version of the play. Perhaps I had seen it in high school? In the end, it wasn’t my favorite. Gibson was surprisingly cute and endearing, but besides that and the hairdos, I was not swept off my feet by any specific things.
Hamlet, 1996, Kenneth Branagh, nominated for an Academy Award. It took me a really looooong time to watch this, which sort of defeats the one purpose I think this video is best suited for, and that is education. It is such a complete and straight-forward production of the play (with a mere few hundred years difference in costume style and setting). For the first time I understand how Fortinbras actually belongs in the play (although I think this is probably due to Branagh’s interpretation). But speaking of interpretation, I love how Branagh uses images to flesh out things that are sort of “missing” from the dialogue; this is what a good production of a play should do, this is what the playwright counts on. Since Kenneth Branagh is one of the foremost Shakespearean actors and one of my personal favorites, I will recommend it, but only if you have the patience to stick with it… and to go star-seeking. I honestly thought Robin Williams and Billy Crystal might have upstaged Branagh. Crystal was the BEST gravedigger.
Hamlet, 2000, with Ethan Hawke. This version is set in a modern day urban area, Denmark being a large corporation and titles like “king” and “prince” used sort of tongue-in-cheek. I was not overly fond of it, but there was at least one stand-out (spoilers ahead): Julia Stiles’ post-Polonius-murder Ophelia was my absolute favorite, as was her suicide scene the most clear and moving of any I saw. In the end, you really wanted something much more like Baz Luhrman’s Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
Hamlet, 2009, with The Royal Shakespeare Company. For straight-up Shakespeare, this was my favorite. They kept (mostly) the whole thing, for one, which is great. The production was full of great acting and ingenious interpretation, the settings sleek and dramatic, creating the perfect space to highlight the acting and the play itself. Set in a more modern royal family, simple costuming does not detract from the performances, either, but lend an aura of familiarity and understanding to the piece. Mariah Gale is my favorite Ophelia, Penny Downie my favorite Queen, Oliver Ford Davies is my favorite Polonius. And it doesn’t hurt that they didn’t have to get all Oedipal with Hamlet and mommy, at least not grossly so. David Tennant is an awesome Hamlet, mesmerizing even during his long monologues, and fed into the Hamlet I was seeing on the page: young, arrogant, un-moored, childish, etc.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, 1990, Tom Stoppard. Surprisingly (or not, depending on how well you know theater), this is my favorite adaptation of Hamlet. I might just rush out to the store and buy it right away, it is so good. It is witty and intelligent and funny and clever and all those other things that Stoppard is known for. But it is not exactly “Hamlet.” The movie (originally a play, see below) is “Hamlet” from the point of view of two of the more minor characters; Hamlet’s college buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This version is wonderfully acted (Richard Dreyfuss as the Player is perfect, not to mention Gary Oldman and Tim Roth) and marvelously directed and executed. It is the perfect finality for the Stoppard play (again, see below), which is interesting because it was done by the play’s author. From the slapstick, British-style humor to the flickers of player-induced flash-forwards, I loved walking through a complete, working “Hamlet” castle with R & G, exploring the themes of death and tragedy with a side of laughter.
“‘…my cousin Hamlet, and my son–‘ / ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind'” (p1074).
“Thou know’st ’tis common–all that live must die…. Why seems it so particular with thee?” (p1074).
“I know not seems” (p1074).
“You must know, your father lost a father; That father lost, lost his” (p1074).
“Frailty, they name is woman!” (p1074).
“…best safety lies in fear: Youth to itself rebels” (p1076).
“Give thy thoughts no tongue…. Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice: Take each man’s censure, but reserve they judgement” (p1076).
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be: For loan oft loses both itself and friend” (p1076).
“…to thine ownself be true” (p1076).
“…these blazes, daughter, give more light than heat (p1077).
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (p1078).
“And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmix’d with baser matter” (p1079).
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (p1080).
“The time is out of joint” (pp1080).
“…brevity is the soul of wit” (p1082).
“How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not…” (p1084).
“‘Denmark’s a prison.’ / ‘Then the world is one'” (p1084).
“…they say an old man is twice a child” (p1085).
“…use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in” (p1087).
“…the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape” (p1087).
“…the play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (p1087).
“To be, or not to be,–that is the question” (p1088).
“…ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause…” (p1088).
“The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn No traveller returns…” (p1088).
“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (p1088).
“Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind” (p1089).
“…the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…” (p1090).
“A second time I kill my husband dead When second husband kisses me in bed” (p1091).
“Our wills and fates do so contrary run” (p1092).
“Never alone did the king sigh, but with a general groan” (p1094).
“And how his audit stands who knows save heaven? (p1094).
“Assume a virtue, if you have it not …. For use almost can change the stamp of nature…” (p1096).
“At supper. / At supper! Where? / Not where he eats, but where he is eaten…” (p1098).
“What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed?” (p1099).
“…his mother Lives almost by his looks” (p1102).
“There lives within the very flame of love A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it” (p1103).
“The cat will mew, and dog will have his day” (p1107).
“I have shot mine arrow o’er the house And hurt my brother” (p1110).
“…death, Is strict in his arrest” (p1111).
Bonus Book Review: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, 1966, by Tom Stoppard. Defined as an “absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy,” Once I had seen the movie, I couldn’t resist reading the play. Something in me had been remembering the play all the while I read “Hamlet,” which I think must have begun with a high school reading assignment. I was not disappointed. I love this play. I love it so much, I am going to add yet another something to my already crammed TBR, and take a detour-de-Stoppard. I will be reviewing a few more of his things, soon. (They arrive on Thursday.)
So we get it, I like the play. It is clearly brilliant. Although, I have to repeat that I think the 1990 film of it is its perfect actualization; actually better. But I don’t think I am stepping on too many toes there, because it is, after all, a Tom Stoppard production. If you like plays, run out and buy this play (but only after you have a working knowledge of “Hamlet;” without it, you can not appreciate it). Then wonder if you should read more Stoppard. That’s what I did, and for it I have been richly rewarded.
“At least we are presented with alternatives …. But not choice” (p39).
“What a fine persecution–to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened” (p41).
“Half of what he said meant something else, and the other half didn’t mean anything at all” (p57).
“Fire! …. It’s all right–I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists” (p60).
“I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead… which should make all the difference… shouldn’t it?” (p70).
“There’s a design at work in all art–surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion. / And what’s that, in this case? / It never varies–we aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies” (p79).
“The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means” (p80).
“…it’s not gasps and blood and falling about–that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all–now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back…” (p84)
“…there are wheels within wheels, etcetera–it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings” (p110).
“Very often, it does not mean anything at all. Which may or may not be a kind of madness” (p116).
“But no one gets up after death–there is no applause–there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that’s–death–” (p123).