INSPIRED BY HAMLET
(Published in the Barnes & Noble Shakespeare edition of Hamlet, ed. Jeff Dolven--January 2007)
Since it was first published in 1600, Hamlet has become not only Shakespeare’s most famous play but also one of the most influential and significant works in all of Western literature. Shakespeare was not the first person to dream up the tale—by the twelfth century, Saxo Grammaticus had already published a lengthy account of the legendary triangulations between the Danish Prince Amleth, his mother Gerutha, and his unscrupulous uncle Horwendil—but it is Shakespeare’s version that has truly captured and held the imagination of readers and audience members. Over the years, countless artists and thinkers have drawn inspiration from Hamlet, rejecting the Prince’s dying claim that “the rest is silence” by continuing to speak endlessly about this most famous of plays.
One of the most common methods of adapting Shakespeare’s plays involves setting the original plots in new contexts. The Hamlet story in particular has proven to be extremely flexible, finding new life in such diverse places as the Old West (1972’s spaghetti Western Johnny Hamlet), the crime-ridden slums of 1920’s Buenos Aires (Tulio Stella and Alberto Félix Alberto’s 1999 play A Hamlet of the Suburbs), and an anthropomorphized, cartoon version of the animal kingdom (Disney’s 1994 blockbuster The Lion King).
One discernable trend among Hamlet adaptations mirrors a parallel trend in the play’s performance history, in which productions—in an attempt to find a suitably cutthroat modern parallel for the Danish monarchy—choose to set the play in the contemporary corporate world. Following a similar impulse, several Hamlet spin-offs have used Shakespeare’s narrative to “hold a mirror up” to modern big business. In Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune plays Koichi Nishi, a young executive who marries his boss’s disabled daughter in an apparent bid to advance within the corporation. Nishi’s true motivation for marrying the girl, however, is to get close her corrupt father, the man who once manipulated Nishi’s father into committing suicide. But as Nishi exacts his revenge on his father-in-law, he begins to fall in love with the woman he married, leading to increasing complications when her father becomes aware of Nishi’s machinations. Shot in cool, mod black-and-white, The Bad Sleep Well is one of several Shakespeare-based Kurosawa films, which also include Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (Macbeth).
Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki set his adaptation in the corporate world as well, but to comic effect: in Hamlet Goes Business (1987), a young man and his uncle battle for control of Finland’s leading rubber duck manufacturer. Kaurismaki’s deadpan satire, in turn, had a deep influence on Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet film, which stars Ethan Hawke as the moody scion of the massive Denmark Corporation. In 1999’s noirish B-movie Let the Devil Wear Black, a young, aimless Los Angeles man takes over the family business—a thriving adult entertainment empire—while harboring suspicions that his mother and uncle, now lovers, are secretly responsible for his beloved father’s sudden and untimely death.
BACKSTAGE AT HAMLET
Appropriately enough for a play so deeply concerned with issues of performance, pretense, and the theater, several adaptations focus on actors involved in productions of Hamlet, drawing connections between the fictional actors’ lives and the lives of Shakespeare’s characters.
Michael Innes’s classic 1937 mystery novel Hamlet, Revenge!—one of a series of books featuring the beloved character Sir John Appleby, a debonair gentleman turned Scotland Yard detective—takes place in a grand country estate, where several members of the British aristocracy have gathered to put up a production of Hamlet. The atmosphere of lavish gentility turns chilling, however, when the Lord Chancellor is mysteriously murdered just at the moment he is slotted to die onstage as Polonius. The plot of Hamlet, Revenge! is richly allusive of Shakespeare’s play, reflecting Innes’s experience as an Oxford don (under his real name, J.I.M. Stewart) and the author of critical works such as Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949).
Ernst Lubitsch’s darkly comic 1942 film To Be or Not to Be takes place in Nazi-occupied Poland, where a troupe of actors led by the arrogant Josef Tura (Jack Benny) are performing a government-mandated production of Hamlet. Unbeknownst to Tura, his wife and leading lady Maria (Carole Lombard) is having an affair with a dashing young pilot, and whenever Tura begins the titular soliloquy Maria and the pilot take the opportunity afforded by her husband’s engagement to rendezvous backstage. Maria’s relationship with the pilot eventually gets the entire troupe involved in the resistance movement, requiring them to draw on their theatrical experience in order to masquerade as Nazis and infiltrate the enemy. Lubitsch’s film, now considered one of his finest, was roundly criticized upon its release, as the U.S. was still deeply engaged in World War II and many audience members were unwilling to watch what they felt was a callous, casual lampoon of the atrocities of Nazism.
An early episode of the Star Trek television series entitled “The Conscience of the King” (1966) features a Shakespearean actor named Anton Karidian, whom the swashbuckling spaceship captain James T. Kirk believes is actually Kodos the Executioner, an infamous war criminal who mysteriously disappeared before being put on trial. In an attempt to ascertain whether they are in fact the same man, Kirk has Karidian’s troupe perform Hamlet and then tries to determine whether or not Karidian’s voice is the voice of Kodos (who happened to be responsible for the death of many of Kirk’s family members). Star Trek is just one of many television shows that has featured performances of Hamlet. In a more comic vein, characters on the The Three Stooges, Gilligan’s Island, and Sesame Street’s “Monsterpiece Theater” have all taken turns producing Shakespeare’s play.
In Czech playwright Pavel Kohout’s Poor Murderer (1977), a young actor in turn-of-the-century Russia appears to go mad while playing Hamlet, killing the actor playing Polonius. The question of performance versus reality becomes even more heavily layered when, upon being committed to a mental institution, the young actor is allowed to stage a version of the events leading up to the murder. Like Hamlet’s own play-within-a-play The Mousetrap, in which Hamlet attempts to expose his uncle’s guilt, this performance serves as a kind of makeshift legal tribunal, wherein the young actor attempts to prove his own innocence.
In 1995, writer and director Kenneth Branagh released A Midwinter’s Tale (a.k.a. In the Bleak Midwinter), a modest black-and-white comedy about an out-of-work London actor named Joe Harper. When his sister’s church is threatened with foreclosure, Joe decides that he will simultaneously raise money for the community and revitalize his career by directing and starring in a production of Hamlet. With no budget and only three weeks to prepare, Joe gathers a motley crew of performers (including a myopic, accident-prone ingénue in the role of Ophelia and a campy gay man as Gertrude) and takes them to the little provincial village of Hope, where the rehearsal process is as predictably disastrous as the results are heartwarming. While Branagh’s lavish, large-scale film version of Hamlet (1996) uncritically emphasizes the play’s out-size nature and reputation, A Midwinter’s Tale gently mocks those who are too pious in their appreciation of Shakespeare’s play.
In Carole Corbeil’s 1997 novel In the Wings, the lives of three characters involved in a Canadian production of Hamlet—a forty-something actress, cast as Gertrude; her younger lover, cast as Hamlet; and a theater critic—become entwined in increasingly complicated ways. Though not a strictly autobiographical novel, In the Wings draws on many events from Corbeil’s life, including the death of her mother and her experience as a leading drama critic for various Canadian newspapers. The production in the novel is inspired by a 1983 staging of Hamlet by the well-known Toronto company Passe Muraille, in which Corbeil’s future husband, Layne Coleman, played Hamlet. When In the Wings was adapted for the stage in 2002 (two years after Corbeil’s own death), the production was directed by Coleman and featured several actors from the original Passe Muraille Hamlet.
In a cross-cultural twist on the formula, Tsutumi Harue’s comic play Kanedehon Hamuretto (“Kanadehon Hamlet,” 1992) takes place in 1897 Japan, as a group of Kabuki actors attempting to stage the first Japanese production of Hamlet discover surprising parallels between Shakespeare’s play and Kanedehon Chushingura, a classic Kabuki revenge tragedy. In both plays, an eccentric hero feigns madness in order to deflect suspicion from friends and enemies alike, and in Chushingura a court official, Ono Kudayu, is stabbed to death while eavesdropping on the hero from the shadows, just like Shakespeare’s Polonius. In her essay “What’s Hamlet to Japan?”, Professor Kaori Ashizu explains how, while Hamlet was a relatively unknown entity in turn-of-the-century Japan, by the early 1990’s the play had become very familiar to Japanese audiences. Harue’s challenge—like that of her English-speaking peers—lay in making an overly-familiar text yield new, fresh surprises.
HAMLET AND THE FUNNIES
Hamlet has had a long history of comic adaptations, from John Poole's 1812 Hamlet Travestie—a three-act burlesque that ends with Hamlet yelling, “Going, going, gone!”—to a 2002 sketch on The Simpsons called “Do the Bard, Man,” in which wise-acre Bart must revenge the death of his beer-guzzling father, Homer. As one of the most famous works of Western literature, Hamlet is ripe for parody: not only is it widely familiar, its high-toned reputation as an artistic “masterpiece” invites subversively minded comedians.
Comic “translations” of the play constitute one category of Hamlet parodies. In each of these translations, the humor arises from the surprising and seemingly inappropriate juxtaposition of high and low culture. Shel Silverstein’s poem “Hamlet as Told on the Street” (published in Playboy in 1998), for example, retells the play in slangy, raunchy contemporary language. When Francisco and Bernardo first see Old Hamlet’s ghost on the ramparts, they say, “‘Hey, Mr. Ghost, are you our dear departed king?’ / But the ghost don’t say one motherfuckin’ thing. / He goes, ‘Wooo-wooo-wooo.’ They say, “Hey, we better split, / And go tell Hamlet about this shit.” Richard Curtis’s short play “The Skinhead Hamlet” (1984) recasts the characters as swearing skinheads (early 60’s precursors to the British punk scene; not to be confused with the American neo-Nazi movement). In this highly abbreviated version, which runs a giddy ten minutes or so, Laertes challenges Hamlet to the duel with a curt, “Oi, wanker: let’s get on with it.” To which Hamlet replies, “Delighted, fuckface.”
In the Klingon Institute’s 2000 edition of The Klingon Hamlet; The Tragedy of Khamlet, Son of the Emperor of Qo’nos, the Shakespearean text is published side by side with a version of the play rendered in Klingon, the fictional alien language featured on the television show Star Trek. The conceit of this parody is that the English Hamlet actually represents a debased version of a Klingon classic by “Wil’yam Shex’pir.”
Thirteen years after publishing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the more famous of his Hamlet adaptations, Tom Stoppard revisited the text with a one-act comedy called “Dogg’s Hamlet” (1979). Originally written to be performed on a double-decker London bus, the play is set in a world whose inhabitants speak a language, Dogg, which consists of English words haphazardly ascribed with new meanings. Under the guidance of their principal, three schoolchildren put on a dramatically abridged English-language production of Hamlet (often excerpted and performed on its own as “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet”), which none of the participants can understand. The play is inspired in part by the absurd exchanges between Hamlet and Polonius in 2.2, in which Hamlet evades and deflects the older man’s attempts to make sense of his “words, words, words.”
The 1983 Canadian cult classic Strange Brew represents a very loose adaptation of Hamlet. In the film, the bumbling, beer-loving McKenzie brothers—two popular characters from the sketch comedy show SCTV, played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas—take jobs at the Elsinore Brewery, where they become embroiled in a goofy plot involving the brewery’s heiress, Pam(let), her scheming mother Gertrude, and her inept uncle-cum-stepfather Claude. The McKenzie brothers are roughly analogous to Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though it’s somewhat more difficult to discern a parallel character for the campy “diabolical genius,” Brewmeister Smith, played by Max von Sydow.
Paul Rudnick was inspired to write his 1988 comedy I Hate Hamlet when he bought an apartment formerly occupied by the famous Shakespearean actor John Barrymore. In the play, a young television star from L.A. named Andrew Rally buys an apartment in New York, where he is slated to play Hamlet in Central Park. After learning that the apartment was formerly owned by John Barrymore, his girlfriend, agent, and real estate broker convince him to hold a séance to conjure Barrymore’s ghost, who sticks around to serve as Andrew’s mentor but then wreaks havoc by seducing his virginal girlfriend. In the end, Andrew bombs as Hamlet, but he realizes that the theater is his true calling and decides to abandon television for good, a decision heartily supported by Barrymore’s ghost.
HAMLET CHARACTER STUDIES
Though every adaptation of Hamlet necessarily emphasizes certain elements of the play over others, some adaptations choose to focus very specifically on one or more characters’ experiences. The most famous example of this kind of adaptation is Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Stoppard’s absurdist, darkly comic play inverts Shakespeare’s: in this world, the previously peripheral and unremarkable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the main characters, while Prince Hamlet is relegated to a series of brief appearances. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been called upon by the King to help discover what’s troubling their childhood friend, Hamlet. As the events of Hamlet occur offstage, the two men while away the time playing philosophical games and occasionally watching performances by a troupe of players (the same actors who, in Hamlet, will perform The Mousetrap for the Danish court). Throughout the play, both Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern—who continually get mistaken for one another by the other characters and then, eventually, by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves—are unable to figure out why exactly they have been called to this place, or what they’re supposed to do now that they’re here. Though their actions and destinies are predetermined by the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue to grapple with feelings of anxiety, doubt, and incomprehension. In its deep concerns with fate, free will, and self-knowledge, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is often classified as an existentialist play, inviting frequent comparisons to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
In Fortinbras (1991), Lee Blessing takes on an arguably even more marginal character. The titular Norwegian prince appears only a few times in Hamlet, most notably when he storms the castle of Elsinore and discovers the bloody remains of the Danish royal family. In Blessing’s farcical play, which serves as a sequel to Hamlet, Fortinbras tries to spin the events that occurred just before his assumption of the throne, in an attempt to make his takeover more palatable to the populace. Declaring Horatio’s (true) account as ludicrous, Fortinbras suggests blaming the entire tragedy on a Polish spy. While Fortinbras tries to put the country back together—and design a joint Norwegian-Danish nation, potentially called “Normark”—the characters from Hamlet start coming back from the dead, infiltrating Elsinore in ghostly forms. Written after the first Gulf War, Fortinbras is a slapstick lampoon as well as a sharp piece of political satire.
Gertrude takes center stage in Margaret Atwood’s “Gertrude Talks Back” (first printed in the 1992 collection Good Bones), a short comic piece conceived as a monologue delivered in response to Hamlet’s accusatory assault in 3.4, the closet scene. Rather than the frightened, traumatized figure we meet in Shakespeare’s version, Atwood reimagines Gertrude as a cool, archly diabolical woman who takes the opportunity to set her son straight on several issues: namely, that it was she who killed his father, not Claudius, and that she’d always hated the name “Hamlet” and had originally wanted to call him “George.”
John Updike’s novel Gertrude and Claudius (2000) focuses on the events leading up to Shakespeare’s play. Gertrude (here called “Geruthe,” after the character in the ancient Scandinavian source legend) is the well-meaning and long-suffering wife of a powerful king, Horwendil. The intelligent Queen eventually falls in love with her husband’s brother, Feng, and the two embark on an illicit but passionate affair. Both are distraught over their actions, and Feng ends up killing Horwendil not as a political move, but out of desperation upon his brother’s discovery of their relationship. The final scene of the novel is the opening scene of Hamlet, in which Claudius—confident that his troubles have ended, and assured that he will now be free to love Geruthe openly—addresses the people of Denmark, including his newly returned stepson.
Hamlet’s other female character, Ophelia, also has a rich legacy of artistic inspiration. She has held a particularly strong attraction for painters, not only for her physical beauty but also for the dramatic intensity of her mad scenes (4.5) and drowning scene (4.7)—the latter of which, as it is only described in the play, allows painters to take expansive imaginative liberties in their own renditions. Victorian and Romantic painters were particularly drawn to her, often depicting her wearing virginal white with flowers in her hair. Perhaps the most famous of Ophelia paintings is John Everett Millais’s 1852 Ophelia, which depicts the young woman floating in a river thick with weeds and flowers, her mouth slightly open. Though Ophelia is beautiful in the painting, the heavy density of the vegetation surrounding her—each plant of which carries a specific symbolism—threatens to overwhelm her. Other well-known examples include Arthur Hughes 1852 Ophelia (in which a sickly, consumptive Ophelia wears a thorny-looking crown of straw and peers vacantly into the river), Eugène Delacroix’s 1853 The Death of Ophelia (a strongly sensual painting, with Ophelia in translucent clothing and a trance-like expression on her face), John W. Waterhouse’s 1889 Ophelia (which depicts a beautiful, womanly Ophelia sitting calmly by the river with flowers in her hair), and Henrietta Rae’s 1890 Ophelia (in which the mad, white-gowned Ophelia shares her flowers with a cowering Gertrude and Claudius). During this period, Ophelia was also well represented in literary arts. French poets in particular were drawn to her—Victor Hugo (1802–85), Alfred de Musset (1810–57), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98), Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91), and Jules Laforgue (1860–87) all wrote poems or poem cycles dedicated to Ophelia.
Around the same time that painters like Millais and Hughes were creating their portraits of Ophelia, an early female Shakespeare scholar, Mary Cowden Clarke, was creating her own kind of portrait. In the three volumes of The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850–2), Clarke presents fictional back stories for several of Shakespeare’s female characters. In “Ophelia, the Rose of Elsinore,” the infant Ophelia is left in the care of her nursemaid while her parents go to court in Paris. In her new home, Ophelia becomes devoted to her foster sister, Jutha, and is both terrified and fascinated by her idiot foster brother, Ulf, who shows a brutish and unhealthy interest in the young girl. During her time in the nursemaid’s home, Ophelia watches as Jutha falls ill and dies after being wooed (and perhaps impregnated) by a handsome young man named Eric—a scenario Ophelia will see repeated many years later when, back in the Danish court, her friend Thyra hangs herself after being abandoned by the same Eric. At the end of the story (which marks the point where Shakespeare’s play takes over the narrative), Ophelia’s beloved mother Aoudra dies. By providing Ophelia with a rich, complex personal history, Clarke offers compelling reasons for Ophelia’s curious behavior in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Though “Ophelia, the Rose of Elsinore” was written many years before Sigmund Freud published his treatises on psychoanalysis, Ophelia’s repressed memories, symbolic dreams, and childhood sexual traumas seem to anticipate the Viennese doctor’s theories.
HAMLET ON THE COUCH
Hamlet has become such a central text in Western literature that its influence can often be felt in surprising places, far beyond the expected realms of art, literature, and drama. Sigmund Freud, for example, used Shakespeare’s play to help shape his theories of psychoanalysis—a system for diagnosing, interpreting, and treating various types of mental illnesses. Freud argued that the human mind is divided into two separate spheres: the conscious and the unconscious. An individual interacts with the public world using his conscious mind, but his actions, personality, and behavior are always driven by his unconscious fears and desires. In almost all cases, the unconscious remains hidden from the individual himself.
The work of literature most often associated with Freud’s theories is the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles. In the play, the character of Oedipus, abandoned as a child, unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother upon reaching adulthood. Freud claimed that, as children, most people experience what he termed an Oedipal complex: a strong desire for the opposite-sex parent, paired with a fear of and aversion to the same-sex parent, who is seen as both a threat and a rival for the other parent’s affections. To Freud, Oedipus Rex represents a conquest of the unconscious mind—which incestuously desires the mother at the fatal expense of the father—over the civilized, conscious mind, which represses those impulses it deems shameful and unnatural.
Freud believed that Hamlet represented a crucial revision of the Oedipus myth. According to his analysis, Hamlet suffers from an Oedipal complex, which he is prevented from acting upon—as Oedipus does—because modern civilization has taught people to repress and deny those feelings. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud traces Hamlet’s notorious hesitation to this unconscious, incestuous fixation:
"Hamlet is able to do anything but take vengeance upon the man who did away with his father and has taken his father's place with his mother—the man who shows him in realization the repressed desires of his own childhood. The loathing which should have driven him to revenge is thus replaced by self-reproach, by conscientious scruples, which tell him that he himself is no better than the murderer whom he is required to punish. I have here translated into consciousness what had to remain unconscious in the mind of the hero; if anyone wishes to call Hamlet an hysterical subject I cannot but admit that this is the deduction to be drawn from my interpretation."
With this passage, Freud deftly manages to accomplish two things at once: he validates his own theories by linking them with one of the world’s greatest works of literature (thereby lending his hypotheses a measure of cultural authority as well as a conceptual framework), and he also purports to definitively answer the long-standing problem of interpreting Hamlet’s actions. Hamlet shapes psychoanalysis, just as psychoanalysis seems to solve Hamlet. Psychoanalysis and literary analysis have had a fruitful partnership ever since. Psychoanalysts such as Ernest Jones and Jacques Lacan have produced significant works of Shakespearean scholarship, and a sizeable contingent of literary critics has adopted Freud’s theories to analyze a wide range of texts, characters, and authors.