Interesting take. I don’t want to see it onstage but it does fit the text. What do you think?
This is a repost, but I want my audience to see it!
Is The Batman a Hamlet story? The Joker an Iago? I’m joined by Austin Tichenor (he/him), artistic director of the award winning Reduced Shakespeare CompanyShakespearean Villains and the Stories we Love
I’ve talked about some great Hamlets and some awful Hamlets. Now I want to talk about one that I find very much a mixed bag. The direction is incredible, for the most part it’s very well cast, and it has some truly memorable visuals, even though they’re very much rooted in the world-weary pre-9/11 New York of Y2K.
The mid 90s were the golden age for teenage Shakespeare adaptations with films like “Romeo+Juliet,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and “O.” All of these films chose to do Shakespeare in modern day, and use youthful actors in the main parts. Since many teen novels and stories feature a brooding young protagonist dealing with the loss of a parent, while trying to find his/her place in the world, it makes sense Hollywood would continue this trend with Hamlet.
The trailer markets this as a sort of “cool Hamlet,” which is more about drama and exciting visuals then long-winded speeches. Director / screenwriter Michael Almereyda has a lot of interesting experience that translates well in this film., in addition to making films he also makes documentaries and short films. I think he wanted to tell this story like a documentary of a high-profile murder case, one where one of the victims happens to be an amateur short-film maker
I actually really liked Ethan Hawke as Hamlet. He has a real effortless delivery of Shakespeare and he plays Hamlet as a troubled art-student type of kid who wants to see life through a film lens instead of dealing with the chaos of real life. The film also has some creative staging choices for Hake’s soliloquies. Look at how they staged “To Be Or Not To Be,” in a way that though dated, is a clever way of establishing Hamlet’s worldview. This Hamlet wants to be an action hero like Schwartzenegger, but is cursed with a conscience, anxiety, and fear of the unknown:
Sam Shepherd as the Ghost
Before he was a movie star, Ethan Hawke was an accomplished stage actor appearing frequently in the gritty western-inspired dramas of playwright Sam Shepherd. It seems appropriate that for Hamlet, the ghost of his father was played by one of Hawke’s theatrical mentors, plus as I said in my post on ghosts, it’s very true to form having the ghost played by a playwright
Shepherd is my favorite incarnation of The Ghost. He’s simultaneously fatherly and terrifying, he’s mournful and hopeful. He doesn’t have any special effects to detract from his performance, nor is he just a disembodied voice. The understated nature of Shepherd’s performance works perfectly for film!
Polonius and his family
I have to give special mention to Julia Styles (Ophelia), Liev Schrieber (Laertes), and Bill Murray (Polonius). All their scenes are great and they play off each other very well. You really feel bad for this family which winds up broken by Hamlet and the king, even though they did nothing wrong.
I particularly love this staging of Act I, Scene iii, where Laertes gives his sister Ophelia some advice before leaving for France. Their father Polonius in turn, gives Laertes some fatherly advice, concluding in the famous line: “This above all, to thine own self be true.”
Liev Schrieber as Laertes Shrieber was a great choice for a more movie -like American Laertes. He has a distinguished way of talking and a no-nonsense air about him that works well for the son of a corporate executive like Murray’s Polonius. At the same time, you can sense his boiling hatred of Hamlet, even in this first scene. He’s a great antagonist and plays well with Murray and Hawke.
Bill Murray As Polonius If you read my review of Branaugh’s Hamlet, you noticed I said that I thought his casting was terrific with two exceptions. One of which was casting Richard Briars as Polonius. Branaugh, (and Derek Jacobi in the stage production that inspired the movie), chose to direct Polonius as having no humor whatsoever- to play him as Claudius’ right-hand man. A controlling and micromanaging father who is obsessed with keeping up appearances. While Briars is a fantastic actor, you lose a lot of Polonius without giving him at least a little comic pedantry.
Bill Murry has no problem balancing the funny and business-like aspects of Polonius’ character. Like Peter Venkmen in Ghostbusters, he takes himself too seriously and loves to hear himself talk, and lke his character in Lost In Translation, he has a great deal of fatherly tenderness with Julia Styles. I also love the bit where he puts some extra money in Laertes’ backpack. This Polonius isn’t a fool, but he’s also a bit of a worry wart- and his fretting over his kids blinds him to what Hamlet is really up to.
Julia Styles as Ophelia As I mentioned, Ms. Styles did a number of great Shakespeare movies in the mid 90s, including her iconic portrayal of Kat Stratford in “10 Things I hate About You.” Sadly, the director didn’t give her much to do in the fisrt half of this movie. Her Ophelia mostly looks pretty and does as little as possible. The only moment that stood out to me was the look of guilt on her face after Hamlet discovers she’s wearing a wire in the “Get Thee To A Nunnery” scene.
Styles shines however in The Mad scene. I think her strong personality clashed in the first half of the film with the rather weak and docile Ophelia they were going for. Thankfully, during the Mad Scene, she screams, gets in people’s faces, and has a lot of fury towards the men in the scene. Also, putting the scene in the famous Guggenheim Art Museum works very well- it’s a public place, so anything Ophelia says makes Claudius look bad. Also, the spiral design of the museum feeds into the disorientation Ophelia feels without her father. Finally, the art itself calls back her love of photography and Hamlet’s love of film.
The BEST MOUSETRAP EVER!
A lot of the scenes and soliloquies of this film are very hit-and-miss, but the one moment of the play Almereyda absolutely nails is the play-within-a-play in Act III, Scene i. First of all, the director cuts all the intentionally bad dialogue and turns the play into a silent film-within-a-film, with lots of homemade charm and disturbing imagery. Mr. Almereyda carefully adapted the often-cut dumb show that happens before the play, and used that to fashion Hamlet’s short film:
- [Hautboys play. The dumb show enters.]2015
Enter a King and a Queen very lovingly; the Queen embracing
him and he her. She kneels, and makes show of protestation
unto him. He takes her up, and declines his head upon her
neck. He lays him down upon a bank of flowers. She, seeing
him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his
crown, kisses it, pours poison in the sleeper’s ears, and
leaves him. The Queen returns, finds the King dead, and makes
passionate action. The Poisoner with some three or four Mutes,
comes in again, seem to condole with her. The dead body is
carried away. The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts; she
seems harsh and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts
Not only does this film fulfill its dramatic function, (making Claudius betray his guilt), but we also get a window into Hamlet’s mind. We see how he sees his father, his mother, and his life before his father’s death. As an added bonus, the film is subtle enough that Claudius would’ t be able to make sense of it unless he had actually murdered Hamlet’s father.
My problems with the film:
Like I said, my problem isn’t with Hawke. My problem is the rest of the film. Some actors just mumble their lines. Sometimes the director wastes time with pointless film clips which only seem to exist to remind you that “This Hamlet is artsy.” But my biggest problem with the film is the pace. Almereyda does a great job paring down Hamlet to its core drama- Hamlet vs Claudius and the poor people who get caught in the crossfire. Though he is sparing with dialogue, he wastes time with silence. A lot of the film is the characters sitting around watching TVs, looking at photos, sleeping, or just staring off into space. In addiiton, the delivery is very mixed. Like I said, Hawke’s quiet, understated delivery works very well, but not for every character. To varying degrees, everyone in the film is guilty of what I call “movie Shakespeare acting,” which is to say, being so afraid of sounding like Oliver and Branaugh, that they mumble their lines, slow the pace down, and turn the emotion down to nearly zero, because they don’t want their performances to appear over-the-top. The thing is, Hamlet is a tragedy about people who are fighting for their lives and souls. A little quiet introspection is important, but too much of it drags the play or the movie down.
The STUPID ENDING
As you read in my post on the duel in Hamlet, Shakespeare’s play, ends in a fencing match where Laertes betrays Hamlet by fighting with a poisoned sword, which Hamlet eventually uses to kill Laertes and Claudius. It’s a powerful moment of poetic justice. In Almereyda’s version, LAERTES JUST SHOOTS HAMLET.
To be fair, the whole scene doesn’t work well in a 21st-century context. Laertes just told Hamlet to literally “Go to Hell,” but then in the very next scene Hamlet agrees to play against him in a friendly fencing match? Only a complete idiot wouldn’t know that something suspicious is up. In every good production I’ve seen, Hamlet knows this is a trap, but he does it anyway. I think he intends to let God decide their quarrel like in old-fashioned judicial combat.
Since dueling isn’t practiced anymore (except in episodes of The Office), it seems bizarre that Hawke’s Hamlet would agree to be in the same room with Laertes, let alone fight with him. I wish the director had done something, anything to justify Hamlet’s choice to fence with Laertes, or just do away with the fencing entirely and have them fight over Ophelia’s grave.
The other thing I hate about this scene is that it isn’t a fight; it’s a murder and a very stupid one. Laertes shoots Hamlet but instead of shooting him at a distance, he walks right over and shoots Hamlet, close enough for Hamlet to turn the gun on Laertes. This makes Shreiber’s character seem incredibly stupid and completely unsympathetic. Not only is it stupid, but it’s also cowardly. Hamlet is unarmed, and can’t defend himself against a bullet. If Laertes had a knife, Hamlet would’ve at least have had a fighting chance. As it is, we get a pointless, bloody end to a great character, and Laertes does it in a cowardly ignoble way.
The Film’s Influence
Whether or not you’ve seen and liked this film, it definitely influenced one of the most well-received Hamlets of recent memory.The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 TV movie of Hamlet takes a lot of cues from Michael Almereyda’s film.
- The Concept- Court intrigue Both films immerse themselves in the trappings of wealth and status in American and British society. In Act I, Scene iii Kyle Mcglaughlin as Claudius holds large press conferences, surrounds himself with bodyguards, security cameras, and lives in the luxury Hotel Elsinore. Patrick Stewart in the same scene holds an exclusive black-tie soiree attended by bishops, men in tails and women in ballgowns. Plus the British version keeps the monarchy, it just updates it with marble pillars, spotless floors, and golden chains and thrones.
- Watching and being watched– Both films start off with security camera footage, and shots of security cameras become a running motif that demonstrates Claudius’ control over Hamlet’s life. Also in both films Hamlet defies his uncle by filming him back with his own camera.
- Updating Gertrude One of the flaws of Shakespeare’s text is that he judges Gertrude far too harshly. To Hamlet, it is incomprehensible that his mother could fall in love and marry anyone else. I like that in both versions, Gertrude is still relatively young, and the Claudius figure is relatively charming and handsome, while the ghost seems warlike and cold. You get the sense that Hamlet’s father was a good king, but a lousy husband. Little touches like this flesh out her character, and make us compelled to see what happens to her.
- You cannot call it love; for at your age2460
The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment;
So, to be brief, this version isn’t the best, but it has plenty of clever set pieces, good performances, and early 2000s angst to trigger any millennial’s nostalgia goggles. More than that, I think later productions are indebted to this little movie for paving the way to bring Hamlet into the 21st century.
Just like my favorite Hamlets, I want to emphasize that this is all subjective. Some Hamlets I don’t like because of the production, some because of the acting, and some because of EVERYTHING, but I encourage you to check these out anyway because you may disagree with me, and even the worst Hamlet is still a lot of fun.
#7: Andrew Scott
Just as one of my favorite Hamlets played Sherlock Holmes, one of my least favorites played James Moriarty. I’ll grant you that Scott has a unique acting style- his gestures are fluid and yet frenetic. His voice jumps up and down pitches seemingly at random, which serves him well when he’s playing characters who seem mentally unbalanced. I’ll also grant you that he has a fresh take, but honestly, that take is- what if Hamlet is a bad person? Scott’s Hamlet is cold, full of internalized rage and fear and he treats everyone around him appallingly. He’s never warm or kind to anyone and is often belligerent, condescending, or outright disgusting. The part where he picks up Ophelia’s corpse and hugs her is very unpleasant to watch and I felt very sad for both her and poor Horatio. In short, nobody could say “Good Night Sweet Prince,” to this guy with a straight face.
#6: Mel Gibson, 1990 Film Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
This film was so disappointing. Every Shakespeare fan knows that Zeffirelli made one of the most iconic film versions of Romeo and Juliet, which is still beloved after 50 years. So it’s deeply ironic, that he also produced an utterly forgettable version of Hamlet with human punching bag Mel Gibson in the title role.
#5: Maxamillian Shell
To be honest, this one isn’t all that bad. Shell is a talented actor, especially when you consider that English is his second language. And the fact that he won an Oscar a few years after this shows that mainly the problem with this film was the direction. His delivery is slow, dreary, with little vocal variety and no interesting cinematography. That said, you know he understands the part and does his best. My advice, don’t watch the film unless you’re watching the Mystery Science Theater Episode:
#4: Simba In The Lion King
Like I said in the previous post, it might be debatable whether or not The Lion King is Hamlet, but if it is, I really hate this interpretation. Simba is not given time to mourn his father or contemplate revenge. Nor is he especially concerned with his kingdom for most of the movie. In essence, he’s a spoiled brat, who just happens to be the heir to the throne, so he is the only one who can overthrow Scar and take the kingdom. Really, every time Simba is onscreen I keep hoping Nathan Lane will start singing and drown him out. To paraphrase Hamlet himself:
This twerp cries out, and speaks each petty line of dialogue as grossly as an unwashed lion’s mane.
I haven’t had the privilege to play Hamlet, though I have come close many times. I’ve done scenes in classes and during recitals, recorded monologues, even sung the Gravedigger’s song online. The closest I actually got to doing the whole part in front of an audience was reading Hamlet in front of my high school class.
In 2020 when I had a little free time during quarantine (like many of us), I decided to record a short video for a lecture on Hamlet, where I did a clip of “To Be Or Not To Be.” I was never happy with it, but let me know what you think:
#2: Arnold Schwartzenegger in “Last Action Hero”
“Wait!” You’re saying, “Wasn’t Schwartzenegger on the Good Hamlets list too?” Yes. Yes, he was. Like I said yesterday, when it works, “Last Action Hero” is a cheeky, self-aware parody of all action movies that fully acknowledges that Hamlet is their true progenitor. Sadly though, when it’s not doing that, it’s a poorly directed, unfocused, dull mess. Like a lot of Hollywood blockbusters, I think this movie eventaully was taken over by studio heads who really didn’t get the joke. Having Arnold’s character Jake brood when he discovers he’s fictional just wastes time and goes nowhere.
Nick – “This is a wonderful moment for me, Mr. Slater. I’ve never met a fictional character before. How new and exciting this must all be for you.”
Jack Slater – “Hey, I just found out I was imaginary. I mean, how would you feel is somebody made you up? Your job, your marriage, your kids. Oh, yeah. Let’s push his son off the building. Gives you nightmares for the rest of your life. But you’re fictional, so who cares? I’m sorry. But I don’t find this new and exciting to discover that my whole life has been a damn movie.”Arnold Schwartzenegger (as Jack Slater)
This moment in particular explains the problem with the film- it keeps wanting to be dramatic when it doesn’t need to be. The film loses focus when it starts commenting about action movies instead of gently poking fun and parodying them. Ironically, when Schwartzenegger is playing Hamlet he does some of the best acting in the movie. So I love this film when it’s a clever pastiche, but I hate it when it’s trying to give a fictional character depth.
#1: EVERYONE IN “STRANGE BREW”
What happens when you try to make a comedy out of “Hamlet,” and then get rid of Hamlet? In this case, you get THE WORST SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION I’VE EVER SEEN!!! I simply can’t believe this exists- a comedy starring Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Mel Blanc, and MAX VON SYDOW FROM THE SEVENTH SEAL?
If you read a lot of my posts, you know I enjoy trying to find Shakespearean tropes in movies that aren’t intentionally Shakespeare. Heck, I even did one about Hamlet and Disney’s Coco. So I know you might be saying to yourself, “Why is he claiming this silly Canadian comedy about drunk guys is Shakespeare? He must be reading too far into this.”
Nope. No I am not. Look at the facts:
- The main location is called Elsinore.
- The head of Elsinore beer is murdered by his brother.
- The dead brother comes back as a ghost.
- The heroine’s name is PAM, just add a -let and you clearly see her significance to the plot. She even gets declared insane halfway through the movie.
Weirdly, the 1980s and 90s had a lot of comedies that used Shakespeare as a framework; from Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to Porkys 2, which hinges around a production of Romeo and Juliet, to later comedies like “Get Over It,” “She’s All That,” and “Ten Things I Hate About You.” It seems that a lot of writers wanted to try their hands at reworking Shakespeare for comedy.
But what about this version? IT’S TERRIBLE. The film doesn’t even focus on Pam, the Hamlet analogue, and instead focuses on the idiotic hockey hooligans Bob and Doug Mackenzie played with a tedium that would make Polonius cry to be stabbed again. The germ film was actually this sketch from the Second City Improv Troupe’s TV show: SCTV:
So like a lot of TV stars aiming for the big screen, Moranis and Thomas decided to turn these sketches into a movie, and they don’t even hide how lazy they are taking the exact same premise of this sketch and repeating it verbatim in the movie:
So the premise is, much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these hapless idiots find themself caught up in the court drama of Elsinore, only this time it’s a beer company, not a castle, and they actually help the hero, not the villain, though completly by accident.
So who’s bright idea was it to pair these Canadian donut munchers with Hamlet?
According to Mental Floss, it was Thomas’ own idea to base the film on Hamlet, and the script went through many stages of re-interpretation of the play:
Dave Thomas studied English Literature in college, and thought it would be funny to class up Bob and Doug’s big-screen debut by modeling the pair after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Pam (Lynne Griffin), who takes over her recently deceased father’s brewery in the movie, is also modeled after Hamlet, who in the play returns to Denmark after the murder of his father. English lit fans will also note that Elsinore Brewery is named after Hamlet’s royal castle of the same name.Sean Hutchinson. “11 Frosty Facts About Strange Brew”
I’ve heard this film defended as a slice of Canadiana (is that even a word), and that the Hamlet comparisons are a way of riffing on Canada’s “Postmodern identity.” In essence, the film is Hamlet because both Hamlet and Canada are meta, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a way to hoodwink people into thinking this comedy is smarter than it is.
Right now you’re thinking, “Geez, we got hosed! What about Hamlet, you knob?”Dave Thomas, ending of this POS
This is a video produced by TED-ED. If I have enough time, I’ll expand on it below, but for now, it’s very informative and visually striking.
Hamlet in THree panels:
What If Hamlet Wasn’t so Wishy Washy:
The Hamlet Death Clock:
Stick figure Iconography: Hamlet
I’m delighted to share with you my recommendations for the best Hamlets committed to film! I was pretty strict with my criteria which left a few Hamlets out, so if I missed yours, let me know in the comments.
In order to make this list:
- I have to have seen the whole thing. Sadly that excludes a lot of unfilmed productions or films I haven’t got around to seeing.
- The interpretation has to take a unique stance on the play.
- The actor has to have a clear grasp of the part.
- I personally have to like it. This is subjective, and I will make it clear if something is my opinion, or if I think this interpretation works for classes or private viewing.
By the way, if you’re a teacher, I’ll be sure to mention which productions work for classes, and which, for whatever reason, do not. I also can recommend Common Sense Media to give you a good idea what age group this film works best for:
So, without any further adieu (get it?):
The Good Hamlets
#10: Arnold SChwarzenegger in “Last Action Hero”
I would love to do a full review of this movie. When it works, it is actually a thoughtful deconstruction of the action movie genre, and as this clip shows, the movie concedes that Hamlet was actually the first great action hero. Schwarzenegger is really funny as an action movie parody of “Hamlet,” and everything he does is pretty cathartic for bored school boys who have to read the play in class. Plus, as a funny easter egg, the teacher in the scene who is showing Olivier’s Hamlet on the screen is played by Joan Plowright, who played Gertrude IN THAT FILM, and was married to Olivier in real life!
#9: Bart Simpson in “Tales from the Public Domain”
It’s absolutely astonishing how many Shakespeare easter eggs are in this little episode! How they make fun of medieval history, (the Danes were in fact Vikings in the early middle ages), Elizabethan theater, (when Bart does a soliloquy and is surprised that Claudius can hear him), and the way they compress Shakespeare’s longest play into a five minute episode is masterful satire.
In addition, the cast is perfectly chosen among the Simpsons’ core cast. Long-time viewers know that Moe has wanted to sleep with Homer’s wife for years, so making him Claudius is a brilliant choice. Plus, Dan Castellaneta steals the show with his over-the-top performance as the ghost, which actually reminds me of a 1589 review of Hamlet by Thomas Lodge:
“[He] walks for the most part in black under cover of gravity, and looks as pale as the vizard [mask] of the ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!”THOMAS NASHE, “PREFACE” TO ROBERT GREENE, MENAPHON, (1589)
In any case, this clip is a great way to introduce anyone to Hamlet and I highly recommend it.
#8: Austin Tichenor in “The Complete Works of Shakespeare- Abridged”
This show is very special to me- in around 1997 my parents went to England and brought home a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). I’d only read “Romeo and Juliet” previously and through this show, I gained an appreciation for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Seeing the plays through parody made them seem less lofty and stuffy, and made me want to see and read the original works. This is especially true for “Hamlet,” which occupies the second half of the show, where Hamlet is portrayed by Austin Tichenor.
Tichenor wins my award for “Hammiest Hamlet,” which is just delightful to watch. He clearly takes the part WAAAY too seriously, as evidenced by how emphatically he demands solemn silence from the audience while he attempts to do “To Be Or Not To Be.” Tichenor also serves as the pedantic straight man who tries to keep the show moving and academic, while mediating between his bickering co-stars Adam and Reed. This wonderful Three-stooges dynamic makes every minute of the show fun and frenetic. However, the cast makes it very clear that they are making fun of Shakespeare with love; they never mock the play, they inform as well as entertain, and occasionally they even move the audience as Adam does at the end. In short, this show helped me form my approach to Shakespeare, and it’s largely through Tichenor that I read Hamlet at all, so he’s to blame for this website.
#7: Richard Burton, 1964 (stage production directed by John Gielgud).
With the advent of TV and film making theater seem obsolete, directors knew they had to do something drastic in order to get people to come to the playhouses. Enter John Gielgud, one of the greatest Hamlets of the early 20th century, who directed Richard Burton in a highly-acclaimed production with minimum sets and with actors wearing rehearsal clothes. The idea was to let Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ performances be the focus, and save spectacle for film and TV. This approach has been adopted by many theater companies since, including a few I’ve been a pat of.
Burton has a lot of energy and manic physicality in his portrayal and it makes his Hamlet engaging to watch. Plus Gielgud himself as the ghost is almost operatic to hear. I highly recommend any theater fan to watch it, though it might not translate in a classroom much.
# 6: Laurence Olivier, (Film 1948)
I have my issues with Olivier as an actor and apparently I’m not alone:
I find Olivier’s acting over-the-top, lacking in emotion and subtlety, and I think his directing is generally self-centered. He rarely deigns to give close-ups to anyone but himself and a lot of the scenes he directs are filmed like stage plays. That said, Olivier’s Hamlet is really good. SIr Laurence talked to Ernest Jones about the theory that Hamlet might have had an Oedipus Complex and created a unique and well-thought-out interpretation for his Hamlet. First off, casting his real-life wife Joan Plowright as Gertrude, fills the Closet scene with uncomfortable tension. He also did a great job making the ghost seem as imposing and accusatory as possible, as well as making Claudius as disgusting as possible.
You get the idea that this film is how Hamlet sees the world with its dark and shadowy towers, representing Hamlet’s melancholic mind, his imprisoned spirit, and his dark desires. Also as many people have pointed out, Gertrude’s bed chamber looks like a female organ, making the Oedipus theory even more explicit.
Even I have to admit that Olivier nailed the “To Be Or Not To Be,” Speech. He squirms at his own Oedipal fantasies, and contemplates jumping off the battlements in a captivating and subtle way. The performance and cinematography is iconic, and it makes me grudgingly admit Olivier, for all his faults, is still one of the best Hamlets of all time.
I would recommend this film to every Shakespeare film fan and any hardcore Shakespeare scholars. I would caution against showing the whole thing in a class however, since it’s black and white, and again, I find Oliver’s delivery very old-fashioned.
#5: Paul Gross, (StratforD Festival, 2000)
Thus far, I’ve mainly reviewed British and American Hamlets. Paul Gross is one of Canada’s most celebrated actors who gained fame as one of the best Hamlets at Toronto’s Stratford Festival. Unlike most Hamlets who go for the humanistic prince version of Hamlet, Gross plays him with sort of an animal intensity, like a wounded bear who will growl at you if you get in his way.
I have to admit I broke my own rule with this one- I haven’t really seen Gross’ portrayal, but I believe I saw it well-represented in his role as Geoffery Tennent, the Shakespearean Actor-turned madman-turned director in the Canadian TV show “Slings and Arrows.” This amazing dark comedy portrays the ins and outs of a Shakespeare Company from the normal problems of mounting a play to backstage drama, even the funding and marketing gets focus! Basically, the show is The Office for Shakespeare nerds, except for one ghostly cast member (no spoilers).
4. Benedick Cumberbatch / John Harrell
I couldn’t make up my mind between these two Hamlets, so I’m listing them together (guess that makes me Hamlet too). One is one of the most accomplished Shakespearean actor in recent memory, an RSC alumn, and a Hollywood star to boot, Benedick Cumberbatch.
Both these actors have similar strengths- they’re both tall and imposing with aquiline features. They are also highly physical performers. I talked in my lecture on Richard III about how Harrell performed the role of Gloucester with his legs tied together and a bowling ball strapped to his hand. Appearance-wise- Harrell and Cumberbatch are so similar, that it’s actually a joke at the ASC that they must be long-lost twins.
That said, when it comes to their approach to Hamlet, these two actors couldn’t be more different. Cumberbatch focused on Hamlet’s emotional turmoil- he was tortured and angry, full of youthful angst and volatility. This particular production is sort of an anachronistic mash-up of modern and period, which gives it a sort of dream-like quality that I really enjoy. Like Richard Burton, the director knows how to stage a play differently from a movie or TV show, which is especially important with this actor, since we can see him on all those platforms.
Nor should they have. Full of scenic spectacle and conceptual tweaks and quirks, this “Hamlet” is never boring. It is also never emotionally moving — except on those occasions when Mr. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is alone with his thoughts, trying to make sense of a loud, importunate world that demands so much of him.By Ben Brantley
New York Times, Aug. 25, 2015
John Harrell on the other hand is a more mature and subtle Hamlet, more interested in saving his hide than contemplating his navel. This Hamlet masks pain with humor and sardonic wit and it translates to all his relationships with the King, Queen, and courtiers.
Rather than a sour, dour, morose, obtuse, naval-gazing Hamlet, this prince was cunning, cynical, devious, sarcastic, and very much enjoying his feigned madness, his chess game with the king, and his fencing bout with Laertes.Eric Minton
#3: Papaa Essiedu, Royal Shakespeare company
OK, I have to admit that I didn’t see this whole production either, but it’s so cool and the acting is so good I wish I had! Papaa Essiedu is an electrifying blend of wit, sadness, manic excitement, and rage. His fresh take on a role that can be rather dour is why even the little I’ve seen of his performance makes it one of my favorites!
#2: David Tennet, RSC 2009
Tennet does an incredible job of encapsulating Hamlet’s quick wit, giddy excitement, frailty, fury, and frustration, especially with himself. I love the fact that he does “To Be Or Not To Be” in a superhero T-Shirt. In a way, this Hamlet is constantly wishing he was more of the action-movie type that Schwartzenegger parodies at the top of this list. Like Harrell, Tennent’s Hamlet masks his pain with humor, but you can see him struggle with it and try to pull himself out of despair. All these Hamlets find a way to nail at least one aspect of the character, but Tennet in his short 3 hours on the stage, manages to highlight all of them.
I recommend this version for any viewer in any classroom. It’s beautifully shot, extremely well acted, fast-paced, funny, and exciting. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Honorable mentions: Anton Lester, Ian McKellen, MiChelle Terry, and Sir John Gielgud
I haven’t seen any of these Hamlets and have been unable to locate any clips, but I have the deepest respect for all of these actors, so I thought I’d highlight them here.
I’d also like to give special mention to Michelle Terry. Gender-blind productions of Shakespeare get a lot of flack that is undeserved, and there’s nothing wrong with a female Hamlet. To quote Geoffrey Tennet in Slings and Arrows: “Shakespeare didn’t care about anachronism, and neither should we.”
I didn’t include Ms. Terry in this list, simply because I wasn’t able to get to the Globe, and I wanted to focus on productions that people can watch for free. If you wish, you can watch her 2018 performance on the Globe Theater’s steaming website:
#1: Kenneth Branaugh
You probably saw this coming. I’ve made it clear in other posts that I absolutely love Branaugh’s Hamlet, after all his film was one of the first Shakespeare movies I ever saw and the first one I really enjoyed. I discuss in detail why I love this movie the best in my review of the film, but to summarize, I think the direction is incredible, the music is excellent, the cast is nearly perfect, and Branaugh himself puts a huge amount of love, craft, skill, experience, and maybe a little madness into his portrayal of the character. I know Branaugh isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; other Hamlets on this list might be more enjoyable, fun, or subtle, for you. But for me, Branaugh’s will always be my favorite.