Intro to Macbeth, “The Scottish Play”

For the spookiest and most cursed month of the year, I’ve chosen Shakespeare’s Macbeth as my play of the Month for October because it’s full of witches, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures. It also shows the terrible effects of fear on people’s minds. Plus, as I explained in my post on Shakespeare and Halloween, most Halloween witches would be all but silent without Macbeth’s witches.

Pages

Play Of the Month: Macbeth

Posts

  1. Crafting A Character: Macbeth
  2. The Witches Of Macbeth
  3. Spooky Shakespeare Stories: The Voodoo Macbeth
  4. Macbeth Escape Room
  5. Sleep No More Review

Podcasts

  1. The Curse Of Macbeth: https://open.spotify.com/episode/7L7cPUX7sl27ByinuBdftv
  2. The Dark History of American Witch Hunts: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3kJzGIa6Bk0MBFVlm30FDr

Videos

Slings and Arrows, Season 1

My personal connection to the show

In 2008, I was in grad school studying Shakespeare. My roommate Robbie invited me to watch this show on DVD. I loved the show at the first watch and bought my own copy soon after. I also shared watching them with the woman who would later become my wife. Watching this show was our unofficial first date!

So as you can see, I clearly have a bias and a nostalgic connection to this show, but I think it has garnered enough praise that I can justify my admiration of it. The creators are Tony award-winning writers. The actors are acclaimed stars on stage and screen, all of whom have experience with Shakespeare, musicals, improv-comedy, or all three! So we have a comedy written by talented theater practitioners, acted by professional Shakespearean actors, and half the dialogue is Shakespeare? Was this show made specifically for me?

The premise of the Series

Something is rotten at the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival- a fictional Canadian Shakespeare company that is loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare festival. The Artistic Director, Oliver Wells has died in suspicious circumstances, right before he was to start rehearsing “Hamlet.” Wells’ successor is a volatile actor-manager named Geoffry Tennet, who, in addition to dealing with the work-a-day demands of running a theater, the backstage drama of directing a play, his own romantic feelings for lead actress Ellen, is also having ghostly visits from his old mentor, Olliver! What follows is a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!

The Cast

The drama centers around the actors and actresses in the New Burbage Festival as they rehearse a Shakespeare play; Hamlet in Season 1, Macbeth in Season 2, and King Lear in Season 3. The subplots are more often than not workplace drama. Ironically, though the main cast parallels hamlet, the management team of Richard St-John (with a hyphen, played by Mark McKinney) and Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), are unknowingly playing Lord and Lady Macbeth. The two of them plan to sabotage the production and eventually replace all Shakespeare shows with a more profitable musical-theatre-centered festival. It’s deliciously ironic that McKinney plays the scheming musical-loving Richard, since he himself is one of the Tony-award-winning writers of the Drowsy Chaperone.

Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet

I’ve said before that Gorss gives a kind of animal intensity as Hamlet and Geoffrey, and this is especially true in Season 1. When we first meet him, Geoffrey lost his girlfriend, his sanity, and his career as a respected actor. Then he has to return to the theatre where the man who betrayed him works, and is forced to take over this same theater as Artistic Director.

Geoffrey’s Journey

If you’ve never seen the show before, I should warn you, GEOFFREY IS AN ABSOLUTE JERK in the first few episodes. Like I said, he starts out hating his job and pushing away everyone who comes in contact with him. However, little by little, he re-discovers why he loves theater, Shakespeare, and his friends and colleagues. Look at how he goes from a sarcastic pedant to a real director as he teaches these businesspeople how to act!

Rachel McAdams As Kate

Slings and Arrows Is the Show Rachel McAdams (and All of Us) Deserved
Rachel McAdams and Luke Kirby in “Slings and Arrows”

The most truly lovely thing about season 1 in particular, is watching Rachel McAdams’ charming and heartfelt performance as Kate. She plays a struggling actor who deeply loves the theater and dreams of becoming a respected actress. Her dreams are tested however when she falls in love with one of her co-stars and is accused of sleeping her way into a better role.

Rachel McAdams quote: I did do some Shakespeare on film, it's really  difficult...

McAdams is the perfect ingenue in this show: She is naive, charming, Ernest, and kind. You watch Kate struggle and desperately want her luck to turn around and then rejoice when she gets to fulfill her dreams.

 As Kate on Slings, she’s the understudy who knows better — happy to be cast, sad that she’s not really cast, and trying not to be bitter that the actual Ophelia is such a wreck. Her smarts and capability of course find her pairing off with Jake (Kirby), who’s more famous but less theatrical.

Slings and Arrows Is the Show Rachel McAdams (and All of Us) Deserved
By Margaret Lyons. Vulture Magazine, Aug, 2015.

Then you remember… she was Regina George! It’s easy to overlook how good an actor Ms. McAdams is since she frequently is overshadowed by her co-stars. Much like Ophelia herself, people heap all the praise on Hamlet and forget Ophelia. When I keep in mind the breadth of emotions Ms. McAdams has to portray, and how incredibly different this role is from her role in Mean Girls, I feel compelled to say her acting rivals Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet

Season 1 Retrospective

Geoffrey: “Are you dead, or am I insane?

Oliver’s ghost: “I don’t see how those things are mutually exclusive.”

S&A Episode 3

My favorite episodes

I recommend watching all six episodes of Season 1 consecutively, but I can’t deny, some episodes are better than others, especially in Season 1. The first three episodes mainly focus on Oliver’s death and the tragedy of the falling out between Geoffrey, Oliver, and Ellen. This is important for backstory purposes, but it’s a little uncomfortable and sad to watch. My favorite episodes are episodes 4,5 and 6. Here’s why:

Episode 4: Outrageous fortune

After a drunken sword fight at his ex-girlfriend’s house, Geoffrey winds up in jail. This is his rock bottom. He even paraphrases Hamlet’s most famous speech as he contemplates ending it all in his cell. Thankfully, Oliver’s Ghost talks him out of it. Once he’s released, Geoffrey is re-energized and has a new purpose in life- directing Hamlet. Again, after three episodes of Geoffrey hurting, irritating, and sometimes even stabbing people, it’s nice to see our hero do what he was put here to do.

Episode 5:A Mirror Up to Nature

Geoffrey is finally fully committed to making the best Hamlet he can be, but he’s having problems with his Ophelia.

Geoffrey’s star is missing! With the production stalled, Geoffrey and Ellen finally have it out, and finally, share their tragic past with each other. Now the race is on to, “Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come, and fulfill their promise to Oliver.

So I hope I’ve articulated why I love this show and its characters. Just like anyone who’s ever had a boring office job loves and recognizes the characters from “The Office,” those of us in the theater recognize the crazy directors, the hopeful understudies, the divas, and the money-grubbing management. These characters feel like our friends and colleagues and they care so much about the universal dogma of “The show must go on,” no matter what kind of agonizing problems slow it down. Whether it be death, dementia, or a dislocated knee caused by a chameleon. the show within-this incredibly clever comedy about drama will catch your conscience… and your heart.

Play ME OUT CYRILL!

Hamlet (2000)

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

The Acting

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

Sam Shepherd as the Ghost in Hamlet

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
    his love.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

My Top 10 FAVORITE Hamlets

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The interpretation has to take a unique stance on the play.
  3. The actor has to have a clear grasp of the part.
  4. 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”

Part 1 of a 4 part series of clips from “The Complete Works Of Shakespeare (Abridged)” Starring Austin Tichenor, Reed Martin, and Adam Long.

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.

Left- Benedick Cumberbatch as Hamlet, National Theater. Right- John Harrell at the Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton VA.

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.

John Harrell as Hamlet, American Shakespeare Center, 2011

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

https://www.shakespeareances.com/willpower/onstage/Hamlet-11-ASC11.html

#3: Papaa Essiedu, Royal Shakespeare company

Trailer for Hamlet at the Kennedy Center

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:

https://player.shakespearesglobe.com/productions/hamlet-2018/

#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.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000: Hamlet

If you’ve never seen the show

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been on the air for over 20 years. The show originally aired in 1988 on KTMA TV in Eden Prairie MN. Since then it’s spawned over 13 seasons, (still going strong on Netflix), a huge cult following, and countless parodies in many versions of pop culture.The premise is that three guys watch bad movies and make sarcastic comments about the acting, sets, costumes, etc. The show thrives on meta-commentary, obscure references, and satirizing anything and anyone.

Crow T. Robot (Bill Corbit) trying to play the ghost of Mike’s father (Michael J. Nelson)

Full circle for the show

Kevin Murphy (right), as Fortinbras, who makes a brief appearance at the end of the episode, along with Bill Corbit and Mary Jo Pehl.

Kevin Murphy, one of the show’s creators actually had reservations of even doing the episode, as he is a big Shakespeare fan. This makes sense as I would argue that the very premise of the show lies in Shakespeare, and in particular, Hamlet. As I said in the last paragraph, the show thrives on reference humor, meta-commentary, and satire, and one person who loves that kind of humor is in fact, Shakespeare’s own drama critic- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

In Act III, Scene ii of Hamlet, there is a play within a play, where Hamlet sits back and makes sarcastic comments about how bad the production is:

Enter Prologue.

Hamlet. We shall know by this fellow. The players cannot keep counsel;
they’ll tell all.
Ophelia. Will he tell us what this show meant?2035
Hamlet. Ay, or any show that you’ll show him. Be not you asham’d to
show, he’ll not shame to tell you what it means.
Ophelia. You are naught, you are naught! I’ll mark the play.
Pro. For us, and for our tragedy,
Here stooping to your clemency,
We beg your hearing patiently. [Exit.]
Hamlet. Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?
Ophelia. ‘Tis brief, my lord.
Hamlet. As woman’s love.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii

If Hamlet had two robot companions, he’d essentially be doing an episode of the show!

Begin Murderer! Pox! Leave thy damnable faces and begin!

Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.

So it’s an interesting kind of irony that after 13 years, MST3K finally got around to review the very source of their humor. Not only is Hamlet highly meta and satirical, Many educators, myself included, say that teaching Shakespeare with a healthy dose of irreverence is a good way to draw in new students and get them interested in the play:

Mystery Science Theater 3000’s “Hamlet ” episode reveals a common reaction to Hamlet that often goes unspoken by high school and college students too afraid to sound anti-intellectual. Despite this irreverent tone, however, this unique appropriation of Shakespeare adds to our understanding of a play that today very few read and even fewer see performed. As an author who reveled in making serious, yet sometimes playful, fun at human weakness, I think this respectful irreverence would have delighted the Bard were able to see it.

Dan Mills. “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Shakespeare, and Postmodern Canonization,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 17.2 (2015): 206-227.

3. Divisive episode

Poster for "Hamlet" 1961, starring Maxamillian Schell.
Original film artwork for “Hamlet”, 1961

This episode is somewhat controversial among the MST3K fandom. While almost everyone agrees it was a good idea for Mike and the bots to do Shakespeare, many fans question the choice to do this Shakespeare. The 1961 film was produced for German TV, and starred Maximillian Schell, (who would later win an Oscar for his performance in “Judgement at Nuremberg).”

First of all, the film is very slow and badly paced with no distinctive production choices. The sets and costumes are generic, (except for the Liberace-looking ghost), and the cinematography is competent but dull. Finally it’s Hamlet; the play that even Mike Nelson called “The greatest work of fiction ever written.” Even with the dreary set, the bad dubbing, and nonexistent pacing, it’s still a good story with magnificent dialogue, and the cast is still pretty good. Perhaps the ultimate backhanded compliment Mike Nelson and company could have handled is that even the worst production of Hamlet is very difficult to riff. Still, when the jokes land, they hit extremely well. Here are some of my favorites:

C’mon, man. We’ve seen like eight ghosts, none of ’em have been even close to my dad.
MIKE NELSON

Rap artist, The Notorious K.I.N.G.”

Hamlet: To die: to sleep.
Crow: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing right now, Bub.

Hamlet: TO BE OR NOT TO BE…. and lose the name of action.

Mike: So I’m a chicken for not stabbing myself—that’s all you needed to say!

[Having stabbed an intruder behind Gertrude’s tapestry, Hamlet discovers it is not the King, but Polonius.]
Hamlet: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool!
Crow [as Polonius]: Oh, right, it’s my fault you killed me.

My reaction

On the one hand, it’s great to watch the MST3K guys look at a piece of classic theater, especially since the show owes a lot to Shakespeare. That said, they never acknowledge this, not even during the play within a play scene. In addition, the critics are right that the film is so dreary it’s hard to make fun of. I would love to see how the bots and Mike riff on Branaugh or Gibson! Finally, maybe part of the problem was that Hamlet has already been riffed and mocked before. As the clip above from The Reduced Shakespeare Company shows, gently ribbing on the plot and characters of Hamlet has been done before. Once something becomes famous as the best or the worst, it becomes a target for mockery. I was hoping that my favorite riffers would have more fun riffing on the play that helped create their art form. That said, this show is a classic comedy series, and this episode always makes me smile.