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.

Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet

It’s hard for me to be objective about this film. I watched it when I was 16, and it started my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare. For the vast majority of people, I feel this movie will not appeal- it’s Shakespeare, it’s set in the past, and it’s FOUR HOURS LONG! That said, I ADORE this movie, and I probably always will.

The Concept

There is a long tradition of actors directing and starring in Hamlet from Irving to Garrick to Olivier and Guilgud. It’s very much an actor’s play and since the lead part also orchestrates much of the action, it’s understandable that he or she would also want to direct.

Once Kenneth Branaugh started filming this film, he had already played the part onstage and as a radio play. Branaugh’s director, Derek Jacobi, was himself a celebrated and acclaimed Hamlet of the 1970s, and Branaugh would later cast him as Claudius in the film. So, once he approached making the film, Branaugh had lots of experience behind him.

Clip from the documentary “Discovering Hamlet” which shows the whole process of Branaugh’s 1990 production, directed by Derek Jacobi.

Much like Antony Sher, Branaugh was aware that any film he made, would probably be compared to Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film. Sir Laurence’s film was dark, gothic, focused on dark, Freudian psychological disorders, and was mostly a star vehicle for Olivier himself.

Short review of Olivier’s Hamlet, (1948).

Branaugh’s concept was to do an inverse of Olivier- his castle Elsinore is bright, more modern, set in a sort of Napoleonic era, with cannons, muskets, and soldiers with mutton chops. While Oliver’s film was a contemplative look at the protagonist’s mind, Branaugh’s film focuses on intrigue and court drama. One of my favorite features of the film is Branaugh’s use of a hall of doors that contain two-way mirrors. In this castle, you never know who’s watching you.

Original theatrical trailer

The setting

While most of the castle was shot at Shepperdon Studious in England, Branaugh filmed most of the exterior shots at Blenheim Palace, the home of the Duke of Marlborough, and Sir Winston Churchill:

https://virtual.blenheimpalace.com/

The Plot Of the Play

https://study.com/academy/lesson/shakespeares-hamlet-character-analysis-description.html

The Controversy- the longest Hamlet ever filmed

Unlike every other Shakespeare movie, Branaugh chose not to cut a single line of Hamlet, which is why his version is four hours long. He chose to use the text of the second Quarto of 1603, the longest edition of the play.

https://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/playhamlet.html

I am deeply conflicted about this choice. On the one hand, the long run time makes it nearly impossible to show the whole movie in a classroom or a theater. On the other time, like Gone With the Wind or Dr. Zhivago, what Branaugh has done is created an epic full of lush settings, gorgeous music, and incredible performances that will at least always be remembered as an incredible artistic achievement.

The Cast

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest part and has 40% of the dialogue, which means Branaugh has the majority of the screen time. Yet, Branaugh isn’t the biggest star in the film. His casting choices emphasize the notion that, since anyone can enjoy Shakespeare, anyone can perform it too. With only two exceptions, I love every performance in the film. Here are some of my favorites:

Nicholas Farrell as Horatio

Nicholas Farell as Horatio

Horatio is a rather thankless part, since mostly what he does is give Hamlet someone to talk to. In one production I saw, they did away with the part entirely and made the audience Horatio. That said, Farell does a beautiful job portraying Horatio’s patience, boundless empathy, and his slow discovery of these “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.” Just watch how heartbroken he is as he watches Hamlet slowly die:

Clip of Nick Farell as Horatio from Act V, Scene iii of Hamlet.
Brian Blessed as “The Ghost”

Brian Blessed As “The Ghost”

As I said in my review of “Henry V,” Branaugh usually assigns the core of his cast to his Renaissance Acting Troupe. Accordingly, Branagh cast Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Brian already is a physically imposing man (he’s actually climbed Mount Everest), and we see through flashbacks that when he was alive, the former king was a powerful, warlike ruler, yet tender to his wife and son.

As the ghost, however, Blessed seems shaken to his core, which might be due to the pain he suffered as a result of the murder, or (as I mentioned in my Shakespeare On Ghosts Post), he might also suffer in the afterlife because Claudius killed him while he was sleeping. Seeing such a powerful man worn to a whisper and full of pain and fear, is a great way to spur Hamlet to his revenge.

Charlton HEston as the player king

When the company of players arrive in the middle of Act II, Scene ii, Hamlet is filled with joy and treats the Player KIng like an old friend and surrogate father. I’ve seen productions where the same actor plays the Ghost and the Player King, which helps drive this point home.

In the play, the Player King inspires Hamlet with a passionate speech. Hamlet at first muses how, while the Player is able to conjure emotion and tears when talking about the fictional Queen Hecuba, Hamlet has done nothing yet to revenge the Ghost. Then, thinking about the Player’s performance gives Hamlet the idea to stage a play-within-a-play, to test whether or not Claudius is guilty:

About, my brain! Hum, I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene1665
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ, I'll have these Players
Play something like the murther of my father1670
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course. Act II, Scene ii, lines 1663-1674

With all this in mind, The Player King is very important to Hamlet’s journey and Heston’s mighty delivery is inspiring and full of passion.

Robin Williams as osric

Robin Williams as Osric

It seems like an insane idea; cast a stand-up comedian in a Shakespeare movie? Yet, in fact, the late Robin Williams was a classically-trained actor and studied at New York’s Julliard academy, so he must have done Shakespeare in the past.

Branaugh clearly loved working with Williams. Not only did he keep all of Osric’s lines (like all the other lines in the play), Branaugh gave Williams more to do, making him basically a second Horatio who cares for Laertes in the final act of the play.

Usually Osric is played as a classist-joke. He’s a sychophant, a social climber who, because he wasn’t born a noble, the nobles treat him as a suck-up and a fool. Williams gives Osric much more warmth and depth, in addition to his manic charm. Branaugh even gives him a tragic death, to make him stand out even more!

Kate Winslet as Ophelia

Five film versions of Ophelia compilation.

I summarize Ms. Winslet’s performance in one word: Heartbreaking. In Oliver’s version, she seems like an airhead, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the part as sort of a rebellious teenager. Winslet’s performance is just as if not even more tragic than Branaugh’s and it is truly heartbreaking to see her journey.

In the 1990 stage production of Hamlet, Jacobi decided to turn “To Be Or Not To Be” from a soliloquy into a speech that Hamlet says to Ophelia, which then plants into her mind the ideas of madness and suicide that she herself follows to their tragic conclusion. In Branaugh’s film, it seems very clear that he gave Winslet that same direction, (even though the speech is filmed like a soliloquy). Before “To Be” and the subsequent “Get Thee to A Nunnery” scene, Winslet’s Ophelia is happy, sweet, obedient to the men in her life, but still her own person. We see in flashbacks her sneaking off to be with Hamlet and she seems to enjoy her secret romance (probably Branaugh pulled some ideas from her role in Titanic too). But Polonius and Laertes shut her down at every turn and keep her from being with Hamlet. Winslet shows beautifully Ophelia’s struggle to be an obedient daughter and Hamlet’s girlfriend.

In the “Get Thee To a Nunnery Scene,” it’s not clear whether Hamlet knows he’s being watched (at first), so when he speaks to her gently, he might be trying to get her to leave to protect her. But once Polonius audibly closes a door, Hamlet is full of mysogynistic fury. Again, he might be playing mad in order to deceive Claudius and Polonius, or he might be genuinely mad at Ophelia for going along with this attempt to spy on him, but in any case, It certainly breaks her heart, and Winslet plays that heartbreak with a great deal of skill and passion.

Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger

Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger

Again, it seems bizarre to cast an American comedian as a Shakespearean character, but Crystal did a great job making this 400 year old comic bit seem like he wrote it himself! Plus, Crystal listens very quietly and attentively during the “Alas Poor Yorrick” speech, and doesn’t pull focus.

Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet

Even though this was a four-hour Shakespeare movie of a play I had not yet read, at 16 I was hooked by Branaugh’s performance. Like Olivier before him, Branaugh knows Shakespeare’s reputation as being boring and out-of-touch, so his film is full of violence, sex, and manic energy. This also comes across in his own performance. Branaugh lost weight and dyed his hair to appear younger and attractive (since he knows Hamlet is supposed to be just out of college). He fills the mad scenes with a dark and silly sense of humor, and he plays the angst of Hamlet in Act One very much like a grieving teenager, lashing out at his stepfather and his mother.

That said, Branaugh is also capable of great depth and gravitas in the soliloquies. I particularly love his delivery of “How All Occasions Do Inform Against Me…” soliloquy in Act IV.

The long tracking shot makes it look like Hamlet is expanding his worldview as he contemplates his role in the play, after failing to avenge his father’s death. It’s almost like this young man is growing up in the course of the movie; from a confused and angsty little rich kid, to a man who would make a good king if his life wasn’t tragically cut short.

For a more sober audience, Branaugh’s energy could probably be seen as annoying and lacking subtlety, but for 16 year old me- I ate it right up.

Notable Moments

  1. Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be Or Not To Be.” Every actor who takes on Hamlet frets over the problem of how to make this speech engaging and fresh. Fortunately, Branaugh did a great job of staging and delivering this speech for the screen. He uses the two-way mirrors brilliantly creating an atmosphere of suspense where Claudius and Polonius are watching this speech, but it’s not quite clear whether Hamlet knows they’re there. His delivery is hushed but intense. It seems like he’s trying to unnerve Claudius without letting him know Hamlet plans to murder him. Everything from the performance, to the filming, to the setting is iconic, and no matter what people think of the film, this version of the speech should be remembered as an achievement in and of itself.

2. Kate Winslet In “The Mad Scene” Just as “To Be Or Not To Be” is the test for any Hamlet, Ophelia’s greatest challenge is the Mad Scene, Act IV, Scene v. After her brother leaves, and her boyfriend is banished for murdering her father, Ophelia has nothing left to lose, except her mind. Many actresses play the mad scene as a chance for Ophelia to let loose, and explode with all the pent-up emotions she’s been repressing- rage, sexual desire, grief, etc. Winslet plays all of them and is very distinct when and why they hit. She refuses to let the men in the court touch her, except for Laertes, and seems disgusted by Claudius. With her brother, she seems to regress into a childlike state, pretending to hold flowers to give to him. The only lucid moment she has is when she quotes songs (simmilar to the Fool in King Lear), where she expresses sorrow that Hamlet abandoned her, grief for her father, and a nihilistic sadness that her life no longer matters, much like the frustration Hamlet expresses in “To Be Or Not to Be.”

Kate Winslet in the mad scene, (Act IV, v)

3. All of Act II, Scene ii. I found myself rewatching this scene, the longest scene in the play. It’s the scene where Polonius claims Hamlet is mad for Ophelia’s love, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spy on Hamlet, the Player King delivers his aforementioned speech, and Hamlet has his “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy.

Every performance is fast-paced and entertaining. Even Don Warrington, as the often-cut character of Voltimand, who only gives one long speech about how Fortinbras is totally NOT GOING TO INVADE DENMARK, captivated my ear with his beautiful voice. The drama keeps coming as new characters keep coming in and interacting with Hamlet, and his mood changes drastically throughout the scene; he’s silly and condescending to Polonius, jovial to the players, guarded and brooding to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and tortured and full of grief and remorse once he’s finally alone.

Branaugh actually starts the soliloquy with Hamlet taking a series of huge, heaving breaths as if performing for all of these people is truly exhausting. It’s almost like a movie within a movie, and everyone is wonderful in it.

4. The Duel As I detailed in my post on the duel at the end of Hamlet, there are three separate bouts which each have a different feeling- ranging from a sporting fencing match to a deadly blood combat. Branaugh shows the character shift of the duel incredibly well, with his use of music, choreography, and costume. First, the combatants meet before the king, dressed in their white fencing uniforms. Their fight is quick and agressive, but not yet tense or lethal. Then, once Gertrude takes the poisoned cup, the action stops. Claudius is frozen and his voice is only a whisper. Laertes starts to ramp up the tension as he prepares to really attack Hamlet, which he does by slashing his uncovered shoulder!

The climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes, with Hamlet, finally taking revenge on Claudius (Derek Jacobi).

From this moment in the duel, all Hell brakes loose. Branaugh chases Michael Maloney all around the castle, not stopping until he grabs Laertes’ sword. Meanwhile, Osric shouts for help as Gertrude is dying near the throne. A string quartet ramps the music up up to a wild, whilrling low-pitched tremulo, with the violins playing pizzicato on top. Plucking their strings like the lethal poison that plucks all the characters’ lives.

My Reaction

Even though this film is long, I adore every scene. Branaugh’s boundless energy and endless love of Shakespeare translate through his direction and performance. At the same time, he lets the other actors shine and takes to heart the lessons of Olivier, Gielgud, Jakobi, and others to create a Hamlet that is epic in scale, beautiful to the eye, and timeless in its handling of the material. Clearly, Branaugh wanted this film to be his masterpiece, and whether you like it or not, it certainly is that.

My advice is If you choose to watch it yourself, read a summary of the play first, then watch the film. Also, take some breaks in between the scenes and watch it in chunks. I actually taped it off of live TV so I could watch it in segments.

If you like this analysis, you might be interested in signing up for my Outschool Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I also have a class on Shakespeare’s writing where I analyze “To Be Or Not to Be:”

Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V

Since July is my month to celebrate Shakespeare’s Henry V, I’d like to talk about one of the most celebrated versions of the play, Kenneth Branaugh’s Academy Award Winning film from 1989.

The Concept

Clip from Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

Like many directors trying to re-adapt an old story, Branaugh began by looking at Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie version of Henry V, deliberately inverting a lot of Olivier’s choices.

Olivier’s version has a framing device where the audience watches the play in a movie-set recreation of the Globe Theater, (since Henry V was probably the first play ever performed when the Globe originally opened in 1599). For the first 30 minutes, you are not watching a movie but a filmed play, albeit one where your fellow audience members are dressed in costumes from 1599.

Stage Olivier
Olivier as King Henry stands on a reconstruction of The Globe Theater in his 1944 film.

While watching the play within a movie, and seeing ‘audience members’ clap and cheer for Henry, and boo and hiss the French, you get a keen sense of the theatrical illusion of the play, and its importance to English patriotism in 1599. This makes sense since the film itself was commissioned by Winston Churchill to help raise morale during the D-day invasion in 1944.

While Olivier’s film is theatrical and patriotic, Branaugh’s is cinematic and introspective. His film opens on an empty movie set with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi), giving us a tour of the set. He laments that, even with all the cinematic wizardry of modern movies, this movie cannot capture the true glory of Henry V.

Derek Jacobi as the Chrous in Henry V

Branaugh’s performance as the titular king is also quite different from Olivier’s. While Olvier is jovial and charismatic, Branaugh’s King Henry switches between cold and calculating, to intensely passionate. This isn’t to say that his acting is bad; but that Branaugh’s King Henry is a self-conscious actor. The king changes his performance to suit the scenario he’s in: diplomatic and calculating in the throne room, demented and violent on the battlefield, calm and confident with his troops, and pious and merciful in victory.

When I studied the play in college, my teacher posited whether Henry V is a Machiavellian king, and I think Branaugh’s certainly is, in that he knows kingship is a job; one that requires the king to constantly playing roles to get what he wants from people- love, awe, respect, or fear. He’s so good at acting, he even teaches his soldiers how to act like fearesome warriors in his famous “Once More Unto The Breach” speech.

Branaugh in King Henry V

What really sets Branaugh’s movie apart from Olivier’s is the way he handles battles. Again, Olivier in 1944 wanted to raise morale during WW2, when British soldiers were actually invading France to supplant a tyrant. Branaugh in 1989, had seen the world’s response to the Vietnam War, and the decades-long violence in his home country of Ireland. Therefore his version literally takes a dim view of war in general.

Branaugh’s world is not colorful or cheerful- the council scenes are full of candlelit shadows. Branaugh’s fireside chat with his soldiers is a smoky, shadowy look into the terror of men who know they must fight and die tomorrow. Look at the excellent performance of Michael Williams (Judy Dench’s late husband), who takes the king to task while looking at the campfire, almost as if he can see the fires of hell, coming for the English:

King Henry (Branaugh), talks in disguise to the soldier Williams (Michael Williams)
Comparison between Olivier’s 1944 version, and Branaugh’s 1989 movie portrayals of the Battle of Agincourt.

The most striking difference between the two films is how both directors stage The Battle of Agincourt. Olivier’s is a sun-kissed charge on white horses. Branaugh’s is a grimy, mud-stained mess, overcast with a fog of moral ambiguity. Even though the English win, they are meant to question whether or not they have been fighting for a worthy cause. Even after the King proclaims victory for God and country, and the music swells with the gorgeous notes of Non Nobis Dominine (composed and sung by Patrick Doyle), Branaugh has a long tracking shot of all the bodies slain on both sides in the battle. This is the film in a nutshell- a wonderfully acted, exciting, cleverly done thrill ride, that still pulls back and shows the inherently grim and destructive nature of war, that defiles all it touches.

Non Nobis scene from Henry V

The Plot Of the Play

  • King Henry takes the throne in 1413 after his father dies. No one thinks he will run the country effectively.
  • The Dauphin (the French Prince) provokes Henry into declaring war with France, (thus allowing him to claim the right of his predecessor, King Edward III).
  • Henry fends off the French at Harfleur, despite the fact that they are shooting at him with cannons.
  • Henry’s army starts getting sick. Henry decides to start heading back to Calais 
  • The French raise a massive army and it marches towards Agincourt. Mountjoy the French herald warns Henry he will be annihilated and urges him to pay the French a ransom if he is captured. Henry refuses and marches his troops to battle the French at Agincourt.
  • Against all odds, Henry’s army defeats the French at Agincourt, with only about 30 English deaths, and over 10,000 French.

Henry and the French King make peace, and the play ends on a joyous celebration of peace and matrimony, though the Chorus also reminds us that once King Henry dies, his son will lose France and England will be torn apart by civil war.    

Historical Context

My Favorite Moments

I love Branaugh’s performance and his take on the Battle of Agincourt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other performances and moments of the play.

  1. Armed Ultimatum: In this wonderful scene, we first see the overconfidence of the French, especially the hot-tempered Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who admits that he deliberately goaded Henry into declaring war because he wishes to personally fight with King Henry. His father the King, (played by Paul Scoffield) is a timid, melancholic individual, (historians often called him Charles the Mad), and he seems like an easily manipulated monarch, ripe for conquest by King Henry. We then see the imposing figure of the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), who comes in full plate armor to warn the French that though the French outnumber the English, the English are a hardy and powerful people, and that King Henry will not stop until all of France is his.

Supporting Cast

Branaugh mainly casts his movies out of his Renaissance Acting theater troupe, which is why in almost all his movies you see familiar faces like Brian Blessed, Derek Jakobi, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton Michael Maloney, Paul Gregory and Geraldine McEwan. As someone who’s seen all of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, I get the curious sensation that I know these people, trust them, and find myself rooting for them since I saw them in other roles. Maybe Branaugh hoped his longtime viewers would be concerned for the lives of his “Band of Brothers.”

Welcome additions include Micheil Williams as Williams, as well as his wife Judy Dench as Mistress Quickly. These actors are just as home playing grubby common English peasants as they are playing kings and queens.

Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan sparkle onscreen as the French Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. The first time I saw the film, their French was so good, I didn’t believe it was really them! Likewise, the awkward wooing scene between Thompson and Branaugh (who were married at the time) is so charming, you forget all the violence and atrocities that happened on both sides earlier, and giddily enjoy their romantic banter.

My Reaction

In short, Branaugh created, at least for now, the definitive Henry V for our times. It is a world where war is not glamorous and rarely just. Where common men die and rich men survive, though they must carry their sins on their back,( just as Branaugh carries the young boy played by Christian Bale). Yet it is also a story about the power of great leaders overcoming adversity, caring for their subjects, and doing the best they can to bring peace and stability to their people.

Bonus: Here’s an interview with Branaugh about the process of creating the film:

Branaugh in an interview with Bobbie Wygant in 1989.