The Prince is Dead. Long Live the Prince.
Originally published in The American Prospect, June 19, 2000
On multiple video monitors at his Manhattan apartment in the Hotel Elsinore, the modern Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) mesmerizes himself with his own distressed image. At Blockbuster Video he rents "Action" tapes by the dozen, all the better to create his fractured movie-within-a-movie that is his version of the play wherein he'll "catch the conscience of the king." His girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles) has her own darkroom and carries around a bunch of Polaroid proofs which will scatter around her like fallen leaves, as she herself disintegrates. Typical of their generation, Hamlet and Ophelia escape into the technologies of image-making, but because this Hamlet is none other than Shakespeare's tragedy, their essential identities, and thus their destinies, are as bound—and sealed—as ever.
With any contemporized rendering of Shakespeare, there are always those who feel the plays can't be authentic if the stagecraft isn't as "Shakespearean" as the language. But we are reminded in the 1947 Revised Edition of The Yale Shakespeare that "The outline of the story of Hamlet, as we are familiar with it, is first found in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish chronicler who lived at the end of the twelfth century." The consequent point is that when Shakespeare's play was performed by his company, it was by definition a Hamlet in modern dress.
For our time, this boldly imagined contemporary Hamlet by the film maker Michael Almereyda—who tells a preview audience that he made it "in a hurry, for very little money"—is a rich achievement. Hamlet and Ophelia are the casualties not only of fate but of an all too familiar corporate power-lust. As the Denmark Corporation's CEO/King, Hamlet's uncle, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), is frighteningly without conscience. He has married Hamlet's adulterous mother, "our sometime sister, now our queen" Gertrude (Diane Venora), whose own innocence and guilt converge before our eyes as she reluctantly comes to her own palpable realization of all that has gone wrong. Despite the intrinsic familiarity of the play's story line, this movie version has a momentum of its own—enhanced by the frantic and fractured nature of life in the big city—so that even though we know at the beginning that by the end they will all be dead, Almereyda generates genuine suspense as well as an active curiosity about how the film will portray the known tragic outcome. Every line spoken by the actors was written by William Shakespeare, but the busy background noise and fast-paced disjointedness of Almereyda's film version makes this Hamlet acutely expressive of our exploding culture. While the young Hamlet broods, what Claudius calls "the hectic in my blood" seems to circulate throughout.
The characters in this Hamlet are conveyed, like the members of a family, as an ensemble of complex personalities with layered histories. Here the actors display a depth of thought about the characters they play, so that it is possible to learn more about Shakespeare's play than is often given on the screen. The achievement of this director is that these actors project—and in close-up!—the fundamental interior transformations that drive the action. And, given that this play is so famously ambiguous, this clarity, while by definition provisional, is nevertheless welcome.
For example, a decision has been made here about Gertrude's intentions as she takes up the poisoned cup and drinks from it, a decision for which Almereyda credits a director's notation from a stage production in the 70's, where in the margin it was written "Gertrude knows." Others may be more comfortable with a less deliberate interpretation, but I think that this "knowing" on Gertrude's part—knowing that her new husband intends to kill her son—provides a tragic gravity that is missing when her death by poisoning is played as entirely accidental. As Gertrude, Diane Venora brings a veteran's power to this role, which she has again performed this past winter in an acclaimed production at the Public Theater, with Hamlet played by the gifted Liev Schreiber, who plays Ophelia's brother Laertes in this film version. In other words, there is a real theatrical authority invested here, and this strength seems by extension to empower those other actors—Bill Murray as Polonius, Sam Shephard as the Ghost of Hamlet, and Ethan Hawke, for that matter—who might not at first come to mind as right for those roles, but who become so. Stunning without question is Julia Stiles, who embodies Ophelia with an authenticity equal to Diane Venora's Gertrude. Now we truly experience Ophelia's madness as the high-cost consequence of her insight. In contrast to the usual more illusive representations of Ophelia, here we have a complex character whose decline is tangibly connected to Hamlet's own deterioration. According to Julia Stiles, in a brief telephone interview, her own sense of the character was arrived at once she understood Ophelia as a young woman "who was trying to please everybody, even though Hamlet and her father send contradictory messages." The popular book Reviving Ophelia was helpful, says Stiles, because it is about the tragic impact upon the self-image of young women who are "suffocated by their environment and this need to please." Most helpful to Stiles—because, as she says, "Shakespeare never writes stage direction"—was the way this director wrote into the script the "visuals" by which are conveyed, without lines, the intensity of feeling between Ophelia and the other characters. She admired the various concrete choices Almereyda made in the making of this film, and at the same time, what she rediscovered about Shakespeare is the wide open range of possibility of interpretation.
One such possibility is presented in the persuasive invention of Gertrude and Claudius, the new novel by John Updike, which tells Updike's version of the story-before-the-story told in Shakespeare's play. In his novel we are invited to imagine a Claudius who is driven primarily by his desires for Gertrude, which prompts a different interpretation of his ambitions for the throne of her husband the king, his brother. Necessarily too, then, does Updike's Gertrude gain in both dimension and sympathy. The reader experiences her, in the novel's three parts, as the daughter of a king and the wife of two subsequent kings. And as the mother of a presumptive fourth, the future King Hamlet, Gertrude is thus given the means to instruct Ophelia—with the generosity of feeling that in Shakespeare resides only between the lines—about the nature of female compliance. "Men are beautiful enemies we are set down among," Gertrude tells Ophelia in Updike's novel. "If we have been compliant with one man, they reason, we may be also with another. The wish to be agreeable we take in with our mother's milk, alas."
In his own vivid telling, Updike brings the story forward in time, beginning in the late twelfth century and moving it into Shakespeare's time and, in exploring the point of view of Claudius as a step-father, on the verge of our own. The characters are so actual—even with their ancient names and antique speech—that at the end of the novel I wished he would write on, in order to see how Updike would re-imagine the rest of the story as we know it. As with Almereyda's Hamlet, Updike's novel enlarges the conversation. And, as does any telling of this mythic story, the success is less about where in time or place it is set, but rather how psychologically complete and emotionally true is our experience of it.
In other screen versions over the years there have been various approaches and varied levels of depth. Helpful for its literal representation of the whole text of Hamlet, word for word, is the epic-length Kenneth Branagh film production, which provides background by including all the more minor "explaining" scenes that often end up, for the sake of pacing, on the cutting room floor. Playing a variety of the minor characters are a dozen superstar stage and screen actors who feature either as first-rate attractions or unfortunate distractions. Uneven too, in my view, is Kate Winslet's Ophelia, whom she represents as a Botticelli Venus, and Julie Christie's Gertrude, who is never the dramatic equal of either her husband (Derek Jacobi as Claudius) or her son (Kenneth Branagh's own Hamlet). And yet this complete version has the real advantage of displaying both of these women as the characters Shakespeare wrote, and therefore as more complex than, when edited, they are often rendered.
In Laurence Olivier's 1948 film, for instance—which like Branagh he both stars in and directs—when we bring a modern sensibility to it, the result is so melodramatic it is almost comic, an effect reinforced by the physical resemblance between the young Olivier and Steve Martin. Both Ophelia and the Queen are played with blank faces that seem rarely to crack into meaningful expression, and like Branagh, Olivier (as a Hamlet who seems too mature in his power for the part of a university student) essentially stages the play as a one man show.
And if the Olivier version seems too stylized, in the Franco Zefferelli film version (1990), by contrast, Mel Gibson's Hamlet is too casual. As an actor he makes a credible impact only when interacting with others, which has the awful effect of disembodying the great soliloquies because, as interior monologue, there is too little evidence of the internal struggle that is at the heart of the play. Here in this version the effect is undermined by a cuteness on the part of Mel Gibson—as when Hamlet winks at his mother in a comic sword scene—which then makes all the more difficult the other adjoining roles, especially that of Ophelia, who is bravely played by a girlish Helena Bonham Carter. As Gertrude, who is costumed in her obscuring headgear and stiff voluminous Medieval dresses, even such a powerhouse as Glenn Close recedes. With the illumination that Almereyda and Updike have brought to the story, the lack of compelling women in other versions now seems an overwhelming gap. To know the play is to want to know it better, and yet, the one certainty in any discussion of Hamlet is that there's no such thing as a final word.
"Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story." These are Hamlet's last words and, as he dies, his charge to his friend Horatio. It is a challenge that, for centuries, the most talented and ambitious among us have been drawn to, and this in itself, I think, is really the essential thing to say about any Hamlet. To know the play a little is to want to know it better, and for this reason every interpretation of it adds to the ongoing conversation about these matters of life and death importance. And while not every act of imagination inspired by the play is as original and compelling as Michael Almereyda's new film or John Updike's new novel, with each we're also once again drawn back into William Shakespeare's play. In its telling and re-telling Hamlet holds, and unfolds, the past, the present, and the future.