Hamlet on film overview

by Debra Murphy
There’s an old saying, “You can’t have Hamlet without the Prince,” and it could well be argued that if ever there were a story built upon a single character, it is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When all is said and done, any production of this play is ultimately dependent for its success on a convincing, (and dramatic) interpretation of the character of the Prince of Denmark. This is the story’s glory, but also its peril.

Is Hamlet a man of Renaissance or postmodern sensibilities? Is he seeing the world around him clearly, or through his own mirror, which is to say, darkly? Is he a hero or a hero-villain, like Marlowe’s Faustus? Is he noble or petty, or even malicious? Is he a top-heavy intellectual, incapable of making up his mind, or a spleeny hot-head, making rash judgments on the basis of flimsy evidence and even superstition? Or could it be that Hamlet is just downright mad? Actors and directors have to ponder these questions as they think through their productions.

Here, for example, are the ways in which some well-known critics have interpreted the character of the Prince of Denmark:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

“In these words, I imagine, will be found the key to Hamlet’s whole procedure. To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it. In this view the whole piece seems to me to be composed. There is an oak-tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered.

“A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind.”

J.W. von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s
Apprenticeship
, 1796, tr. Thomas Carlyle,
Bk.IV, ch. 13, excerpt in Interpreting Hamlet,
ed. Russell E. Leavenworth (San Francisco,
1960), pp.43-44.

“…Now one of Shakespeare’s modes of creating characters is to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the working of our minds, –an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed: his thoughts and the images of his fancy are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakespeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment: — Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve. Thus it is that this tragedy presents a direct contrast to that of Macbeth; the one proceeds with the utmost slowness, the other with a crowded and breathless rapidity.”

S. T. Coleridge, “Notes and Lectures upon
Shakespeare and the Old Dramatists,” excerpt
in Interpreting Hamlet, ed. Russell E. Leavenworth
(San Francisco, 1960), pp. 45-46

But perhaps there is at least one other role in this classic play whose characterization is pivotal to the dramatic success of Hamlet, and that is Claudius. Hamlet, the text seems to suggest, thinks his uncle is a drunkard and a lecher…but is that the sum of the man? And if it is, why does our brilliant and noble Prince find it so difficult to thwart Claudius’ rule?

Having enjoyed dozens of Hamlets, staged and screened, in the last forty-odd years, I would like to suggest that a really satisfying production of the Prince of Denmark’s Tragedy requires an antagonist worthy of the name. With that thought in mind, let us take a look at the various filmed versions of Shakespeare’s great play…

bardolatry reviews of Hamlet-on-film: