The Play’s the Thing
Multimodal Explorations of W. Shakespeare’s
‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’
My fifth and current reading/study of William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” has focused on two insights: First, Hamlet’s struggle with his darkness, how he weighs what violence courage and action could win, and at what point, paying careful attention to when he’s decided on destructive means. Second, the play’s widespread literary influence in multi-modal forms and their impact on the mythos’ accessibility to new interpreters. I chose to revisit this story, for our literature class’ ~ Shout out to my fellow cohorts C2 #LIT205e @ Marylhurst University ~ examination of theater, as a way to understand what I see as a fractal-like nature in the reiterations of Hamlet in cultural media, especially digitally. My study of the text and insight on the characters, has matured and grown over the years, given so many encounters with the doomed prince, and it dawned on me that in order to have a truly authentic experience with a text, one can’t rest on a definitive analysis. There is no superior way to experience ‘Hamlet’ but the best way is to allow oneself to be informed by all the ways there are to experience it. The best study of literature extends into every incarnation of story and multimodal expression. Hamlet’s expansion into digital realms has been kaleidescopic, indeed he “could be bounded in a nutshell yet be called king of infinite space,” assuring the gothic prince’s immortality in humanity’s collective consciousness. And while this transition into the techno-sphere is all good and well, it’s important to have a foundational experience with the play, as a play!
Of this first focus, I was careful to lay out the progression of Hamlet’s insanity and how it fuels the violence which follows. What gives Hamlet his third-dimensional aspect is his conflict of conscience and being. The questions he asks of himself are at the heart of ontological inquiry, ‘what is the point of being’. Hamlet is also struggling with the concept of will and courage, coming to the conclusion that it is his duty to act upon his thoughts even though they run against his morality, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprise of great pitch and moment with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action” (III:I). As Hamlet became more confident in his ability to take action and exact vengeance, the more he slid towards the ‘dark side,’ and the more violence did occur. While the ghost of his father drives him on he considers the possibility that it may be his perspective has been tainted by an evil form seeking to use him, ” I know my course. The spirit that I have seen may be a dev’l, and the dev’l hath power t’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps, out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me” (Hamlet II:I). So in spite of this self-awareness, why does Hamlet proceed? It sets into motion the play, The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet has devised to test the reaction of the king. When the play does indeed confirm his suspicions that his uncle is his father’s murderer, Hamlet submits to his insanity which leads to his unintentional slaying of Polonius. This accident leads to Hamlet’s travel to England, where the king has arranged for Hamlet’s assassination. This is a critical moment, because Hamlet has relented his insanity and agreed to go, but when he discovers in the letter, left to the negligent care of king’s sponges, the king’s design to kill him, Hamlet immediately returns to Denmark with the promise that, “my deeds be bloody, or be nothing worth.” It is this commitment to destroy which decides his bloody fate. In the penultimate scene, Hamlet challenges Laeretes, and calls his final fate, “I pray you, pass with your best violence” (V:I). Thus, the best violence is done, the lives of all major characters ends in ruin.
This progression is significant to note because it offers possible insights into the same nature of irrationality which causes many young men to partake in violence – a struggle that echoes in the dispirited minds of ‘outsiders’ who find the courage to enact some misguided sense of justice through destructive means. For each murderer there is much of Hamlet within: father issues, inflamed Oedipal complexes, instability in relationships, impulsive and dramatic emotional outbursts, and a pattern of ethical limitations overcome by an ever-growing reservoir of anger. And each mass murderer, confounded by the impotency of inaction, eventually comes to Hamlet’s resolution, and when they finally succumb to the dark side it is with the same promise, “my deeds be bloody, or be nothing worth.” Horrible, horrible stuff, but hey! Shakespeare!
In the 2000 film version, wherein Ethan Hawke plays the vengeful son, there is a video clip of Thich Nhat Han saying, “to be means to inter-be, one is never alone.” This is an appropriate echo of Hamlet’s famous monologue because it contains a salvational truth which Hamlet overlooked. Perhaps it was Hamlet’s status as prince which compacted his sense of isolation. His school friends are false fools and his only true confidant is Horatio, but whatever the case his grief makes his reason difficult to reach and he is unable to do so himself. Thich Nhat Han is offering the heedless Hamlet the higher view, how the one effects the whole, but screw the prince, I feel that it’s an important message to share with any youth contemplating the benefits of violence, “to be means to inter-be, you are never alone.”
The ghost of Hamlet is alive and well in the machine, his mythos is more accessible than ever. There is no way to estimate the depth to which Shakespeare’s body of work has penetrated the internet. Suffice it say that his words are forever a part of our greater collective consciousness and the internet does well to reflect that. A hashtag search of #hamlet on Twitter or Tumblr reveals a stream of quotes or a quilt of visual references, respectively. What I find fascinating about this is that any internet search of ‘hamlet’ was met with a fractal-like display of resources, and resources within resources. Visually these trails of links became hallways of thematic images, which when explored revealed another resource of different but thematically similar images. What does this fractal-presence mean? Only that information systems also conform to the habits of the system outside of itself, and Hamlet is a large enough human story to easily reflect that.
The digital frontier allows for literary works to be interpreted in fresh ways that compliment the story in surprising ways. Take this Hamlet-inspired rendition of the popular meme ‘Doge’ as an example. It minimizes many of the play’s complex themes to fit them into the joke’s formula which appeal to a vast number of younger internet users, yet it also serves as an effective form of literary commentary which can attract new readers with such phrases as: amaze, wow, so quotes, much revenge, so incest many deaths, such tragic. Hahaha!
Here is a web-comic that brilliantly juxtaposes the protagonists of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Othello,’ and says that Hamlet would have had the brains to figure out Rodrigo was manipulating him, whilst Othello would not hesitate to exact revenge on the guilty party, effectively solving the other’s conundrum. These are very fresh and interesting compliments to Shakespeare’s penultimate Emo-thriller, but without first hand familiarity with the original play to inform them, even the freshest of references will fall flat. How involved with the story does one have to be to appreciate the digital frills?
Given the many ways in which an interpreter can experience ‘Hamlet’ what constitutes a quality experience? What qualifies the authenticity of an experience? It is not enough to simply have an awareness of the Danish prince’s conundrum and absorb stray bits of referential media. The interpretation scratches on the rocks of shallow water, thereby disenfranchising the interpreter of a deeper experience. One might be able to follow their own thread and contemplate the meanings of a choice phrase, but it these considerations lack dimension, failing to recognize the complex architecture of its brilliant plot, the turns of cause, effect, cause.
Is it necessary to read the play as a foundation for an authentic experience? Heavens no! A fully-informed experience will include the text, but it’s imperative to experience any play as it was intended: as a performance. While textual analysis allows for deeper penetration into the play’s elements, it is more important to watch the story unfold and relate in one’s own way. That is how key themes are communicated, and a human performance gives us the advantage of being able to see and relate to the characters, a bridge of empathy, forming an instant emotional connection to the story. Hamlet himself recognizes how a play, although a mocking performance of real life, is able to expose our own relation to the story, how we can’t help but have our emotions provoked by it, “I’ll have grounds more relative than this—the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
So it goes that what is needed as a foundation is a familiarity with ‘Hamlet’ as a performance. There are surely many opportunities to witness the tragedy live. Does the context of the performance add or subtract from the authenticity? There is no way for anyone to see the original productions of the play at London’s globe theater in Shakespeare’s heyday, and though all performances are a step removed from Shakespeare’s it does not mean the authenticity is diminished in any sense. The rise of technology has perhaps allowed us to envision the original in a more immersive setting. While there are many notable film adaptions of ‘Hamlet’ the most remarkable one is Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production. While the setting was updated to reflect 19th century Denmark, no expense was spared and not a word was omitted from Shakespeare’s draft – ironically, Branagh was nominated for an Oscar for best writing in an adapted screenplay despite it being 100% Shakespeare’s work, haha! This film offers us a highly detailed and complete world, where every character turns in a quality performance. However, not even an example of such passion and excellence can stand as the definitive experience.
Off the top of my head I’ve encountered three film versions of Hamlet which attempt to directly retell the story throughout different centuries: there is Mel Gibson’s film which casts the play in medieval Denmark. I saw this around the time I first read the play in high school, and I don’t remember being very impressed with the film, and was more interested with the book. My angsty teenage self identified with Hamlet’s moodiness – I use to admire emotional jerks like Hamlet and Holden Caulfield. Part of me believed Hamlet was justified in seeking his revenge and rooting for him to exact it. I hated Polonius, and the King, and I was angry with Hamlet’s mother! I felt betrayed by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and satisfied with their fate. I saw the situation from Hamlet’s point of view, and it’s interesting for me to see how this perspective changed over time. Years later I saw Kenneth Branagh’s film this in tandem with my third reading, and my focus was on the quality of acting, theatrical production, and purity of words. It was visually stunning, and I appreciated the pace and seeming ease of Shakespeare’s verse dripping off the actors’ tongues. I romanticized the characters, especially Ophelia. Some more years past, during my fourth read, I discovered Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, and film adaptation, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” which influenced my overall approach to the reading. These creative offshoots and Shakespeare’s texts were abundant with existential explorations and the existential questions of my mid-twenties seemed to stretch the likeliness of Shakespeare’s authorial intent as existential commentary. What is interesting about the 2000 film version, which I encountered independently of any reading, is how it completely inverted my original opinions regarding most characters. I was more sympathetic to Hamlet’s mother, Hamlet was instantly off-putting, a metaphorical victim of corporate ambition, a spoiled trust-funder madman whose narcissism knew no bounds. I had less patience with his limitless teenage angst. However, Bill Murray’s Polonius turned the plotting fishmonger into a tedious but likable doting father. Whereas, I had always hated this bumbling character, suddenly I caught a glimpse into the rationale of Ophelia’s stricken irrationality and Laertes’ rage, at the enormity of Hamlet’s first murderous folly.
It’s not just the freshness of the actors and their grasp of the character that altered my reading, it was also the maturity I had gained in recent years. After so many exposures with the play, I’ve become intimate with these roles, and can see them in different lights, understanding that there can be no official version. What is distinct about the advantage of filmed performances is that they endure over time and are ever accessible, serving as a fixed referential window for us to share. I can reference elements about Kate Winslet’s performance as Ophelia, and you can check them against the film, whereas live theater (though they’ve taken to recording performances) are perishable performances and recordings are not as accessible. However, cinema’s ability to endure over time does not make them of a superior quality than a theatrical piece, they exist only as expensive two-dimensional reruns. While I hope you enjoy the films and the retellings of Hamlet throughout the mediums, I encourage you to seek out a theatrical performance which really drives home the urgency of the crisis and Shakespeare’s mastery of the stage. Unless you run for the doors, there’s no way to escape the abundant violence and tragedy which unfolds in the physical space in front of you.
It doesn’t matter what versions of the story we find ourselves favoring, what is important is our connection to the story, and our willingness to see it in all of its incarnations. Multi-layered exposure increases one’s flexibility in analysis, adaptive reasoning, and goes further. There is no definitive version of any one play, as there is none for ‘Hamlet’ and in the same way there is no final authority to say what qualifies as an “authentic experience.” Multi-modal variations of ‘Hamlet’ remind us that its mythos has sunken deep into the very wires that connect human knowledge, and it has become a part of our collective culture. We have but to experience and appreciate the story whenever it resurfaces. The role of Hamlet won’t rest and will only ever continue to transcend any set identity, we will recognize his ghost anew and learn see an old friend, a mad prince, in a way we hadn’t before.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Readdle Digital Literature, 2012. eBook.
Zefferrelli, Franco, dir. Hamlet. Warner Bros, 1990. Film
Branagh, Kenneth, dir. Hamlet. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996. Film
Almereyda, Michael, dir. Hamlet. Miramax Films, 2000. Film