In the midst of celebrating 450 years of the Bard’s ripping oeuvre, some thoughts on that prince of procrastination in popular culture
Of William Shakespeare’s big four — Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello, Hamlet is the most fascinating. The story of a procrastinating prince who might be crazy has an irresistible charm. While Othello had jealousy, Lear had pride and Macbeth had ambition, Hamlet’s fatal flaw was delay? The Danish prince mourning his father, the king’s murder most foul in his inky cloak was the original Goth and then there were all those cool soliloquies stuffed with quotable quotes. Hamlet has madness, method, passion, love, hate, ghosts, bloody revenge, a whodunit and conversations with self and skulls all in one super package.
The complete Renaissance man, Hamlet writes poetry for his love Ophelia, gives detailed instructions to the players while taking a step back to wonder at Hecuba’s tears is also pretty nifty with the sword. Apart from the learned papers and all the serious Shakespearean stuff the play has been heir to, Hamlet has had a starring role in different genres of popular culture from celluloid to print.
Laurence Olivier’s black-and-white Hamlet in 1948 won the best picture and actor awards at the Oscars. The iconic To be or Not be soliloquy was picturised on Olivier as he walked the windswept cliffs of Elsinore. There was also Franco Zefferilli’s Hamlet with Mel Gibson playing Hamlet and Glenn Close, who most would remember refusing to stay dead in the bathtub in Fatal Attraction, playing the adulterous queen Gertrude.
Zefferilli apparently cast Gibson after seeing him contemplate suicide as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. While Helena Bonham Carter played Ophelia, Zefferilli’s Hamlet focussed on the oedipal tension between Hamlet and Gertrude. Kenneth Branagh in his version of the play used every word of the play and his 1996 film was four hours long. Kate Winslet played Ophelia in a cast that included Robin Williams (Osric) Gérard Depardieu (Reynaldo), Timothy Spall (Rosencrantz), Billy Crystal (grave digger) Charlton Heston (Player King), Richard Attenborough (English Ambassador), John Gielgud (Priam) and Judi Dench (Hecuba).
In 2000, Michael Almereyda directed Hamlet set in contemporary Manhattan. Starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet with Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Bill Murray as Polonius, the movie contemporised the play by making Hamlet the heir to Denmark Corporation head quartered in Elsinore Hotel and Mousetrap in the form of a video.
Just when you wondered what Vishal Bharadwaj would do with Hamlet considering his super adaptations of Othello (Omkara) and Macbeth (Maqbool), comes news of Haider. Starring Shahid Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Kay Kay Menon, the film is set in Kashmir.
In print, Richard Armour’s version of Hamlet in his Twisted Tales from Shakespeare is a scream. From a picture of a gloomy Great Dane to Hamlet wishing this too, too solid flesh would melt after binging on Danish pastry and the ghost’s speech which is described as the original ghost written address, the jokes come thick and fast. Jasper Fforde’s Something Rotten, the fourth of his Thursday Next books sees Thursday return to her world after a stint in the bookworld with Hamlet who is curious to know what people in the outland think of him. The book while fun in Fforde’s weird and wonderful way was not as much of a blast as expected as Hamlet remains a curious cipher.
Shakespeare’s greatest play has a guest appearance in William Brown’s life as well. In Richmal Crompton’s “William Holds the Stage”, the irrepressible 11-year-old hijacks a performance of Act III, Scene I for the Welbecker Shakespeare Acting Shield. William’s succinct recapitulation of the great debate of who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays (“the plays were written by Ham and Bacon pushed a woman into a pond because he wanted to marry his mother”) sets the tone for the diverting spectacle of William doggedly holding forth while the masters and the students try to head him off.
While tragedy and horror are important for catharsis, laughter plays an equally significant part and we can thank the Bard of Avon for providing unlimited fodder for equal parts of delight and dole.