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Hamlet by William Shakespeare: A Filmic Event Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021


Since the dawn of the Hollywood era, a popular means of filmmakers to make money has been to re-create the favorite stories of literature into filmic productions. There are numerous examples of this from Hollywood’s early recreation of Tennyson’s poem “Enoch Arden” in 1911 to the recent production of the ancient text Beowulf as a filmic event. However, the ability of the film to provide an accurate depiction of the original text is almost always questionable at best. Ask any fan of the popular Harry Potter series and it becomes clear that the film, while sometimes very interesting and bringing out elements of the story that were not particularly emphasized before, is never capable of delivering the story to the same degree of depth and artistry.

In many cases, such as those listed above, the film adds in artistic elements of its own that may or may not help to inform the intended meanings contained within the book. More recent films are able to surprise and interest the viewer thanks to the technological advances of digital imaging and faster acting cameras, often changing the perspective of the story altogether to reflect themes or social changes relevant to the modern world that may not have been considered by the original author. In bringing Shakespeare’s classic story of Hamlet to the big screen and reset into a modern context, director Michael Almereyda is forced to reinterpret the role of Ophelia due to significant changes in modern women’s status, in the process forcing audiences to reassess their common assumptions regarding her role in the tragedy.

Main Text

Directors undertaking a film adaptation of a classic work of literature, such as William Shakespeare’s play, face a number of challenges. The first of these challenges is whether or not one should remain rigidly tied to the original script. Because of a widespread perception of Hollywood and cinema as a mere entertainment venue, movie producers consistently come up against the same problem of how to make their films appear authentic and valuable on a par with the literature they depict. “For the last two decades, academic criticism has predominantly viewed mainstream cinema as a sequence of emptily expensive, aesthetically impoverished spectacles” (Maltby, 1998: 22). This is only partly based on the frivolous nature of some of the films designed merely to bring in box office dollars. Another part of the problem is the inherent limitations placed on film. It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to realize that the material intended to fill a four to six hour play cannot be faithfully reproduced in a medium limited to two hours.

This issue was one of the first recognized problems of adapting works of literature into filmic performance. In 1957, George Bluestone warned, “mutations are probable the moment one goes from a given set of fluid, but relatively homogeneous, conventions to another; that changes are inevitable the moment one abandons the linguistic for the visual medium” (5). In fact, the necessity of compression leads to a general sense of dissatisfaction with films attempting to bring text to screen as they become judged both for and against their adherence to the original. “Critics see film adaptations of novels as fundamentally flawed, as they are not original, cinematic conceptions; journalists and audiences react with disappointment at superficial dissimilarities, dismayed by casting decisions, inevitable compression and the loss of favorite characters or incidents” (Pulverness, 2002). Yet the very act of realizing that any rendition of literature to screen is going to involve some degree of interpretation, in much the same way that the individual reader tends to interpret the text as they read it, paves the way for directors to present new ideas such as what is seen in Hamlet.

Hamlet is a well-known story by now, being one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It is also one of his longest. The basic action of the play begins when Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark, returns home from school abroad to attend the funeral of his father. At the same time, he learns that his mother has married his uncle Claudius, who was his father’s younger brother. This betrayal of his father’s memory sends him into a deep mourning as he feels he has lost both parents with one stroke. The appearance of his father’s ghost on the castle walls further complicates things as he insists he was murdered by his ambitious brother and demands revenge.

In order to determine whether the ghost is telling the truth or is merely the devil attempting to fool Hamlet into committing the sinful act of murder, Hamlet decides to pretend he is crazy and to stage a play that will reveal his uncle’s heart. In the meantime, the girl Hamlet has been interested in, Ophelia, is used as a pawn against him to try to discover for her father, Polonius, and Claudius what Hamlet knows. This brutal manipulation of her spirit is too much for her to bear and she ends up going truly mad, eventually drowning in a nearly pond as she sings folk songs to herself. Within the play as it is traditionally staged, Ophelia is seen as completely powerless and incapable of doing anything under her own volition. While every line in the film was written by Shakespeare, Ophelia nevertheless manages to appear somehow stronger and more self-driven, yet still caught in a web of power she cannot resist.

Ophelia’s role in the play is used completely as a tool or ‘puppet figure’ by the more important protagonists. Her role as Hamlet’s love interest positions her as a perfect pawn for the men around her. Not only conforming to the traditional concept of a submissive, malleable female with little to no educated thoughts of her own, Ophelia also conforms to the traditional concept of a hero’s love interest. She is presented as a demure, chaste young girl, obedient to her father and her brother, mild mannered and sweet as early as her first scene. Her humble question “Not more but so?” (I, iii, 11) following Laertes assertion that Hamlet’s interest could not be anything more than an adolescent game indicates her traditionally proper complete acceptance of a man’s opinion and directive.

Her further response to Laertes – “Do not as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, / Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads / And recks not his own rede” (I, iii, 47-50) – reinforces her role as the guardian of the family soul just as her acquiescence to Laertes, as the male, reinforces that he is the guardian of the family chastity. She is further shown to be the faithful servant to the queen in her willing attendance on her at court functions and engaged in properly frivolous activities – the sewing of decorative things and the knowledge of flowers and songs. Although the latter are used as manifestations of her insanity, the turn she takes in her insanity provide clues as to her pursuits prior to losing her mind.

Within the film and placed into a modern world, Ophelia would not be anywhere near believable if she were to remain so incredibly passive. Far from being the uneducated, passive young lady of traditional performances, Ophelia here is seen to be rather talented in her photography with the same sort of dark artistic vision as is practiced by Hamlet in his filmography. While she is given no additional lines to speak other than what was originally presented by Shakespeare, her delivery of these lines is deliberately more defiant and questioning. Her first line in the play that originally seems so innocent and trusting, “Not more but so?” (I, iii, 11), are delivered with a sarcastic twist to the mouth and an uplifting of tone that denotes skepticism and doubt.

This further suggests that she has a mind of her own and her own opinions regarding what Hamlet’s intentions might be toward her. It also suggests that perhaps she has intentions of her own. When she turns Laertes’ words back toward him to caution him to behave while away at school, the dutiful guardian of the family becomes instead a teasing younger sister. Again, her manner and tone indicate she is well able to imagine the types of trouble her brother might get into and is thus not so innocently isolated as earlier treatments of her tend to suggest. Within this portrayal, she does no service to the queen. She is too independent for this, despite later events.

In the original play, it is precisely because of her perfection in this role as the quintessential princely favorite, Hamlet is suspicious of her. This awareness of the potential for Ophelia to be used as a less obvious tool against him is a marked difference from the courtly love tradition carried throughout many of Shakespeare’s other plays. Not only is Hamlet aware that his already expressed feelings for Ophelia may be used by his enemies against him, he is suspicious of Ophelia’s own complexity in the plot. She has already displayed a quick wit in being able to turn Laertes’ instructions to her regarding Hamlet into an injunction against him not to play around while he is away (III, iii cited above). Although she is very obviously in love with Hamlet, presenting Hamlet’s pursuit of her in the most honorable and noble terms possible, she is also very obviously torn between her maidenly duty to obey her male elders and the feelings of her heart. This confusion, as well as the conflicting instructions of her elders, further supports Hamlet’s suspicion that Ophelia may be acting in conscious concert with his uncle. His mother’s recent treachery has opened his eyes to the machinations of women and he cannot but be convinced that Ophelia’s innocent-seeming confusion is instead a skillful manipulation of an inborn trait.

Hamlet’s mistrust of Ophelia because of his mother’s treachery is equally palpable in Almereyda’s version of the story as he spends hours staring at her video-recorded face, focusing in on her eyes as if seeking her sincerity. Some of these other aspects dealing with Ophelia’s character are brought forward as well. Her quick wit is revealed in the same way as it is seen in the original play, but her intelligence is emphasized in the film by her constant association with books and learning. She demonstrates initiative when she attempts to arrange a meeting with Hamlet during Claudius’ press conference and her artistic side is brought even more into focus when it is seen that her selected meeting place is the Guggenheim museum.

She is not the dutiful daughter of medieval times, either as she lovingly and sorrowfully greets Hamlet in her darkroom after being told to stay away from him, quickly falling into his arms in sad passionate comfort until Polonius walks into the room. She seems to attempt to warn Hamlet away from her as she somewhat coldly and stiffly begins to return the letters he sent to her, which she has obviously treasured by keeping them in a special box. Hamlet does not seem to suspect her of being complicit in the machinations of her father and his uncle until he accidentally finds the wire on her as the two of them begin passionately kissing each other. Ophelia’s feelings in this scene are made much clearer than in the play as she eagerly responds to Hamlet and clearly detests what her father is forcing her to do in wearing the wire. Yet, because of his recent loss of faith in women and his uncle’s unexpected complicity in his father’s death, Hamlet’s immediate reaction is instant anger, rejection and hatred.

Seizing upon any tool they can lay their hands on, the King and Polonius readily employ Ophelia as a weapon for their own purposes. At the beginning of the play, she is told by her father in no uncertain terms, to go against her heart and spurn all communication with Hamlet despite the close proximity in which they live: “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth, / Have you so slander any moment leisure / As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. / Look to’t, I charge you” (I, iii, 132-135). While this directive can be seen as the natural reaction of a father in working to guard the chastity of his daughter, it can also be seen as a wily political move of an ambitious parent attempting to both protect the assets of the family as well as provide a more alluring bait to the ultimate prize.

This interpretation is supported in the almost over-humble way in which he approaches the King and Queen with his theory regarding the cause of Hamlet’s madness, reciting the degeneration of the prince since Ophelia had stopped receiving his messages: “And he, repelled, a short tale to make, / Fell into a sadness, then into a fast, / Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness, / Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension, / Into the madness wherein now he raves” (II, ii, 146-150). This understanding of Hamlet’s condition, at least as far as the truth of his affections toward Ophelia are revealed in the recitation of the love letter (II, ii), provides Polonius with the tool he’s been seeking for greater court security as well as providing the King with a tool to use against Hamlet himself.

Polonius’ charge to Ophelia in the play seems to be little more than a father giving his daughter instructions that he is supremely confident she will follow. The Polonius in the film does not seem so incredibly confident that Ophelia will do as she’s told. This is reinforced by the sullen, resistant way in which Ophelia listens to him, leaning away from him and rolling her eyes as he speaks to her. She is the quintessential teenage rebel who doesn’t dare to openly defy him, perhaps for reasons of financial support and minority status as she does appear to be quite young. The she obviously resents some portion of her father’s control is evident in the way in which she and Laertes greet their father’s return home before Laertes leaves for school, both furtive and quiet the moment he walks in the door and sharing between them whispered comments and significant looks as their father attempts to impart his words of wisdom.

Polonius’ obsequious approach to Claudius and Gertrude is equally resented as Ophelia is dragged reluctantly by the hand behind him, again with significant rolls of the eyes and repeated attempts to retrieve her letters from Hamlet before he can hand them over to Claudius. When her attempts to stop the two men’s plotting fail, she wanders away from them, childishly putting her hands out to the sides as she balances along the edge of the pool as if throwing her hands up in exasperation. As she stares into the pool, her internal conflict is made clear as she envisions herself jumping in and covering her face underwater. This scene begins to suggest Ophelia was well aware of how she was about to be used, whether she liked it or not, and that there was no way she could avoid the inevitable choice she was going to need to make.

However, this is not something Ophelia seems to realize within the play. “She is unaware that her elders are dangling her for their own purposes, she believes they are solely and sincerely concerned to restore Hamlet to his true state and to let her help him if she can” (Walker, 1948: 57). She is unaware of Claudius’ complicity in the death of Hamlet’s father as both Hamlet and the King, of course, are. She innocently believes what her elders have told her, as she has been taught to believe since her earliest childhood and has already proven to have learned well. Because she truly loves Hamlet, Polonius and the King believe her act will successfully subdue Hamlet. For Polonius, either his daughter provides Hamlet with a sudden cure and the family becomes firmly attached to the crown or achieves the country farm he wants to retire to or Hamlet is truly crazy and he will have to continue in his current function. The risk is small while the rewards are great. For the King, he will gain a clearer understanding of Hamlet’s current behavior, of which he has already become suspicious. However Hamlet’s recent revelation regarding his mother, coupled with Ophelia’s sudden changes of heart, harden him to also use poor Ophelia as a puppet. Because he does have feelings for her, he tries to protect her in case she is innocent by hinting at his continued attraction for her as in the play scene – “Lady shall I lie in your lap?” (III, ii, 127) – yet he also rails against her as a means of expressing his thoughts to the other woman he feels has so wronged both him and his father.

Ophelia in the film is not deceived by the actions of her elders. She is well aware that they are attempting to use her in some way to gain access to Hamlet’s inner thoughts and feelings and she obviously feels this is wrong. However, she doesn’t seem capable of finding any means of escaping the trap she’s been placed in. Like the Ophelia of the play, she is powerless to effect any significant change and can do little more than scream in her frustration to let her feelings be known. Because she is not able to escape the controls of her father, she is forced to betray Hamlet and is discovered, losing any chance that she might yet find a future with him. Following Hamlet’s violent rejection, she then loses her father violently and can no longer cope with the internal conflicts that have kept her silent so long. Her grief at so many losses in so short a time is overwhelming and she is found drowned in the Guggenheim fountain, the place she’d arranged to meet Hamlet when they were still in love.

In bringing the original text, pared down for length, to the big screen and placing it within the modern context of New York in 2000, director Almereyda is able to provide new interpretations of old characters through the expedient of body language and tone of voice. Ophelia, traditionally seen as little more than a mostly silent puppet to be manipulated through the film until her puppet masters either die or quit on her, emerges as a character with a personality of her own. She has her own opinions, desires, hopes and dreams, all of which are thwarted by the actions of others more powerful than she. Although they are capable of forcing her to do their bidding through high surveillance and customary parental control, this Ophelia is not fooled into believing her elders know what is best nor as innocent as an isolated girl of the medieval Denmark might be expected to be. She is educated and capable of pursuing her own interests in her photography and art, yet she is confined within the world of high corporate intrigue. Her death is seen as the culmination of her frustration over not being able to express her own feelings and her grief at having lost both her father (as financial support) and her hoped-for lover through her enforced betrayal of him. While she remains a relatively weak character within the modern world as well as the old world, Almereyda’s Ophelia is a stronger, more active character than her more traditional predecessor.

Works Cited

Bluestone, George. Novels Into Film. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1957.

Hamlet. Dir. Michael Almereyda. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Sam Shepherd, Diane Venora & Julia Stiles. Miramax, 2000.

Maltby, Richard. “Nobody Knows Everything: Post-Classical Historiographics and Consolidated Entertainment.” Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Steve Neale and Murray Smith (Eds.). London: Routledge, 1998: 21-44.

Pulverness, Alan. “Film and Literature: Two Ways of Telling.” Literature Matters 32. British Arts Council, 2002. Web.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.’ The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). London: Penguin Books, 1969, pp. 930-976.

Walker, Roy. The Time is out of Joint: A Study of Hamlet. London: Andrew Dakers, 1948.

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