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Hamlet in First FolioPage from First Folio, 1623

Hamlet

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Written
15991601

First performed
1601 or 1602

First published
1603, in the First Quarto

Literary form
Play

Genres
Tragedy

Writing language
English

Author's country
England

Length
Five acts, 4,042 lines, approx. 29,000 words

Hamlet 2000 scene
Ethan Hawke's Hamlet meets his not-so-ghostly father played by Sam Shepard in the 2000 film.

Hamlet

THE PLAY | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1948, 1969, 1980, 1990, 1990, 1996, 2000

The Post-modern Hamlet

Hamlet (2000): director Michael Almereyda; featuring Ethan Hawke, Sam Shepard, Kyle McLachlan, Diane Venora, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray

For a completely different take on Hamlet for the new millennium, check out the 2000 version starring Ethan Hawke and a number of other movie stars in modern dress.

This is a cold, stylish, high-tech Hamlet that is nonetheless moving at times in a postmodern way. Hawke watches himself and Ophelia on video screens. He replays his opening lines to "To be or not to be" over and over before finally committing himself to the soliloquy. His father's ghost (Sam Shepard) appears on his balcony and enters the condominium to hug him.

Hamlet and Claudius (Kyle McLaughlan), who's taken over his later father's Denmark Corporation, play a cloak-and-dagger game with limousines, pistols and videos. Dialogue is chopped up and reconstructed at will. (Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy", a change I can agree with in this context.)

Oddly it seems natural to have these Y2K characters spouting Elizabethan blank verse, which says something about the universality of Shakespeare's writing. Not all the actors handle it as well though. Hawke is a credible slacker-era Hamlet, especially in his intimate moments, but when he has to deliver speeches to other characters he sounds like he's reciting, as do Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Bill Murray as the decent but not too bright Polonius. Murray has been praised for his low-key, conversational delivery, but for me the lines just don't work this way. His famous advice for a son sounds like a man trying to remember a shopping list.


A scene on an airplane from Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, released in 2000.

Stand-outs are the underrated McLachlan, who speaks his weasely lines with charming conviction and expresses much more with the subtlest of facial gestures, the inestimable Liev Schreiber as Laertes, and the formidable Shepard. No strain as the most convoluted thoughts are delivered with the naturalness of twenty-first century dialogue. You can believe they are saying it just as they thought it. You forget it's Shakespeare you're listening to.

In the end this ultramodern Hamlet reverts to old-style dramatics with a fencing match not too different from the stab-and-poison massacre of the original. I expected something more revelatory of our own times. But maybe that's the too-easy point being scored by this Hamlet, that despite the change in trappings, people never change.

In the meantime I'll continue my impossible quest for the perfect Hamlet. There's this Christopher Plummer performance that's supposed to be the best ever put on film but is hard to track down.... And Ian McKellen's great TV production of 1970.... And Richard Burton's 1964 triumph....

— Eric McMillan

THE PLAY | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1948, 1969, 1980, 1990, 1990, 1996, 2000

See also:

Movies
Julius Caesar

Movies
Macbeth

On Amazon:

Hamlet

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