"Hamlet" on Film. Different Views and Interpretations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

25 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Hamlet on Film: Table of contents:

I. A look at the Topic
1. William Shakespeare's Hamlet
2. What is Hamlet about?
3. Different views and interpretations
4. Thesis
5. Which Hamlet do we read?

II. Movie versions of Hamlet
1. Variations and Key Scenes
2. Hamlet (1990)
3. Hamlet (1996)
4. Hamlet (2000)
5. Detailed examination
6. Court scene
7. 'Mousetrap'

III. Conclusion
1. Shakespeare's Hamlet as a movie
2. A movie and his time
3. Conclusion of the Analysis

IV. Appendix
1. Literature used

I. A look at the Topic

1. William Shakespeare's Hamlet

William Shakespeare - Everyone around the world at least has heard this name before. He lived about 400 years ago in medieval England. He worked as an actor, a director, a producer and of course a he was a famous playwrite.1 In his lifespan William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets.2 - Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and The Tempest, to name only a few plays he is famous for. But there is one play by William Shakespeare that is considered special by many people. I am am talking about Shakespeare longest3 and most complex play, Hamlet. Hamlet is a play that still is very much read and performed, maybe therefore it stays in people's minds. Additionally it was made into feature films many times and still seems to entertain audiences around the world.

There are other plays that seem to 'return' every couple years, when they are made into a movie or are once again performed on stage, but somehow people seem to react to Hamlet in a special way. - These reactions raise the thought that the whole play seems have something timeless and special about it. - Maybe we consider it as special only because everyone knows it and it stays in the minds of our people. Therefore it is quoted and referred to all the time and as a result it is made into films and performed once more... Maybe Hamlet has developed its own dynamic: Because everyone knows it, and has read it, it is refered to in many different ways and because it is refered to all the time, people still read it.

This could go on and on, but certainly this can only be an assumption. It is to state, that there must be something more to it, because there are other books or plays everyone knows and they can be refered to once in a while but, they are not made into a movie that often... A good example against this are the works of Johann Wolfgang Goethe oder other great writers like him. - I can only recall a few film about Faust and one about Die Leiden des jungen Werther... Certainly there are not as many films based on his work as are based on Shakespeare's work.

2. What is Hamlet about?

What makes Hamlet special or, to be even more precise: What is it the captures us, when reading Hamlet, even today, aside from that we already familiar with the play? - To give an answer to that question, we have to take a look at another, seemingly more simple question: What is Hamlet all about? - This question cannot be answered in a simple way. There are many critics arguing about that question. People do not seem to react to it all in the same way. There are many different layers to Hamlet and therefore giving a brief answer would definitely take something from the play. We can at least try it and state: Basically Hamlet can be considered as a tragic story of murder, revenge and betrayal, but there are certainly other elements in it. - Love, mystery, politics, angst, complexes, to name only a few other topics, one can find in Hamlet. Although Hamlet was written 400 years ago, we still should be able to relate to these central elements; that may be a reason why it still captures people's imagination. Other plays by William Shakespeare are not that easy to relate to from our modern point of view, because they inherit themes or topics that we are not used to any more and therefore we are not able to relate to 100%.

But what about the plot? - To sum up the main plot in a few words: Prince Hamlet returns home from his studies. He finds his father dead and his mother remarried to his uncle, who has now become the new king. Hamlet is suspicious. One night the ghost of his father appears and tells him, that his uncle has killed him and he wants Hamlet to take revenge. Hamlet is unsure what to do, tries to find out the truth about what has happened and through out a long term of events and some fatal errors he finally gets his revenge and, as a tragic side effect, many innocent people die, as Hamlet himself does, too. These are the main events in a very short manner, but that is not the point people argue about. People argue, what is written between the lines or what Shakespeare could have meant when he wrote certain lines. What his or some of the characters intentions might have been to do something or leave something else.

Unfortunately William Shakespeare can not give answers about his plays, his intentions and about Hamlet, any more. So all we can do is interpret: Since the eye of the beholder interprets differently, people argue about their interpretation.

3. Different views and interpretations

Everyone seems to read the story differently, like Bertholt Brecht saw it for the most part as a political play4, where other people said it was a 'who-done-it?', murder mystery5 and other argued that it is a tragic love story.6 There seem to be no boundaries, how to interpret the play, because there is such a high variety of interpretations.

Is the making of a movie based on Hamlet any different than interpreting the play in your own way? - When we read the play we make up the looks and circumstances in our minds, or is it not?

William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as a play, normally shown in theatres. But with the evolvement of man there came some very interesting discoveries, like visual media, such as film. Our modern way of seeing a play is very often not going to a traditional theatre, we go to a movie theatre or watch the movies in our homes every time it pleases us. Somehow, man got more evolved and more lazy. At least that is what it seems like...

And the first attempt to capture Shakespeare on film was already in 1899.7 - Of course it cannot be considered a movie in the way we understand it today, but it was a first attempt to do it, when some short scenes of a stage production in London of Shakespeare's King John were put on film.8 It was only a few minutes long and had no language and sound to it. Unfortunately there are no more copies of it left, so we can only imagine what this 'film' might have been like.9 Nevertheless it proved to be a successful concept, when we consider that there were more than 400 Shakespearefilms made, before movies 'did learn to talk'.10

4. Thesis

Surely there were many interpretations which focussed on Hamlet as well. In fact there are more movie versions of Hamlet than any other play by William Shakespeare. That is the reason why we will have a closer look at Hamlet and three modern versions of the play, compare them to each other and hopefully will find out where similarities and where differences are. There is one major reason why I chose the films, I chose: These three versions of Hamlet were all made approximately 5 years apart, it might make it easier to compare them, because there should only be little changes in movie techniques All three movies should be very similar in the way they were made, regarding technique and production circumstances.

Is it really the case that everyone who is reading the lines makes up something different in his own mind, similar as to the critics that argued what the play was about. Is it the exact same way when a group of people decide to make a movie; they interpret it and the result is not automatically the exact same play they have read before? - It is just like when different people are asked to give a speech about the same topic, not necessarily all of the reports might be the same. About the films: Then, there could be many differences to note... Or does it depend on the period of time when the movies were done. The time of production with its sociological and political background influences the interpretation? - If that is the case it could also be that there are hardly any or only a few differences, because the versions are at close quarters. These are the questions we are seeking an answer to when we examine the films that were made of Hamlet.

5. Which Hamlet do we read?

But before that can start, we have at least to mention that there is no definite version of Hamlet. The play itself is existing in different versions. There are three early main- versions exiting of Hamlet. They are called Folio, 1st Quarto and the 2nd Quarto.11 The 1st Quarto was the first to be published in 1603. It contains only half of the lines

and is suspected to be a combination of texts people who saw the play wrote down.

The 2nd Quarto came out in 1604/1605. It is the longest early version of the play, although there are still 85 lines missing which can be found in the folio version.12 The folio version of Hamlet was published in 1623 in a collection of Shakespeare's works. This version is 230 lines shorter than the 2nd Quarto, but contains additional passages that were not included in any other version of the text.13 There are other folio and quarto versions of Hamlet, but the others are “regarded as derivatives of the first three editions”.14 So there is no definite version of the play and there are many different editions. This is a very interesting fact when we think about the movie versions of Hamlet; There might be differences in the movie versions. These differences can be based on the usage of a different version of Hamlet. Since there is no 'real' version of Hamlet, although today most people read the 2nd quarto, those 'errors' can occur. Even though most texts of Hamlet published today are based on the 2nd quarto, still there can be found variations where things from another version were filled in or left out. We have to consider this, when we look at the movies, what we are going to do next.

II. Movie versions of Hamlet

1. Variations and Key Scenes

Of course there are many movies that are based on the play that William Shakespeare wrote. I have chosen three different versions, or variations, if you will, whose production is only a few years apart. They were made in 1990, 1996 and 2000. The directors, Franco Zeffirelli, Kenneth Branagh and Michael Almereyda used different approaches to the play, what makes comparing them even more interesting. For analysis and comparison I decided to use remarkable scenes, in function as key scenes for the ongoing of the play as well as the films. The definition of a key scene is: it functions as a central role in the piece of work, gives us insight on the feelings of the main character or characters and therefore has a direct influence on the development of the story.15

Personally I chose two scenes in the play as an example for comparison: the court scene in act 116 and the 'mousetrap'-scene in act 317 - Of course there are many other remarkable scenes in the play, also functioning as key scenes, but my intention is not to compare every single scene and line in the play. I chose these theses as an example for the whole of play in its interpretation. Therefore we should be able to assume what the whole play or film is like, as soon as we have examined these key scenes.

But before we will have a closer look at the key scenes in question, we will first take a look at the movies as a whole: Point out, what the main similarities and differences in general are, before we go into detail. Therefore we will take a short look at every movie in order they were produced and released into movie theatres.

NOTE: Only a few words to the movie versions: For better understanding I've included the movie covers and some stills for every version we'll examine. This can be found in the appendix, in the back.

2. Hamlet (1990)

The first movie version of Hamlet we will examine was directed by Franco Zeffirelli in 199018. Production began in the late 80s and there are some typical idiosyncrasies noticeable from that time period. It is to state that the movies which were produced throughout the 80s mainly posses a very strong main character, when thinking about many action movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone that were produced then. There even is a short version of Hamlet as a part of the movie Last Action Hero, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Prince Hamlet.19

Somehow this trend also was utilized when Zeffirelli was making his version of Hamlet. In this context the leading role catches our eyes: Prince Hamlet is played by Australian actor Mel Gibson.


1 Stockton, On Shakespeare’s Hamlet, p. 2.

2 Neubauer/Böck, Hamlet, p. 23.

3 Neubauer/Böck, Hamlet, p. 30.

4 Neubauer/Böck, Hamlet, p. 50f.

5 Deary, Shakespeare Stories, p. 176fff.

6 Stockton, On Shakespeare's Hamlet, p. 114ff.

7 Buchanen, Shakespeare on Film, p. 21.

8 Buchanen, Shakespeare on Film, p. 22.

9 Sunara, Immer wieder Hamlet, p. 11.

10 Jackson, Companion to Shakespeare on Film, p. 5.

11 Berensmeyer, Shakespeare: Hamlet, p. 27fff.

12 Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion, p. 204f.

13 Berensmeyer, Shakespeare: Hamlet, p. 32.

14 Thompson, Taylor, in: Shakespeare, Hamlet, p. 78.

15 http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schl%C3%BCsselszene

16 Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2, l. 1fff.

17 Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2, l. 86fff.

18 Buchanen, Shakespeare on Film, p. 8.

19 Boose, Shakespeare, the movie, p. 19f.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


"Hamlet" on Film. Different Views and Interpretations
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Seminar für Anglistik)
Hamlet: Text, Context, Criticism
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
607 KB
Hamlet, Hamlet on Film, William Shakespeare
Quote paper
Niklas Bastian (Author), 2009, "Hamlet" on Film. Different Views and Interpretations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/338813


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