Hamlet - Old mystery dressed in new medium

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

51 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The Tradition of Hamlet on Screen

3 Silent versus Sound: Film Analyses
3.1 Hamlet - not Shakespeare's Invention
3.2 Was Hamlet a Woman?
3.2.1 Hamlet (1920) in its time
3.3 Hamlet – Our Contemporary
3.3.1 Hamlet (2000) in its time

4 Comparing Hamlet (1920) to Hamlet (2000)

5 Conclusion:

6 Appendix
6.1 Filmography of Hamlet 1987-2005
6.2 . Scenario – Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare
6.3 Sequence record – Hamlet (2000) by Michael Almereyda

1 Introduction

A Shakespeare anthology reads: “Hamlet seems always to have been the most discussed work of literature in the world.”[i] It has fascinated the people for all times, and inspired them to critical write about the play itself, Hamlet’s character, or the various contradictions and paradoxes of the plot, e.g. the good or evil nature of the Ghost, Hamlet’s real or pretended madness, or his hesitation to kill Claudius. A sheer volume of material has been published. It is a play that has put people under a spell, then in the Renaissance, as well as today, 400 years later. Questions have been raised, but the riddle has never really been solved, although different types of critics, theories and analyses have been applied to interpret and understand this world famous dramatic piece of art.

In Winders' book Understanding Hamlet, the tragedy is classified as a ‘problem play’, a ‘revenge play’, a play about death and evil. I believe expressions like 'adaptation play' or 'contemporary play' are as legitimate, concerning the various forms of its reworkings as play, film, novel, cartoon, musical or animation. Peter Hall claims “Hamlet is one of mankind’s great images. It turns a new face to each decade. It is a mirror which gives back the reflection of the age that is contemplating it.”[ii] This conception shall be reflected on in the following.

This essay shall not solve the mystery of Hamlet, but shall examine how Shakespeare's play has been transformed into the medium film and how these adaptations reflect the time in which they were produced. There have been uncountable film reworkings of Hamlet – many of various approaches and emphases. This paper focuses on two versions, Asta Nielsen's silent Hamlet – one of the first Hamlet films ever made, and Hamlet (2000) - the first Hamlet adaptation of the new millennium. Both films are produced in a totally different period of film history with nearly a century in between. Still, they have many similarities, especially concerning the way of how this play has been translated into its given time of production.

Therefore, aspects like the circumstances of the films, their place in history, the viewing habits of the audience at that time, film criticism and how the films relate to the issues of the world, are going to be examined. For a precise analysis I have prepared sequence protocols (see appendix) of the films to compare them to each other and to the play. To begin with, a short overview of Hamlet on film is presented to make the reader aware of its long, everlasting history.

2 The Tradition of Hamlet on Screen

Since the beginning of the film era, Shakespeare's plays have been most popular with filmmakers. The first Shakespearean moving images were reproductions of stage scenes, i.e. these films presented a theatrical mode on screen. Later, with time elapsing and with the rise of the medium film, the plays were produced and adapted more and more in a filmic, sometimes also realistic mode.[iii] The existence of a new medium with its own specific conventions, characteristics and advantages has developed.

One of the most favourite film productions of Shakespeare's plays has since been Hamlet. In the last century, Hamlet has been adapted numerous times. With its psychological and political dimension the play is of high social significance, and has fascinated filmmakers to confront their society with interlocking themes of love and death, naivety and immorality, identity and destiny. The selected filmography of Graham Holderness and Christopher McCullough compiles 34 Hamlet adaptations dating from 1900 until 1987. The authors list international versions of the play, yet excluded 'free adaptations'. This limitation is justified, as some moving images cannot be called Shakespearean. They only make use of Shakespearean characters, settings or situations; for instance, Georges Mèliés' 10 minute- Hamlet version of 1907[iv] or Charles Raymond's silent film of Hamlet (1912).[v] In the period after 1987 until now, there have been produced at least twenty more Hamlet versions, for instance, in 1990 Zeffirelli's film, starring Mel Gibson; Kenneth Branagh's 242minute version (1996), including the whole text of Shakespeare's Hamlet; and in year 2000 the fin de siècle adaptation of Michael Almereyda.[vi]

The 20th century started with the first Hamlet film ever made in 1900. It was only 3 minutes long, and showed the duel scene of a Parisian theatre performance, directed by Clement Maurice, and starring Sarah Bernhard as Hamlet. The film was produced in France, and the custom of producing Shakespeare films all over the world rather than in England seemed to have established. Only a quarter of the amount (8 of the 34 entries) was exclusively made in England.

The majority comes from other European countries, British/ American corporations, and even from India, Ghana or Brazil - Hamlet has flourished nearly every continent of the world.[vii]

As the invention of the talkies dates back to 1927, the first 12 Hamlet films are silent movies, from France, Italy, Denmark, Great Britain and Germany. The last silent movie of Hamlet (it remained to be the last Hamlet film for a 15-year long period) was made in 1920 by Svend Gade with Asta Nielsen as protagonist. This German production presents a cross-gendered Hamlet in a loose adaptation of the original play. The film is claimed to be the greatest silent Hamlet / Shakespeare film[viii] and the beginning of successful film adaptations of Shakespeare[ix] and shall be examined in the following chapter of this paper.

The second film of interest is Michael Almereyda's Hamlet version, produced in year 2000. It is the first of its adaptations in the new century, yet, although only five years of age, the present 21st century can offer seven (!) more adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet.[x] It is still as present and famous as before, and within the context of our new age throws a new light on the old mystery of Shakespeare's play. The filmmaker Michael Almereyda puts the story of Hamlet into a post-modern media-saturated context of our fast-living world; yet, he didn't change Shakespeare's language. The film is filled with images, media, surveillance cameras and other technical devices. It addresses a younger audience, and follows the example of Baz Luhrmann's modern version of Romeo and Juliet, with the concept of bringing Shakespeare's work closer to today's youth.

3 Silent versus Sound: Film Analyses

In this chapter I am going to compare the adaptations to Shakespeare's Hamlet, in order to distinguish things that have been omitted or added. By modifying the adaptation from the play, the filmmaker reveals his interest and message of the film. Via combining the director's point of view with the criticism it got, and the circumstances it was produced in, I try to portray the film in its time. Yet, for the analysis of Gade/Nielsen's Hamlet: The Drama of Vengeance, a concise background of the sources of Hamlet has to be given.

3.1 Hamlet - not Shakespeare's Invention

When we think of Hamlet, we do always connect it with Shakespeare. However, the basic Hamlet story has existed long before Shakespeare wrote his version of the play. The legend derives from an Icelandic folk-tale. The oldest literary reference dates back to the 13th century in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus. It presents the story of a prince, Amleth, who takes revenge for the death of his father, the king. In order to protect himself, and to outwit the murderer, the king’s brother and newly wed queen’s husband, Amleth pretends madness. As the new king gets suspicious, Amleth is spied upon by a handsome girl, and by a king’s councillor while talking to his mother. When he finds out about the spy, Amleth kills him, cuts up the body, and feeds the pigs with it. The king sends Amleth to England with the intention to have him hanged, but Amleth reads and changes the letter, so his two attendants are killed instead. After being absent for a year, he returns disguised, sets the palace on fire, kills his uncle, and becomes the new king.[xi]

Similar elements occur in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though it is more likely, that his direct source was a Hamlet play of the 1580’s based on a translation of Saxo’s version by François de Belleforest, published in his Histoires Tragique in 1570.

There has been no manuscript left of the 1580’s play, but it is ascribed to the author Thomas Kyd, and is referred to as the Ur-Hamlet.[xii] It exists also a crude German version of this Ur-Hamlet entitled as Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Punished).[xiii]

Shakespeare has altered the story of Hamlet into a more tragic and mature piece of drama. He wrote and revised his version between 1598 and 1602. In 1603 the FIRST QUARTO was published. It included the first Hamlet version, named as The Tragicall Historie of HAMLET Prince of Denmarke. By William Shakespeare. Yet, this version was not an authorised compilation, being much shorter and differing in text and scene composition from the true play. In 1604 a new edition of Hamlet was published in the SECOND QUARTO. The title read The Tragicall Historie of HAMLET, Prince of Denmark. By William Shakespeare. Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie. It might have been printed directly from Shakespeare’s script and provides the most complete text of Hamlet, but it contains a number of mistakes.[xiv]

Another version of Hamlet was published in 1623 in the FIRST FOLIO. It was again different from the Quarto. Passages were left out and some were included. The Folio is a more accurate version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with less mistakes and a better arrangement of acts and scenes to the beginning of II. ii. Nevertheless, none of those printings are faithful on their own. Editors today use moreover the Second Quarto with corrections by the Folio. Preferences for the Folio version including the better Quarto passages exist, too.[xv]

3.2 Was Hamlet a Woman?

The variations of the different printed Hamlet versions preoccupied also the American professor Edward P. Vining. In his book Das Geheimnis des Hamlet – Ein Versuch zur Lösung eines alten Problems (written in 1881, translated into German in 1883), he analysed the deviations of the Quarto and Folio versions, and observed main changes in the development of Hamlet’s character with more and more female traits. He came to the conclusion that Shakespeare could have meant Hamlet to be a woman:

[…] ob Shakespeare durch den Verlauf und die Anforderungen des

Dramas gezwungen, seinen ursprünglichen Helden stufenweise in

einen Mann von mehr und mehr weiblichem Charakter zu verwandeln,

nicht zuletzt auf den Gedanken gekommen sein möge, dieser weibliche

Mann könne in Wirklichkeit ein Weib sein [...][xvi]

Svend Gade’s film Hamlet. The Drama of Vengeance (1920) is a mixture of different Hamlet versions referring back to Vining’s theory, plus the adaptation of elements of Saxo Grammaticus, Belleforest, the German play Fratricide Punished and Shakespeare.[xvii] That is why there are so many differences when comparing the film to Shakespeare’s play. The most significant one - Hamlet, the disguised woman. The story as we can find it in Shakespeare’s first act, sets off only in sequence 4 [see appendix for sequence record] in the 27th minute of the film, when Hamlet returns from Wittenberg to find his father’s funeral turned into a wedding ceremony.

Beforehand, the film provides background information. At the beginning the film gives some information [text reels] about the circumstances of the story. It takes place in the Middle Ages when Denmark was super power in the north of Europe and ruled England. The film starts at the battlefield where King Hamlet of Denmark combats against the King of Norway. The Queen of Denmark mistakenly gets the news that the King has been killed, and for that reason she announces the newly born girl as the successor to the throne – Prince Hamlet of Denmark. Even when the King returns, the secret is not revealed and Hamlet is raised like a boy. The next ten minutes [sequence 2] show Hamlet’s life at the university of Wittenberg. 'He' becomes friends with Horatio and meets Laertes and Fortinbras, who are, unlike in Shakespeare’s drama, students at Wittenberg, as well. Hamlet reconciles with young Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, whose father was killed by the King of Denmark. Concerning the time in which this film was produced, this scene definitely makes an appeal to its audience to forgive and make peace with the incidents of the 1st World War. This Hamlet version keeps a clear political emphasis, different to other versions where the character Fortinbras is omitted with the result of the story's loss of politics and the outside world.

Sequence 3 shows the murderous plan of Claudius and Gertrude. Both walk down to the dungeon to get a poisonous snake from the pit.

The film implies that the Queen has agreed to murder the King right from the beginning, whereas in Shakespeare’s version, the question is raised if the Queen is blameless. The murder is not shown in the film, just narrated in the text reel: "In dieser Nacht geschah ein Verbrechen, dessen Folgen ein Bote nach Wittenberg meldete." (sequence 3; time: 00.24.56)[xviii] After the message of the King’s death has been revealed to Hamlet, “he” travels back to Denmark.

The first sequences of the film demonstrate already that the film is structured in chronological order. Svend Gade made those events visual, which are only spoken of or mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, e.g. the plot to kill the King, Hamlet in Wittenberg, travel to England – in Svend Gade’s film Hamlet travels to Norway – that might have been changed because of Germany loosing the 1st WW and making things unproblematic when showing the film in the theatres. Arranging the narrative chronological is comprehensible, as this film is a silent movie, and to show the story from beginning to end was one the most convenient option and the best known to the audience. Plus, the question of additional speeches for the new scenes never arose. In addition, in 1920 the medium film was still in its infancy [only in its twenties], and at this time the use of flashback and foregrounding was not yet developed. This had to wait another twenty years until Orson Wells produced his Hollywood-debut Citizen Kane in 1941.

A common use in film adaptations is the change or omission of characters, to make it suitable for the film’s version. This Hamlet film version has reduced the characters to a minimum. Namely, the emphasis lies on the figures of Hamlet, the Queen and Horatio. Those are also the ones that do mostly alter from Shakespeare’s drama. [see explanation following]. Other characters given are Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes and Prince Fortinbras, and some attendants, and a new figure – the gardener. He appears in sequence 4 and tells Hamlet about the snake he has found next to the body of the King. By adding this new character, the film presents even a stronger emphasis and evidence on the murder of the King, whereas in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the murder is suspected, but never actually proofed.

The gardener gives the film more authenticity and makes Hamlet more reliable. That might also be the reason, why the Ghost has been omitted in the film. Instead, Hamlet hears a voice out of his father’s grave and dreams of his father instructing “him” to take revenge. Possibly, this was easier to realise and as well, gives the film a more realistic touch, than using some kind of simple effect to create a ghost – which would have put the film into a fantastic position and even made the character Hamlet more unreliable.

In order to keep the film’s consistency, some relationships had to be modified, for instance, the one between Hamlet, Horatio and Ophelia. The figure Horatio is more developed than in Shakespeare’s drama, and plays a more essential role. He is mostly always present with Hamlet, and is “his” closest ally, from the start knowing all about the feigned madness. Only Hamlet’s secret of being a woman is hidden to Horatio – as to everybody. And how could things possibly be different, Hamlet falls in love with Horatio, and pretends to feel affections for Ophelia, just to keep Horatio away from her, who is actually very interested in this beautiful girl. On the other hand, the figure Ophelia stays moreover in shadows and is kept in a low profile. Her character is reduced to one text reel saying “Der Prinz ist toll. Er hat mich kaum erkannt.” (sequence 5; time: 01.05.49) She drowns in a stream after Hamlet has killed her father Polonius. Yet, there is no sign of mental illness as there is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Since Hamlet’s witty speeches to Polonius are not illustrated in this silent Shakespeare film, the character Polonius is transformed into a fool. Polonius acts very stupid and the little he has to say are not very eloquent [see text reels]. Also Laertes character is cut to a very minor role. The relationship to his sister and father is not shown. He appears in the Wittenberg-sequence, where he gets to know Hamlet, and in sequence 9 & 10 for Ophelia’s funeral and the duel with Hamlet. But even in the duel scene Laertes' fate is not shown. His last performance is when he wounds Hamlet. After that he is not shown in the film anymore.

Hamlet’s character is very well developed in Sven Gade’s film.

This might be because of Asta Nielsen’s terrific performance, but also because of the great changes which have been done in the story line. A silent film of Hamlet is a difficult task, as most of the emphasis lies in Shakespeare’s words. Yet, by modifying the figure Hamlet into a woman and with her forbidden an unanswered love to Horatio, the character acquires a meaningful profundity. Together with the promise to revenge “his” father’s death, Hamlet’s character is even more dramatic and reveals the hopelessness, despair and sadness, and the burden of his fate. That somehow makes up the lack of Shakespeare’s words.

The King Claudius and the Queen Gertrude share somehow swapped roles. In Sven Gade’s film the Queen is the mischief-maker in the last sequence. Claudius gets killed in sequence 8 when Hamlet sets the feast hall on fire after his return from Norway. The King celebrates a feast on Hamlet’s death, as he had sent him with a commission to King Fortinbras of Norway. Like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the King does not know that Hamlet had changed the commission to the death of his attendants. The death of King Claudius through fire refers to Saxo Grammaticus’ version of the Hamlet legend. From now on, the Queen is left alone and plans to revenge Claudius’ death. She plots a duel between Laertes and Hamlet. Yet, Laertes, who is mad at Hamlet because of Polonius’ and Ophelia’s death, dips the point of his sword into poison, and the Queen provides a poisoned cup of wine. To give a comparable ending as in Shakespeare’s drama, the Queen gets poisoned. She mixes up the cups and by mistake drinks the poisoned one and dies. In this moment Laertes wounds Hamlet. Horatio rushes to him, and Hamlet dies in Horatio’s arms. Just after his death Hamlet’s secret is revealed to Horatio, when he touches the wound and feels Hamlet’s bosom. To make the ending even more tragic, Horatio utters that now he understood the love he felt for Hamlet “Erst jetzt begreife ich Deinen Zauber, den du auf mich geübt hast. Zu spät Geliebte! Zu spät!” (sequence 10; time: 02.08.33; 02.08.57). The end of the film is left open. The army of Fortinbras carries Hamlet’s body away, but the film does not give future prospects if like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Fortinbras took over the state Denmark.



[i] Stuart Gillespie, "Hamlet."Collins Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Glasgow, 1994), p. 1079.

[ii] Peter Hall quoted in: Peter Winders, Understanding Hamlet (Ontario, 1975), p. 3.

[iii] See Jack J. Jorgens. modes and styles in Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington, 1977), pp. 7-


[iv] See Robert Hamilton Ball, Shakespeare on Silent Film (London, 1968), pp. 34-35.

[v] See http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000636/. This is a useful Internet Movie Database of William Shakespeare on screen, with links and information on each film. It lists 594 entries of Shakespeare films on video/TV from 1899 (King John) until 2006 (As you like it - pre- production)!

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] See Graham Holderness and Christopher McCullough, "Shakespeare on the Screen: A Selective Filmography."Shakespeare and the Moving Image - the Plays on Film and Television (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 23-26.

[viii] See Robert Hamilton Ball, p. 272.; Tony Howard, "Shakespeare's cinematic offshoots ." The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge, 2000), p.295.

[ix] See J. Lawrence Guntner, "Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear on film."The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge, 2000), p.118.

[x] See appendix for a list of Hamlet films from 1987 to 2005 (referring to the IMDb website).

[xi] See Peter Winders, Understanding Hamlet (Ontario, 1975), pp. 3-4.

[xii] Ibid., p.4.

[xiii] See Penguin Popular Classics, Hamlet – William Shakespeare (London, 1994), p.18.

[xiv] See Ibid., pp. 15, 19.

[xv] Ibid., pp. 19-20.

[xvi] Edward P. Vining, Das Geheimnis des Hamlet. Ein Versuch zur Lösung eines alten Problems (Leipzig 1883), p.59.

[xvii] for a detailed comparison of the origins of non-Shakespearean elements in Gade/ Nielsen's film see Robert Hamilton Ball, Shakespeare on Silent Film (London, 1968), pp. 275-7.

[xviii] See appendix for sequence record

Excerpt out of 51 pages


Hamlet - Old mystery dressed in new medium
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
Shakespeare on Film
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
592 KB
Comparison of two Hamlet film adaptations: Gade/Nielsen's Hamlet (1920) and Almereyda's Hamlet (2000). The appendix includes full sequence records of both films.
Hamlet, Shakespeare, Film, Thema Hamlet
Quote paper
Magistra Artium Claudia Stehr (Author), 2005, Hamlet - Old mystery dressed in new medium, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/73830


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