Evan's Reviews > Hamlet

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
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Jun 26, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: world-literature-top-100-list-poll, __in-my-collection, bard, theater
Read in January, 1984

In college, for my own edification and satisfaction, I memorized Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy. No, I was not in a suicidal mood, I just felt like memorizing it, partly as a personal challenge and partly because I wanted to be able to recall it and ponder it at will. To this day, I can still recite it. At the time of my memorization, the passage jibed so well with the existential thoughts I was having. I've always had a heightened sense of mortality, even as a very young person. The potential for my death at any random moment has always loomed somewhere in my mind.

I'm not going to review the Bard's Hamlet. People have been doing that for hundreds of years. There's no more well-trod territory. And there are plenty of fine efforts here on Goodreads.

What I want to do, mainly for my own curation, is to summarize my encounters with the play, which I first read in college. I took a Shakespeare elective in my senior undergraduate year, at a time my peers were taking "bunny" courses. I actually wanted to learn. Imagine.

My next series of encounters were cinematic. I saw Laurence Olivier's famous 1948, Oscar-winner film version first. It had many cuts, and almost seemed like a star vehicle. Very moody, very controlled. Oliver had already filmed his amazing Henry V and would soon film his equally great 1955 Richard III (all of which I have seen, naturally).

The next version I saw was probably the best of all, even though it was not even in English. It was Grigori Kozintsev's meaty, muscular, foreboding 1964 Soviet Russian movie adaptation. The Russian Hamlet has the epic quality of Russian literature; it broods on a big scale. The scenes with Hamlet's ghostly father are almost Wagnerian in scope, like the Flying Dutchman. (I saw the film at a museum series devoted to international filmings of Shakespeare's plays).

The next version was Kenneth Branagh's 1990's film, phantasmagorical and full of pageantry, with a wildly uneven cast. At four hours, it tries to restore some of the text faithfulness missing from the other heavily cut movies.

To date, I still have not watched Michael Almereyda's 2002 version, even though I own a copy. I've also not seen the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson version, which I've been told is quite good.

The oddest Hamlet, I've seen was a German silent version from 1921 with Swedish actress Asta Nielsen as the moody protag. For several obvious reasons it's a curio, but Nielsen had a particular star quality and presence that overcomes, a little, the inherent weaknesses resulting from the verbal omissions.

Most fortunately, I saw the play staged about 10 years ago by a university theater company, so I've been able to experience the play properly.

Hamlet is obviously a masterwork, though not in my case a favorite. I still prefer King Lear and am still aglow about reading Antony and Cleopatra. Like I said, what's left to say that hasn't been said? The Bard understood the inner conflicts of identity, filial devotion and betrayal, mortality, etc.

(KR@KY 2016)
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Jesse Never heard of the version starring Nielsen, how strange and wonderful that sounds! I liked the Almereyda adaptation quite a bit (I was quite into that run of teen-oriented adaptations in general though), but I did enjoy it more than the Branagh version. And agree with your final assessment: in general this is not one of Shakespeare's plays that I can say has ever really "spoken" to me in the way some of his others do, though the figure of the ghost has been a key figure in the recent-ish development of a field of scholarship I find really interesting (spectrality studies).


Evan I'm not usually into "ghosts" as a narrative trope, but in Hamlet it is without peer. I wonder if we can also take the ghost as figurative. Hamlet is not exactly balanced in his head, and maybe his father's vision is actually like some religious vision: a mental projection of his own desires.


Evan The Nielsen silent is for completists only. It's on Youtube, but without English subtitles, I think, which renders it even more mute. I'm sure I have a subtitled version in my vast archive. It's easy to see her appeal, though. This plays on her androgynous aspect. I just took another quick look at the Olivier and have to admit I love the naturalness with which he delivers the lines. It was made at a time that movies were at the height of visual craftsmanship, and Olivier goes orgasmic with the dolly cam.


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