Hamlet: Essential different interpretations

Peter Hall, 1967 “Hamlet is one of mankind’s great images. it turns a new face to each century, even to each decade.”
Summary of C20th views Early C20th focus was on Hamlet as a play which lent itself to psychological discussion and psychoanalytical analysis Critics often focused on Hamlet as a real character rather than a dramatic construct, and on the reasons for his procrastination.
Summary of C19th Romantic views Hamlet mirrored the Romantic obsession with self-conscious musing and introspection
Coleridge C19th “I have a smack of Hamlet myself.”
Schlegel C19th “A tragedy of thought inspired by continual and never-satisfied meditation.”
Byron C19th “[Hamlet is} a colossal enigma. We love Hamlet as we love ourselves” yet he is at points “fiend-like in cruelty”
Freud C20th Reading the play from a psychoanalytical perspective, observed that Hamlet had an Oedipus complex, named as such because of Sophocles’ play ‘Oedipus Rex.’
Emma smith “Freud read Shakespeare, but Shakespeare didn’t read Freud.”
Laurence Olivier’s adaptation, 1948 “It stripped the play of its political elements and instead presented Hamlet as an alienated and hollow individual.”
A.C Bradley C20th “[Hamlet’s melancholy makes him a mystery and] Wherever this mystery touches us, wherever we are forced to feel the wonder and awe of man’s godlike ‘apprehension’…and at the same time are forced to see him powerless in his petty sphere of action,..Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity.’
Summary of Post WW2 views In the wake of WW2 came the sexually liberated 1960’s and the Cold War. Hamlet became associated with disaffected youth, rebelling against older systems of power and the establishment. For Jan Kott, Hamlet is a subversive voice crying out against political systems in the grip of tyranny.
Jan Kott, post WW2 “[Hamlet] is the youth, deeply involved in politics, rid of illusions…a born conspirator…a young rebel.”
Peter Hall’s adaptation, 1965 Featured David Warner’s iconic counter-cultural Hamlet. Warner was draped in a long, red scarf, a symbol of the student youth drawing parallels between Hamlet and youth’s disillusionment with politics in the 1960’s. Hall said that Hamlet was “Always on the brink of actions, but…this disease of disillusionment stops the final, committed action.”
Branagh’s adaptation, 1996 Indirectly referenced the wars beginning in Eastern Europe, following the collapse of communist dictatorships. Branagh’s Fortinbras is presented as cold-eyed and ruthless in his takeover coup – the ‘new order’ that he represents associated with political might and expediency. The ending features soldiers dismantling old Hamlet’s statue, signifying that one tyranny based on individual power will be replaced by another and nothing really changes.
Summary of Second wave and late C20th feminish views 1970’s feminism asked questions about the sexual politics reflected in older texts, and their role in shaping cultural assumptions about gender, and led to later critics exploring how women are presented.
Elaine Showalter C20th fem “When Ophelia is mad, Gertrude says that “her speech is nothing” …Ophelia’s speech therefore represents the horror of having nothing to say””For many feminist theorists, the madwoman is a heroine, a powerful figure who rebels against the family and the social order.”
David Leverens C20th fem “Even in her madness she has no voice of her own, only a discord of other voices””Ophelia has no choice but to say ‘I shall obey, my lord.”
Emma Smith, C20th fem “Hamlet is arguably a male orientated play, more sympathetic to male identity, Ophelia and Gertrude are often made to fit the stereotype of tragic females as either mentally frail or a ‘shop-soiled maiden.”
Summary of Modern views In later c20th criticism, the focus shifts from the earlier analysis of Hamlet’s psychology to consider how the play fits within its context – in other words, a play which reflects cultural anxieties. These included: the Elizabethan succession crisis and fear of a foreign ruler claiming power after the queen’s earth; and the spiritual crisis of doctrine and belief endangered by the Reformation. Modern critics often focus on genre: as a revenge tragedy, Hamlet compares and contrasts with other ‘blockbuster’ revenge tragedies and history plays of the time.
Graham Holderness, later C20th “Hamlet is stranded between two worlds, unable to emulate the heroic values of his father, unable to engage with the modern world of modern diplomacy…he is confronted by the tension between those two great Renaissance oppositions: idealism and Machiavellian”
Jonathan Bate, modern “Hamlet is a political drama as well as a play about the journey of an individual self.”
Emma smith (modern) “The early title for the play was ‘Prince Hamlet’ so it is worth noting that the character’s late critics have argued it is like us, an Everyman figure, is not like us and has responsibilities within the political realm.””Hamlet’s distorted, even narcissistic character, in which his view of the world is the only one, with a solipsistic sense of his significance. His final like “the rest is silence” yet there are other characters, the world goes on.””History plays of the time featured fathers and sons, questions of good or bad governance so Hamlet may have more sense in the mind of the original audience as a history play…less as a personal story.”
Warchus’ adaptation, 1997 “concentrated on the domestic story of the play and was a “strongly personal” production. It projected footage of black and white home videos showing Hamlet playing with his father in the snow.”
Mark Rylance 1989 became known as the “pyjama Hamlet” – wearing Pyjamas which draws parallels with psychiatric patients in an asylum – feigned madness or made mad by a rotten world.
Tennant, 2008 after the play scene, he careers around the court sporting a crown at a tipsy angle – visually mocking Claudius and reminding him that his grip on power is unsteady
Branagh, 1996 his platinum blonde hair makes him look like Claudius – drawing parallels between the tragic hero and the villain, suggesting there is less of a distinction between the two as the play progresses.
Emma smith, moral confusion argues that the play creates moral confusion about hero and villain because of the soliloquies. ” In Shakespeare’s time, [soliloquys] tended to show the audience the villain; were associated with deceit, duplicity, moral rot” in hamlet, they establish that the protagonist is “not villain but tortured individual, split between private and public self.”
Lindsey Turner’s production, 2015 Ophelia plays light music on a piano. Later her madness is suggested by snatches of tunes and discordant notes- as if she no longer remembers what she has been taught, cannot play as she is expected to.
Simon Godwin’s production, 2016 Called “the graffiti prince” by critic Michael Billington who stated that ” to convey his “antic disposition” Hamlet dons a paint-daubed suit and goes around doing subversive graffiti and big, splashy canvases like a mixture of Banksy and Jackson Pollock.” Transported Elsinore to Africa, and was striking for it use of vibrant, even lurid colour and black magic to conjure the ghost.
Doran’s prouction Use of the mirror in Gertrude’s closet to reflect reality; after Polonius’ death it is cracked as a result of his murderous actions (he looks in the mirror again at the start of 5.2) This production cuts out Fortinbras and is more focused on how Hamlet destroys himself.CCTV cameras – a visually powerful reminder that Elsinore is a paranoid, surveillance state, in which everyone is spying on each other. The same character plays Claudius as Old Hamlet. The visual similarities between brothers add to the complicated nature of Hamlet’s revenge.
S. Coleridge Hamlet is a man for whom imagination seems more important than the real world.
A C Bradley Focused on the psychological reasons for Hamlet’s inaction, seeing Hamlet more as a real character and less than a dramatic construct.
John Dover Wilson Audiences and readers needed to see Hamlet as a dramatic construct – a fictional character within a timeless tragedy which would always speak to mankind.
Alan Sinfield Our interpretation of Hamlet needs to be grounded in the specific ideas of the play’s context.
Greenblatt Explores the tensions between the old world of catholic supernatural spiritualism, and the new world of protestant rationalism.