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To play Hamlet well is to succeed on the stage or on the screen.

It is one of the most

complex of the Shakespearian roles that many actors have aspired to master or at

least, bring something distinctive and fresh to the pivotal character. There is no doubt

that Hamlet “brazenly solicits interpretation”, demonstrated by modern day actors

including Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke and Kenneth Branagh, in the medium of film.

Throughout the 20th Century, film adaptations have finely developed both the

character of Hamlet and have nurtured a performance of the play, in some very

creative and exciting ways. Film directors Franco Zeffirelli, Michael Almereyda and

Kenneth Branagh have brought “Hamlet” to varying levels of success on the screen

while achieving this through stark differences in interpretation and through realising

very different creative ideas.

Zeffirelli’s 1990“Hamlet” is an interpretation designed for the mainstream

Hollywood audience, who by now were thoroughly interested in Mel Gibson – one of

the rising stars of the early nineties. Gibson does well to externalize the flurry of

emotions tormenting Hamlet and this allows the mainstream audience to follow quite

easily, his complex and changing mindsets. The famous Act Three, Scene One “To be

or not to be…” soliloquy is done especially well, with Gibson maintaining an aura of

strength, even as Hamlet revels in his own misery and contemplates suicide. Zeffirelli

and Gibson have combined their ideas to create an interpretation of Hamlet that is

sensitive but never weak, very active and external in the portrayal of emotion – but

not over the top.

Perhaps the most controversial scene in any screen adaptation of Hamlet is contained

in the Zeffirelli production, in which Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her bedroom.

Interestingly, this confrontation is one of the most successful scenes of the movie as it

is finely acted and very intense! At the same time, it leaves itself most open to

criticism. Hamlet’s fury at Gertrude (played by Meryl Streep) is demonstrated when

Hamlet taunts his mother and then jumps on her to mock her sexual exploits with

Claudius. Hamlet’s violent anger over his mother’s apparent betrayal fits very much

inside an Oedipal interpretation of the play. Zeffirelli’s makes his opinion quite clear

on the theory of “Hamlet’s Oedipus Complex”. Zeffirelli is of the school that Hamlet

cannot kill Claudius;

“because of his relationship with [Hamlet’s] mother. A classical Oedipus

Complex: he is incapable of killing the man who sleeps with his mother because that

would mean that he would have to admit to himself his own feelings about her,

something which overwhelms him and disgusts him… Hamlet can kill Claudius only

after he knows that his mother is dead and that he is going to die” (Johnston, online).

Zeffirelli’s very Oedipal “Hamlet” while a logical interpretation, is not an idea that I

can fully agree with as it disturbs my own interpretation of the play. However, his use

of cold castle sets and authentic middle age costumes are very agreeable to my images

of a production of “Hamlet” and my interpretation of the play.

Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet in Almereyda’s 2000 film, is as far removed from Gibson’s

interpretation as a modern New York setting is from Zeffirelli’s traditional approach.

Hawke is a much more arrogant Hamlet with a pretentious New Yorker film student

persona. Unfortunately, while the idea of Hamlet as a snobby film student is not a bad

one, Hawke does not fulfil its potential in a number of ways. Firstly, in true “Sean

Penn” method actor style, he mumbles his lines. While this could be a valid
interpretation of Hamlet’s grief and frustration, the zest of Shakespeare’s language is

lost in Hawke’s dull monotone and tired, depressed voice. Secondly, unlike the

Gibson Hamlet, Hawke transforms into an annoying wimp during the same Act Three,

Scene One soliloquy. Amusingly, this scene takes place in an isle of a video store!

While Gibson’s performance better realises the character of Hamlet, the differences

between the two renditions of this soliloquy is a testament to the validity of Cedric

Watts’ opinion: the Hamlet encourages actors to find new ways to perform the role.

The Almereyda adaptation of “Hamlet” is very interesting because it adapts the play

into a modern setting and takes some very creative liberties with the original text – to

mixed success. Firstly, Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation of “Hamlet” shows a creative

flair by completely changing Shakespeare’s original setting, favouring a modern day

New York location, complete with skyscrapers, yuppies and taxi-cabs. Denmark is

now “Denmark Corp” and Claudius is the new CEO. This new setting is very cold –

keeping the same tone as Zeffirelli’s film – except that the sets are now very sterile

and very modern. Almereyda also uses modern technology to its fullest storytelling

potential, however some may see these new methods of advancing the story as

gimmicky – the ghost of Hamlet’s father is seen through a security system, fax

machines transmit vital messages and Hamlet delivers his asides to his film student

video camera. For the most part, Almereyda generally succeeds in his modern-day

interpretation, however it is not a production that reflects my ideas of how “Hamlet”

should be performed.
Whilst, the creative realisations of Almereyda and Hawke, Zeffirelli and Gibson, do

produce some good moments, none of these come close to Kenneth Branagh’s

performance of Hamlet and the scope of production in his 1996 film. As Branagh’s

“Hamlet” presents the play in its lavish four hours, the character of Hamlet can be

more fully realised and examined as there is more scope for character development.

Branagh’s Hamlet, while not as animated or energetic as Gibson’s, helps the audience

gradually get a feel for why Hamlet feels the anguish and frustration that he feels.

More so that any other movie-screen Hamlet, the audience can also feel Hamlet’s

obsession with avenging his father’s murder. This is coupled with Hamlet’s more

ambitious nature - after all, the crown has been stolen from him by Claudius. Instead

of wallowing in his own grief, wouldn’t Hamlet be plotting and waiting for an

opportunity to strike and claim what is rightfully his, rather than wallow in

indecision? In my opinion, Branagh brings to the screen the ideal Hamlet for reasons

which can be summed up in his own words “there isn't anything in the play to suggest

that [Hamlet is] buried in gothic gloom or that he is a self-indulgent sad sack. He's a

soldier and scholar, a renaissance man…” (

As with Branagh’s ideal performance of Hamlet, his direction and creative ideas work 

very well in a number of areas including: the use of the entire text of the play, the 

choice of time period, setting and the film’s cast. One of the great strengths of this 

production as a whole is that Branagh did not condense or cut any of Shakespeare’s

text, but at the same time was able to exercise his own directorial interpretation of the

play. This is demonstrated in a number of areas. Firstly, by transposing the story into a

Victorian setting, Branagh was able to escape a formulaic rendition of the play and

make one of the most well known stories in literature seem new, exciting and fresh.
As the movie had very high production value, great care and effort went into the

design of the sets – including a beautiful lavish ballroom - the centrepiece of the

film’s production design. However what really stands out in Branagh’s “Hamlet” is

his use of flashbacks to enhance the story. The relationship between Ophelia and

Hamlet and Claudius’ act of murder are explored through skilful use of this cinematic

technique to help the audience get a feel for the story and appreciate Hamlet’s

motivations. Finally, by casting fine actors including Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet and

Sir John Gielgud as well as iconic movie stars like Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon and 

Billy Crystal – the film automatically becomes a more energetic and enthusiastic 

interpretation, as the familiar faces enhance the audiences’ entertainment. 

Overall, Branagh’s Hamlet is a production that most closely mirrors my ideal 

interpretation of Shakespeare’s masterwork. He executes his own creative licence by 

transposing the story into a Victorian setting and by using the language of film and a 

fine cast to accomplish a rich and full film translation. Branagh is also able to remain 

completely true to the words and feel of the play unlike Zeffirelli and Almereyda who

admirably bring some interesting ideas to the table (modern settings, an Oedipal

Hamlet) but who ultimately fail to realise the feel of the play. The immortal staple

points of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” are the timeless and undiluted themes and language

– free of gimmickry and distracting ideas.

List of Sources


Almereyda, Michael. 2000, “Hamlet” Miramax Films

Branagh, Kenneth. 1996, “Hamlet” Columbia Pictures

Zeffirelli, Franco. 1990, “Hamlet” Warner Brothers

Internet Sites

Branagh quote taken from:

Johnstone, Ian. “Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare's Hamlet”\