by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1999)

The following videos are ones I have both viewed myself and used with my students. I offer here my own unprofessional opinions free of charge and suggest that they be taken with two or more grains of salt.

Richard Burton's Hamlet

Originally done in 1964, Richard Burton's Hamlet has only recently (1995) been reproduced for video. It is a a stage play recorded on film, rather than a "movie" version of Shakespeare. As such, I think it is an especially good version for those who do not have opportunities to see Shakespeare on stage. You get the feel of the stage, including the unnaturally exaggerated gestures and loud voices. What is best, of course, is the dynamics of the stage/audience relationship -- something altogether absent from "movie" versions.

In this version, there are no real props, apart from a few swords. Actors wear street cloths. The whole power of the production depends upon the words. It is well done, in spite of the obvious contradiction between the appearance of the actors and the words they are speaking. Burton, an angry Hamlet, does a good job, as might be expected. The rest of the cast, too, does well.

I was surprised by the fact that my students did not like this one very much. They are so used to movies, I think, that the stage play viewed through a TV didn't go over well with them. For me, as a teacher, it seemed worth my money to purchase this one and to force my students to see it, even if it was not their favorite.

Laurence Olivier's Hamlet

Olivier is great, providing a classic interpretation of a Hamlet who maintains princely dignity even in his most melancholy moments. Better than Burton, in spite of the fact that he cut more lines and utterly distorted the true interpretation of the play. Hamlet for Olivier -- though not for Shakespeare -- was a man who confronted tragedy because he could not make up his mind. No one but Olivier could make such a silly interpretation -- borrowed it seems from Ernest Jone's who viewed Hamlet as "the victim of an unresolved Oedipus complex" [1] -- seem credible. Be that as it may, every student of Hamlet should see this version. I regard this one as worth purchasing and viewing repeatedly, in spite of its faults. My students did not share my enthusiasm, but I suspect they will when they are a little older.

Nicol Williamson's Hamlet

My students did not like Williamson at all. They thought he looked too old for the role, though in fact his baldness was premature and he was not really all that old at the time (besides bald is beautiful). Also, this melancholy Hamlet is weird in places. The best part of this version to me was the depiction of Claudius by Anthony Hopkins, who comes across as being thoroughly wicked and despicable. There is nothing ambiguous about this version's wicked king. Polonius was also well done. Although I was not as negative on this one as my students, I would have to say that it might be better to borrow this from the video shop rather than purchasing it.

Mel Gibson's Hamlet

Mel, forgive me for addressing you directly here. I am glad that you tried this one, just like I also appreciated Braveheart. It evidences good judgment to be interested in attempting Shakespeare's greatest character and courage to spend the time and effort that you did. I have to say, though, that I am afraid your good judgment didn't extend far enough. Why take up Lawrence Olivier's approach to Hamlet, when Olivier himself has already done it? Why follow an old-fashioned and incorrect Freudian/romantic interpretation? Why cut Fortinbras and ruin the play? I suppose all of that was Zeffirelli's fault, but you and Paul Scofield -- who was typically superb -- certainly must have had some input.

What I think you need to do, if you want to try this one again, is read Eleanor Prosser's outstanding study Hamlet and Revenge. She will set you straight on the interpretation of the play. Then, you need to take a different approach to the man himself. As it stands now, I cannot recommend your version. I am not telling people not to view it. The cost of renting the video won't hurt anyone and there are parts of it that I really didn't think were too bad. But my students didn't even want to see it to the end. And these are kids that liked Braveheart. I have read, however, that most of the critics and the viewing public liked your version, so maybe I and my class are mistaken here.

I wish you would try Coriolanus. Or maybe you can persuade Arnie or Sylvester to try it. It can be accommodated to the action movie style, I think, and any one of you could do a decent job on a neglected but interesting play.

Derek Jacobi's Hamlet

This is the version my students liked least. Jacobi plays a Hamlet who really does lose touch and he comes across as rather repulsive sometimes. Contrary to my class -- again -- I thought Jacobi was brilliant and that this is one of the best. Claudius, who is not utterly depraved in this version, is very well done by Patric Stewart. The rest of the cast too, as might be expected from the BBC performed competently. True, Hamlet himself is not too attractive as a person, insane people usually aren't. One particular scene, the scene in the queen's room where Hamlet confronts his mother, is crude to the point of being ridiculous. Still, on the whole, the play is very well done and worth repeated viewing. I personally recommend purchase of this one, though it might be good to borrow it from the video shop first and see if you like it. I suspect viewers will be either very much for it or very much against it.

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet

I looked forward to this when I heard it was coming but was really disappointed at my first viewing. The scene with the Ghost comes across like a cartoon, with absurd explosions from the underworld almost engulfing the poor prince. Branagh insets a gratuitous sex scene with Ophelia. He utterly ruins the end of the play, swinging like Tarzan across the room to pounce on the King (an older Jacobi doing another fine job). Too many parts of this version came across as Branagh trying to do something -- anything -- new and different that would appeal to a modern audience.

However, as I viewed this repeatedly and learned to ignore the parts I didn't like -- including the interpretation of Polonius as a cynical manipulator and Fortinbras presented as a sort of revolutionary -- I grew to appreciate it. For one thing, all the lines are there. One can view this repeatedly with an open text and not have to run around trying to find out where they skipped to. The scene at the grave, with both grave diggers, is excellent. And, in spite of the absurdity of his trying to be Tarzan, Brainy himself actually does a very good Hamlet. At this point, I think I like him the best.

My students shared my opinion about certain parts of this being downright silly. (Maybe Branagh was trying to put a little slapstick into it?) But most or all liked this one the best, primarily because of Branagh himself and also because the whole play is here. I think that this one is definitely worth purchasing, in spite of the sex scene and the cartoon-like antics. Even if you decide to forgo buying this one, borrow it from the video shop and view it at least once with an open text.

Comments on Hamlet

Peter Leithart offers over 40 pages of commentary on Hamlet, together with study questions for discussion for each act of the play. He begins with an overview of some of the problems in Hamlet, making it clear from the beginning that he prefers Eleanor Prosser's interpretation. In my opinion, most people who read the play without the special prejudices of a modern perspective will notice quit early on that the play seems to be a condemnation of revenge. Here is what Leithart has to say:

The play's rejection of the revenge ethic is so obvious, however, that it is difficult to understand how anyone can miss it. Elizabethan England had its faults, but it was sufficiently Christian to reject the blood feud as savage and pagan, and there is abundant evidence in the play that Shakespeare thoroughly rejected the vengeance. First, there is the overall fact that the various revenge plots all end in utter disaster. At play's end, the stage is littered with the bodies of people who have been violently killed. Unless one believes that Shakespeare simply delighted in gore or was appealing to Elizabethan bloodlust, his point is obvious: those who live by the violence of revenge will die violently. [2]

Leithart has much more to say on the theme of revenge and how it forms the heart of the play. It seems to me that nothing makes this clearer than Act III scene 3 in which Hamlet comes across the king attempting to repent of his sins of murder and adultery. The king understands well the nature of his iniquity:

O! my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't;
A brother's murder! Pray can I not,
Though inclination be sharp as will . . .

[long cut]

Help, angels! make essay;
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe.
All may be well.

While the usurper thus attempts to pray and repent, Hamlet comes near the chapel and notices the king on his knees. Here Hamlet thinks:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't; and so he goes to heaven;
And so am I reveng'd. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

Hamlet goes on to consider that his father was killed without warning, not while praying, but "with all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May." It must also be so with Claudius. The villain must not only die, but be damned for his sins. Hamlet is not satisfied with "life for life". His lust for revenge extends to everlasting damnation. Anything less will not fit the purpose.

The evolution of Hamlet's character here reaches a climax. Up to this point, there has been hesitation and consideration. But now Hamlet is not only committed to revenge, he is committed to seeing to it that Claudius is damned. This is a Satanic lust and not a desire for justice and proper punishment for an offender, for the eternal consequences of earthly matters belong to God's judgment not ours.

Imagine what would have happened if Hamlet had killed the king at this point. He was a prince and, therefore, among the supreme judges of the land. If he could have demonstrated due reason for killing the king, he might have been able to pass it off as an execution -- which, in a certain sense, it could have been called -- rather than murder. If Hamlet had killed the king in the chapel, there would at least have been sufficient ambiguity for debate.

When, however, Hamlet determines to damn the king, he sets in motion a series of events that end in the destruction of the eavesdropping Polonius, innocent Ophelia, false friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, passionate Laertes, and his foolish mother. Six people, who have done nothing to deserve death -- at least not by the time of the king's attempted repentance -- all die with Hamlet and the king for the single reason that Hamlet gave in to demonic lust for the destruction of the king's soul.

When men listen to devils, they will also think and act like them.

[1] Jo McMurtry, Shakespeare Films in the Classroom: A Descriptive Guide (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1994), p. 38.

[2] Peter Leithart, Brightest Heaven of Invention, pp. 117-118.

Copyright 1997 Ralph Allan Smith.  All rights reserved.