The Play of `Hamlet', as interpreted by Michael Almereyda
Ever since the Great Bard William Shakespeare wrote his plays, they inspired various theater performances; in modern times, movies joined the process. This results in an even greater variety of already rather mutable material that produces all sorts of outcomes. This essay, though, is discussing the version of Hamlet produced in the year 2000, by Michael Almereyda, and the ways in which he interpreted the play.
So, overall, how Michael Almereyda interpreted the play? For a start, Almereyda managed to make `Hamlet' - a slow-moving, philosophical play - into an intense, action-driven movie without losing much of the initial tragic atmosphere of the original play. It seems that modern New York City can be a dark, gloomy place as much as the original Elsinore castle was.
By modernizing the play, Almereyda "reviewed and renewed" Shakespeare's material to adjust it better to the modern age, but during the movie, sometimes he was not up to the task. As an example, take these two titles: despite Almereyda's interpretation, King and CEO do not really match, and the official royal titles, used in the business setting of modern New York, sound simply strange. Almereyda decided to introduce Hamlet to the modern world, to see how the play would appear through the modern point of view. The result is quite clear - it is a mystery and action story. Naturally, it occurs in New York City - the city for action movies. To settle the matter of Denmark, Almereyda has made the old Hamlet not the King, but the CEO of a business company called Denmark. Unfortunately, this works against Almereyda, for this action sort-of `lowers' the plank: instead of a grand tragedy of a royal house, modern `Hamlet' is a detective story about a dead rich guy and his son the amateur detective. Yet, the acting of the actors and the special effects more or less manage to make up for that flaw.
Working with the modern world gave Almereyda access to modern technology; in his movie, visual images supplement the actors' lines, although in some places - such as when Hamlet learns about his duel with Laertes by fax - the director got clearly over the top with modern tech. But in other parts, such as Act 3, scene 2, when Hamlet discovers the hidden microphone on Ophelia right in the middle of their foreplay. Originally there was no indication that Ophelia knew what her father and Claudius were up to, becoming an innocent victim in the process. Conversely, in the movie, Claudius and Polonius forced Ophelia to work against her boyfriend, adding to the tragic tone of the movie. Ophelia is unable to do anything about it either; in the end, her drowning shows that Ophelia died primarily of her love for Hamlet, not because of an accident. Consequently, technology has enhanced the original material and made it more compact, making Ophelia into an even greater victim of circumstances and court politics than how she was to begin with.
The characters of his `Hamlet' do not differ too much from their original prototypes, although, as it tends to happen with personal interpretations, some `cosmetic' changes took place. Most obvious example is the situation of the guardsmen from Act 1, Marcellus and Bernardo. Almereyda made them the token Afro-American character and the secondary female character of Almereyda's movie. You just cannot escape clichИs sometimes, it seems. Modern customs in regards to movie making must have their dues.
Yet, Marcellus and Bernardo are just the more obvious examples as to how one can adapt and interpret the characters of `Hamlet' for modern times. Denmark the country became a big business company, while Elsinore became a hotel, owned, presumably, by the same company as well. Polonius became a high-ranking member of the company... and Ophelia had to have a job, she dabbles in photography, and lives in her own apartment.
Incidentally, that inseparable couple, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, have changed the least of all the characters in Almereyda's interpretation. Almereyda interpreted them as a pair of freeloaders, eager to suck up to anyone who pays them and who hold nothing sacred, have not changed much over the time. Admittedly, Rosencrantz became a homosexual, but considering Marcellus, who became a girl, that is still slim pickings.
Yet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are nothing compared to the major characters of the play. Ophelia may have achieved some independence from her father, but Almereyda's interpretation changed Polonius too: the man is no longer a semi-comic relief that he was originally, now he actually has a personality. On one hand, he obviously cares a lot about his children: his parting words to Laertes in Act 1 scene 3, line 55: "You here Laertes? aboard, aboard for shame!" - these words sound not as empty clichИs but as heartfelt advice; on the other hand, when he confronts Claudius and Gertrude with the letter, he downright humiliates Ophelia by showing them her private belongings: Polonius may still not be exactly the smartest guy around, but he is no longer an empty bag of hot air either. In Almereyda's version, Ophelia's feelings for Hamlet are sufficiently serious for her to accumulate a box of their letters over the years - a box big and heavy enough to pull her down when she drowns herself in a fountain's pond. Incidentally, Almereyda also interpreted that Ophelia was initially also a bit mentally unbalanced and suicidal - while Polonius was reading to Claudius and Gertrude her letter, she was contemplating drowning in the swimming pond, because according to Polonius, "Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star, / This must not be". Just as Hamlet, love and loss led Ophelia through her life all the way to her demise.
The same goes for Laertes. Even originally, he was a reflection of Hamlet, not unlike prince Fortinbras and his sister. Almereyda has mostly removed Fortinbras from his movie, judging that he was not very important to his movie. We never see Fortinbras in person, just in a newspaper or on TV. Conversely, Laertes is clearly present as a well-developed, important character in his own right. In Act 1 scene 3 of the movie, Almereyda showed obvious feelings between Laertes and Ophelia and Polonius. Whatever tensions there may exist between them (especially around Ophelia's relationship with Hamlet), Ophelia goes mad in part because of Polonius' death by Hamlet. When Laertes seeks the crazed Ophelia "Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia! / O heavens, is't possible a young maid's wits / Should be as mortal as an old man's life?" (Act 4 scene 5 lines 158-60) his grief is genuine, especially if compared to Claudius' reaction to Hamlet's madness. Family grief is the reason why in the movie Laertes shoots Hamlet - and he shoots himself, for he understood how Claudius played them all. Laertes tells Hamlet that it was Claudius who poisoned Gertrude, and gives back the gun, enabling Hamlet to finish it all. In the interpretation of Almereyda's movie, Hamlet and Laertes have a bond of understanding between them; they are almost identical in their losses, their loves, and their deaths.
Yet, Almereyda has also kept the differences of Laertes and Hamlet quite clear. As Hamlet is passive and thoughtful, Laertes just leaps into action, consequences be damned: "To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil, / Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! / I dare damnation. <...> only I'll be revenged most thoroughly for my father" (Act 4 scene 5 lines 131-36) says Laertes, differentiating himself completely from the seemingly indecisive Hamlet.
Finally, in the play, prince Hamlet himself was not the most active character (in terms of violence), for he preferred thinking to acting. Almereyda just intensifies it even more in the movie, making Hamlet into a philosopher-like individual, who is quite morbid. To intensify this dark fascination of Hamlet's, his opening lines in the movie are from the play's Act 2 scene 2, talking about how man is the quintessence of dust, or when he says "to be or not to be" he is clearly contemplating shooting himself. Almereyda removes the rest of the monologue both to intensify Hamlet's internal struggle and to make it appear that Hamlet is "the better man" who would not stab - or shoot, or poison - another person in the back, unlike Claudius.
Almereyda's Hamlet is not only mildly suicidal; he is also somewhat naОve and more humane than the original Hamlet. In the movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually manage to trick Hamlet until Act 3 scene 1, when he hears them talking to Claudius on a speakerphone. Almereyda's Hamlet is different from the original, who manages to get his "friends" to confess to their crime almost as soon as he meets them (Act 2 scene 2).
On the other hand, Almereyda has also cut out Hamlet's monologue from the original Act 3 scene 3 lines 74-96 - "Now might I do it pat..." That soliloquy was one of the more intense and pivotal ones originally; Hamlet commits a tragic mistake: he believes if he kills Claudius now, Claudius will go to heaven, so he lets Claudius live, not knowing that Claudius - and the readers - know that Claudius could never go to heaven. Obviously, this emission is a result of another modern-day clichИ: a mystery/action movie must not be too philosophical, and its main hero must be a man of action, rather than thought or soliloquies. In fact, Almereyda has his Hamlet mock this fact by having the Act 2 scene 2 lines 552-609 - "Ay, so, God bye to you! now I am alone"... in a Blockbuster video store with various action flicks playing in the background - a pointy explanation that Hamlet is not an action hero, and so `Hamlet' is more of a thinking than acting movie. In the play, Hamlet's soliloquy explains Hamlet's choice, but since in the movie it is absent, the audience just does not understand why Hamlet let Claudius live immediately and does not shoot him in the head. Inactive or not, some actions can look stupid unless properly explained.
Claudius and Gertrude have changed little in comparison with other major actors. Claudius is still a "smiling villain" of the original play, while Gertrude is still a weak-willed woman who nonetheless does love her son Hamlet. She is cold-blooded enough to let Claudius and Polonius outfit Ophelia with a secret microphone, never mind morality. (Originally [Act 3 scene 1 line 28 - "Sweet Gertrude, leave us too"], Claudius and Polonius set Ophelia and Hamlet up without Gertrude's knowledge.) Gertrude redeems herself in the end for this act, for she somehow knows (as opposed to the original play) that Claudius has poisoned the wine, and so she drinks it herself, saving Hamlet for a while (in the end, Laertes shoots him). In contrast, Claudius does not tell Gertrude not to drink - Act 5, scene 2 - so possibly he loves her even less than originally.
After the characters, the next thing that Almereyda looked at is time itself. Originally, the changes took weeks (for example between Acts 1 and 2); here they take hours or even days. A most obvious example of the chronological change is the relationship dynamic of Hamlet and Ophelia. Originally, after Polonius tells Ophelia in Act 1 scene 3, lines 132-34 to break it off with Hamlet - "...I would not in plain terms from this time forth/ Have you so slander any moment leisure/ As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet". Presumably, Ophelia does so shortly around the time that Hamlet meets the ghost in scene 5, but in the movie, the two obviously do not break up after Laertes leaves for France. Consequently, the compressed timeline just makes things more tragic: unlike the original play, where Hamlet breaks up with Ophelia in Act 3 scene 2, because he honestly does not want her get involved in his fighting with Claudius, here he breaks up with her because he believes that she works for Claudius just like her father Polonius does.
Therefore, this and other examples of the steep inclination of chronological processes tells us that Michael Almereyda has read `Hamlet' very thoroughly, and realized well enough that this play is about the following things: life and death, love and loss. He put Hamlet's monologue (Act 2 scene 2 lines 297-314) into the beginning, practically the prologue, of the movie. He cut down and otherwise altered the script of the play down to the basic bones, removing anything that he thought was irrelevant; that includes most of banter between Hamlet and Polonius, or the discussion of the two gravediggers, or the traveling actors who helped Hamlet with the original "Mousetrap".
In fact, the way that Almereyda handles Act 3 scene 2 of the play is actually quite witty. After all, in modern times a traveling theater is an anachronism, and even as a nephew of a big CEO Hamlet could not own a theater in the traditional meaning of the word (i.e. possess, have something as property), so instead he has Hamlet make a home movie in its place. This way, Almereyda also continues a particular feature of `Hamlet': in place of a performance in a performance, he has a movie in a movie, and Hamlet's home movie has bits and pieces of the older `Hamlet' movies as well. Is this not a clever interpretation of Shakespeare's original "play-in-a-play" tactics in the modern age?
To summarize, Almereyda interpreted the play as a powerful tragedy of human nature, as both the flaws - greed, stupidity, indecisiveness - and the better qualities of humanity - love, friendship, bravery -grew intense via the modern world and the modern break-neck pace of the world, intensified their impact, as Almereyda's movie shows us.
Shakespeare, William. Ed. John Dover Wilson, Cambridge University Press. Hamlet. London: Bentley House. 1969.
Shakespeare, William. Ed. John Dover Wilson, Cambridge University Press. Hamlet. London: Bentley House. 1969. pg. 43, lines 141-142. The following quotes are from the same text.