2 Many Hamlets

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2 Many Hamlets - LEADPHOTO

In Hamlet 2, when Dana Marschz proudly announces that he's finished his magnum opus, Hamlet 2, his wife Brie rightly responds, "But doesn't everyone die at the end of the first one?" True enough, but throughout literary history other writers haven't been deterred by such simple problems when coming up with sequels and other types of derivative works. In fact, the problem for anyone trying to make a real Hamlet 2 is that scores of other writers, filmmakers, poets and other artists have already had their way with Shakespeare's play. And moreover, Shakespeare didn't even own the concept to begin with. The Hamlet we have all come to love is actually just a shadow of a previous one.

"Sir, A Whole History"

Shakespeare didn't think up this story of a depressed Dane and his two-timing mom. It is believed that the story dates back to 10th century when an Icelandic poet by the name of Snaebjörn refered to a story about just such a young man. Two centuries later, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus narrated the story of "Amleth" whose father is killed by his brother Feng, who turns around and marries his mother Gerutha. In the 16th century, this gruesome tale was translated into French and then rewritten (possibly by Thomas Kyd) into a play called Ur-Hamlet which appeared in London in the 1580s. Lucky for Shakespeare, there no known copies of this version.

"…Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage"

After its star-studded premiere at the Globe theater around 1601, Hamlet had a bit of a rocky ride. When the British Parliament closed all theaters in 1642, Shakespeare's work could no longer be performed. Slowly the stages re-opened and by the 18th century, Shakespeare's plays made a comeback, albeit in a kinder, gentler form. When the great theatrical innovator David Garrick, for example, mounted Hamlet in the late 18th Century, Queen Gertrude, rather than dying from poison, simply gets up and leaves the room. Women dying in public was just bad form.

In the 19th century, Hamlet had become more symbol than man. Indeed every cause and nation found something in him to adopt or reject. For the English Romantic poets, Hamlet was the very model of introspection. "The character of Hamlet, as I take it, represents the profound philosopher," wrote Shelley. For the French, Hamlet was the poster boy for existentialism. Victor Hugo exclaimed that "Hamlet expresses a permanent condition of man. He represents the discomfort of the soul in a life unsuited to it." The Germans flip-flopped on the whole Hamlet thing. In 1844, the radical poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, trumpeted, "Germany is Hamlet," thus aligning his country's spirit with the dreamy, poetic nature of Shakespeare's character. By 1877, however, Germany had become a powerful united force under Bismark, and this new strength was reflected in 1877 German edition of Hamlet, which boldly stated on its title page "Once [and] for all that Germany is Not Hamlet."

If European cultures saw in Hamlet reflections of themselves, others saw it as something to screw with. In India, where Shakespeare was held up as the pinnacle of their oppressor's civilization, local writers simply rewrote the play. Nagendra Nath Chaudhuri's famous 1897 interpretation Hariraj (Hamlet), for example, turned this classic tragedy into a musical melodrama by adding song, dance and lots of bright local costumes.

"…this show imports the argument of the play"

In the 20th century, everybody wanted their way with poor Hamlet. From Freudian readings to feminist revisions to neo-Marxist analyses, Hamlet was everyone's whipping boy. And a new staging, or restaging, of Hamlet became a rite of passage for many directors and producers. In 1911, the Moscow Art Theater, under the creative leadership of the Russian theatrical theorist Constantin Stanislavski and the British avant-garde designer Edward Gordon Craig, mounted a watershed production in which Hamlet became a purely symbolic and formalist play.

In 1926 Berlin, Hamlet was restaged as a political drama about government corruption. Indeed through out 30s Europe, as Fascists manipulated themselves into positions of power, Hamlet's ongoing crises of (in)action seemed hauntingly familiar. Many European debates about the emerging Nazi and Fascist menace echoed Hamlet's own confusion, whether "to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them?" It is no wonder that Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy of the Polish resistance against Nazi occupation should be called To Be or Not to Be.

Directors regularly revived Hamlet's identity crises throughout the 20th century as a way to speak about political corruption in their own countries. During the Solidarity movement in Poland, for example, audiences regularly applauded when the Marcellus in Act I announces, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." South African productions alluded to the relationship between rotten Denmark and rotten Apartheid by simple marks in the production design. In 1990, after the Chinese government shut down the Beijing's Shakespeare festival in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, director Lin Zhaohua staged the play to allow the audiences to bond around their shared sense of frustration and powerlessness. In interviews, Lin repeatedly stated, "We are all Hamlet." In 2005, Israeli director Omri Nitzan staged Hamlet in Hebrew and set it in contemporary Israel. For Nitzan, "the ambition of the theater is to put a mirror up to society…[Hamlet] touches the essential archetypes, the political aspects of society."

"…and there is much music, excellent voice…"

The singing in Hamlet 2 has clear precedent in a long line of other musical Hamlets. Perhaps the most famous was the 1868 opera by the French composer Ambroise Thomas. Adapted from Alexandre Dumas' translation of the play, Thomas' opera proved a great success throughout Europe, but fell out of favor after World War I. Although at its release, not all were pleased with its loose adherence to the original, especially since the first version ends with Hamlet surviving and assuming the throne. After the opera played in London in 1890, an editorial in the Pall Mall grumbled, ""No one but a barbarian or a Frenchman would have dared to make such a lamentable burlesque of so tragic a theme as Hamlet."

Recently a few more musical Hamlets have braved the stage. In 1987, Joseph Papp commissioned Carson Kievman to create a new musical operatic version of the play. And in late 90s, a Czech rock opera version of Hamlet had a successful run in Eastern Europe and is threatening to come to America. But perhaps the most famous musical Hamlet is the one that no one ever thinks of — Walt Disney's 1994 animated feature The Lion King. Not only is Simba's father is killed by a corrupt uncle who takes over the kingdom, but even Rosencrantz and Guilderstern make a cameo in the bumbling duo of Timon and Pumbaa.

"Look here, upon this picture…"

There have been over 50 feature films of Hamlet, countless shorts, experimental videos and animations. The first film Le Duel d'Hamlet was made for the 1900 Paris Exhibition, lasted all of 2 minutes, and showed the legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt showing off her swordsmanship. While technically silent, the film was accompanied by an audio cylinder of Bernhardt's voice. In the next three decades, a number of silent Hamlets were produced, often tinkering with the story to make up for the lack of dialogue. In the 1920 Danish Hamlet, for example, the prince of Denmark is actually a woman who must hide her gender to maintain the kingdom. Joseph J. Franz's A Sage Brush Hamlet turned the tragedy into a western.

While a popular subject for silent film, the first sound Hamlet didn't arrive until 1948, when Laurence Olivier adapted, produced, directed, and starred in his Hamlet. While many were willing — John Barrymore even made a screen test for an aborted Hamlet in 1934—the play's over four-hour length made it hard sell for theaters. Olivier was able to cut the story down to two-and-a-half hours, an edit that many Shakespearean purists decried as treasonous. For everyone else, Olivier's Hamlet has become the gold standard against which others — Tony Richardson's 1969 stagey version with Nicol Williams; Franco Zeffirelli's lush 1990 turn with Mel Gibson; Kenneth Branagh's 1996 self-starring unedited 70-mm version, or Michael Almereyda's 2000 techno Hamlet with Ethan Hawke — are judged.

"…In a fiction, in a dream of passion…"

But for many films, Hamlet is not the end but a starting point for their own dramatic variations. In his 1945 Strange Illusion, Edgar G. Ulmer hung a contemporary B-movie psycho thriller on Hamlet's revenge plot. Here the son of a recently deceased Lt. Governor of California is visited in his dreams by a strange man with designs on his widowed mother. In Akira Kurosawa's 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well, the Hamlet story provides the structure to expose corrupt corruption in modern Japan. (Kurosawa had previously adapted Macbeth as Throne of Blood, and later used King Lear as a template for Ran, a saga of 16th century Feudal Japan). Claude Chabrol's 1962 Ophélia takes a post-modern spin. When the main character Yvan sees a production of Hamlet in his local theater, he begins to believe the tragedy is providing clues to his own situation with his widowed mother. He then, unfortunately, acts accordingly. In China, Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet sets its Hamlet plot in the tenth century among the political intrigue of the royal Chinese court.

While many have updated or transplanted the story, Gabriel Axel in Prince of Jutland (aka Royal Deceit) goes in the opposite direction, restaging a purer, pre-Shakespeare interpretation by taking the story back to its Danish roots. Christian Bale plays Amled, the butcher predecessor of Hamlet, a Viking noble man who has no qualms about what he must do to right his father's death.

Of course, not everyone reads Hamlet as a tragedy. That wild and crazy Finn Aki Kaurismäki sets the torrid tale of family betrayal and revenge in a rubber duck factory in Hamlet Gets Business (Hamlet liikemaailmassa), and in so doing, takes some of the hot air out of a classic. Even more lowbrow is the Canadian yukfest Strange Brew directed by the Second City duo Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas in which the pair must uncover the corruption at their beloved Elsinore Brewery.

Over time, Hamlet has served perhaps every possible genre. As comedy in The Simpsons's version "Do the Bard, Man." As horror in the "Top Billing" episode from Tales From The Crypt in which a production of Hamlet realizes they need a skull for the "poor Yorick" speech and sets out to find one. In the Broadway version of The Producers, the ethically challenged theater producer Max Bialystock puts on Funny Boy, his musical version of the play. The play has even gone hardcore. Hamlet: For the Love of Ophelia joins other Shakespearean romps, like A Midsummer Night's Cream and Taming of the Screw on the video porn shelf.

"All Saws of Books…"

As literature, Hamlet remains one of the high points of Western culture. A little lower down on the scale are a series of literary endeavors that owe their inspiration, if not existence, to Shakespeare. Perhaps the most famous is Tom Stoppard's post-modernist puzzle Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a calculating comedy that revisits the tragedy at Elsinore from the perspective of two minor characters. John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius enters the play from before rather than from the side. Ending where the play begins, that is with the death of King Hamlet, the novel chronicles the sordid affair between a queen and her husband's brother as it moves from seduction to murder.

The fact that Shakespeare's play is at its heart a mystery with Hamlet playing the bumbling, neurotic detective hoping to trap the murderer in his own lies has not gone unnoticed by many crime writers. While few have taken up the actual story, many leave clues to the play throughout their whodunits. When the Lord Chancellor is killed playing Polonius in Michael Innes's 1937 Hamlet, Revenge!, the dogged Inspector Appleby must find how he "shuffled off this mortal coil." In Jasper Fforde's post-modern policier Something Rotten, the fictional (and still insecure) Hamlet journeys to the real world to learn what people really think of him. In Nick O'Donohoe's 1989 sci-fi mystery Too Too Solid Flesh, Hamlet has become the cyber consciousness of the android director of a theater troupe which performs — what else? —Shakespeare. But when the robot's human creator (or to echo the play, his father) is killed, the machine must unmask the murderer. For those in a noir mood, Jonathan Vos Post wrote "Raymond Chandler's Hamlet" for the 1995 International Imitation Raymond Chandler Competition. The story begins: "Something was rotten in Denmark, rank and gross, as rotten as a dame named Gertrude in bed with her husband's killer while the caterer recycled the funeral baked meats for the wedding reception, at which the bride did not wear."

"And that, I hope, will teach you to imagine"

While Hamlet may be the high point of English literature, many have come to view it as the low point of their high school experience. All those funny names and impenetrable speeches! But for those who slept through English class, Hamlet can be reduced to its basic terms. For those just learning to read, there's "The Dick and Jane Hamlet" with its bare-bones approach to storytelling: "See the man. What a funny man. His name is Hamlet. He is a prince. He is sad. Why are you sad, Hamlet?" For those more used to Dr. Seuss than William Shakespeare, there's "Green Eggs and Hamlet" with such catchy couplets as:

This sullied life, it makes me shudder.
My uncle's boffing dear sweet mother.
Would I, could I take my life?
Could I, should I end this strife?
Should I jump out of a plane?
Or throw myself before a train?
Should I from a cliff just leap?
Could I put myself to sleep?

 

For those, who like their books with pictures, Dan Carroll's stick-figure comic book Hamlet is just the ticket, especially since it is not abridged. A more dramatic—and animated—version is found in Chris Coutts' Hamlet, which not only simplifies the images to quick stick figures, but translates the language into teen-texting jargon. LOL. The writer Shel Silverstein, famous for such kid-friendly primers as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, lent his talents to translating the Bard with his "Hamlet Rap." Silverstein sets up the play-within-a-play as thus (listen for the hip hop beat):

So they go to the play and everybody's there.
They got diamonds on their doublets,
They got ribbons in their hair.
Lords, ladies, dogs, babies, all in attendance,
The marquee says MURDER, DECEIT AND VENGEANCE.
ONE OF YEAR'S TEN BEST. DO NOT MISS IT.

 

And when the play is the thing, there is the computer game William Shakespeare's Hamlet: A Murder Mystery whose instructions are simple: "As young Hamlet, you must avenge the death of your father and become the new King of Denmark. You enter the court of Elsinore Palace to find clues about the mastermind that is behind the corruption in Denmark. Your task is to kill the murderer but to prevent the deaths of innocents."

"…. There are more things in heaven and earth…"

With so many Hamlets crowding up our cultural shelves, Dana Marschz's desire to create a sequel appears not only unexceptional, but down right redundant. Whether Marschz knows it or not, Hamlet 2 already exists. David Bergantino's Hamlet II: Ophelia's Revenge is a young adult horror novel about a college football player, Cameron Dean, from Ohio. After suffering through a tough year in which his dad dies and he suspects something's up with his mom, Dean inherits a castle in Denmark, where he goes with college buddies to unwind — only the ghost of a drowned girl has other things in mind. As the back cover puts it: "Now the only question is: To die or not to die?"