Hamlet and the Uncertainty Principle: A Quandary in the Present Tense

Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.


The story of Hamlet is over several hundred years old. In Historica Danica, Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150 – c. 1220), the Danish historian, theologian and author, first introduced Hamlet – called Amlethus – in his chronicle of the myths and legends of the Norse people. This tale of murder and revenge served as the primary source for Shakespeare’s play.

This past spring saw the release of Robert Egger’s film, The Northman, which also went to the same source material but tied it closer to an epic Viking adventure true to the time and place that it was written. Shakespeare “modernized” the tale so it would have more resonance for the contemporary Elizabethan audience of his day. A modern Hamlet for the present has been the goal of untold numbers of directors, adapters and actors ever since.

Suddenly Hamlet is everywhere. 

“The question now is for us to be or not to be,” said Volodymyr Zelensky in March when he addressed the British Parliament by video call on the war in Ukraine. “This is the Shakespearean question. For 13 days, this question could have been asked. But now I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes, to be.” As the war enters its fourth month with no visible signs of diplomacy or negotiations to end it, the Ukrainian people remain resolved in their attempt to take arms against a sea of troubles. The president, a former comedian, has now turned tragic actor on the world stage of realpolitik. As he sees it, there was no alternative. A dallying Dane he is not. 

But other Hamlets aren’t so sure. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead interviews director Robert Icke who is mounting a contemporary, modern dress version of the play in an attempt to provide an adaptation that is understandable and recognizable for an audience in the twenty-first century. Alex Lawther is Hamlet in a Park Avenue Armory/ Alameida Theatre co-production that began previews in June and runs until August 13. The London production (which featured Andrew Scott in the lead role), received generally positive reviews. Hamlet is portrayed as being plagued with ambivalence and doubt. Did Claudius really kill Hamlet’s father or was it all just a misunderstanding? Did he see a ghost or was it a hallucination? With the music of Bob Dylan segueing between scenes, the Danish court becomes a modern day surveillance state. Fear, trauma and paranoia abounds. Trust no one.

As described in Mead’s article (I’ve not seen the production), there is no certitude in this refashioned, aporetic tragedy. Hamlet is not “talking about killing Claudius in any direct way,” muses Icke. This Hamlet is more about meditating on grief than it is carrying out the behest of a revenant. 

In Will and the World, the eminent Harvard Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt (who also wrote the book, Hamlet in Purgatory) observes that: “The villainous Claudius, (is) fraudulent in almost everything that he utters…”. At the end of the play there is one thing that we know for certain – eight people are dead; Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet. Of that, there is no doubt.

Across Central Park at Lincoln Centre, the Metropolitan Opera’s more existentialist production of Hamlet, with a score composed by Brett Dean and libretto by Matthew Jocelyn, received mixed reviews. Writing in The Observer (5/16/22) with the lede, “The Met Opera’s ‘Hamlet’ takes Big Swings but Mostly Misses,” Christopher Corwin called it a “striking if un-engaging work.”

But the young prince of Denmark continues to compel contemporary playwrights to investigate the forces of alienation and estrangement that are at the core of Hamlet’s dilemma and mold them to their own particular circumstances. 

In the Pulitzer  Prize winning drama, Fat Ham (playing at the Public Theatre in New York through July 17), the playwright James Ijames reinvents the central character (here named “Juicy”) as a Black queer Southern college student grappling with issues of identify and self preservation. While attending a backyard barbeque, the ghost of Juicy’s deceased father appears and cries out for the revenge of his murder. Like the operatic Hamlet, Ijames also adapts Shakespeare’s text but then radically departs from it. Writing in The New York Times, Maya Phillips describes the playwright’s project: “The show’s avatars for Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes are all gay despite the homophobia, gender stereotyping and toxic masculinity that runs in their families. But these characters decide they won’t kill each other; they won’t die today.”

At the Stratford Festival, the bravura performance turned in by Amaka Umeh as Hamlet (directed by Peter Pasyk) has been largely embraced by the critics. Karen Fricker, in the Toronto Star, called her performance, “engrossing and revelatory” while noting, “A new era dawns at the Stratford Festival…”. Writing in the Globe and Mail, J. Kelly Nestruck observed: “With Umeh in the lead role – she’s not just the first female actor, but the first Black one to play Hamlet in Stratford – this production naturally stands out from past ones in Stratford, Ont. The confidence and freshness of her performance and, indeed, Pasyk’s take on the material make it stand out beyond this catch-up casting.”

Also coming up at the SF July 28 through October 2, is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s phantasmagoric variation on a theme by Shakespeare, Hamlet – 911, directed by MacDonald’s long time creative collaborator, Alisa Palmer.

For those who are still uneasy about joining crowds during a pandemic and not thrilled about inflationary travel costs and high ticket prices, there are a number of Hamlet’s on film that are interesting to compare in the less threatening environment of your own living space.

In 1948, a forty-one year old Lawrence Olivier adapted, directed and starred in the first English sound version of Hamlet on film, which became the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Olivier also won the Oscar for Best Actor. By eliminating Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely from the script, it allowed for more screen time (155 minutes running time) for Sir Lawrence’s mannered psychodrama.

Not to be outdone, Kenneth Branagh adapted, directed and starred in an audacious 4 1/2 hour epic set in the 19th century. It has often been observed that Shakespeare may have been one of the world’s first writer of screenplays, with his use of parallel action and swift cuts from one scene to the next. With an all-star cast and a running time close to how it was actually performed at the Globe Theatre, Branagh makes full use of the production values offered by film to present a fast paced, unabridged, full-throttle production that never flags. Truly a remarkable achievement.

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 take on the young prince of Denmark featured Mel Gibson in the title role. Watching Mel Gibson feign madness is a bit like watching Woody Allen play a fictive, depressed neurotic in one of his movies. Both are too close for comfort.

Ethan Hawke played Hamlet in Michael Almereyda’s modernized version (2000) in which Hamlet’s uncle Claudius assumes the position of CEO of the Denmark Corporation after murdering his brother. Like similar modernized versions, video cams, listening devices and the apparatus of technological surveillance are all pervasive. Is that a wire Ophelia is wearing?

Of them all, my favourite is by the Russian director, Grigori Kozintsev (available on YouTube here) based on a Russian translation of the play by Boris Pasternak with music by Dimitri Shostakovich. At 2 hours 20 minutes, the film (1964) moves right along with Innokenty Smoktunovsky playing Hamlet. Kozintsev (who shared directing credits with Iosif Shapiro) had a sharp blue pencil. Like “Chekhov’s gun,” the details of Norway’s young prince Fortinbras’ troop movements are introduced early in the narrative. But gone is the opening scene with the ghost of Hamlet’s father as we plunge right into the court recognizing the ascension of the now King Claudius and his new bride, Queen Gertrude. The ministers of state are all assembled around a long table. Only one person does not rise when the King begins to speak. As the meetimg continues, with Fortinbras a major item on the agenda for discussion, the camera pans to an empty chair. Hamlet has already departed the chamber.

One has to embrace the attempts to breathe new life into an old classic that recognizes Hamlet’s youth and inexperience. The younger Hamlets in vogue today give voice to a mixture of teenage angst meeting emerging adult responsibilities that must face contingencies no one should have to confront but many now must. The world that these young people are inheriting may indeed seem “…weary, stale, flat and unprofitable… things rank and gross in nature possess it merely…”.  

Although no one can change the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s play, we can still learn from it.

Written by