I set out to write a review of Hamlet, but I quickly realized that I could do little in my small blurb where whole doctoral theses had been written. If you want a quick recommendation, then I would say yes, watch or read Hamlet—it is a great story, with great writing, that has had a great and lasting impact that reverberates in the Western canon. Here I will describe a couple of film versions and the experience of reading the play, as well as the joys and pitfalls found in each of those formats.
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark"
Hamlet is a play by William Shakespeare, telling the tragedy of the eponymous Prince of Denmark whose father (also named Hamlet) recently died. His mother Gertrude is now married to his uncle Claudius (the late king's brother), who has assumed the throne. As Hamlet broods over the loss of his father, and casts slights upon his mother for her hasty nuptials, young Fortinbras of Norway plots to invade Denmark with a host, the ghost of the elder Hamlet appears to his son and demands revenge for his murder, and Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia gets distraught. Hamlet then must move himself to action against the man who took his father's life, while feigning madness as a cover to his schemes. From that point on it's a bloody ride to the end, a sequence of events where famously nearly everybody dies.
"Words, words, words"
Reading Hamlet is a chore. I find reading most plays to be a challenge, since they lack the structure of prose works: for a play the transition from page to stage is normally facilitated by director, actors, dramaturge, set and costume, all players who interpret and give life to the words and bare stage directions written down by the play's author. To read it alone to yourself requires an intense imaginative effort, as you must create the characters for yourself and endow their words and actions with the proper accent and emphasis, placed within an appropriate setting. In the case of Shakespeare, 400 years of intervening time compound the problem, as different customs and speech further impede the reading. And again, Hamlet is the longest of Shakespeare's plays. Ideally you would slog through it in a single sitting, for the proper effect of sitting straight through a performance, but for most the unfamiliar language will require the flow of the play to be broken by frequently referencing footnotes. You are not likely to make it through the play in a single session, at least not your first time through.
That said, Shakespeare's words are what is left to us. And they are some of the finest words, phrases, lines, sentences in the English language. While a stage production might be easier to follow on the whole, you are like to miss out on some of the brilliancy of Shakespeare's writing, lost in the current of the play as an actor, well, acts, moving along with all the action that is implied in that, leaving you little time to dwell on the niceties of his lines. And such lines they are! Hamlet has my favorites, lines of biting, sarcastic wit, lines that lash out viciously at his queen mother and king uncle/father or mock their toadyish courtiers or dwell moodishly on life. The words may truly come to life when spoken by a great actor, but it would be worth your time first to read through the text so that you do not miss his meaning.
As a last measure you might consider taking up one of the "modern language translations" of Hamlet. I briefly read through the Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare edition of Hamlet and was unimpressed. The stated goal of the text was to give readers both Shakespeare's English and a dumbed-down translation on facing pages so that they can reference the latter when having trouble with the former. I cannot see this as being that much easier than referencing footnotes, and a good footnote will give a wealth of information with the meaning of a word or phrase compared to the bland rendering in Sparknotes' English, and it will stretch your mental muscles a bit, too. My fear is that ultimately someone who resorts to such a translation will just read through that, and come away indifferent to the work and unknowing of the richness they are missing.
Shakespeare on the silver screen
There is probably a personality test floating around the web somewhere that matches you with your Hamlet performance. There is no "standard" Hamlet to compare all others with, or a "best" Hamlet to watch first. There are plusses and minuses to each, and they will appeal to different people. The only things they have in common is being long, easily over two and a half hours, and being generally worth the time.
Hamlet (1948, Lawrence Olivier directing and as Hamlet)
Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet is distinctly old looking, and indeed it was made nearly 65 years ago. This might hold appeal for some viewers, if you are drawn to classic cinema, or it could be a distraction. It is finely acted, yet to a modern viewer it could seem the quintessence of snobbery that is sometimes associated with Shakespeare. It is very like a play in feel, but the set and cinematography take full advantage of the film format and provide a tight interpretation of the play. Olivier cut out Fortinbras and thus the broader political scope of the play, choosing to focus all attention on Hamlet, but still this rendition is a full (some might feel over-long) two and a half hours. As I said, it is a good Hamlet, but it does not give the full play. The supporting cast in this version are mostly unremarkable, both for being unfamiliar to the modern audience and in their acting.
Hamlet (1990, Kevlin Kline as Hamlet)
The modern dress of this film version reflects a more modern method of acting, and it makes the difference. It surprisingly does not clash with the Shakespearean speech, but rather by removing another archaism makes the language shine all the more. I did not immediately warm to this production, but about half an hour into it I realized that I was more engrossed and enjoying myself far more than I did in Olivier's Hamlet. The set is barely there, not in a "we're focusing on the play" making-a-statement kind of way, but more in a low-budget way. The cinematography seems to follow the actors at random, and the accompanying music is an eighties-tastic synthesizer score. These demerits were somewhat removed when I learned that this is a more-or-less straight filming of a stage production, and not a movie production, and I then began to enjoy it as such. The language truly shines though, as I said, and in a number of ways this Hamlet is more accessible than Olivier's. There is a humor to Kline's performance that piques the interest—it is notably non-stuffy; this version also preserves better the wit of Hamlet: his biting comments and his humorous ill-humor.
|The dead king Hamlet, in authentic disco armor.|
And of course where there is good, there is bound to be bad. Terrible, even. But of all the bad Hamlets, only one has gotten the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, a 1960 German public television version with English audio dub. It's notable for the wise-cracking of Mike and company and the fabulous costumes. Maybe not the best first Hamlet, but definitely amusing. At just over 90 minutes it's also the shortest you are like to find, unless you catch a production of Tom Stoppard's 15-Minute Hamlet.
It is unusual for me to give a movie repeated viewings: except for my very favorite movies, once is enough for me, and I am uninterested in watching it again for some time. I watched two Hamlets in as many weeks and I'm ready for more, which speaks to the quality of Shakespeare's play. Next on my list is the 1990 Hamlet featuring Mel Gibson in the title role. I look forward to it, both to see the now infamous actor take his crack at the famous role, and perhaps even more to see supporting actresses Glenn Close and Helena Bonham Carter as Gertrude and Ophelia, respectively. I also am on the watch for a live stage performance.
So, to recap: read or experience Hamlet. The first time or two might be tough, but if you put something into it what you will find that not only does each time get easier and you get more out of it, but you will find yourself looking for more Hamlets to enjoy, be they stage performances or the many movie version and revisions.