Hamlet on Film

2 December 2011

Hamlet is arguably the most often adapted William Shakespeare play. With each new adaptation, directors often take liberties in presenting the play. Though all 1990s film versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990), and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) all provide dissimilar conditions in which Hamlet reunites with his close friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Each film diverges in the context of settings as well as in the use of camera angles, time-lapse techniques, various points in which the character of Hamlet’s tone/character alters, and other differing elements to underscore the character traits of each interpretation of Hamlet and to provide insight into the relationships between Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Stoppard’s film focuses on the centrality of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern while presenting a melodramatic Hamlet from their point of view, Zeffirelli’s film focuses on Hamlet and his secluded nature that keeps the secondary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at a figurative distance, and Branagh’s film implements a balanced interaction between the three characters while Hamlet appears to be in a state of mania.

Game of Thrones' Jorah Mormont on his Shakespeare game

Game of Thrones’ Jorah Mormont on his Shakespeare game

One of the aforementioned versions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Stoppard’s 1990 version, will first be analyzed as a distinct rendition of such a popularly depicted play. To heighten the atmosphere of absurdity and existential tone of this interpretation, Stoppard’s film provides a particularly unique interpretation of Hamlet for this scene in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first encounter the young prince. Here, Hamlet (Iain Glen) exhibits characteristics of ridiculousness, egotism, and aggressiveness. Each of these character traits becomes visible at different moments as the scene progresses.

Hamlet’s absurdity comes out right from the start when he appears to be having a conversation with no one around. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch him before entering, they are confused by Hamlet’s unaccompanied behavior; Rosencrantz perplexedly asks his companion, “What’s he doing?” and Guildenstern responds that the peculiar Hamlet is, “Talking…to himself.” The ambience is already set for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be talking to an out-of-the-ordinary old friend rather than one who does not act out of absurd impulses because Hamlet’s actions have become exaggerated to the point where his thoughts have been projected in a secluded discussion.

Hamlet’s unusual behavior is also not limited to an enhanced disorientation in his own inclinations, but also to an inflamed ego. Stoppard’s film displays the egotistical Hamlet by giving him a certain, nonchalant tone of voice. Hamlet gives a proud speech saying, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god” (Shakespeare II.ii.301-4). Then, he goes on to casually dismiss these astonishments as “dust” (II.ii.306). Unconcernedly, Hamlet remarks, “Man delights not me” (II.ii.306). With this switch to a blasé attitude toward the subject matter, Hamlet brings an existential philosophy into this version by quickly, and uncaringly refuting all of his appraisals and celestial comparisons of man so that they become meaningless.cap037

The final telling trait of this particular Hamlet is his aggressiveness. While talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he removes his sword, belligerently cuts down a chandelier when Guildenstern admits to being sent for, and injures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he grabs their hands to say, “I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.373-4). Even when Hamlet is standing on the table giving his dramatic speech, Rosencrantz must protect the items (plates and glasses) in front of him as Hamlet comes closer because Rosencrantz anticipates that the Dane could possibly break them. Through the use of these actions, both small (like the simple act of taking the sword out) to the more overly done actions (like actually cutting down a hanging chandelier), along with his apathetic egoism and absurdity, this Hamlet becomes different in that he becomes an unlikable interpretation of the Danish prince who is redeemed by comical, exaggerated behavior.

With a Hamlet that seems less like a leading man for his melodramatic behavior, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are seen as the central characters, especially since the scene starts from their perspective as they watch Hamlet. In this way, the scene is designed to revolve around their forthcoming experience with the prince, and in a role-reversal, Hamlet becomes a minor character in comparison. For example, during his dramatic speech, the camera often cuts to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or shows wide shots that all three characters are instead of concentrating on only Hamlet. The time-lapse that keeps the characters in a widened shot also adds to the absurdity of this film because Hamlet’s clothes alter, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look as though they have sat for hours, and the dark, undecorated room becomes illumined with candles and adorned with pictures. Viewers experience Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s point of view here because Hamlet does not seem to notice such changes, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do appear fatigued, which is what the audience relates to when a time-lapse is introduced to show how long Hamlet keeps his friends in one room.

While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sit for hours and tolerate Hamlet’s antics, this shows that they are all close friends because in responding to him as well, Rosencrantz does not feel the need to defend himself when Hamlet asks why he laughed at “man delights not me…” (II.ii.306). Instead, Gary Oldman’s character suggest, through tone of voice, that his answer is genuine and rather than concocted to please Hamlet, so their friendship is long-standing enough to be so concerned with slight offenses. Upon entering as well, Hamlet is happy enough to see his friends that he elatedly embraces as well as joking pushes them. In the same instance, these visitors can casually walk in on Hamlet who is alone in a room, but in other versions others are around and Hamlet appears out in the open.

Zeffirelli’s Hamlet first appears in a field and in a pensive state by himself, not talking aloud like Glen’s Hamlet, to show that this Hamlet is more reclusive. From this, it becomes evident that Mel Gibson plays a very different Hamlet in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet from the same year. His manner is casual, but in a more relaxed way that correlates to the sunny and pleasant outdoors setting. The manner of speaking exhibited by this character takes a natural tone when greeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so lines—such as, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II.ii.247-8)—do not become overdramatized as in other versions. When the prince says, “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (II.ii.252-4) he even laughs.

Mel Gibson as Hamlet prior to going all Polonius crazy in real life

Mel Gibson as Hamlet prior to going all Polonius crazy in real life

Even so, Gibson’s Hamlet is passive aggressive, like when he asks to leave with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because he “cannot reason” (II.ii.263), which characterizes this Hamlet as one who suppresses what he really wants to say to maintain a polite decorum (since his relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is indifferent, so it would be rude to treat them otherwise within minutes of their arrival), and that eventually erupts into actual aggression when he kicks Rosencrantz in a hostile outburst. The point of this is to show that by initially trying to mask his anger, this Hamlet makes it clear that his relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is not one in which he is good friends with them, because if he was, then he would not be bothered or uncomfortable with expressing his thoughts or feelings openly.

In fact, of the three films in question, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is not as close to or friendly with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this version. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, Hamlet struggles with recalling their names. The tone projected upon the visiting friends is one of attempted toleration rather than a warm welcome, up until he gets so frustrated that he actually kicks one of his “good friends” (II.ii.223). The two extremes, of Hamlet acting so indifferent toward the arrival of his guests to the violent outburst on one of them, emphasizes the remoteness in the relationship between the three characters, especially since Rosencrantz even has to be fearfully defensive when Hamlet accuses him of disagreeing by laughter over Hamlet’s displeasure with man. In this scene, Rosencrantz would not be so fearful if Hamlet was more of an upset friend rather than an angry stranger to him, but that is not the case since Hamlet never acknowledges his guests in any way to suggest that they are anything more than casual acquaintances.

Another way in which Hamlet is distanced from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is through close-up shots. The element of close-up angles while Hamlet gives his speech create a sense that he is talking to himself and as well as a pseudo-sense that Hamlet is the only one around because others cannot be seen reacting to him, and when they are seen, it is often through long shots and the few individual shots are quick and brief. When Hamlet’s speech begins, he is seen up close, looking at his hand, and then walking forward without the camera zooming out. Not until he addresses Rosencrantz does the camera show any other character. Therefore, in this film’s scene, Hamlet is evidently the central character.

The British fellow who does all the Shakespeare

The British fellow who does all the Shakespeare

Alternatively, Branagh presents a very different Hamlet. Branagh’s Hamlet is one in which Hamlet is outdoors during the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The weather is cold, and less comforting than that of Zeffirelli’s film, which is how this scene also contrasts since Hamlet is highly erratic. His tone changes as quickly as it does frequently from being overjoyed to see his friends to speaking in a grave tone when he says, “Why, then, ‘tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II.ii.247-248). Similarly, his enraged “you were sent for” (II.ii.276-7) changes by the time he gives his very placid and composed speech on the curiosity of man, and tranquil music is even used to accompany this speech. The effect this has on viewers is that Branagh’s Hamlet is the most unpredictable, so the question regarding his sanity yields a more ambiguous answer.

Also, Branagh cleverly makes Hamlet seem questionably irrational with other components as well, such trudging his guests through the snow with haste only to slow down, then run rapidly and stop abruptly. The atmosphere is frantic, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show that they are capable of remaining in-synch with the Prince of Denmark and the camera follows all three as central characters. When Hamlet interrogates them to know their purpose of visitation, close-up shots alter evenly between all three characters and in Hamlet’s abrupt halt, he faces the camera while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can still be seen clearly, yet Hamlet is also shown from different angles even though he is standing in one place. This unconventional method effectively creates discomfort for viewers to see so many angles and each different angle highlights different parts of his personality (angry in one shot and constrained in another) to show how complex this Hamlet is.

Yet despite his complexity, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can follow Hamlet’s dialogue and walking pace. As Hamlet runs around for the whole scene, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keep up. They chase after him when he says, “Shall we to th’ court?” (II.ii.262-263), they slowly walk up the stairs with him, and they stand still when he does before informing him of the players. To have a friend who acts out of the ordinary, and still manage to keep up with him, means that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have an ability to anticipate what Hamlet does, and that comes from being more than mere acquaintances or friends that do not know each other enough. This is not to say that they are not thrown off by the Dane’s unbalanced behavior, but they are able to go along with it, as if to amuse their friend before they can figure out why Hamlet is acting in such a way.

Also, the returning friends, unlike the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Zeffirelli’s film, do not show reactions of nervousness or blatant fear when Hamlet asks if they were asked to visit him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be competent liars in search of information for the king, but if this were the case, they would be able to find some way to evade giving Hamlet the complete truth that they were sent to monitor Hamlet. Though having brief looks of concerned, minor facial expressions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not too fazed by an angry Hamlet and Guildenstern responds to him with a guiltless tone in saying, “My lord, we were sent for” (II.ii.290).

Ultimately, instead of vehemently and persistently denying Hamlet’s claim, Guildenstern would rather tell his friend the truth than figure out some elaborate fib for the sake of Claudius. This further demonstrates the familiarity between the three characters, especially since they also speak in very close proximity to each other (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not try to distance themselves when Hamlet is angry). The proximity also accentuates the fact that all three characters are central to this scene, because when Hamlet gives his speech at the end, all three characters can be seen. This is unlike in Stoppard’s film where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are at far ends of a table, or in Zeffirelli’s film where the characters sit far apart and barely come near each other.

Whether from proximity and distance between each other, or other factors, each of these unique and modern versions of Hamlet deal differently with the individual character of Hamlet and his relationship with Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. In doing so, the directors accomplish different goals and emphasize characters differently. This allows each film, with a mixture of elements, to tell the story of a world-weary prince and his reuniting with two people from his past, or, in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being main characters, it becomes the story of their reunion with a princely companion.


 Hamlet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. By William Shakespeare. Screenplay by Christopher De

Vore. Perf. Mel Gibson. Nelson Entertainment Icon Productions, 1990. DVD.

Hamlet. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay by Kenneth Branagh. By William

Shakespeare. Perf. Kenneth Branagh. Shepperton Studios, 1996. YouTube.

Milovy, 16 Sept. 2007. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.


Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Dir. Tom Stoppard. Screenplay by Tom

Stoppard. Perf. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. T. Schreiber Studio, 1990. YouTube. Hokubi, 6 Nov. 2009. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.


Shakespeare, William, and G. R. Hibbard. “Act II, Scene II.” Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford

UP, 2008. 215-23. Print.


One thought on “Hamlet on Film

  1. Pingback: To Be or Not to Be: The Hamlet Question | The Collective

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