Some six hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare seems to be doing alright for a cadaver. Producers in theater, TV and print sigh in relief that there is no Bard Estate to sue them for tarnishing their famed ancestor's name or to meddle with the ways his works are re-imagined, adapted and distributed. Which, of course, is all the better for the cultural cats still enthralled by his vision and insight. As is evident from the number and variety of Hamlet productions on stage, in print and online, the number of such enthusiasts does not show signs of declining either. But what is it about the Danish Prince that captures interest and curiosity still in the early 21st century? I took a look at five different Hamlet's that are happening pretty much right now and tried to see what is that has us return to the rotten state of Denmark time after time.
First of all, Hamlet is doing rather well in Finnish theater circles with three almost simultaneous productions. The Helsinki City Theatre continues through March with Kari Heiskanen's adaptation, starring Eero Aho and presenting a cocktail of Shakespearean diction and modern slang – play with the Elizabethan/urban dichotomy persevering throughout. Even if Heiskanen's interpretation has some moments of silliness (somewhat out-of-place financial crisis jokes, for instance) it manages to be an effective rendering of the classic story, not least because of the talent and raw energy Aho manages to give Hamlet. Another large scale production premiers in the Tampere Theatre on February 21st, a dream come true for director Mikko Viherjuuri. Believe it or not, that's just the establishment talking!
The fringes of the underground got their share in December 2012, as Gnab Collective launched Hamlet private, a one-actor play for a single spectator at a time, where interaction between actor and viewer demolishes the structures of traditional theater and creates a personalized version of Shakespeare's story. The viewer is made to face the parallels between her own life and that of Hamlet. With continuation rumored to occur in early 2013, Hamlet private is a great example of the versatility of the play: its themes and subject matter are complex and deep enough to make room for vastly different interpretations and techniques of presentation.
The same versatility is obvious in two other reimaginings of the play. For instance, there's nothing to stop anyone from enjoying Hamlet through Spider-man panels (don't tell the high-school kids), even if the mix of different era comic book styles can be a little confusing.
Still, maybe most ambitious Hamlet interpretation out there right now is Ryan North's To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure, Kickstarted with record-breaking numbers and to be released this coming May. As the author puts it, this is ‟[t]he greatest work IN English literature, now in the greatest format OF English literature: a chooseable-path adventure”, where the reader, essentially, becomes Hamlet. She can stick to canonical choices, as Shakespeare would have done, or really go out on a limb and play out a myriad of what-ifs.
‟Is this a joke?” someone might ask. Over 15,000 backers and nearly $600,000 out of the $20,000 goal don't suggest so, also showing that name-dropping Shakespeare can open wallets as effectively as yawning mouths. North's project actually became the most successful publishing Kickstarter ever and the final product escalated from a single B/W book into a fully illustrated color edition with a prequel (‟Poor Yorick”, set 25 years before the events of the play), with some of the most talented contemporary cartoonists in tow (Kate Beaton, Aaron Diaz and Randall Munroe to name but a measly few). And, of course, scenes only hinted at in the Shakespeare text are there – finally Hamlet really fights pirates on the ship to England!
So, why is it that Hamlet gets all this multifaceted treatment from a variety of artists and enthusiast, rather than, say, Macbeth or Othello? Nely Keinänen (Ph.D., University of Helsinki) says that Hamlet has a lot to empathize with, even if people generally haven't been forced to avenge our dead fathers. Still, it seems clear that Hamlet struggles with universal human phenomena like sorrow, filial duty and obsession. The meaningfulness of Shakespeare's text resonates with modern audiences, and as Keinänen points out, some parts of it have become set pieces of drama, stock images of Theater Itself, that people look forward to – Hamlet's soliloquy being the most famous, of course.
Further, Hamlet is also an entertaining piece of art, even in the 3-sec-attention-span sense. I for one am a sucker for sword-fights, ghosts and murder-plots rendered on stage. Every English (or Finnish) teacher will be able to sell Shakespeare on those points to a bunch of jaded kids by playing down the ‟boring parts” and hyping up all that is ‟cool” about it. Ryan North even makes this a selling point for To Be Or Not To Be: ‟YOU WON'T HATE [Shakespeare] ANYMORE. Honest! [...] If you ever struggled with wondering what was going on and what people's motivations were in the play, you will totally understand everything once you play through this book.” Even with such an approach, North has included the most famous speeches in both their original guise and in contemporary English. Talk about an educational tool right there!
Hamlet's adaptability is not limited to the level of text either, its mise-en-scène opens up a world of interpretations as well. Much like the Finnish National Theatre's Othello some years back, Heiskanen's Hamlet has a punky, modern face. If Othello was all smooth-jazz, elitism and decadent lounging, Hamlet is harsh techno and the cruelty of a gritty back alley, the turf of gangsters and would-be-tyrants. None of this interferes with our suspension of disbelief, I might add, especially in Hamlet. It is a play about young and old men, witty women, power and collateral damage, all of which we can see and feel in more environments than that of Elizabethan imaginations of medieval Denmark.
As seen in the spectrum from the imaginative Hamlet private and To Be Or Not To Be to grand stage adaptations like those of Heiskanen and Viherjuuri, ‟the stock piece” of Shakespeare canon cuts through the totality of human experience, from personal to societal, from subtle to epic and comic to sombre, always open to multiple interpretations and approaches. The genius lies within that quality exactly, opening up the possibility to mirror almost any aspect of our own experience against the background of Hamlet's struggles. That, it could be concluded, is the secret behind the lasting appeal of the Tragedy of the Prince of Danes.