As people in the twenty-first century generally don’t believe in ghosts and don’t consider revenge a duty, why is a play like Hamlet still of interest to film and theatre audiences? As William Shakespeare began writing Hamlet in 1598 – at the end of the 16th century – the play which would go on to become one of his most famous pieces of work was geared towards an audience of “churls”, “groundlings” and the less-educated members of theatre-going society, just as equally as the more educated and affluent audience members. Theatre being a relatively affordable and popular form of entertainment for the less wealthy individuals, Shakespeare would cater as much to their tastes as he would to the ‘higher society’ who would attend his plays.
A fellow playwright, Ben Johnson, noted the diversity of the audiences in his verses to Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess, in which he refers to them as “the wise and many headed bench that sits upon the life and death of plays” and cites “gamester, captain, knight, knight’s man, lady or pucelle, that wears mask or fan, velvet or taffeta cap, rank’d in the dark with the shop’s foreman, or some such brave spark that may judge for his sixpence” as the various components of an audience. Therefore it is not uncommon to find characters and situations in Shakespeare’s plays which may appeal more to the less-educated and “naive” in attendance.
Such undemanding elements could include clowns, lewd characters and, some may argue, ghosts. It is acceptable to believe that some of Hamlet’s audience, possibly even a majority, would have believed in the existence of ghosts to a degree. Fiercely religious, the audience’s fear of God and the supernatural would certainly lead them to accept that the more seemingly-absurd elements of Hamlet to us were deemed more than plausible when the play was originally performed in the early 17th century.
However, as more contemporary productions of Hamlet are performed to today’s modern audiences, the question has to be raised as to what interest the audience can find in a tale fuelled by stories of ghosts and one man’s quest for revenge: themes which today’s spectators are unlikely to relate to. To simplify Hamlet as a tale of revenge and ghosts would be doing a great injustice to the play as a whole, and it can even be argued to some degree hat “ghosts” and “revenge” in their traditional sense have no bearing on the tale of Hamlet at all, making the play as effective and engrossing today as it would have been to an audience during the early 17th century, even when applying today’s mentalities to the play. One argument that can be applied to support claims that modern audiences cannot relate to a performance of Hamlet due to its outdated notions is the theme of “revenge” throughout the play.
Hamlet is often seen as a “vengeful hero” or “revenger”, and the general feeling is that the concept of “revenge” as a duty is now not only outdated but antediluvian. However, Hamlet’s structure and story allow for different interpretations of Hamlet’s actions and his intentions, one of which arguably proves far more acceptable to any modern audience who require the need to be able to empathise with the tragic hero. It can be said that events simply conspire against Hamlet and that he is simply an opportunist in the action.
This idea of Hamlet as responsive rather than initiating can be supported throughout the text. It is easy to derive from Hamlet’s demeanour and words in Act I Scene II (“A little more than kin, and less than kind”) that he is resentful and, therefore, vengeful towards his uncle, the King. This is further corroborated in Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which he contrasts the King with his father (“My father’s brother: but no more like my father, Than I to Hercules”) and describes how the King’s marriage to his mother breaks his heart.
However, as close attention is paid to the circumstances surrounding the events that follow, the line becomes quite blurred when deciding whether Hamlet acted maliciously out of blind vengeance or whether he was simply tempted up that path by coincidence and occurrence. When you consider that he was following the instructions of his father’s “ghost” it becomes even more blurred. It was the ghost which created the fire inside Hamlet, the desire for revenge but also the need for revenge as a duty, to his “murdered” father.
The ghost, however, has been the subject of much debate amongst critics and readers of Hamlet, with the controversy surrounding whether the ghost is “real” as a physical element of the play, or whether it exists simply in the mind of Hamlet. The play opens with Horatio and various watchmen alarmed that they have seen a ghostly presence, although we don’t know for sure that they have actually seen the purported ghost of the former King. This could indicate that what they saw wasn’t actually a ghost, and further evidence to suggest this could be found in the scene in which Hamlet sees the ghost but Gertrude cannot see him (Act III, Scene IV).
Some critics, such as Jan Pick, argue that the appearance of the ghost as an actual element of the play is simply to encourage the audience to accept Hamlet as a rational human being rather than an insane character; the inclusion of the ghost as somebody the audience (if not the other characters) can see lends an air of authenticity to the ghost scenes, authenticity which can only exist to a modern audience in the assumption that Hamlet actually is insane, and imagining the ghost.
Still, this scenario leads the viewer down a different but equally enthralling path which (again, assuming the ghost is a figment of Hamlet’s imagination) can be loosely accepted as a “realistic” plot element and therefore accepted by a modern audience. The acceptance of the ghost therefore leads to an acceptance of the “revenge” theme in its traditional sense but also from a rational point of view.
Whilst today’s viewer wouldn’t appreciate the concept of “revengeful duty”, we no longer believe Hamlet to be a rational man as a result of the ghost, and we therefore have an image of a man being ruled more by his personal, mental “demons” than by age-old tradition. He is also described by one critic as suffering from Freud’s Oedipus complex, in that Hamlet is “heavily aggravated by the absence of his father and excessive closeness of his mother, and this accounts for the refocusing of his patricidal wish onto Claudius, and shows how his need for revenge is internal. ”
Hamlet’s needs are deep and complex, his motives more unconscious than they appear. This lends a new theme to the play for a modern interpretation, which sees Hamlet as a man struggling with his own mind, rather than as a vengeful loyal son. This interpretation is ultimately open to each individual reader/viewer, but to spectators brought up on modern values and education, this element of the plot could prove of more interest than it’s original intention, if you delve deeper than a tale of ghosts and revenge and find a man struggling to maintain his sanity in the wake of his father’s apparent murder.
It is only one interpretation, but Hamlet as a psychological play would leave more leeway for audience engagement and sympathy in the 21st century than Hamlet as a bloody and murderous tale of ghosts and vengeance. Other interpretations would declare Hamlet to be as sane as any of the other characters and simply consumed with hatred and revenge, so it is this open-to-interpretation nature of the play which makes it such a universally popular play to both study and watch. Even for today’s modern audiences, Hamlet remains a shocking and graphic play.
Of great historical importance (Hamlet is often cited as the most famous English play ever written) and with themes still considered controversial in the 21st century, there is no doubting that Hamlet is still of huge educational and cultural interest in this modern era. This is reflected in the successful transfers of the play onto modern stages, and into films and television. The fact that people still want to watch Shakespeare’s most famous play in the modern media is testament to the longevity of the play and its principle themes, and also to its lasting popularity.
Bearing in mind that a lot of these adaptations stick quite closely to the recognised ‘official’ scripts, this shows that Hamlet transcends a play of fantastical scenarios and has entered the public consciousness as a piece of classic and enduring literature, fantasy or no fantasy. One of the most famous and successful film adaptations of Hamlet is that of Kenneth Branagh, whose portrayal of Hamlet shows “a naturally positive and sweet-natured fellow who feigns madness, rather than a tormented soul who is already half loony before he sees the ghost of his murdered father. It can be said, then, that Branagh has managed to both capture the original premise of the tale, and the audience’s interest without compromising. So, does this prove that modern day audiences (Branagh’s movie was released in 1996) are more willing to accept the more outlandish ideas of Hamlet than previously believed, or simply that audiences are able to suspend their disbelief out of interest in other themes and aspects explored in Hamlet?
The ghosts are depicted as real in Branagh’s film, as is the cold vengeful nature of Prince Hamlet, yet it was a huge critical success. One critical analysis of the play could explain why: “This version of Hamlet has one thing that made me love it: originality. Well, the story may not be original but many of the elements are, including the visual style. Some say that Romeo + Juliet had visual style, and it did, but Hamlet has a much more appealing, and more appropriate look.
One of the many gorgeous scenes takes place after the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. The reception, taking place in the social hall, is amazingly colorful and energetic. ” Basically, in today’s “leisure landscape” anything is acceptable in the realms of entertainment, assuming that it is entertaining. An audience is as willing to accept a tale of apparitions and retribution now as it was in the days Hamlet was written, only with a different outlook to the play.
The more ‘informed’ modern audience may take the stories of the ghost as another mindless yet entertaining aspect of a “show”, whereas Shakespeare’s audience would most likely have accepted the ghost sightings as a very real element of the plot, without really questioning the likelihood of such an occurrence. Similarly, their own instilled beliefs of pride and dignity would lead them to accept the revenge aspect, whereas their more level-headed theatre-going counterparts of the modern age would not expect this sort of thing in their everyday life.
From my perspective, however, Hamlet remains of interest to modern theatre and film viewers simply because it represents entertainment, which is limitless in an age of science fiction shows and space travel movies. Hamlet, in fact, could be one of the more believable stories to be found in Hollywood movies and on the stage, in the 21st century. Not forgetting that there are probably a number of potential viewers who do steadfastly believe in ghosts and the supernatural.
There is also, of course, the historical and educational aspect of the play. There is still a demand for Hamlet, despite its antiquated devices, simply because of its legacy and reputation as one of the greatest and best-known plays ever written. In exploring the many possible reasons for a modern-day, 21st century audience to take interest in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I come to the conclusion that there are many ways to approach a modern-day viewing of the classic play and that the result is dependant on the individual watching.
There will be some who cannot find any positive aspect of watching a performance of the play in the 21st century, feeling that they cannot possibly relate to such fantastical plots as ghosts and over-the-top pledges of revenge. However, it is my personal opinion that watching a performance of Hamlet is like watching a piece of history repeated before your eyes, if you look at it from the perspective of a “groundling” or anybody who would have been present at the Globe theatre or an early performance of the play.
Sitting at home in your 21st century living room, it would be very hard to empathise with the characters and their situations. However, had you been present at the time, it would have tapped into your social conscience due to the conceptions of the time, and it is important to remember this, and to merit Hamlet for its contextual importance as well as from a modern outlook. In conclusion, then, I find it hard to believe that a modern day audience could not find some interest in watching a performance of Hamlet, be it from an historical or entertainment point of view.