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Reviews + Analyses

Dec 2, 2008

Two Hamlets

Hamlet: A Novel, John Marsden, Text, 9781921351471, 2008 (

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Hamlet: A Novel, John Marsden, Text, 9781921351471, 2008 (Australia) + Hamlet (film), directed by Kenneth Branagh, 1996.

John Marsden has always had a distinct ability to grasp and express adolescent experience. His Hamlet: a Novel is highly accessible for an audience familiar with heightened perceptions of desire, deception, unfairness, traps, loneliness, defiance, and existential angst.

If you are familiar with the play though, there is not quite as much for you here. The setting, scenery and general world of the novel is very sparse. Sometimes I relied on my knowledge of the original to round it out visually in my imagination.

There are some clever intertextual references to get readers thinking about literature and history, even a reference to Shakespeare himself in the ‘Old Yorick’ scene. This poignant scene in the play is still a resonating reminder of mortality in the book. The intertextual would also be an interesting point to bring up in today’s highschool classroom – the way even Shakespeare borrowed from and referenced others.

Despite the fact that there isn’t anything new here, I still devoured it. It is very easy to swallow. Death, love, passion, revenge, madness – Hamlet is a story that has it all, and – for young adults – hopefully this version really will be a springboard to the original. For those already familiar, it is enjoyable as revisitation, to refresh and bring the story forth.

Hamlet and Horatio’s descriptions are particularly sweet:

The two young men stood out. Hamlet for his sheer physical beauty, of course, but those in the castle were used to that. It was more that he and Horatio possessed a certain lightness of being. It would not be too fanciful to say that a glow surrounded them.

Ophelia has a slightly more prominent role than in the original, but I would have liked to have seen her developed further still. She is present more early on but then she drops off. Her madness is very omniscient. It would have been nice to get more insight into her during and after it envelops her.

Marsden does handle a great cast well – each character is distinct and understandable. There are some hints at homoeroticism, plus swearing and sexual references – which are obviously present in Shakespeare’s innuendo – but also display here an intensity of feeling relatable for hormonal adolescents (or for those of us who continue to feel everything so close).

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What I love about Branagh’s Hamlet is that it is so comprehensive. And while Branagh obviously is aware of his own talent, there’s no denying the way he livesHamlet’s words. Seeing the full four-hour version on the massive screen at the Astor is a complete phonetic, aesthetic immersion. I also think Branagh has a good grasp on the tongue-in-cheek. Would not Shakespeare have cameoed Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams? And the casting of Richard Briers as a bumbling Polonius is another moment of genius. For a tragedy, and a deeply moving one, there is so much humour in this play (as in all Shakespeare’s tragedies) and I think Branagh succeeds at pitching the humour to the audience.

There is a lot of flourish – sweeping camera angles, gold and flesh and booming voices. But there are also whispers, close-ups, and many moments when the verbal is soenhanced by celluloid. And while Branagh’s shiny blonde ego is quite present, the secondary characters and actors are cast appropriately. Horatio is achingly sweet, Kate Winslet as Ophelia is believable, and Charlton Heston as the player in any other context I would simply describe as ‘Shakespearean’. What a voice!

Another joy of revisiting the text in full, something only glimpsed in Marsden’s slim realisation, is the reverseintertextuality experienced. Let me explain – pop culture means that many of us learn Shakespeare’s words initially through homage, satire, or just the common vernacular into which they have been cemented. Some in Hamlet include ‘To thine own self be true’, ‘in that sleep of death – what dreams may come’ and in the same speech ‘the undiscovered country’ as a reference to death, and many more. And some lines will never fail to punch you in the gut – ‘That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once’. There is joy in recognising them in their original context and absorbing the full meaning within the scene and the surrounding words.

Admittedly (and remember I’m reasonably young) I have never seen a live production of Hamlet. I have seen the Lawrence Olivier film, but not the Mel Gibson. What about you guys? What was your favourite version/production? What do you think of these two?

3 comments

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3 thoughts on “Two Hamlets

  1. NadiaScores

    I have seen Branagh’s version of Hamlet and absolutely adored it. I think the Mel Gibson version fell a bit flat (but then again that’s my personal opinion). I like you insights as to why Hamlet works at so many levels. Hamlet in fact marked the emergence of a new kind of literature that focused on the struggles and conflicts within a single individual, rather than the external conflicts between individuals. Hamlet was one of the first characters ever to have a developed and mysterious inner life, to which audiences are given access by way of his elaborate speeches (soliloquies). As for the soliloquies, asides, conversations, and thoughts throughout the play, they are the real crux of Hamlet. The play is amazing because it was the first play to really do that. For more on Shakespeare and Hamlet quotes and Shakespeare, you must check out the website Shmoop.

  2. LiteraryMinded

    Jeff – yes! I haven’t seen it for a few years but it is great. And I have had a thing for Tim Roth ever since Reservoir Dogs. Of course, Gary Oldman rocks as well.
    🙂 Stoppard’s play is a great riff on the original.

  3. Jeff Waugh

    It might be hard to top Branagh’s version, at least for our generation, so if I may have the latitude to suggest another perspective that (hopefully few) readers of Hamlet may not have had the pleasure to experience… Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. This extraordinary was particularly well presented in cinematic form in the 1990 film directed by the writer, starring evergreen hotties Gary Oldman and Tim Roth.

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