"Hamlet, Part Eight, The Revenge" or, sampling Shakespeare in a postmodern world.
Article Type:
Critical Essay
Drama (Criticism and interpretation)
Smith, Kay H.
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Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Fall, 2004 Source Volume: 31 Source Issue: 4
NamedWork: Hamlet (Play)

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Full Text:
In The Great Hamlets, an educational video of interviews with famous actors and directors of Hamlet, made in 1985 and released by Films for the Humanities in 1996, the narrator, Trevor Nunn, has the following exchange with Laurence Olivier:

While Olivier claims this filmic allusion is merely a "reasonably helpful sop," Nunn is accurate in recognizing it as a "much debated" assertion. As significant as the assertion itself is the fact that Olivier's most prominent interpretive stance in his film version of Hamlet, one that has provoked debate and speculation for over fifty years, should be taken from another film. This famous tagline has a cinematic provenance acknowledged by Olivier: he is referring directly to an allusion to Hamlet from a popular film, confirming, in the process, the significance of the use of allusions and references, or to use postmodern terms, paratexts, or samplings of Hamlet in feature films. The film that Olivier refers to in his conversation with Nunn is the 1937 action drama, Souls at Sea, directed by Henry Hathaway, starring Gary Cooper and George Raft. In Gary Cooper, American Hero, Jeffrey Meyers notes that in this film Cooper "is unusually talkative, intellectual, and literate. He plays chess, tells the story of the Trojan Horse, refers to the career of Sir Walter Raleigh, reads Hamlet aloud, and quotes from Romantic poetry" (1998, 147). Clearly, it is not just the postmodern sensibility which recognizes the importance of recycling and repositioning high and low culture.

It is, nevertheless, widely acknowledged that one aspect of postmodernism is its tendency to recycle. Whether it is called "paratext," "bricolage," "sampling," or more old-fashioned terms, like "parody," "allusion," and "literary borrowing," the phenomenon has particularly infected movies of the last two decades (Mallin 1999, 128). We have become used to seeing "based on" in the credits of films like Clueless, based on Jane Austen's Emma, or Ten Things I Hate about You, based on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, or O, based on Othello. It should not surprise us, given the film industry's continuing enthusiasm for Shakespeare on film, to find that "sampling," the term I will use to describe this phenomenon, of Shakespeare in film extends far beyond a simple lifting of obvious plot elements. While Olivier's example reminds us that this is not a new occurrence, it should also remind us that Hamlet is a prime source for sampling. Perhaps no other of Shakespeare's plays has been ransacked for lines, scenes, plot devices, or oblique but telling references as often or as completely in films of the last two decades as Hamlet. Examples ran the gamut from Tom Stoppard's witty attempt to turn Hamlet inside out in his 1967 play and 1990 film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas's deliberately witless attempt to turn Hamlet into beer-guzzling farce in their 1983 film, Strange Brew. Hamlet adds high culture archetypal allusions to The Lion King (Allers and Minkoff 1994) and provides a frame for the mass culture thrills of Last Action Hero (McTiernan 1993). It illuminates cultural politics in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer 1991) and sexual politics in Mick Jackson (director) and Steve Martin's (writer) L.A. Story (1991).

In these films, of which Stoppard's is perhaps the fullest example, the text of Hamlet becomes a kind of "raw material" that both has meaning in itself and also derives meaning from its rearticulation within a new form. This essay examines the effect of such borrowings from Hamlet, keeping in mind that Hamlet itself was the first work of art to borrow deliberately from Hamlet. The play within the play of act III draws its power to catch the conscience of the king by reiterating what the ghost has told Hamlet in Act I. The story of Old Hamlet's death is literally rearticulated within a new form in the dumb show and the play-within-the-play of The Murder of Gonzago. Yet not all filmmakers have been as successful as Shakespeare was in using elements of Hamlet to expand the significance of a work. In fact, Hamlet can become a problematic literary icon, which disrupts through the contrasts it establishes.

Samplings of Hamlet range in complexity and significance, but can be easily categorized. First, short quotations from key scenes are often used in a film to illuminate character or theme. These brief snippets usually refer to the best-known moments in Hamlet, as in the "to be or not to be" speech used in Denys Arcand's 1989 film, Jesus of Montreal. Somewhat more extensive use of Hamlet occurs when archetypal plot elements are borrowed, as in The Lion King. Hamlet can be used in more complex thematic ways to underline conflict, as in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, or to resolve conflict, this time romantic rather than martial, as in L.A. Story. Yet paradoxically, the use of Hamlet becomes more problematic the more central Hamlet becomes to a film. When Hamlet is presented as the "first action hero" in order to link his heroic qualities to the story of Last Action Hero, or when the effect of reading and understanding this great story becomes the major task of the film, as in Renaissance Man (Marshall 1994), perhaps too much of a contrast is set up between Hamlet and the vehicle that embodies it. Repositioning Hamlet in this kind of frame tends to show the relative tawdriness of the frame. Surprisingly, this is true even in what must be the most elaborate frame story using Hamlet, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In a reverse of postmodern expectations, sampling from Hamlet can cause the high cultural elements of this acknowledged masterpiece to subvert the low cultural context in which it is placed. Nevertheless, filmmakers have found it tempting to take advantage of the audience's knowledge of Hamlet to advance plot, enhance theme, underline character development. In doing so, they allow us to examine both the benefits and limitations to be found in the range of Shakespearean sampling.

The most basic sampling of Hamlet might be characterized by its combination of brevity and familiarity. This brief illumination of theme or quick characterization often falls to the most recognizable lines or scenes from Hamlet. Hamlet may be used as a kind of shorthand that is easy for the audience to read and interpret. Thus, one of the most common uses of Shakespeare and Hamlet, both in movies and in life, is the kind of one-upmanship that reveals character. In the 1995 comedy, Clueless (Heckerling), for instance, the heroine, Cher, a seemingly airhead Valley Girl, corrects the attribution of one of the most famous lines from Hamlet, "To thine own self be true." Not only do we applaud when the pseudo-intellectual pretensions of her art student rival are countered by a girl who may not know Shakespeare but "know[s] Mel Gibson," but we also cannot help but approve of a heroine who can correct one of the most misattributed lines in all of Shakespeare's canon. Like Emma Woodhouse, her fictional counterpart from Jane Austen's Emma, Cher may often be willful and wrongheaded, but she is basically cleverer and smarter than she might wish to admit, as the smile on the face of the young man who represents Mr. Knightly clearly indicates.

In a more serious context but with a similar strategy, Denys Arcand (1989), director of Jesus of Montreal, uses an extremely well known passage from Hamlet to illuminate theme. In the decidedly secular and high-tech world of Jesus of Montreal, Shakespeare has become one of the few universally recognizable sacred texts. This point is made briefly and succinctly in the film. With its reenactments on several levels of the life of Christ, Jesus of Montreal examines the significance of the sacred in the modern world. In the film one of the actors agrees to appear in the passion play that is central to the plot only if he can quote Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech. By choosing to insert this quotation in the resurrection scene of the passion play, Arcand posits a Jesus who is as unsure as Hamlet of the nature of the here-after. As a subtext, the passage reminds us of the problems of secularization that the film highlights, when Shakespeare resonates more deeply than the Bible on such a solemn occasion.

These brief uses of Hamlet are actually not unlike "totalizing" uses of Hamlet, in which a filmmaker basically says, "Please note how much my film resembles Hamlet." The Lion King is one such well-known film. The appearance of the ghost of Simba's father, who reiterates "Remember ...," like the ghost of Hamlet's father, illuminates the archetypal conflicts between Simba and his evil and usurping uncle, Scar. While it may add depth to the story, causing the audience to associate Simba's plight with Hamlet's struggle, this sprinkling of "Hamlet-dust" over the plot is really designed to help at least a portion of the audience recognize some elements of tragedy and redemption that give this animated Disney feature a claim to having a serious theme. Thus, while the kids enjoy the hyenas, at least some of the parents can enjoy a little nod of recognition of The Lion King's literary underpinnings.

In contrast to the "serious" use of Hamlet in The Lion King, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas use Hamlet to underscore the silliness of their 1983 film, Strange Brew. In Strange Brew, two young Canadian guzzlers set out to get as much free beer as they can and end up embedded, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the story of Hamlet. The beer company they set out to defraud is called Elsinore Brewery, located in a picturesque castle straight out of Olivier's Hamlet. There they discover that the owner of the brewery has recently died and his daughter, Pamela, who should have inherited the business, has been pushed aside by her uncle, Claude. Moreover, Claude has married Pamela's frivolous and careless mother. Our heroes bungle around trying to set things straight in Elsinore. While the totalizing "Hamlet-dust" is all over this film, it is hard to call any of it consequential. Rather it is the contrast between the silliness of the Strange Brew story and the seriousness of Hamlet that provokes the laughter that Moranis and Thomas seek. Both The Lion King and Strange Brew need Hamlet but for exactly the opposite reasons, indicating how flexible and useful these "take-over" samplings--loosely-called "adaptations"--of the Hamlet plot can be.

Transitory uses of Hamlet tend to be pointed and functional. Occasionally, however, films like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and L.A. Story can more successfully combine disparate elements from Hamlet. These films make creative use of prominent themes and language from the play to set up the significant conflicts that they will explore. They are generally more creative and risk-taking in their approach to Hamlet. This is true in the verbal and thematic exploits performed on Shakespeare in the early 1990's contribution to the Star Trek film series, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. With a sub-title from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech and seemingly more quotations from Shakespeare than Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the film, at first glance, overwhelms us with Shakespearean references that it challenges us to sort out. In fact, the title is one of the best uses of Hamlet in the film. In his soliloquy, Hamlet realizes that it is the dread of change and of the unknown, the "undiscovered country" after death that leads us to accept, or at least bear, the many pains and wrongs of our present situations. In Star Trek VI, the "undiscovered country" is not death but the possibility of intergalactic peace. In this Cold War parable, we are encouraged to mourn for the lost stability of the "Great Powers" era as we enter the chaotic period surrounding the decline of the Soviet empire. The crew of the starship Enterprise accepts the discomforts and threats of enmity far better than they deal with the promise of peace.

The "Shakespeare gimmick" in Star Trek VI is that the Klingons claim the Bard as their own cultural property and proceed to quote rings around the bemused officers of the Enterprise. Here at the "end of history," when the Klingons and the Federation are supposedly making peace, ideological opposition takes the form of cultural appropriation. As the Klingons make the "To be or not to be" speech from Hamlet uniquely their own, and as the crew of the Enterprise react with surprised frustration and irritation to their claim that Shakespeare is a Klingon, we in the audience discover that hostilities between these two old enemies have not been abandoned: they have merely shifted ideological ground as cultural politics supplant realpolitik. (1)

It is no surprise to learn that the two major Klingons in the film are played by Shakespearean-trained actors, Christopher Plummer and David Warner. Plummer, in particular, as General Chang, has the presence and potential to be a true Shakespearean villain, like Richard III, magnetic and repulsive simultaneously. When he quotes the "To be or not to be" speech in Klingon and then says to the officers of the Enterprise, "You should read Shakespeare in the original Klingon," he makes a cultural claim that causes us to smile, then to feel a bit uncomfortable as we realize how proprietary we in the "English-speaking world" are about the works of the Bard. But Nicholas Meyer, the director, never really delivers the potential of his villain and Chang becomes a less significant figure. Instead of squaring off Kirk against Chang, Meyer chooses to pursue some Hamlet-like thematic echoes in Kirk's desire for revenge for his son. Detours to a Klingon Siberia further distance us from Chang.

Quickly, Chang becomes a completely flat character, identifiable by his eye patch and his penchant for quoting Shakespeare on all occasions. The audience begins to feel they have hit the "Shakespeare" category on "Jeopardy" as they madly try to link quotations to plays. The quotations from other plays lose the initial impact of those from Hamlet. The game gets tiresome to us even before it gets tiresome to the crew of the Enterprise, who must endure a barrage of quotations from Chang as he tries to blast them out of the sky. In fact, one of the biggest laughs of the film occurs when Bones, desperately trying to save the day, says of Chang's Bardic efforts, "I'd give real money if he'd shut up!"

While Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country may make few demands on us besides the admonition to "Brush up your Shakespeare," this "cultural literacy" approach to Shakespearean allusion does elaborate on the cultural claim made more briefly in films like Jesus of Montreal: Shakespeare is the only author of world reputation who could be used and abused in this way. Everybody in our ever-widening English-speaking world is expected to recognize a little Shakespeare, and Star Trek VI makes it easy by assigning almost all the quotations to one character, so we can all play the game. Yet when Bones tires of the incessant barrage of Shakespeare, he is mimicking the feelings of many in the audience who have endured poor performances, tyrannical teachers, and a whole cultural establishment that insists on defending the cause of Shakespearean hegemony while simultaneously commodifying it.

If Star Trek VI inadvertently makes claims about Shakespearean cultural politics, Steve Martin's 1992 L.A. Story quite deliberately uses Shakespeare to expand cultural politics into sexual politics. One critic has called this film "the most exhaustive compendium of Los Angeles jokes ever assembled" (Johnson 1991, 47). From the traffic signals that say "Uh, like walk" to the Nazi-like maitre d' at the fashionable restaurant, L'Idiot, Martin finds more than enough to satirize about L.A. In fact, he begins the movie with a rather typical Shakespearean satirical barb. While the camera focuses on an outdoor "park" for stationary bikes, Martin quotes in a voiceover from John of Gaunt's speech in Richard II: "This other Eden, demi-paradise / ... This happy breed of men, this little world, this earth, this realm, this ... L.A." As if in counterpoint, a "cyclist" in the background collapses and an ambulance arrives. One more of this "happy-breed' has been laid low by the amenities of L.A. This opening sequence is an indication that Martin is going to use his Shakespearean samplings against the grain, which is of particular significance for Hamlet, which Martin will expertly refocus to fit into the realm of romantic comedy.

In all, L.A. Story contains quotations from Macbeth, As You Like It, and, of course, Richard II, as well as a full-blown parody of the Gravedigger scene from Hamlet. In a film with lots and lots of jokes, some less successful than others, it is easy to see the Shakespeare material as of indeterminate consequence. In his negative New Republic review, Stanley Kaufmann complains that "The rationale behind these Shakespeare spoofs is no more substantial than anything else in the picture" (1991, 29). In complete contrast, in her article in Shakespeare Quarterly, Linda Charnes claims that L.A. Story is "arguably the paradigmatic postmodern Hamlet" (1997, 11). These comments seem to me to be overstatement in both positive and negative directions. The Shakespearean material is more significant than Kaufmann recognizes, yet the Hamlet quotations and parodies seem to serve the romantic comedy rather than turning the romantic comedy into postmodern tragedy, as Charnes claims. It is in the use of Shakespearean tragedy to serve the ends of romantic comedy that Martin makes his most original contribution to sampling Shakespeare in this film.

As a comic satirist in L.A. Story, Martin has two particular problems: first an almost ridiculously easy target; second, an insider's viewpoint. As Kaufmann says, "Satire about L.A. is like ice in Antarctica--it goes with the territory" (1991, 28). Martin, a native of Los Angeles, makes his character, Harris K. Telemacher, a participant, sometimes reluctantly but often willingly, in the dizzy goofiness of the place. It is Harris, after all, who orders "a half double decaffeinated half-caf with a twist of lemon" in the wonderful scene spoofing L.A. lunches. In Annie Hall, which is, as Pauline Kael notes, "a film L.A. Story turns inside out," Woody Allen takes an outsider's, a New Yorker's, perspective on L.A. in order to produce his biting satire (1991, 74). Of course, satire is most effective if it presents a stated or implied norm against which its subject can be judged. But Harris is too much a part of the place to provide that norm. In L.A. Story, Martin solves the problems of both place and perspective by creating the Annie Hall-like Sarah, a visiting British journalist with whom Harris falls in love. Sarah is not only the outsider Martin needs to give his story perspective, she is decisively English, and her nationality, with the values and culture it implies, sets up a much-needed contrast to L.A. The Shakespearean quotations in the film move from being primarily satirical in intent to being romantic as they are more and more associated with Sarah. Most of the Shakespearean quotations are not unmotivated and unsubstantial, as Kaufman would claim; rather they re-enforce the romantic plot, just as "Pyramis and Thisbe" in its own antic tragi-comic way re-enforces the romantic plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In fact, by the end of the movie, we are pretty sure that we are "in a wood near Athens," as the plot twists bring the right couples together, and the interaction of the human and magical worlds clearly evokes Shakespearean romantic comedy.

It is thus ironic that the most extensive use of Shakespeare in L.A. Story is the fully developed parody of the gravedigger's scene from Act V of Hamlet. Do the morbidity and the trenchant wit of this scene tinge the film that uses it with postmodern tragic overtones or can it be made to advance the romantic plot of L.A. Story? I believe that Martin succeeds in incorporating this tragic material into romantic comedy. First, of course, Martin cannot resist the urge to hang a few L.A. jokes on this scene from Hamlet, starting with Harris's claim that Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet, Part Eight, The Revenge" in L.A. But Martin quickly moves the parody along. When Harris picks up the skull of the Great Blunderman, and acknowledges his debt as a comedian. Sarah, the observer, begins to recognize and quote the source material from Hamlet." She's got it," says the Gravedigger, played by Rick Moranis, making his second and more significant appearance in a Hamlet parody. The fact that Sarah knows Hamlet, and in particular can quote the lines associated with a comedian who could "set the table on a roar" seems to be just the right romantic formula for Harris, and it is from this point that their romance really begins. Thus, this funny but ultimately bleak scene from Hamlet is repositioned to work in the context of romantic comedy in L.A. Story. Confirmation of this repositioning occurs near the end of the film, when Sarah resolves the word scramble "HOW DADDY IS DOING" (surely a Hamlet reference) into "SING DOO WAH DIDDY." Harris has initially been given this word-scrambled clue to the meaning of life by the "talking" freeway signpost which serves as his unusual spiritual guide throughout the movie ("gimme a sign!"). He confronts the signpost, asking: "Sing Doo Wah Diddy? That's the mystery of the ages?" The signpost replies, "THERE ARE MORE THINGS N HEAVEN AND EARTH, HARRIS, THAN ARE DREAMT OF IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY." Indeed, there are more uses for Hamlet in romantic comedy than one might have expected. In this blending of genres, L.A Story may not quite be the "paradigmatic postmodern Hamlet" but it is decidedly postmodern nevertheless.

Both Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and L.A. Story bend various aspects of Hamlet to their uses in illuminating cultural and romantic conflict. Films that tend to reposition Hamlet in this way, as we see, gain resonance from this material. However, films which "swallow" chunks of Hamlet whole sometimes have trouble digesting them. This is particularly true of films that allow key elements of the Hamlet story to dominate them. These films are characterized by the way in which they actually "show" scenes from Hamlet imbedded within the film. While they are paradoxically the most direct examples of sampling, they are also the ones most likely to be disruptive to the film. This is true of Renaissance Man and Last Action Hero, and, surprisingly, of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead as well. Each of these films actually presents parts of Hamlet, either through performance and pedagogy, as in Renaissance Man, preview-trailers, as in Last Action Hero, or through the clever shift in perspective that allows us to see Hamlet from the point of view of minor characters in Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead.

The 1994 comedy, Renaissance Man, tries to show us why Hamlet can still have relevance to today's youth, but, in doing so causes us to question why we would want to bother with a comedy as shallow as Renaissance Man when we have Hamlet. The premise of this film is that Army trainees who have failed in almost every way will find success through studying Hamlet. In Renaissance Man, a hapless advertising executive, played by Danny DeVito, who loses his job, finds another and far tougher job re-mediating Army recruits who have failed to make the grade in the classroom or in the field. This is the archetypal Lynn Cheney era National Endowment for the Humanities story, in which students who were turned off by an educational system which catered too much to popular tastes find redemption and intellectual respectability by reading the classics, in this case Hamlet. Their teacher, in the best Mr. Chips/Dead Poets Society tradition, finds that, while they can barely keep an interest in Archie comics, the students are immediately intrigued and engaged by one of the most demanding of Shakespeare's plays. DeVito's character, like his students, seems a natural in the classroom, organizing flawlessly paced discussions and effectively using a performance-based pedagogy. Indeed, some of the best moments in the film come when the recruits study and perform Hamlet. While it is alluring for professional Shakespeareans to believe that classroom contact with Hamlet can have this redemptive power, it has to be somewhat disconcerting to see this argument being made in such a weak film overall. While the classroom sequences may seem to represent every teacher's dream, the rest of the film is often far weaker and less entertaining. The competitive relationship that develops between the teacher and the drill sergeant, played by Gregory Hines, falls flat; their small passions look even smaller in comparison to the passions the students are glimpsing in the world of Hamlet. Yet the director, Penny Marshall, seems to have realized that no matter how inspirational the classroom scenes might be, the audience might not willingly sit through two hours of what amounts to instruction. When she attempts to open the movie out with scenes of the teacher on the training tower, the movie degenerates into slapstick. When she attempts to create pathos with stories of the individual students, we merely see stereotypes being confirmed. Indeed, we must ask ourselves how this deeply conservative film can have the audacity to argue that a late encounter with Hamlet can correct endemic social problems like racial and regional conflict, family violence, and years of under-funded schools and neglected students. In the end, it turns out that these military students are studying the wrong play anyway: they may like Hamlet, but when they witness a performance of Henry V, every Army recruiter's dream play, they respond to it with an enthusiastic victory on the training field. It is the patriotic Henry, not the melancholy Dane, who must become their model.

1993's Last Action Hero also uses Hamlet in a classroom setting, only to discover problems similar to those that plague Renaissance Man. The intriguing premise of this film is that movie action heroes who magically step off the screen and into the real world find themselves ill suited for everyday life. The story focuses on a pre-adolescent boy who worships his screen hero, Jack Slater, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The boy acquires a magic ticket that allows him to penetrate the illusional world of the film. Ultimately, through some mishap, the boy and his hero must return to the real world to capture a villain who has escaped from the film and is creating real-life mayhem. In this film, the framing effect of Hamlet is very significant to the theme. The scene from Hamlet occurs early in the film, when the boy, trapped in a boring classroom, is forced to watch Hamlet by his well-meaning teacher, played by Joan Plowright. For the knowledgeable viewer, Plowright's presence plays with illusion and reality since she is the real-life widow of Lawrence Olivier. Those highbrow Shakespeare buffs in the audience who recognize her might consider this inside joke to be on them since they have clearly chosen to see a film that prefers Schwarzenegger to Olivier. Naturally, Plowright screens for her charges Olivier's film version of Hamlet. In her role as teacher, Plowright attributes to Hamlet those characteristics that would most likely appeal to her inattentive class of ten-year-olds. Emphasizing the many poisonings, duels, and deaths in the play, she refers to Hamlet as "the first action hero."

In this film about film reality, it is significant that Hamlet is presented in one of its most well-known film adaptations, the Olivier Hamlet, in which the theme of Hamlet's hesitation, rather than his decisive action, is underscored by the famous initial voice-over that reminds us that "this is a story of a man who could not make up his mind." When we recall that this tagline itself comes from a film, we can see the way in which a film reference to Hamlet can come full circle. What influenced Olivier's Hamlet to emphasize doubt and delay, here influences Last Action Hero to posit its exact opposite, a Hamlet who is precipitous in his decisive actions. The scene that the boys watch is perhaps the locus classicus of Hamlet's hesitation, in which Hamlet passes up his chance to kill Claudius while at prayer because he desires eternal damnation, as well as death, for Claudius. While many readers and viewers of Hamlet have been horrified at Hamlet's motivation in this scene, others have shared the boy's frustration as Hamlet fails to act decisively. At this point, the boy substitutes in his imagination the kind of hero he would like Hamlet to be, and Arnold Schwarzenegger replaces Olivier on the screen. The clip moves out of the boy's imagination and becomes a kind of preview of what a Schwarzenegger Hamlet would be like, complete with the characteristic enthusiastic voice-over of action previews. In a very expensive movie with elaborate special effects, it is not surprising that this is all very well done. The archetypal turreted castle, high on the cliffs above the sea, blows up with satisfying billows of flame as Schwarzenegger says "To be or not to be ... not to be," while lighting the fuse to the bomb with his cigar. In his very interesting analysis of Hamlet in the John Ford Western, My Darling Clementine, Scott Simmons calls our attention to a similar scene in that film:

In a similar way, Last Action Hero, for all its cleverness about illusion and reality, legitimizes Hamlet's scruples because the thoughtless heroics of Schwarzenegger's Jack Slater ultimately fail to engage the audience. Neither those who prefer a more Hamlet-like hero nor those who prefer a typical action hero are completely satisfied by this film. Eric S. Mallin notes that "what [Schwarzenegger] seems to want in his movie is a fiction of masculine sensitivity swathed in the potential for infinite and meaningless violence" (1999, 129). As Todd McCarthy says in his Variety review of Last Action Hero, there is a "total imbalance between the money and effort lavished on every scene and the utter lack of emotion or human interest to latch on to" (1993, 22). Despite the potentialities of the Hamlet theme that Mallin notes, it is difficult not to see the film as diminishing Hamlet while not enhancing itself. Hamlet is neither the "first action hero" nor, in fact, much of an action hero at all, a fact which he regrets in every soliloquy and with which all film adaptations, even film samplings, of Hamlet have to struggle.

Both Renaissance Man and Last Action Hero try to make an argument for an active, dynamic and multi-faceted Hamlet, able to engage even the most difficult and jaded students; many scholars and teachers know that this argument is largely correct. Why, then, are both of these movies unable to use Hamlet in ways that strengthen, rather than undermine the films? I think it is because in both cases the contrasting complexities of Hamlet, rather than adding depth to the films, highlight problems of plot, action, and characterization. Hamlet can be dangerous material for the filmmaker.

In Tom Stoppard's sixties play and 1990 movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hamlet does indeed prove to be dangerous material, particularly for the eponymous heroes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Paul Delaney has called those "spear carriers from the wings of Shakespeare's imagination" (1990, 14), meet their preordained fate, death, as they struggle to understand what is going on around them. Indebted stylistically to Beckett and the theater of the absurd, Stoppard's play changes the perspective of Hamlet to follow the two hapless anti-heroes to their death (Cantor 1989, 95). The film, which was made twenty-five years after the debut of the play, was Stoppard's first time as a film director. In examining the changes that Stoppard made as he transferred the play to the screen, one notices first that Stoppard's addition of scenes from Hamlet has increased dramatically--by over fifty percent--from stage to screen. In contrast to his film, Stoppard's play limits rather carefully the material that is directly imported from Hamlet, in order to suit the need for focus and compactness on the stage. In fact, Stoppard describes the stage setting as "a place without any visible character" (1967, 11). This barrenness on stage has to be opened out for the film, as Stoppard has acknowledged: "In the play by its very nature, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are standing and sitting around in one spot and the action moves past them. The whole thing in the film is that they are trying to chase the action" (qtd. Seidenberg 1991, 49).

In trying to chase the action, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bump into Hamlet and the rest of the troubled and troubling gang from Elsinore much more frequently in the film than in the play. Surprisingly, the result is to weaken the film in contrast to the play. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has a fundamentally different attachment to Hamlet than, say, Renaissance Man, it nevertheless rearticulates some of the problem that film had in sampling Hamlet. There is just so much more of Hamlet in the film, at least doubling the number of Hamlet scenes from the play. Many times these scenes are cleverly joined to the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern story as in the scene in which Hamlet and Ophelia act out the "sewing scene" at the beginning of act II. As in Olivier's Hamlet, Stoppard makes the choice to show what is a narrated action in the play, but he links this action to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a sight gag of curtains falling and hiding them while the scene goes on around them. Later Stoppard will use a similar linkage, with Hamlet and Ophelia, in high temper at the end of the "nunnery speech," bursting through the stage curtains while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the Tragedians rehearse the dumb show. The dumb show itself is repeated over and over again, in many different forms and in ways that are hauntingly predictive of the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; yet this repetition also keeps the outline of the Hamlet story constantly in the audience's mind.

Clearly, opening out the play in this way facilitates the transfer from stage to film: the film has more of a sense of the action of Hamlet swirling around, ever present at the edges of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's perception. Yet, just as the power and quality of the Hamlet story can undermine lesser efforts, it tends to do so here as well. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's fate is determined by the larger play, Hamlet. If too much of the larger play is "on screen" it threatens to overwhelm the two characters, moving them from their odd centrality, and once again literally diminishing their roles and our interest in them. In fact, the glimpses we catch of Hamlet in the film make us want more: even in these brief interludes, we sense a fuller and more turbulent inner life than we ever see from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Visually Stoppard had no choice but to open out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the screen. The additions from Hamlet, the inventions that Rosencrantz nearly achieves, the slapstick sequences, the additional spectacle of the Tragedians' expanded dumb show which retells the Hamlet story, while they bemuse our bungling heroes, make the film work as a film. Yet the reviews of Stoppard's film were largely negative. Most critics cite the conventionality of his directorial style, with Terrence Rafferty noting in the New Yorker that Stoppard "isn't familiar enough with cinematic style to toy with it in the cheeky, abandoned way he toys with theatrical style" (1991, 89).

Looking back on other films which have made use of Hamlet in ways that slip out of directorial control, I would argue that Stoppard "samples" too much of Hamlet in his film. Like Renaissance Man and Last Action Hero, Stoppard's film uses hamlet to frame a story that is finally less significant and engaging than Hamlet's story. While Hamlet remains a cultural icon that tempts screenwriters and directors to incorporate it, while it can be used cleverly, while it can be sophisticated and comedic as well as tragic, bringing high culture into fruitful contact with low as in Star Trek VI or L.A. Story, Hamlet can also be problematic. The dynamic qualities that have caused it to be acknowledged as a great literary work, even in diminished, sampled forms, can bring much trouble to a film. The collapse of high culture into low culture is another widely recognized characteristic of post-modernism. With Hamlet in films such as Renaissance Man, Last Action Hero and even Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, we see that high culture can and does remain subversive of low culture. One samples Hamlet at some risk.


(1) See Dionne (2002). My comments on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country are based on a paper I gave at Florida State University's Literature and Film conference in 1992. Dionne's essay largely agrees with and expands my analysis.

Works Cited

Allers, Roger, and Rob Minkoff, 1994. The Lion King. Buena Vista Pictures. Film.

Arcand, Denys. 1989. Jesus of Montreal. Centre National de la Cinematographie. Film.

Cantor, Paul. 1989. Shakespeare, Hamlet: Landmarks of World Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Charnes, Linda. 1997. "Dismember Me: Shakespeare, Paranoia, and the Logic of Mass Culture." Shakespeare Quarterly 48.1-16.

Corrigan, Timothy. 2002. "Which Shakespeare to Love? Film, Fidelity, and the Performance of Literature." In High-Pop; Making Culture into Popular Entertainment, ed. Jim Collins. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Delaney, Paul. 1990. Tom Stoppard: The Moral Vision of the Major Plays. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Dionne, Craig. "The Shatnerfication of Shakespeare: Star Trek and the Commonplace Tradition" In Shakespeare after Mass Media, ed. Richard Burt. New York: Palgrave.

The Great Hamlets, 1996. Vol. 2. New York: Films for the Humanities. Videocassette.

Heckerling, Amy. 1995. Clueless. Paramount Pictures. Film

Jackson, Mick. 1991. L.A. Story. Tristar Pictures. Film

Johnson, Brian. 1991. Review of L.A. Story. Maclean, 11 February, 47.

Kael, Pauline. 1991. Review of L.A. Story. New Yorker, 11 February, 74.

Kaufmann, Stanley. 1991. Review of L.A. Story. New Republic, 11 March, 28-29.

Mallin, Eric S. 1999. "'You Kilt My Foddah': Or Arnold, Prince of Denmark." Shakespeare Quarterly 50, 127-51.

Marshall, Penny. 1994. Renaissance Man. Touchstone Pictures. Film.

McCarthy, Todd. 1993. Review of Last Action Hero, Variety, 28 June, 22.

McTiernan, John. 1993. Last Action Hero. Columbia Pictures. Film.

Meyer, Nicholas. 1991. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Paramount Pictures. Film.

Meyers, Jeffrey. 1998. Gary Cooper, American Hero. New York: Morrow.

Rafferty, Terence. 1991. Review of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New Yorker, 25 February, 89-90.

Seidenberg, Robert. 1991. "Stoppard Adapts Stoppard." American Film (February): 48-49.

Simmons, Scott. 1996. "Concerning the Weary Legs of Wyatt Earp: The Classic Western According to Shakespeare." Literature Film Quarterly 24.2:114-28.

Stoppard, Tom. 1967. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Press.

Kay H. Smith is a professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University. Her most recent publication is "Will! Or, Shakespeare in Hollywood: Anthony Burgess's Cinematic Presentation of Shakespearean Biography" in Remaking Shakespeare: Performances Across Media, Genres and Cultures (2003).
Nunn: The subtitle Laurence Olivier gave to his film [Hamlet] was
    much debated when the film was released. What had led [you] to
    calling it "The story of a man who could not make up his mind"?

    Olivier: I'd heard it in a film with Gary Cooper, about--I think it
    was sort of an 18th-century period film, on a ship, and Gary Cooper
    was reading Hamlet, and someone said to him, "What are you reading?"

    --He said, "Well, it's a play, called Hamlet."

    --"What's it about?"

    --"It's about a man who can't make up his mind."

    And I felt that has a succinctness that ought to be useful. It was
    too simple for my critics. They thought that was an outrageously
    simple explanation. But I needed something for my--as you say, talk
    about the millions who've never dreamt of seeing Hamlet; they're
    going to now--I needed every reasonably helpful sop I could to that
    fact. (Great Hamlets, 1996, vol. 2)

The Hamlet-soliloquy scene in Clementine ... ends with [Ike]
    Clanton's advice to his boys, brought home with his whip: "When
    you pull a gun, kill a man." In the context of Hamlet's scrupulous
    worry over action and mortality, the line earns an audience laugh
    every time: it cuts through Hamlet's Gordian Knot. But, of course,
    in having such an evil figure do so, it legitimizes Hamlet's
    scruples. (Simmons 1996, 122)
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