Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
Two Hamlets of the 21st Century
In any given season, you’re bound to find at least one and probably several productions of Hamlet. Just this summer, New York has hosted a contemporary British production of Shakespeare’s drama directed by Robert Icke, which runs in rep (and places the play in dialogue with) the Oresteia, as well as a new operatic version adapted by Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn, and the Stratford Festival chose the play to open its first full season since the start of the pandemic.
Because it has been performed and studied so thoroughly, contemporary productions of Hamlet, even more than those of other Shakespeare plays, often feel challenged to find a novel “take.” But the most inventive retooling may obscure but not avoid the essential oddity of the text, which transforms a canny medieval trickster fixed on vengeance into a quintessentially modern hero too fully aware of the absurdity of his own quest to complete it.
For those determined to escape the mousetrap, the only thing to do is follow Shakespeare’s example and rewrite the play entirely. And so two prominent auteurs have recently done, in quite opposite ways. Robert Eggers’s film The Northman reaches back to Shakespeare’s own sources, offering us a cinematic version of the Amleth legend touted for its authenticity to its Dark Age pagan origins. James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fat Ham, takes the opposite tack, turning Hamlet into a contemporary figure as apparently different from the prince as could be imagined, but acutely aware of his Danish antetype and equally determined not to follow the script he has been handed.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is ultimately based on a legendary Danish prince, Amleth, whose story is recounted in Saxo Grammaticus’s medieval history. Amleth, as depicted therein, is a trickster figure, like the biblical Jacob or Homer’s Odysseus, who must live by his wits until the opportunity for vengeance arrives. When Amleth dons the mask of madness, it is more like Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom than like Hamlet’s antic disposition: Amleth covers himself in filth and bellows nonsense in an effort to appear a tolerably harmless lunatic. The cat-and-mouse games in the medieval story are efforts by Amleth’s uncle, Feng, to discern whether this apparent madness is true or feigned, and Amleth’s cleverness is revealed in his successful thwarting of these plots, sustaining his disguise while never outright lying. Much of this is turned inside out in Shakespeare, who changed a straightforward revenge tragedy into a psychological puzzle that has fascinated readers and audiences for centuries.
When I heard that Eggers was making a film from the original Amleth, I assumed that he was interested in that clever trickster. I was hoping, in fact, for a big-budget version of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s ’80s-era medieval Icelandic adventure film, Hrafninn flygur (“When the Raven Flies”), in which Gest, the young son of an Irishman slain by marauding Vikings, grows up to seek vengeance and to recover his kidnapped sister. Gest doesn’t feign madness, but he does operate in disguise as he cleverly sows suspicion between his enemies until one has destroyed the other, leaving the survivor sufficiently weakened for him to topple. It’s a wonderful film and very much in keeping with the spirit of the sagas.
Eggers, though, isn’t interested in wit, or in games of cat-and-mouse. He’s interested in violence, in sensuality, and in the idea of the strange. But what seems to interest him most of all is what both Saxo Grammaticus would have taken for granted and Shakespeare preferred to complicate: the transcendent bond of blood between father and son.
The Northman begins with young Amleth (Oscar Novak) watching the sea for the return of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), from a Viking raid. When he returns, his formal coolness toward his Queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) stands in marked contrast to his warmth toward his son, while his fool, Heimir (Willem Dafoe) moots the theme of incestuous desire between her and the King’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Shortly after, the King takes his son to a lodge for a ceremony to welcome him to manhood, overseen by Heimir (who is a pagan priest as well as a fool). The ceremony involves pretending to be wolves, lapping drugged liquid from bowls, swearing vengeance if his father is slain, and touching his father’s open wounds, which prompts young Amleth to have a mystic vision of a tree rising from a bloody heart, on which all his royal ancestors hang and where he, Amleth, hangs on the highest arterial branch.
No sooner has Amleth been inducted into manhood and future kingship than King Aurvandil is ambushed by Fjölnir, who beheads his brother before the young prince’s eyes. The boy improbably escapes, watching his mother being carried off to ravishment as he does, and rows off into the sea vowing to fulfill his oath of vengeance.
The rest of the film recounts that vengeance, which is delayed until the time is ripe. The full-grown Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has become a warrior battling in medieval Rus; the pagan ceremonies that drive him and his fellow berserkers into their trademark rage are recreated with affectionate loopiness, and the taking of a Slavic town is depicted with unsparing brutality. Discovering that some of those captured are to be sold to his uncle in Iceland (where Fjölnir has fled after his stolen kingdom is wrested from him in turn), Amleth disguises himself as a slave, acquires a magic sword, allies with an enslaved Russian beauty, Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), and insinuates himself into Fjölnir’s household.
It’s all extremely overt, so portentous in its solemnity that I wondered how I was to take it. Eggers wants his audience to believe, as the Vikings did, that blood royalty is real, that Valhalla is real, that fate is woven by the Norns in a pattern not even they can alter. I don’t doubt that they were real to the Vikings, and I see real value in asking the audience to enter into that mental world. But an assumed belief does not need to be pressed with quite such insistence. The fish does not harp on the wetness of the sea; if it does, we might think it doth protest too much. Moreover, some of what Eggers asks his audience to accept as belief felt to me not so much alien as ridiculous.
Consider the film’s conception of unalterable fate. While in Rus, Amleth has a vision of one of the Norns (played by the singer Björk) and from then on understands himself to be moving under their inexorable decree. The usual way fate works the art of cultures that believe in it is as an unseen mover in the background: Oedipus’s parents may try to escape doom by crippling and exposing their son, but this merely provides the mechanism for that very doom to strike. In Eggers’s film, though, fate is extremely literal in its dictates. If a fabled sword will only work at night, that means that literally it cannot be drawn from its scabbard during the day. If a battle is meant to happen on the lip of a volcano, then that fate alone is enough to drive the characters to the edge of the lava—no plausible plot reason is needed. This is fate not as hidden hand but as the arbitrary rules of a video game, and it makes the Norns into lousy screenwriters.
Eggers neuters Amleth’s cleverness for related reasons. This is the character’s chief attribute as handed down from Saxo to Shakespeare, yet Eggers’s version manifests little intelligence or craft, only determination. When Olga proposes an alliance, it is explicitly to be the brains to his brawn (though she, too, contributes little to the plot). But this world as a whole is devoid of clever plotting; Amleth is able to position himself for vengeance not because he is especially clever but because his opponents are at least as credulous as he is. Fjölnir never questions how Amleth escaped as a child, nor why the adult Amleth, a slave, might want to join his household. Unlike the treacherous brother of Saxo’s legend, he takes everything at face value, just as his brother did and his nephew does. This is contrary not only to the spirit of the Amleth legend but that of the sagas more generally.
This connection between this credulousness and the masculinist myth-making becomes clearer when considering the film’s women. Unlike both Saxo’s Gurutha and Shakespeare’s Gertrude, Eggers’s Gudrún confesses herself the author of her husband’s murder, which she put Fjölner up to because the King’s was neglecting her own needs. She throws this revelation into Amleth’s uncomprehending face, then pivots to promising to be his queen and partner in greatness if he dares to kill Fjölnir and marry his own mother. This is less like Oedipus and more like The Grifters.
Olga, meanwhile, provides Amleth’s only opportunity to escape from his fate, and when he talks to her of love it is as if it were a completely unexpected phenomenon, pointing at a hitherto unknown world. It’s a moment of romantic cliché drawn less from the sagas than from a teen romance. Yet all it takes is one final vision of the sanguinary tree for Amleth to reject this opportunity and fulfill his fate in blood and fire. I don’t know if Eggers intended this ending to be romantic or tragic, but without an adequate emotional investment in Amleth’s fate it comes off as pathetic.
Entering fully into the consciousness of eras past is Eggers’s thing. But from his first film, The Witch, to his second, The Lighthouse (which I discussed in an earlier issue of this magazine), he seemed more and more to struggle to emotionally enter the worlds he so lovingly creates. The Northman goes further down that same road, trying to fake an authenticity that is meticulously researched but not felt.
The Northman is beautiful to look at. The production and costume design (by Craig Lathrop and Linda Muir respectively) are astounding, and the cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) is sweeping. The story Eggers tells, though, feels worn rather than fresh, because it is haunted not by the Vikings but by an aging modernism with its Oedipal discomfitures and its longing for death. Strindberg and Wagner, though, were unquestionably committed to their bits. I’m not sure Eggers is. I wonder whether overconfidence has led to condescension, or whether, on the contrary, he feared what he would be embracing, and who would embrace him, if he really went all-in on these heavy-metal visions of howling wolf-men.
Fat Ham takes its title from an obscure and usually cut line from the play’s final scene, the duel. After Hamlet has scored the first “palpable hit,” he refuses the King’s offer of a draught of wine (which the King has poisoned). He then scores again and his mother says:
He’s fat and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows —
The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet. (Hamlet Q2 lines 269-271)
After this, the Queen ignores the King’s caution not to and drinks the poisoned cup.
Some scholars argue that Gertrude’s use of the word “fat” has important thematic meaning, fatness being linked repeatedly in Hamlet to intimations of mortality (as in the fatted calf prepared for slaughter). But the line is nearly always cut because, well, Hamlet may be played by a man or woman of any ethnic background, but they are nearly always thin.
Ijames, though, takes the line and runs with it, making it a central fact about his very contemporary Hamlet, Juicy. Juicy (Marcel Spears) is plump, black, Southern, gay, possibly asexual (he’s attracted to men but not sure he’s interested in physical intimacy with anyone), depressed, recently orphaned (his father was shivved in prison). He’s also about to celebrate his mother’s wedding to his uncle, Rev, at a backyard barbecue, when the ghost of his father, Pap, appears and tells him that same uncle paid to have him killed, and charges Juicy with taking comically graphic revenge. (He’s ordered not only to kill Rev, but to butcher him like a hog and eat him, which prompts Juicy to ask the ghost if it means this metaphorically. It does not.)
Juicy seems to know from the first that this is a scenario from a very familiar play, and that awareness of himself as being handed an unappealing role is what links him most closely with Shakespeare’s tragic hero. Juicy isn’t overawed by the ghost, which he receives as an unwelcome return of an unloving and unloved progenitor. What he does know is that he doesn’t much like his replacement. (Both Rev and Pap are played by Billy Eugene Jones.) While Shakespeare’s Claudius makes notable gestures to win Hamlet over (though these may perfectly well be disingenuous), Rev is more interested in asserting his authority as obnoxiously and aggressively as possible. Whether this antipathy or some vestige of genuine feeling for his father is his real motive for considering following the ghost’s command is something Juicy—like Shakespeare’s Hamlet—is self-aware enough to ponder.
The rest of the cast slots neatly into the core cast of Hamlet, but unlike in Shakespeare’s play, where only the hero finds the time out of joint, all of them are ultimately poorly fitted for their task, which may be why Fat Ham is a comedy—and a very funny one—rather than a tragedy (though Hamlet can be very funny indeed). The Horatio character, Tio (played by understudy Marquis D. Gibson in the performance I saw) is not a stoic antique Roman but an epicurean stoner lusting after Juicy’s mother. Ophelia is Opal (Adrianna Mitchell), who is convinced Juicy is carrying a torch for her but who likes girls herself, and who chafes in the dress her boisterous church lady mother, Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas), the Polonius figure, makes her wear. Larry, meanwhile (Calvin Leon Smith), the Laertes figure, who Rabby has pressured into joining the army, is the one carrying a torch—for Juicy, whom he idolizes for being soft where he has been forced by social and familial expectations to be hard.
And then there’s Tedra (Nikki Crawford), the Gertrude figure, Juicy’s proudly and loudly sexual mother who steals every scene she is in, and who explains her hasty remarriage quite simply: “I wasn’t built to be alone.” It’s impossible to imagine Juicy remonstrating with his mother the way Hamlet does, but he’s quite obviously as flummoxed by her behavior as Shakespeare’s hero is. Fat Ham is a play that clearly believes in talking problems out rather than letting them fester into tragedy, but if there’s a problem it can’t quite figure out how to talk about it’s how to relate, as a child, to a parent who occupies so much space there’s little left for you, however fat you may be.
For the rest, the answers are relatively easy: don’t play the role you are assigned, speak the truth about who you are, and reject the imposition of oppressive authority, whether from a dead father or a live uncle. The weakest moment in the play, for me, was when that authority defeats itself: Rev, having been accused by Juicy in a game of charades of having Pap killed and having stormed off stage in response, comes back declaring that even if he did it—which he protests he did not—there’s nothing anybody can do about it. And then he chokes to death on some of his trademark barbecue. There’s a moment where this appears to be a moral test for Juicy—will he save him or not?—but he quickly decides to help, and it is Rev who refuses assistance, preferring to go down cussing.
I thought this was an unconscionable dodge: Ijames has set up the patriarch as the villain, but he can’t have Juicy kill Rev without turning him into the revenger he is determined to avoid being. He can’t imagine a plausible way to “turn” him from his villainy either, though, so he conveniently and improbably gives Rev the kind of doubtful death that did Ophelia in.
But in another sense the dodge is precisely the point of this Pirandello-esque play, whose strongest resistance is not to patriarchy but to the demands of drama itself. Not only Juicy, but occasionally Tio, Tedra, and the other characters are aware that they are putting on a play before an audience; whenever Juicy has finished a soliloquy, the next character to come onstage will point to the audience and demand, “what did you tell them?” The end of the play draws a thick line to underscore its metatheatrical intent. After Rev dies, Juicy proposes that they complete the tragedy by killing each other, an obviously silly idea that doesn’t go very far before the group decides to drop the whole thing, wake the obviously-not-really-dead Rev (“we’re not doing that” Juicy says) and start cleaning up from the barbecue. The strong suggestion is that the play has been less a meditation on how to avoid becoming a revenger and more a meditation on whether there’s any point to putting on a revenge tragedy—and, by extension, whether there’s any point to putting on a play.
Two final moments gesture at Ijames’s answer. One is Tedra’s parting words to the audience. Given the opportunity to soliloquize, she demurs, saying that her thoughts and feelings are “too personal.” The second is when the group realize that they had forgotten Larry (who had stormed off violently after Juicy outed him to his mother), and suddenly the entire set flies away to reveal his transformation from an uptight soldier into a sparkling and phenomenally limber disco dancer, whose performance ends the show. Ijames is saying something about Tedra’s motives in living quite so loud as much as he is about Larry’s in living quite so quiet, and together they suggest that performance is properly about giving of yourself to the audience, not about drawing the audience’s attention to you.
I happen to agree with that, but I don’t think it obviates the need for tragedy. Like a great many contemporary writers, Ijames seems to worry that the arrow of mimesis is likely as not to go the wrong direction, that tragedy, rather than achieving catharsis, purging us of certain emotions by allowing us to experience them, instead teaches us to seek those emotions out by copying the behavior we observe onstage. This stance, though, amounts to a confession of diminished expectations of the audience. Notwithstanding Fat Ham’s resplendent wit, obvious intelligence, and generous spirit, I felt that diminution as a subtle kind of withholding.
Hamlet marked a breakthrough for Shakespeare in the representation of tragedy, the beginning of a new phase in his career after triumphs in history and comedy. I look forward to the day when Ijames attempts a similar turn. I suspect it’ll be quite a show.
Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age.
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