Shakespeare’s Hamlet – The Dysfunctional Family



Well, this year the Bell Shakespeare Company decided to put on a performance of Hamlet, quite possibly because it is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. This sort of baffles me though because Hamlet happens to be one of those plays that school kids have to put up with studying, and we all know the story about books that we are forced to study in school – they are hated.
Hamlet - Front CoverI still remember the teacher telling us that the next book that we were going to read had everything – ghosts, murder, a high body count, and a sword fight. Upon hearing this all of our ears pricked up with anticipation right up until the point we saw the copies of Hamlet sitting on his desk to which the class responded with a collective sigh. I also remember reading this book in class, line by line, and our teacher arduously pondering over every sentence. In fact everytime I hear Polonius say ‘never a borrower or lender be’ I think back to those days in High School when our teacher would tells us how in this scene Polonius was giving his son Laertes advice on how to survive in the real world.
Honestly, I don’t mind Hamlet all that much, but it certainly isn’t my favourite Shakesperian play. For instance there is one where we have an illegitimate child playing the nobility off against each other, seducing the two most powerful women in the kingdom, framing his own brother for treason, and finishing off the play as the defacto king. Okay, it may not have a ghost, but for political intrigue you simply cannot go past King Lear.
The Bell Shakespeare Production
Bell Shakespeare PosterI’m not sure if I’ve seen Bell Shakespeare do Hamlet before, though I do vaguely remember seeing it once on stage in Adelaide. The thing about Hamlet is that it is a very well known, and really popular, play so for a theatre buff like me it would be surprising if I hadn’t seen it performed (even in a place like Adelaide which doesn’t seem to get as many productions as some of the other cities – and for some reason Bell Shakespeare never seems to stop off there on their tours around Australia). What was even more fortuitous about the production that I saw was that it was performed when I was studying the play in year twelve.

I can’t say that I was all that impressed with this version of Hamlet. It wasn’t that it was bad, and maybe it has something to do with seeing way too much of Hamlet in my time (especially since there have been multiple movies made of the play), but I ended up finding that this version was a bit painful to watch. Possibly it also has something to do with the Hamlet in this play being an incredibly violent person, particularly where he viciously attacked Ophelia in the ‘get thee to the nunnery’ scene. However, this is to be expected, and I will discuss more of this when I get to the section on the madness of Hamlet. In any case the audience seemed to enjoy it, particularly since the actors received a standing ovation at the end – but then again it is Hamlet.

Mad Max

The thing with Shakespeare is that every production is different, and the style generally reflects the time in which it is being made. I won’t go into too many details, but I do remember that back in the 80s and early 90s Shakespeare was still being set in the traditional settings, namely a castle in Denmark, though Kenneth Branaugh’s version brought the setting forward to the 19th Century. I still remember a comedy sketch series back in the 80s called Fast Forward, which was around when Mel Gibson’s Hamlet was released. It was really amusing because they had a skit in which Mel Gibson, dressed as Mad Max, burst into the castle on a motorcycle, whipped out a skull, and began sprouting Shakesperian lines. Unfortunately I can’t find that particular sketch on my brief search of Youtube, but you can always check out some of the other sketches (if you are really interested).

However these days the trend seems to be staging Shakespeare in modern dress, which I quite like because not only does it add to the timelessness of the stories, it also enables us to relate to the stories and the themes therein. In a way I find that Shakespeare is one of those few playwrights whose plays are able to transcend time and space and able to work in many and varied settings, from the battlefields of Ancient Rome to the boardrooms of Corporate America.

As I have mentioned, all productions are different, and as the audience will see something different each time they attend the play, the director also will seek to emphasise different aspects that he or she consider importants. For instance many of the productions leave out the war with Norway, while this production dropped the lines spoken at the end where the messenger enters a corpse littered throne room to pronounce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. On that topic, there was a couple of nods to the Tom Stoppard play ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead’ (namely a couple of coin tosses that turned up heads) but it seemed that the audience didn’t get the joke. Anyway, the director, Damien Ryan, has written an essay called ‘Hamlet’s Unweeded Garden’, where he reflects on some of the themes that come out of the play.

Madness of Hamlet

A lot has changed with the understanding of mental illness since the days of Shakespeare, though in many cases it has more to do with classification than anything else. If we explore some of Shakespeare’s tragedies we will notice that he actually has a strong understanding of the workings of the human mind, however while this may be the case he did not have the luxury of the modern DSM. These days we tend to shy away from the term madness and rather use the term ‘mental illness’, which I must admit that I feel somewhat uncomfortable using. The reason I say that is the line between mental illness and personality trait: where does one draw the line between an emotional reaction and mental illness. To me, the modern medical profession seems to be more than happy to label somebody as being mentally ill if they are either different to the bulk of the population, or simply responding to stresses and pressures placed upon them by modern society.

David Tennant as HamletHamlet is no exception. He is criticised for spending too much time mourning for the loss of his father, yet this is a natural reaction to the sudden death of a father figure. He rages against his mother for remarrying so soon after the death of her husband, yet his concerns are simply laughed away as being little more than a spoilt brat. No doubt there is something much more sinister underneath, but I will touch upon that latter. However, we also have this idea of Hamlet ‘feigning’ madness, though I would be inclined to suggest that this is little more than an interpretation, if the plan was not spoken by Hamlet himself.

I have seen numerous versions of Hamlet and in many of the productions that I have seen his madness has been simply an assumed disconnect from reality. However consider the scene where Ophilea reports him entering her room with his doublet undone. To us in the modern world, and many of the productions that I have seen, this has simply been interpreted as him wandering around the castle in casual dress. However in Shakespeare’s time the nobility did not dress casually, even in their own homes. To us, where our homes are our sanctuaries which are not pierced by the outside world, we will dress in a way that is comfortable and we only dress properly when we go and interact in society. However in the time of Shakespeare the concept of the private place existed only within one’s chambers (or bedroom). Outside of your chambers you were in public, which is why Hamlet’s dress was so scandalous. It is like us wandering down the streets dressed in only our underpants.

Hamlet is not the only character struck down by madness. Ophielia is torn by grief at the death of her father, moreso at the hands of the man whom she loved. Laertes is also struck with grief at the death of Polonious to the point that he is so overcome by rage that he succumbs to the plots of Claudius and agrees to the sword fight where he plans on slaying Hamlet. It is only on his deathbed that his mind clears and he realises that the tragedy that has befallen the family all stems back to the ambitions of the usurper Claudius.

The madness in Damien Ryan’s production is a madness of violent rage. Each of the characters, struck by grief at the murder of their loved ones (and Laertes blames Hamlet not just for the death of his father, but also the death of his sister – beginning with the fight in the grave and finishing with the fight in the throne room) flies into a vicious rage, attacking all those who they believe to be responsible for the murder. Hamlet attacks Gertrude in her bedchamber, and in a fit of rage inadvertantly slays Polonious. However, Hamlet also rages against Ophelia, blaming the death of his father not just upon Cladius, but also the woman by whom he feels betrayed. Seeing his wife marry within days of the death of his father his faith and trust in women are shattered, and in the eyes of the innocent Ophelia he also sees the heart of a murderer.

Hamlet - Better than Twilight

Family Matters

It is suggested that the plays of Shakespeare play out just as well on the political stage as well as the domestic arena. While the events occur within Castle Elsinore, the seat of the government of Denmark, we are also being given a glimpse into the private lives of a family torn apart. In a way the characters in Hamlet could be those of the wealthy elite, or those of the working class. It is not so much a family that has been torn apart by murder, but indeed there is murder most foul, but it is the collapse of the family unit as the father is driven out and the son riles against the mother and her lover, blaming them for the destruction of the innocence of his childhood.

It is not necessarily the case of a brother murdering a brother and then marrying the mother, even though this is indeed the case. Mind you, I do raise the question as to why Gertrude marries Claudius so soon after Hamlet Snr’s death? Was there something going on that we are not being told about? Was there an affair that required Hamlet Snr to be put out of the way so that the adulterous relation may bare fruit. Some (including Tom Stoppard) have suggested that Hamlet’s anger towards Gertrude and Claudius is because Claudius has stolen the throne that was rightfully his, but there is no mention of this at all in the play (though I could be wrong). No, Hamlet is angered not so much that Claudius has stolen a throne that is rightfully his (and Claudius even suggests that he is still entitled to the throne), but rather that before his brother is in the ground, he has stolen the place in his bed – and he is angered that Gertrude has allowed him to do so.

That Awkward Moment when you realised you stabbed the wrong guy

The question of incest keeps on coming back as well. While Gertrude is not Claudius’ blood relation, they are still related through the marital bonds. Mind you, the Old Testament does allow for the brother to take the widow as his bride, but this was only to preserve the deceased’s line, and only if the deceased had yet to bare children. While this was allowed, it was allowed only in very limited circumstances. However, what we have in Hamlet is perceived as unnatural, at least in Hamlet’s mind. Numerous times he cries against not just the fact that his mother re-married so shortly after her husband’s death, but of all people she married her brother in law. To Hamlet this is utterly wrong.

While the play is set in the royal palace in Denmark, in many ways this could easily be set in the suburban household in the outer suburbs. Okay, maybe Hamlet’s father was not necessarily killed, but for numerous reasons he could have been driven out, leaving Hamlet not just with his mother, but with his mother’s new boyfriend. A common theme has children being in conflict with the step-father, especially if there are suggestions of adultery, which is something that I suspect may have come about in Hamlet. Okay, Shakespeare may not have directly stated this as being the case, but in my mind it is implied.

Death in the Garden

The Graveyard Scene

Damien Ryan writes in his essay about the significance of the garden in Hamlet, even though none of the scenes (with the exception of the graveyard) takes place in one. As he has pointed this out it is probably an idea to discuss this concept, particularly since it is one concept that I hadn’t picked up before. In a way he does have a point – the garden, and flora, play an important role in Hamlet. King Hamlet was murdered in a garden, Ophelia dies by falling from a tree, and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed by being hung, while not necessarily from a tree, the gallows from which they were hung originally came from a tree (in the same way that while Jesus Christ was executed on a cross, the Bible refers to him having been hung on a tree; which is another interesting metaphor since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in place of Hamlet – it was he that was supposed to have been hung).

The murder of the king happens in a garden, and through Ryan’s production there are references to serpents. In fact in the play within a play, the king is handed a tin which, when opened, causes a serpent to fly out. This is important because King Hamlet was murdered by poison, the typical method with which a serpent will use to kill their pray. Claudius is in fact the serpent – he sneaks up on Hamlet at a time when he is at his weakest, and kills him through the use of poison, and the death also takes place in the garden. It is from this death that the entire kingdom becomes poisoned. As Ryan points out, of the eight characters that are killed in the play, four of them are killed through the use of poison (and of the remaining four, three of the deaths are related to trees).

Hamlet - Graveyard Scene

This image brings to the front the idea of the Garden of Eden. It is implied that prior to the death of King Hamlet Denmark was a strong and prosperous kingdom. Sure, they were at war with Norway, but the Norwegians had sued for peace and taken their expansionistic endeavours elsewhere. However, the death of King Hamlet completely changed the dynamics of the kingdom resulting in its eventual fall. Claudius, the serpent, brings about this fall through poisoning the king, but the poison doesn’t just kill the king, it flows through into the entire kingdom. As it is said, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it is rotten because the poison has taken root and is killing it slowly.

The Cold War

Another interesting idea is that of the cold war that exists between Norway and Denmark. Many of the productions that I have seen simply leave this aspect out, however Ryan brought it front and centre. Right at the beginning we know that there is a much greater power to the north threatening Denmark’s liberty. So, the question is raised, why, during a time of war, does Claudius seek to undermine the kingdom by killing the king?

There are a couple of possibilities, but they are both speculations because Shakespeare never actually addresses this issue. In fact, the question of why King Hamlet was killed, and why Gertrude married so quickly, isn’t something that I really thought about until quite recently, namely after watching this production (though no doubt I will be seeing it again, and in time further revelations may come to light – the fact that this is a pretty popular play suggests that I will be seeing it in the future).

Fortinbras Invades Denmark

As I have suggested there are two possibilities: Claudius was in league with the Norwegians and King Hamlet was a week king. The second idea I am less likely to accept namely because of the speed in which Gertrude and Claudius were married. If Claudius killed King Hamlet because Denmark was losing the war against

Norway sort of undermines the idea that he may have been having an affair with Gertrude. However, the first idea may hold more support because it would suggest that Denmark was actually winning, which meant that the affair was actually the weakness that could be exploited. Note that as soon as King Hamlet died, Claudius sued for peace, which was accepted. However, Fortinbras, the rather cunning general, knew that by killing King Hamlet would weaken the kingdom and, in the end, allow him (or as it was in this play, her) achieve her goals.


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Shakespeare’s Hamlet – The Dysfunctional Family by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International LicenseThis license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.




4 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Hamlet – The Dysfunctional Family

  1. Well, considering that his plays still seem to get sold out, or at least the ones performed by the professional theatre companies (and of course the ones that appear in the park), I get a feeling that the loathing of Shakespeare is something that is really only limited to high school students.
    Mind, my opinion of Shakespeare changed a lot when I actually went and watched one of this plays being performed. Ironically it was Hamlet, the same text that we were studying at the time.


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