Hamlet in Pop Culture

Hamlet in Pop Culture

Tales of Motorcycle Clubs, Lion Cubs and Klingons

By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

Although Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare over 400 years ago, it continues to reign as one of the most imitated and relevant plays of our time. Interpretations of Shakespeare’s classic tale of revenge have popped up in some surprising places: children’s television programs and films, a beloved Sunday comic strip, a popular television series about a corrupt motorcycle gang and other well-known shows, motion pictures, and best-selling contemporary novels.

Perhaps one of the most interesting Hamlet interpretations is a film for children called Green Eggs and Hamlet. The live-action film, released in 1995 and written by Mike O’Neil, retells the tragic tale in classic Dr. Seuss rhyme. The film follows Prince Hamlet as he seeks to avenge his father’s murder, while his servant, SamIamlet, encourages him to sample a new food dish.

Disney's The Lion King. Copyright Disney Entertainment. All rights reserved.
Disney’s The Lion King. Copyright Disney Entertainment. All rights reserved.

The Disney classic, The Lion King, is also loosely based on Hamlet. Released in 1994, The Lion King contains some direct parallels to the play, including the death of King Mufasa at the hands of his scheming brother, Scar. Mufasa’s young son, Simba, is visited by his dead father’s ghost, and there is even comic relief provided by two supplemental characters – Timon and Pumba. Although there is some debate over whether the references to Hamlet were intentional, this is where the similarities end, as The Lion King has a much happier ending (and far fewer deaths).

Calvin and Hobbes. All rights reserved.
Calvin and Hobbes. All rights reserved.

In March 1994, the popular comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, depicted Calvin about to devour a plate of green mush. The mush comes to life and begins to recite the beginning of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Afterwards, the mush begins to sing, and Calvin eats it. Calvin then says to his mom, “Let’s not have this ever again.”

Sesame Street also took on the almighty play. Monsterpiece Theater, a recurring segment on the show, featured Mel Gibson as Hamlet in 1994. Gibson repeated “words, words, words, while Elmo – who cannot read – looks at “pictures, pictures, pictures.”

Countless numbers of television series have also paid homage to Hamlet.   Family shows such as The Brady Bunch, M.A.S.H., The Simpsons, Star Trek, and even Gilligan’s Island (the episode featured the castaways putting on a musical version of Hamlet) have all paid respect to the play either in passing reference or entire episodes.

Not surprisingly, Star Trek (and its multitude of spin-offs) is reputed to have included more Shakespeare references and plot lines than any other television series produced in the United States. Many episodes have featured Shakespearean titles, characters quoting directly Shakespeare, and performances of plays. Animated show The Simpsons runs second, with more than 20 Shakespeare-related episodes, including Tales from the Public Domain – which features Bart as Hamlet, Lisa as Ophelia and Moe the bartender as Claudius.

The cast of FX's Sons of Anarchy
The cast of FX’s Sons of Anarchy

But the most high-profile television series paralleling Hamlet is FX’s Sons of Anarchy – now in its final season. The creator/writer of the show, Kurt Sutter, has mentioned in interviews that Sons of Anarchy – which centers on a closely-knit motorcycle club – is loosely based on Hamlet. The show’s primary character, Jax Teller, is often viewed as Hamlet himself. Jax begins the series as a charismatic hero but, in recent seasons, has shifted into someone who is more of an anti-hero and full-blown villain. As Sutter explains in one interview, “One of the recurring themes of Shakespeare is the idea that power doesn’t just corrupt, but that the corruption continuously repeats itself… I loosely based all my characters on ones from Hamlet.  We take these sorts of huge tragic turns at different points in the series that feel Shakespearean to me.”

It’s certainly no surprise that the powerful influence of Hamlet spilled into the world of motion pictures.   The fifth episode in the classic Star Wars saga – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – features a scene where Chewbacca tries to reassemble the body of C-3PO. At one point, Chewbacca is seen holding C-3PO’s head in a manner similar to how Hamlet is often depicted holding Yorick’s skull – an intentional move on the part of the film’s director, Irvin Kershner.

The animated film, Coraline, released in 2009, features two secondary characters delivering the well-known “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy from Hamlet while performing a trapeze act. In fact, this Hamlet reference has also appeared in the films Grosse Pointe Blank, Gettysburg, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Hair. Actor Rutger Hauer has said that he was inspired by this specific soliloquy when preparing for his famous “time to die” speech in Blade Runner.

Two minor characters from Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, tell the tragic tale from their own perspective in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The play, originally written in 1967 (and starring Brian Murray from last season’s A Song at Twilight), was released as a motion picture in 1990. Starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the respective title roles, the two characters witlessly watch the tale of Hamlet as it unravels, unaware of their own tragic fate. The film is liberally peppered with Rosencranz and Guildenstern’s sometimes hilarious existentialistic musings such as, “Do you think death could possibly be a boat?”  

The theme of surveillance permeates the modern remake of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, and released in 2000 at the dawn of the new millennium, the adaptation story takes place in modern New York City. The film retains Shakespeare’s dialog but is permeated with modern technology such as video cams, Polaroid cameras and surveillance bugs. The ghost of Hamlet’s father even makes his first appearance on a closed-circuit television.

Infinite_jest_coverCountless modern works of literature have also taken on the tale of Hamlet through reinterpretation of text, incorporating lines from the play, setting similar scenarios, or naming protagonists based on original characters.

  • John Marsden’s young adult reinterpretation, Hamlet, takes place in Denmark. The characters retain their names, personalities and specific roles from Shakespeare’s play.
  • The plot of David Wroblewski’s novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, also closely follows the original story of Hamlet, and several of the novel’s main characters have names similar to their corresponding characters in the play.
  • The novel Infinite Jest, written by David Foster Wallace, takes its name directly from Hamlet’s speech about Yorick. The book also features a main character struggling with his uncle’s influence following the suspicious death of his father.
  • Something Rotten, a light-hearted novel from Jasper Fforde in his continuing Thursday Next series, transplants the character of Hamlet from the world of books into reality. Comically, Hamlet muses on how audiences view him and complains about the performances of various actors who have portrayed him.
  • Eliot Rosewater – the protagonist from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut – pretends to be Hamlet while writing a letter to his wife.
  • Gertrude and Claudius, the novel by John Updike, was written as a prequel to the play. The story follows Gertrude from her wedding to King Hamlet, through an affair with Claudius.

Books. Movies. Television. Children’s Programming. Even popular music – Ophelia by the Band; The King Must Die by Elton John; Dear Ophelia by Abney Park; Cruel to be Kind by Nick Lowe all contain direct references. It’s quite apparent that Hamlet has become deeply and permanently entrenched in today’s modern culture and has no signs of waning, as new audiences of musicians, authors, actors, film directors, and screenwriters become acquainted and inspired by one of Shakespeare’s most masterful, relevant and powerful works.