Reddit’s Favorite Shakespeare

Hello /r/Shakespeare!Anybody that knows me knows that when I see a post titled 1000 Most Mentioned Books on Reddit (or, really, anywhere), the first thing I’m going to do is search it to see where Shakespeare shows up.  Any guesses?

I’d love to say more about who made the list and why and how, but there doesn’t seem much to go on. The post, on Medium, was made by BookAdvice.  Have to look more into that, see what other cool lists they have.  All we know about the methodology is, from the summary, “Sorted based on the number of upvotes and the number of different users linking to them in post and comments.”  I suppose that’s got a certain chronological bias — a book that came out last year couldn’t possibly compete with those that have been around since before Reddit.  But it does say “most mentioned” and not “best” or “most loved” or anything like that, so I suppose it’s accurate to say that a book that has existed for ten years will typically be mentioned more than a book that’s only existed for one.

Much of the list is highly predictable, if you know anything about Reddit.  Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy all rank in the top ten.  I’m pleasantly surprised to see To Kill A Mockingbird in there, and The Count of Monte Cristo (though not so pleasantly Catcher in the Rye.  Really, reddit?)  Thrilled to see J.K. Rowling’s name not appear until well after the 250 mark.  Not that her work is bad, just that I’m tired of seeing such brand new books always top the lists of “all time classics”.

Ok, you want the data?  Drum roll, please. Presented in reverse order, from least to most mentioned, we have …

905. The Taming of the Shrew

754. The Tempest

674. Merchant of Venice

625. King Lear

578. Much Ado About Nothing

568. Othello

371. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (*)

295. Macbeth

237. Romeo and Juliet

and the most mentioned work of William Shakespeare on Reddit is……

144. Hamlet

What do we think, any surprises?  Surely not the great tragedies, I think those became self-fulfilling long long ago.  Is Romeo and Juliet popular because it’s so good, or is it considered so good because it’s popular?  Little surprised about Othello, that one doesn’t usually get much love, and I’m kind of wondering if they took the time to rule out references to the board game.

When I first made this list, searching for the word “Shakespeare”, I was surprised to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream not make the list.  I had to go back and double check.  It’s because they’ve got it listed by, and I’m not kidding, SparkNotes.  I wondered if there were many on the list marked this way, but it turns out that’s the only one.  Glad I checked, I almost missed it!

Anything you think should be on the list that’s not there?  Hey, wait … where’s Twelfth Night?




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Geeklet Sorrows (And A Confession)

Yesterday my daughter had an unexpected medical procedure on her mouth, so she’s in some degree of pain this morning (but not enough to skip school).  So she’s getting ready and I ask, “How’s your face?”

“Bad,” she says, “And now I have a pimple!”

“When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions,” I offer.

“That means a third bad thing is gonna happen to me now too! Great!”

“No, it was just an opportunity for me to use a Shakespeare quote I don’t normally get to use.  King Lear?”

Both wife and geeklet look at each other and just leave the room.

Didn’t feel right, though.  Couldn’t place who said it, or where.  So over breakfast I had to look it up.  “You know what?” I told them, “When I said that quote was from Lot of sorrow in King Lear, but maybe not battalions of it.?  I was wrong, it’s Hamlet.”

Geeklet looks at wife, looks at me, and says, “Well, duh. We just didn’t want to embarrass you.”

But now I’m trying to figure out what quote I was confusing it with, because surely there’s stuff in King Lear all about the piling on of sorrows.


Where Is Polonius?

A discussion came up on Reddit the other day about how Hamlet can be so concerned over the fate of Claudius’ soul (and whether he goes to heaven or hell), while being engaged in a revenge murder himself. Shouldn’t he worry about his own soul?

But I took the question in a different direction. I’m wondering about Polonius.  Hamlet has just gone to great lengths to explain to the audience why it’s not cool to kill a man when he’s praying:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?

Then what about poor Polonius? His sins are all still on his head. He’s basically an innocent man when Hamlet runs him through.  True he didn’t kill anybody like Claudius did, he’s probably not got any mortal sins working against him.  So where do we think he went – heaven, or hell?  Or purgatory? Probably the third, he probably gets the same deal that Hamlet’s father got, ironically enough.

What I’m wondering, though, is what Hamlet thinks.  He seems to be concerned only with himself:

I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him.

It’s not all about you, Hamlet. He doesn’t seem to care about the fate of Polonius’ soul.  Am I missing something?  Hamlet’s distraught when his father’s ghost tells him about being doomed to walk the earth a certain time.  It seems as if Polonius has just been sentenced to this same fate.  So Hamlet’s got no sympathy for him at all?

Be sure to check out the new Shakespeare Geek Merchandise page, new for 2017 on Amazon! All new designs!

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Review : Ryan North’s Interactive Hamlet “To Be Or Not To Be”

I realize this one came out several years ago, but I’m pretty sure I never reviewed it. If you haven’t heard of it, have you heard of those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books?  Where you’d get to the end of a page and it would say things like, “To talk to the pirates turn to page 19, to hide and hope they don’t catch you turn to page 25”?  It’s that.  The great thing about the ebook form is that everything’s just clicks now, which makes the format that much more flexible.  You can go crazy with the different paths through the book and not worry about producing a paperback that’s 500 pages.

You have to know, right from the start, that this is going to be mostly original material, rather than follow the plot.  How can it be otherwise? Every time you choose to do something that a character didn’t do in the original, North has to supply his own version of events.

With that in mind, you can “play” as Hamlet, Ophelia, or even Hamlet Senior. I first chose the latter thinking it to be a joke – you get one page in and find out you’re dead – but the author’s better than that.  You’re now the ghost, and you get to play the book that way, going on adventures, checking in periodically to see how your son is doing on his quest, all that good stuff.

It’s actually quite fun. There’s a lot of the author’s attitude in here, and the fourth wall is just a pile of rubble.  He is speaking right at you the whole time, asking you to double check your choices, scolding you if you don’t follow directions.  It’s great fun.

I don’t know that you’re ever really finished with a book like this.  Since it is technically a book and not a game or app, your reader will give you page numbers. Mine tells me that there are about 1200 pages.  In theory, you should visit all of them, but I’m not so sure.  I’m fairly convinced that the author has written one or more entirely separate stories as easter eggs for people who just randomly flip through the pages (because, since it is a book and not an app, he can’t stop you).

If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to give this one a chance. I see on his author page that he did a Romeo and Juliet as well, I think I might have to add that one to my collection.

Be sure to check out the new Shakespeare Geek Merchandise page, new for 2017 on Amazon! All new designs!

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Why Does Hamlet Hesitate to Kill Claudius?

Why does Hamlet hesitate to kill Claudius?

There’s a few different ways to answer this question. I assume that most of the time people ask it, they’re referring to III.3, when he catches Claudius at prayer:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge! [citation]

So the short and easy answer is, Hamlet tells us – by killing Claudius at prayer, his soul is clean, and therefore he’d go to heaven. This is not a luxury granted to Hamlet’s father, however, which is why he now roams the earth as a ghost.  Hamlet doesn’t feel that this is an even exchange.

You should, however, be saying “Seriously?” right now.  “You set the trap to prove Claudius’ guilt, it worked, now you’re behind him, there’s no witnesses, you could absolutely finish him off. And instead you’re thinking ahead to where he soul ends up?”

Precisely the whole point of the play. Hamlet’s indecisiveness is all. He can talk himself out of anything. Go back to I.5:

But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown. [citation]

So your father’s ghost appears and says, “I was murdered by the king.”  Your first thought is, “I know, I’ll start acting crazy around everybody so they won’t know what I’m up to.”

At least point has a certain rationale, however. In Amleth, the source material for Hamlet, the hero believes that his life is in danger and decides to pretend that he is an imbecile so that he will not be perceived as a threat to the new king.

In Shakespeare’s version, however, that connection is lost — there’s no reason early in the play to think that Claudius is playing to kill Hamlet. So it ends up looking like Hamlet’s just coming up with reasons to delay action.

David Tennant as Hamlet Personally I’ve always held that it is his mother’s death, not his father’s, that ultimately spurs him into action. The entire play passes without him avenging his father, but it takes just 20 lines of dialogue between his mother’s death (“The drink! I am poison’d.”) and Hamlet’s action (“Follow my mother!”) There are those that argue that he finally sees his own mortality and knows, from Laertes, that he too has been poisoned and if he  does not act now he will never have the chance. But I’ve always felt that “Follow my mother” line is a big deal – it’s not as if he mentions his father.


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Has Anybody Seen Hamlet’s Ghost?

By that I mean Hamlet’s Ghost, a new film by Walker Haynes.  I just saw it scroll past on my FIOS On Demand. I’d never heard of it!  It appears new – their Facebook page says that it just became available this past week, which would explain why I never heard of it – but the IMDB page dates it 2015, so I guess it took a spin on the festival circuit first.

A modern Shakespearean actor must travel back in time to confront enigmatic forces from the past and future.

You had me at Hamlet.  But I’m still trying to figure out how much Shakespeare is actually in this.  Here, check out the trailer (which is dated two years ago and looks like the director put it together on his Commodore 64, but maybe he didn’t have much budget left at the time…):

So there’s a swordfight on stage.  Is that it? Do we even see Hamlet’s ghost? I’m happy to check this out, but I can tell you right now that I’m in it for the Shakespeare so if there’s not much, I’m going to be disappointed.

Also, does anybody else get a strong “young George Clooney” vibe from the director / star, Walker Haynes? I don’t believe I’ve seen him in anything else, George Clooney is the name that keeps leaping to mind as I watch.

Be the players ready?

The credits list Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes and Polonius, so that gives me hope. Where was everybody else? I clicked “See full cast” and discovered Claudius, Osric and Fortinbras.  Can’t find Ophelia anywhere, though.

Hey here’s a fun bit of trivia!  Hamlet’s ghost (or, at least, “The Ghost”) does show up!  The actor is someone whose credits include apparently long-running full time work as a transcriber for Shark Tank, and production assistant for The Real Housewives of Orange County. Guess the actual amount of acting experience needed for the ghost wasn’t too high.

Seriously, though, has anybody seen this yet? Is it worth seeking out?

Hamlet's Ghost

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How does Horatio die in Hamlet?


Horatio at Hamlet's death
Horatio at Hamlet’s death. Image via Wikipedia commons

He doesn’t. He’s what you sometimes hear referred to as the “exception that proves the rule.”  Like how at the end of Hamlet, everybody dies. Except Horatio.

The official body count in the final scene (Act 5 Scene 2) of Hamlet is four:  Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, Hamlet. Enter Fortinbras, who says “What happened here?” and Horatio is left to tell the tale.

Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version may have also killed off Osric (the referee, for lack of a more description term), it’s difficult to tell. In Branagh’s version, Fortinbras is actively invading the castle while the final duel takes place between Hamlet and Laertes. Osric is seen being taken by surprise and stabbed. However, he then returns to the scene to deliver his line about Fortinbras’ “warlike volley.”

In some interpretations, such as Ingmar Bergman’s 1986 production, Horatio is killed at the end of the play. When Fortinbras orders, “Bid the soldiers shoot,” some directors have taken that as license to execute Horatio, presumably as the last remaining witness to all that had taken place. It’s important to note that there is nothing in the text to indicate this (just like Osric’s death above). However, there’s two ways to die in a play. Either the script says you die, or else you eventually just run out of lines. Once you’re no longer part of the action (such as Osric), you might fall victim to artistic license and find yourself dead at the end of Act 5 whether Shakespeare wanted it that way or not.



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Why did Hamlet kill Polonius?

There’s a short and easy answer to the question of why Hamlet killed Polonius. It was an accident. A case of mistaken identify, if you will. What he did next, however, certainly was no accident.

The story so far: Hamlet has sprung his mouse trap, playing out Claudius’ crime in front of him with the help of the actors. Claudius reaction has, as Hamlet anticipated, “caught the conscience of the king.” Gertrude, upset with her son for angering her husband, has requested Hamlet come to her bedchamber so she might speak with him. Polonius offers to spy on Hamlet by reaching the queen first and hiding in the arras (curtains).

Hamlet, in exultation at having proven Claudius’ guilt, comes to his mother’s bedchamber and intends to tell her off:

Hamlet. Now, mother, what’s the matter?

Gertrude. Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Hamlet. Mother, you have my father much offended.

Gertrude. Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.

Hamlet. Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.

Gertrude. Why, how now, Hamlet?

Hamlet. What’s the matter now?

Gertrude. Have you forgot me?

Hamlet. No, by the rood, not so!
You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife,
And (would it were not so!) you are my mother.

Hamlet’s mood at this point is pretty obvious. He’s been unhappy with his mother and is letting it all out. You have my father much offended. You question with a wicked tongue. You are your husband’s brother’s wife.

If Hamlet had stormed off at this moment, having made his point, the play would have gone differently. Instead, Gertrude stands up and says, “I don’t have to take this!” and Hamlet shoves his mother back down, because he’s not done with her yet:

Gertrude. Nay, then I’ll set those to you that can speak.

Hamlet. Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.

Gertrude is not prepared for Hamlet to put his hands on her. Remember that the whole castle believes Hamlet to have lost his mind. So it’s hardly unexpected when she yells to Polonius for help:

Gertrude. What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murther me?
Help, help, ho!

Polonius. [behind] What, ho! help, help, help!

Hamlet didn’t know someone else was in the room. He stabs blindly through the arras:

Hamlet. [draws] How now? a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!

[Makes a pass through the arras and] kills Polonius.

Polonius. [behind] O, I am slain!

Gertrude. O me, what hast thou done?

Right now the audience is thinking the same thing that Gertrude is. What just happened? Hamlet’s a thinker and a talker, not a doer. Up to this point in the play he hasn’t really done anything.  Until now. Heard a noise? Kill it!

Hamlet. Nay, I know not. Is it the King?

Gertrude. O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!

Hamlet. A bloody deed- almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.

Gertrude. As kill a king?

Hamlet thought Claudius was hiding behind the arras! During this exchange, in fact, he still believes he has killed Claudius, which perhaps explains why he so blatantly accuses his mother of the crime, thinking that he has now avenged his father.

Hamlet discovers Polonius
Hamlet discovers Polonius. Image via Wikipedia commons

The timing here is subject to some debate. In the previous scene, on his way to his mother’s bedchamber, Hamlet had already passed Claudius at prayer. He has an opportunity there to kill him, but chooses not to take it. So, then, does Hamlet think that Claudius somehow beat him to the same destination? It’s possible that Hamlet took his time getting to his mother’s room eventually. Or that castles do tend to have secret passages and if there was a shortcut to Gertrude’s room, Claudius knew it. It’s also likely that in the heat of the moment Hamlet simply never thought of this.

So, Polonius’ death was an accident. What happens next is not. Hamlet hides Polonius body, refusing to let him have a proper burial. Act 4 scenes 2 and 3 are actually devoted entirely to the search for Polonius’ body:

Rosencrantz. What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?

Hamlet. Compounded it with dust, whereto ’tis kin.

Rosencrantz. Tell us where ’tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel.

And then, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can get no answers out on him, Hamlet is taken before Claudius:

Claudius. Where is Polonius?

Hamlet. In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not
there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself. But indeed, if you
find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up
the stair, into the lobby.

So Hamlet uses the dead body of his girlfriend’s father as a prop so he can tell Claudius to go to hell. Is this part of his crazy act? Or at this point does he truly care so little about such things that he doesn’t think twice about defiling a corpse?


Why does Hamlet call Polonius “Jephthah”?

Stained glass Polonius
A stained glass image of Polonius. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jephthah is not a word you hear every day. How often does phth show up in the middle of a word? Sounds onomatopoetic, like blowing someone a raspberry every time you say it. With words like that scattered around the play, of course it’s got a reputation for being difficult to read and understand.

Before we look at who Jephthah was, let’s first look at the scene where Hamlet uses the term (in Act 2 Scene 2). Hamlet has already visited with the ghost of his father, learned of his father’s murder, and has enacted his plan to “put an antic disposition on,” in the hopes of gathering evidence against his uncle Claudius. So basically he can say whatever he wants to whoever (whomever?) he wants. Part of the fun for Hamlet is in saying seemingly random things that actually have a deeper meaning.

Polonius, meanwhile, is convinced that Hamlet’s madness is love sickness, because he can no longer see Ophelia. Polonius even offers to prove his theory by putting out Ophelia as bait while they hide and watch how Hamlet reacts to seeing her, but Hamlet figures out their plan.

Hamlet. O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

Polonius. What treasure had he, my lord?

Hamlet. Why,
‘One fair daughter, and no more,
The which he loved passing well.’

Polonius. [aside] Still on my daughter.

The story of Jephthah is recounted in Judges 11:31, where Jepthah is about to go into battle with the Ammonites and makes a vow to God, offering as a sacrifice, “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Well, his daughter is the first to come out and meet him. So he inadvertently sacrifices his own daughter.

Polonius is so caught up in his own “love sick” theory that as soon as he sees a daughter reference he sees it as proof of his own theory (“He’s still obsessed with my daughter!”) He doesn’t appear to get the “sacrificed his own daughter” connection.

Irony : The expression “There’s a method to his madness” comes earlier in this scene, spoken by Polonius. So he does recognize that there’s a deeper, relevant meaning in the seeming gibberish that Hamlet is spouting. He just doesn’t realize it’s anything more than coincidence.



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Review : David Tennant as Hamlet, Nerd of Denmark

Ok, here we go!  The easiest way to review Hamlet, I’ve found, is to break it into three distinct reviews : the direction, the rest of the cast, and Hamlet himself.  Otherwise it’s just too hard to separate what David Tennant did with what he was given to work with. Let me just first say that watching Shakespeare on “live” TV as if it were some sort of major event was just awesome.  It was this wonderful combination of nostalgia (remember the days before DVR where if you got up to go to the bathroom you missed stuff?) with modern technology – I sat on Twitter and did play-by-play throughout most of the show.  Could I have DVR’d it?  Sure, and I did, kind  of — I was running maybe 45 minutes behind everybody else.  But it was important to me to watch it as live as I could, as if we were watching the Academy Awards or something.  I wanted to share the experience with my geeks.  Great time, and I look forward to what PBS has in store for us next time..

First, the direction.  I think I’ll call this the WTF? Hamlet, because it had more WTF moments per scene than any production I can remember.  Parts were cool, like how the opening scene is shot from the ghost’s point of view.  We’re not even going to see the ghost? That’s a neat way to do it.  But then … here’s the ghost, standing among everybody.  And oh look, it’s Patrick Stewart.  WTF? He doesn’t look like a ghost.  At all. He looks, as I wrote on Twitter at the time, like he’s just walked out of a first-person shooter video game. That was weird.  Later, Stewart’s ghost physically interacts with Hamlet.  Grabs him, hugs him.  WTF, again?

Much of the movie is shot as if through the eyes of security cameras.  I saw this done once before in a Macbeth production, done up as if they were all drug dealers.  It was interesting there, increasing the general paranoia of a man who thought everybody was his enemy, even if they had to come back from the dead to get him.  Here it’s … interesting, but I’m not fully sure what the point was.  The cameras move and track, as if somebody is controlling them.  But who?  In the most obvious scene, where Claudius and Polonius are spying on Hamlet and Ophelia, they are hidden behind a two way mirror.  Yet in a very key moment, the cameras move.  So, who moved them?  Hamlet will often look directly at them, and at one point rips one out of the wall.  But was that the whole point, just to have him rip one out of the wall?

Last thing on the direction, otherwise I’ll go on far too long.  The actors look directly into the camera.  All the time.  Hamlet does it, Polonius does it.  I’m sure if I went back and paid closer attention I could find others doing it.  STOP THAT, it is very disconcerting.  It’s like watching The Office.  I appreciate that in a live theatre production, certain asides and soliloquies could be directed at the audience.  But there’s a difference between speaking to the audience in general, and singling out one person to talk to. When you look directly at the camera you destroy all suspension of disbelief and pull the audience back up to the “Hello there, I’m an actor on a stage doing a show for you, is it not lovely?” level.

On to the supporting cast, and by that I basically mean Patrick Stewart.  It’s a bit of a shame, really, when you have such a high powered “leading two” like this, because no one else is going to get the time of day.  If you take in a community production of Hamlet where everybody is an equal, you can appreciate the nuances of what Ophelia or even Guildenstern might bring to their role.  Here it’s all about Claudius and Hamlet, and everybody else pales in comparison.  Laertes is … goofy.  That’s the best way I can describe him.  I suppose that’s a good thing, he’s got that sort of awkward “I know what I’m supposed to do in this situation but you can tell I’m nervous about it” thing going, which makes sense.  Ophelia never gets much to work with.  I just plain didn’t buy her crazy.  Black eye make up doesn’t make you crazy, it makes you look like one of the kids from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  In a weird directorial choice, crazy apparently does mean stripping near naked (not sure if she went the full monty on the live show) in front of the king before running off.  I say weird choice, because in the next scene don’t we learn that she drowned precisely because her heavy clothing got soaked and pulled her down? She doesn’t go skinny-dipping in the First Folio, I don’t believe. 🙂  Polonius is…irritating.  He’s often played for comedy, but here he’s more annoying than anything else.  In a good way.  The supporting cast around him, tolerating him, are the funny ones.  But this is a Polonius where you just know that you’d not want to be in the room, stuck waiting for him to finish his sentence.

Can we talk Patrick Stewart? He is, for most of the play, the … coolest … Claudius you’ll see.  He’s awesome.  He’s got the throne, he’s got the queen, he’s got everything well in hand and he knows it.  Calm, cool, collected.  He’s exactly the kind of king who, after Hamlet kills Polonius, has his thugs tie Hamlet to a chair down in the soundproof basement before coming down, taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves …  they don’t end up going for any sort of interrogation/torture sequence, but they well could have.  It would have been in character, and would have been very impressive.  I wouldn’t have expected Claudius to do any of the dirty work, but he’d have no trouble having his goons do it.

The ghost in the queen’s bedroom, by the way, was excellent.  I hated the ghost at the beginning, but in the second coming he’s done quite well.  This is actually a credit to the direction, not so much the acting, as it’s all about the camera work and whether we’re looking at the scene through Gertrude’s eyes, or Hamlet’s.

But then….  see, I can’t spoil things for people that haven’t seen it.  All I can say is that there’s a moment when you’ll stare aghast at your screen and mutter a disbelieving “Oh, Patrick…no…oh, no…..”  I can only hope for the love of all that is good and Shakespeare in the world that what happens in that moment was purely a director’s choice and that Stewart was forced to do it against his will.  It is the biggest WTF moment in a movie full of them.

Ok, now let’s talk about Dr. Who.  I’ve honestly never seen Dr. Who, none of them, so I come to David Tennant’s performance with no preconceptions.  To me the man is Barty Crouch from the Harry Potter movie.

What’s up with this dude’s eyes?  He always, always looks like he’s got some sort of psycho-stare going.  This works later in the play, of course, but it’s very offputting in the beginning.  He actually does something very annoying in the opening scenes in that he makes no eye contact with anyone.  Asperger’s? Later when speaking with Horatio it seems like he does the opposite, getting well up into his friend’s personal space for no good reason.  I think that this was a deliberate choice, and it’s what makes me give this review the headline that I did.  He’s playing up the nerd aspect.  We all know that Hamlet is the smart kid who’s been away at school.   Why shouldn’t he have some social adjustment difficulties?

David Tennant plays Hamlet as crazy.  Simply put.  Before he ever sees the ghost, he’s got issues.  After the fact he’s full on lunatic.  Which gets very weird, because he’s looking you in the eye and he’s telling you, “I’m not crazy, I’m just acting this way.”  There are parts when it ends up making him look like an insufferable ass, like a spoiled child who’s not gotten his way and is now throwing a gigantic tantrum up and down the palace while everybody tries to humor him.   This ends up being what I have the most trouble with.  It’s like he took the job just so he’d get to do his crazy act.  He’s practically Jim Carrey in some scenes, and that’s not a good thing in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong, the man’s a good actor, and I’ll speak more on this in a minute.  There are moments, even the briefest, where it is entirely the acting that gets across what’s happened, without the backing text.  When Laertes gets in his cheap shot and Hamlet realizes that he’s been using a sharpened foil, Tennant’s “Nay, come again!” is very clearly, as I wrote on Twitter, him really saying, “Oh you mother f%^&*ing son-of-a%^”.  You have to see it.  He realizes, not that he’s been poisoned, but simply that Laertes is essentially cheating, trying to hurt him.  And his instant reaction is, less colloquially, “Now, see, that pisses me off.  Ok, punk, you want to play like that? Well I have the pointy stick now, let’s see how you like it.”  Coupling such a moment with the earlier depiction of “nerd” Hamlet brings things full circle rather nicely.  Throughout the play we’ve had a very non-threatening Hamlet, someone who clearly thinks he’s the smartest kid in the room and gets by on his wits alone because he can.  He’s never a threat to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even when he’s got a chance to kill Claudius he’s too hesitant.  But here, here he’s caught off guard, he’s angry, and he’s got a weapon.  And now he lashes out.  Even the nerdiest nerd will, pushed to his limits, throw that haymaker punch that knocks the bully out.

Ok, here’s my overall summary of David Tennant as Hamlet.  This is a story that happens to be Shakespeare, not a Shakespeare story.  The stars here are the actors, not the words.  It’s not just David Tennant, either – I mentioned on Twitter that Laertes gets in his own “you can tell what I meant whether you understood the words or not” moment when he first sees Ophelia enter.  If you took this whole movie and rewrote all the dialogue like you might normally write an action/drama movie? You’d have the same movie.  Tennant doesn’t need to be speaking Shakespeare’s words to act out his Hamlet.  He just happens to be doing that.

See what I mean?  I don’t think this is a bad thing, I think it’s an important thing.  Hanging out last night while it played I noticed two very different camps.  There were the Shakespeare fans who were hesitant, at best, about Tennant’s performance.  But then there were the Tennant fans who thought he killed it, and actually made Shakespeare interesting.  I think that’s the crucial distinction.  This movie was more for them than for us.  We Shakespeare geeks can go debate how he delivered the third soliloquy, but the Dr. Who geeks are going to go and debate how he *behaved* during the Mousetrap scene.  They want to talk about him, and his acting, and Shakespeare is secondary.  If we want to talk about the Shakespeare first and the actor is secondary, we can do that too.  But neither group is going to be more right than the other.

(Didn’t love my review? JM has his own take on this one over at The Shakespeare Place.)