Hamlet is Batman

Ask a random person if they’ve seen Hamlet, and chances are, they’ll treat it like a yes or no question.

Ask that same person if they’ve seen Batman, and they’ll say, “Which one?”

In the time I’ve been alive, Batman has been portrayed by Adam West, Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, and Robert Patrick (did I miss any?) That’s not counting the animated or television versions. I know Adam West was tv Batman but they also did a full-length movie.

AI-generated image of Batman performing the Yorick speech from Hamlet.
Alas, poor Joker.

See where I’m going with this? Everybody knows “the Batman story”. Parents murdered when he was young. Grows up to be a crime-fighting billionaire, works at night, has lots of cool toys. Not only do we keep telling his story over and over again, but people keep going. We understand that we basically know the story. We want to see how it’s going to be told this time. We want to see how it’s going to be acted this time.

That is exactly how Shakespeare fans feel about Hamlet. I don’t feel the same way about Moby Dick or Catcher in the Rye. Those were checklist items, you read them and say ok, read that, I’m done. I suppose you could do this with Hamlet. You could read it and say, check, done, I can say I’ve read Hamlet. I know a lot of people make it their bucket list to read all of Shakespeare’s works.

But to see it, that’s a whole different story. Whose did you see? What do you think about Mel Gibson’s version versus David Tennant? Or Andrew Scott up against Benedict Cumberbatch? Thoughts on Kenneth Branagh, or Kevin Kline, or Derek Jacobi?

This is how I want us to explain our love of Shakespeare to our friends and family. Shakespeare’s not something you get through in high school just to get the grade and forget all about it. The text may not be changing, but our desire and opportunity to interpret it has continued to evolve over hundreds of years. A character like Hamlet should be as iconic as Batman. We all know the story. Everybody who’s seen Lion King knows the story. Uncle kills father, marries mother, son avenges father. We go to see how it’s going to be told this time and by whom. What insights will new voices bring? Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear … let them be our superheroes.

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