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Debra Rienstra

Postmodern Hamlet

Can Shakespeare survive the dissolution of the self?

Halfway through Michael Almereyda's new film version of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take their pal Hamlet out on the club scene, where they slump on sofas with their beers and attempt to sound out Hamlet's secrets by shouting lines at each other over the thumpa-thumpa of the music. It is an amusingly symbolic moment: Can anyone hear Shakespeare's lines over the visual and aural noise of postmodern film?

I'm no language-is-all Shakespeare purist. I like the action, the intrigue, the mistaken identities. I even like the clothes. (Why not? Costumes were by far the largest expenditure for Shakespeare's acting company.) The past decade of image-is-all filmmaking has left me wondering, though, just how much can be suppressed while still offering audiences something of value. Go ahead and cut lines, recast the setting, rearrange scenes—I'm game. But what are we left with? That is the question.

Almereyda's Hamlet cheekily turns Denmark into a mammoth New York corporation. Hamlet's father is its recently deceased CEO, while Hamlet himself is played by Ethan Hawke as a rich-kid slacker, at once cynical and bewildered by the towering buildings and shallow people around him.

The concept and art direction of the film convey this bewilderment very effectively: Hamlet's world seems dominated by electronic devices and images. In his apartment, random still photos cluster around his video editing setup, and video images play distractingly. Fax machines and cell phones beep and buzz their way into scenes, and Hamlet's friends first view his father's ghost through a security camera.

The dominant theme of photo-images comments nicely on the dehumanizing effects of galloping technology while supporting Shakespeare's central concerns in the play with theatricality and introspection. Seeing Hamlet's introspection literalized as video footage is an apt transposition of the excessive speechifying in Shakespeare's ...

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