When William Shakespeare sat down to write Hamlet at the turn of the 17th century, he had no way of knowing his work would be the basis of adaptations, parodies, and musicals for centuries thereafter.
Hamlet tells the tale of a father's betrayal by his brother and the subsequent quest for revenge by his son, the Prince of Denmark (after whom the play is named). Prince Hamlet’s loyalty to his father, love for his mother, disinterest in his girlfriend Ophelia and hatred for his murderous uncle have long kept audience members at the edge of their seats.
Some of Shakespeare's most famous characters and phrases come from the play, and it has been performed on stage and screen countless times since its inception. It’s also inspired a number of modern works, ranging from beloved Oscar-winners to adaptations we may want to forget. Here are some of the most notable examples:
Lies, Pride and a Pride of Lions: Hamlet on Screen
Hamlet has enjoyed dozens of major theatrical adaptations, and inspired a great many films.
The most acclaimed version of Hamlet will be familiar to most people alive after 1994. Musical and vibrant, it transplants Hamlet's basic plot of betrayal and revenge from Europe to Africa, and substitutes the regular human cast for more furry and feathery characters. That's right—Disney's The Lion King reimagines Hamlet's plot of a king being killed by his brother and his son seeking retribution as a family-friendly dramedy, whose stage and screen forms have grossed more than a billion dollars. If only the tormented Hamlet had heard of Hakuna Matata, the 'problem-free philosophy,' he may not have met such a tragic end!
The Lion King has often been called ‘Hamlet with Animals’ by film and theatre critics alike.
The opposite of problem-free, a more recent Hamlet-inspired television epic doesn't skimp on the blood and violence. Though not a direct adaptation, the hit series Sons of Anarchy borrows key themes and elements from Hamlet. The main character's father is betrayed by his brother-in-arms, who then marries his deceased comrade's wife, setting off the series of events that has made 'Hamlet on Harleys' a mass success. Who knew that great books studies could lead to such gritty and widespread pop culture success?
Hamlet & Great Books Studies: The Most ‘Novel’ Adaptations
Hamlet’s story has also been at the heart of several great literary works. These range from the explicitly set in Hamlet's world to tangential and metaphorical versions.
John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius is his interpretation of a prequel to Hamlet, telling of Hamlet's uncle Claudius’ usurpation of the King and marriage to his widow. A graduate of a great books studies program will likely be familiar with Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which interprets existential commentary by the play's minor characters with action from the original.
Other modern Hamlet-inspired works have Ophelia as the main protagonist, most notably Margaret Atwood's Gertrude Talks Back and Lisa Klein's Ophelia.
Other great books foundations that can be sourced from Hamlet include Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince, Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and even Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
In fact, if you pursue a great books program, you'll probably recognize many more instances where Hamlet's influence can be discerned. Whether it's on the screen or on the page, Shakespeare’s Hamlet dares each new reader and audience member “to be or not to be” moved by his tale.
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