Shakespeare’s famous revenge tragedy Hamlet is a story of unrelenting twists and thrills of madness and revenge. I have chosen to compare this play to Michael Almereyda’s film made in 2000 that is a modern interpretation of the original text and was an attempt to do to Hamlet what Baz Luhrman did to Romeo and Juliet.
This a brief synopsis of the play; Hamlet is the son of King Hamlet who died before the play begins. King Hamlets brother, Claudius takes the throne and marries his wife. The story largely tracks the revenge sought by Hamlet after the murderer who is, by GREAT surprise, King Hamlet’s brother, Claudius.
Almereyda’s film remains mostly faithful to the original plot but the setting is in stark contrast to the original setting Hamlet was written to take place within. The film is, set in the busy, fast paced city of New York and adapts the play to reflect elements of popular culture; through the sound track, the casting decisions and the contemporary setting. It seems that in making the adaptation the director is hoping to make Shakespeare’s classic more accessible for contemporary audiences; allowing it to “ manifest itself in our everyday lives” (as the Director of the film is quoted as saying in an article ‘ Prince of the City’.)Almereyda thus sees his movie as a mediation of the central ideas of the text by setting it in modern times, in a way that seems unnecessarily exaggerated, the movie is attempts to grab audiences in the same way as it did when/if they first read it.
To overcome the problem of the lack of a monarchy in New York, the kingdom of Denmark is now, the Denmark Corporation, a multi million-dollar media company, exemplifying the idea that we live in a media saturated society. This concept is brought through frequently in the movie, where in almost every scene we see a TV or a Photograph or a Video Camera. It even goes so far as to play Hamlet (Ethan Hawke’s) soliloquy’s through recordings from his beloved video camera.
A turning point at the beginning of the play occurs when a ghost or apparition appears and tells Hamlet that Claudius was King Hamlet’s murderer and orders Ham. to seek revenge on the man who murdered King Hamlet and married his wife. ” Let not the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest. But howsomever thou pursues this act, taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive”. The plays attempt at recreating this scene is very poor, the apparition is Hamlet’s father but he is not made to look like or act like a ghost, this adds to my belief that without reading the text or knowing the story, one would struggle to understand the plot.
The idea of a ghost appearing in the movie is not convincing for a modern day audience compared to most of the movie, which is relatively realistic, these changes in cultural values from the Elizabethan times of the 17th century to today shows that we have no real belief in apparitions or superstitious acts. Another example of this is the marriage of King Hamlet’s wife to his brother Claudius; this incestuous act is not one that would normally occur today, this, at the time of writing was even a peculiar event as women were subject to male domination and misogyny, Hamlet speaks of this because of his mothers betrayal of his father, ‘ Frailty, thy name is woman’. .
I think a point to consider is the movies making in the year 2000. As we know this was the beginning of a new millennium of groundbreaking discoveries and revolutionary idea’s, the director’s making of the movie at this time may have been to carry us into the new millennium with his remake of a classic Shakespearean play. This in addition to, I believe, society and audience’s hunger for post modern works in a change of context and setting of original pieces that appeal to them, such as the immensely popular Luhrman version of Romeo and Juliet.
The story is based around the theme of revenge and how its blood-boiling disposition can dramatically change our thoughts, character and actions. Hamlet becomes an ‘ other’ upon finding out of his father’s murder by his uncle, Hamlet rejects his friends, girlfriend and more especially, his mother who because of her betrayal of Hamlets father, he attempts to murder her. Hamlet is torn between deciding to seek revenge or commit suicide and becomes crazy with this new burden placed upon him.
At one point he even jokes, pointing a gun to his own head declaring ‘ To be or not to be, that is the question’. This point where he has to decide to take action or not appears again and he repeats the words, ‘ to be or not to be, that is the question’. This time in a video store, in the ‘ action’ aisle whilst watching a movie, which eventuates with a man stepping out of a ring of fire. (Once again Almereyda’s lack of subtlety is astonishing).
This scene in the movie poorly appropriates a very famous scene in the play and the movie continues thereafter to make clumsy and indiscreet representations of key events in the play; one has to wonder why he made a movie that hinges on so many poorly executed key scenes.
Claudius becomes suspicious of Hamlets madness and in consequence sends him to England. Whilst on the plane, which I think is a metaphor for his changing ideas, his words speak his thoughts and desires. ” From this time forth, my thoughts and actions be bloody or nothing worth”. This point marks Hamlets newfound desire to seek revenge. This ever-changing context in almost every scene would make one think that the film is a good appropriation to a modern setting, however somehow it just doesn’t meet the mark. Upon seeking revenge on Claudius, Hamlet is also killed, suggesting to us that although revenge can be sought, it is not without consequences.
The setting in New York whilst adventurous does not in anyway fit in with a Shakespearean play. Timeless and great speeches and soliloquies are given in the middle of the street between the incongruous horns of cars and city sounds. The movie simply does not succeed in its aim, because it seems that the text simply cannot be effectively reinvented to accommodate for cultural differences; to appreciate Hamlet contemporary audiences will have to attempt to unravel and understand the text as it was designed to be interpreted, not from the voice of an anxious Ethan Hawke who unconvincingly attempts to recreate Hamlet’s ageless dilemmas.
Frankenstein is based around the key concept of the dangerous pursuit of knowledge. The ambition to discover unknown knowledge was one of great significance during the late nineteenth century. This time was a period of colonial imperialism which included vast expansion for the British Empire with the discovery and acquirement of foreign lands. Shelley accurately reflects this in her novel through the character Robert Walton and his journey to discover a polar route to the Pacific. This same value is brought through in the main character, Victor Frankenstein and his scientific ambition to create a Human-Being. This idea of discovery has great emphasis placed on it in nineteenth century English society and Shelley rightly reflects this throughout her novel.
Throughout the novel, Shelley never writes of Religious value or infers it directly, except that of God through Victor. Man trying to assume the role of God is a value and theme heavily drawn upon in the novel. This for Shelley must have been a value that she placed great belief in although, strangely enough, she was an atheist. Through the main character Victor Frankenstein we see an ordinary man trying to play God by creating a living human from dead body parts. Victor’s thirst for knowledge and his desire to play God are ones that are very destructive and Shelley emphasise’s this through the murder of various characters by the monster as a result of Victors creation.
“ No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour down a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in the process of time… renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. ” (page 52-53)
Society in nineteenth century England placed huge emphasis on religion, particularly the Church of England whose policies and traditions were woven into politics at this time. The existence of God and religion acted as a boundary toward good and evil. Though Shelley never speaks of Religious values in particular, the novel is heavily based around this underlying theme, especially that of the axis between good and evil. In this sense Shelley really is, shaping the values that she accepts in society. Although she herself was not religious she obviously still believed in the conflict between good and evil.
Another key theme, embraced by Shelley is that of Chauvinism, one that was heavily prevalent throughout the whole of English Society. The ever-selfish Victor’s relationship with his ever-loving cousin Elizabeth is very dis-functional. Victor treats her as a possession and constantly neglects her whilst preoccupied with his own issues. Victor is clearly self-obsessed and his lack of consideration and attention to any character leads to his eventual downfall. Victor’s selfishness throughout the whole novel is displayed in his ‘ ownership’ of Elizabeth. In relation to the author, Shelley herself was persecuted by men, particularly Percy Bysshe of whom she was his mistress. Shelley’s mother was also notably famous for writing the world’s first feminist tract which creates a stronger link between Shelley and the idea of chauvinism within the text. Shelley reflects on and ties this aspect of personal and periodical value to her text.
The Gothic Romantic movement became immensely popular with the production and release of title novels (one of them being Frankenstein) that shaped this genre and provided an alternative for 19th century literary society. There are many features present in Frankenstein that are characteristics of the Romantic genre. The appreciation and exploration of nature was one of these important features and the novel heavily exploits this. Both of the main characters, Victor and the creature find fascination in nature and its wonders and frequently speak of it throughout the novel.
“. . . the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places.”
“ Immense glaciers approached the road; I heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley.”
“ Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.”
Nature could be seen as a power in the universe and the essence of this period was the discovery of the universe as a power and a machine and the exploration of the imagination. Another significant detail to be found in Romantic novels is the inclusion of other texts within the text. Shelley rightly employs this idea in her novel and evidence can be found within it. Victor records his trials and tribulations in his journal and more importantly, the book is framed by letters from Walton who acts as a parallel character to Victor. His inclusion essentially only exists as a means to frame the novel and further heighten its arrangement into the Gothic Romantic genre. As a novel classified as being in the Gothic Romantic genre it becomes obvious that Shelley was reflecting the values of her society and time particularly in the literary sense.
Along with discovery, nature and imagination, a feature prominent in Romanticism was the idea of goodness and honesty. In most novels that are categorised in this genre, the main character is the one who possesses the values of goodness and honesty, in Frankenstein however this idea is satirised. Exemplifying Shelley’s disgust at society and the human race in general, the creature has now become the Romantic hero, possessing these values until the novels society rejects him because of his appearance and he goes on a violent rampage murdering those close to Victor. The creature had a genuine character of love and kindness and it is not until his rejection by Frankenstein and society that he becomes bitter and full of hatred.
Shelley has now turned the ‘ monster’ who is usually the evil character in a novel into the ‘ Romantic hero’ who possesses the values and ideals that a noble and righteous character should. This theme has been poorly interpreted by the Director Boris Karloff in his film version of Frankenstein where the creature has a criminal brain and therefore is pre disposed to have violent tendencies. Karloff may have deliberately turned the flim version away from the Gothic Romantic genre or did not believe this to be a feature of it. Shelley shapes this idea of the Romantic Hero in a very subtle yet intelligent manner.
Frankenstein is an intelligently written novel in which the author informs the reader of certain values in society through her subtle and satirical style and techniques. These values, despite facing the constraints of the varying context between early the eighteen-hundreds to the second millennium, are very relevant to all kinds of people and that’s why the novel still retains universal appeal despite its age. Frankenstein was produced at the height of the Gothic and Romantic period and as such the value of the text lies most significantly in its reflection of the period.