A listicle of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy
August 16, 2020 3:47 AM   Subscribe

40 Hamlets, Ranked.
Here are the rules (though this be madness, yet there is method in’t):

1. I have included both full and partial Hamlets, though if not a full Hamlet, the character must be actually portraying the Prince in some way—in rare cases, a soliloquy might be enough (basically only if you’re Withnail), but a tossed-off quotation or lofted skull (sorry, Chewy) will not.

2. I’ve also had to exclude legendary (and er, less-legendary) stage performances that I couldn’t at least watch in part through the magic of the internet—I wish I had the chance to experience Ruth Negga’s Hamlet, or David Warner’s (in the scarf!), or Edwin Booth’s, for that matter. But since I can’t, they’re not exactly rankable. This also goes for John Barrymore, John Gielgud, the more recent Simon Russell Beale, etc. Trust me, I know they exist—but any list that includes them must veer irretrievably into the hypothetical.

3. I’ve made an effort to separate the Hamlets from the Hamlets, but there’s some inevitable conflation.

4. It’s obviously impossible to compare serious Hamlets with comic ones, or partial Hamlets with full ones, or old Hamlets with new ones, but I’ve done it anyway. Consider my rankings based on a combination of skill (at achieving whatever style of Hamlet is called for) and essential enjoyability.

5. Exclusion from this list should not necessarily be taken to mean a lack of ranking, and there are definitely more Hamlets in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this philosophy, but I was as exhaustive as I could be, and listen, you gotta stop somewhere. If Hamlet had known that, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten into all that trouble.

Finally, as always: my list, my opinions. I am not actually one of those people who thinks there is a “definitive” Hamlet—I think everyone has, or should have, their own personal ranking, based on their tastes and experience. This is mine; may it inspire you to further define your own (or just laugh at your desk at the goofy ones—whatever works for you). After all: to thine own self, etc.
posted by youarenothere (44 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Team Pamela.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 6:06 AM on August 16

I just rewatched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for the first time in perhaps several decades the other day. Perhaps not as awesome as I remember, but still damn funny, so it's nice to see baby faced Iain Glen on the list (and his chicken clucking).
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:07 AM on August 16 [6 favorites]

One of my college roommates became an English teacher and has used the Last Action Hero clip in his classes when introducing the play. It genuinely made me happy that this was ranked and did pretty well among the cameo Hamlets as such; it’s certainly my favorite gag usage. Anyway, good listicle.
posted by graymouser at 6:24 AM on August 16

As terrible as Mel Gibson has been shown to be, I remember seeing his take on Hamlet and really feeling like he'd done an excellent job. Later, in high school, when I finally read the play itself, I was surprised by how much of the play had been left out, and (if a whole bunch of time and lousy memory serves) how they'd chronologically altered the play in places. Branaugh's Hamlet might have been "the complete play" but I remember thinking it lacked the passion and vitality of Gibson's version
posted by Ghidorah at 6:26 AM on August 16 [4 favorites]

Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet should be at 41.
posted by pxe2000 at 7:29 AM on August 16 [6 favorites]

Points for including Jack Benny!!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:55 AM on August 16 [4 favorites]

Huh, I think the Derek Jacobi BBC production must be the first time I saw Hamlet! I was 10 or 11 and it was a family viewing thing. I understood the plot--in as much as "oh, everyone died" is the plot--but was a little light on the deeper themes. Not something I ever expected to know.

once in college I wrote a whole paper on how Caliban was a veiled representation of the Feminine Other and my professor’s comment on the bottom was “Isn’t it easier if he’s just a monster?” I got an A-, though

posted by mark k at 8:07 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

pxe2000: Could not agree more. I understand the argument from--I guess?--iconicness; I appreciate the time capsule nature of the adaptation in general and the Blockbuster scene specifically, but really find all of the acting abhorrent in that version. Hawke wasn't doing much at all!
posted by youarenothere at 8:29 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

Hawke wasn't doing much at all!

This is more to my taste than Tennant, who was doing a whole heaping ton of everything.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 8:45 AM on August 16 [4 favorites]

Hamlet is.. definitely not my favorite play, but boy, there have been a lot of them! I did enjoy the Slings & Arrows take on it quite a bit, though.
posted by curious nu at 8:48 AM on August 16 [3 favorites]

This is more to my taste than Tennant, who was doing a whole heaping ton of everything.

Fair (and intriguing as I have not seen it!); I remember being highly offended when shown Branaugh's in high school for the same reasons (this may or may not be a valid opinion, I have not seen it since and do not care to be held to account for my teenage thoughts on any subject). Although his over-delivery of "words, words, words" bothered at the time, it does admittedly float to mind as internal balm when someone is prattling away in front of me.
posted by youarenothere at 9:24 AM on August 16

Oh well, I was scrolling and reading hoping to see my unforgivable favorite - Lawrence Harvey in The Magic Christian. A striptease. A Vegas production climax.

In contrast, the Russian Hamlet... subtle is putting it mildly. I like this director’s King Lear more, it’s my favorite Shakespearean play, but these two films have been seen as maybe two of the best Shakespeare films.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:28 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

Agree with curious nu. I hoped she included the Slings & Arrows production, and was disappointed. If you have any interest in the theater at all, you must check out that show.
posted by nushustu at 9:35 AM on August 16 [5 favorites]

The list includes the Gilligan's Island musical Hamlet. The list is therefore complete.
posted by hippybear at 9:44 AM on August 16 [3 favorites]

I personally came in to check that Strange Brew was represented. Seems this is a good list!

The two minute Fraser clip with the gasping was great.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:05 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

The Branagh Hamlet is indeed a slog, and Claudius' death is unintentionally hilarious (my students started laughing the last time I showed it in class). However, it's also good for showing just what a self-own Claudius' decision to let Fortinbras happily waltz through the kingdom is ("why yes, let's allow the guy who was trying to invade us to have free passage, we've got his word, what can go wrong").

Olivier's Hamlet still works really well, even though the style is dated.

Fond of the Jacobi Hamlet, and Jacobi's self-parody on Frasier is great. Not fond of the Tennant version (or Tennant in general), although the meta-camera work is pretty interesting.

I actually did see the Simon Russell Beale Hamlet when the RNT brought it to the US. It was extremely abridged so that all the politics were taken out, leaving the audience with more of a psychodrama. A couple of decades on, my primary memory of the experience was that only SRB and Peter Blythe (doubling as Polonius/the Gravedigger) were at all comfortable with iambic pentameter, which a) was bizarre and b) had some really disastrous consequences for the production.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:22 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

I’m by no means qualified to weigh in, but the Tennant Hamlet is one of my favorite things of all time and everything about it just transfixes me. My TV hath borne it on its back a thousand times. (Told you I wasn’t qualified to weigh in.)

Anyway, awesome post, gonna watch some of these!
posted by glhaynes at 11:20 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Ruth Negga’s Hamlet was the last show I saw before everything shut down. She was fantastic, but it was a wildly uneven production with distracting sound design and some odd omissions and changes.

It's good to see that Andrew Scott is now more widely known as Hot Priest than Moriarty.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:35 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

The list includes the Gilligan's Island musical Hamlet. The list is therefore complete.

I once directed a production of W.S. Gilbert’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the local Gilbert & Sullivan society. It’s only one act, so to round it out to a full evening’s entertainment we did Sullivan’s Shakespeare songs, a few other related musical numbers, and as a finale, the Gilligan’s Island Hamlet (with the cast of Rosencrantz playing the same roles). The audience loved it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:42 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

I like Adam McNaughton's "Oor Hamlet"
posted by Reverend John at 11:44 AM on August 16

The best live Hamlet I've seen had the James J. Hill house playing Elsinore. The house is a huge granite mansion overlooking St. Paul, built by a railroad baron in the gilded age. It has a built in pipe organ. The audience would migrate to different rooms for the different scenes.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:44 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Generally speaking, a little David Tennant goes a long way.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:53 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Do not forget, stay out of debt..."
posted by Windopaene at 12:08 PM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Check out the Andrew Scott version if you get a chance at all. He's the first Hamlet in a long time that I actualy believed as a grieving son. My only objection to the production, really, is that for some reason the duel at the end is set to Bob Dylan, of all things.


I hoped she included the Slings & Arrows production, and was disappointed. If you have any interest in the theater at all, you must check out that show.

Hard second. The second season (of three) is a little uneven, but overall the series is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Check out a scene of one of the leads directing a not-all-that-great Ophelia.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:14 PM on August 16 [1 favorite]

No Don Rickles?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:30 PM on August 16

In the Bleak Midwinter/A Midwinter’s Tale is on YouTube!!! Highly recommended! If you enjoyed Slings and Arrows you’ll probably enjoy this movie.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:46 PM on August 16

Check out a scene of one of the leads directing a not-all-that-great Ophelia


posted by fedward at 12:49 PM on August 16 [1 favorite]

Bah! Any list that does not include Cowboy Wally's Hamlet by the great Kyle Baker, fails!
posted by tavella at 3:14 PM on August 16 [1 favorite]

The best Hamlet is the one from Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. He comes to the real world because he wants to know what everyone thinks of his character. Mostly he lies around complaining and eating Battenberg cake. Also he has an existential crisis over iced coffee. Definitively the best.

Caveat: I have never read or watched Hamlet.
posted by brook horse at 3:46 PM on August 16

This thread inspires me to go watch Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, which I really enjoyed. There were a few places where it felt a bit rushed; I suspect parts of the novel were harder to condense than others.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:39 PM on August 16

Went through and watched the top twenty or so and I've got to second what a few other people mentioned above. Olivier is perhaps a bit stodgy but still the GOAT, Tennant is like trying to down an entire bottle of tabasco sauce, Branaugh is meaningless breathy enunciation, but damn Andrew Scott is a fucking revelation.
posted by alidarbac at 9:47 PM on August 16

The Andrew Scott one for me was pretty fantastic as well, but I've loved him in everything I've seen him in.

The most revelatory hamlet I've seen (ok, I haven't seen that many) was one a few summers ago at Elsinore castle. It was heavily abbreviated--only about two hours long in total. But what I liked was that the actor playing Hamlet was actually young. I think part of what has always annoyed me about Hamlet is that it is often 40+ year old actors playing an irritatingly mopey character, and it has never really worked for me. But make him look like an actual teenager? The character makes a lot more sense to me then.
posted by vernondalhart at 11:07 PM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Big points to them for including Withnail; demerits for this howler: "It is the official position of Literary Hub that Kenneth Branagh is no good as a dramatic actor." I haven't seen his Hamlet, and he is better in funny roles, but if you don't like his Henry V then I don't know what to do with you. (I did try to watch Olivier's version once, and to this day I can't remember if I turned it off or fell asleep.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:23 AM on August 17 [4 favorites]

but if you don't like his Henry V then I don't know what to do with you.
Absolutely correct, but more in an "exception proving the rule" sense than anything else.

I also remember Gibson's film more fondly than Branagh's. It's bleaker, less shiny, and less festooned with stunt casting (Jack Lemmon for one, but fucking Robin Williams as Osric took me right out of the film).

I'm unlikely to re-watch either, though, given the wealth of other more interesting options in the list. I'm super interested in the Andrew Scott version, but close behind is Adrian Lester's. His monologue clip in the article is mesmerizing. I'm also -- sue me -- kinda into seeing the TV version with Campbell Scott.
posted by uberchet at 12:06 PM on August 17

3. I’ve made an effort to separate the Hamlets from the Hamlets, but there’s some inevitable conflation.

I will admit I was expecting hamlets.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:10 PM on August 17 [2 favorites]

The movie that everyone always credits as “Mel Gibson’s Hamlet” is actually Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet. Gibson is just the actor. I think the confusion comes partly because “so-and-so’s Hamlet” is both a way of discussing a performance and of discussing an eponymous film, partly because Gibson went on to be an actor/director in other projects, partly because Branagh was an actor/director in the most significant filmed Hamlet.

But I think it’s worth noting that the film Gibson was in was Zeffirelli’s vision, partly because he’s known for his other Shakespeare adaptations.
posted by verbminx at 7:22 PM on August 17 [2 favorites]

vernonsalhart, that was part of what appealed to me about Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet—Hawke was 29 and seemed like a depressed grieving grad student rather than a man in the throes of a midlife crisis. Also, Liev Schrieber was outstanding as Laertes. i would watch him in anything.
posted by epj at 9:34 PM on August 17

I can say without hyperbole that Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater as Hamlet is the greatest performance of Hamlet in the history of civilization. “Hey Claudius...you killed my father. Big mistake.”

I've never liked all the noodling in a straight-up murderous revenge scenario. You killed my father? Prepare to die.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:49 PM on August 17 [1 favorite]

But it's not straight up. See, a ghost told him these things. That's not really a reliable witness, and Hamlet is sort of on the edge between real and unreal to begin with. So he's left to playing these games with the people in his life, to try to get them to admit things or reveal clues. He's very clumsy with his actions (Ophelia, RIP), and he's shit at a lot of what he's trying to do because he's pissing a lot of people off. But he does manage to get to the core in the end.

It's not a straight-up murderous revenge scenario. It's Miss Marple at a delicate family party exchanging gossip to try to figure out why that Aunt died unexpectedly.

I feel this theory is supported by Roz & Guild, but I'd have to rewatch (the filming with Tim Roth) to back that up. It's late.
posted by hippybear at 10:58 PM on August 17 [5 favorites]

(Wow, sorry, hours later, I see that I called Branagh’s version the “most significant filmed Hamlet” but absolutely did not mean to. I meant to say “most immediately subsequent significant filmed Hamlet” = i.e. the next significant version after Zeffirelli’s was Branagh’s. Someone kept walking in and out of the room while I was typing the initial comment.)
posted by verbminx at 12:19 AM on August 18

Glad to see Richard Burton's Hamlet included.
posted by rmmcclay at 1:13 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]

I saw Branagh do Hamlet on stage when I was 16, which I think was the perfect age to imprint on someone. I had only seen amateur productions of Shakespeare before and I was so caught up by actors who knew how to speak the verse.

I no longer especially like his acting but still have fond memories of that particular role. (It was his theatre company on tour in Dublin and they did Hamlet, As You Like It (he plated Touchstone) and I didn't see the third play but think it was Much Ado.)

The following year I also saw Mark Rylance in a RSC touring production and I don't know if it was the larger theatre or worse seats but I much preferred the Branagh, despite the Rylance being a famously great performance (mentioned here: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/aug/22/10-best-hamlets-david-tennant) I suspect I may have been blinded by my continuing crush on Branagh.
posted by hfnuala at 3:47 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]

I would like to see a list of Richard II's... Because Ben Wishaw would be my number 1.
posted by Pendragon at 6:27 PM on August 19

Benedict Cumberbatch is missing (I think there might not be an official YT version?)

William Shatner, of course, needs no introduction. I think he played the bard in Stratford before Star Trek?

(Withnail is the first thing I thought.)
posted by ovvl at 5:08 PM on August 20

« Older The Clangers   |   How to Choose the Pet Bug That’s Right for You Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments