Although written over 400 years ago, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has remained one of the most imitated and relevant plays in contemporary society. Interpretations of Shakespeare’s classic tale of revenge have popped up in some surprising places: children’s television programs and films, a beloved Sunday comic strip, a popular television series about a corrupt motorcycle gang, and other well-known shows, motion pictures, and best-selling contemporary novels.
William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around the year 1600, telling the story of a prince grieving the death of his father and the all-too-quick remarriage of his mother to his uncle. The play utilizes mental health issues, both real and faked, as a means to illustrate the nuances of human behavior. Commonly studied in high schools all over America, although written as a play for entertainment value, Hamlet has had a perhaps unintended but nonetheless profound effect on the way mental health is viewed. The complicated story and its plot twists and turns have captivated many readers and have shaped views for centuries with no sign of it losing its relevance. The novelty of Shakespeare’s work lies within the complexity of the character Hamlet. His struggles, although certainly different from this era, have resonated and continue to reach audiences even today.
One aspect of Hamlet’s appeal over the ages lies in him being trapped in an impossible situation and how he works to resolve that predicament in his own way. In this way, the play is legitimately seen as one of the most humanistic stories ever written. All of its characters are relatable people, even after 400 years, with motivations one can understand and appreciate, and with reactions that make sense, then and now. As an example, Ophelia’s illness is very real and dealt with sympathetically, culminating in her death being treated with the utmost respect. Shakespeare’s treatment of her mental health condition is truly powerful, particularly considering that it was written at a time when people with mental health conditions were anything but respected, and instead often abused or neglected. The grief demonstrated after her death is another instance of Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition and how people actually behave. Hamlet’s angst at her passing is a feeling that all that who have lost someone dear has shared, and thereby provides a connection to readers who may have experienced similar loss by letting them know that he or she is not alone in having disturbing feelings when confronted with a terrible loss. Obviously, Hamlet’s solution isn´t perfect, but it forces the reader to confront their own situation: how would we do any better?
With the incorporation of Hamlet’s plot into movies, television shows, and modern music, it is abundantly apparent that Hamlet has become deeply and permanently entrenched in today’s modern culture. Movies such as The Lion King and The Godfather closely resemble the plot of Hamlet. Released theatrically in 1994 (and thereafter on theatrically as a musical in 1997), The Lion King closely parallels some of the key plot points of Hamlet, including the death of King Mufasa at the hands of his scheming brother, Scar. In The Lion King, the protagonist, the young lion cub Simba, has an evil uncle named Scar. The scar is jealous of his brother, Mufasa, who is King of the Pride Lands, and aspires to be king in his stead, ultimately killing his brother to get what he wants. Like Simba, Hamlet also has an uncle, Claudius. At the beginning of the play, Claudius already has become king— possibly by killing his brother, who was previously the king. In The Lion King, Mufasa’s young son, Simba, is visited by his dead father’s ghost, and there is even comic relief provided by two supplemental characters – Timon and Pumba (“The Lion King”). Many debates if the references to Hamlet were intentional or not, but either way the story resembles that of the elusive Shakespearean play.
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Perhaps one of the most similar modern pieces of work to Hamlet is The Godfather, the 1972 classic movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather is the category-defining mafia crime film about Michael Corleone, a war hero of World War II, who openly volunteered to take control of his father’s (Vito Corleone) mafia business, after the death of his father and his older brother. In the film, the protagonist, Michael Corleone, is not typically looked at as a tragic hero. Although he does not have an obvious definitive “fatal flaw,” many similarities can be drawn between him and Hamlet, one of the most Shakespeare’s most famous tragic heroes. Their roles as troubled heirs to power, the theme of revenge, and the concept of a fall from “grace” are but a few examples of how these two figures – Hamlet and Michael Corleone – share the same story.
The most high-profile television series paralleling Hamlet is FX Network’s Sons of Anarchy, which aired between 2008 and 2014. Its creator, Kurt Sutter, was quoted on numerous occasions stating that Sons of Anarchy is loosely based on the story in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play, Claudius becomes both the king of Denmark and the husband of Queen Gertrude after his brother, Hamlet the Elder, dies under questionable circumstances. Prince Hamlet is conflicted in his relationship with his uncle/stepfather, as well as by his mother’s seeming complacency about all of this. Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who informs him that Claudius was responsible for his death and that he needs the prince to avenge this death in order to escape from purgatory. In the Sons of Anarchy series, Clay Morrow becomes the president of Sons of Anarchy, an outlaw motorcycle club, following the death of the club’s founder and president John Teller in a motorcycle accident, Like Claudius and Hamlet the Elder, Morrow, and Teller were ‘brothers’ to one another via their mutual association with the club. Like Claudius, Clay marries Teller’s widow, Gemma, and becomes stepfather to her son, Jax, who, like Hamlet to the throne, is the vice-president of the club and thus second in the line of succession. Through the discovery of a long-lost manuscript written by John Teller as well as a series of old letters, Jax begins communing, in a sense, with the ‘ghost’ of his long-dead father and discovers that Clay was responsible for John’s death by sabotaging his motorcycle. Jax then begins setting very complicated plots in motion to both oust Clay from the leadership of the club and potentially kill him as well. It also becomes apparent as the show develops that Gemma herself also had some complicity in John’s death.
One of the most popular and longest-running television shows, the animated comedy The Simpsons, has an episode entirely dedicated to Hamlet. In that episode, the characters reenact the play with substantial liberties, making for great comedy. Bart Simpson portrays Prince Hamlet in The Simpsons version of William Shakespeare’s classic. His uncle Claudius (bartender Moe Szyslak) marries Gertrude (Marge Simpson) after killing King Hamlet (Homer Simpson) by way of poison. The King returns to his son as a ghost, telling him of the betrayal and asking that his death be avenged. Prince Hamlet (Bart Simpson), with the help of a professional actor (Krusty the Clown), puts on a play to make Claudius (Moe) reveal himself to be guilty; however, Hamlet’s (Homer’s) reaction leads everyone to believe that he is crazy, so Ophelia (Lisa Simpson) decides to ‘out-crazy him by prancing around and singing a stupid song, eventually jumping out the window and into the moat where she drowns. Because Hamlet knows what he did, Claudius attempts to kill him. Hamlet, aiming to kill Claudius, accidentally kills Polonius (Chief Wiggum). Polonius implores his son, Laertes (Ralph Wiggum), to avenge his death, who, in Ralph Wiggum’s classic simpleton fashion exclaims, “I like revenging!.” Set to duel Hamlet, Laertes accidentally kills himself taking his ‘practice stab,’ and Hamlet proceeds to murder Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Carl and Lenny) meanwhile have been covered in poison and kill each other with a high five. Hamlet walks away to celebrate, but he slips on some blood and dies. Seeing a big mess she does not want to clean up, Gertrude commits suicide by hitting herself in the head with a mace (“The Simpsons Does Hamlet”). At the conclusion of this absurd episode, Bart expresses that he thinks Hamlet was boring, despite every character being murdered, but Homer tells him that the story became a great film called Ghostbusters, and all the Simpsons dance to its Ray Parker Jr. theme song.
Shakespeare’s classic tale can even be seen reflected in current music. “Ophelia,” the first single released from The Lumineers’ album, Cleopatra, is a hauntingly beautiful song with lyrics that tell the story of Hamlet. The song originally started out as a slower instrumental demo that Jeremiah Fraites (one-third of The Lumineers), sent to Wesley Schultz (lead vocalist of The Lumineers), in 2011. According to Schultz, the demo generated enough excitement to work on the project. While playing at a local bar in Los Angeles alongside The Lumineers, Schultz wrote the song’s hook, “O-o-Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind girl, like a drug. O-o-phelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love.” The song is named after the ingenue of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The lyrics state, “And I don’t feel no remorse/And you can’t see past my blindness,” which parallels the undying love Ophelia had for Hamlet, who did not regret ending their affair prematurely. The emotional distance between these two characters from the tragedy is evident in the song.. Whether a Shakespeare scholar or not, any listener to this interpretation of the Hamlet story comes to realize the message – that love’s pain is universal.
Although Hamlet is centuries old, it has had a long-lasting and continuing impact on today’s culture. After all of these years, artists continue to appreciate the well-crafted plotline, which many movies, television shows, and songs use to reach their audience. Hamlet is relevant today for many reasons. One of the most important is that we still feel inspired to ponder the purpose of life and to wonder what we would do in horrendous circumstances. The tragedy of Prince Hamlet is timeless in that respect. Shakespeare’s Hamlet also provides modern readers with an opportunity to connect history to the present. The relatability of Hamlet’s struggles within the play makes it the perfect example for current and future stories. Society is able to connect to his character and understand the complexity of his nature and situation. This same characterization and plot can be seen in classics such as The Lion King and revered television shows like The Simpsons. Surely without intention but nonetheless, Shakespeare created a play that has impacted society for generations.