Deconstructing Hamlet

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes characters tick.  Why do they act the way they do?  Grant Morrison has famously deconstructed the Batman mythos and he’s worked hard to distill Bruce Wayne down to a few crucial elements.  Essentially, he asked the question “How much of Batman can you change and still call the character Batman?  How can I rip Batman out of his element, but still tell a Batman story?”  A few things have changed over the 75 year character history: the murder origin, Alfred’s role, etc.  However, a few things seem to be necessary: Bruce needs Alfred, his mother and father must die in front of him, his mother wore pearls; Batman must inspire both good in young potential sidekicks (and unintentionally this creates his rogues gallery.)  If this kind of deconstruction sounds interesting to you, then pre-order The Return of Bruce Wayne and take a look at Batman as he travels time, becomes a Pirate, fights in Puritan America, travels to the end of time, etc.  It doesn’t sound like Batman, but because Grant distilled Batman down to a few essential elements he was able to take him completely out of his comfort zone and still have something distinctly Batman.

At this point you’re probably wondering why I blog more about Batman than Shakespeare.  I think the connection is rather obvious though (at least, to a comic book fan it is.)  The greatest thing that ever happened to comic characters was letting them, in a sense, be public domain.  Yeah, you have to get a job at DC to write Batman, but Batman has been written by literally hundreds of authors and each has interpreted him a different way.  He’s gone through a million different incarnations and they’re all valid.  Now, I’m sitting here reading Hamlet with the intention of distilling Hamlet down to his most essential elements.  My hope is that when I channel Hamlet, when I “talk with the gods”, that I can re-write him and pull him out of his comfort zone.

So.  What makes Hamlet necessarily Hamlet?  There are a few things that I think have to happen in a Hamlet story or it just isn’t Hamlet.

  1. Tragedy.  Hamlet is driven by tragedy.  His father has to die.  It’s his “secret origin”.

    Tragic heroes require tragic inciting incidents.

  2. Love interest.  Just like Bruce Wayne always falls for the bad girl with the bad trait, Hamlet also has to have a love interest.  One that he cannot obtain (either because of her flaws or because of his flaws.)
  3. Brooding.  Hamlet (like Bruce) has ghosts, demons and in dark vigils he finds it incredibly difficult to find solace.  This leads me to my next point.
  4. Self-destruction.  Much like Batman, or any Byronic archetype for that matter, these characters are driven by vengeful motives that will slowly consume them.  They find their dark side very difficult to tame and the result is often tragic—they immure themselves in their saturnine woe and alienate their love interests, their friends and their family members.  If you skip to 0:58 you’ll find Bruce in the graveyard trying to reconcile happiness with his misery.  These characters don’t want to let go of their sorrows because they feel like they’re betraying their deceased family.  Ultimately, Bruce will (like Hamlet) choose to let his vengeance consume him and the cost will be, in many senses, his life.  Self destruction is not limited to the individual alone, however.  Bruce Wayne entangles young sidekicks in his fight against crime.  One of them, Jason Todd, is murdered by the Joker.  And once again, is Hamlet so different?  Hamlet, in deciding to wage war, can be held responsible for the deaths of Polonius, Guildenstern, Rosencrantz, Ophelia, his mother, and himself.
    Batman holding Jason Todd’s corpse.
  5. Arrogance.  Hamlet’s arrogance is perhaps his greatest tragic flaw.  This is evidenced when Hamlet, presented with the opportunity to kill the king, chooses not to because he has caught the King in prayer and thinks he wouldn’t be properly damned if he were killed at that moment.  In Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, he referred to this as Hamlet having “multiple motivations”, which effectively complicated his mission and were his undoing. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_JyoK8RVPE ] 1:45 to 2:22 is really all I’m focusing on here (although Return of the Jedi is god-tier cinema.)  Who is the overconfident one again?  It’s the Emperor, the villain, plain and simple.  He looks like a villain, he sounds like a villain, he is a pure villain.  And yet, this tragic flaw he has is one that so many of our heroes seem to share.  I remember being little and having a hard time understanding why good characters did bad things.  Now that I’m older, I very rarely enjoy good characters who do only good things (Luke Skywalker is an exception.)
  6. Intelligence.  Hamlet is smart.  To go off on a bit of an aside—and I’ll touch on this in a later post since it isn’t relevant here—with such intelligence, how would Hamlet respond to his demise?  He seems too smart to not learn from his mistakes.

    Hamlet is smart and brooding. Robin said so.

  7. Introspective/Introverted/Cunningly Capricious.  I grouped all of these together because I think they’re extremely interrelated.  Hamlet is introspective to the point of moodiness and melodramatic sorrow.  Like I’ve said before, I think Hamlet is in love with his sadness.  I’m not particularly convinced, for that matter, that Hamlet needs anyone.  I think Hamlet could subsist on his own just fine.  Company isn’t really something he needs.  However, Hamlet knows how to swing from mood to mood.  I know that sounds like a bi-polar character, but Hamlet is actually—I think—completely in control of his emotions.  Throughout the play Hamlet capriciously shifts from a tristful soliloquy to entertaining his friends and being all smiles.  Just look at Act I where Hamlet is left to his own devices and immediately begins questioning the purpose of life.  However, when Horatio enters, Hamlet’s mood completely changes.  I dont think it’s because he’s not really sad, or because he’s deceivingly happy.  I just think he’s very smart and very in control of his persona.  Obviously, Hamlet’s black moods are his undoing, but he never lets it show.  He knows how to maintain a public persona and he knows who needs to see which side of it.  He wants his mother to worry about him because, in a sense, it allows Hamlet to punish her and remind her how disapproving he is of the marriage.  On the contrary, he doesn’t want to trouble his friends as much and so he can be cheery.

Hamlet exhibits several Byronic/Tragic tropes—as so many of my favorite literary characters do (James Bond, Batman, Eugene Onegin, &c.)  What’s interesting is how conflicting the traits are.  I think it adds psychological verisimilitude to these characters.  Conflicted characters seem like smarter characters.  I’ll address this in a future post, but I’ll just throw it out there for now: If Hamlet were to return from the grave as a ghost, much like his father did, would his intelligence and cunning help him overcome his tragic flaw—or—is the tragic flaw that his arrogance drowns out his intelligence every time?

I opened this post with the idea that comic book characters are written by hundreds of people.  Letting the characters be owned by a publisher and not a writer was the single greatest decision that comic book publishers/writers ever made.  It made them, quite literally, the modern myths.  I’m currently enrolled in a Greek and Roman Mythology class and one of the things that every student gets hung up on is how Greek myths vary every time they’re re-told.  I remember this being a problem in my English 291 class too, particularly when we were reading Marlowe’s Hero and Leander.  Myths change and evolve.  They grow to reflect our societies.  In Greece, when a new generation rose up and brought in their new Gods, they reconciled the myths by having Cronus overthrow Uranus, or Zeus overthrow Cronus.  They’re all Sky gods, but they’re all completely different.  Comics have conditioned me to not get hung up on these things.  Characters change as they’re re-interpreted, and I rather like it that way.  I think our modern mindset wants to force us to think that there’s only one way to do things.  There’s only one way to have Hamlet.  There’s only one way to tell a character’s story.  I really don’t think that’s the case.  Hamlet is public domain.  Most of the great literary characters are.  There is no reason for them to not be radically reinterpreted.  Another thing comic publishers do is “crossovers”.  Every few years they do a big event where Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Animal Man and several others all leave their respective titles and come together for a mashup of action and romance.  Why not do this with literary characters?  If you can distill Hamlet down to a science, figure out what makes him tick, and learn from how he interacts in his world, why not rip him out of that world?  Just like how Grant Morrison ripped Bruce Wayne from Gotham and turned him into a cowboy or a Puritan detective, I want to rip Hamlet out of Elsinore.  I want to see how he interacts with Sherlock Holmes.  How does he interact with Jesus Christ?  How does he interact with someone like Faustus, who shares so many of his traits.  Does he clash with Childe Harold or do they get along?  How would he feel about Romeo?  How would he feel about Shakespeare himself?  I think I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered in this post, but as I’ve heard Gideon so poetically say, “We’ve raised the questions, and that’s half the battle.”


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