Hamlet, The Northman, and Shakespeare’s genius through the looking glass

Robert Egger’s The Northman is based on the same source material as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a Viking legend circa 1,000 AD, but takes a completely different path, crafting an almost anti-Hamlet.  This “Shakespherean” mode of adaptation presents unique opportunity to return to Shakespeare’s original roots and illuminate both works.

Despite attempts to cancel the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare remains so ever-present and influential, literally scholars have coined a new phrase to describe yet another variation of adaptations of his work: Shakespherean.  As Jeffrey R. Wilson, a Harvard scholar, described it to CNN, a Shakespherean adaptation is “a retelling inspired by materials that aren’t Shakespeare’s texts but are widely known today in relation to Shakespeare.”  This approach is distinct from what he describes as “refractions of adaptations” such as West Side Story, set in another time and using different dialogue and characters than the original play, or House of Cards which is “an American adaptation of a British cable adaptation of an earlier novel adaptation of Richard III” if you can follow that.  Elisions are yet another variation “where the middle drops out,” such as Netflix’s The King which largely used Shakespeare’s characters and story arcs, but not the actual text.  Shakespherean adaptations in particular present a unique opportunity:  A modern artist can return to the original roots while remaining aware of where Shakespeare himself took the story, using the differences between to illuminate both works.  The Northman, a visually stunning and provocative new film from Robert Eggers, might be the ultimate test of this principle.  The source material is the Viking legend that underpins Shakespeare’s most famous and challenging play, Hamlet.  “It’s a very old saga,” actor Alexander Skarsgård, who plays the titular Northman in the film, explained to Den of Geek. “Shakespeare based his Hamlet on Saxo Grammaticus’ Prince Amleth from the 12th century. But Saxo Grammaticus most likely based Prince Amleth of Jutland, which we based our movie on, on an even older Icelandic saga from the ninth or 10th century.”

Thus, the bones of the story remain the same:  A young prince’s father is killed by his uncle, the uncle takes up with his mother, and the young prince plots his revenge.  Just about everything else, however, is different.  The setting.  The dialogue. The supporting characters.  Even the names:  Hamlet is Amleth.  From this framework, Mr. Eggers and co-screenwriter Sjon have crafted a mostly compelling film, filled with striking images.  The strangeness of the Viking world and culture circa 900 AD are on full display, from reaving hordes of berserkers who fight and kill like animals, to religious rituals where humans take on and imitate animal characteristics, literally barking at the moon, to extreme sporting competitions where opponents can be killed on the field with a club to the face.  This is a dark, dangerous, and bloody place.  The strong prey upon the weak, and anyone captured can be sold into slavery.  There are no castles like Elsinore as in Shakespeare’s play.  There is no court to be seen, only small groups of violent men oppressing everyone in sight and stealing everything they can with little or no fear of reprisal.  In this world, it comes as little shock that King Aurvandill, Amleth’s father, is killed by his brother Fjölnir in broad daylight, peppering him with arrows and cutting his head off while Amleth himself watches in the woods.  Fjölnir recognizes the young boy as a threat and immediately sends men after him, but the clever Amleth eludes capture, slicing a man’s nose off in the process.  We see him rowing into the sea swearing vengeance over and over again with each pull of the oars, “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”  Years later we meet him as a berserker, attacking a village where a sorceress predicts his revenge on his uncle is imminent.  Without question, he brands himself a slave and sneaks aboard a boat bound for Iceland and his uncle.

Hamlet, of course, takes a different path.  He is an adult when his father is killed, and only learns it was a murder from the ghost of his father.  Hamlet remains at court along with his uncle, Claudius who is now king and Claudius has no plans to kill him, at least at first.  Neither does Hamlet need to seek Claudius out for vengeance nor sell himself into slavery.   Revenge is there for the taking all along.  Indeed, the conundrum at the center of the play is why Hamlet chooses not to act given the easy opportunity to take his revenge.  This failure to act is exemplified in a scene where he comes upon Claudius while he is alone, praying.  Hamlet is armed with a sword and can kill him easily.  Instead, he chooses to opine on the nature of prayer itself and whether or not it can purify the soul.  “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;  And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;  And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven.”  Instead, Hamlet decides to wait until he is “drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;  At gaming, swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in’t” to ensure “that his soul may be as damn’d and black As hell, whereto it goes.”  The whole speech smacks of self-rationalization, especially when Hamlet has recently killed Polonius and must know he is not likely to be given free movement about the castle for long, meaning his window to take revenge is rapidly closing.  Nor is the first time Hamlet delays.  Throughout the play, he seems more than willing to play Claudius’ and Polonius’ game, capering and caterwauling about with every person they put in his way from his former lover Ophelia to his two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He even goes so far as to stage an elaborate scene with a fake play to taunt his uncle, rather than simply killing him.  The situation is so at odds with Hamlet’s motives, that critics have offered every conceivable explanation from Hamlet fearing the ghost lied to him and is attempting to damn his sould, to Hamlet being a true Christian who adheres to the Ten Commandments.

Amleth suffers from no such doubts or hesitation to take advantage of the opportunities presented.  His world is strictly governed by fate, he believes it is his destiny to slay his uncle, and that this will come to pass at some point no matter what, as though the future was already written.  Mr. Eggers and Sjon introduce this concept in a brief narration to start the film.  In Norse mythology, the fate of all men and women is determined by three goddesses, the Norns.  These Norns live in a hall outside the Well of Fate, beneath the great tree Yggdrasil that holds the universe.  Old Norse literature describes three ways they control the lives of men and the gods themselves, either by casting wooden lots, carving symbols, or weaving a piece of cloth.  Mr. Eggers and Sjon use the weaving image throughout The Northman, but the end result is the same:  Amleth doesn’t suffer from many doubts, and he appears fully justified in this complete confidence when nature itself seems to work on his behalf at times.  In the movie’s final act, Amleth is captured by his uncle.  He is tied up and beaten in a barn, but once he is alone, ravens, a symbol associated with the chief of Norse gods, Odin, enter and peck at his bindings until he is free.  In this sense, he is the anti-Hamlet.  He has complete confidence revenge will be his regardless of how dire any specific situation.  There is only one scene in the film when Amleth expresses any doubt about this destiny.  Briefly, he believes he might cheat fate by boarding a ship with his lover, Olga, a slave sorceress.  He learns that she is with child and is tempted by the prospect of giving up his quest and siring a son of his own.  The temptation, however, lasts for just a short scene before he swims back to shore to take his revenge.

Mr. Eggers and Sjon must’ve known they were crafting a character that is essentially a negative image of Hamlet, as if we were watching Shakespeare’s play through a mirror that showed only the opposite side.  Where Hamlet rants, raves, and thinks, Amleth simply does to the point where even his casting off of fate is the taking of an action, that of boarding a ship with his lover and leaving her behind.  Hamlet also has a chance to leave, and comes right back even though his uncle attempted to have him assassinated and he has expressed little interest in revenge overall.  It’s been said that the fundamental fact about Hamlet’s character is not that he thinks too much, but that he thinks too well.  By comparison, Amleth hardly seems to think at all, at times he seems more at ease pretending to be an animal, giving up his humanity and ability to reason and choose entirely.    Hamlet, for all his obvious flaws, is a figure perhaps most defined by what we refer to as freewill in the modern era.  To be or not to be.  To act or not to act.  The choice to act is his, and choosing not to act represents a choice in and of itself.  Shakespeare himself makes this point of view plain in the middle of the play, where Hamlet declares that he “defies augury,” meaning there are no omens and thus no destiny because fate is not yet written.  He tells perhaps his only true friend, Horatio, “Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?”  In this sense, we might consider Hamlet one of the first truly modern characters.  The debate between whether humanity is bound by fate or granted freewill raged for over a hundred years after Hamlet was written.  Sects that embraced the view that our lives were already set before we were born prospered even in the early days of America, where Calvinists believed in predestination.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet rejected that notion.  The character is grounded in the idea that we all choose our actions based on our mental state.  The individual is given primacy, a view that would not become popular for almost two centuries.  As Hamlet himself described it in a sentence about his own father, “He was a man, take him for all in all.”

The question becomes:  Why would Mr. Eggers choose to craft an anti-Hamlet?  Given the chance to adapt the source material for the world’s most famous play, why take a diametrically opposed approach?  While I cannot speak for Mr. Eggers, I would suggest two reasons.  First, Hamlet is already Hamlet.  There’s not much you can add to one of the most celebrated and widely analyzed works in the history of the known universe.  Hamlet is also a play that makes no specific comment on the details of the time and place.  The cinematic medium, however, offers the creator a different opportunity to craft a setting in detail, bringing the viewer into another world.  Mr. Eggers film succeeds in this regard by creating a setting as alien as anything we have seen on screen since Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.  The initial grounding in Norse mythology is followed by an immersion in unfamiliar imagery, from bizarre rituals invoking animals to Valkyrie flying through the skies.  This is not the early enlightenment world of William Shakespeare, but a much earlier and more savage time filled with sorceresses and omens, overflowing with the unexplained, magic, blood, and fire.  Violence is at the center of everything, even a “friendly game” akin to lacrosse features Vikings armed with clubs beating each other to death and the rules are so strict that a young prince who enters the field can be killed the same as anyone else.  At the same time, the world is not so inaccessible as to have no meaning:  Everyone can understand the desire to avenge the death of a loved one, or how Amleth and the sorceress Olga might fall in love.  The events that occur remain relatable, even if the underlying reasons do not make sense from a modern perspective.

Second, sometimes truths become more apparent by considering their opposite.  The negative image of Hamlet serves to reinforce and illuminate the positive.  Amleth stripped of freewill and bound by the fates themselves renders Hamlet all the more filled with doubt and makes his failure to act stand out even more strongly.  Hamlet is sometimes described as an actor in search of a role.  Amleth knows precisely what role he is meant to play.  This is evident in the one choice they make in common:  The rejection of love in pursuit of their revenge.  Hamlet’s affair with Ophelia begins before the start of the play, but we understand he wrote letters professing his love only to spurn her, telling her to leave the castle and go to a nunnery after (likely) realizing she was a part of his uncle’s machinations, a rejection that plays a part in her suicide.  He plays multiple parts even to one character in Ophelia.  Amleth’s relationship with Olga appears directly on screen, but Amleth only plays the part of a lover until he too chooses the path of revenge and leaves her behind, a decision that seems to cost him far more dearly than anything ever does Hamlet.  The end result is the same, except for one more difference and here to Mr. Eggers offers a slightly brighter end.  Hamlet dies childless, and nothing remains of the royal family of Denmark.  Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes are all dead.  The kingdom itself is no more as an old enemy invades.  Amleth’s father’s kingdom is lost sometime between his murder and Amleth becoming a man.  The action takes place in Iceland because Fjolnir was already deposed by another rival.  Before submitting to his fate, Amleth learns Olga is pregnant and his line will go on with or without him.  He chooses without, but it’s still a brighter ending than Shakespeare allows for.  Thus, Mr. Eggers ultimately chooses a slightly brighter path, one which stands even starker given the strangeness of the world he has created.  Hamlet knows no peace, saying only that the “rest is silence,” which to man who spent most of the play doing nothing except talking seems a dark fate, but Amleth dies believing there is a new light in the world of his own making.  The opposite of silence.


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