Hamlet: Metadrama, Hamlet’s Mid-Terms, and SP’s Final

Writing a blog post about Hamlet (1990) reminds me of a story a professor of mine told me quite some time ago. The story was in service of helping us–his students–to prepare for an essay portion of an exam. Apparently, my professor as an undergraduate took several classes with the same professor. (We’ll call my professor SP, for student professor, to keep things clear.]

The professor would tell his students [including SP] that they could request to take the test on a separate day. SP, in each of his classes with this professor, would always take advantage of this opportunity. It was a privilege meant to be requested sparingly, but SP took advantage of his prof’s generosity. So one day the professor, upon hearing another request from SP, told him to come on such and such a day and he would give SP an alternative test.  The class must have been a history class, because the question SP received from his teacher was, “Describe and analyze the Roman wars.” “But you only need to talk about the Roman wars,” SP was assured.

Hamlet (Roman)

Of course, the implication was clear: basically all the Romans did was fight wars, and SP clearly saw this exam question for what it was: his comeuppance: “You want time; you’ll get it. But you’ll be writing all day.” And that’s what SP did. He wrote all day until the professor took him home, and the professor’s wife made SP some dinner, and then he wrote some more, well into the evening. Finally, the professor felt that SP had learned his lesson and collected his work and sent him home.

I don’t think SP had actually finished talking about the Roman Wars–because of course he didn’t/couldn’t. To be honest, I don’t know why SP–my professor–told us that story. I’ve forgotten. Maybe it was to encourage us to ask for more time, or maybe it was to demonstrate that the essays needed to be taken seriously. Anyways, what I tend to remember is how much he wrote and how deliberately impossible the task was to begin with. And tasked with the job of writing a review of Hamlet feels a little like writing about the history of Roman warfare.

But unlike SP, I’m going to keep it short–probably.


If I were to recommend something to a viewer of Hamlet, at least this version, it would be to pay attention to the motif of metadrama, which is not given enough attention. For our purposes, we’ll define metadrama as something within the play that calls attention to the art of play making. This includes, but is not limited to, a play-within-a-play.

One observation that I’ve made numerous times to students whenever I teach Hamlet is that “The Mousetrap” is not the only example of metadrama in this play. Indeed, throughout Acts Two and Three there are numerous examples of characters scheming to unravel the motives and methods of other characters. In each of these plays-within-a-play, there’s a director, actors, and an audience. Understanding each of these examples of metadrama and the patterns between them are key to understanding some of the central themes of the play. I’ll outline some of the examples of metadrama below and leave it to you dear reader to piece together what if any significance these instances, taken together, have on the meaning of Shakespeare’s most famous play.

For instance, here’s a few:

Polonius and Reynaldo (Act Two / Scene One)

“With windlasses and with assays of bias, By indirections find directions out” (2.1.64-5) In this scene, Polonius (Ian Holm) is the director, Reynaldo (Vernon Dobtcheff) the player, and the audience are people who know Laertes (Nathaniel Parker).  Polonius instructs Reynaldo to “find out” from acquaintances and friends what type of character Laretes is known for.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Act Two / Scene Two)

“But in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?” (2.2.264-5) In this scene, the directors are Polonius and the King, the players Rosencrantz (Michael Maloney) and Guildenstern (Sean Murray), and the audience is Hamlet. The goal is to put on a show for Hamlet (Mel Gibson) to determine what his thinking is, for Polonius and Claudius (Alan Bates) have grown suspicious of Hamlet’s other behavior. Hamlet’s sees right through it.

Hamlet 2

Ophelia as a Catalyst (Act Three / Scene One)

“Be you and I behind an arras then / Mark the encounter. If he love her not . . .”  (2.2.162-3). The directors are Polonius and King Claudius. The player is Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter), and the audience again is Hamlet. Here again the King and his clownish sidekick attempt to suss out Hamlet’s thinking, but Hamlet sees once again right through it. We also start to see Hamlet’s increasing anger. As his enemy, Claudius, starts recruiting accomplices, Hamlet has increasingly fewer people he can rely on, and his anger at those who betray him starts to overwhelm his words and actions. His circle of trust, so to speak, becomes smaller.

The Mousetrap (Act Three / Scene Two)

“The play’s the thing /Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”  (2.2.584-5). This is the most famous of all the metadramatic moments in Hamlet. The director is Hamlet, and the travelling players are the players. The audience is the King and Polonius. Hamlet puts on a play that mirrors the King’s accused crimes. Depending on how Claudius reacts, Hamlet will know whether he can trust the ghost.

Gertrude as Conscience (Act Three / Scene Four)

“My lord, he’s going to his mother’s closet. Behind the arras I’ll convey myself To hear the process” (3.3.27-9). Polonius, the most clownish figure in this play (and that’s including the clowns) is the director, making one final attempt to spy on Hamlet. He has the young prince’s mother as the player to try to fool him. Hamlet, as he always does, sees right through Polonius’ pathetic machinations.

Hamlet 3

Of all the moments mentioned above, the “Ophelia as Catalyst” scene in this film conveys the metadramatic motif most effectively. We see Polonius and Claudius instruct their player–Ophelia–ahead of time. We see Hamlet easily figure out that they are hiding in the background. We witness Hamlet’s anger at Ophelia’s dissembling, Polonius’ misunderstanding of what he just witnessed, and Claudius’ knowing realization that Hamlet knows too much. There’s also a clever edit, where it’s clear that Claudius is determined to do away with Hamlet by sending him to England, and that Hamlet hears him say so, and knows the King means to have Hamlet’s neck to secure his own crown.

Some of the scenes mentioned above are not included in the film. For example, we don’t see Claudius recruit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to deceive Hamlet, but we do see Hamlet telling his fair-weather friends he sees through their lies: “I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king and queen moult no feather.”

Hamlet 5

Other Observations:

  • The acting in this film is superb. Mel Gibson puts in a fine performance, as does Glenn Close, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, and on and on. There isn’t a weak performance in the entire film, at least in my opinion.
  • I typically don’t like excessive rearrangement of scenes when plays are put on the silver screen. And to be honest, I’m not especially excited about how this film rearranges scenes, but I did appreciate some of the choices. Putting Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not to Be” after the “Ophelia as Catalyst” scene rather than before it brought Hamlet’s despair and frustration out in a particularly effective way. He goes from the frustration of talking to an untruthful Ophelia in front of a scheming usurper (his uncle) to brooding over his own contemplation of suicide. 
  • The interplay between Hamlet and Ophelia throughout the play really dramatizes the growing madness of both characters.
  • The costuming, props, lighting, decor, setting, and music establish an especially believable medieval Denmark.
  • This version of Hamlet reinforces my theory about Hamlet’s murder of Polonius–that he knew who he was killing. In this version, there’s just no way Hamlet could have thought Claudius was behind the curtain.
  • I like to tell my students that the return of Old Hamlet in Act III is Hamlet’s mid-term grades–lol!. There’s also a not-too-subtle Oedipal performance in this scene between mother and son.
  • The final scene–the dual–is done masterfully well. If I were to add anything to the final scene, it might be to feature Fortinbras a bit more prominently, but that’s just me being picky.

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