From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

Richard III, with lions?

I’ve often heard The Lion King described as “Hamlet with lions”, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s more like “Richard III with lions”.

Richard III and Hamlet both feature villains who murder their brothers in order to become king, and both of them go on to murder their nephews in order to try to keep their positions of power. However, the difference is that nobody in Hamlet suspects King Claudius of any kind of treachery – nobody except Hamlet himself. Furthermore, while the Pridelands suffer greatly under Scar’s leadership and are immediately restored after his death, the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” goes far beyond Claudius’ own evil and is not so easily resolved. Scar’s openly despicable persona and single-handed destruction of a once-great land feels much more like Richard III’s reign of terror in Shakespeare’s history play.

Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Scar is pretty transparently evil. His song with the hyenas has all the hallmarks of a rising dictator. He has convinced them that the lions (except Scar himself) are their enemies, that it’s in their best interest to help him kill Simba and Mufasa, and that their lives will be infinitely better with him as king – yet when he does become king, it becomes obvious he doesn’t really care about helping the hyenas at all. Richard III likewise uses people as disposable pawns and convinces them to ignore his obvious deficiencies. He, like Scar, is charming in a sinister way and can win over even those who know for a fact what a horrible person he is. Claudius, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an ordinary king, taking the throne after the tragic death of his brother. He doesn’t have to charm or manipulate others into supporting him, because everyone just assumes they should. Even Hamlet requires greater proof than his father’s ghost to be convinced of his uncle’s treachery. While Richard III and Scar are obviously evil, hidden by a thin veneer of charisma and empty promises, Claudius is subtle and secretive about his crimes and very nearly gets away with them.

But, of course, Hamlet focuses the majority of its attention on Hamlet himself, Claudius’ nephew who learns what happened and reluctantly sets out to avenge his father. Like Simba, he initially runs away before returning to challenge his uncle. Both princes also encounter the ghost or spirit of their father, who pushes them to act when they are hesitant to do so. However, Hamlet’s story is all about his philosophical contemplation of death and slow descent into madness. Being a children’s movie, there’s nothing like that in The Lion King. Simba’s journey is toward courage and heroism while Hamlet’s leads to death – his own, and almost every other character’s.

On the other hand, Richard III ends with a bit more hope. Its villain protagonist is vanquished and killed, and Henry Tudor takes his place as the new king, marrying Elizabeth of York and ending the War of the Roses. While the princes in the tower are the more direct equivalents to Simba, being Richard III’s nephews who he has murdered, the triumphant ending scenes of The Lion King are highly reminiscent of Richard III: Simba defeats Scar, replaces him as king, and reunites with Nala, a flash-forward showing them with a cub and implying the beginning of a strong and benevolent dynasty to replace Scar’s violent one – exactly the sort of promises made by the ending to Richard III, which is hopeful despite the play’s overall gruesomeness.

Conflict over the throne is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and many of his villains are willing to kill for power. The brother vs. brother plotline also appears in King Lear, as in well as comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It (although, admittedly, only Hamlet and Richard III also involve an uncle trying to murder his nephew). Nor are these themes and motifs unique to Shakespeare. However, of the two Shakespeare plays it most resembles, Lion King has more in common with Richard III than with Hamlet.

Classics · My Poetry · Shakespeare

Two Answers

I didn’t realize until I’d already written both of these poems how well they mirror each other, and believe it or not, it wasn’t intentional. But it makes sense, in a way, because they both relate to Hamlet’s infamous question and tell the stories of two characters who represent very different answers. Anyway, I decided they work better together than apart. The first one is written from Ophelia’s point of view in Act IV of Hamlet, and the second from Horatio’s viewpoint at the end of Act V.

Not to Be

Remember me with rosemary
And daisies in my hair
Their petals wilted, innocence
Now lost beyond repair

Remember me with rosemary
I’ll give you columbines
And fennel, too, some rue for you
But this one must be mine

Remember me with rosemary
And let me slip away
I’ll live on in your memory
Remember, love, I pray

Remember me with rosemary
And keep me in your thoughts
My violets all have shriveled up
And in the earth they’ll rot

Remember me with rosemary
I’m choosing not to be
Let others ask the questions now
Remind them, love, of me

To Be

You asked a question
A question I will answer
Your last command still echoes in my mind
In life I served you faithfully
In death – your death – I do the same
My prince
Among the bodies buried here today
Why was it I who lived?
No, that’s not the question

You asked a question
In the depths of grief
When reason fled and left you craving some release
My prince, goodnight
After the war you waged within your soul
In sleep of death may you at last find peace

You asked a question
I think you found the answer in the end
When words like yours came spilling from my lips
You stayed my hand and took the poisoned cup
My friend, I shall obey thy final wish
I’ll live
While yet I breathe, thy memory I keep
Thy story shall I carry far and wide
And unto all who lend their hearts and ears
I’ll tell thy fate

You asked a question
I’m living out the answer day by day
I choose to be, I choose to carry on
Let life’s outrageous whims do what they may
And words preserve forever what I say
So we may be remembered when we’re gone

Classics · From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

From Stage to Screen: Hamlet (2009)

Here’s a question to think about: what makes a good adaptation of Shakespeare? Is it one that’s completely faithful to the source, or one that provides a new perspective? Watching the 2009 Hamlet movie with David Tennant, this is a question I found myself asking again and again. Aside from clips of Romeo + Juliet in eighth grade, I’ve never really watched a modern dress version of Shakespeare, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I wasn’t even sure that modern dress could work without taking away from the play. But if anything, it makes it more accessible.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything fits perfectly. Denmark is no longer at war with Norway, for one thing. And what about the fact that Hamlet uses a camcorder during the play-within-a-play? When he hesitates to kill Claudius only moments later, why not record his confession instead and press charges in court? On a different note, the updated setting allows the actress playing Ophelia to emphasize the character’s subtle defiance, but takes her descent into madness out of its original context. In fact, it takes the entire play out of its original context. In light of that, it’s actually surprising how well it works, and how few things seem out-of-place in the modern day. It’s done well, and generally seems natural rather than forced – as well as being more of an alternate present day than simply a historical play with guns and blue jeans. Updating it certainly shows better than any historical-costume production could how relevant the themes of greed, vengeance, mental illness, and death still are in the present day.

The acting is excellent. Hamlet is wonderfully complicated and human, and I found myself feeling far more sympathy for him than I did when I was simply reading the script. He comes across as vulnerable but dangerous, hesitant but determined, and more and more unhinged as the play goes on, before seeming to find some degree of peace in the final scene. Claudius comes across as conflicted and almost – almost – sympathetic in the early scenes, before forgetting his guilt and growing more vicious near the end. Gertrude shows more genuine regret than I imagined, even early on. She seems to realize the cup is poisoned when Claudius warns her not to drink, which is very much how I saw it as I read. Ophelia is probably the character most affected by the updating, because the expectations of young women in Shakespeare’s day and today are quite different. But good acting largely makes up for it, and in my opinion anyone who can say “Woe is me!” not just with a straight face but in a tearful whisper is a very good actress.

The movie was emotionally draining, but it wouldn’t have been a good adaptation of Hamlet if it wasn’t. This is a story that confronts death and evil in a no-holds-bared kind of way, and if one could simply get up from it without feeling the need to contemplate those things, what’s the point?

That’s not to say I had no criticisms. The play-within-a-play relied too much on crude humor, and it seems ridiculous for a modern-day acting troupe to be all men, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s day. The character of Horatio was somewhat ignored, which is a shame because he’s actually pretty important, and his choice to live – one of the few bits of hope in the ending – could have been more powerful than it was. Hamlet himself was perhaps too violent in his scene with Gertrude. While he’s obviously angry with his mother, I was shocked to see him manhandle her the way he does. After all, what’s the point in “I will speak daggers to her but use none” if he then goes on to more-or-less physically attack her?

However, even the best movies are not perfect, and with plays many things are just a matter of interpretation. Overall, the acting choices were excellent, the sets minimal but used well, and the modern update very well-done. I particularly loved the use of security camera footage: the way the ghost doesn’t appear on it, the movement of one alerting Hamlet to the fact that he’s being watched, and the way he later tears down a camera before saying “now I am alone”. Laertes pulling a gun on Claudius is far more chilling than him drawing a sword could possibly be for an audience that has likely never seen one outside of movies and museums. The characters watching through one-way mirrors instead of hiding behind curtains and such is also a fitting change, and the overarching story sadly fits as well in today’s world as in Shakespeare’s. I wouldn’t recommend the movie for everyone, but depending on what exactly you’re looking for, it’s an excellent adaptation that emphasizes the story’s continued relevance.

Book Reviews · Shakespeare · Young Adult

Book Review: Ophelia

I love a good retelling of a classic story, especially when it provides a new perspective instead of just repeating the plot. When I saw that the play I’ve just finished (Hamlet) had been retold as a YA novel, I just couldn’t resist. After all, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the plots of his plays on his own – they come from history, mythology, and other writers’ work – but he gave them the language and the form that we know today. It seems fitting that we continue to reexamine these stories and tell them again.

The novel is Ophelia, by Lisa M. Klein, and as you can probably guess from the title, it’s told from Ophelia’s point of view. Its plot takes quite a few liberties with Shakespeare, which I don’t want to get into too much and spoil the twists. But I will tell you Ophelia survives this version, which is hardly a spoiler since it’s revealed on page 1. This is actually one of my biggest criticisms of the book. I would rather have assumed it would keep the tragic ending and been surprised by the bittersweet one than know from the start it would be changed.

The part of the play dealing with Hamlet and his uncle is only about a third of the story, which is divided into three parts. The first of these deals with Ophelia’s childhood and family, as well as the beginning of her relationship with Hamlet. It’s a bit chilling to see things like young Hamlet and Laertes sparring with wooden swords, knowing what’s to come. This section does a good job of fleshing out Ophelia’s character, making her a bit of a rebel who was allowed to run around with the boys and encouraged to study as a child, before suddenly being expected to act like a proper lady. The flowers from her final scene are woven in throughout the story, so that by the time she hands them out, the reader understands just how significant they are.

The second part retells Hamlet – the play – focusing entirely on Ophelia’s perspective as she watches Hamlet’s transformation and falls into despair herself. However, here, she is able to save herself. The book then follows her as she finds a new path. Ophelia’s identity develops over the course of the story: she grows from an unruly child; to a dutiful lady-in-waiting; to a naïve, lovesick young woman; to someone who has suffered and forced herself to survive. It’s a joy to watch her grow up and find her place in the world. What happens in the epilogue might be unexpected to some, but I thought it was sweet and fitting.

Elements from others of Shakespeare’s plays are woven into the story. Like Juliet, this version of Ophelia fakes her death and subsequently loses her lover; like Viola and Rosalind, she travels disguised as a man. However, it also bears elements of today’s fiction. It takes the point of view of a teenage girl exploring romance and independence for the first time, like much of the Young Adult genre.  It’s impossible to classify as a tragedy or a comedy; Ophelia loses much along the way, but the ending offers hope. The language is updated to be easy for the modern reader to understand, and an anonymous guard is developed into a menacing villain. Not all the changes are good ones (the death of Ophelia’s father, for one – I’m still not sure how he got from where we last saw him to where he was killed. I’m also not sure about inserting Ophelia into “to be or not to be?”). However, these are minor complaints. Overall, the story was great.

I found Ophelia to be a good blend of old and new, its lead character well-developed beyond who she was in the play, and the section following her faked death a realistic hopeful alternative to her tragic fate in Shakespeare. I would definitely recommend it!

Artwork · Uncategorized

Faceless Shakespeare: Ophelia


When I first got the idea for these faceless Shakespeare pictures, I thought I’d do the iconic hand-holding-skull image for Hamlet. And maybe I still will. But it was Ophelia’s scene with the flowers that really captured my imagination, and as I looked into historical interpretations of Ophelia, I was … surprised. I hadn’t imagined her smiling and dressed in white, lingering casually by the stream or lying in it peacefully as if simply taking a nap. In my mind, she was somber, distracted, and desperate. And since she just lost her father, it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be wearing black in those scenes. So, here’s my Ophelia. It’s not how the character is usually drawn, but the beauty of literature – and especially plays – is that each person can bring their own perspective and interpret the story in their own way.

Classics · Shakespeare

A Garden of Hidden Meaning: Ophelia’s Flowers

Much has been made of Ophelia’s scene with the flowers in Act IV of Hamlet. Since the scene doesn’t include any actual stage directions, it’s all up to interpretation who she gives the flowers to and why. However, I couldn’t help noticing that no matter who gets the rue and who gets the columbines, all the flowers speak to greater themes explored by the play as well as the individual characters’ faults.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.

There’s so much about memory and remembrance in Hamlet. Whether she gives this flower to her brother Laertes, or to an invisible Hamlet who is only there in her imagination, there is so much for Ophelia to remember. Obviously, there’s her father, who was killed by Hamlet. There’s also Hamlet himself and the days when he made her believe he loved her. “Ah, woe is me!” she cried when he rejected her, “To have seen what I have seen, see what I see”. Hamlet, as well, mourns for his father long after his mother and uncle start pushing him to move on with life. Meanwhile, the queen has forgotten her first husband too quickly. Lack of remembrance is condemned.

And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.

The pansies are usually interpreted as going to Laertes, which makes sense: both his and Ophelia’s thoughts are with their deceased father. The play as a whole puts its characters’ conflicted thoughts to the forefront with long, contemplative soliloquies such as the famous “to be or not to be?” It explores the emotions of its main characters and the complexities of the human mind in great depth, devoting far more time to this than to advancing the plot directly.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

Again, there’s a standard interpretation to these lines: the fennel (flattery, deceit, used to ward off evil spirits) and columbines (faithlesness, adultery) are given to Claudius. I could make an argument for these going to Gertrude instead, particularly the columbine. She’s the one who quickly forgot her first husband and remarried to his brother, and perhaps the fennel is even meant to call her out on her own deceitful nature, or even to protect her from Claudius’ evil influences – but then again, it could be thrust at the king like a weapon meant to harm him, and he’s hardly an innocent where the columbines are concerned, having seduced his brother’s wife. Either way, these flowers’ meanings are also central to the story’s themes and hint at the sources of corruption in the Danish royal court.

There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays. – Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.

The rue, traditionally given to Gertrude, represents sorrow and regret. Gertrude may very well feel regret for her marriage to Claudius, but if so it’s barely even been hinted at. Perhaps “wear your rue with a difference” means that she doesn’t yet regret anything, but should and will, while Ophelia already does. On the other hand, Claudius has shown regret over murdering his brother, but although he prayed for forgiveness, his behavior has not changed. He’s still concealing his crime and plotting against his nephew/stepson. If it were given to him, “wear your rue with a difference” could mean that his regrets aren’t strong enough, whereas Ophelia’s are too strong.

There’s a daisy.

The daisy is confusing, because they symbolize innocence, but no one there is truly innocent, except possibly Ophelia herself. Given the hints that she’s slept with Hamlet, even she would not be innocent by the standards of the time. Some people have suggested that the daisy had another meaning, like faithlessness. But columbine symbolizes faithlessness as well, and innocence is the most widely-known meaning for the daisy. I think it’s possible the flower represents Ophelia’s dead father, who was an innocent mistakenly killed in place of the guilty one, or even the general loss of innocence explored by the play. Perhaps she doesn’t give it to anyone in particular.

I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.

Violets stand for faithfulness and love. Ophelia once believed very strongly in these, but first Hamlet’s rejection, then her father’s death left her unable to anymore. She feels horribly betrayed and alone. Furthermore, early in the play, her brother told her to think of Hamlet’s love as:

A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute.
No more.

By referencing the same flower, Ophelia implies that love is fleeting, easily destroyed by time, death, or simply a change of heart. The withering of a flower with such a positive meaning goes hand-in-hand with her own fall into insanity and Hamlet’s transformation as he becomes more and more wrapped up in his quest for revenge.

Later, after her death, her brother references the flower again:

Lay her i’ th’ earth
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring!

The violet, which was once said not to last, and then described as withered, is finally mentioned as sprouting from Ophelia’s grave, bringing the metaphor full circle. More than anything else – aside from perhaps Hamlet’s insistence that Horatio tell their story – this offers a sense of hope that the world will go on after these characters meet their tragic ends, and that the values they lost sight of still exist.

Classics · Shakespeare

Hamlet Act V

By the end of any Shakespearean tragedy, almost all the characters will have died. Hamlet is certainly no exception. Thus far, we’ve already seen Polonius stabbed through a curtain (yelling out “I am slain!” as he dies) and Ophelia drowned in the river. Let’s take a look at who else joins them in the final act of the play:

Yorrick: To be fair, Yorrick was dead long before the play began. It’s his skull that Hamlet finds in the graveyard and examines in the play’s most iconic image. However, I think the death of the court jester is a significant one. While many of Shakespeare’s plays – both comedies and tragedies – have a jester or “fool” who is in fact the wisest of the characters, Hamlet does not. There is no one there to lighten the mood, to give profound advice in the form of jokes, or to see what’s really going on when the other characters can’t. He’s been dead and buried the whole time.

Rozencrantz and Guildenstern: Hamlet’s former friends are supposed to be escorting him to England with an important letter for the king. Unfortunately for Hamlet, that letter says to chop off his head … and unfortunately for his friends, he switches it with a new letter saying they’re to be killed instead. This action shows, even more than his murder of Polonius, just how warped Hamlet has become. Where once he hesitated to kill even Claudius, he’s now willing to orchestrate his old friends’ deaths.

Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother drinks poison meant for him. Does she know? Does she suspect? My instinct is yes. Why else would she feel the need to drink from her son’s cup? When she collapses, she screams out that it was poison, which could come across as just as ridiculous as Polonius’ “I am slain!” unless she’s desperately warning Hamlet away from the cup.

Laertes: Desperate to avenge his father’s death, Laertes pretends to forgive Hamlet and challenges him to a friendly fencing competition. What Hamlet doesn’t know is that Laertes’ blade is poisoned. As their competition goes on, both men are cut by the poisoned blade, leaving them both with under half an hour to live. It’s fitting that Hamlet and Laertes, foil characters, are killed by the same blade.

Claudius: After Hamlet is fatally stabbed, he wounds Claudius with the same poisoned blade. Then, just to be sure, he also forces his uncle to drink from the same poisoned cup that killed his mother. In a way, it seems ridiculous to kill a man twice, but symbolically, it makes a poetic sort of sense that Claudius should be killed by not one but two of the poisons he meant for Hamlet.

Hamlet: Having spent the entire length of the play contemplating life and death, killed multiple people, and come face-to-face with the skull of the long-dead Yorrick in the graveyard, Hamlet finally meets his end.

Horatio: No, not Horatio. He tries to drink the last of the poison, but Hamlet stops him, insisting that Horatio continue living and tell the story of what happened. Clearly, he did a pretty good job, since we’re still telling the story today.