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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 3

#6: The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (1995)

Tom Stoppard turned Hamlet inside out in his Post-modernization of Shakespeare’s most famous play. The ways in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more about us than about Shakespeare or the Elizabethans is mostly subtle, with the suggestion that modernity is an accident of human evolution, and that our fates, and the meaning of our existence, are probably accidental as well. If we are not creators, we are, in some sense, on our way to the gallows in a fog of self.

Stoppard is less subtle in his other version of the Danish prince’s tragedy, The Fifteen Minute Hamlet.

Here, Shakespeare is both an Elizabethan artist at court, and is also, anachronistically, a filmmaker who has accelerated the pace of Hamlet’s story, by ripping out whole pages from the text, in order to make it palatable to his king. The blocking of the scenes is clever, allowing instant transitions between scenes and acts in a barn, and compressing the play down to just the essential ideas, just the essential tropes, just the essential actions. A production of the full text of Hamlet takes about three and half hours, and your average stage version comes in over two—this version comes in under 15 minutes.

To the viewer who doesn’t know the source material, this abbreviated show will likely seem incoherent, the visual logic of the story taking overwhelming precedence over its linguistic and psychological sense. Of course, adapters of Shakespeare worry that such semiotic incoherence is precisely how his plays will be experienced by a general public that has been so coddled by Hollywood spectacle and narratives that even those asleep in comas can follow.

At the same time, few productions attempt the whole Hamlet, because three and a half hours (or nearly four with an intermission) is even more Shakespeare than Shakespeareans can want to see in one sitting. In this sense, all productions of Shakespeare are a remix.

In The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, the king sees a preview, and is dismissive of the product. Shakespeare goes back to the editing booth, and cuts the fifteen-minute Hamlet in half, to enthusiastic royal and popular approval. The playwright is quietly mystified, but is nonetheless proud that his jittery remix is somehow a smash.

Have I mentioned that The Fifteen Minute Hamlet is wickedly fucking funny?

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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