Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"The Mousetrap" and Remembrance in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"The Mousetrap" and Remembrance in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet

Article excerpt

In place of a play to catch the conscience of the King, the Hamlet in Michael Almereyda's 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet uses the home video. This substitution is fitting for a film that casts Hamlet as something of an alienated filmmaker within a cultural landscape of hostile corporate takeovers, Blockbuster Videos, and the commercial products of relentless digitization. Much as Shakespeare's Hamlet seeks to go beyond the "words, words, words" (2.2.192) that merely replicate and perpetuate the deceptive surfaces of his world, Almereyda's Hamlet turns to the tools of independent filmmaking to break free from the increasingly wide world-web of images that reproduces and constructs his world. As Courtney Lehmann has eloquently argued, the cinematic Hamlet is, like his Shakespearean counterpart, "in search of a medium of expression that ties somewhere beyond the affective technologies of the cultural moment" (Shakespeare Remains 99). It is thus all the more striking that the home video of Almereyda's Hamlet should reproduce a feature of the original play-within-the-play that would seem most to undermine Hamlet's aesthetic, and correspondingly moral, stance. Notwithstanding the contempt that the sixteenth-century Hamlet heaps upon the aesthetics of "dumb shows and noise" (3.2.12) in his address to the players, "The Mousetrap" (which he has a hand in producing) begins with a lengthy dumb show. Further, directly after setting forth the terms of a new naturalism against the musty histrionics of "o'erdoing Termagant" (1.13)--a naturalism that finds an echo in an ethical naturalism that "know[s] not 'seems'" (1.2.76)--the play continues in a style redolent of Termagants and Herods (or at least King Cambyses). Likewise, the filmmaker Hamlet's "Mousetrap" is essentially a silent movie that recycles rather stock footage from conventional genres--family clips reminiscent of 50's sitcoms and movies, a poisoning scene from a silent movie, a lurid moment out of the pornographic movie Deep Throat. Within the film itself and in written comments and interviews, Almereyda has invoked the legend of James Dean, along with the sensibility of Kurt Cobain, in defining his Hamlet (Screenplay viii) (1) Why should this grungy rebel with a camera then resort to the very cliches he seems so intent on rebelling against?

I should note that this little contradiction in Hamlet's theory and practice has not gone unnoticed in criticism of the play, though Hamlet has generally been let off the hook. Dover Wilson was perhaps the most emphatic in absolving Hamlet of direct responsibility, issuing a categorical denial that Hamlet could "possibly have anything to do" (20) with the dumbshow. If criticism regarding the home-video "Mousetrap" has been spared the question of auteurship, it has been divided, however, on the question of the video's artistic virtues precisely because Hamlet "samples" the kinds of images he would seem most to condemn. Indeed, the "Mousetrap" has become the touchstone of criticism insofar as how one reads its artistic success or failure comes to define in large measure how one reads the entire film. It should come as no surprise that in academic assessments, the film-within-the film as well as the film itself are read against a background of cultural criticism by theorists such as Benjamin, Baudrillard, Foucault and Jameson. The dominant question, that is, has been how Almereyda's film negotiates and intervenes in a postmodern world that is defined by, or condemned to, digital reproduction, endless simulacra, corporate surveillance, and inevitable pastiche. (2) With regard to the film-within-the-film proper, the question is how it might--as an instrument of surveillance that is wholly a pastiche--not only reflect on the larger world of the film, but also define Hamlet's struggle against that world. (3)

Mark Thornton Burnett is representative of critics who see a "critical method" (58) in the madness of Hamlet's filmic collage. …

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