Arts & Humanities

Campus sees ‘Hamlet’ through new lens, twice 

Shakespeare’s complicated main character keeps the 400-year-old classic rich for interpretation, say literary and theater experts. 

Tia James and Dawn Jani Birley
Tia James, left, stars as Hamlet at PlayMakers Repertory Company. In Why Not Theater's "Prince Hamlet," Hamlet’s friend Horatio, played by deaf woman actor Dawn Jani Birley, tells the story.
Michael Gadaleto

Michael Gadaleto

Note: This post has been updated to reflect changes in performance dates.

With Prince Harry’s “Spare” topping bestseller lists and “The Crown” getting millions of views worldwide, perhaps it’s no surprise that William Shakespeare’s tale of a “courtly world turned upside down” still draws audiences. 

Yet there’s something more than an obsession with royalty that fuels the popularity of “Hamlet.”  

Sure, the play deals with juicy stuff: A king is dead, possibly murdered by his own brother, who has not only usurped the throne but also married the widowed queen. But what literary and theatrical experts say catapults “Hamlet” beyond a simple revenge tragedy into a complex classic is its fascinating main character.  

David Baker

David Baker

“As cliched as it might be, it’s timeless,” said Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company, whose production of “Hamlet” opens this week. “It grapples with problems all of us grapple with, no matter our age, ethnicity or sex. It’s literally the 1,000 possibilities of who we are.” 

The Bard of Avon excelled at giving theatergoers the gory deaths and high drama they wanted, “the Marvel cinematic stuff of the day,” said Michael Gadaleto. An English and comparative literature teaching assistant professor, he calls “Hamlet” his favorite and a “gateway drug for Shakespeare.”  

But at the same time, the playwright subtly subverts his audience’s expectations. “Shakespeare does this throughout his career. It’s part of his strange genius,” Gadaleto said. 

A big puzzle box

Throughout the play, and especially in his five memorable monologues, we watch as Hamlet struggles with his own identity, constantly recreating himself — angry avenger, scheming politician, cruel lover, melancholy philosopher, a man insane or just pretending to be.

“Shakespeare learned how to write a character who’s making it up as he goes. That’s so true of Hamlet,” said Peter G. Phialas Distinguished Professor David Baker, who’s been teaching “Hamlet” for 20 years. “‘Hamlet’ is a big puzzle box. It’s always pleased audiences. It’s somehow had that ability to be an intellectual brain-bender and also a barnstorming success.”  

Because Shakespeare opened the door to multiple interpretations of Hamlet and his motives, actors and directors have famously put their own spins on his story. Some of the better-known 20th-century versions include Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 lush Victorian-era political thriller and Laurence Olivier’s 1948 psychological study, heavy on the prince’s Oedipal relationship with the queen.  

The Toronto-based Why Not Theatre performed “Prince Hamlet” at Memorial Hall in October.

The Toronto-based Why Not Theatre performed “Prince Hamlet” at Memorial Hall in October. (Photo by Bronwen Sharp)

Creative interpretations

The PlayMakers production, which runs Jan. 25-Feb. 19, is the second of two creative interpretations of the classic staged on campus in the 2022-23 academic year. In both the upcoming production and the earlier presentation at Carolina Performing Arts, a woman plays the lead role of Hamlet. Members of both companies discussed their nontraditional approach to the classic play in a public forum called “Thy Name Is Woman: A Conversation.” 

The Toronto-based Why Not Theatre performed “Prince Hamlet” at Memorial Hall in October. In the bilingual remix directed by Ravi Jain, Hamlet’s friend Horatio, played by deaf woman actor Dawn Jani Birley, tells the story. Because the actors perform in a combination of spoken English and American Sign Language, the audience experiences some of the same conflicting perspectives and confusion as the characters onstage.  

“Hamlet”

PlayMakers Repertory Company

Jan. 25-Feb. 19

Ticket prices start at $20, $10 for UNC students.

See the complete list of performance dates and times and purchase tickets online.

A streaming-only performance will be available on demand Feb. 9-12 for $25.

“Director Ravi Jain’s ‘Prince Hamlet’ not only asks who gets to tell the story of Hamlet, it also demonstrates that the narrator’s telling impacts the audience’s feeling of belonging, over the story and in the theater,” said Amanda Graham, CPA’s associate director of engagement.

Actors Tia James (Hamlet) and Sekou Laidlow (Claudius) rehearse the sword fight scene for the PlayMakers production.

Actors Tia James (Hamlet) and Sekou Laidlow (Claudius) rehearse the sword fight scene for the PlayMakers production.

‘Retro-futuristic’ setting 

Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company

Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company.

The PlayMakers show also reimagines “Hamlet” in a variety of ways. Not only is Hamlet being played by faculty and company member Tia James, a Black woman, as part of a Black royal family, Horatio and Laertes are women, and everyone is not heterosexual.  

The setting is what Benesch calls “retro-futuristic,” a time 30 years in the future but without high tech in evidence and people still wearing cloaks and fighting with swords. Live music plays throughout, and the set design includes musical motifs like organ pipes. “It’s a psychological thriller and a family drama about how we play each other and get played,” she said.

But the words are the same, Benesch said. Except for pronouns changed to match the nontraditional casting, Shakespeare’s text remains intact.

“Every great regional theater should continue to revisit this great piece,” she said. Although PlayMakers often performs Shakespeare in their season, it’s been 30 years since they have staged “Hamlet.”

Benesch said theater companies are constantly looking to draw in traditional audiences as well as attract new theatergoers looking for something more inclusive. A fresh take on “Hamlet” can do both. “I like to challenge the purists,” she said. “As long as the story of the play is still being told, then how wonderful to explore it through a new lens.”