Critics trashed Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, due in part to the acting of Ethan Hawke, which many reviewers viewed as too weak for the role (). However, these reviewers fail to recognize that “[Hamlet’s] nature changes from scene to scene” (Crosman 148), and therefore requires development as the storyline progresses. Similarly, Ophelia’s character experiences rather drastic changes following the death of her father. But, as Hawke received criticism for his descent into madness, Stiles’ Ophelia received praise. This essay will examine the representation of mental illness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Michael Almereyda’s 2000-film adaptation of the play, in order to justify the acting of Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.
Many representations of madness and melancholy during Shakespeare’s time drew inspiration from institutions like Bedlam Hospital, which housed the mentally ill (Cross 19). During this time, madness fascinated many in England, and as a result, became a Bedlam became a cultural happening as public spectators viewed patients as part of a “human zoo”. Throughout Shakespeare’s time and into the late 1700s, large numbers of visitors would pay entry fees in order to view the inmates.
The inmates also entered the public eye through the writings of authors like Shakespeare. These writings often boosted the public’s intrigue with madness through the additions of stereotypes that depicted the mental distress of others. In his essay, Simon Cross provides the example of Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the play, Edgar disguises himself and “picks up all of the characteristics” of a madman by faking physical ailments and babbling incessantly. Through the additions of these attributes to the characters of many works, by authors like Shakespeare, the public gained an incorrect view of the mentally insane. Because of the public’s view of madness, the Bedlam inmates knew that in order to gain money and privileges from visitors they had to act in the way that they were portrayed by others. (Cross 22-24, 27).
Bedlam’s residents fascinated those on the outside, but the institution itself worked to segregate those with mental illnesses (Cross 23). As described by Anna Harpin, Bedlam achieved this segregation not only by placing the building of the edge town, but also through the stereotypes of mental illness that instilled fear in many that were incorrectly educated on the “dangers of the mentally ill” (Harpin 335-337). In the film, Almereyda seems quite aware of this separation between the public and the mentally insane (Cieoelak 109) and chooses to use the Denmark Corporation as his own Bedlam. The film’s characters, who gain prominence within the large corporation, are often in the public eye and as a result openly displaying their own personal struggles. However, the corporation itself separates those who see them through media portrayals, as they are not able to view what goes on when the representatives of the media are not there.
Quite often, writers...