Shakespeare Uncovered Teacher Viewing Guide

Hamlet with David Tennant

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HAMLET with David Tennant

The Gist. David Tennant is generally thought to be the UK’s last best Hamlet. He played the role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 stage production and in their 2009 film, and yet he’s not quite finished with the play or the character. A charming and irreverent Scot, he’s still trying to work out the power of both. First, there’s the fact that the play is a cultural icon. “Every other line seems to be a quotation that everybody knows!“ Then the grip of the man himself: “Playing Hamlet does things to you, and I want to know why. What is it about this character that makes him still so compelling?” He aims to find out by speaking with directors, scholars, historians, and, as he says, “other Hamlets.” He starts out in Stratford in the RSC gift shop, prowling through Hamlet kitsch and takes us with him on a journey through Hamlet and his play. Along the way, he has great questions for all. We hear from a slew of Hamlets David Warner, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Whishaw, Jude Law. We see bits of others in action Olivier, Mel Gibson, Tennant’s own (with Patrick Stewart as Claudius), actors in rehearsal at the Globe and have a look at the “bad” (1603) and “good” (1604) quartos of the play in the British Library. David Tennant treats us to a real feast of Hamlet and Hamlet.

Not To Miss.

  • Tennant’s brief and hilarious summary of “what Hamlet is about”
  • Students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art rehearsing the fights in the final scene
  • The connections between the play and the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet
  • Stephen Greenblatt (Harvard) on Hamlet as a revenge play . . . “Hamlet’s a dead man from Act I and he knows it.”
  • Tennant on the human skull that played Yorick’s in his Hamlet and the man it used to be part of followed by a bit of the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech
  • Simon Russell Beale on playing the role soon after the death of his mother, and others on the depth of grief caused by losing a parent. “Hamlet is a play about a murdered father and his lonely, grieving son.”
  • A whole festival on the “To be or not to be . . . “ speech:
    • Marjorie Garber (Harvard) on soliloquies
    • Justin Champion (Royal Holloway College) on the jolt that consideration of suicide would have given Elizabethan audiences
    • Tennant, Jude Law, and Simon Russell Beale on the difficulty getting hold of this most famous speech
    • Tennant and Curator Tim Pye at the British Library comparing the two quarto versions of the speech
  • Michael Dobson on how the “closet scene” (Hamlet and Gertrude, and the killing of Polonius) has been staged through time. Welcome, Dr. Freud!
  • Tennant and all the Hamlets on how, at some point, you find yourself standing on the stage not as Hamlet but as yourself. How and why the role forces you to reveal parts of yourself.

After Watching, Keep On Talking (with your colleagues and students):

  • At several points, Tennant and others make statements that start out this way: “Hamlet is a play about . . . .“ How would you finish that sentence? And why?
  • Two voices on Hamlet’s inability to avenge his father’s death:
    • “He’s strait-jacketed by his own morality and humanity.” (Tennant)
    • “He’s never going to avenge his father. Instead, he wanders into his uncle’s wager, which is the king’s plan to kill him.” (Greenblatt)

    What’s your view? Do you agree with either? Or neither?

  • “Is Hamlet mad?” is a question that has been routinely asked for years, and yet there is not a mention of it here. Your thoughts on its absence?