Why David Tennant is the best Hamlet. Ever.

In 2008, the RSC mounted a production of Hamlet with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. This was at the height of his run as the Doctor in the iconic Doctor Who on BBC, but I had heard of it because of my undying love for Patrick Stewart. I was late to the party on the whole Doctor Who thing, so Tennant was an unknown quantity, but I was initally disappointed by Stewart’s Claudius and so didn’t give the whole thing much thought.

Of course, I wasn’t able to see the RSC production live, being that I live in Toronto and have a job and all that, but when the BBC released it on DVD. I took a look. At the time, I wasn’t too impressed.

At the time, I was also teaching English, and in our Grade 11 English courses, we taught Hamlet. I love the play – always have – and up until then, was using the Branagh Hamlet from 1996 as our class video, primarily because of its thoroughness. I never liked Kenneth Branagh’s Prince Hamlet – he’s too old, too… I dunno. Just too. But not enough. The rest of the production is stunning, beautiful, fantastically shot. But Hamlet? Meh.

I also tended to fall back on the Hamlet from Slings and Arrows‘ first season. I truly wish that they had staged their Hamlet for real – I think Luke Kirby had the potential to be a stellar Hamlet, and what little I saw of his portrayal of the character in the context of the show, I think it would have done fantastically well.

My problem with Hamlet as a play has always lain with one minor detail: Hamlet’s age. This, of course, is a discussion of much contention. When I was a kid studying Hamlet, my teachers insisted that Hamlet was around 30. Of course, there has been much debate about this (Steve Roth’s Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country, for example, has a great chapter unpacking it). The more “believeable” Hamlets, to my mind, have always been on the younger side – indeed, the way Hamlet behaves indicates that he’s got to be a lot younger: a 30 year old man — indeed, an academic — behaving like a petulant boy seems somewhat unbelievable (although some of the academics I know do have their moments).

Also, if we assume that Laertes is Hamlet’s foil, and we can guess that Laertes is a man in his early twenties (based on how he is treated by Polonius and Ophelia’s apparent age), then it would seem odd that he and Hamlet would be friends if Hamlet was 30.

There are many arguments about Hamlet’s age, but for the sake of this argument, I’m going to go with the assumption that Hamlet is, indeed, in his 30s. This is at the very least the assumption that is made by most film-makers and stage directors, based on who has played Hamlet and at what age over the years. Consider:

  • Richard Burbage – 32
  • John Barrymore – 40
  • John Gielgud – 26 – 41
  • Laurence Olivier – 30
  • Christopher Walken – 39 (who knew?)
  • Kenneth Branagh – 32
  • David Tennant – 37
  • Mel Gibson – 34
  • Christopher Plummer – 36
  • Paul Gross – 41
  • Keanu Reeves – 31 (seriously, he did in Winnipeg in 1995. I saw it.)

Other than Gielgud, most of the notable Hamlets were at least in their 30s.

Which brings us to David Tennant’s Hamlet.

Part of this Hamlet‘s appeal is its setting – it’s a modern staging, in a contemporary palace, with a very contemporary Hamlet walking around in jeans and a t-shirt. Perhaps it is that setting that allows us to see Hamlet in a new light – it’s not hard for us to picture people we know like this Hamlet – the jeans-and-tshirt guy who also happens to hold down an important job or be a expert in his field – or as in this case, both.

It’s Tennant himself, though, that sells this version of the Prince to the audience. Tennant plays rather well the affable man with a dark stripe – again, something we can see in his Doctor – and he does this well too. He juggles incredibly well all the different aspects of the character – we see the “real” Hamlet with Horatio, the dutiful son with his father and mother, the petulant stepchild with Claudius and Polonius, and so on and so forth. His delivery is impeccable – his understanding and interpretation of Shakepeare’s diaogue is stellar, and his ability to inject nuance into his lines reveals new meaning and gives us a new understanding of the emotional layers this character can have.

Consider this clip:

For the first time watching Hamlet – and I’ve seen many, many versions of it over the years – I actually felt like I understood what Hamlet was feeling, where he was at, and what turmoil he actually felt.

I’ve heard it said that unlike other Shakespearean characters, Hamlet is defined by the man who plays him. Indeed, we refer to Hamlets by their player – Gielgud’s Hamlet, Branagh’s Hamlet, Gibson’s Hamlet. Each has their own merits, their own fans, and their own detractors. I know that by saying that Tennant’s Hamlet is the “Best. Ever.” could be seen as naive, infalmmatory, uninformed. Fanboy-ish, even. I think, however, that Tennant’s Hamlet, on film at any rate, stands up to any of the others, and in our digital, man-boy age, his represents a Hamlet this generation can identify with.

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