(1961, Drama, b&w)
Is there a word in the English language he hasn’t said?
In a nutshell:
An indecisive prince of Denmark gets everyone killed.
I probably don’t have to summarize the most famous play ever written, but I will anyway.
Danish prince Hamlet has been feeling a little down and more than a little suspicious about the death of his father, the nearly instant remarriage of his mother Gertrude to his uncle Claudius, and his uncle’s subsequent ascent to the throne of Denmark. Even so, when the ghost of his father appears to provide the gory regicidal details, Hamlet remains somewhat reluctant to act.
He decides to test his uncle by altering a play to match the circumstances the ghost described. Claudius confirms his own guilt with a rather obvious reaction. Afterwards, Claudius goes to a chapel to pray for forgiveness of his crimes. Hamlet sneaks up behind him, but decides that stabbing his uncle in a church will send the villain to heaven and thus ruin his revenge.
Gertrude summons Hamlet to her chambers to scold him for his recent erratic behavior. He tries to confront her with Claudius’ crimes, but his girlfriend’s father Polonius misinterprets part of their argument and calls for help. Hamlet assumes the eavesdropper to be Claudius, and stabs him through the curtain. This results in Hamlet’s exile to England, the madness and eventual suicide of his girlfriend Ophelia, and vows of vengeance from her brother Laertes.
As luck would have it, Hamlet’s ship is attacked by pirates, upon whom he prevails to return him to Denmark. Back in the Danish court, Laertes and Claudius weave an elaborate plot to kill him. Laertes will goad Hamlet into a fencing match, during which he will use a poisonous foil. If he hits his opponent, Hamlet will die. If Hamlet hits him, Claudius will give his stepson a celebratory cup of poisonous wine. During the actual fight, Hamlet foils them both by being too skilled to get hit and too dedicated to imbibe during a match. Gertrude complicates the situation further by drinking Hamlet’s celebratory toast for him. Laertes gets a lucky hit; Hamlet sees the sharpened foil and switches swords with him. Another hit, and they are both poisoned. Gertrude swoons and dies. Laertes confesses the plot and begs forgiveness. Hamlet stabs Claudius and forces him to drink the poison. Claudius dies. Laertes dies. Hamlet dies.
Tom Servo interrupts Mike’s introductions to make an announcement. From now on he will be known as Htom Sirveaux (pronounced Ha-Tom Servo). Crow tells Ha-Tom to ha-lick him.
Host Segment One:
Crow has changed his name to Cröe, which is unpronounceable unless you have a bowling-pin beak to purse. Down in Castle Forrester, Pearl has developed a virulent killer virus with which she will rule the... Mike distracts her with a game of three-card monte. They make a wager: If Pearl finds the queen, Mike and the ‘Bots will watch two movies. If she can’t find it, they get to pick their own movie. Pearl ignores Bobo’s self-contradictory advice and Brain Guy’s warning that it’s a scam; she chooses the middle card. She’s wrong of course, and Mike asks her for Hamlet. Pearl consults with Brain Guy to serve up a badly dubbed, made-for-TV German version.
Host Segment Two:
Crow and Tom drape themselves in a sheet and haunt Mike. They tell him they are the spirit of his murdered father, but that can’t be; Mike’s father is alive and well. So are their second, third, and fourth choices—his Uncle Les, his Cousin Al, and his brother-in-law’s ex-wife Wanda. Quoth Crow, “Don’t your relatives ever die?”
Host Segment Three:
Tom and Crow rehearse for their new modern abstract version of Hamlet. Quoth Crow, “It’s a timeless classic; everyone should take a shot at it.” They’ve gone through a number of ideas—including a version with buckets on the actors’ heads and a version with an all-furniture cast—but have finally settled on a percussion version. In the scene they’re currently rehearsing, Crow plays the bongos to represent Ophelia while Tom vehemently replies with the Hamlet maracas.
Host Segment Four:
Welcome to the Elizabethan game show “Alas Poor Who?” in which contestants must guess a deceased minor celebrity’s identity from a piece of their skeletal structure. Tom correctly identifies Biz Marquis’ femur but mistakes the ilium of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens for that of Roland Gibb. Crow recognizes Nancy Allen’s clavicle but not the metatarsals of Ralph Wait.
Host Segment Five:
Tom and Crow have made a little black-clad Hamlet doll. If you pull the string on his back, he’ll even say his most famous catch phrase. Mike pulls, and pulls, and pulls, and pulls... Down in Castle Forrester, Norwegian Prince Fortinbras has come to complain about the removal of his scene from the play. He demands soldiers, canon, and a body so that he can perform it properly. Pearl talks him into pouring her killer virus in his ear. Up in the Satellite of Love, Mike has finally reached the end of the string. He lets go, and the Hamlet doll recites the entire “To be, or not to be” soliloquy over the end credits.
Claudius does a double take.
Is Hamlet the greatest play ever written? Maybe. There are plays I like better, most of which don’t end by killing their characters off en masse. There is also a very good argument to be made against the use of words like “best” and “greatest” in connection with subjectively judged art forms, but even if it’s not the best, it’s pretty high up the list. It’s certainly the most famous. If you think of every clichéd quotation you’ve ever heard and take everything from the Bible off that list, at least eighty percent of what remains is from Hamlet.
The problem with actually trying to watch it (and everything else Shakespeare for that matter) is that it’s written in a dialect so old it’s practically a foreign language. It takes an exceptional actor with a great deal of practice and training to make it intelligible to the modern ear. Unfortunately, this means the only comprehensible productions you’re likely to find are at professional theaters with classically trained actors, though this doesn’t seem to stop community theaters everywhere from casting mush-mouthed locals. As a former mush-mouthed local, I’m pretty sure that the only people who understood anything I said...er, soliloquized...were the Junior College students in the front row, reading along with their little flashlights.
Which brings us to the dull, dreary German television version of 1961—filmed in English, dubbed into German, and then dubbed back into English by different actors with a variety of foreign accents. Hamlet has my favorite accent; he sounds like a light tenor Schwarzenegger. My second and third favorites are Claudius and Polonius, who sound like they’ve been voiced by Richard Montalban and John Banner respectively*. When considering all the possible people you could hear attempting Shakespeare, this is almost the worst-case scenario.
My favorite host segment is also the goofiest—the ‘Bots trying to convince Mike of their familial spookiness. Mike and Pearl’s game of wits works well too, and is perfect to explain the choice of movie. The Hamlet doll is a neat idea, and Fortinbras reminds me of several people I met in my theater days. Tom and Crow’s percussion version of the play brings to mind any number of arty college efforts I’ve seen. I haven’t heard of any of the celebrities identified by the ‘Bots during the game show in host segment three, so I’ve almost certainly misspelled some of their names. Funny segment, though.
I laughed at the Satellite crew’s jokes in several places during the film segments: When Crow says, “Gertrude’s hair by Bozo!” When Mike sings the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth after Hamlet’s most famous line. When Tom notes Ophelia’s badly faked madness by saying, “She’s trying to Section 8 herself out of the movie.” My favorite is when Laertes gleefully exclaims that he will “cut [Hamlet’s] throat in a church!” and Mike replies, “That’s a little over-the-top.” But then, I’m probably not qualified to tell you whether or not the episode is any fun. Several dozen consecutive performances of this particular play (in a variety of minor roles) have made me intimately familiar with it; to me the bad dubbing and impenetrable accents were more a source of amusement than consternation. If you’re a scholar of Elizabethan literature, a classically trained actor, or a Shakespeare enthusiast, I can recommend it as occasionally funny. If you’re not already fluent in fifteenth century English, then you’d better have an annotated script and a tiny flashlight, because this episode won’t lift a finger help you.
*IMDb.com goes so far as to credit these two actors with their voices. I have my doubts.
(1961, Drama, b&w)