Category Archives: Hamlet

Shakespeare and national identity

Although he died centuries before the invention of the cinema, the impact of William Shakespeare on the most popular art-form of the twentieth century has been profound. There have been many adaptations of his plays, but Shakespeare’s influence goes much further than simply adapting his works: his plays have been a source of inspiration for filmmakers in a number of ways and references to Shakespeare and his plays crop up in a variety of unexpected moments. The titles of two films by Alfred Hitchcock are drawn from Shakespeare (Rich and Strange (The Tempest) and North by Northwest (Hamlet)). The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V has also been used as the source of the title for the HBO/BBC World War Two Series Band of Brothers (2001), and also features in Tombstone (1993).

The two most commonly referenced speeches are from Richard II and Hamlet, and both have been employed in the contexts of British and American cinema, respectively, to articulate ideas about national identity.

This England

In the history of British cinema, it is John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II (Act 2, Scene 1) that has been a source of inspiration for filmmakers. Several films have taken their titles from this speech, mostly produced during World War II: This England (1923 & 1941), The Demi Paradise (1943), This Happy Breed (1944). More than any other moment in the history of drama, it is John of Gaunt’s evocation of that has captured the image and imagination of the nation.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

Perhaps the most famous performance of this speech on film is that of Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). To secure the escape of Lady Blakeney, Sir Percy surrenders himself to Chauvelin and as the firing squad is readied he reflects on the England he is leaving behind. Soft in focus and long in take, Howard’s performance of this speech adds a third dimension to the foppish Blakeney and the cunning Pimpernel and is very much the best scene in the film. This scene, perhaps more than any other in pre-war British cinema, establish the qualities of the English gentleman that also feature in films such as The Drum (1938), The Four Feathers (1939), Sanders of the River (1935), and the like; and does so with greater economy and far less bombast than in these other films.

Lindsay Anderson also employs this speech in Britannia Hospital (1982) – albeit for a very different effect. As the staff tour the hospital in preparation for a royal visit, pointing the various iniquities of life in modern Britain (militancy of trade unions, the unfairness of the class system, the corruption and insanity of authority, and many others), they come across a patient – ‘our greatest foreign minister since Palmerston’ – (played by Arthur Lowe) who all of a sudden sits bolt upright in bed, quotes Richard II, and promptly dies. Quite what Anderson wants us to make of this is not clear, and the scene lasts only 50 seconds. Anderson is pointing to the difference between the image of the nation articulated by John of Gaunt and the reality of Britannia Hospital, but this may be matter of exposing the hypocrisy of a British national identity that clings to an unrealistic idea of itself; or we may see it as the death of a once great England, that has been reduced to such a low status and has clearly lost something it once had. Depending on how you interpret it, the scene may be nostalgic, but there is no mourning a once great man, and the former foreign minister is covered with a bed sheet and the words, ‘Pity – he would have appreciated a visit.’

Since Britannia Hospital, the speech has disappeared from British cinema screens; while Richard II has tended to disappear from school curricula, which seem to focus almost exclusively on Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. It seems unlikely now that audiences would be familiar enough with Richard II for a scene like that at the end of The Scarlet Pimpernel to work with the same power.

It should also be noted that Muriel Box directed a film called This Other Eden (1959), about a town in Ireland that wants to erect a statue to a member of the IRA. Apparently, this was the first Irish film to be directed by a woman. Cork University Press published a monograph on this film in 2001 by Fidelma Farley as part of its Ireland into Film series. I have not seen this film, but the title is very suggestive of the political relationship between the British and the Irish.

Hamlet in Hollywood

Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy (Act 3, Scene 1) has been referenced by Hollywood cinema on many occasions. The titles of numerous films have been drawn from the text: To Be or Not to Be (1942 & 1983), What Dreams May Come (1998), and even Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). While the Lubitsch’s and Johnson’s To Be or Not to Bes are comic farces, the other two films both share a sense of crossing over into the unknown (death and the afterlife, or a peace treaty with your mortal enemies). Star Trek VI was released in after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the peace treaty between the Klingons and the Federation mirrors this breaking down of a long-standing barrier.

What connects these films is that they exist at the frontier, an idea that has been central to American exceptionalism and national identity. The ‘frontier thesis’ of Frederick Jackson Turner has been one of the most enduring concepts n the study of American History since its original publication in the 1890s. For Turner, it is the frontier that defines America:

The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. … the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. The coast was predominantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across the free lands. … The growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier ([1893] 1956: 1-2, 10-11).

The frontier is a place of becoming – it is where America became America, and it is this sense of becoming that occupies Hamlet. Faced with the murder of his father he must come to terms with himself and decide what he will do. This is Hamlet’s moment of becoming, of transformation, of crossing the frontier into adulthood and the future.

Perhaps the most unique example of this idea of transformation, becoming and the frontier is John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) (Figure 1). Tag Gallagher (1986:232-233) discusses the role of Hamlet in this film, but does not say anything of great interest. He writes that, the ‘pretentiousness of inserting Shakespeare into a western mirrors the advent of culture into the wilderness, and is both undercut and underscored by staging the soliloquy on a saloon table with a drunken actor (Alan Mowbray) and an uncomprehending savage audience (the Clanton boys).’ To call this scene pretentious is, I think, to miss the importance of the idea of the frontier, and Gallagher’s subsequent analysis is very literal:

To be or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.

Wyatt, of course, opposes troubles (ought he to?), and Clementine and the Clantons also decide to take action. But Holliday prefers

To die, to sleep⎯
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.

Is not Wyatt in a kind of ‘sleep?’ Holliday in a nightmare? Clementine in a kind of dream?

I generally think that Gallagher’s book on Ford is quite an interesting one, but this is rubbish. He simply assigns qualities referred to in the speech to characters in the film, and generates no insight whatsoever.

Figure 1 Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be ‘soliloquy in My Darling Clementine (1946)

The use of Hamlet in this scene may be interpreted in several ways. The placing of high culture in the low surroundings of a saloon does contrast the civilised and the barbaric. The film has, along with just about every other  western, been interpreted as a shift from wilderness to garden, from barbarity to civilisation, and so we can see this as an instance of the becoming of the west. Hamlet is a metaphor for the transformation of American society at the frontier. At the same time, we have Doc Holliday who finishes the speech when the actor falters, and so we may this speech as a meditation on Doc’s mortality. Like Hamlet, Doc must face up to the future and determine a course of action. He must decide if he is to go on as a drunkard and a gambler, or if he will take a stand for what is right. The coughing fit that ends his performance reminds us of the short time he has left, and so his decision must be interpreted in terms of his own impending frontier – death. We would not expect to find Shakespeare in a western – it is certainly not a common part of the genre, but in My Darling Clementine it is one of the most important. This scene is a moment of pause, in which we are invited to reflect on the central question Shakespeare poses – ‘To be or not be’ – and to consider the nature and consequences of that becoming. For the west it is the transformation of the wilderness into civilisation, for America it is the becoming of a nation, and for Doc it is a decision on a path to righteousness.


Gallagher, T. (1986) John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Turner, F. J. ([1893] 1956) The significance of the frontier in American history, in G. R. Taylor (ed.) The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co.: 1-18.