• 40 Hamlets, Ranked

    "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

    20. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater as Hamlet, in Last Action Hero (1993)
    Danny’s teacher shows his class Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, but Danny has another kind of Hamlet in mind. A Hamlet who doesn’t talk, just does it. A Hamlet smoking a cigar. A Hamlet like . . . Jack Slater, who sums it up real quick: “Hey Claudius . . . you killed my father. Big mistake.” Honestly, I laughed more rewatching this clip (albeit after days of revisiting serious Hamlets) than any other.


    19. Bruce Ramsay as Hamlet in Hamlet (2011)
    It’s been a while since I’ve seen this version, and it’s not easily available online anymore, but if memory serves it’s a truncated, Downton Abbey-style Hamlet, done on a shoestring budget over three days and chopped up so that the action takes place in a single night (and in 90 minutes). It’s not the best, but Ramsay is compelling, and the whole thing is fun.


    18. Charlie Hunnam as Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014)
    Sons of Anarchy was variously referred to as “Hamlet on Harleys,” “Hamlet in Black Leather,” “Shakespeare on motorcycle wheels,” and every other more or less clever way of saying that it’s like Hamlet, only with bikers. It’s not a modern retelling; Hamlet is only an influence. But the influence is strong, particularly in Jax Teller, the show’s anti-hero in Air Force Ones.


    17. Austin Pendleton as Hamlet in The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (1995)
    Austin Pendleton makes for a very funny, very shouty (and occasionally very convincing) Hamlet in Todd Louiso’s production of Tom Stoppard’s very truncated adaptation of the play. Also features Philip Seymour Hoffman as Bernardo and Horatio and Laertes, Ophelia drowning herself in a bucket, and one of my favorite Poloniuses (Polonii?) of all time. The two-minute version ain’t bad either. Watch the second part here.


    16. Richard Burton as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1964)
    I don’t love Burton’s Hamlet, or what I can see of it—here’s yet another I’m judging on clips and reviews. Directed by Gielgud himself, it’s too forceful for me. “I do not recall a Hamlet of such tempestuous manliness,” Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times. Well, that’s your problem right there. He’s got to be more subtle than that. (For this viewer, at least.) Watch the whole thing here.


    15. Nicol Williamson as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1969)
    Williamson’s acting is solid in Tony Richardson’s low-budget version, but it’s sort of weird to see him against Anthony Hopkins as Claudius—he’s just not selling the moody prince for me. (Actually, Williamson was a year older than Hopkins, and a year younger than Judy Parfitt, who played Gertrude. Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia, on the other hand, is everything.


    14. Christopher Plummer as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1964)
    Young Plummer nails it, in my opinion, and the Emmys agreed that year, though overall this is a minor version. This Hamlet was actually filmed at Elsinore Castle, also known as Kronborg.


    13. Campbell Scott as Hamlet, in Hamlet (2000)
    This TV movie version of Hamlet, set at the turn of the 20th century and directed by Campbell Scott and Eric Simonson, is not exactly revolutionary, or even particularly notable as a whole—which is probably why no one remembers that Campbell Scott is excellent in it: I really like his performance, raw and bruised and believable. That said, there’s something minor about it.


    12. Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1996)
    It is the official position of Literary Hub that Kenneth Branagh is no good as a dramatic actor, while admittedly charming as a comedic one. He is too much of a ham to be Hamlet. It is also the official position of Literary Hub that Kenneth Branagh is a jerk for his behavior towards Emma Thompson and therefore does not deserve a higher ranking. Emma Thompson is our king.


    11. Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)
    I know I’m in the minority, but I’m not as wild as I want to be about Jacobi as Hamlet. His acting is wonderful, and he’s a very human Hamlet, but I just don’t buy it physically—for me he’s too old, and too solid somehow, and the whole thing is too stagy.

    Emily Temple
    Emily Temple
    Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

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