In recent weeks, I’ve found myself being a little too moody. Melancholic, you might say. I’ve found myself agonizing over the state of the world, and meditating a little too long on the tragic meaningless of life. Getting a bit obsessed, maybe. A bit dark. So for absolutely no reason at all, I have decided to rank all of the Hamlets in film, television, and elsewhere. Yes, this is the kind of thing that makes me feel better.
Here are the rules (though this be madness, yet there is method in’t):
1. I have included both full and partial Hamlets, though if not a full Hamlet, the character must be actually portraying the Prince in some way—in rare cases, a soliloquy might be enough (basically only if you’re Withnail), but a tossed-off quotation or lofted skull (sorry, Chewy) will not.
2. I’ve also had to exclude legendary (and er, less-legendary) stage performances that I couldn’t at least watch in part through the magic of the internet—I wish I had the chance to experience Ruth Negga’s Hamlet, or David Warner’s (in the scarf!), or Edwin Booth’s, for that matter. But since I can’t, they’re not exactly rankable. This also goes for John Barrymore, John Gielgud, the more recent Simon Russell Beale, etc. Trust me, I know they exist—but any list that includes them must veer irretrievably into the hypothetical.
3. I’ve made an effort to separate the Hamlets from the Hamlets, but there’s some inevitable conflation.
4. It’s obviously impossible to compare serious Hamlets with comic ones, or partial Hamlets with full ones, or old Hamlets with new ones, but I’ve done it anyway. Consider my rankings based on a combination of skill (at achieving whatever style of Hamlet is called for) and essential enjoyability.
5. Exclusion from this list should not necessarily be taken to mean a lack of ranking, and there are definitely more Hamlets in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in this philosophy, but I was as exhaustive as I could be, and listen, you gotta stop somewhere. If Hamlet had known that, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten into all that trouble.
Finally, as always: my list, my opinions. I am not actually one of those people who thinks there is a “definitive” Hamlet—I think everyone has, or should have, their own personal ranking, based on their tastes and experience. This is mine; may it inspire you to further define your own (or just laugh at your desk at the goofy ones—whatever works for you). After all: to thine own self, etc.
40. Jimmy Gourd as Omelet, in VeggieTales (2001)
Hamlet retold as a morality play starring vegetables in which the moral is: God likes it when you share. I hate everything about this except the Battleship joke.
39. Mel Gibson as Hamlet, in Sesame Street‘s Monsterpiece Theater (1993)
In his other portrayal of Hamlet, Gibson boils the play down to its essentials: “words, words, words.” Elmo, however, is only interested in “pictures, pictures, pictures.” (Really seems like this person shouldn’t be allowed around impressionable children, but I guess this was before we knew about his raging antisemitism…)
38. Billy Madison as Hamlet, in Billy Madison (1995)
He’s terrible, but at least he’s better than Eric. Anyway, I heard Eric drinks his own pee.
37. George Mackay as Hamlet, in Ophelia (2018)
Woof. I know it’s not fair, because this isn’t his story (for once), but how am I suppose to believe that Daisy Ridley’s Ophelia is going for this moony kid? There’s no edge in this Hamlet, and thus he is not a Hamlet for me.
36. Roosevelt Hobbs as Hamlet, in Renaissance Man (1994)
Yes, the Classic Film in which Danny DeVito teaches Shakespeare to a bunch of resistant, “ineducable” soldiers, including Stacey Dash and Marky Mark (which is why we get this rap). It’s a movie at least partially about Hamlet—which ain’t about a little-bitty pig, in case you were curious—without much in the way of a Hamlet, except for Hobbs, a kid too smart to be there, who pulls him in the table read. Hard to rank, but can’t be excluded. (And does it work? I mean, do they learn their Shakespeare? You bet they do.)
35. Spamlet in Calvin and Hobbes (1994)
An easily ingested Hamlet, but not a very filling one. Quoth Bill Waterson: “This is one of the weirdest strips I drew, and I’m not exactly sure I understand it myself, but it still makes me laugh, so there you are.”
34. Maximilian Schell as Hamlet in Hamlet (1961) in Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1999)
Schell definitely ranks of the best looking Hamlets—but this production, originally for German television, was roundly scorned and forgotten, until it showed up on MST3K. It’s hard to rank Hamlet alone, considering, but he’s . . . not great (and made worse by the fact that this is a dub over the original German)—still, this version gets a little bump from the framing.
33. Bart Simpson as Hamlet in The Simpsons (2002)
“You’re not supposed to hear me. That’s a soliloquy.” Fair enough, Bart.
32. Jack Benny as Josef Tura as Hamlet, in To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Great film, bad Hamlet. But of course he’s meant to be bad: Tura is a ham Hamlet, if you will. (“What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland,” says a Nazi, to a disguised Tura no less . . . yikes all around.) FYI that I did delve slightly into the Mel Brooks remake from the 80s, but what I found was not exactly Hamlet (funny, though).
31. Joseph Julian Soria as Octavio as Hamlet in Hamlet 2 (2008)
Oh, Hamlet 2. A movie about a play that’s “so bad it starts to turn good again” which is, itself . . . so bad it starts to turn good again. That said, I’m not unconvinced by Dana’s take: “If Hamlet had had just a little bit of therapy, he could have turned everything around!” So true. Anyway, Octavio’s Hamlet, after going back in time and meeting up with Jesus (of course), delivers his scant lines with aplomb, fights Laertes with budget lightsabers before hugging him, slow-motion runs, and well, saves everyone, forgives his dad, and proposes to Ophelia. It’s not not amazing.
30. Pamela in Strange Brew (1983)
Did you know that Strange Brew is (oh so loosely) an adaptation of Hamlet? Think back to your youth: Bob and Doug are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (but also kind of Ophelia), but Pam Elsinore is definitely Hamlet—after all, the day after her father died, his brother Claude married her mother and took over the entire brewery! But now that Pam is 21, she’s taking over. Or trying to.
29. Phillip as Hamlet in South Park (2001)
“Oh, I could tell you, buddy, but let it be. Horatio, I am dead. Thou liv’st, guy. Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied.” It all makes me pine to see the version starring Keanu Reeves in 1995 in Winnipeg (please help me find this online, hive mind). Though it should be said that of course the fellows are not entertained. “Jesus Tapdancing Christ, is this thing ever gonna end?” One day . . .
28. Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1900)
The fact that Bernhardt was the first female Hamlet ever captured on film, and that she cast herself as the lead in her own production, at the theater she named for herself, gives her points. But all I have to watch is this fencing scene, so I’m afraid I can’t rank her any higher than this.
27. Bob Denver as Gilligan as Hamlet, in Gilligan’s Island (1966)
A musical Hamlet, to boot. Gilligan always charms. (I’d steal it too.)
26. Adamo Ruggiero as Marco as Hamlet, in Degrassi: The Next Generation (2005)
Not too much to go on, Hamlet-wise, but extra points for interrupting Act V to tell your day you’re gay!! DRAMA. In other news, I cannot explain the full-body nostalgia that coursed through me when I rewatched this episode—particularly that intro. Whew. Highly recommend.
25. Derek Jacobi as Jackson Hedley as Hamlet, in Frasier (2001)
Jacobi, himself an excellent Hamlet in his day (if not quite my favorite), mocks himself ably in this episode of Frasier—the gasping is an excellent dramatic choice. Jacobi even won an Emmy for this epic butchering of the role.
24. Kevin Kline as Hamlet in Hamlet (1990)
He makes a much better Falstaff.
23. Iain Glen as Hamlet in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
I do love a comic Hamlet, talking to a chicken.
22. Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams as Hamlet in The Addams Family (1991)
But a comic bloody Hamlet is even better.
21. Richard Grant as Withnail, in Withnail and I (1987)
Withnail channels Hamlet in the final scene of this glorious classic of British cinema, giving us a final murky look into his distressed psyche and proving that he is, in fact, a very good actor, even if (or perhaps because) only the wolves are there to appreciate it. Never play the Dane, indeed.
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.
10. Adrian Lester as Hamlet, in The Tragedy of Hamlet (2002)
I find it hard to look away from Lester’s Hamlet—either in his monologue above, or in the full filmed version of Peter Brook’s truncated, transposed version of the play. He is a thoughtful version of the Prince, magnetic and obsessed with his questioning of everything around him.
9. Mel Gibson as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1990)
Mel Gibson is a worse person that Kenneth Branagh, admittedly. But in the pantheon of Approved Best Hamlets, he makes a better, more natural one. Even with that awful haircut.
8. Andrew Scott as Hamlet, in Hamlet (2017)
Hot Priest, Hot Hamlet. (And a weird, thrilling, perfectly unhinged Hamlet too. The fingers!) Suffers a little in the rankings because I can’t watch a full version, but the clips have me convinced he’s worthy of the top ten.
7. Shahid Kapoor as Haider Meer in Haider (2014)
The third in Vishal Bhardwaj’s trilogy of Shakespeare adaptations drops Hamlet into violence-plagued Kashmir in 1995; Kapoor is a much less conflicted Hamlet than we’re used to (I suppose the conflicts of the setting are quite enough to be getting on with), he’s radical and compelling enough that I really don’t miss the agonizing. (I couldn’t find a clip with English subtitled, but this version is on Netflix—do yourself a favor and check it out.)
6. Asta Nielsen as Hamlet, in Hamlet: The Drama of Vengeance (1921)
Asta Nielsen is not just a woman playing Hamlet; the inspiration for this (silent!) interpretation of Hamlet comes explicitly from a railway engineer named Edward P. Vining, who in 1881 published a book called The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem. In it, he theorizes that Hamlet is a woman—and was always a woman, but raised outwardly as a man so she could inherit the crown. Shakespeare didn’t mean to write Hamlet as a woman, Vining assures us, but it just sorta happened because Hamlet ended up so weak and ineffectual and stuff. “Very possibly the poet half juggled with himself in the matter,” Vining writes. (I mean look, we’ve all been there: once in college I wrote a whole paper on how Caliban was a veiled representation of the Feminine Other and my professor’s comment on the bottom was “Isn’t it easier if he’s just a monster?” I got an A-, though.) Anyway, Nielsen caught wind of this, and loved it, and set up a production company to build the film from the ground up. The result is pretty astounding: moody and gorgeous. You don’t even miss the soliloquy. You can watch the whole thing here, or in English (but sans music) here.
5. Ethan Hawke as Hamlet in Hamlet, also known as Hamlet 2000 (2000)
It’s not that it’s good. I mean, look, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy happens as a partial voice-over in a Blockbuster. But on the other hand, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy happens as a partial voice-over in a Blockbuster. And in that hat. With The Crow: City of Angels playing on the television. Oh no, I love it. So, you see my dilemma here.
4. David Tennant as Hamlet, in Hamlet (2009)
There have been plenty of celebrity Hamlets over the years, and for my money, Tennant—in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 award-winning stage production, which was adapted into film the next year—is the biggest payoff. Tennant is sneakily good in everything, but you wouldn’t think he’d be an obvious Great Hamlet. You’d be wrong not to, though—his performance is moving and energetic and very funny. He’s not as deep as Hamlet sometimes is, but he’s about as engaging as possible. Robert McCrum, not for nothing, called him the greatest Hamlet of his generation, and I wouldn’t argue—at least not yet. The shirt’s also doing a lot of work.
3. Simba in The Lion King (1994)
You all knew The Lion King was (loosely) based on Hamlet, right? “When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie . . . someone in the room announced that its themes and relationships were similar to Hamlet,” director Rob Minkoff said. “Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean, so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all-time classic.” It also once had a . . . very different, and very Hamlet-ish ending, with Scar crowing “Goodnight, sweet prince.”
2. Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1948)
The sterling Hamlet, against which all other performances are held. For me, it’s a bit stodgy, but even so it’s hard to beat it—after all, when Olivier won the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role, he became the first actor to direct himself to that honor. “Once you have played it, it will devour you and obsess you for the rest of your life,” Olivier wrote of the role later in life. “It has me. I think each day about it. I’ll never play him again, of course, but by God, I wish I could.” You can tell.
1. Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1964)
Even in Russian, I can tell this Hamlet slaps—finally, a soliloquy completely bereft of actor-induced melodrama (except for those shoulders, which are truly divine in their outrageousness). Even Olivier said that Smoktunovsky was the best. The film itself is gorgeous; director Grigori Kosintsev wrote it with Boris Pasternak, which makes me more sorry than usual (I’m a Master and Margarita fan, okay) not to speak Russian.
Honorable Mention: The Skinhead Hamlet, by Richard Curtis (1981)