Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Madness and gender in Gregory Doran’s Hamlet

Sarah Bahr
Indianapolis, Indiana, United States


John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, Tate Britain, London.

In director Gregory Doran’s 2009 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, David Tennant’s Hamlet becomes a bawdy lunatic who consciously or unconsciously uncouples himself from reality. The intentionality of Hamlet’s madness is more muddled than in Shakespeare’s text because of the confrontational quality Tennant lends to the prince’s mental angst. Tennant has tools at his disposal that mere words on a page cannot convey — the potential for sustained, unblinking eye contact with his audience, gestures, facial expressions, and being able to say one thing but convey another through his body language. Doran’s enhanced emphasis on Hamlet’s madness transcends the typical intensification that occurs when a work is adapted from page to screen, manifesting Doran’s choice to encourage his contemporary audience to interrogate the standards society uses to determine sanity. Furthermore, Doran dilutes the textual divide between the extremities of Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s insanities, forcing his audience to ask why the characters in the play move much more quickly to check Ophelia’s behavior, yet allowing Hamlet’s antics to continue unabated to the point of manslaughter. Why, Doran asks, are men afforded more latitude in madness?

The most striking scenes showcasing the main characters’ madness in Doran’s film provoke dissimilar reactions from the supporting characters who witness them. A disheveled Ophelia enters Gertrude’s chamber barefoot and with tangled hair, singing to herself with a glazed look in her eyes. After Ophelia whips herself into a frenzy, leaping about, wiggling her arms, and finally stripping down to her bra in front of Claudius, Gertrude immediately moves to cover and restrain her as Ophelia sobs and thrashes. The latitude afforded her in madness is minimal; she is expected to tightly align with appropriate standards of behavior, and Gertrude immediately intervenes when Ophelia violates them. By contrast, when Hamlet drags Ophelia to the floor, lays his head in her lap, and bites her arm while watching The Mousetrap play alongside Claudius and Gertrude, the king and queen do not move to restrain his lewd antics. Hamlet makes bawdy puns about providing a play-by-play analysis of Ophelia’s hypothetical sexual encounter with a lover, and makes no secret of training his camcorder on Claudius’ face to observe his reactions to the play. Hamlet’s narration of the play’s plot is audible to the entire audience, Claudius included, unlike in Shakespeare’s text. His “merry” behavior is manifest for all the playgoers; no longer just Ophelia, yet no one moves to restrain him as they presumably would have done if he had been female. By amplifying Hamlet’s antics so they are manifest to an audience of many, not just Ophelia, Doran equivocates the intensity of Hamlet’s outburst and that of the grief-stricken Ophelia.

Yet Claudius takes no action to check Hamlet’s behavior until Hamlet kills Polonius. Claudius’ inaction in both the text and the film raises the question whether he truly believes Hamlet is insane. Hamlet, on both page and screen, purports to affect madness for strategic purpose. “How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself / (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put antic disposition on)” he tells Horatio when requesting his friend not to reveal any knowledge of Hamlet’s meeting with his father’s ghost.1 Hamlet intends to use the appearance of madness to mask his plotting against Claudius. He sporadically reminds readers that he is only pretending, remarking, “These tedious old fools!” as an aside after convincing Polonius that he is not all there.2 Polonius comes away with the impression that Hamlet is indeed mad, remarking, “How pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness / that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity / could not so prosperously be delivered of …” 3 In other words, Polonius thinks Hamlet speaks in a way no sane person could muster. While Hamlet has succeeded in affecting the appearance of madness, Shakespeare’s reader has his assurance that it is all an act. Doran muddies the waters in his adaptation. Tennant’s Hamlet delivers the same lines, yet his facial expressions and glinting eyes cause the audience to question whether his assurances of sanity are credible, or even delivered in earnest. Tennant’s affectations of madness are much more striking than on the page: “Except my life, except my life, eggggs-cept my life,” he intones while contorting his face and bulging his eyes.4 The viewer is less certain his affectations are an act.

Coupled with the transference of Hamlet’s madness from the private to the public sphere during the performance of The Mousetrap, the exchange with Polonius causes the viewer to question the credibility of Tennant’s Hamlet’s assurances that his madness is feigned. A notable disparity between Shakespeare’s text and Doran’s film is that, in the latter, Hamlet makes no effort to conceal his trap from Claudius during the performance of The Mousetrap. He trains his camcorder on his uncle’s face, making direct eye contact; draws clear, unambiguous parallels between the play’s plot and what he knows about his uncle’s role in his father’s murder; and makes as much of a spectacle of himself as the play being performed. Hamlet’s madness, feigned or actual, is so ostentatious that the audience cannot conclude Claudius tolerates the behavior because he does not believe Hamlet is actually crazy. Unlike in Shakespeare’s text, Hamlet does not affect his madness to conceal from Claudius that he knows the truth about his father’s murder. At first, it would seem as though Hamlet’s heightened madness in the film is simply taking his ruse to the next level. But why would he clue Claudius in that he knows about the murder by vocally emphasizing each parallel between the play and his uncle’s plot, or scrupulously and unambiguously train his binoculars on his uncle’s face to observe his reactions, if he wanted to avoid courting the latter’s suspicion? Hamlet would presumably affect madness unrelated to the murder. But by affecting madness without the intention of concealing his knowledge of his uncle’s murder, Tennant’s Hamlet raises the question of whether his madness is affected at all.

By foregrounding the question of the intentionality of Hamlet’s madness, Doran prompts filmgoers to consider the role of gender in determining insanity. Doran puts Hamlet’s antics on par with those of the grief-stricken Ophelia, yet allows the former’s behavior to continue unchecked until the moment he kills Polonius. Doran thus asks the audience to question why Ophelia’s eccentricities are so quickly quelled. Claudius waits until his nephew kills a man to take any action against Hamlet, shipping him off to England. Ophelia is not afforded the same leniency — Claudius and Gertrude immediately recognize her addled brain as an issue that requires address, and Gertrude intervenes when Ophelia begins removing her clothes. By foregrounding Hamlet’s madness in the 2009 adaptation, yet allowing the prince’s antics to continue unchecked to the point of criminality, Doran demonstrates that determinations of madness are often gender-based — and prompts his audience to ask why.



  1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet (New York City: Oxford UP, 2008), I.v.190-92.
  2. Ibid., II.ii.209.
  3. Ibid., II.ii. 226-28.
  4. Hamlet. DVD. Directed by Gregory Doran. London: BBC Two, 2009.



SARAH BAHR is a first-year student in the M.A. in English program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She works as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star and has contributed to national and local publications including Forbes Travel Guide, USA Today, and Indianapolis Monthly magazine.


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Literary Essays

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