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  • Hamlet’s Mirror Image: Theatre, Film, and The Shakespearean Imaginary
  • D.J. Hopkins (bio)

In 1964, Richard Burton appeared on Broadway playing the title role in a production of Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud.1 Later that year, a film version of that stage production was released simultaneously on screens across the United States, in a limited run of one week.2 Watching that film decades later, Barbara Hodgdon admires the way that, in the “To be or not to be” speech, Burton “sweeps both hands across his face . . . with a gesture of self-erasure” that, even mediated by film, gives Hodgdon a strong sense of the meaning-making role of the body in the performance of Shakespeare’s texts.3

This article is about Hamlet. It is also about bodies, especially Shakespearean bodies. It is in part an article about the discourses employed in the field of Shakespeare in Performance. And, finally, this is an article about the ghostly relationship between recorded and live performance. Marvin Carlson argues that theatrical performance is “a cultural activity deeply involved with memory and haunted by repetition.”4 For Carlson, Marcellus’s fearful question about the ghost of King Hamlet, “[H]as this thing appeared again tonight?” is “profoundly evocative of the operations of theatre.”5 In the Shakespearean productions that I discuss in this study, performance—theatrical and otherwise—consistently finds its ghostly afterimage in the archive of cinematic representation.

My work has for some time focused on the disappearance and reappearance of bodies.6 When I look at film versions of Shakespeare, I often find myself watching the way a tradition of embodied performance (early English theatre) has been rendered disembodied, or virtual rather than actual. Seeing Shakespeare on film in this way is not nostalgia but a recognition of the technology and (im)materiality of cinema. Moreover, I am aware, as Sarah Bay-Cheng would hasten to remind me, that no medium, however seemingly virtual, is really disembodied.7 One pleasure of watching a film is the haptic sensation of vicarious experience, the times at which a flat projection can remind us that we, the audience, have bodies even if the recorded images on the screen do not. We control the technology of such images in various [End Page 7] ways; we sit and watch in various locations; and occasionally (spontaneously, fleetingly) we imagine those bodies as our own. This article’s comparative theatre/film analysis of Shakespearean bodies considers the importance of “thinking with bodies in history.”8 When we produce these plays on stage or screen, such productions become part of a culturally significant mode of critical inquiry.

The idea of the body plays out in film theory in complex ways. In The Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro describes film as “dangerously mimetic . . . thrusting us into the mysterious life of the body.” He goes on to argue: “The very proximity of the body, conducted and hyperbolically magnified by the cinematic apparatus, provokes and compels us.”9 The danger, for Shaviro, inherent in the substanceless bodies of film projection is that these bodies cause viewers to confront the very idea of the body, perhaps even to confront our very own bodies. Nicholas Rombes argues that the era of digital cinema exaggerates the illusion inherent in film, and that it does so by eliminating cinema’s familiar analog equipment. In exchange for projectors and celluloid, digital cinema participates in the virtuality inherent in the discourses of our cultural moment.10 In this context, the film viewer’s own body is increasingly freighted with responsibility, as the only available reference point for embodiment. Shaviro argues that “cinema produces real effects in the viewer, rather than merely presenting phantasmic reflections to the viewer.” He concludes with a confession: the cinematic “stimulates and affects my own body, even as it abolishes the distances between my own and other bodies.”11 I think, however, that it does even more than that. Confronted by the dangerously exaggerated mimesis of the digital, film viewers have a new role to play in the virtual: we are cinema’s body.

By undertaking a sustained engagement with bodies—cinematic bodies, textual bodies, theatrical bodies—this article looks for answers to...


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pp. 7-24
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