Richard Rambuss

For the most part, this seminar focused on the question of adaptation. My interest in Shakespeare and visual culture turns on something rather different, however. In my classroom I'm more interested in correlating tropes and tableaux in Shakespeare's plays with visual analogues drawn from contemporary visual culture. This is a means for freshening the classroom with something other than the usual "film-version-of-the-play" approach. This approach also allows me to stage certain juxtapositions that can serve toward denaturalizing both textual and cinematic representation. Among these strategic juxtapositions are: linguistic/visual; theatrical/filmic; and, most crucially, high/low. The latter pair can be used to raise questions in the classroom about the cultural status of the public theater in Shakespeare's time as opposed to ours, as well as to provoke a critical and historical examination of the developing history of Shakespeare's own cultural stature and celebrity.

These issues provide a framework for a new course I'll be offering in Fall of 1999 at Emory, called "Hamlet: The Last Action Hero." In addition to studying some representative film versions of the play (Olivier's 1948 film; the Zeffirelli 1991 version—which, interestingly, students tend to refer to as the "Mel Gibson Hamlet"—displacing auteur by actor, by an action hero actor, in particular), the course will also study some other filmic representations that use and rearticulate Hamlet or, better, what might be called "Hamlet effects," in very different cultural contexts.

One example comes from Wes Craven's horror film, Nightmare on Elm Street. The first dream sequence involving the film's heroine—or what Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chain Saws calls "the final girl"—occurs in her high school English class while her teacher is lecturing on Hamlet. There are a number of interesting generational conflicts staged in the film that can be seen to resonate with Shakespeare's play.

Another example of these "Hamlet effects" (and the source for this course's title) is John McTiernan's movie, The Last Action Hero, starring the contemporary archetypal action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film at once hyperbolizes and deconstructs the tropic repertoire of the action film. That is, it parodies and empties out all the tropes, but at the same time freely avails itself of them. In the case of McTiernan's film, this is an idea better in theory than in execution, though the film's shortcomings are themselves not without pedagogical usefulness. I'm particularly interested in playing off the film's meta-relation to the action film to the ways in which Shakespeare's play evokes, defamiliarizes, and redeploys the mechanisms of the revenge tragedy.

What's more, the best sequence in the film involves a fatherless boy who's the world's biggest fan of the world's best action hero (played by Schwarzenegger) reimagining Arnold as Hamlet—as Hamlet as a gun-toting, Terminator-esque action hero. "Don't talk. Just do it!" the boy urges, and the Schwarzenegger Hamlet follows suit.

Again the reverie is triggered by English teacher (here, Joan Plowright, Olivier's wife, suggesting a number of visual culture intertextualities) holding forth on Hamlet and (mis-?)naming Hamlet as "one of the first action heroes."

Renaissance Tableaux in a Postmodern Age of Visual Culture
Ambiguities of Vision: The Spatial Context of Film

Digital Media/Film & Video/Stage Production/Printed Media