“Strict and Most Observant Watch”: Hamlet’s Ghostly Postmodern Supervision

As written by Wendy Faunce

Since its earliest performances nearly four centuries ago, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has displayed a distinct and compelling surveillance motif. Postmodern productions continue to employ the motif and sometimes allow it to dominate both plot and characters. For example the use of security cameras in Gregory Doran’s Hamlet foregrounds this domination. These modern means of surveillance contribute a haunted, ghostly ingredient that saturates the entire production in ways very different from productions past.

Doran’s film is an adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 season play. In the play, security cameras were used as props to represent a constant presence. The film takes this conceit a step farther, as Elizabeth Klett points out in her analysis of the role of surveillance in Doran’s film. She refers to the use of security cameras as a representation of CCTV and its ghostly presence: “The CCTV effectively functions as an invisible yet visible presence, whereby those in power (Claudius, Polonius, unseen security forces) can watch and control those who might pose a threat to the social order (Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, etc.)” (Klett 106).

Not only do the characters in the film make use of the cameras, as they had done on stage, but many scenes in the film are presented as footage captured by the security cameras. This allows the audience to see from the camera’s point of view, creating an experience in which those in the audience survey the few players. This enables the audience to experience the performance from a reverse-panoptic point of view. Doing so shifts their position from one of being on the outside looking in, to one of being on the inside looking in. The audience is positioned not only within the play, but in a position of power and authority. This allows the audience to understand the role and influence of the security cameras and the characters behind them in a deep and personal way.

The very nature of surveillance facilitates an evident correlation between security cameras and ghosts. Like ghosts, security cameras are both present and hidden. In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon states, “the ghost…is one form by which something… barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us…” (8). It is understood that the ghost is in a constant state of limbo, straddling the threshold between the known world and the unknown world. A ghost is understood to be present because one senses a presence or perceives an image. However, a ghost is also absent because one understands it as incorporeal and recognizes that it cannot fully take part in reality. The ghost is simultaneously visible, invisible, and “barely visible” because it is both there and not there. The same can be said for the use of surveillance in Doran’s adaptation. Like ghosts, the security cameras are both always seeing and yet often unseen.

The security cameras are visible to Hamlet in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene (Shakespeare 3.1.119). As Hamlet, played by David Tennant, argues with Ophelia, played by Mariah Gale, he notices a camera on the wall swiveling and focusing on them. Hamlet’s awareness of the camera’s movements gives new meaning to his following line, “Where’s your father?” (Shakespeare 3.1.126). The camera’s visibility alters the meaning of the line and leads him to the accurate conclusion that Polonius is watching them.

However, this direct reference to the camera is a relatively rare occurrence as the security cameras remain seemingly invisible to the characters throughout much of the film. Their omniscient presence is made known with short footage clips as Hamlet and Laertes prepare to duel. But during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, played by Edward Bennett, the cameras in no way affect the actions that follow. They presumably capture the unashamed slashing, poisoning, treachery, betrayal, and death, suggesting that even if the characters are aware of the cameras, they don’t perceive them as deterrents to violence and destruction.

Recent renditions of Hamlet have advanced the play into postmodern contexts while staying true to its original emphasis on supervision. The prominent use of technologies like security cameras has pushed Hamlet’s surveillance motif to a new depth, reflecting the age-old yet ever contemporary anxiety of being watched. Postmodern audiences in particular are able to relate to these kinds of productions since security cameras and other means of surveillance are increasingly commonplace. Doran’s use of this theme permits the audience a glance from the other side of the camera as well as making explicit their anxiety at being watched.

Bibliography

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Doran, Gregory, dir. Hamlet. Perf. David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, and Oliver Ford Davies. BBC Company, 2010. Film.

Klett, Elizabeth. “The Heart of the Mystery: Surveillance in Michael Almereyda and Gregory Doran’s Films of Hamlet.” Literature Film Quarterly 41.2 (2013): 102-15. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.

Shakespeare, William. The New Cambridge Shakespeare: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Updated ed. Ed. Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Doran’s Hamlet as found on Youtube: Part One, Part Two

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