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Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Maxine Peake As Hamlet enabled me to re-watch last year’s astonishing stage production directed by Sarah Frankcom at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Although I have already reviewed the production here (where I focus on gender), the filmed version shown at The Cornerhouse Cinema, Manchester on April 2, 2015, gave me the opportunity to concentrate on how cleverly the production tackles the theme of madness.

Firstly, it is worth noting two instances of how Shakespeare’s play describes madness. Polonia, a female Polonius played by Gillian Bevan in the production, recalls Hamlet’s apparent descent into love-induced madness following her advice to Ophelia to lock herself away:

And he, repelled – a short tale to make –

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,

Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,

Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,

Into the madness wherein now he raves

And all we mourn for. (II.ii.146-50)

Polonia lists the classical symptoms of melancholic love where Hamlet first suffers from ‘depression, loss of appetite, insomnia, debility, delirium’, then descends into ‘raving madness’ (Jenkins ‘footnote’ 244). Her metonymic list displaces each previous symptom of melancholic love until madness finally departs from reason.

A similar misdiagnosis occurs when Hamlet talks to the ghost who his mother cannot see. She says to Hamlet: ‘Alas, how is’t with you,/That you do bend your eye on vacancy,/And with th’incorporal air do hold discourse?’ (III.iv.116- 118). Gertrude then explains Hamlet’s peculiar behaviour as, ‘This is the very coinage of your brain./This bodiless creation ecstasy/Is very cunning in’ (III.iv.139-141). Her observations are close to how the production stages Ophelia’s madness. Traumatised by Polonia’s sudden death, Ophelia identifies with her mother through the flowers she names and gives to Laertes who describes her behaviour as ‘A document in madness’ (IV.v.176) Through Katie West’s convincing portrayal, Ophelia addresses an internal space represented by the black rectangle that only she stands and moves within on stage. Ophelia’s lack of self-awareness is emphasised by the removal of her clothes; a literal lightness or delirium signifying her mental breakdown. Thus, lying down within one corner of her black rectangle in only her virginal white bra and knickers, to create a striking contrast between innocence and darkness, Ophelia’s madness becomes a degrading spectacle. Even at her funeral, Ophelia’s corpse is represented by her dress accentuating her mind’s separation from her body.

The play within a play enables the production to portray an even more extreme madness. Following an enchanting dumb-show, played wonderfully by local children, the stage lights are extinguished as the production launches into screeching heavy metal with Gonzago and his wife Baptista screaming and running erratically about stage. Maxine Peake’s Hamlet also screams with a deathly grimace, courtesy of a sudden close-up, that would put Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1910) to shame. Perhaps, for thematic consistency, it would have been appropriate in this raw moment of frenzied madness for shirts to be ripped and clothes flung about the stage. Such turmoil would have neatly foreshadowed Ophelia’s grief-stricken stripping.

With being aimed at the King’s murder of his brother, the play within the play’s aggressive madness is not Hamlet’s but Claudius’s. The screaming and its equally jarring soundtrack mirror a mind of murderous passions. Even Claudius’s confession in the chapel is not for forgiveness, but a plea to have the murder removed from his conscious:

My fault is past – but O, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’

That cannot be, since I am still possess’d

Of those effects for which I did the murder –

My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

May one be pardon’d and retain th’offence? (III.iii.51-56)

The film’s subtext ‘Desire. Murder. Revenge’, nouns aimed squarely at Hamlet, also summarise Claudius’s ‘effects’ of ‘My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen’. Claudius’s desire to be king is an ambition that causes him to murder his brother then, in a moment of perverse triumph, marry his wife as though she was his all along. Indeed, Claudius’s narcissistic ‘May one be pardon’d and retain th’offence?’ shows little remorse for his crimes.

In fact, Claudius’s ‘mine own ambition’, and the paranoia accompanying such a narcissistic worldview, is responsible for the play’s tragedy. His desperate need to discover what is troubling Hamlet’s mind has him sending Polonia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even Gertrude to effectively interrogate his nephew. It is striking that Polonia’s attempt to spy on Hamlet results in her untimely death, which once again triggers Claudius’s murderous passions as he aims to kill Hamlet with both a poisoned rapier and cup of wine.

At the beginning of his filmed version of Hamlet (1948), Laurence Olivier summarises the play as follows: ‘This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind’ (Olivier 2.32-2.41 mins). The irony is that Hamlet has to literally keep changing his mind in order not to lose it; an ambiguity that Maxine Peake clearly relishes. She slips effortlessly into grieving melancholic, avenging son, passionate friend, comedic clown, scorned lover and gun-wielding conscientious objector. In addition to this exhaustive list, Peake also launches into intense soliloquies filled with guilt-ridden confusion and sober wisdom. Such an astonishing array of characteristics performed in the space of three and a half hours is testament to Peake’s consummate acting skills that are thankfully preserved on film. I, for one, look forward to the DVD.


Jenkins, Harold, ed. ‘Footnote’. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. 1601. The Arden Shakespeare: London, 2003.

Olivier, Laurence, dir. Hamlet. 1948. Rank Film Distributors.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1599. Ed. Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare: London, 1982.