Faculty Publications


A Son Less Than Kind: Iconograhy, Interpolation, and Masculinity in Branagh's Hamlet

Document Type


Publication Date

January 2006


Kenneth Branagh’s infamous “full-text” Hamlet (1996) relies upon military conquest as an image of masculinity and as a pre-text to open out the stage drama of Shakespeare, to give the film the vaunted “epic” feel Branagh claimed in publicity interviews. In Branagh’s film, the Fortinbras invasion of Denmark provides epic material for the action genre aspirations of the film and legitimizes Branagh as a sedulously faithful interpreter of Shakespeare’s original text. However, in the vexed treatment of Hamlet Senior and the conquering Fortinbras’s prowess, Branagh articulates ambivalence about the ideal of active masculinity the film ostensibly celebrates and capitalizes on for box-office profit. A cluster of iconographic moments in the film demonstrates this ambivalence. Branagh’s heavy-handed deployment of interpolated matter–the convention whereby visual additions explicate text–deepens the conflict over masculine subjectivity. In Branagh’s Hamlet, interpolation paradoxically expands uncertainty about masculine identity by protesting too much. It is no accident that the scene most laden with cuts to interpolated material is also the one most burdened by the imprint of the father’s authority–the ghost scene. As the father calls his son to martial vengeance, the son/director asserts a narrative authority that while appearing to confirm the Ghost’s tale actually presents an alternate masculine subjectivity that speaks rather than acts and that trumps physical aggression with epistemological certainty. What emerges from Branagh’s Hamlet is a concept of masculinity as tortured as the titular hero himself–one that asserts deeds over words but ultimately transforms words into a superior form of action.

Journal Title

Early Modern Literary Studies