Black Swan, Hamlet, The Banquet

Yes, another post about film, but these are after all the last days before the Oscars.

I have been thinking again about Black Swan, and been reminded of Shakespeare’s most famous lines:

A tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

And, as often, thinking of the Bard made me think about many other things. In particular of Hamlet in relation to Black Swan. Of course, there are many possible readings of Hamlet, but for the sake of simplicity we can classify them into two main categories:

1. The story, as told by the Ghost, and understood by Hamlet, is true: his uncle has indeed murdered his father, he himself kills Polonius, etc.

2. Hamlet is raving mad, and the paternal murder story upon which the entire plot revolves is no less an hallucination than the ghost who “reveals” it.

Pierre Bayard leans towards the non-literal reading, and he argues in his Enquête sur Hamlet (Investigation of Hamlet) that the sweet prince is in fact his own father’s killer. Here, as for The Hound of the Baskervilles, I disagree with Bayard’s reading. Hamlet Père, as I see it, simply died of natural causes, and the rest of the sound and fury signifies nothing more than the hallucinations of his son’s very severely disturbed mind.

Speaking of which, let’s go back to Black Swan, in particular the scene in which Nina “kills” her rival. This, in retrospect, is strongly reminiscent of the killing of Polonius by Hamlet. However, the immense difference between Black Swan and Hamlet is the degree of skill and subtlety in the story telling: in Hamlet, the literal reading of the play always remains possible, in Black Swan, we know from the start that what we are going to watch is nothing more than Nina’s descent into her own self-created hell.

On a final note, my favorite Hamlet-inspired film remains The Banquet. The story focuses more on the character of Empress Wan/Queen Gertrude (Zhang Ziyi) than in the play, but I found the transposition of the action to Imperial China fascinating.



The Banquet, with Zhang Ziyi


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10 Comments to “Black Swan, Hamlet, The Banquet”

  1. Jen says:

    Unfortunately not one I own, but one I used in school many years back. It might have been the Norton Critical Edition, but I really can’t remember. I’m surprised to see that Wikipedia actually has a pretty good run down of different ways of analyzing Hamlet:

  2. Jen says:

    Oh I agree there are many interpretations of Hamlet, I was just sharing my own! :) One of my favorite editions of Hamlet includes critical essays at the end that share various lens for looking at and interpreting the play – feminist, psychoanalytic, etc.

  3. Jen, I believe there are as many interpretations of Hamlet as readers/spectators. Being an attorney by trade, and thus aware of the frailty of human (and ghostly) testimony, I have been trained to question any story I am told. The murder of Hamlet Sr. by his jealous brother is an archetype that goes back to the Bible. Of course, this in itself has no bearing on its veracity in this particular case, but it would explain why a troubled youth like Hamlet Jr. would apply it to his own situation. Pierre Bayard takes us back to another archetype: the Oedipian myth of the killing of the father by his son.

  4. Jen says:

    Interesting interpretations. I’ve always read Hamlet as the titular character starting out sane but slowly descending into madness, partly of his own making by pretending to be insane.

  5. Quite true, Kate, if we take the Ghost’s story at face value, Gertrude is innocent of the murder of Hamlet Sr. I corrected my post accordingly. Thanks for bringing us back to the text!

  6. Kate Warren says:

    Minor note of correction. The queen was never implicated in the murder of Hamlet Sr. She was guilty of marrying too quickly, but not conspiring to kill her husband.

    Brilliant analogy though, Catherine.

  7. True, Elisa, but I don’t think any adaptation of Hamlet is going to make for easy viewing. I liked The Banquet for its stunning visuals and screenplay. Making the Empress the central character worked well for me. But then I have a soft spot for Hong Kong films. :)
    Your teacher’s reading is a perfectly valid one. The play has such complexity that it can be interpreted in many ways. Hamlet can be faking madness, slightly unbalanced, or totally off his rocker, depending on one’s take…

  8. Elisa says:

    I’ve seen “The Banquet” too. Not an easy viewing!
    My high school English teacher took the reading that “Hamlet” was plotting a “good” revenge. For example, early in the play, Hamlet speaks with his friends (the palace guards may be been there too) about going mad as a disguise and planning to test to see if the late King’s ghost was real or fake. After a meeting with a group of playing travelers, he later uses a play about a murdered King to test his guess, watching his uncle’s response to it.
    As my class read it, I could see why my teacher had that approach.

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