If you’re looking for the essentials of a classic crime thriller, Hamlet has the lot, including a touch of the supernatural! There are the obvious elements, of course, not least of which is the splendidly-outrageous line-up of dead bodies. For me, however, what makes this, of all Shakespeare’s plays, special is not its bloodthirsty aspects, nor the suspense, nor the sacrifice of a young and beautiful woman, nor even (my own usual delight and preference!) the astonishing psychological portrayal of the protagonist, but the delicately-poised opposition of the villain and the hero.
In what must be one of the most subtle presentations ever of the opposing forces of a story, the court scene near the beginning of the play, Claudius and Hamlet are contrasted in such a way that our feelings about each are always uncertain. The former, having seized power, perhaps by nefarious means (his brother, Hamlet’s father the king, having been found dead), and grabbed the throne, is in supreme political control of the court, deftly balancing and managing the foreign and domestic affairs of state, assessing the risk of war, making decisions, showing personal interest in and generosity towards his Lord Chamberlain’s son’s intentions AND adroitly attending to the inwardly-seething hatred and outwardly-sulking presence of his nephew, the rightful heir. Of course, contemporary expectations were that the most suitable (i.e. most powerful) person should be king, not necessarily the next-in-blood, and Claudius shows himself to be a much more authoritative monarch than Hamlet might have been at this point and for some time to come. What are we to make of them both?
We probably have sympathy for Hamlet, with his obviously moody feelings of bereavement, and empathy with his bitterness that his mother has married his uncle only a month after his father’s death (he does not yet know – and nor do we – that his uncle murdered his father), but he doesn’t come across well, being introverted and inconsolable. Claudius, on the other hand, is slick and assured in speech and behaviour; but is his smooth talk too perfect? Nothing predictable here; just the beginning of a fascinating contrast which challenges our understanding of both characters throughout the action of the whole drama, making us question more and more what is really going on.
Challenging and playing with audience perceptions: the mark of the excellent crime thriller writer.