Abraham Lincoln believed that there was nothing finer than Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and that Claudius’ monologue in Hamlet (“O my offence is rank!”) was superior to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. We are long since from the time when American presidents could render intelligent opinions about Shakespearean plays, and yet Shakespeare—much like the King James Bible written in Shakespeare’s language—still lives and breathes with us. His heroes and villains, his dramatic structures and his words, his myths and fables, are still our own.
Edwin Booth (brother to John Wilkes) was the finest Hamlet of his generation during the last half of the 19th century. In the 1930s John Barrymore (scion of two illustrious theatrical families), was the last great American Hamlet. After Barrymore’s time, the great vitality of American performative artistry—along with Shakespeare and the taste of American presidents—moved over to films and television.
Edward G. Robinson starred in Little Caesar (1931), one of the first great films of the gangster genre. Robinson claimed he had performed the lead role of Rico Bandello as if he were acting Richard III or Macbeth. In his screenplay for Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), Ben Hecht introduced an incestuous love affair between the gangster (Paul Muni) and his sister Cesca. In the final shootout sequence in the gangster’s lair, Ann Dvorak enters in chiarosacuro, recalling Lady Macbeth and her sleepwalking scene in shadows.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra was transformed into Bette Davis’ Jezebel in William Wyler’s film from 1938, and King Lear became Hawks’ Red River (1948) with John Wayne in the role that made Edwin Forrest a star in the nineteenth century.
After performing the role of Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953), Marlon Brando was expected to be the great American Hamlet of his generation. He never took on the mantle; instead he became a cultural icon, and began a new filmmaking genre—biker films—with his performance as Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, in The Wild One (1953). The film heralded the biker films of Roger Corman, and Easy Rider (1969).
Comes now a cable television series about bikers, admittedly based on Hamlet, with a fierce Gertrude (Katey Sagal) who is really a Lady Macbeth in the main role; an impressive and melancholy Claudius (Ron Perlman) who is really a Lear dethroned from his kingdom; a Polonius (Dayton Callie) who is a small town sheriff plagued with cancer; and a young, blonde and tattooed prince (Charlie Hunnam) who rides a Harley, listens to Hamlet’s ghost by reading his father’s diary, and tries to rid his club from the rottenness in the state of Denmark.
The violence in Sons of Anarchy is Jacobean; Otto gets blinded in prison just as Gloucester was blinded in King Lear. If the murders in the show seem excessive one must remember that a dozen people die in Hamlet—just in one evening’s performance.
The Grim Reaper logo of the club was forecast in the graveyard scene of Shakespeare’s play, where Hamlet wonders, after observing Yorick’s skull:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
We speak in Shakespeare’s language, and live by his myths.