Klingon Hamlet

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Let us start with a dinner party set almost exactly 300 Years in the future. You are about to find yourselves on board the star ship Enterprise at a diplomatic function of the most uncomfortable kind. The Federation represented by Captain Kirk and his crew are hosting an evening with their old enemies the Klingons (they’re the guys with the really wrinkly foreheads).

By the way, for anyone interested, you can consult the full text of the Klingon Hamlet in the Shakespeare Centre Library.

In many ways of course this clip is a homage to Shakespeare it is flattering to imagine that Shakespeare will still be known in the year 2293, and the fact that it is the alien Klingon who quotes Hamlet suggests that Shakespeare will be popular not just the world over but the galaxy over. Indeed, although at other points in the film the human Kirk quotes Shakespeare, here it is the Klingon who can quote the play and the half human alien Spock who places the quote accurately in act 3 scene 1 of Hamlet.

Importantly it is the Klingons who claim Shakespeare as their own stating that the play is best in ‘the original Klingon’. There are lots of levels to this joke but on one level it is an allusion to the large number of spurious authorship claims that surround Shakespeare; Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but Elizabeth 1st, the Earl of Oxford or a Klingon.

Beneath the absurdity of the statement is also an ironic commentary on colonialism. Just as Shakespeare’s Caliban turns Prospero’s gift of language on him by cursing, here the Klingons reject the federations ‘gift’ of Shakespeare by drawing attention to the ways in which he can be made to support their cause.

But there is a bigger point being made in this scene about the meeting of the high and low, of cultured and uncultured. Shakespeare buffs are called ‘enthusiasts’, Star Trek buffs are called ‘fans’, watching Shakespeare is culturally credible, watching Star Trek is I’d suggest less so. Theoretically at least the two cultures, the ‘elitist intellectuals’ who quote Shakespeare and the ‘weird fans’ who quote Star Trek are as divided as the humans and the Klingons each suspicious of the morals of the other’s society. So perhaps Star Trek is suggesting that the two sides can and do come together more than we may like to think? In individuals and institutions? Owning Shakespeare, claiming him as your own, is, it seems, to be powerful. But to whom does Shakespeare really belong? Then? Now? And in the future?

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • That’s an interesting topic – Shakespeare biographies for children. Have we deconstructed the romantic myth of Shakespeare’s genius in academia? I am not so sure? Also with children’s stories there is the challenge to make it interesting and exciting – having said that I often give talks about Shakespeare’s life to children and I think I can make it interesting with out too much ‘romantic myth’… ? ^liz

  • Indeed, I like it. This is something I just love about both Star Trek and Shakespeare and other things, the way meaning can be so layered, like an onion – you take of the top skin of meaning and another beneath it is revealed! So pleasing! ^liz

  • And the fact that the Klingon who quotes Hamlet is played by David Warner, one of the defining Hamlets of our time, is also rather lovely.

  • sensiblecat

    It was the same with the Doctor Who connection – Greg D took great pride in saying publicly that nobody over age 10 would like the programme. In fact, as things turned out, the majority of fans who showed up to see DT behaved well.

    I’m researching Shakespeare biographies for children at the moment and it’s interesting how they almost all perpetuate the myth that S went around looking for ideas and waiting to be inspired (frequently by the child characters in the books) rather than being a hardworking hack who wold have understood the pressures on people like Russell T Davies quite well. We may have deconstructed the romantic myth of Shakespeare’s genius in academic circles but it’s alive and well in children’s historical fiction!

  • Funnily enough I was at an RSC QandA that Patrick Stewart did for the RSC 6th Form day and there was a lot of pressure to try and prevent the children asking him about Star Trek. Really it’s a shame, as you say both characters are complex and both require great skill from the actor.

    On your second point it’s an irony of course that ‘fans’ who are often happy with loose appropriation are often more knowledgeable (or at least as knowledgeable) about the source text as scholars who would often prefer closer adaptation. ^liz

  • sensiblecat

    It was fascinating to watch the high-culture vs pop-culture tug of war hit Stratford back in 2008 when we had Doctor Who playing Hamlet and Jean-Luc Picard as Claudius. I suspect it ruffled a few feathers but it certainly brought people into the Courtyard Theatre talking about Hamlet. People don’t always appreciate that the skills needed to bring a complex characterisation to life and the stamina to perform well night after night are not limited to Shakespeare performance, but are necessary in the often-dismissed “popular telly” genre, also.

    Appropriation of Shakespeare is a fascinating area of study, too. I was privileged to spend a whole term on it at the SI last year. One thing that fascinates me is that the most detailed, supposedly “respectful” recreations of the plays in other media, particularly film, aren’t always as revealing or as true to the spirit of the original as apparently loose adaptations. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better reading of “Macbeth” than Kurusawa’s “Throne of Blood.”

  • I like your analogy to a rugby ball. I agree with you completely, Shakespeare is for anyone who can enjoy it and make it their own. Englishman, Zimbabwean or Klingon. ^liz

  • Duncan

    We in this country tend to credit ourselves with ownership of Shakespeare due to our geographical proximity to the origin of the plays.

    But surely a 21st century production of Hamlet set in a world of security cameras and televised speeches (as on now at the NT) is every bit as much an ‘appropriation’ of the original play as a production set elsewhere in the modern world, or at any other time and place.

    For instance, in just over a week I will be seeing two Zimbabwean performers in their take on Hamlet called Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (The Madness of Hamlet) which specifically relates the story to the history of Zimbabwe.

    http://www.ovalhouse.com/cn/event_details.php?sectionid=&eventid=420&searchid=current

    Some people would describe a Hamlet set in 19th century Zimbabwe as a cultural appropriation. But how is 21st century Britain any closer to its 17th century past than 19th century Zimbabwe? We are all appropriators now.

    Shakespeare is like a Rugby ball. If you can pick it up and run with it, then it’s yours.

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