Something is rotten in the state of Gotham: Shakespeare and The Batman

Batman
Robert Pattinson in The Batman. TM & © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

“O vengeance!”Hamlet

“I am vengeance.”The Batman

When I heard there was a new Batman movie, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Is that really necessary?” But be assured, dear reader, I frequently have that same reaction when I see announcements of yet another production of, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Merchant of Venice. Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of Pucks, so many Shylocks, multitudes of Macbeths, armies of Richards, a jumble of Juliets, a lotta Lears, boatloads of Beatrices, hundreds of Hamlets, and — significantly — no shortage of Supermen and Spidermen.

So I was delighted to discover that The Batman (which just dropped on HBO Max) is not only the most emotionally rewarding of the filmed interpretations of the character, but also the one that leans hardest into the character’s resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Hamlet, of course, is the privileged Prince of Denmark, grieving the death of his father and the loss of his mother via her “overhasty marriage” to his uncle Claudius. Hamlet wears an “inky cloak” and a “suit of solemn black,” and is sworn to “revenge his [father’s] foul and most unnatural murder.”

Batman comic
Batman #682 (Grant Morrison, Lee Garbett, Trevor Scott; 2008) briefly explored the Hamlet/Batman connection.

Bruce Wayne is a privileged prince of Gotham City, grieving the murder of his wealthy parents. Bruce wears an inky cape and a Batsuit that resembles a “black, terrible…creature of the night,” and “swears by the spirits of [his] parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of [his] life warring on all criminals.”

As The New York Times explains, in a phrase that does the very thing it’s pointing out, Batman is frequently, like Hamlet, “subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous appropriations.” While Hamlets typically come in two strong flavors — active, energetic “To Be” Hamlets such as David Tennant and Mel Gibson vs. melancholy, brooding “Not To Be” Hamlets such as Laurence Olivier and Ethan Hawke — others like Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Benedict Cumberbatch emphasize the character’s intellect and mental prowess as he investigates the truth of the ghost’s revelations.

Ben Affleck as Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love, and the Caped Crusader in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman has similarly endured various screen interpretations over the years, from the adventurous “Caped Crusader” to the grim “Dark Knight” to the…whatever you call the brightly-colored camp of the 1960s television series starring Adam West. No less an authority than Ben Affleck, who played Elizabethan actor Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love and the Caped Crusader in three (and counting) films, said that “Batman is basically the American version of Hamlet. We accept that he’s played by actors with different interpretations.”

So it’s a pleasure to report that director and co-writer Matt Reeves’s conception of Batman satisfyingly returns the character to his roots as “the world’s greatest detective,” emphasizing Bruce Wayne’s brain over his powerful-but-still-human brawn as he scrutinizes a series of murders and struggles to uncover nefarious connections between Gotham’s political elite and its criminal underground. The new film’s title, which includes the definite article, also restores the character’s original name as it was first revealed on the cover of Detective Comics #27 back in 1939.

The murder-mystery element of Hamlet — where the title character uncovers malfeasance amongst Denmark’s elite royal family — frequently gets glossed over in favor of the play’s supernatural aspects, domestic melodrama, and rich soliloquies. When Hamlet hears that his father has returned from the dead, he interrogates the witnesses, improvises a plan of action that might “perchance” include “put[ting] an antic disposition on,” and realizes he can no longer trust supposed friends like Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Ophelia, when he suspects, correctly, they’ve been sent to spy on him.

In most if not every production, much is rightly made of Hamlet’s emotional speeches, and what makes The Batman stand out from its predecessors is an equally strong commitment to the emotional truth of an absurd comic book premise — and before we get too snobby about comic book premises, let’s remember that Hamlet has a ghost. Pattinson’s performance has been described as “emo,” implying it’s performative and therefore false because it reveals the dark makeup around Bruce Wayne’s eyes when he takes off his cowl. Almost every actor who’s played Batman onscreen has worn this makeup, and Reeves’s decision to reveal it, turning a silly truth into a strength, links the character to Hamlet’s theatricality and surprisingly vast knowledge of performance. More importantly, it allows Pattinson to similarly reveal his character’s pain and create profound and believable emotional connections to the people Batman cares for: his parents; the grieving child who embodies the boy Bruce used to be; Selina (Catwoman) Kyle; Lieutenant Jim Gordon; and Alfred Pennyworth, the loyal and trusted Wayne butler.

At almost three hours long, The Batman is an epic take on an iconic character that approaches Shakespearean levels of respect and seriousness, a connection Andy Serkis, who plays Alfred, acknowledged. “It’s like playing these iconic roles in Shakespeare,” he said. “You go back, you revisit them and you have to make it your own.” Batman’s voiceover monologues resemble Hamlet’s soliloquies. Gotham City is as much a physical manifestation and symbol of Batman’s despair and darkness as Elsinore and Denmark are to Hamlet.Shakespeare bust in Batman movies

And the iconic bust of Shakespeare in Bruce Wayne’s library — the one that contains the switch that opens the entrance to the Batcave in the 1960s TV series — gets its own shout-out in Reeves’s film (see photo above).

Shakespeare opening his shirt like a superhero to reveal a big S underneath
“Super Shakespeare” by Mathew McFarren

Shakespearean parallels to superheroes are many and varied, inspiring a growing number of scholarly articles and at least one book. As Dr. Ronan Hatfull points out in “‘Shakespeare in the Park?’: William Shakespeare and the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” an even stronger connection to Hamlet can be drawn to Black Panther, the not-so-secret alias of Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, who must fend off threats to his kingdom from a cousin (as opposed to an uncle) and wrestle with complicated feelings of duty when his father the King is tragically killed. Unlike Batman and Hamlet, Black Panther has so far only been played onscreen by one actor, but with the loss of the gifted and charismatic Chadwick Boseman in 2020, there’s no doubt the character will be interpreted by future actors eager to don the cowl and put their stamp on another epic and iconic role.

T’Challa tells his father "I am not ready to be without you"
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the ghost of his father (John Kani) meet on the ancestral plane in Black Panther (2018).