Bothered by madness: ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Northman’

Hamlet may or may not be Shakespeare’s greatest play, but it’s arguably the one that takes up the largest space in our cultural imagination. In addition to the hundreds of film versions and countless stage productions, projects in multiple mediums extend and investigate Shakespeare’s narrative. These include:

  • films ranging from The Lion King to Zombie Hamlet to Hamlet 2 (in which one character rightly asks, “doesn’t everyone die in the first one?”);
  • novels like Ophelia by Lisa Klein, Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike, and Nutshell by Ian McEwan; and
  • plays such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, my own Hamlet’s Big Adventure! (a prequel) (co-written by Reed Martin), and this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fat Ham by James Ijames.

(This list doesn’t even include Hamlet’s influence on recent superhero movies and an 80-year-old wartime comedy.)

Now comes Robert Eggers’s The Northman, a film in conversation with Hamlet despite not actually being an adaptation of it. Instead, Eggers goes back to the same source Shakespeare used — the legend of Amleth as it appears in The History of the Danes by medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus — and his film provides fascinating points of comparison to Shakespeare’s treatment of the same material.

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman
Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman (2022)

The story is familiar: Prince Amleth (played as an adult by Alexander Skarsgård) vows revenge on his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) for killing his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and kidnapping and marrying his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). While Shakespeare’s Hamlet spends several hours debating with himself whether and how he’ll actually kill his uncle, Eggers’s Amleth vows revenge immediately, repeatedly declaring this oath: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Curiously, while the film’s first trailer emphasizes Amleth’s relentless determination via a smash-cut between young and old Amleth repeating his mantra, in the actual movie, the older Amleth delays his revenge, Hamlet-like, and must be reminded to fulfill his sworn vow by Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), this version’s analogue for Ophelia.

It’s possible that an earlier play of Hamlet — which is now lost, its author unknown, and referred to as the Ur-Hamlet — was another influence for Shakespeare’s play. The Northman is similarly informed by previous dramatic narratives: In an interview with Thrillist, Eggers said the works of filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Akira Kurosawa were inspirations, and that his film has “several deliberate nods… and also many accidental ones” to the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Conan the Barbarian, “just because I watched it so much when I was a kid.” Eggers also confirmed that the film’s initial impetus came from a lunch meeting with his eventual star Skarsgård, who confessed his own childhood impulse, saying he’d been “wanting to do [a Viking movie] since he was a kid.” Did Shakespeare’s leading man Richard Burbage also tell him of his childhood dream to play the Danish prince? No idea, but it’s fun to imagine.

As in his previous films The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers is interested in historical truth, creating accurate costumes and accents within meticulously re-created worlds, and his depiction of regicide, fratricide, and revenge amidst the harsh and brutal conditions of 9th- and 10th-century Scandinavia has a savage beauty. Shakespeare was more interested in psychological truth, weighing the pros and cons of vengeance without evidence, the existential ramifications of suicide and murder-for-hire, and the trauma of unresolved grief.

But Eggers is interested in similar interiority, explaining that he and his collaborators tried “to recreate the minutiae of the physical world, while also attempting to capture, without judgment, the inner world of the Viking mind: their beliefs, mythology and ritual life.” This included making “the supernatural world as realistic as the ordinary” and replacing Hamlet’s Christianity with Norse mythology. While Hamlet encounters his dead father’s ghost and worries it may be a “devil [which] hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape,” Eggers’s Amleth experiences visions, communes with Odin, and encounters valkyries, revenants, shamans, animal spirits, a magical sword, a seeress (played by Björk), and — as in Hamlet — the skull of a dead jester.

The idea of a jester is also reflected in Hamlet’s name. “Amleth” derives from an old Icelandic word (not coincidentally, The Northman was filmed in Iceland) meaning a fool or trickster. The Old Norse halves of the name also suggest “bothered by madness,” a phrase that fits both Amleth and Hamlet: the Danish prince puts “an antic disposition on” while Eggers’s protagonist spends years as a berserker, a warrior who attacks with crazed, mindless, animal savagery. For Shakespeare, of course, the name Hamlet is one letter removed from the name of his dead son, a fact Maggie O’Farrell explored in her novel Hamnet, yet another fictional exploration of not just Shakespeare’s work but the known facts of his life.

Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman
Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth in The Northman (2022)

There are many other Shakespearean echoes in The Northman. Much like Hamlet staging a play-within-a-play for his uncle, Amleth turns a religious ritual on its head (and other body parts) by presenting a twisted violent Norse demon spirit murder spree. Both Hamlet and Amleth briefly escape on boats, have intense-bordering-on-inappropriate feelings for their mothers, and spy potential victims behind tapestries. Amleth even has his own “to be or not to be” moment, when he must choose between escaping with his pregnant wife for the promise of a new family or fulfilling his sworn oath by rendering bloody vengeance.

But there are significant points of divergence too, particularly with the female characters. Ophelia dies tragically, whereas Olga gets a liberating, hopeful future. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude’s collusion with her brother-in-law is left for each production to decide, while Amleth’s mother Gudrún’s guilt (or lack of it; no spoilers) is made very clear.

Nicole Kidman in The Northman
Nicole Kidman as Gudrún in The Northman (2022)

Dr. Jeffrey R. Wilson and his students in Harvard’s “Why Shakespeare?” course developed a comprehensive Shakespearean study guide to accompany The Northman prior to its release, exploring previous Hamlet adaptations, the idea of “the north” in pre-modern Europe, the tradition of violent, masculine vengeance and how white supremacists have appropriated Viking iconography, and possible feminist readings of Eggers’s film — and this last is the movie’s most satisfying aspect.

Like Hamlet, The Northman won’t be to everyone’s taste: Hamlet’s rueful melancholy is replaced by Amleth’s violence and brutality. Yet the violent Viking movie is in a strange way the more hopeful telling of the tale: despite its tragic ending, Olga’s survival suggests the masculine patriarchy might be replaced by a matrilineal and earth-centric legacy, thus — perhaps — breaking the cycle of murder and vengeance so beloved by north-men.

And perhaps this suggests why the legend of Amleth and Shakespeare’s Hamlet continue to resonate. In a world bothered by increasing madness on multiple fronts — climate change, white supremacy, the rise of global nationalism and authoritarianism, rampant gun violence (have I left out anything?) — timeless tales of people struggling to decide the best course of action are mirrors held up to our own frustratingly indecisive natures.