Hamlet, the Big Bang Theory, and other important matters

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

first published 1603, first performed in early 1600s


Ophelia [reporting to her father]:
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.

Hamlet 4

observations: Shakespeare’s contribution to Clothes in Plays.

The hot ticket in the London theatre at the moment is Benedict Cumberbatch (the modern-day Sherlock Holmes) playing Hamlet at the Barbican. I was lucky enough to see the performance recently, and last week wrote a piece for the Guardian books section about crime writers’ penchant for taking book titles from the play – blog entry, with link to the Guardian, here.

I thought the performance and production were both wonderful, extremely well done, and Cumberbatch has the true charisma of a great actor.

Hamlet 1

One thing that struck me was that Cumberbatch played Hamlet as if he was on the Asperger’s spectrum: he was very convincing as a young man who cannot see the world through others’ eyes. (Given that the actor is nearly 40, he was also amazingly real as someone not much more than half that age.)

In fact, in a most unlikely development, as I watched I was reminded of Sheldon Cooper from the American TV sitcom Big Bang Theory. (Horatio made a good Leonard, and Rosencratz and Guildenstern were Howard and Raj.) Hamlet’s separation from everyone else, his lack of understanding with women, his conviction that it was the world that was out of step, not him – all this smacked of Sheldon. Even the fort, and a general childishness.

Hamlet 3

While I’m making unlikely and unconvincing connections – I got quite excited by this line in Act 1:
Upon the platform twixt 11 and 12

-- which seemed a strange foreshadowing of Harry Potter, who travelled from the platform twixt 9 and 10. It turns out the Hamlet phrase means something like ‘on the battlements at 11.30’, but it’s a nice thought.

One of the book titles had to be dropped for lack of space (and because it was doubly fictional, and wasn’t a crime story): Radio 4’s wonderful fictional character Ed Reardon wrote just one novel and the title is Who Would Fardels Bear? – a phrase from the To Be or Not to Be speech, following on from the bare bodkin that gave Cyril Hare a title. Anyone who knows of Ed Reardon at all would know that he wouldn’t be a bit surprised that he was dropped.

In the piece I mention No Wind of Blame, a Georgette Heyer crime story with a Hamlet name. In her Envious Casca – title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – one of the characters objects to the investigation of the terrible murder that has been committed at Christmas:
‘as he is dead there is nothing to be done about it, and it will only create a great deal of unpleasantness to pry into the affair. Like Hamlet,’ she added. ‘Simply upsetting things.’
Envious Casca is my favourite, and much the funniest, of the Heyer crime books – blog entry here, with link to another.

Another blog-featured book revolving round a performance of Hamlet is Simon Packham’s The Opposite Bastardblog entry here – with a most unusual production planned at Oxford University.

And while I was looking at potential booktitles – there’s that great line:
the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
I have always thought there must be a cookbook in there somewhere….

Pictures show a 19th century version of Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch, and two versions of Ophelia.


  1. So glad you got the chance to see that production, Moira! I think Cumberbatch is quite talented, too - have you seen him in The Imitation Game? It's interesting, too, how this play (and many of Shakespeare's others) show us so much of ourselves, not only in terms of clothes, food and so on, but in terms of our nature. Little wonder they've had so much impact on other writers, crime-fictional and otherwise.

    1. Yes: Shakespeare goes on forever and always has something to say. And I was very lucky to see Benedict Cumberbatch - he is a marvellous actor. I haven't yet seen The Imitation Game, but would like to.

  2. Moira, I enjoyed reading your review. I didn't know Cumberbatch did plays. I admire anyone who reviews Shakespeare's books, plays and films. I read a bit of Shakespeare years ago, though I have been thinking (dreaming, really) of picking up my late grandfather's hardback copy of TWELVE WORKS and reading a story or two.

    1. He is better known as a film actor, Prashant, but when he does appear on stage the effect is remarkable. Is Shakespeare popular in India?

    2. Moira, he used to be but I haven't heard anyone mention the bard in the last two decades.

    3. That's really interesting Prashant. I wonder why...

  3. Love your review, comparing Benedict's Hamlet to the Big Bang Theory was wonderful. Sheldon and Sherlock definitely have a lot in common. I own all of Georgette Heyer's mysteries, may be time to reread Envious Casca.

    1. Thank you! And yes, Sherlock is in the frame too. I really like Heyer's detective stories.

  4. Glad you enjoyed the play, but Shakespeare I'm afraid will always remind me of schooldays and study as opposed to relaxation and enjoyment. My exposure to him has been limited - Julius Caesar - and long may that continue. I'm thus blissfully ignorant of parallels in fiction!

    1. Julius Caesar was my O Level Shakespeare - you too? Seeing it performed is always the key, but I won't try to persuade you....

    2. Cassius was my favourite.....et tu Moira?

  5. Glad you liked the performance - after Michael Billington's negative review in your own very organ (snigger) I didn't feel quite so annoyed at not having bagged tickets. I really like the sound of what you describe - well, OK, now I am annoyed with myself for not securing a ticket but really enjoyed your post :)

    1. I know - I am amazed at how grudging the reviews have been. And I was very lucky - I wasn't organized to get tickets, a very very kind family member managed it.

  6. What an interesting post. I am off to see Hamlet next month, not Benedict Cumberbatch, but Bell Shakespeare company. I plan to listen to an audio recording before reading the play. I am most interested in your comment about Hamlet's inability to see the world through others' eyes.

    1. I hope you enjoy your performance - it is a play with a lot to offer. I'll be interested to hear your views when you see it...

  7. Very clever comparison of Big Bang Theory to Hamlet. I had never thought so much of how self-obsessed Hamlet is, because there is so much else going on. (I have a hard time understanding Shakespeare but luckily my husband and my son enjoy his plays so I get exposure.) And I love Big Bang Theory. We just watched the last season on disc.

    Reading so much about Hamlet here lately has made me want to watch our (unwatched) disc of the Branagh version. We have seen the movie before but I think it must have been on laser disc. It is just so long we keep putting it off.

    1. Thank you Tracy! While I was watching the play, the comparison suddenly hit me, and I kept seeing more points of similarity. I looked it up afterwards, wondering if other people had felt the same, but couldn't find any references..
      I've seen the Branagh one, but a long time ago, don't remember much about it.

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