Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 25/5/1980, colour, 214 mins
Directed byRodney Bennett
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerDon Homfray
Incidental MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Derek Jacobi (Hamlet), Claire Bloom (Gertrude), Patrick Stewart (Claudius), Eric Porter (Polonius), Lalla Ward (Ophelia), David Robb (Laertes), Robert Swann (Horatio)

Show full cast and credits

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is told by his father's ghost that his uncle Claudius has murdered him and married his widow. Hamlet vows revenge and feigns madness, but this has disastrous consequences for his relationship with Ophelia, while his preference for talk and thought over action leads to fatal errors.

Show full synopsis

A transitional production for the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was shown separately between the second and third series and was the last production supervised by the project's originator, Cedric Messina. Derek Jacobi had been cast some time earlier: Messina had seen him as Hamlet when considering him for Richard II (BBC, tx. 10/12/1978) and ended up offering both roles.

Television veteran Rodney Bennett was the director - an intriguing choice, since he had no Shakespeare or even stage experience at all, but had trained as a psychologist. His treatment was more stylised than was the norm for the Messina years, with colours toned down to near-monochrome, minimal onscreen clutter and much use of empty space. Though conceived specifically for television, it was an approach much closer to the previous year's ITV broadcast of Trevor Nunn's stage Macbeth (tx. 4/1/1979) than it was to the other BBC Shakespeares.

Jacobi's approach to Hamlet stressed the character's intelligence and precocity. Older than the average Hamlet, he uses this to his advantage, suggesting someone who has never quite matured into a fully rounded adult: the death of his father had a cataclysmic impact on his psyche. Jacobi said that he wanted the audience to sympathise with Claudius at first over having to deal with this immature man-child, and this was accentuated by Patrick Stewart's unusually youthful, even virile reading of a part usually played as a middle-aged villain.

But as Stewart pointed out, all of Claudius's actions, even marrying his brother's widow, can be justified politically, and the text suggests that the world outside regards him as an impressive king. This increases the impact of his confession scene, Claudius's acknowledgement of his one serious misjudgement, which Stewart plays as though on the verge of a nervous collapse, in dramatic contrast to the confidence shown during the players' supposedly incriminating performance.

Claire Bloom matches this with a younger-than-average Gertrude (though this is far from the first filmed performance where this intensifies the erotic/incestuous charge of the closet scene), while Eric Porter's Polonius is eccentric rather than buffoonish, a reading that stresses the character's often sidelined humanity.

Messina originally wanted to produce an uncut Hamlet, but was persuaded that this would be intolerably tedious for a television audience. In the event, it was still the longest Hamlet the BBC had ever broadcast, losing fewer than 500 lines and running three-and-a-half hours.

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Too too solid flesh (2:23)
2. Man delights not me (5:21)
3. My offence is rank (4:20)
Hamlet (1913)
Hamlet (1948)
Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)
Richard II (1978)
Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)
Messina, Cedric (1920-1993)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Hamlet On Screen