Those of us who majored in English in college have all read Shakespeare’s Hamlet at least once, and we’ve all seen at least one performance. Some of us go to as many performances as we possibly can, enjoying every new spin on the old tale. I’ve seen at least three movies made from the play and seen it staged at least five times. I’ve studied the text of the play in detail, and one thing never changes: Claudius murders King Hamlet in order to bed the king’s wife, Gertrude, out of good old heterosexual lust; and out of a lust for power, for the right to take the throne rather than see it go to Hamlet the younger when King Hamlet dies.
Trust Orson Scott Card, noted for his outspoken condemnation of homosexuality, to turn Shakespeare on his head and make his new novella, Hamlet’s Father, all about King Hamlet’s homosexuality. And not just his homosexuality, but his pedophilia. This transparent political and religious argument masquerading as a “revelatory version of the Hamlet story,” according to the copy on the back cover, never rises above its polemic to become a genuine story worth reading.
In this version of the tale, King Hamlet ignores his young son and takes the prince’s companions on hunts and other outings instead. Although it’s unstated early in the novella, it’s clear from the context that King Hamlet isn’t hunting much except little boys on these outings. As might be expected, this makes King Hamlet rather unpopular with his queen and his subjects, especially those at court. But no one ever tells Hamlet about his father’s perversion, allowing him to grow up thinking his father respects, loves and honors all males but him. It turns Hamlet into the broody fellow we know from Shakespeare, especially when he returns home to find his father is dead. And more, his father is a ghost calling out to him for revenge.
Hamlet famously hesitates, passing up opportunities to kill Claudius and rebuke his mother until a final scene of carnage that leaves almost nobody alive on stage. But in Card’s version, Hamlet hesitates because every time he turns around there is new evidence that his father wasn’t such a fine man after all. In the process of investigating his father’s murder, Hamlet manages to kill Polonius and drive Ophelia to suicide, but in Card’s version he is entirely innocent of any wrongdoing toward either of them. Even the identity of King Hamlet’s murderer is a mystery in this version of Shakespeare’s story, and there is never any play given by traveling players that pricks the conscience of King Claudius — who, of course, is sweet and innocent and married Gertrude just because she was free at last of that horrible old Hamlet.
Card’s writing is as smooth and readable as ever. But his political agenda is what drives every page of Hamlet’s Father, and it completely perverts the story. This isn’t a new and exciting retelling; it’s a right wing rant against homosexuality. My advice: stick with Shakespeare.