April 17, 2012

I'm sure everyone knows this poster of David as Hamlet for the RSC, here is an in depth look at the meaning and symbolism behind the original image and the slightly changed pose David appeared in.

"As part of a season-long marketing campaign that placed leading performers in facsimiles of famous paintings, the poster and program for Hamlet featured Tennant in the guise of Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Before the Sea of Fog (1818). Often considered the archetypal Romantic image, the original painting invites the viewers to subjectively project themselves into the position of the lone traveler contemplating the vastness of nature and, in Friedrich's philosophy, the mystery of the divine. Thus, the piece seems an ideal correlative to Hamlet, itself considered a masterpiece by the Romantics, with its hero cast as the embodiment of the subjective, thoughtful, Romantic man.

The RSC, however, wore their Friedrich with a difference. While the figure in the painting is turned away from the observer, allowing maximum audience identification with the anonymous profile, Tennant was invited to face the viewer head on, looking out of the picture with what might be described as fear or contempt. The slight variation was almost certainly motivated by a desire to sell tickets (and posters of a pinup star), but it is also possible, given Tennant's performance, to view the shift of the actor's shoulders as far more significant than it initially appears. The combination of charismatic casting of a major star with the use of Friedrich's iconic image seems to imply a Romantic approach to Hamlet, a reading that encourages audiences to identify subjectively with an emotionally tortured soul. I would suggest, however, that Tennant's turn towards the camera signals a rather different approach to the play. Gazing at the viewer, the sharply individualized figure in the poster forbids subjective identification. By turning back from the cliff's edge--away from "not to be" and towards "to be"--the figure shifts from personal introspection towards revenge action where madness is a tactic rather than a state of mind and Hamlet is no wilting flower or, as Goethe would have it, shattering vase. To the contrary, Tennant's Hamlet was a figure more than up to his task, a man whose behavior--not just his potential--marked him as the most exemplary member of a brilliant and cunning court circle. In short, Gregory Doran's "backwards" production, signaled by the turn of the lone wanderer's back in the poster, flew in the face of its own Romantic, character-driven marketing strategy and offered an interpretation influenced by Neoclassical views of the play as a tale of intrigue and revenge."

Shakespeare Bulletin 26.4 (Winter 2008) Laura Grace Godwin.