Rebecca Lipperini holds a PhD in English Literature from Rutgers University- New Brunswick. She is a recovering academic and aspiring cruciverbalist, as well as the editor of Wild Greens magazine.
The tradition of hating Shakespeare is nearly as old as Shakespeare himself. Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene accused Shakespeare of being “an upstart crow”(Robertoes Tale section, para. 26). Voltaire referred to Shakespeare’s body of work as an “enormous dunghill” (Ballantyne 208). Even Shakespeare’s most devoted admirers—his editors—had to admit that Shakespeare had written some clunkers. John Dryden, in 1667, granted that “Shakespeare’s language is likewise a little obsolete” (49); Nicholas Rowe in 1709 assured his readers that he had “rendered many places intelligible that were not so before” (“Dedication,” para. 2 ) and Alexander Pope confessed in 1725, “It must be owned that with all these great excellencies he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better so he has perhaps written worse than any other” (xxiv). In the period following his death, Shakespeare’s editors offered the public “Shakespeare improved”; between 1660 and 1820, every one of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays was revised and adapted. Even his editors agreed that in order to enjoy Shakespeare, one must improve him.
Katie Chironis, lead developer of the 2019 indie adventure game Elsinore (Golden Glitch), adapted Hamlet with the intention of improving it, just as Shakespeare’s editors have done for centuries. As a recovering Shakespeare hater herself, Chironis understood the challenge of adapting Shakespeare. “Many people hear ‘Shakespeare’ and have PTSD flashbacks… being forced to read lines of dry, iambic pentameter and absolutely hating it” explained Chironis, in an interview with Kill Screen (Joho, para. 2). Elsinore, therefore, ditched lines of iambic pentameter for original dialogue, though the bones of Hamlet remain: the castle, the characters, the betrayals, the bloodshed. Elsinore also reframes the story of Hamlet around a time-looping Ophelia, caught in a perpetually-repeating four-day cycle of impending doom. By adapting the play as a computer game, Elsinore explores the possibilities that gaming, as a storytelling medium, offers in terms of literary adaptation. I argue in this essay, Elsinore’s use of branching and discoverable dialogue, multiple story paths as well as choices and consequences, construct a narrative mode that reveals the themes of racism and sexism and the ways in which systems of oppression reinforce each other in the narrative. Elsinore uses the video game medium to reorient Hamlet around the intersecting vectors of gender and race, and in doing so it offers an intersectional feminist reinterpretation of Hamlet. This essay will look at how Elsinore adapts Hamlet by focusing on the treatment of Ophelia’s sexuality, showing how narrative agency and discoverable dialogue can reinforce the intersectional commitment of the game. It will then examine the broader representational changes to the cast of supporting characters in Hamlet, and the inclusion of POC and queer characters, which both diversify the cast and puts a spotlight on the ways that power and privilege are denied to people based on sex, gender, and race. By putting the game’s diverse cast in context with the history of Hamlet, Elsinore’s game decisions can be read as a thoughtful historical adaptation of Shakespeare in line with recent scholarship on Shakespeare and race.
Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how vectors of power influence social relations. As an analytic tool, intersectionality sees overlapping identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and class, among others, as multidimensional and mutually constitutive. Its origins are from black feminists and critical race scholars. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term in 1989, wrote that intersectionality was urgently needed to correct the white racial context of feminist theory (138). Just as Crenshaw’s intersectionality revised white feminism, Elsinore rewrites Hamlet not only as a commentary on sexism but also on white supremacy.
In the context of Elsinore’s intersectional approach to Hamlet, the regulation of Ophelia’s sexuality highlights the intersection of sexism and racism. In the play, the male characters caution Ophelia against accepting Hamlet’s affections and engaging in sexual activity. Laertes warns her:
Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs
Or lose your heart or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia; fear it my dear sister …
Be wary then, best safety lies in fear. (I.iii)
Men dictate and circumscribe the rules of sexuality for Hamlet’s Ophelia. Ophelia’s value is that of her “honor” and “chaste treasure,” and to stay safe, Ophelia is warned to live in fear. Elsinore’s Ophelia responds to and revises the lack of sexual agency given to Hamlet’s Ophelia, by emphatically rejecting the idea that Ophelia’s sexuality is owned by her father and brother. The game gives Ophelia the option to pursue romantic relationships with whomever she likes, giving her the choice of who to love, as well as how far to take it. For example, a subplot where Ophelia can romance the local barkeep Othello (yes, that Othello) will lead to a pop-up option: “Kiss Othello?” Ophelia can choose Yes or No, and the game responds to her choice. The next night, Ophelia has the opportunity to have sex with Othello—but only if she says yes to it. By asking at each separate instance, the game enacts the feminist political project of normalizing affirmative consent.
Discourse on Ophelia’s sexuality is one place where the game makes it clear that racism and sexism are inextricably linked. If Ophelia chooses to pursue a sexual relationship with Othello, King Claudius will discover Ophelia and Othello together, and he will lash out at Ophelia in response. On the surface, Claudius chastises Ophelia for exercising sexual agency. However, Ophelia reacts to Claudius’s rebuke as racially motivated. She responds:
You know, Claudius, you’ve wanted me to suffer ever since I was a girl, and I never knew why. It took meeting Othello to realize that. You’ve always wanted Laertes and me isolated. Hated. I’m not good enough for Hamlet, but I’m not good enough for anyone else either, am I? … All of my life, men have been telling me to stay indoors, speak more softly, read less . . . I won’t be told what to do anymore. Not by you, or anyone. If I am not permitted to choose for myself, I’ll forge that permission by my own hand.
By grouping herself with Laertes and Othello, Ophelia identifies a racial category that is discriminated against by the royal family. She responds to the microaggressions in Claudius’s attitude toward her as a black woman. In insisting that she will “forge that permission” by her own hand, Ophelia claims agency for her life.
The game reinforces dialogue with gameplay style. Ophelia’s assertion of agency matches the structural format of the game, which gives Ophelia the power to choose her own fate. Elsinore’s Ophelia starkly contrasts with Hamlet’s Ophelia. In the play, Ophelia’s character is defined by the suffering men inflict upon her, and her story is created out of the decisions men make for her. Onstage, she goes mad from grief after Hamlet murders her father. Offstage, she drowns. She has a hand in her own fate only in that she doesn’t choose to rescue herself. Conversely, Elsinore offers Ophelia a choice in her fate. There are no traditional “happy” endings; no matter the ending Ophelia chooses, she will need to sacrifice something. But this is in keeping with the Shakespearian tragedy. Gamers who are completionists might balk at the game’s insistence on strict consequences to choices. There are no separate save files, and after you choose an ending, if you want to play again, you must return to the start of the game. But the impact of choosing your own fate, taking responsibility, and accepting the sacrifices needed to achieve your goal is incredibly powerful. Any ending you choose unlocks an epilogue with unique artwork and a unique ending, but they all begin with the same six words: “This is the fate I choose.”
Adapting Hamlet, a play famously about someone who can’t make up his mind, and then translating it into a medium that forces decision-making, is an undeniably innovative commentary on the original text.
Another way that Elsinore approaches intersectionality is by recentering the story away from the royal family, moving marginal characters to the center. In contrast to the white royal family, Elsinore diversifies the cast, including POC and queer characters. Because of their race, gender, and sexuality, these characters hold contingent positions in Elsinore’s social order. Characters like Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are reimagined as nonwhite characters. Many of the characters, including Horatio and Guildenstern, are portrayed as queer. Bernardo is trans. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are gender-swapped. Whereas the play focuses on Denmark, Elsinore’s world is much more global. Immigration, diaspora, and assimilation are all themes of the game, folded into the backstories of Ophelia, Laertes, and Horatio.
By diversifying its cast of characters with respect to race, sexuality, and gender, Elsinore doesn’t look like what we think of when we think of Shakespeare. But that’s partly because when we think of Hamlet, we aren’t thinking of the c. 1600 play per se. Instead, we’re thinking about the centuries of accumulated meanings, interpretations, and revisions of Shakespeare. Every adaptation of Hamlet bears the hallmarks of the time in which it was made. This means that our understanding of Shakespeare is based on a long cultural history. New additions and sensibilities become a part of Shakespeare. And though this accumulation of meaning is what enriches Shakespeare, it also makes it difficult to have any sense of “pure” Shakespeare, if such a thing were to exist.
People’s first experiences of Shakespeare’s plays are very often of Shakespeare-as-text rather than Shakespeare-as-performance. But this counterintuitively places Shakespeare out of context, because theater is about the performance event. Performance theory explains that plays are singular and ephemeral, meaning that they occur in a specific place for a duration of time. They are also embodied and experiential, relying on actors’ bodies and audience response (Weimann 22). These theoretical principles are true doubly so for the history of Shakespeare’s theater, because in the case of Hamlet specifically, the living performance of the play preceded the publication of the playtext. The text is an after-the-fact document. The live performance of the play came first, and this disrupts everything we think we know about a fixed version of Hamlet since each performance is necessarily transformed and enriched by its context.
Hamlet’s first recorded performance occurred in England sometime between 1600 and 1602, and like most of Shakespeare’s plays, it was acted by Shakespeare’s playing company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (Wells 735). The Hamlet play text, though, was not published until 1603. The 1603 Hamlet, called the first quarto (Q1), is sometimes referred to as the “Bad Quarto,” because it contains such a demonstrably different text of Hamlet than any of the publications that follow (Weimann 18). The second quarto, Q2, was published in 1604 and contains much of what people would recognize as the play Hamlet. However, even Q2 is missing passages of the play, and so the Hamlet that is read today is a combination of Q2 and the First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. A definitive Hamlet published by William Shakespeare does not exist. Instead, there are three after the fact documents that editors have thoughtfully combined together to create what is now recognized as Hamlet.
The first performances of Hamlet also reveal that Hamlet was not confined to England. Before the play was translated into other languages, it was acted across Europe. For these performances, an actor or spectator would mediate the foreign play (Bosman 286). As early as 1607, we know of a maritime performance that took place off the coast of Sierra Leone. An African guest provided a running translation in Portuguese. Since his vocal performance mediated the English play in real-time for the audience, he might be thought of as the first black Shakespearean actor (Bosman 286). The presence of a black actor’s body on stage suggests the extent to which the first performances of Hamlet existed in a global context. Moreover, the place of performance—onboard a merchant ship—shows the portability and accessibility of the play.
Elsinore’s intersectional adaptation of Hamlet, then, is both recognizably of our time in its politics and sensibilities, and also historically accurate in its representation of the diversity of the early modern period in which the play was written and performed. Throughout Europe’s history, women and people of color have existed, lived, traveled, worked, and migrated. This is the central thesis of public intellectual projects like @MedievalPOC (for more information, see their Tumblr and Twitter), which use art history to explore depictions of people of color during the early modern and medieval periods, and the interdisciplinary and boundary-pushing work on issues of race in premodern literature and culture Shakespeare and critical race scholars in the ShakeRace and RaceB4Race communities, working on issues of race in premodern literature and culture (check out #ShakeRace and #RaceB4Race, the Twitter hashtags created and used by scholars of color in early modern studies). And this is the tradition of adaptation that Elsinore is a part of. Through Elsinore’s intentional approach to racial and sexuality diversity in its cast, the game interprets and adapts Hamlet in ways that are both true to the play text as well as politically salient. By normalizing affirmative consent and giving Ophelia the option for romantic and sexual choice outside of the canonical plot, Elsinore ‘s adaptation commits to visionary feminist world-making. And by writing discoverable dialogue that comments on and creates consequences for Ophelia’s choices, Elsinore offers a critique of the powers that structure Ophelia’s world. The game should be viewed as one small part of a larger scholarly, cultural, and political project to confront our history and to fight against sexism and white supremacy in literature and gaming..
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