Dating Hamlet (2002)

Far from being an academic study considering which side of 1600 Shakespeare’s play was written, Lisa Fiedler’s Dating Hamlet is another rewriting of the action putting Ophelia front and centre. But unlike Lisa Klein's academic or Bergmanesque approach (which I reviewed on Monday), Fiedler (as the cover suggests) turns the character into a kind of Disney princess, albeit of the kind seen in more recent films, more Giselle from Enchanted or Tangled’s Rapunzal than Snow White or Cinders. I’ve had problems in the past with Shakespeare being interpreted as panto, but there’s something about Fielder’s attempt that really engages.

Partly it’s because Fiedler has no truck with Hamlet as a sacred text. She’s clearly a fan of the play and although their aren’t as many literary allusions as the Klein book, Fiedler obviously has the same sense that Ophelia has become displaced in time, has had a "raw deal" and deserves a new destiny. Comparing Dating Hamlet with Klein’s book is probably a tad unfair. They’re tonally chalk and cheese, one tragic, the other comic. But they’re also both written for teenagers and many of the choices of how Ophelia threads through the story are similar.

The main difference is in the treatment of Ophelia herself. Klein very carefully keeps fidelity with whatever’s in Shakespeare’s text, seeking to underpin the characters based on the evidence in their speech, and in that case Polonius’s daughter is washed along by events. In Fiedler’s version, Ophelia drives events and steals the protagonist doublets from her love, putting the indecisive Hamlet very much in the supporting position with the besting of Claudius resting on her slender rather more motivated shoulders. In other words it’s the Maid Marian and her Merry Men approach.

It also keeps within the time scheme of the play but creates a few extra characters. She is friends with Anna, a kitchen maid who it’s quickly apparent is her Horatio, a useful expositional thinking board but there are also plenty of girly chats about boys. It’s that kind of novel. Other characters, like the Gravedigger have their parts built up in surprising ways largely to help the mechanism of the plot. All of Shakespeare’s scenes appear but not every deed done or word said is necessarily in the spirit the playwright intended.

With just a couple of hundred pages, Fiedler hasn’t much time to conjure a very detailed version of Elsinore but what’s sketched in does point towards a Hollywood fairy tale world rather than a realistic geographical place, albeit with more bawdy attitudes. Ophelia’s seen as something of a prize amongst the men in court and spends much of the novel fending off their advances her heart focused on Denmark’s prince. Some of the best scenes are those in which she gives the men folk a piece of her mind or her knee in their groin. It’s that kind of novel too.

Dating Hamlet by Lisa Fiedler was published by Collins in 2002. RRP: £4.99. ISBN: 0007161867

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