The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers, has appeared more or less in conjunction with Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23, the connection being that the film is a recreation of the legend of Amleth from which the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet indirectly derives. It seemed a readymade newsletter opportunity to compare the film with both the legendary story on which it is based and what is arguably the most famous play in the world. The Northman has been receiving considerable praise, and deserves it: no Hollywood historical spectacle, it is artistically made and thematically serious, even if, as will become evident, I have some doubts about the implications of its final vision. Nonetheless, the film is worthy of respect, and I suspect it will eventually be nominated for Best Picture.
The story of Hamlet’s prototype Amleth is recounted in the Gesta Danorum, which could be translated as “the heroic deeds of the Danes,” by Saxo Grammaticus somewhere around 1200. Shakespeare probably derived the story indirectly, from a French translation of Saxo by a man named Belleforest, who added many details that show up in Hamlet. However, it is widely agreed that Shakespeare was mostly reworking an older Hamlet play from the late 1580’s, now lost, referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, the original or prototype Hamlet, possibly by Thomas Kyd, author of the play that created the vogue for revenge tragedies, The Spanish Tragedy. At any rate, The Spanish Tragedy, despite its naïve crudity, has features that appear in Hamlet, including the Ghost crying revenge and the play within a play. If you could summarize the theme of Hamlet in one word, it might be “uncertainty,” so it is appropriate that even its origins are uncertain.
What The Northman is doing is returning the story to its original setting in a more violent and primitive time. In this, it resembles King Lear, based on comparable material of early British legend. The court of Elsinore in Hamlet is supposed to be medieval, but is largely populated with the incompetent, corrupt, and conniving courtiers of the Elizabethan (and soon the Jacobean) court that Shakespeare knew all too well. Hamlet despises the court for its decadence: he is a prejudiced witness, but there is clearly a contrast between the sophistication of this society and its current foreign threat, Fortinbras, whose name means “strong in arms” and who would fit right into the world of The Northman. Claudius skillfully deflects the threat by convincing Fortinbras to attack the Poles rather than the Danes: Fortinbras lives to fight, and it does not much matter to him whom he fights. The final irony in a play of many ironies is that it is Fortinbras who will rule Denmark after the play ends, the ruling dynasty having wiped itself out in Act 5.
The Northman adheres somewhat faithfully to Amleth’s story in the Gesta Danorum up to a point, but simply lops off its peculiar, overcomplicated ending, in which Amleth ends up with not one but two foreign wives, one English and one Scottish, and is killed in battle by his irate English father-in-law. Instead, it substitutes a love interest named Olga, a blond sorceress who has no counterpart in Saxo and is certainly no Ophelia, even if she makes love to Amleth in a pool of water and escapes by water in the film’s ending. The addition of Olga has eventual thematic consequences, because she gives Amleth’s life meaning beyond the hatred and revenge that are all he has known so far.
It is worth looking at the larger context in which Saxo has embedded the story of Amleth, which probably began as an oral tale. The Gesta Danorum is in the tradition of the mythological epic that begins with Creation and the early exploits of the gods and moves through a heroic era into the ordinary present. We are of course familiar with the pattern from the Bible, but it appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (however satirically), in the Prose Edda of the Norse Snorri Sturluson (which may have influenced Saxo), and, for that matter, in Tolkien, at least if The Silmarillion is added to the total storyline. Of the Gesta Danorum’s 16 books, the first 8 are set in the mythic and early pre-civilized heroic period. The tale of Amleth appears in books 3 and 4, in other words among the tales of old times, when the world was rude, crude, and ugly and so were its heroes.
But thematically Saxo’s model was Virgil’s Aeneid—and that is significant, because, as a hero, Aeneas is a reluctant warrior who fights only to prevent another cycle of pointless tragic violence like that of the Trojan War. The Virgilian ideal is progressive: the hero’s quest is to transcend what Northrop Frye (as I said in the previous newsletter) called the forza-froda cycle, the cycle of force and fraud, violence and cunning, that has dominated human history. Frye uses the Italian terms out of Dante’s Inferno, where they name the two most serious kinds of sin, the sins of malice. It is Aeneas’s arch-enemy, the hot-tempered, bloodthirsty Turnus, who embodies the regressive spirit of heroic violence that Aeneas must defeat. I am not a scholar in this area, but it seems as if Saxo subverted the Virgilian ideal of a peaceable empire that puts an end to the old world of endless blood feuds and heroic manliness. Where the Aeneid aspires to something progressive, Saxo is merely a proto-nationalist. The Virgilian ideal was reborn as the Arthurian ideal of Camelot, the taming of the heroic impulse to serve the ideal of a higher civilization, both secular and spiritual, an ideal that inspired British literature from The Faerie Queene to The Once and Future King. Saxo is blind to any such higher vision, but on the other hand the developmental scheme of his narrative, from tribalism towards a higher form of political organization, means that he is not just a primitivist either.
The Northman, however, is primitivist, up to a point. Amleth does sacrifice himself so that Olga’s offspring may grow up to be kings hanging, in a final vision, from the World Tree of Northern mythology, turned ingeniously into a family tree. But The Northman is conservative in suggesting that to preserve the women, children, and any kind of an ordered kingdom, it is necessary that some men lose all the social conditioning of civilization and revert to unbridled savagery. Because your enemies are unbridled savages, and you will not defeat them without outdoing them in their own violence and cunning. And the “unbridled” goes beyond anything Clint Eastwood ever dreamed of. To touch base with the previous newsletter, a closer modern counterpart would be the insane brutality of hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer in Mickey Spillane's revenge story I, the Jury. Amleth witnesses his father being killed by his father’s brother but escapes to grow up not just a Viking but a Berserker. Berserkers were not mere thugs: they were warriors vowed to the service of the god Odin (or Wotan). Through shamanistic discipline the Berserker went into a possessed state in which he literally became a bear: the film shows whole groups of bare-chested, shaggy-haired men roaring with psychotic ferocity as they attacked, perhaps hoping to scare some of their enemies to death without having to fight them. This is of course a slander of bears, worthy of a lawsuit by the Ursine Defamation League: bears kill for food and to establish territorial dominance, but do not rape, pillage and plunder as human beings do in the manly art of war. By the way, there is plenty of rape here, as there always is in war, and as for protecting women and children, it had better be the right women and children. Amleth has no qualms about killing his own mother and her son by her second husband.
When it came to fighting, it was no holds barred in a way that mixed martial arts aficionados can only envy. The reviews tend to dwell on these moments, and it is worth warning that this movie is not for the faint of heart, or stomach. Reviewers cannot resist describing a certain ball game as a kind of earthbound, bloodthirsty quidditch, during which Amleth squelches—and I do mean squelches—a threat to the king’s son by bashing his opponent to death with his forehead, over and over and over again. The episode seems curious—Vikings playing ball? Yet it turns out that such a game actually existed. I can believe it: a description that I once read of American football in its earliest days—a general melee, roughhousing with no real rules and not much forbidden—sounded rather similar, with the same ideal of manhood underlying both games. Some of Amleth’s tactics are no games but psychological warfare, attempting to spook his enemies by picking off victims at night in inventively mutilative fashion.
Berserker fury is not unique to a Viking subculture: his quest for vengeance turns Achilles into a mad dog at the climax of the Iliad. When Hector, dying, asks that his body be returned to his parents, Achilles says he wishes he could hack Hector’s meat and eat it raw. At one point, Amleth doesn’t even bother with hacking: he just uses his teeth and chews his foe to death. Such behavior is beyond all socialized taboos, such as that against cannibalism—that is exactly its point. But Achilles is brought back from his mad-dog state to a common humanity and compassion in the all-important final book 24. The Old Testament counterpart to Amleth the Berserker is Samson, who is a Nazirite, a warrior dedicated to the service of Yahweh as Amleth is dedicated to Odin. Samson shows the same kind of battle fury, killing thousands with the jawbone of an ass, ripping a lion apart with his bare hands. He also has his froda side, confounding the Philistines with riddles. In trying to humanize such a figure in his drama Samson Agonistes, Milton had his work cut out for him, and it is arguable whether he totally succeeded.
Going beyond the limit, breaking the social taboos, is intoxicating. What happens is what C.G. Jung calls “inflation,” an upsurge of energy from the unconscious that takes possession of the ego, supercharging it with a wild energy, but eventually suppressing the human ego with another, inhuman personality that can only be called demonic. Jung observes that Odin, a storm god, commands the wind, a symbol inherent in the term “inflation.” Examples are everywhere in both popular and high culture: Darth Vader in Star Wars, Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, Weston possessed by the Un-Man in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, the monstrous couple in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the latter proving that the phenomenon is psychological and does not depend upon belief in a supernatural, even if that is often the reason given.
And there is plenty of proof outside of literature. Such possession is behind the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the stories of GI’s wearing like jewelry fingers cut off of Viet Cong corpses. More recently, it is what happened to the insurrectionists on January 6. Viking Berserkers ran in packs because such possession is highly contagious, and at the center of the pack of insurrectionists was a man in Viking horns calling himself the Shaman. In 1936, Jung published an essay called “Wotan,” the alternative spelling of Odin, which baffled his critics but should have terrified them. According to Jung, Hitler Youth, young males, were allegedly roaming the countryside, sacrificing sheep to Wotan. The roaming is caused by the uncontrollable energy of the possession from the unconscious: today we have convoys of restlessly non-stop truckers demonstrating against… something, anything. As for the sheep, there is something in such possession that seems fixated on physical mutilation. Euripides’ play The Bacchae depicts women roaming the hillsides, possessed by Bacchus or Dionysus, ripping apart animals with their bare hands. At the climax of the play, the protagonist is torn limb from limb by his own mother, who in her frenzy thinks he is an animal. This revved up mutilating energy fuels whole series of slasher films.
What I have read of the director, Robert Eggers, suggests that he is not at all a right-wing reactionary. Perhaps he himself was a bit possessed: something seems to have gotten loose from his imagination, and unfortunately other imaginations are responding to it. The Northman is now appearing on lists of recommended films on alt-right websites, which are inhabited by a good number of Viking wannabes. This is not a new phenomenon: Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing mass killer, was fond of Viking symbolism. I can understand why Marvel has reacted in the opposite direction by turning Thor into a fat slob and giving his job over to Natalie Portman. The whole business is entangled with male insecurities about proving one’s manhood. A generation ago, in books such as Robert Bly’s Iron John (1991), men were given the message that they needed to go out in the woods and bond together, including howling like wolves, in order to recover their “fierceness.” What had happened to them? The diagnosis is that they were rendered effeminate by women’s upbringing in general, by feminism in particular. The latest preacher of this men’s-movement message is Jordan Peterson, who tells young men that they need to recover confidence in their own manhood, which means their aggressiveness. After all, Vladimir Putin used to walk around bare-chested and proud of his manliness, and we can see what a wonderful kind of career such masculinity can lead to.
Is it fair to make Eggers responsible for pathological reactions to his film? Wouldn’t that be like blaming Robert Heinlein for the Manson cult because they claimed to be inspired by his Stranger in a Strange Land? It is mostly unfair—and yet, I am sorry to say, perhaps not entirely. I think Eggers intended to portray a tragic hero, one more like Macbeth than Hamlet. However, while we may grudgingly admire Macbeth’s courage, we do not exonerate him. But The Northman exonerates Amleth: in the film’s final image he is riding across the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, towards his warrior’s reward. How is he acquitted? On a sociological level, because of the speech he gives to Olga once he learns that she is pregnant. Fjölnir, the usurping Claudius figure, will not stop trying to eliminate a future pretender to the throne, and so must be eliminated. In other words, it is the dog-eat-dog Social Darwinist rationale that always is used to argue the inevitability of endless wars and blood feuds. At least it offers a cover story for his will to violence, and by that point he needs one because his mother (Nicole Kidman) has undermined his original rationale by revealing to him that his admired father was in truth not so admirable after all.
On a mythical level, it is wyrd, Fate, in tandem with the inscrutable will of Odin. The only humorous moment in an otherwise humorless film is when Christians are mentioned and a character says their God is a corpse nailed to a tree. Funny, but a cheap shot: Odin himself hung from the World Tree, self-crucified, to gain wisdom, sacrificing an eye at the same time. The camera pans at one point across an image of Odin with one eye. Yet not even Odin can escape wyrd, and the gods themselves will die in the universal destruction of Ragnarok at the end of time. We are all, mortals and gods alike, hanging from the World Tree, which is a tree of death. It is a nihilistic vision, to which is attached an ideology insisting on its inevitability. If you say, no, it is not destiny but a choice, the response will be that you do not have the fortitude to face the truth. You are not strong enough, not a real man.
Even in societies that accepted the ideology of feuding, honor, and revenge, there had always been a need to rein blood rage back into the circle of social order. Achilles pulls himself back—which is one way of defining his greatness. But his society, like others that have accepted a code of male honor, had the mechanism of a “blood price”: instead of taking a revenge which would prompt a counter-revenge which would prompt a counter-counter-revenge, a man had the option of accepting a blood price equivalent to the loss of a friend, even of a child. The custom still exists around the world today. A more progressive step is shown in the Oresteia, the trilogy of Greek tragic dramas by Aeschylus, about the figure of Orestes, whose story has parallels with that of Hamlet. Orestes kills his own mother and her lover in order to avenge his father Agamemnon. But since matricide, even when commanded by honor, is a primal sin, he is pursued by the Furies and finally driven mad—a parallel with the real or feigned madness of Hamlet. He is finally acquitted by the highest authority, that of the gods themselves, on the hill of the Areopagus, where the Athenian law court was established. The rule of law thus contains and subordinates the demands of honor. In the Arthurian saga, the early heroic narratives of Arthur as a warrior battling the invading Anglo-Saxons gave way to the story of Arthur establishing Camelot and the Round Table as a way of putting heroic martial energy to work building a new civilization in the midst of the Dark Ages instead of wasting it in endless self-proving or self-aggrandizing combat. In last year’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the willowy Dev Patel, complete opposite of the ferocious Amleth as played by Alexander Skarsgard, aspires to serve such an ideal, only to find he is its only defender in the face of the forza-froda cycle symbolized by the Green Knight himself.
But the most powerful critique of the ideology of the warrior code and its endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge is Beowulf, all the more so because it emerges from the same culture as the Amleth story. Beowulf and his people are the Geats, who lived in southern Sweden, although they are not the Swedes, who will in fact wipe them out, it is predicted, after the poem is over. Beowulf travels to aid Hrothgar, who is king of the Danes. Hrothgar has established Heorot, a hall that symbolizes the same kind of utopian cultural aspiration as Camelot. Beowulf fights and defeats three monsters, in other words three figures of demonic rather than human evil who invade the human order from the outside. What he does not do, as he says with satisfaction in his dying speech, is get involved in the endless feuding that will indeed, after his death, lead to the end of his people. The monsters are fictional, but counterpointing the story of Beowulf’s battle against them are long allusions to several blood feuds undoing entire kingdoms that are in fact partly historical and known from other sources. Although his name means “bee wolf,” in other words “bear,” Beowulf is no Berserker: he is justifiably proud that he has ruled peaceably for 50 years while keeping his kingdom free of the type of quarreling that leads to all-engulfing ruin. The allusive passages make clear that such fatal quarrels almost invariably provoked by weak or foolish men acting out of vanity or stupidity. Blood feuds and revenge are not inevitable—they are choices, and blindly self-destructive ones. The tragedy is that there are far more vain and stupid people in the world than wise ones.
What, finally, of Hamlet? For better or worse, the revenge play was a popular genre for the whole length of Shakespeare’s career, from The Spanish Tragedy in the 1580’s to the dark Jacobean revenge dramas of Webster, Tourneur, and Middleton in the first decades of the 17th century. The inconvenience that Christianity forbids a revenge code was gotten around by the idea that the avenger was acting as God’s chosen instrument. Far from being too refined and restrained by moral scruples, in his first tragedy Shakespeare absolutely wallowed in the same kind of melodramatic violence as The Northman. The following is Northrop Frye’s hilarious summary of it in Northrop Frye on Shakespeare:
Then there’s Titus Andronicus, probably Shakespeare’s first tragedy, but too late to be written off as a youthful indiscretion. In that play Titus’s two sons are kidnapped by the Emperor of Rome, who tells him that he’ll kill them unless Titus chops his hand off and sends it to him. So Titus chops off his hand—on the stage, of course—and sends it. The Emperor double- crosses him and kills the boys, sending their heads to him, but Titus gets his deposit back: the hand comes along too. Then comes the problem of getting all this meat off the stage. Titus can take the two heads in one hand, but he hasn’t any other hand with which to carry his other hand, if you follow me, so he turns to the heroine Lavinia. But she’s had both hands cut off and her tongue cut out in a previous caper, so there’s still a problem. However, she has a mouth, so she takes the hand in it, and carries it off the stage like a retriever. (460)
We cannot help laughing at this in the way the audience was laughing the time I managed to sit through the first 45 minutes or so of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre until I finally said, “Enough.” Shakespeare too apparently said “enough,” and attempted only one other tragedy, the experimental lyric tragedy Romeo and Juliet, until Hamlet in 1601 launched him on what critics sometimes call his great period.
He was a lot more sophisticated by that time, but the problem was that the material he was stuck with wasn’t. The task of avenging a beloved father slain by his own brother, who had gone on to marry the widowed mother, is still in place from the old Amleth story out of Saxo. But now there is, for one thing, a Ghost, possibly imported from the old Hamlet play, possibly from The Spanish Tragedy, but in any case his status is, as the deconstructionists say, undecidable. He is “real” enough, in the sense that others see him too, so he cannot be dismissed as Hamlet’s hallucination, but is he really Hamlet’s father or an evil spirit? He is telling the truth about the father’s murder, but while he claims to be out on leave from Purgatory, he suspiciously has to depart at cockcrow, like a damned spirit. What roughly corresponds to the Ghost in The Northman are the shamanic messages about Amleth’s wyrd, his destiny, although their effect is more like that of the witches in Macbeth.
The Ghost is but one complication of many. Coleridge famously said that Hamlet’s “tragic flaw” is that he thinks too much when he should be a man of action—like Fortinbras, like Amleth. This is hardly an audacious insight, since Hamlet says it about himself, accusing himself of “thinking too precisely on th’event” (4.4.42). The Amleth of The Northman has to bide his time, but he does not procrastinate, whereas the trait that defines Hamlet is his interminable delaying through five acts of Shakespeare’s longest play. Why does he delay? Even he asks the question, and in the attempt to answer it ends up delaying even further. There are two famous answers, each of which ascribes the delaying to a character fault. In Coleridge’s view, Hamlet is too much the intellectual and unsuited for the role of man of action: he would much rather be back at university in Wittenberg, where he has apparently lingered without graduating until the age of 30. In the Freudian view, Hamlet is paralyzed by his Oedipus complex: he cannot kill Claudius because Claudius has done what he secretly had wished to do, kill his father and marry his mother. I think both these theories are partly true at the same time—truth is rarely either-or—but not the full story. Hamlet does think too much for his own good, and he certainly thinks far too much about his mother’s sex life. But if these traits are “tragic flaws” in one way, in another way they are gifts: they have ripped away life’s facade and enabled him to see what everyone else is trying hard not to see: that reality is uncertain, ambiguous, undecidable. That is not because Hamlet is insufficiently grounded in the reality principle: it is the truth, the truth of uncertainty, the truth that there is no truth. The play is about uncertainty from its very first words, “Who goes there?” shouted by a nervous sentry into the dark.
T.S. Eliot proclaimed Hamlet a failure because it never resolves any of the questions it raises. But none of the questions are answerable in Denmark, and that undecidability is the whole point. Appearances are not reality—everyone is lying, spying, dealing and double dealing—but whatever reality lies beneath all the false appearances remains inaccessible. Shakespeare has taken intractable material and left it intractable because life is intractable: it does not work out to a clear meaning or moral as a work of art does, or should from one point of view. When Hamlet holds the mirror up to nature, what is revealed is a hall of mirrors. Hamlet sees the army of Fortinbras marching to fight the Poles on a patch of ground too small to hold the contending armies. Seeing the futility, the absurdity of the heroic warrior’s code launches him into the question of human identity itself. Are we noble, or merely food for worms like poor Yorick?
Because he is highly intelligent and articulate, Hamlet’s chief way of dealing with the incongruities is his humor, his irrepressible verbal wit. DeQuincey’s famous essay about Macbeth rightly says that the Porter’s drunken speech right before the murder of Duncan does not spoil the mood of horror but intensifies it. True, but that is one scene. The whole of Hamlet is funny in a way unlike any other tragedy, and critics have not often observed how unusual that is. Tom Stoppard gets comic mileage in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by showing the action of Hamlet as it looks to two naïve innocents detached from all the scheming and speechifying. Their response is something like “These people are all crazy.” It is like a child’s view of adult behavior, especially when adults are behaving badly. But it is accurate, and Hamlet sees it too—and jokes about it. Humor detaches, and Hamlet is detached from the lunacy around him even as the code of revenge demands that he be involved. In this he is contrasted with Ophelia’s brother Laertes, who wants to go after Hamlet like an attack dog after Hamlet has killed his father Polonius, and has to have his chain yanked by Claudius, who represents a shrewd insight on Shakespeare’s part: namely, that the blood-feuding manly men are merely “instruments” (a key thematic word in Macbeth), dupes to be manipulated by higher-ups whose designs are coldly Machiavellian, after which the dupes conveniently take the rap. Behold the entire history of the Trump era, including the insurrection, in a nutshell.
With the Mousetrap play within the play and by other manipulations, Hamlet attempts to play the puppeteering role of the Duke in Measure for Measure or Prospero in The Tempest, but he is unable to transform his society the way they do theirs. The play seems headed for some postmodern impasse when Hamlet has his unexpected “conversion” in Act 5. He appears returned from England, where he has survived a near-death experience, substituting Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern so that they are put to death instead of him. But suddenly he is convinced that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10), that there is a “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.217-18), and he is calmly certain that “the readiness is all” (5.2.220). For us, his new certainty is merely a new uncertainty—where did this come from, and what are we supposed to make of it? No answer to those questions either, but we may wonder whether the shock of Ophelia’s death might have succeeded in waking him up a little. His ranting and raving while struggling with Laertes in her open grave is more obnoxious male behavior—he is trying to shout down the guilty knowledge that his lack of belief in her goodness helped kill her, that Ophelia died for his sins in the way that Shakespeare’s women all too often do or nearly do for men who are not worthy of them. However, if shock, grief, and guilt opened him up to an epiphany of something beyond the claustrophobic prison that is Denmark, the audience is unable to share it, and is left in uncertainty. The rest is silence.
At any rate, Shakespeare’s increasing emphasis in his later plays is not on revenge and justice but on forgiveness. It is there in the “problem play” Measure for Measure, where the forgiveness of the vile Angelo makes us cringe. In the four late romances, his final plays, Shakespeare actually replays the situations of the earlier tragedies, showing us “tragicomic” endings only made possible through repentance and forgiveness. At the end of The Tempest, a whole society is forgiven its wrongdoings, and thus redeemed by Prospero’s “art.” In the final lines of Shakespeare’s last play, Prospero, echoing the Lord’s Prayer, asks forgiveness for himself. His doing so makes us realize why that is the quintessential Christian prayer. It also makes us understand why being given, by “grace,” by some mystery beyond what we can understand, by some uncertainty that is nevertheless not mere meaninglessness, the ability to forgive and forget is better than riding into Valhalla as the music swells and the credits begin to roll.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 4th edition. HarperCollins, 1992.
Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, in Northrop Frye’s Writings on Shakespeare and the Renaissance, edited by Troni Y. Grande and Garry Sherbert. Volume 28 of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 2010. Originally published as edited by Robert Sandler by Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1986.