Friday, 23 April 2010

“Don’t worry, I’m okay” - An analysis of “The Sopranos" as an appropriation of “Hamlet”

In the following I will analyse the HBO hit television series The Sopranos as an appropriation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although one might write extensively on the subject, I will limit this essay to discussing how the setting, protagonist and some themes can be seen as appropriations of the original play. All relevant terms are from Julie Sanders' Adaptation and Appropriation (i). I will focus my attention mainly on the first season, although my conclusions are representative for the series as a whole.

The plot in Sopranos takes place in a relatively limited setting. The crime family controls the New Jersey area in New York and, apart from a few very brief excursions like Tony’s visit in Italy in the second season and sporadic visits to Florida, most of the action takes place in the northern East Coast area. Most of the episodes are located in New Jersey with local sights frequently represented in order to emphasise its importance. Whenever the geographical setting changes in the series, it is always tied up with a parallel plotline interpolated in the episode in order to maintain the connection to the basic geographical setting. Likewise, the show never leaves its Italian American, masculine mobster milieu. At times, characters visit other social, vocational or ethnic groups, but always as emissaries if not in the context of the plot then as a tool for contrast and social commentary.

The temporal setting is also quite limited. Although there are a few flashbacks in episode 7, season 1, time in the series is often remarkably linear. The interconnectedness of the episodes further underlines this linearity. The series is built around the protagonist’s handling of different situations, conflicts and challenges that arise. Since there often is an overlap between these situations and since they often span more than one episode, the timeline does not only seem linear. It also seems to be rather limited and in real time. The show is supposed to be following the everyday life of Tony’s families and we see his private family developing like a family would; children passing through their teens and various educational institutions. The show was shot more or less consecutively from 1999 to 2007 so the visual development of characters closely follows that of the actors. In this way, the audience gets the impression that nothing is left out and that the order of events is genuinely linear.

Although transposed in time and geography, the setting shares several of these characteristics with Hamlet. Hamlet’s excursions from Elsinore are limited both in time, frequency and extent in much the same relative proportions to the play as those of the series. While both time span and geographical setting might differ in extent, “Hamlet” taking place in and around the royal seat of Denmark within a few months and Sopranos being played out across several states and several years, this may be seen as a product of genre since a television series generically can accommodate a more extensive setting. Features of the setting, like the general linearity of time and the relative conformity of geographical location are thus received in another genre. Furthermore, both source text and appropriation is located within a masculine power sphere, an environment of macro- and micro political struggles where perhaps the micro political dynastic conflicts are most clearly linked. However, even though Tony’s brushes with the FBI as a representative of overarching society are more prominent in the appropriation, the threat from Norway and the ambiguous role of its representative Fortinbras as representatives of macro politics are also ever present in the hypotext, albeit admittedly not as explicitly as in the hypertext.

This proximation entails added potential for both the hypotext and the hypertext. Sopranos, by mimicking the setting of Hamlet, can more easily explore personal issues that are accommodated by a limitation of the physical environment and like the play focus viewer attention on these issues rather than distracting them with constant change of setting and the implications this has for the plot’s effect in conveying themes. It also makes a further reception of themes, characters, character relationships, conflicts and other forms of analogy possible. Finally, the proximation gives Hamlet relevance for a new audience, one which might under other circumstances have remained unfamiliar with the archetypes, plot structures and issues discussed in the play.

Character, Characterisation and Conflict
Both the hyper- and the hypotext are dramatic forms of art, which puts an obvious stock in characters. Therefore, it is to be expected that many aspects of the appropriation’s relationship to the original would be somehow represented by the characters. A clear indication of this is given in the titles of the play and the series; Hamlet referring to its protagonist and The Sopranos referring to Tony Soprano and the two families that bear his name. With the connection between the protagonists made, we may proceed to explore how the characters of the series may have corresponding characters in the play, how relationships may compare and how the characters may represent received themes.

The eponymous Tony Soprano is the troubled prince of a feudal construct. The acting boss leads his own society, the Soprano crime family which partially overlaps with his private family and “there’s the rub”(ii) . Tony’s father, Johnny, is dead and his brother, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, thinks he is entitled to be the next boss. He strikes a note with Tony’s mother, Livia, and these two become a constellation with which Tony frequently has to grapple. Throughout the series, Tony acts as the de facto boss while Junior, without his knowledge, acts as a cover.

There are numerous ways in which the Tony character echoes and imitates Hamlet. Firstly, their situations are similar. Both have lost a father whose example guides them but also instils a sense of inadequacy. The series, in fact, opens with Tony seeking help from Dr. Melfi, the psychiatrist, because he feels that the golden age is passed and that his world is on the decline. He feels that his father requires him to run his criminal organisation as smoothly as he did. Both protagonists have trouble with similar constellations of elderly family members, and in a sense, both are individuals whose basic existence, at least for the duration of the play/series, is founded on opposition against established society. In Tony’s case this is an alternative form of government which pitches him both as an opponent of the established order but also as an individual within a limited dynasty. This, drawing on notions of American anti-statism, is an intercultural form of analogue as the basic motif of the individual vs. society is echoed, although in a different cultural setting (more on this below)(iii).

Secondly, and perhaps most decisively, the two protagonists correspond in personality. Both present a combination of violence and meditation. In Hamlet’s case, this is shown in his treatment of most of the other characters and in his soliloquies. For Tony, as well as for the medium, a soliloquy would be out of place but the basic motif for the series, a mobster in therapy, provides a channel for Tony’s inner self. Both characters have to put on a show to their surroundings for the sake of their being, the twist being that Tony has to act stong and mentally stable to avoid being seen as weak, while Hamlet has to act mad to avoid being seen as a threat. This is represented in the following passage from The Sopranos:

“Junior: Are you okay? You’ve been acting [mental] lately. I haven’t seen a long face like that since you were a kid.
Tony: I’m okay […] don’t worry about it” (iv)
While the hypotext presented aspects of Hamlet’s personality through soliloquies and the at times actual presence of his father the ghost, the proximated form of the hypertext does not allow such supernatural tools. The characterisation of Tony is brought about through the presence of his son Anthony Junior (AJ), Dr.Melfi and by some brief flashbacks. The relationship to Anthony Junior works as a tool for representing Tony’s relationship to his dead father, as crucial in the series as in the play. In episodes 4 and 7 in the first series, Tony worries about how his actions influence his son who is taking to fighting and stealing. In episode 7, we are also given some of the very few visual representations of the Tony’s father figure through flashbacks. Johnny Soprano is presented as what Tony in his therapy sessions presents as ideal; a loving family man and a tough and decisive mafioso. This influences how he relates to his role in society, which is closely linked to his idea of the idealised father, and also to his depression and dilemma of action vs. inaction (see below). As in Hamlet the father-son relationship largely dictates the characterisation of the protagonist as well as the plot, which revolves around the conflict of reality imposing itself between the ideal and the protagonist.

As mentioned earlier, Hamlet’s soliloquies are proximated as therapy sessions in the hypertext. These sessions are vehicles of characterisation in The Sopranos much like the soliloquies were in Hamlet. It is here Tony ponders many of the dilemmas and issues presented below and it is through the sessions the audience is brought into the characterisation of the protagonist; Tony and Hamlet both grapple with the same question; “Am I a good person?” Both behave badly towards their fellow characters, often with questionable justification. Hamlet has to deal with this question himself and does so, e.g. in the soliloquy at the end of act 2 (v). In Tony’s case, this task is given to the audience. In other words, where the hypotext provided both the process of characterisation and the conclusion, the hypertext only provides the process through the therapy sessions. This is one of the central functions of the series, for where the play settles the virtue of the protagonist, the series engages the audience in deciding whether the deplorable acts of Tony are justified by his intentions. In this way, the appropriation comments on what can be seen as a closed discussion of motivation and an assertive characterisation in the play. However, the mode of characterisation can also be seen as another privilege of genre as a series of six seasons can accommodate greater uncertainty of characterisation than a five act play.

Both the play and the series are structured around the personalities of the two protagonists and these are the basis for the themes and conflicts discussed. Since both hypo- and hypertext fundamentally deals with the personal issues of the protagonists, an analysis of these as central aspects of appropriation would fit logically alongside that of the protagonist.

Both characters struggle with depression brought on by dilemmas of action vs. inaction and how to relate to the world as individuals. At the start of the series Tony admits to being depressed just like Hamlet more or less directly does at the start of the play (vi). Indeed, later episodes, such as episode 11 of the first season, are episodes in which a thematical appropriation of Hamlet is apparent. In the episode, he knows some of his friends are working with the FBI and is unsure who to trust. His wife confronts his mother with regard to her effect on his mental state, and the following passages ensue:
(The following monologue ensues, interspersed with protestations and exclamations by Carmela)
“Carmela: You are bigger than life, you are his mother, and I don’t think for one second that you don’t know what you’re doing to him. […] I know [Junior] stops by a lot.”

Livia: He is my husband’s brother. He can’t check up on me once in a while? That’s not of anybody’s business. I know what you’re hinting at. Wait until you are abandoned. Johnny was a saint. Junior couldn’t carry Johnny’s socks. Do you think I would blacken my Johnny’s memory by getting mixed up with his brother? At least with Junior I’ve got some purpose in life. Somebody listens to me and doesn’t treat me like an old shoe” (vii) 
The reference to Hamlet is obvious. Later, Dr. Melfi diagnoses Tony’s feelings as one of impending doom, and not long after he says he’ll “take a gun and blow my brains out”(viii) in a vein reminiscent both of Hamlet’s suicidal ponderings in the “too too solid flesh” and “to be” soliloquies (ix). Hamlet’s depression is brought on by the lack of standards represented by his father, his perception of corruption within the world and all the other characters and by the union of his uncle and mother. For Tony, these causes are replicated in relation to his crew, Junior and his mother. Like Hamlet and Horatio, Tony only feels he can trust Dr. Melfi and that everyone else fails to live up to the standards he has inherited from his father. It is worth noting that he holds his mother responsible for his father’s death:

“Tony: my mother wore him down to a little nub, he was a squeaking little gerbil when he died.
Dr. Melfi: Quite a formidable maternal presence.”(x)
In an interesting analogy of plot, Tony’s preoccupation with his mother’s destructive powers is justified when she and Junior hire two assassins to kill him. In a proximated imitation of Hamlet’s account at the start of act 5, scene 2, the two assassins die in the attempt to kill the protagonist in a vehicle, just like Hamlet brings about the death of his erstwhile friends turned implicit assassins Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on a boat (xi). The scene nicely encapsulates the causes of Tony’s depression, and like the corresponding scene in Hamlet together with the closet scene (3.4) which is later mirrored in The Sopranos (xii), brings about a resolve and a new understanding of the causes for his depression. This is of course another reference to Hamlet’s resolve in act 4.

One might expect revenge to be a theme appropriated into a gangster series and it is, but three examples will show how, as in the play, revenge is tied with overarching dilemmas. First, in episode 9 of the first season, Tony considers having the coach of his daughter’s soccer team killed for molesting one of her teammates. He sees it as his responsibility to avenge “foul deeds”, implicitly because that is what his father would have done, but Melfi confronts him more or less directly citing Hamlet; “Why do you think you, Anthony Soprano, always have to set things right?”. As a telling twist, Hamlet informs our understanding of Tony’s conundrum as Hamlet more explicitly attributes this mission to his father, him being “born to set it right” (xiii). From episode 11, season 1 and onwards Tony struggles with issues of loyalty. Several times revenge becomes a response to members of his crew betraying him for the FBI or rival gangs. Especially the case with his close friend Salvatore Bonpensiero, whose fate is sealed on a boat, is not only analogous in plot to Hamlet but also in theme. Sal’s demise at the end of the second season is preceded by 16 episodes of mental stress and pondering for Tony which at times leads to suicidal thoughts and paranoia (xiv). When Sal proves to have betrayed Tony, Tony fails in his mission of running a crew after his father’s idealised standards. In both cases revenge acts as a motif for Tony’s idea of his role as an individual in a larger society and it also explores the dilemma of action vs. inaction. Finally, as a more direct form of appropriation, the motif of avenging a father is imitated in the opening episode of season 4 where Tony’s nephew Christopher, whom he sees as a potential heir to the position of boss, avenges his father’s murder by killing a policeman Tony identifies as his murderer. Throughout the episode, Tony functions like the ghost did for Hamlet, spurring him on.

As hinted earlier, the theme of individuality and conformity, or how the individual should relate to the world around him is present in both hypo- and hypertext. Tony is, as a mafia boss, fundamentally opposed to established society although he feels obliged to uphold some of its morals. In episode 10, season 1, the tries to enter established society for the sake of himself and his family (see AJ above), but he finds this lifestyle repulsive and hypocritical and decides to act in society from his alternative approach of organised crime. The episode debates breaking with one’s destiny, which for Tony is following his father’s example and acting as a boss, or to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet similarly pondered in the “to be” soliloquy. Like Hamlet, Tony decides to “let be” (xv), that is to adhere to his father’s command even though this will leave him outside and opposed to the established order.

I have analysed some of the ways in which The Sopranos is an appropriation of Hamlet. The most prominent are the proximated setting, the many aspects and relationships of the protagonist and many of the central themes to both texts. It seems that a certain open-mindedness is needed for such an analysis as few aspects of the hypotext have unambiguous or even consistent counterparts in the hypertext. It is also debatable whether what is appropriated stems from the play or from the universality of character traits, conflicts and themes represented in it. That being said, the play and the series share too much to ignore the possibility of the latter being an appropriation of the former. The director, David Chase, has made no allusions to the play, but that in itself does not effect this theory. Perhaps it’s fitting to conclude the essay the way the series was concluded in 2007, with The Sopranos’ take on “the rest is silence” (xiv); the sudden cut to black.

(i) Julie Sanders: Adaptation and Appropriation, London, 2006
(ii)William Shakespeare: Hamlet, ed. by Philip Edwards, 2nd edn, Cambridge, 2003: 3.1.65
(iii)Sanders 2006: 99
(iv)David Chase: The Sopranos Complete Series 1-6 Box Set, [1999-2007] (DVD), season 1, episode 6, 42:33. (Henceforth referenced as s #, ep. #, ##:##)
(v)Shakespeare 2003: 2.2.501-558
(vi)S 1, ep. 1, 28:00
(vii)S 1, ep. 11, 17:00-19:00
(viii)S 1, ep. 11, 11:08, S1, ep.12, 17:50
(ix)Shakespeare 2003: 1.2.129-159, 3.1.56-89
(x)S1, ep. 1, 30:53-33:22. This scene is a very good representation of Tony’s state of mind and perception of reality.
(xi)S 1, ep. 12, 27:40-28:40, Shakespeare 2003: 5.2.1-62
(xii)S 1, ep. 13, 52:00
(xiii)S 1, ep. 9, 41:26, Shakespeare 2003: 1.5.189-190
(xiv) This is especially apparent in s 1, ep. 12
(xv)Shakespeare 2003: 3.1.56-89, 5.2.196. For this analysis to work, one must assume that Hamlet in his soliloquy equates following his father’s command and killing Claudius with ”suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and suicide/remaining passive with “by opposing end them”. Lines 83-87 might suggest that suicide and remaining passive is the same thing. One might easily imagine Tony Soprano considering a life outside the mafia a slow suicide. His definitive break with established society echoes Hamlet’s conclusion when he answers “I’ll live” (S 1, ep. 10, 50:06)
(xvi)Shakespeare 2003: 5.2.337


Julie Sanders, Julie: Adaptation and Appropriation, London, 2006
Shakespeare, William: Hamlet, ed. by Philip Edwards, 2nd edn, Cambridge, 2003

Television series:
Chase, David: The Sopranos Complete Series 1-6 Box Set, [1999-2007] (DVD)

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