Friday, June 17, 2011

Other Hamlets: Gilligan's Island Revisited

When I posted the Gilligan's Island Hamlet parody some months ago, I did so without comment. I feel kind of bad about that. So here's my attempt at analyzing what makes the parody interesting.

First, I must acknowledge the (probably unknowing) amount of postmodernism at work here. This is a broad sitcom doing a parody of both Shakespeare AND Gilbert & Sullivan at the same time, tracing a line through theatrical tradition from the 16th to the 20th centuries. While Gilbert & Sullivan's nautical themes are a perfect choice for a play partly put on by the Skipper and his first mate, we might wonder: Why Hamlet? I'm not disputing its popularity or that the 1960s audience would know its basic plot and characters, recognize its key lines, etc. (and certainly, it may speak favorably to the state of education in the 60s that a low brow comedy program would think nothing of parodying the Bard), but it's certainly not the most light-hearted of subject matter. One might think that The Tempest would be a better fit for Gilligan's Island, after all.

The again, Gilligan's Island is about delay, just like Hamlet is. Everything in the show conspires to delay the castaways' rescue, even while dangling it in front of their noses almost every episode. Obviously, as soon as they get off the island, the show is over. In the same way, as soon as Hamlet takes his revenge, the play is over. And this is the power of Hamlet. As a play, it communicates its theme so strongly that any story of delay becomes a version of Hamlet. And as a character, Hamlet is the instrument of his own delay. He stretches the play out before him more than circumstances do (as is they case for Gilligan's Island or similar, ongoing programming like The Prisoner or Star Trek: Voyager). In fact, a LOT of television can be examined through the Hamlet filter because it employs strategies to prevent early resolution. Even romantic comedies are like Hamlet in that way, a slippery road that leads to a psycho-sexual analysis of the Hamlet-Claudius relationship. Few comparisons to television shows (and other serialized formats) hold up in the end because their protagonists are not the instruments of the featured delay. Only in the character in charge of his or her own destiny do we find the prototypical Hamlet.


snell said...

Plus, this ruined the opera Carmen for me forever. That counts for something.

And, thanks to syndication, for an entire generation it was probably their first exposure to Hamlet, if not Shakespeare entirely.

And, since I was so young, it took me years to get the "don't go near the water" joke.

Prof. Chronotis said...

I, too, had to have many years roll over my head before I got that joke! And to appreciate that Phil Silvers' character in this episode is named "Harold Hecuba." What's Hecuba to him?