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Did you know Hamlet rides a Harley?

The best play I’ve ever seen was a production of Hamlet at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I’d seen my share of plays before (even worked as a production hand on a few in college), but that production was the first time I got so involved in the drama unfolding in front of me that I actually forgot I was watching a play. I guess it helped that Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

So, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that my interest was more than piqued when I discovered that FX’s new Harley-riding outlaw-motorcycle gang series Sons of Anarchy takes on the play’s structure for its own story. The series focuses on Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the son of the California motorcycle club’s founder who died some 15 years or so before. Jax's mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), is now married to the club’s new “president”, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman). The club, whose members reside in the fictional town of Charming, makes the majority of their money importing illegal weapons and selling them to gangs. In what Robert Lloyd calls “the Sopranos Method,” the series takes these on-the-surface immoral characters and “makes them moral on their own terms and surrounds them with characters less palatable or righteous than they are: white-supremacist, meth-dealing rivals; crooked cops.” True to all this, the series is saturated with bad language, violence and adult themes. But it also reveals more than a few sympathetic characters and, I gotta admit, some plain great writing (so far).

Where’s the Hamlet in all this, you ask? Says Wikipedia (drawing from this article): “The family drama is loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet; with Clay in the role of King Claudius, Gemma as a Gertrude figure, and Jax standing in for Prince Hamlet himself. Narratively, the Sons are prototypical antiheroes.” In particular, Jax—whom we’ve already realized is actually pretty much a good man at heart—has a crisis of conscience after he finds and reads a manuscript by his father who had a completely different and more legitimate-business-oriented vision for the Sons of Anarchy (which he founded with other veterans after the Vietnam War) than what the club had currently become. When Jax approaches his mother about this, we begin to get the idea that his father’s death may not have been all that accidental. In fact, Gemma strikes me more as a Lady McBeth than Hamlet’s Gertrude. In addition, we have the threat of the invasion of Charming by a rival gang (think Norway’s impending invasion of Denmark).

At first glance, a series about an outlaw Harley-riding motorcycle gang isn’t one you’d think of for Hamlet. But then, modern day New York wouldn’t have been my first choice either, but it worked (for me, at least) in the 2000 film version of the play staring Ethan Hawke. In fact, modern retells often add a dimension or nuance to the play that I hadn’t considered before. And so it is with Sons of Anarchy. Hamlet, whom I’ve always found accessible, becomes even more so in the young Jax. Also, I am intrigued by the idea of the ghost of Hamlet’s father taking on the form of a manuscript by Jax’s father—a written word of vision, which can’t help but touch on the power of the written word for resonating and calling us to examine ourselves in the light of a greater truth. And I’m interested in how the series presents Claudius (aka Clay) as less the villain and more the victim to a more conniving Gertrude (aka Gemma).

And, I must admit, it is fun to see Perlman (seen most recently as Hellboy in Hellyboy II) working his craft.

As a side note, there was more than one direct biblical reference in the pilot. Jax names his newborn (and critically ill) son Abel (not a name of good portent, my husband noted), and while Jesus name is more often than not taken in vain, one can’t help but wonder at its use at some points during the pilot. Also, in the scenes for upcoming episodes, there’re a few more hints of direct religious nature.

While the series definitely deserves its mature rating, it does have its draws. Can it keep it up? I don’t know. Taking on a Hamlet structure seems more conducive to a miniseries than who-knows-how-many 22-or-so-episode seasons. But so far, I’m interested to see how they do it.

Note: This series deserves its mature rating. It contains violence, bad language and mature and adult themes and situations along with some nudity. Use discretion when deciding what to put on your television screen.

(Images: FX via IMDB) miscctgy


Such an awesome review - wish we got FX now! LOL As a closet Shakespeare geek, I'll be sorry I missed it.
Carmen Andres said…
it's really intriguing to watch this unfold. we have the second episode on our DVR, but haven't watched it yet. i'm interested to see how it proceeds - i'll keep you updated :)