The Northman’s Amleth and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Brief Comparison

To be or not to be or to be with a vengeance?

J.P. Williams
5 min readJan 8, 2024
Illustration by E.A. Williams.

“But you must know your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. ’Tis unmanly grief.”
Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Robert Eggers co-wrote the film The Northman (2022) with Icelandic writer Sjón. Together, they brought the story of a Viking prince named Amleth to bizarre, gory and confouding life. Similarities to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (ca. 1600) shouldn’t surprise, since both characters are based on a character from Scandinavian legend, but the bard’s Hamlet and The Northman’s Amleth are opposites in one crucial way.

The Northman is set on the fictional island of Hrafnsey, northeast of the isle of Great Britain, in A.D. 895.¹ It’s the Age of Vikings, a time so cruel that the blood eagle, a form of punishment that involved severing the ribs to pull out the lungs, may be more than a myth. Young Amleth is the son of King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Early in the film, his paternal uncle Fjölnir attacks, beheads his father, ravishes his mother, and seizes rulership of the kingdom. As Amleth flees in a rowboat, he vows repeatedly, “I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”

As this scene demonstrates, Amleth in The Northman is all decision. Naturally a being of action, he grows up to become a Viking berserker, now played by Alexander Skarsgård in all his hulking glory. While attacking a village, he finds himself participating in a reenactment of the horrors he once witnessed as a child. In a film with the usual values, this would be the moment he forswears a life of violence, but The Northman’s values are pre-Christian, if only barely. Thus, Amleth’s newly awakened conscience, with some prodding from a seeress played by Icelandic musician Bjork, drives him to take up again the path of vengeance to which he swore as a child.

He spares not even himself pain. He begins by branding himself a slave and sneaking aboard a slave ship bound for Iceland, where his uncle lives in exile as a farmer, having himself been unthroned. During a match of knattleikr, a historical game that involves using clubs to hit a goal post with a ball, plus healthy doses of cracking skulls, he saves the life of Fjölnir and Gudrún’s young son, his half-brother Gunnar, but is this the appearance of a merciful inner voice, a desire to save a sibling out of blood-loyalty, or is he simply fulfilling the role of dutiful slave to draw nearer his revenge? His subsequent actions are a killing spree utterly without hesitation.

By contrast, the indecision of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is well-known. After meeting his father’s ghost, he swears to avenge himself upon his uncle and stepfather Claudius for the death of his father, but then isn’t so sure and mucks about until the final act, taking time to flirt with Ophelia, stage a play, muse at length, and travel overseas. Hamlet’s malingering even extends, via the most famous of lines in dramatic history, to existence itself:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them”

If Shakespeare intended to convey a moral, it would seem to be that failure to commit to a course of action can have lamentable consequences. In his afterword to Gertrude and Claudius, a prequel novel to Hamlet, John Updike states it thusly:

“Putting aside the murder being covered up, Claudius seems a capable king, Gertrude a noble queen, Ophelia a treasure of sweetness, Polonius a tedious but not evil counsellor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death.”

Such are the deserts of Hamlet’s hang-ups, indecision included. Yet such is The Northman’s nihilism that Amleth’s determination yields much the same. The characters of The Northman often behave in ways that we won’t countenance, the buying and selling of slaves a big one, but when Amleth arrives in Iceland, his enemies aren’t all bad. The years have taught Fjölnir humility and wisdom. Gudrún is a doting wife and mother, claiming, in a scene reminiscent of Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4, that she rejoiced when Fjölnir saved her from a loveless marriage. As for Fjölnir’s men, they loyally follow orders in a time that left no other option. Yet Amleth spares none impalement, desanguination, dismemberment, disembowelment and, if you can believe it, worse.

In the end, however, The Northman counters its nihilism with values not always alien to us. The fate that the Norns have spun for Amleth is one of conflict against family, but it is for family that he fights, and like most of us, the closer the family, the more he cares. When it comes to his wife, the Slavic slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), and his unborn child, he’s willing to risk the ultimate sacrifice in a final stand against his usurping and usurped uncle. Their battle amidst the flowing lava of the volcano Hekla, visually recalling the duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi on Mustafar in Star Wars: Episode III, is no mere action scene. We have to wonder, on the edge of our seats, will the Valkyries take Amleth home?

Even should Amleth die, his life will have had meaning in the struggle. By contrast, Hamlet lives torn and dies accomplishing . . . what? The whole drama and its dramatis personae fade fast as Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, takes the Danish crown. It’s possible, then, to see The Northman as a Shakespearean issue of Marvel’s What If? series: What If Hamlet Had the Spirit of a Viking Warrior? I can see the cover now: a Viking warrior, bearded, muscles bulging, even his ax bearded, as he thrusts out his chest in a triumphant roar, bodies littering the surrounding field — men, women, children.

Eggers’s grotesque and bizarre style may not be for everyone, but in a time when streaming has made film consumption as casual and memorable as downing a bag of Lay’s to an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, at least his movies demand a response, even if it’s befuddlement or revulsion. The Northman is deeper than Eggers’s first film The Witch (2015) and less arthouse than The Lighthouse (2019), and it’s wholly the work of a director equal to the task of throwing Shakespeare’s debatable crowning achievement into sharp relief.

References:
[1] Katie Rife, “11 Burning Questions About The Northman, Answered,” Vulture, April 22, 2022: https://www.vulture.com/2022/04/11-burning-questions-about-the-northman-answered.html

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J.P. Williams

I usually write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Right now, mostly lighter, shorter pieces on whatever I feel like.