Claim Your
Off Discount
May 19, 2022

The Viking Hamlet: Comparing "The Northman" to Shakespeare

Robert Eggers' latest film, The Northman, is a brutal yet grandiose tale of revenge. If you've already seen the film, the story might feel familiar. That's because you've probably read Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Does that mean The Northman is based on Hamlet? Well, not exactly; the answer might surprise you.

Looking at where Eggers departed from William Shakespeare and where he didn't can offer insights into why some aspects of character and plot have a more significant effect on the story than others.

Actually, The Northman is not an adaptation at all

Shakespeare's original source for Hamlet was a Norse saga known as Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) by Saxo Grammaticus. He combined that with some trendy stories of the time (Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy among them) and some personal feelings about the death of his young son Hamnet and wrote Hamlet.

So, The Northman isn't an adaptation but rather a return to a source. And as you watch the credits and see the cast of The Northman, you'll see how Shakespeare hardly even changed the names from the original!

Still, it's worth comparing Hamlet and The Northman to see what can be teased out.

The Northman vs. Hamlet: What's the same?

Kill the uncle

The tagline for The Northman is also an excellent summation of its plot.

Avenge father.

Save mother.

Kill Fjölnir.

That's all that Alexander Skarsgård's protagonist Amleth wants. When compared to Hamlet, it's pretty much the same. They both want to kill their uncle on behalf of their father, rescuing their mother in the process.

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth in "The Northman."
Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth in The Northman.

Keeping the plot the same provides many opportunities for this character to be whatever is needed because he's antagonistic through his existence alone.

A plot with a clear drive and stakes is crucial in storytelling, and the revenge narrative has shown to be successful. Why change it up?

Mom doesn't need to be rescued

One of the best scenes in The Northman is when Nicole Kidman, as Amleth's mother, delivers a scathing monologue about how terrible Amleth's father (her husband) was and how she was glad he was killed.

This is similar to Gertrude (the queen in Hamlet), though to be fair, it isn't as explicit as it is in The Northman.

In both versions, complicating the protagonist's mother in this situation leads to really great drama. In Hamlet, it drives the inaction, and in The Northman, it hakes Amleth's understanding of nearly everything. In my opinion, it was one of the strongest scenes in the film because it was the first time that Amleth's worldview was truly pierced (and Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman had some great material to play with).

The Northman vs. Hamlet: What's different?


In The Northman, Amleth sees his uncle kill his father. He's just a child, and he witnesses it and then escapes to grow up elsewhere. So he's lived with this his whole life.

In Hamlet, the prince returns home as a young adult to be greeted by his father's ghost, who tells him what happened. So the breeding of his revenge is only a few days old. There's also a reading of the text in which his uncle didn't kill his father, and the murder and subsequent revenge are all in his head.

The consequence of Eggers making the murder happen earlier in the protagonist's life and forcing him to witness it motivates Amleths monomaniacal drive. Unlike Shakespeare's lead (who has been noted as highly multi-dimensional), Eggers' lead is nearly the opposite. This specific life event may be the key to his hero's journey.

Logistics & torment

Hamlet is known for his inability to make decisions and act. He's unsure and invites a local troupe just to put on a play to see if he can indeed deduce his uncle was responsible for his father's murder.

While Amleth has to wait to take revenge, it isn't because of indecision. He needs the tools, which is why there's an entirely self-contained sequence securing a special sword. And then he's ready, but he doesn't just want his uncle's death. He torments him by killing his captains and his children. And these are more than just simple deaths. I won't go into too much detail, but these are macabre acts to the point where it's first believed they are the work of a demon or angry god.

Where Hamlet is inaction, Amleth is all action. As a medium, film plays to the strengths of action in a way that the stage can't reach, so this choice seems natural. We get to witness the effects of everything Amleth does.

Secrecy & supporters

Everyone in Elsinore knows who Hamlet is. He's got friends to talk to, and he goes about the palace openly as the prince of Denmark. And he's been courting Ophelia, though he doesn't treat her that well.

Amleth, on the other hand, puts himself into anonymous slavery merely to get back to his uncle's kingdom (which is more like a village in The Northman). And Anya Taylor-Joy's character of Olga is treated (relatively) okay by Amleth. She's not just a love interest but an actual helper and supporter of Amleth. And best of all, unlike Ophelia, she survives the story's events.

Anya Taylor Joy as Olga in "The Northman."
Olga is a far more dynamic character than Ophelia in The Northman.

Eggers makes Olga a far more dynamic and active character than Ophelia, which is essential because Amleth can't talk openly to anyone else. The film best highlights external conflict (which is basically what 90% of The Northman is). So it's crucial that in a movie, unlike in a Shakespearean play when Hamlet can talk to us in the audience, the protagonist has someone "on the inside" so we can hear him debate his thoughts and explain his actions.

So which is better?

After examining the similarities and differences, the apparent conclusion is that Hamlet and The Northman are excellent examples of leaning into their respective mediums. I don't think any strict film adaptation of Hamlet would be as strong as The Northman, and I don't believe The Northman on stage (no matter how big the budget) would hold a candle to Hamlet. And that's how it should be.

Robert Eggers is a master of his cinematic craft and leverages all the tools to take Hamlet's source and explore it in ways that Shakespeare never could.


Level-up your screenwriting software

With Arc Studio, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Add the template to your Arc Studio Pro account

text content

Download the template
Go to Desk

Download your free template now

With Arc Studio pro, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease. 2
The Viking Hamlet: Comparing "The Northman" to Shakespeare
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

Level-up your screenwriting software

Arc Studio is the new standard in screenwriting software: stay focused, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Go to Desk

Download your free template now

With Arc Studio pro, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Go to Desk

Receive a free screenwriting book

Get your free ebook now!

Download Your Template
Go to Desk

Learn from the film industry’s top screenwriters

Our new podcast, How I Write: Screenwriters Share Their Creative Processes, launches Nov. 12th.

Go to Desk


This is some text inside of a div block.
This is some text inside of a div block.

Read More

Ready to get started?

Go to Desk
No credit card required