Hamlet, Performance and Chaotic Cultural Networks


  • Emil Rybczak University of Warwick
  • Emil Rybczak Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick




Chaos theory, performance, network, Shakespeare, Hamlet, theatre


Since the 1960s, chaos theory has become an important but controversial tool used by scientists and mathematicians to describe physical or theoretical systems or networks. It explains how the simple can generate the complex. Its central tenets can also provide an alternative language and means of literary interpretation. This article will explore how the principles of chaos theory can be used to close read and systematise various aspects of the language and performance of Shakespeare. The argument is built upon an analysis of Hamlet, in an effort to understand the play and its reproduction as the evolution of interconnected complex networks. Various aspects of the text will be discussed, including its language, structural and character patterning, and its reproduction through performance and cinematic adaptation. Each of these topics, and the characters, devices or ideas they discuss, constitute nodes of the complex network of Hamlet as both text and idea.

Responding to the cultural analysis of other scholars, this article uses Hamlet as an ideal example of how the appropriation of scientific language can defamiliarise a particular literary or dramatic artefact. This allows fresh interpretation and understanding of its location within the broader networks of theatre and culture. I suggest the possibilities of close reading literary works through the lens of chaos and suggest how they might be applied and developed in conjunction with other texts, media or performances.


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Author Biography

Emil Rybczak, University of Warwick

Department of English


Textual Bibliography

Abbott, Andrew (2001), Chaos of Disciplines, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Boon, Kevin Alexander (1997), Chaos Theory and the Interpretation of Literary Texts: The Case of Kurt Vonnegut, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press

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Dawkins, Richard (1989), The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Demastes, William W. (1994), ‘Re-Inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to Stoppard’, New Theatre Quarterly, 10 (39), 242–54

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Feldman, David P. (2012), Chaos and Fractals: An Elementary Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

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Howard, Tony (2007), Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Prigogine, Ilya, and Stengers, Isabelle (1985), Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue With Nature, London: Flamingo

Shakespeare, William (2003), Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Edwards, Philip, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Performances cited

Almereyda, Michael (2000), Hamlet, [DVD], USA: double A Films

Brannagh, Kenneth (1996), Hamlet, [DVD], USA: Warner Home Video

Doran, Gregory (2009), Hamlet, [DVD], UK; Japan; USA: BBC

Gade, Svend (1921), Hamlet, [online], Germany: Art-Film GmbH, available from [17 April 2013]

Gielgud, Sir John (1964), Hamlet, [DVD], USA: Theatrofilm

Kozintsev, Grigori (1964), Hamlet, [DVD], Soviet Union: Lenfilm

Olivier, Laurence (1948), Hamlet, [DVD], UK: Two Cities Films

Maurice, Clement (1900), Le Duel d’Hamlet, [online], France: Phono-Cinema-Theatre, available from [21 September 2015]

Shakespeare, William (2013), Hamlet, Directed by David Farr, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, [30 March 2013]

Zeffirelli, Franco (1990), Hamlet, [DVD], USA; UK; France: Canal+; Caralco Pictures; Icon Entertainment International; Marquis; Nelson Entertainment; Sovereign Pictures; Warner Bros.

Sculpture of Hamlet






New Approaches to Theatre and Performance Studies