In 1996, author Steve Englehart wrote a 96-page pitch for DC Comics' alternate reality Elseworlds imprint. Titled "The Tragedy of Batman, Prince of Denmark," this comic took the superhero and placed him smack dab in the midst of William Shakespeare's famous tragedy.
Unfortunately, DC Comics decided not to publish Steve's treatment. But fortunately for us, Englehart agreed to share an excerpt of this Bard-meets-Bat mash-up with io9. Here's the introduction to the Dark Knight's lost Danish adventure.
(I should start off by explaining my experience with Hamlet. I've seen quite a number of versions of the play, and am well aware of the continuing controversies over how to play the prince. I have certainly never seen a version where I went along with everything in the interpretation. So about a year ago I pulled out the family Shakespeare and read through the thing myself, with my own authorial eye toward reconciling the mood swings. To my own satisfaction, I did. This story, of course, is a pastiche, but it follows the arc I found.)
Bernardo and Horatio are on the night watch when they spy a spirit walking the battlements - a spirit who looks much like the recently deceased and well-beloved King of Denmark, now succeeded by his brother, who has also married the late king's wife. The sentinels go to Hamlet, son of the dead man, a friend of their own age, and a dark-haired Bruce Wayne type in a land of blonds. It gets Hamlet thinking, which is his main interest in life.
Hamlet sits with his uncle, the new king, and his mother. King Claudius always wears dark leather, even in relaxation, while Queen Gertrude wears creamy lace; a greater contrast could not be imagined. The King tries to get Hamlet out of his foul mood, but Hamlet is a typical college student, all dark cynicism to start with, against all authority to start with. He's dissatisfied with the world in general, and has the rich kid's luxury to be so. "Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…!" And now his father may be a ghost, whose flesh has melted. The darkness and strangeness of his vision keeps drawing him away from the tawdry lights of court, into his mind…
Laertes, a more forthright youth, leaves the court with his father, Polonius's, blessing. Polonius also advises his daughter Ophelia to pull back from Hamlet, because, as a prince, he's out of her league. But she shows no signs of obeying. She's not a rebel like Hamlet but she aspires to be Hamlet‘s girl.
The next night Hamlet, Horatio, and Bernardo stand watch at midnight, and see the spirit return. Hamlet chases after it and has a private conversation with it, as his friends somehow lose track of them. The Ghost says he was murdered by his brother, the new king, and his wife, Hamlet's mother. He calls upon Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet swears dramatically to avenge his father's death, and lightning flashes above them. However, Hamlet's flaw is that he lives in a world of the mind. Actual action means commitment, a choice, and he prefers the endless ambivalence of thought.
Shaking off his two friends as they finally find him, Hamlet stalks the dark halls of the castle, making fantastic, blood-thirsty plans for revenge (in his mind). But when he finds himself near his mother's apartments, he is balked by his love for her. "It cannot be truth, that she is involved," he tells himself, "so I must wait and watch, to learn the truth." And then he hears the harsh sounds of animal lust beyond her closed door. This is all too real for an abstractionist to take in. He stumbles onward, and runs into Yorick, the Jester (visually, a mediæval Joker, with the distinctive Joker face; but as a character, something very different). The Jester, more clever and quick than Hamlet, worms the story out of him, and then advises him that if he wants to watch without being seen to be watching, he should emulate a jester - be a fool, and so be ignored. This is something Hamlet can do: avoid real action by letting his fertile mind run riot, while telling himself that he is acting. The Jester thus becomes his spiritual advisor, easing on the way he really wants to go.
Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to Paris to find out what Hamlet when he visited there. He wants tales of debauchery he can lay before his daughter to head off her love affair. But then Ophelia comes and says Hamlet's acting very strangely, which may make things simpler. Polonius encourages her doubts and unease.
Word of Hamlet's new weirdness gets to the King. That worthy calls in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's boyhood companions, and has them check on Hamlet's state of mind. This is what Hamlet has been waiting for: action involving the mind. So he plays the madman very convincingly. But in the larger context of Denmark, this is not good news for the King, because Fortinbras, the King of Norway, is making noises about attacking Denmark, and the King might need the Prince. There are many swirling clouds in the palace's atmosphere.
Polonius tells the King and Queen that Hamlet has gone mad out of frustrated love for Ophelia.
Hamlet comes in being a smart-ass, which he can do under the guise of madness. He manages to take a few sharp swipes at the King and Queen without, he thinks, incurring any risk. But as his mother, the Queen can see through Hamlet pretty well - better than her new husband, who was merely an uncle. She loves her son, but she fears him now, too. What is it that has driven him mad? He loved his father, and he doesn't understand the ways of the older generation. She talks with him privately, to gauge if he's a threat, and though he parries her, he realizes he's not as slick as he thought. And he knows directly confronting the King and Queen is a dangerous thing. He leaves, wondering furiously if his big plan is doomed to failure like so many of his plans.
Alone in a deserted turret of the castle, Hamlet calls himself a coward and berates himself. The Jester comes and talks with him, advising him to take his adoption of a false persona a step farther. If he, Hamlet, can't make himself act, why not "become" a man dedicated to action? "They'll still know who I am," complains Hamlet. Then why not wear a mask? Something designed to show those who encounter you that you're no one to be trifled with? Something to strike fear in their hearts! At that moment, a bat flies through the turret window. And so is born…the idea for the Bat-man.
But Hamlet still doesn't do anything. "To be the Bat, or not to be…"
The King has had his men keep an eye on Hamlet, and they report that the Jester has been seen whispering in his ear. The Jester is seized and taken to the torture chamber in the castle's depths. The King grills him mercilessly, but through all the excruciating and increasing agony, Yorick refuses to divulge what he and the prince discussed - and so the Jester is murdered. Because he was a friend of Hamlet's, his body is dropped into quicklime to quickly burn away the flesh, before being disposed of by night in an unmarked grave.
Hamlet soon learns of the Jester's fate; it's a small world inside the castle. And finally - finally - he decides to become the Batman. He goes to the battlements and kneels where he met the ghost. "I swear by the spirit of my father to avenge his death by spending the rest of my life warring upon his murderers!"
It is a liberating thing for him, as the Jester prophesied. He enjoys creating the mask and the cape. He enjoys running free over the moonlit rooftops of the castle grounds, convinced his ghostly father is watching him. He revels in the superstitious fear he inspires in the night watch who see him. And then he finds Bernardo foully murdered, like his father.
In his new persona as an action hero, Hamlet is sure it has to do with Bernardo having witnessed and alerted him to the ghost. Thus, Horatio is also in danger, and the Bat-man runs directly to Horatio's apartments. He surprises two assassins there to kill his friend, and throws himself into combat, without thinking, without wanting to think but just act. He battles the assassins tooth and nail until they fall to their death through the windows. But, afraid that his friend will recognize him despite the mask, the Bat-man will not linger. He warns Horatio to stay on his guard, and he is gone. He makes his way back to his deserted tower and hides his Bat-costume behind a loose stone in the battlements there.
But he hates to do that, because the Bat-man, Prince of Denmark, is finally fully alive.
Comic industry legend Steve Englehart has written everything from Captain America to the Justice League to the Avengers to one of the first unofficial Marvel/DC crossovers. You can pick up a full copy of The Tragedy of Batman, Prince of Denmark should you run into him at conventions. His most recent novel, The Plain Man, was published in 2011 by Tor Books.
Unrelated top image from 2008's Batman #682 by Grant Morrison, Lee Garbett, and Trevor Scott. Second image from Detective Comics #620 by Norm Breyfogle. Second middle image from Batman #200 by Mike Friedrich. Third middle image via the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths animated film. Bottom image by Dick Giordano from 1998's Batman: Dark Knight of the Round Table. Hat tip to CBR.