Introduction to Tara Moses’s Hamlet,
El Príncipe de Denmark

[print edition page number: 305]
In the bilingual Hamlet, El Príncipe de Denmark, director and adaptor Tara Moses (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Mvskoke) places the events of Hamlet in colonial Mexico during the ritual of Día de los Muertos, a context in which the appearance of the spirit of Hamlet’s father is interpreted through Indigenous frameworks. The play was first performed in 2018 by telatúlsa, a Latinx and Native theater company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The production was staged in the round at Living Arts of Tulsa as part of its annual Día de los Muertos festival, which included crafts, a screening of the film Coco, and a roundtable discussion on the decolonization of death. Audiences were encouraged to arrive at the venue early to learn about the Indigenous origins and ceremonies of Día de los Muertos and to view the altars that would become part of the performance. As Moses explains, “The play opens with three people placing ofrendas (offerings) on the altars of their loved ones, and while you are watching the actors on stage, you’re surrounded by altars built by people in our community here in Tulsa.”[1] By honoring Indigenous cultures and local communities in these ways and facilitating experiences for learning, Moses’s Hamlet participates in the decolonial, educational, co-created work common in many Borderlands Shakespeare productions.

The geographies and temporalities of Hamlet, El Príncipe de Denmark are palimpsestic and thus reflect the overlapping colonial and Indigenous legacies that shape the region. Setting Hamlet in colonial Mexico also illuminates the colonial dynamics within Shakespeare’s play and in the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands today. Tellingly, Moses revises the role of England in her adaptation. Hamlet journeys there not to be executed but to find a better life, invoking the illusion of the “American Dream” and inviting audiences to consider the complex conditions that drive migration. Fortinbras is from England, not Norway, [306] and his takeover of the “Danish” throne represents ongoing European colonialism in the Americas as well as the dominance of the Anglosphere. Moreover, in keeping with the twenty-first century politics that inform the adaptation and its initial performance, many characters speak Spanish rather than an Indigenous language. The colonial language in this context is English, and the script merges the text of Shakespeare’s play with lines from Spanish translations and contributions of Moses’s own creation.

As in many Borderlands Shakespeare plays, linguistic choices reflect the relationships among characters and the regional power dynamics that shape them. Indicating his allegiance to Mexican ways of life, the ghost of King Hamlet, for instance, refuses to speak English. When Hamlet asks the ghost to answer him, Horatio advises him to speak “[e]n su lengua” (1.4). It is only when Hamlet speaks in Spanish that the ghost tells his story and demands vengeance. Both Hamlet and Ophelia frequently speak Spanish and Spanglish, a tendency that reflects their status as hybrid colonial subjects. Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius, by contrast, speak only English, though they understand Spanish, and their linguistic choices signal their alliance with corrupt power structures. When Ophelia sees Hamlet distraught and exclaims to her father, “¡Que he tenido un susto muy grande!” Polonius responds, “With what, i’ th’ name of God? In English, child!” (2.1). Later, when Ophelia objects in Spanish to Claudius’s plan for Laertes to avenge Polonius’s death, Claudius dismisses her, saying, “Enough of this! Your words matter not!” (2.2) These exchanges suggest that speaking Spanish is improper or frivolous in this setting.

In response, Hamlet mobilizes Spanish and Spanglish as languages of resistance to such imperial domination. By speaking Spanish in the Anglocentric court and mixing Spanish and English in his performance of madness, he actively subverts the colonial power structure that insists upon a clear division between the languages of colonizer and colonized. For these reasons, Claudius refuses to recognize Hamlet when he speaks Spanish. The following example is illustrative:

How fares our cousin Hamlet?

Muy bien. Me mantengo del aire como el camaleón engorda con esperanzas. No podrás así a tus capones.

I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet. These words are not mine. (3.2) [307]

Claudius rejects Hamlet’s words not only because of the sarcastic nature of Hamlet’s comment about a chameleon fattened with hope but also because he will not countenance Spanish being spoken at his court. Hamlet’s use of Spanish thus makes his dissembling madness even more subversive and threatening.

In much the same way that the Spanish language disrupts colonial power in Moses’s play, Indigenous Mexican worldviews destabilize Shakespeare’s treatment of death and the afterlife. Hamlet objects to Claudius and Gertrude’s failure not only to adequately mourn his father’s death but also to properly observe the ritual of Día de los Muertos. In Hamlet’s mind, they have betrayed his father as well as Mexican culture and spirituality. He is outraged, for instance, when Claudius suggests that Gertrude wipe her calavera makeup off her face. Hamlet’s anger seems to stem, in part, from his own uncertainty about how to understand death. Powerfully, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy — which takes place in a mixture of English and Spanish — reflects his ambivalence about both Christian and Indigenous beliefs about the afterlife:

Ser o no ser, esa es la cuestión.
¿Cuál más digna acción del ánimo:
Sufrir los tiros penetrantes de la fortuna injusta,
U oponer las armas a este torrente de calamidades,
Y darles fin con atrevida resistencia? To die, to sleep —
No more — and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to — ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep —
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub. (3.1)

This linguistic composition of the famous speech amplifies Hamlet’s uncertainty about death, allowing space for Indigenous beliefs in which time and life are cyclical. As in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s speech suggests the potential for something after death — it is not a Christian afterlife in this case, however, but the return of the spirits associated with Día de los Muertos.

Moses’s treatment of Ophelia’s death also reflects these Indigenous traditions, as she remains an active participant in the play even after she has died. It is King Hamlet who guides Ophelia to the spirit world, beckoning her with “Es hora, mi niña,” as she attempts to paint her face as a calavera one last time (4.3). Ophelia’s spirit returns in the graveyard scene in which Hamlet responds to her recent death. She hands Hamlet a skull for him to contemplate, and she observes as Hamlet and Laertes fight in her grave, wondering at their inability to understand that death is not final. She asks the ghost of King Hamlet about [308] their behavior, inquiring, “Ellos no entienden, ¿verdad?,” to which he responds, “No entienden” (5.1). What they do not understand is that both Ophelia and King Hamlet inhabit an Indigenous afterlife — a recognition that would potentially alter Hamlet’s perception of their deaths.

This emphasis on the wisdom of the spirit world is especially prominent in the play’s conclusion. The spirits of King Hamlet and Ophelia are present for the final duel, as they “perch on either side of the stage awaiting what is to come” (5.2). Although Fortinbras will treat the bodies, as Horatio remarks, “[i]n your Christian ways unlike ours,” Hamlet ultimately enters an Indigenous Mexican afterlife (5.2). While music plays, King Hamlet helps him get up and walk off stage. “¿Entiendes ahora?” he asks Hamlet (5.2). Hamlet thus completes his spiritual journey as he is guided into the afterlife by his father. Like Hamlet, audience members and readers are left with a reverence for Indigenous beliefs and lifeways.

— Katherine Gillen, Adrianna M. Santos, and Kathryn Vomero Santos

  1. James D. Watts, Jr., “Arts Scene: First Friday Hosts Art Market After Dark; Beethoven Gets Exposed,” Tulsa World, October 28, 2018,