Michael Jurgensmeier English 3510 Ace Pilkington 3/20/13 Sons of Anarchy: Hamlet on Harleys “A true outlaw finds the balance

between the passion in his heart and the reason in his mind. The outcome is the balance might and right.” – Sons of Anarchy “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet As the highest rated show in the history of Fox media’s FX network, Sons of Anarchy has cemented itself a loyal following amongst its fans. While seemingly violent and based on what has become a staple of American pop-culture, that being the romanticism of a ruthless, freedomloving biker gang, interestingly Sons of Anarchy is fueled less on general stereotypes of leatherclad criminals and their Harley motorcycles, but rather the show seems more grounded and centered on the treachery, betrayal and dark secrets of a very dysfunctional family. It’s with this mindset of having a television show about bikers that deals less with a group of men traveling cross-country, committing crimes and partaking in debauchery and more with the power struggle of a prominent family/organization in a small community that it’s interesting to hear show creator/writer/producer Kurt Sutter explain how Sons of Anarchy is a re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Sutter writes in his blog, “As far as potential shit I may actually steal from Shakespeare, it comes down to themes. I will definitely continue to play out the ghost of Hamlet's father theme, the conflicted son theme and the plotting mother theme. As well as some

others. And there may even be a few narrative lifts from the Shakespearean playbook as well.”
(Sutter)

While it seems more than obvious that Sutter’s take on Hamlet is indeed a loose interpretation, however a person would be surprised to find how many similarities there are between Shakespeare’s play and Sutter’s evening soap-opera. The most obvious connection that can be made regarding Hamlet and SOA is, as I have already stated, the depth of the plot. Rather than having a show about bikers that simply cruise from one town to the next causing mayhem, which has been the norm for biker films, television shows and novels in the past, Sons of Anarchy is a story about a family, not only in the literal sense, but also a figurative family brought together by a motorcycle gang, or club as it is referred to in the show. Television critic Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone magazine defines what makes Sons of Anarchy so compelling in his review of the show published last year, “The most spectacularly violent moment on Sons of Anarchy all year has no bikes, no guns, not even blood – just a conversation between a boy and his mother. Jax, the blond baby-face biker-gang leader, is plotting revenge against his stepdad, Clay. So he sends matriarch Gemma as a honey trap to get the dirt on her estranged husband, slipping back into his bed until "the dirty secrets start to flow." He doesn't pull a gun on his mama; he doesn't have to. It's pure black-leather Hamlet. And it sums up Sons of Anarchy: The emotional brutality is so horrific, the head-bashing almost comes as a relief.” (Sheffield 24) Hamlet is a story about the prince of Denmark. The play opens with Hamlet’s protagonist, whose name is Hamlet, discovering his father has recently died under mysterious circumstances. As a result Hamlet begins to unravel the secrets of his uncle, Claudius, who has

taken the thrown from Hamlet’s father. Meanwhile, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, has since married Claudius after the death of her husband. Sons of Anarchy is the story about a young man who is the vice-president of a biker club. The series begins with the protagonist, a young man named Jax, beginning to question the death of his father, John Teller, who was the co-founder of the biker club along with Jax’s current step-father, a man named Clay. Clay, who has become the sole leader of the biker club since Teller’s death, has married Teller’s widow and Jax’s mother, a woman named Gemma. Basically those are the two plot-lines of Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy, thereby showing the reimagining of Shakespeare’s play by Sutter. However, it doesn’t end there. One of the more creative connections Sons of Anarchy makes to Hamlet is its version of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. In Hamlet, Hamlet is informed about his father’s ghost through the account of the ghost given by his friends; eventually he confronts the ghost alone and is given a description of Hamlet’s father’s death involving a poisoning by Claudius. Jax does not simply encounter his father’s ghost, or a ghost claiming to be his father rather, instead Jax stumbles across a large journal that was seemingly written by John Teller before his death. It’s through his father’s writings that Jax begins to unravel the truth behind his father’s death; much like Hamlet began to understand how his father actually died. The characters in Sons of Anarchy, upon discovering that Jax has found his father’s writings, actual refer to the journal as “the ghost of John Teller”, thereby making the connection even more clear. Also, just as Hamlet begins to question the believability of his father’s ghost, Jax also begins to question wither or not his father’s journal is in fact written by his father and wither or not he can actually trust his father’s point of view regarding what happened to him. Jax is filled with so much doubt that in one scene he tosses the journal into a makeshift bonfire outside his home, only to quickly retrieve the journal from the flames slightly singed.

One of the most obvious connections Sons of Anarchy has with Hamlet is bike club leader, Clay and his counterpart Claudius. Despite the obvious nature of both of their names, as well their marriages to Hamlet and Jax’s mothers, Clay behaves much like Claudius. In an attempt to constantly be rid of Hamlet, Claudius orders the deaths of Hamlet only to have the wrong people murdered while Hamlet continues to live. Clay, just like Claudius, is constantly ordering the death of Jax, only to find that those close to Jax are killed instead, including Jax’s best friend Opie, who is the counterpart to Hamlet’s friend Hartio, and the attempted, unsuccessful attempt to kill Jax’s girlfriend Tara, who is very similar to Hamlet’s Ophelia. Clay, like Claudius, is also very brutal, mean and basically a villain character, which is the opposite of John Teller, who, like Hamlet’s father, was remembered as a great, peaceful leader. The theme regarding incest that is hinted at in Hamlet is also present in Sons of Anarchy. The theme of incest in Hamlet, in Sons of Anarchy as well, is Hamlet’s feelings towards his mother marrying his uncle, which isn’t technically incest, but in a way, sort of. In Hamlet, there is a hotly debated notion that Hamlet is in love with and desires to have sexual intercourse with his own mother. Again, this is debated among Shakespeare scholars. In Sons of Anarchy, Jax almost has sexual relation with his half-sister that he didn’t know existed. It is a very loose connection, but it’s there nonetheless. Of course Sons of Anarchy doesn’t follow the plot line to Hamlet to perfection. As I have previously mentioned, Jax’s friend Opie dies, while Hamlet’s friend Hartio survives the play, while Ophelia dies in Hamlet, Tara, seven seasons into the television series, is still very much alive. While there is some debate about Ophelia’s true feelings towards Hamlet, there is no doubt that Tara is in love with Jax.

The argument can also be made that this plot-line is very common in story-telling. The revenge-plot is fairly basic with only the character specifics changing; someone important and good dies, which inspires someone who was close to the deceased to go on a truth-seeking mission and ultimate rampage against those that are guilty. With Sons of Anarchy it seems a bit more obvious that a connection is being made to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In fact the connection can even be made without the knowledge that show creator, Sutten, had planned it that way when a person considers the name similarities, the similarities in the environment the story is told in and the similarities within the depth of the plot.

Works Cited Sutter, Kurt. "Shakespeare Maybe." Kuttersblog. Kurt Sutter, 08 01 2011. Web. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. Sheffield, Rob. "Rolling Stone." Sons of Anarchy: Hamlet in Black Leather. 11 24 2012: 24. Print.