‘NAH, I’m not that bothered about doing Hamlet. He’s always seemed a bit of a moaner to me.”

There’s not much you can object to about James McAvoy – currently playing Cyrano De Bergerac, screen avatar for writers like Ian McEwan, Irvine Welsh and Stan Lee. And going by recent reports, still well up for Scottish independence.

But as to James’s opinion on the Prince of Denmark … well, I’m afraid it’s jaiskets aff.

It’s not that McAvoy is anti-Shakespeare. In 2013, he played a muscular, macho Macbeth in grimy combat gear, set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland. In his interviews this week, James reports being jealous of his X-Men co-stars, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, as they perpetrated a “Macbeth-off” on the studio lot trading lines from memory. And McAvoy does commit to playing King Lear when he’s 100: “If I’m playing someone on their deathbed, I want to at least feel nearer to it.”

But I think James will eventually revise his dismissal of Hamlet as “a bit of a moaner.” Lines and scenes from the play have been rising to my mind over the last few tumultuous years. And the character himself seems more contemporary and recognisable than ever.

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Shakespeare’s work in general, swirling with the pains of losing intimates to disease, can mesh easily with our Covid era. Plague was gripping Elizabethan England at the end of the 16th century. Five years before Hamlet was written (1599-1601), his son Hamnet had died from plague. The overlap of the names is striking.

As Elizabeth Schafer writes in The Conversation: “The play is obsessed with fathers and sons, and how to navigate mourning a father’s death. It is full of speeches about grief and attempts to move on after loss. Hamlet is not alone in this as Ophelia and Laertes also suffer from unresolved grief in the play.”

So maybe there’s something real to moan about, in both our own and Shakespeare’s realities. Yet what James may be referring to is Hamlet’s legendary indecisiveness.

The prince is gripped by a passion to avenge the murder of his father, but is frustratingly unable to execute this task. Hamlet instead keeps dropping into those famous soliloquies (“to be or not to be?”), where he deeply questions the worth of his actions, and his own self.

I don’t know about you, but reading these sections summons up a very relatable feeling, one I’ve often felt in the depths of lockdown and quarantine. What is the point and purpose of my life so far, as I contemplate yet another morning mirror? And what is to come in the future, as the virus mutates to evade our defenses (or doesn’t)?

“We defy augury,” replies Hamlet from the ages. Meaning, try not to freak out about what’s to come. “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis

not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Let be. Those lines are probably the best injunction to “chill out”, mid-pandemic, that you could find.

Hamlet’s indecisive “moaning” – his extreme self-consciousness about his intent, and how that looks to the world – might be anchored in another historical reality, persisting across the ages. There is indeed “something rotten in the state” (of Denmark, in this case). And that is the experience of living under permanent surveillance.

There’s a miasma of spying in Hamlet: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius and Polonius are all spying on the prince, others are quietly spying on others. The entire cast is “living in fear because they know they are being watched”, as Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster put it in their excellent essay, The Hamlet Doctrine.

The National: James McAvoy’s dismissal of the Prince of Denmark may need revisedJames McAvoy’s dismissal of the Prince of Denmark may need revised

AS Critchley and Webster note, questions of security and control have always been an undercurrent to the play. Not just in terms of the police state that was the Elizabethan era, but for later regimes too. “During the time of the Cold War, in countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, Hamlet was not seen as some existential drama of indecision in a world of bourgeois anomie”, they write, “but as an allegory of life in a totalitarian regime”.

“Hamlet was famously performed as something between tragedy and absurdist farce in 1978 at the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague, where Vaclav Havel started as a stagehand. In this interpretation, Polonius [Hamlet’s aged advisor] has the key role as spymaster general.”

Flash to the present. Aren’t we currently a little anxious at the tracing and tracking of our movements, our biology and our general status, by states assuming new powers under Covid?

Under these new systems of monitoring, justified by health and security concerns, we are increasingly becoming dividuals, not individuals. And Hamlet is the great poet of feeling divided within oneself. We should listen to him carefully, and anew.

Let’s extend the parallel. The tech giants are currently inviting us to enter their virtual and synthetic worlds, the “metaverses” of Facebook and Microsoft. But under what terms? And how susceptible to their psychological strategies will we be?

Hamlet even has a cautionary line for that. “O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell [or VR glasses!] and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

My final pitch for the modernity and relevance of Hamlet comes from his famous affinity with clowns and fools. This might also cast light upon a person who can seem like several of Shakespeare’s characters chucked in a blender: Boris Johnson.

This political clown may well fall because of his hypocrisy, frivolity and nastiness; his grotesque cavorting and capering about, during a time of collective death. If so, then the scene where Hamlet addresses the skull of Yorick (another clown) is spookily up to the minute: “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?”

Elsewhere, Hamlet instructs the actors in his own play: “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”. Otherwise, they’ll play up to the more “barren spectators” for laughs – which will mean avoiding the “necessary questions” of the play. “That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”

In other words: be not careless with your Jimmy-Savile-referencing dead-cat manoeuvres. Pitiful ambition, indeed. For an amoralist like Johnson, the idea that (as Hamlet puts it) “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” could be a line for his new business card.

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So Hamlet may indeed be a moaner – but his particular moan is one that, to my mind, we still emit ourselves, 600 years later. To wit: how is it that we can know the world so broadly and deeply, be so fully informed across all our many devices and services – yet not act appropriately or effectively to remedy our dire situation?

There may be something properly tragic here at the heart of things: a “certain convocation of politic worms”, as the chief moaner puts it.

In the face of information-overload, maybe we need a degree of illusion (as if you lived in the early days of a better nation?) to be able to act at all. And yet knowing we rest our hopes on illusion could eat away at our mood, subvert our intent, make us lethargic and melancholy.

Maybe the play is all too painfully modern. Hamlet as a teenage hacker in Glasgow, holding Assange and Snowden-like ambitions, but with all the willpower and focus of a drugged rat? Maybe that’s a cool enough setting to change Mr McAvoy’s mind.