Tolstoy said, ''What a coarse, immoral, mean, and senseless work Hamlet is,'' but of course, Leo never saw Babes. D.H. Lawrence found Shakespeare's conception of the melancholy Dane ''repulsive...based on self-dislike and a spirit of disintegration,'' while the late, great literary critic Marvin Mudrick was even more blunt: ''Decipher Hamlet and he turns out to be a zero.''
Hamlet-as-sullen-brat is, in other words, one time-honored interpretation of the role, and that's how Kevin Kline inhabits the Prince in this highly entertaining production. In mourning his father's death, in deploring his mother's hasty new marriage, and in seducing Ophelia by moping sexily, Kline's Hamlet is an ironic, sarcastic manipulator who wouldn't be out of place in a thirtysomething subplot. Codirected by Kline and Kirk Browning, this Great Performances reproduces New York's 1990 Public Theater staging and costars Diane Venora as Ophelia, Dana Ivey as Gertrude, and Josef Sommer as a wonderfully devious, pompous Polonius.
This Hamlet benefits from the fact that Kline understands the difference between a stage production and a TV version. He scales down his expressions and gestures to accommodate the close-ups. But performing the play in modern dress is a mistake: On the blank slate of a stage, you can make the leap between Brooks Brothers suits and Shakespearean language; on TV, where modern dress is a mistake: On the blank slate of a stage, you can make the leap between Brooks Brothers suits and Shakespearean language; on TV, where modern dress prevails, this disparity is more intrusive, verging on variety-show sketch comedy.
Grading Shakespeare: Is this a great job or what? Homer Simpson is funnier than Kevin Kline, but Hamlet should, I suppose, get at least as high a grade. A