The Case For Watching Riverdale; more than just “eye candy”, the show is a celebration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet
B.A.H, BEd, English Honours Specialist
I am a high school English teacher with a passion for teaching Hamlet and watching the CW’s teen show Riverdale is my guilty pleasure; I wholeheartedly and shamelessly admit it. I confess that when I began watching Season 1, it was because I was longing for the comic book characters of my youth. I grew up in the 80s and the 90s; there were no iPhones, no social media and if you wanted to watch your favourite show on television, you were at the mercy of the network’s programming schedule. Consequently, for light hearted amusement, we pre-teens and teens voraciously devoured Archie comics. The comics weren’t laugh out loud funny, but they were colourful and entertaining and Betty and Veronica were style mavens with the most fashionable outfits (especially the wealthy Veronica Lodge, who was by far, my favourite character). Therefore, when the show Riverdale premiered in 2017, I felt I needed to give it a chance. My first observation was that the casting was impeccable; the characters were like live versions of the comic book personalities and some were even more aesthetically pleasing than their inspirations. It was so delightful to see a re-creation of “Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe” and “Riverdale High”, Archie’s jalopy, and the list goes on. The TV series, unlike the comics, is dark and ominous. The clever choice to include 80s and 90s icons such as Beverly Hills 90210’s Luke Perry, who sadly passed away in 2019, and Molly Ringwald, the ultimate 80s Teen Queen, had older viewers like myself tuning in for a weekly dose of nostalgia. What stood out to me most, however, was how surprisingly literary and Shakespearean the show actually was; I urge you to consider the following Hamlet connections before you dismiss Riverdale as mindless fluff.
Archie Andrews portrays a modern-day, American version of the moody, Renaissance man, Prince Hamlet of Denmark. Archie, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is multi-talented; he is charming, handsome, a gifted musician and also Riverdale’s Star Athlete. Early on in the series, Archie, sadly, finds himself in a similar position to Hamlet after his altruistic father is shot and injured by “The Black Hood”, Riverdale’s terrifying antagonist. Consequently, Archie feels the pressure and responsibility to exact vengeance on the enemy to honour his father and to purge Riverdale from evil and corruption, but such a task feels unnatural to him. Substitute the murdered Hamlet Senior for the injured Fred Andrews and the “rotting” Denmark for the crumbling town of Riverdale, and it plays like a parallel universe. Moreover, Archie shares Hamlet’s hamartia or error in judgement; he is unable to act with reason or translate thought into agency and when he does act, he acts rashly and goes too far. Archie, like Hamlet, has difficulty balancing emotion with reason. Riverdale’s favourite redhead is sensitive and vulnerable and experiences deep psychological pain, much like Prince Hamlet does. Archie communicates his suffering to his best friend, Jughead, Archie’s Horatio, if you will. Jughead is also the storyteller of Riverdale; he expertly narrates each episode where he speaks, at length, about legacy and the viewer sees how legacy connects to language. Horatio may not narrate the Hamlet play, but he becomes the bearer of Hamlet’s legacy, and his character reveals the power the storyteller holds.
Additionally, it is worth noting that Riverdale cleverly uses symbolism to convey prominent connections to the Hamlet tragedy. For example, The serpent on Jughead’s tattoo symbolically wears a crown for several reasons, the most obvious being that Jughead is known for wearing a crown shaped hat in the original comics and a crown shaped beanie in the TV show. Jughead’s serpent tattoo also signifies his membership to the South Side Serpents, a gang in the new Riverdale. The connection? In Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the perturbed Hamlet,“The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” (Shakespeare 1.5. 39–40). Claudius, Hamlet’s Uncle, is the evil serpent who metaphorically stung his innocent brother, Hamlet Senior, by poisoning him. The theme of evil as well as Biblical allusion is evident in both cases; Denmark and Riverdale can each be viewed as a “Lost Eden” by the characters who are disillusioned by the surrounding filth, crime and corruption. Another noteworthy and symbolic example is the Sisters of Quiet Mercy Abbey in the show and its connection to the dramatic Nunnery Scene in Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet. One interpretation of Shakespeare’s Nunnery Scene is that Ophelia should go to a convent to repent her sins and for protection from all the “arrant knaves” (Shakespeare 3.1.129) or harmful men in her life who are using and abusing her. Another interpretation is that Hamlet feels Ophelia is a sinner- an impure, seductive and lecherous whore- who ignorantly destroys men like himself. The word “nunnery” (Shakespeare 3.1.121), in Shakespeare’s play, has two possible meanings- convent and brothel. In Riverdale, some characters are unjustly punished for their perceived sexual misdemeanors and are sent, against their will and under the guise of protection, to the Sisters of Quiet Mercy, a frightening place which specializes in “conversion therapy”. At one point in show, Hiram Lodge even mentions how he might be the town’s despicable antagonist, but that he would never use his power to turn the Sisters of Quiet Mercy convent into a brothel asserting that he still has some hint of a moral compass. Only people familiar with Shakespeare’s controversial and misogynistic scene, where Hamlet repeatedly and angrily tells Ophelia to “Go thy ways to a nunnery” (Shakespreare 3.1 130), would recognize Hiram’s deliberate literary reference and the two possible meanings associated with the word “nunnery”, ripe with innuendo, ambiguity and most likely cruelty.
Furthermore, Riverdale quotes directly from Shakespeare on many occasions. Gertrude’s famous line, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Shakespeare 3.2 226) is used when the students are accusing each other of foul play in a clever Breakfast Club inspired detention episode. Another memorable moment occurs when Veronica defies her controlling father and says, “Something is rotten” (Shakespeare 1.4 90) in reference to his criminal activities and sins, which are destroying Riverdale, much like how King Claudius’s sins are ruining Denmark. Even the title of select episodes draw from Shakespeare. “Dog Day Afternoon” connects to Hamlet’s famous line, “The cat will mew and dog will have his day” ( Shakespeare 5.1 285 ); Hamlet might be viewed as the underdog, but he develops new confidence and resolve on his journey, much like Veronica, who thinks she can outplay her antagonists. In addition, one character quotes Hamlet’s infamous “To Be Or Not To Be” speech and says, “There is a realm beyond this mortal coil” (Shakespeare 3.1 67) in reference to her newfound spiritual beliefs. And finally, Jughead playfully says Horatio’s famous line to Archie, “Goodnight, Sweet Prince” (Shakespeare 5.2 351) in a touching bonding moment between the two close friends.
Moreover, Riverdale is self- reflexive in many ways and there is a meta aspect to it, which cleverly employs Shakespeare’s use of the “play within a play” convention to mirror the main story and to provide insight in a self- aware way. In one of my favourite episodes, the students perform the musical Heathers and the song “Beautiful” is brilliantly used to convey how the Riverdale teens all long for the past, an idealized time where life was simpler and they were younger and carefree. Hamlet’s memories of Denmark, when his noble father was alive and King, were his happiest moments as well. In both cases, theatre is a powerful medium and Hamlet’s “Mousetrap” play as well as the First Player’s speech about the Trojan War reveal how transformative the theatre experience can be and how it has the power to evoke emotion, influence action and change lives.
Riverdale is so much more than it appears on the surface and as an English teacher, it can be exciting to reference and use clips from the show as an example of the relevance of Shakespeare and its effect on popular culture. Certainly, the more one knows about Classical Theatre, the more one can appreciate the hidden depth of a show like Riverdale, which also makes reference to Greek Theatre and other famous Shakespearean works. One episode title “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” draws literally and thematically from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” and in the episode called “Strange Bedfellows”, the title is taken from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Students who are studying the Classics today will begin to pick up on these pop culture references once they know to look for them. One of my students noticed that Principal Featherhead’s body was treated in a similar way to Polonius’s rotting, malodorous body and another student acknowledged that the word “chalice” ( Shakespeare 4.7 161), a Shakespearean word for goblet, was used in that same episode. Cheryl Blossom has a manipulative evil Uncle named Claudius, which several students connected to the evil Uncle Claudius in the Hamlet play. Thus, I applaud Riverdale’s creators and writers for their creativity, risk-taking and for giving this Shakespeare enthusiast some thoughtful escapism and a new avenue into Classic Literature.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. Canada: HBJ, 1988
Jodi Nathanson received her degrees from Queen’s University and currently works as a high school English teacher at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.