"Hamlet" should be performed with the character of Hamlet cast as the villain. To me, literally no other interpretation makes sense; the things he does, the way he behaves, are absolutely the deeds and behavior of a bad guy. Murdering an old man and then trying (and failing) to hide the body, driving an innocent girl insane for the hell of it, scheming a plot to catch his uncle making a guilty face during a play, acting wounded and hurt and yet never making any public declaration of his intentions - everything he does is either petty or outright evil. And yet every single production I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot - my dad’s a huge Shakespeare fan and "Hamlet" is his favorite play) makes Hamlet into a tragic, flawed, but protagonist figure.
And the same problem goes for Claudius, albeit in reverse. How are any of his actions explicable as a villain? After literally years, he suddenly decides to poison his brother - while the heir to the throne is in England, a country so loyal to Denmark that they unquestioningly execute two innocent people simply on the ruler’s say-so and who would most certainly, if Hamlet had contested his uncle’s legitimacy from the first, have helped the young prince raise an army. How does that make sense, coming from a man who’s allegedly so cunning and evil? He and Gertrude then get married a month later because apparently… what, Claudius has a big dick? No - the logical explanation here is that Old Hamlet was a terrible ruler, husband, and person in general, and something happened that made Claudius realize the only hope was to remove his brother and take the regency for himself until Hamlet came of age to be King. Only the people proclaimed him king, putting him in an awkward position when Hamlet returned and made no move to claim the title for himself.
And besides, the play would be so much more interesting if Hamlet were the villain - think about it! It makes all of his actions understandable, at least within a narrative frame. All those whining, unending, unendurable fucking monologues where he cries about his awful dad being dead and him not being king - they become another part of Hamlet’s act, a scheme to get anyone who may be overhearing to think that he’s a harmless lunatic when in fact he’s cooking up a scheme to get rid of his uncle. His abuse of Ophelia becomes now not a sign of how sadface the poor little prince is, but another indication of Hamlet’s own twisted ideas of loyalty and fidelity, an example of the sadistic way he treats his friends.
And other characters’ actions make more sense like this, too. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern’s decision to accept Claudius’s instructions now becomes something that is not bafflingly venal - what kind of childhood friends suddenly decide to take an innocent man to be executed just for some money? - but the act of two people who see what Hamlet has become and are prepared to go to great lengths to stop him. And Horatio becomes not the one true friend that poor little Hamlet has, but a starstruck toady blinded by the regard he’s given by the prince of the realm to see what Hamlet’s really like. Gertrude and Claudius become the guardian of a monster - how interesting would it be if Gertrude knew about the poison, and has a last-minute change of heart? The ghost of Old Hamlet could be staged as nothing more than a trick Hamlet plays on the guards and Horatio, a way to convince them to be on his side. And that last speech of Horatio’s to Fortinbras (and oh my god how awesome would Fortinbras’s plotline be if he knew about Hamlet’s villainy) would be such bitter irony, perfecly encapsulating the way that history can be written, not necessarily by the victors, but by the survivors who have the best story to tell.
To be honest, I think viewing Hamlet as a play that exists on the clearly-defined hero/villain dichotomy in any way is pretty flawed and a bit boring? Like it’s such a self-aware play as well, Hamlet knows he’s the protagonist, doesn’t necessarily think he’s the hero, etc etc etc.
I definitely like the idea of Old Hamlet being a shitty king & person like, but I definitely view Hamlet’s relationship with him as being an abusive one if that’s the case: Hamlet wants his father to think well of him, doesn’t want to acknowledge his faults. With this reading, his conflict about taking vengeance becomes even more horrible, really- the struggle of an abuse victim who won’t, or can’t, acknowledge his own abuse. Which honestly accounts for his unreliability, paranoia, mental illness, and the more horrible or immoral things he does in a much more interesting, realistic and fucking painful way than simply ‘he’s the villain’. If he was to be ‘the villain’, it wouldn’t be completely his fault, either- what the hell else is he going to do if his da’s that much of a shitehawk?
I mean this is me projecting all my problems onto Hamlet as per bloody usual but that also presupposes I know a good bit about the kind of shit I interpret him as dealing with, sooooooo.
Also Horatio isn’t a toady he’s perfect and beautiful and I love him leave him alone.