Characters Inside Out: Bryan Elsley’s ‘Skins’ and William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’

There are few television programs which navigate between the inner and outer lives of their characters as well as Skins (UK). Comprised of an ensemble cast–one which renews itself every two years, no less–the program is equally well known for the graphic depiction of “teens behaving badly” as for plumbing the depths of these teens’ personal lives. We see the Skins kids from all angles, as profoundly from the outside as from the inside, their notorious outward behavior as but a release of extreme inner turmoil.

When playing toward more collectivist tendencies, Skins employs pointedly overwrought narratives of outlandish behavior. The depiction of teen sex and drug use is meant not only to shock but to tear down the audience’s expectation of “how teens are these days.” Yet this distinction is meant more abstractly than is often supposed. It would be sufficient to resolve that teens are “other than what I had previously thought,” then that they necessarily are all using drugs or hopping into bed with each as readily as shown on the show. These depictions are not meant to be taken at face value. The effect of their bad behavior is meant to show a cultural difference, though the specifics of that difference are less important than the fact of the difference itself.

The point is that the Skins kids make up their own rules–in fact, the show’s co-creator, Bryan Elsley, has often spoken words to this effect in interviews. The depiction of extreme behavior creates the effect of teens’ existing wholly apart from what one would think of as either sensible, or even “real”. The unreality of their imagined world is also a referendum on the confusion felt by real teenagers. Even if the particulars of this confusion as represented on the show aren’t real, their aesthetic effect is. The extremity shown on-screen is, if anything, not extreme enough to the emotional realities teenagers inwardly experience. As narrative device, the Skins kids’ extreme behavior has a high-minded aim: to remind the audience of the bewilderment of being young, the novelty of pleasure so easily forgotten by adults.

The show’s other notable narrative device is to tell stories that are personal to one particular character, and this from a very close perspective. These moments are much more subtle, and also more important to the overall effect of the show. As well as seeing what it is “to be a teen” we see even more profoundly what it is “to be this teen”. And the real magic of the show is that the more specific these narratives become, the more universal they are.

The peccadilloes that would comprise a specific teens’ most heightened feelings of vulnerability and oddness from the group are themselves what most endear and identify with the show’s audience. A good example of the program’s quieter moments occurs in Series 5. That the character Mini is a virgin is never stated outright, but after the audience sees her anxiety in planning to liaise with her boyfriend, how she frantically surveys a women’s magazine for the latest sexual positions, stating the facts outright becomes unnecessary.

As the Skins kids are already isolated from the world of adults through their extreme behaviors, those small moments depicting the personal behavior of individual characters are permitted even more thematic heft. They are twice removed: once through rebellion and bewilderment, and again through very human responses to their own self-imposed insularity. Youth is shown not as a series of excursions outward from the comforts of home, but as being born into a terrifying world of never-ending trouble. Yet for all the peril of youth, it is not without its joys. The Skins kids typically experience danger in solitude and find comfort in each other, with the occasional unmitigated bliss hovering between.

The transference of these two narrative modes–subtlety in personal moments, institutional drama writ large–easily hearkens back to the use of soliloquy in Shakespeare’s tragedies. The metaphysical wheedling of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech is in stark relief against the workaday practicality of his institutional dilemma. When dealing directly with his dead father’s entreaties for vengeance, Hamlet ponders mostly over the hows and whys of his situation. He must test the ghost’s veracity, then plan his vengeance, but what does Ophelia think? There is much to be done, and Hamlet’s solutions are often more nihilistic than Machiavellian. Yet his adolescent flailing comes off as downright sensible considering the impossible situation into which he has been thrown.

Hamlet attempts to reason his way through his own drama, but reason falters in contact with such blatant opportunism as displayed by his uncle, and to a lesser degree, his mother. Even his father’s lust for vengeance is cosmically opportunistic. Hamlet’s manic-depressive reaction, his stutter-step plotting, is in all ways comparable to those of the Skins kids to their own parents. Both withdraw into contemplations and explode into outward flailings; both expressions are honest in their confusion.

Hamlet asks, “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The sling and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing, end them?” The contrast is expressed in terms of “being” and “not being”, existence or annihilation. Existence is to “suffer…fortune”, while to escape “the sea of troubles” is to “take arms” against existence itself, to barrel headlong into the void. This moment parallels both the emotional flux displayed by Hamlet in terms of the play’s demands upon him, and the formal use of the plays’ transference bewtween soliloquy and dialogue.

However bombastically Hamlet speaks to others, in isolation, he is riddled with insecurity. Presented with his dilemma in full during the moment of his most famous soliloquy, he wonders whether he ought to just end it all; his confusion is both sympathetic and tragic for its sympathy. He deals with the unfolding court drama by feigning madness, by striking out at random, yet in isolation he philosophizes eloquently on whether this “sea of troubles” is even worth bothering with.

That phrase, “sea of troubles”, speaks volumes to his apartness from even his own actions when interacting with the mad world. We enter Hamlet’s mind in soliloquy, where he views the universe with a kind of half-hearted disinterest, where suicide seems a much less dramatic exit from the stage than the plotting that are its alternative.

Hamlet would have fit right in with the Skins kids; in particular, he would have found a friend in Effy, from generation 2. Both question the nature of their worlds, both grow melancholic. While one died and the other lived, one gets a sense that Effy grew into an adult equally contemplative, if slightly less withdrawn in her contemplation. Her recognition that fortune is not always so outrageous would have been inevitable, given enough time.