“Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?”
Hamlet, it must be said, is not a well-made play. The elaborate plot is redundant, inconsistent, and full of holes. The most basic principle of narrative — “show, don’t tell” — is constantly violated. We are told a great deal about the characters. Worse, what we are told often contradicts what we know about them from their actions. The play’s language makes a near-fetish of self-indulgence, discarding the plot at the drop of a hat to pursue both poetic flights and linguistic quibbles as ends in themselves. And draped over the whole is the figure of Hamlet, that petulant, sulking, brooding prince who seems to have been born with no purpose but to die.
Remarkably, it was not until 1948 that the first Hamlet of the sound era appeared —Laurence Olivier’s cut-down noir version. In 1964 a Broadway production starring Richard Burton was filmed, giving viewers a near-complete version of the play on film for the first time. Since 1980, Hamlet has been done a number of times, both on television and as a film, and nine different versions are currently available on home video. They are:
- The 1948 version by Olivier, drastically cut, almost in half, worth seeing as “Olivier’s Hamlet” rather than Hamlet. The film, which features music by William Walton, is self-consciously dark, primitive, and austere, reflecting the “high church” aesthetic of the time, largely established by T. S. Eliot.1
- A 1964 live performance, directed by Sir John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton (right), giving us the full play in a crudely shot and miked black and white version. (Oddly, the play was filmed without costumes or sets, but with a live audience, making it look rather like a cross between Hamletand Waiting for Godot.)
- A 1981 televised performance from the BBC starring Derek Jacobi, giving nearly all the text and a slightly post-modern production.
- A 1990 televised performance of the Joseph Papp Shakespeare Festival production, directed by and starring Kevin Kline, a “Hamlet for Americans,” with a slightly trimmed text and mostly American accents.
- A 1990 film version, starring Mel Gibson, with Glenn Close as Gertrude and Alan Bates as Claudius. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who made a splash twenty years before with a very sixties Romeo and Juliet. The Zeffirelli version is more cinematic than Olivier’s but makes many of the same cuts. This is definitely the most cinematic of the three Hamlet “movies,” and well worth seeing, even though it’s too short, and even if, like me, you’re not happy about spending your money on Mel Gibson.
- A 1996 film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, a lavish, all-star, full-text version that survives director Branagh’s cleverness and an intrusive, unsubtle score that is equal parts Masterpiece Theatre, Merchant-Ivory, and M-G-M — all glorious trumpets and soaring violins.
- A 2000 version filmed for television, directed by and starring Campbell Scott, set, for some reason in post-Civil War America (sort of), that holds up well for the first three acts but struggles awkwardly during the last two. (Extensive use of the dreaded “tinkly piano” on the soundtrack was a second dealbreaker for me.) Scott’s film is further handicapped by the use of Blair Brown as Gertrude, so old she looks like Hamlet’s grandmother rather than his mother, and Jamey Sheridan as Claudius, whose laid-back, TV voice simply doesn’t project in the way necessary to create a Shakespearean personality.2
- A 2000 film starring Ethan Hawke and directed by Michael Almereyda, a serious, and seriously unsuccessful, attempt to re-imagine the play.
- A 2002 televised performance directed by Peter Brook and starring Adrian Lester, a minimalist, multi-cultural version featuring a largely non-Western cast that has its moments but is too reduced in length to have much impact.
Looking at all nine, one can only conclude that the best course is to let Hamlet speak for himself, within reason. The full play stretches for close to four hours, almost twice the length of Macbeth. In part because we’re likely to know the plot, Hamlet can be cut by half an hour with virtually no real losses, and some very real improvements. Getting it to three hours is tough. There’s so much texture, so much incidental richness, to Hamlet that a “tight” version that “plays well,” as people like to say, loses more than it gains. Get it below three hours, and you don’t really have Hamlet any more.
Prologue to the omen
Hamlet begins, of course, in the dark and the mist and the cold, with two guards shouting at one another.3 Eventually, things get sorted out and we’re introduced to Horatio, out to chase a ghost with Marcellus and Bernardo. The ghost shows, of old Hamlet, Denmark’s dead king, but then disappears without speaking.
As a stage device, the ghost proves remarkably difficult to handle. One would think that it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a decent ghost, but nothing really works in any of the nine versions. Olivier and Sir John give us stage trickery instead of a real actor, which doesn’t work too well, but when we do get a flesh and blood actor, strutting about in a suit of armor that must weigh fifty pounds, as in the Jacobi and Kline versions, that doesn’t work too well either. Whether stage or film, the ghost appears either too spectral or too solid. It’s hard to say why. Frankly, I think this is one case where Steven Spielberg could show the intellectuals how it’s done.
Horatio fears, that “in the gross and scope of my opinion” — an example of the constant doubling of both nouns, adjectives, and verbs that runs through the play — the appearance of the ghost “bodes some strange eruption to our state” and he cites the spirits who “did squeak and jibber” prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar as example, one of the rhetorical flourishes that is often cut from the opening scene.4
There’s an awkward shift in the conversation to allow Shakespeare to start filling in some back story. Marcellus asks a question of Horatio that Horatio, newly arrived, should be asking of him, a laborious poetical flourish that consumes ten lines to inquire why Denmark seems to be preparing for war. Horatio replies with equally labored lines about “young Fortinbras,” a distant and unlikely heir to Denmark’s throne, who appears intent on improving his chances by conquest.
Shakespeare pushes the clumsy subplot involving Fortinbras through the entire play without once bringing it to life. One can only guess that Shakespeare intended to set up Fortinbras as a complement to Hamlet — the man of action who finishes the work Hamlet has began by restoring Denmark to wholesome rule.5 In fact, the Fortinbras subplot is an awkward failure. Fortinbras has no dramatic weight in the play — he scarcely appears until the action is over. The Olivier, Zeffirelli, and Brooks versions strip out all mention of him, which is not a bad idea, except that it costs us Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy — the least of the four, it’s true, but still worth having. Of the directors that keep Fortinbras as a character, only Branagh and Jacobi include these initial lines.
Fortunately, the ghost reappears, to shut off this flood of exposition. The three chase it off again. “It was about to speak, when the cock crew,” remarks Barnabus pithily, provoking elegant elaboration from both Horatio and Marcellus, on the power that roosters as heralds of the dawn, possess over spirits — language that, again is often removed. Horatio gives a final flourish, an apostrophe to morning itself —
But, look, the dawn, in russet mantle clad
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill6
while announcing his intention of acquainting young Hamlet with what they have seen.
To reason most absurd
After this introduction, Shakespeare makes us wait 65 lines into Scene II before introducing Hamlet. We meet Claudius instead, the new king, providing more back story, first on the death of old Hamlet and his own assumption of the crown and marriage with Hamlet’s widow Gertrude, followed by more information on the faceoff with Fortinbras, which is, of course, omitted by Olivier, Zefirelli, and Brook.
One downside of dropping the Fortinbras subplot is that it reduces Claudius’ stage time — we don’t get to see him as the masterful “big man,” always eager to show his mettle, until the second half of the play. The twoStar Trek II: The Next Generation fans reading this piece will be glad to know that Patrick Stewart has a great time as Claudius in the Jacobi version (right). Rather surprisingly, Broadway singing star Alfred Drake also makes a good Claudius, in the 1964 Burton/Gielgud collaboration, a bantam cock Claudius who’s always on, always ready to dominate the scene.7 Jacobi himself does a good job as Claudius in the Branagh’s 1996 version.
Claudius dispenses with the business of Fortinbras’ challenge and Laertes’ departure with an easy, masterful hand before coming to the real issue at court, Hamlet’s sulky refusal to let bygones be bygones and join the party. Your father’s dead! Your mother’s remarried! Get over it!
But Hamlet, of course, won’t get over it. In his best Holden Caulfield mode, Hamlet is infinitely disdainful of the phonies of the court (and, of course, infinitely proud of his own “humility.”) Let them pretend to grieve. He is grief. Their words of consolation are in fact insults, attempts to drag him down to their level.8
Hamlet’s alienation is such a classic example of adolescent despair that it’s impossible to believe that he’s thirty, a “fact” that Shakespeare forces on us in the fifth act, in a most improbable manner, when the gravedigger tells us that he’s been digging graves for thirty years, ever since that memorable day that old Hamlet overcame Fortinbras, killing him in single combat, the day that, coincidentally enough, young Hamlet was born.9
It’s impossible to guess what agenda Shakespeare had in making Hamlet so old. (Perhaps Richard Burbage, the actor who first played Hamlet, refused to play young?) In any event, it doesn’t work. Hamlet is the classic alienated youth, determined to “turn aside and brood on love’s bitter mysteries” regardless of what the grown-ups tell him to do.10
The major Hamlets are Olivier, Burton, Jacobi, Kline, and Branagh (right). Olivier gives us a repressed and depressed Hamlet, with frequent Freudian touches. In responding to both Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet is proud but evasive, rather than confrontational. Olivier does most, but not all, of Hamlet’s soliloquies in voiceover, giving in to a temptation to exploit the advantages of film that doesn’t pay off. A great deal of acting is done through the physical act of speaking — seeing and hearing an actor “think” his lines is not at all the same as seeing and hearing him speak them.
Burton’s performance has a strong angry young man flavor — his delivery of the line “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems'” seems intended to take Gertrude’s head off. Burton goes over the top with some regularity, and he uses a supremely irritating stage laugh with depressing frequency (He actually seems to think it’s funny. None of the other eight feel any need to snicker.) Still, Burton declaims the lines — which were, after all, written to be declaimed — with a rhetorical vigor that none of the other performances can match.
I found Jacobi’s performance to be often shrill. He delivers the same speech to Gertrude (“‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother”) with heavy sarcasm, and sarcasm, which is concealed emotion, hardly fits a speech that proclaims an honesty of emotion and utter lack of pretence — though Hamlet is frequently — in fact, constantly — sarcastic later in the play.
In comparison with these three, Kline (right) underplays the role. He tends to begin the soliloquies in a heavy whisper — this is definitely “TV acting” — and one feels that these masterpieces deserve more energy. He’s very ill-served by the decision to conclude all four soliloquies with close-ups of a single tear trickling down poor Hamlet’s cheek. We don’t need to see Hamlet cry to know that he’s upset.
Branagh brings a stage presence to the role, reminiscent of a toned-down Burton, that’s very welcome. When he sticks to the script as an actor, instead of trying to improve on it as a director, he does a nice job.
Once the king and court depart to do some serious drinking,11 Hamlet is left alone to give us the first soliloquy, which contains the essential dilemma of the play. Why live — how is it possible to live — in a world without meaning? A world in which everything you believed in, everything that gave life meaning, can be replaced, and is replaced, with its exact opposite, and no one cares?
For that is what has happened to Hamlet. His father, “so excellent a king,” has been silently replaced by a drunken satyr, whom his mother loves as much as her old husband, and no one gives a damn.12 No one even notices. Out with old, in with the new! Change is the only constant, after all. But Hamlet will not change. He will be the rock upon which the cold stream breaks.
Hamlet’s predicament is one that frequently occurred to adolescents of Shakespeare’s time. Sudden death was common, and remarriages, urged on by economic necessity, happened very quickly. But this simple predicament is not the one that Shakespeare gives us.
The back story for Hamlet creates problems that can never be resolved, only ignored.
In the first place, Hamlet — whether he is twenty or thirty — should be king, not Claudius.13 Not until late in the play does Hamlet even suggest that he should be king rather than Claudius, expressing his resentment to Horatio though no one else.
Secondly, it is more than hard to believe that any mother would rather see her brother-in-law king than her son. Thirdly, although in Shakespeare’s time the marriage of a woman with her brother in law was considered incest, within the play only Hamlet (and his father’s ghost) believe it to be so.
What Shakespeare has done — consciously or unconsciously — is create a play with two realities, Hamlet’s (which, against all odds, is the “real reality”) and the court’s reality. As Shakespeare presents Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius to us, it’s as if Claudius has always been king, and Gertrude has always been his queen, and Polonius their faithful advisor. They always work in perfect harmony. No one in the court except Hamlet is aware of any discontinuity, and Hamlet’s endless expressions of contempt for Claudius as a drunken, lecherous oaf are entirely at odds with Claudius as Shakespeare presents him. We see Claudius as a brisk, shrewd man of affairs, a much better king, one would suspect, than the dreamy, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory Prince Hamlet, so proud of the fact that he isn’t “ordinary,” that he sees so much more deeply than anyone else.
It would be possible, if one were willing to surrender all of Shakespeare’s language, to create a “surreal Hamlet” that would be more consistent with Shakespeare’s vision than the play he actually wrote. In this Hamlet, Hamlet would wake up one morning and go downstairs to breakfast to find his mother at the table with another man, with no word of explanation. And no one would see this “false husband and false father” as anyone but Hamlet’s true father. There would be no “objective” grounds for Hamlet’s despair — no dead father and no remarried mother. The disconnect between Hamlet’s reality and everyday reality would be complete: either his mother had disposed of his father, replaced him with another man, and then somehow engineered a perfect conspiracy to deny that her crimes had even happened, or Hamlet is mad.
The primrose path
After the soliloquy, we are reacquainted with Laertes, getting ready to leave, and we meet Ophelia for the first time. Poor fragile, alluring Ophelia! So hard to play! Almost impossible! Olivier’s Ophelia — Jean Simmons, at the start of her career — looks at times like someone’s girlfriend, an awkward, pretty girl who doesn’t quite know what to do with herself on stage. Linda Marsh, the Ophelia in the Gielgud/Burton production, doesn’t make much of an impact, and Diane Venora, in the Papp production, is too naturalistic. She gives us Ophelia’s distress through physical agony, which simply doesn’t combine with Shakespeare’s poetry. You don’t speak in iambic pentameter when you’re writhing in pain.
Not to keep you in suspense, but it’s Lalla Ward, in the Jacobi version, who does the best job. She looks a little Bo-Peepish when we first see her, which may or may not be “period,”14 but she has a charming overbite and handles her lines well.15
After Ophelia and Laertes (right, in the Branagh production) enjoy an affectionate brotherly-sisterly chat on the dangers of the primrose path of dalliance, we get our first real look at Polonius, giving Laertes the benefit of his advice — “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” This famous speech on how a gentleman makes his way in the world — str8 outa da Nicomachean Ethics — is really “too good” for Polonius, but also too good to cut. Shakespeare wrote over the head of his character, whom he portrays in the rest of the play as a compulsive windbag and near-buffoon, so that we end up with two Poloniuses — Polonius the Aristotelian Sage of the Golden Mean and Polonius the Boring Old Fart, the dude who never gets it.
Both characters make nice “opposites” to Hamlet — the play is full of them. Hamlet, though he may admire the Stoic temperament, is not a man of moderation and self-control, but a creature of extremes. He lives entirely without calculation, shifting fluidly from blazing rage to absolute self-abnegation. When it comes to words, of course, Hamlet is the master, and, like Shakespeare himself, a little too impatient with those who can’t keep up.16
Once Laertes departs, Polonius has some more worldly wisdom, rather smutty and vulgar this time around, regarding Hamlet’s attentions to Ophelia. A young man only wants one thing from a girl, after all. Keep your legs together, honey, and you’ll fetch me a better price.
Toys of desperation
By the end of Scene III, Shakespeare finally has all his ducks in a row and we’re ready to meet the ghost. This famous scene is full of both frenzied action and poetic tangents and flourishes that often impede the flow of the action. Most of the versions make some cuts — Hamlet’s extended discussion, before the ghost appears, of the “vicious mole of nature” is a frequent victim, as is Horatio’s inexplicable elaboration on the cliff “that beetles o’er his base into the sea” as a natural site for losing one’s reason. The ghost, once he gets Hamlet alone, proves similarly talkative, and we often lose his description of what would be Hamlet’s reaction to his tales of Purgatory, if only he were allowed to relate them.17
When the ghost appears, Shakespeare struggles to introduce an idea that never really takes hold — that the ghost, far from being the spirit of Hamlet’s father, might be a demon from Hell. It doesn’t work, because Hamlet trusts the ghost absolutely and so do we.18 Everything the ghost tells Hamlet confirms Hamlet’s deepest suspicions (“O my prophetic soul!”). Hamlet and the ghost see everything through the same eyes. They are the only two characters who regard the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude as incestuous, the only two who see Claudius as a drunken, lecherous oaf instead of the shrewd, competent chief executive that we and everyone else observe. Shakespeare never attempts to resolve these discontinuities. In fact, he doesn’t want to: Hamlet is supposed to be living in a reality that is different from that of the rest of the cast. The fact that it “doesn’t make sense” is a problem that Shakespeare chooses to ignore. He knows what he wants, and he goes after it, with small regard for details. The best is the enemy of the good, after all. Rehearsals start Friday! Let’s get this thing on the stage!
The ghost scene, which reads well on the page, proves very hard to stage. Shouting and exposition — whether the ghost is actually that of Hamlet’s father or a malicious demon — are hard to do together. Hamlet is required to stagger about the stage,19 shout passionate poetry, and suggest to us that, when he tells Horatio that he may choose to put on his famous “antic disposition,” he might really be mad, though we never feel that Hamlet descends to the merely irrational.
Campbell Scott’s staging of this scene works the best. In the others, the cast rarely convinces us that they are as frightened and confused as they would have us believe. Branagh wastes all the resources of film with elaborate sequences showing the earth cracking and smoking (when the ghost speaks from beneath the ground).20 Scott convinces us that Hamlet’s words really are “wild and whirling” — that Horatio and Marcellus do doubt his sanity. And perhaps the ghost has unhinged him.
The scene ends with one of the crushing couplets with which Shakespeare dots the play (“The time is out of joint — O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right”), perhaps to sum up the action for those who couldn’t quite make it through all the metaphors. In the realistic medium of film these tend to hit with an awful bang, particularly when they rely on reversed word order to get their rhyme (as in Claudius’ “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below, / Words without thoughts never to heaven go”).21
Wild, wanton, and usual slips
To bring us down from this thunder, Shakespeare next gives a very dispensable scene, Polonius and his “man” Reynaldo. Shakespeare stoops to some very easy laughs here, which Hume Cronyn, Polonius in the Gielguld/Burton production, is happy to take. Some directors omit this scene entirely, a wise choice. Branagh, who keeps it, dives lower than Shakespeare. When Polonius gives Reynaldo permission to suggest that Laertes has been “drabbing” (frequenting whores), we discover that the old man has been doing a little drabbing of his own, and that (naturally) he treats the poor girl with contempt. Roscoe Lee Browne, in the Scott production, is probably the best Polonius. Browne keeps a constant grip on his mighty, Shakespearean voice, and never gets stentorian on our asses. Nor does he reach for his laughs the way Cronyn does. It’s impossible to play Polonius as a consistent character, because Shakespeare didn’t write him that way, but Browne comes the closest.
This scene done, Ophelia enters, with her report of Hamlet’s unstable state, his face “Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other.” Polonius’s quick diagnosis, “This is the very ecstasy of love,” is half on the mark and half off. Polonius departs to inform the king, and we shift to Claudius and Gertrude in conference with Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern, being enlisted to do what Polonius will soon be doing, spying on Hamlet. This scene is also often omitted, in part because so many people who see Hamlet already know the story. The two sports depart as Polonius enters, followed by Voltemand and Cornelius, the two ambassadors from Norway, bringing more exposition related to the Fortinbras subplot. Most productions either shorten their parts or omit them entirely, because the real business at hand is Polonius’s news regarding Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. Polonius suggests that they use Ophelia as bait “…I’ll loose my daughter to him,/ Be you and I behind an arras then.” Of course, this will happen, but when Hamlet shows, Polonius can’t wait and rushes forward to make the encounter himself.
This is our first taste of the “mad” Hamlet, and the occasion for more easy laughs at Polonius’s expense. (Burton and Cronyn, two supreme hams, squeeze it for every one they can get.) The old man departs before Hamlet’s witty ridicule can grow too tiresome, to be replaced by two more targets, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (right,in the Almeyreda film). The two are generally portrayed as second-rate mountebanks, which is reasonable enough, but why would Hamlet ever be friends with such hustlers? As for so many of the questions in Hamlet, there’s no real answer. Shakespeare wanted to surround Hamlet with a pair of vulgarians whom he can never quite escape. And it’s so unfair, because he’s so much better than they are!
His conversation with the two allows Hamlet to launch a near soliloquy (“What a piece of work is a man”), which is followed by the news of the arrival of the players, provoking an avalanche of theatrical in-jokes, which must have been hilarious to Shakespeare and about three of his drinking buddies.22 Rosencrantz, speaking entirely out of character, provides a ton of witty exposition, almost a match for Hamlet himself. Polonius comes rushing in with the news about the players, allowing Shakespeare to use him as a stand-in for the classic theatrical “civilian” — the dude in the crowd who laughs at all the bad jokes and misses all the good ones.
As much modesty as cunning
The arrival of the players is used in most of the film versions as an occasion for standard Renaissance frivolity — tumblers, jugglers, fire-eaters, etc. — the sort of in-your-face mugging that allows actors to express the hostility they feel for their audiences. Olivier, rather amazingly, omits the players entirely, and thus loses Hamlet’s “O what a peasant slave and rogue am I” soliloquy, which is scarcely a step down from “To be or not to be” itself.
Once the players are assembled, Hamlet lets loose a stream of theatrical in-jokes of his own, addressing a boy actor as “your ladyship” — in Elizabethan theatre, women’s roles were all acted by boys, a tradition respected in the English productions, but not in the American ones — material that is often cut. Hamlet then demands a speech regarding the “rugged Pyrrhus,” “Roasted in wrath and fire, / And thus o’er-sized with coagulate gore,” which can be taken as a parody of other Elizabethan playwrights or of Shakespeare himself, since some of the language in Hamlet is scarcely less restrained.23
Once the “first player” takes over, Polonius (below, in the Mel Gibson film) functions as the loud-mouthed square in the crowd, who steps on the actors’ lines, who lacks the patience for “art” (“he’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps” sneers Hamlet), but infallibly likes whatever’s bad (the infamous “mobled queen”).
The actor moves both himself and his audience to tears, testimony to uncanny power of art. Shakespeare can’t, or at least, doesn’t resist letting Hamlet “explain” the theatre: “they are the abstract and brief chronicles of their time.” In fact, it’s a statement that is strikingly not true of Shakespeare himself. No one reads Shakespeare to find out what life was like in Elizabethan England.
Once Hamlet gets everyone packing (“Now I am alone”), Hamlet begins his ever-fascinating exploration of the relationship of art and nature, of the maddening power of art to be far more “real” than nature and yet at the same time “nothing” — “It is not monstrous that this player here, / But in a fiction, in a dream of passion.”24 The player creates a perfect reality out of nothing, but Hamlet, who is bursting with “reality,” with “passion,” can create nothing. He denounces himself, and then denounces his denunciation — “Must like a whore unpack my heart with words, / And fall a-cursing like a very drab” — the vicious circle in which he will spin for most of the play. The devices he will contrive to fulfill his purpose — the play within a play to catch the conscience of the king, his decision to spare Claudius because he is praying — are, as he is always at least half-aware, at least half-intended to feed and maintain his irresolution rather than conclude it.
Once Hamlet is done, we have another set-up scene, often heavily cut, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report on Hamlet’s condition and encourage Claudius and Gertrude to attend the players’ performance. Once R&G depart, Claudius and Polonius set about arranging their own performance, setting Ophelia on Hamlet while they watch behind one of the ever-convenient arrases that seem to hang on every wall in Elsinore.25 Polonius, almost as much a stage manager as Hamlet himself, hands Ophelia a book to read, saying
“That show of such an exercise may color
Your loneliness. We are oft to blame in this —
‘Tis too much proved — that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The Devil himself.”
The point of this homily is to prompt an aside from Claudius, who for the first time lets us know that he really is guilty of the old king’s murder (just in case we were wondering).26 These lines are often cut, largely because everyone “knows” Claudius is guilty already.
The rest shall keep as they are
Hamlet enters, and before Ophelia can catch his attention delivers his most famous speech of all, which has a few inconsistencies with what has come before. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet had expressed regret that “the almighty had fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” But the “To be or not to be” speech, entirely devoted to the question of suicide, makes no reference to the Christian prohibition. As for “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” Hamlet has just met such a traveler, his father, whose report, explicitly confirming the Christian version of the afterlife (actually, the Catholic, since the ghost says he’s coming from Purgatory), implicitly warns against suicide.
Hamlet makes a rather sudden swerve at the end of the speech, remarking how enterprises of great pitch and moment lose the name of action because we think about them too much. Overthinking is Hamlet’s great concern, of course, but if life really isn’t worth living, if life is nothing but injustice, the endless triumph of the unworthy over patient merit, as he here argues, then there are no enterprises of great pitch and moment. We would be out of it if we could, except for the fear that we would find ourselves in something worse.
Ophelia arrives at a time when Hamlet is clearly not in a mood for female companionship. When dealing with Polonius and R&G, Hamlet’s “antic disposition” seems to be little more than bad manners and rudeness, often used for the very theatrical purpose of catching laughs. With Ophelia, he simply applies no check to his emotions, letting his fear of her innocent sexuality explode with extraordinary eloquence and heat. Harlots, at least, are honest sluts; innocence, being infinitely deceitful, is infinitely more damnable.
None of the performances, it seems to me, allow Ophelia’s noble half-line “I was the more deceived” carry the weight it should, counterbalancing all of Hamlet’s abuse. It’s very difficult to watch Hamlet pound away at Ophelia, and several of the productions try to let us know that Hamlet doesn’t really mean it, but in fact Shakespeare doesn’t give us any reason to feel that he doesn’t mean it. Burton’s “angry young man” portrayal fits the play very well. The one way of “softening” Hamlet’s character here is to show him as “desperate,” desperately pushing Ophelia away from him, but the anger is so deep in his language that it would be unfair to Shakespeare’s presentation to make Hamlet seem very sympathetic here.27
Ophelia’s exclamations of woe after Hamlet leaves — “Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, / Like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh” — move the play towards abstractness. It’s difficult to believe that Hamlet was ever “The glass of fashion and the mould of form,” the ideal courtier, an elegant young man perfectly in control of himself. Surely he was always “different.” Again, Shakespeare is giving us back story that doesn’t fit.
Ophelia’s part here is difficult to play, in part because chaste modesty in maidens is scarcely the fashion these days.28 Too many of the actresses fall into the “naturalistic fallacy,” howling with pain, which makes Ophelia seem almost as hysterical as Hamlet.29 Lalla Ward, in the Jacobi version, does the best job of acting “through the poetry.”30
Once both Hamlet and Ophelia leave, Claudius and Polonius come out from behind the arras.31 Whatever the motivation for Hamlet’s behavior, Claudius wants him out of town. Shakespeare could have made it clear at this point that Claudius had already decided to have Hamlet killed, and it certainly would have made it easier for us in the audience to accept Hamlet’s eventual murder of Polonius and R&G if Claudius had made them explicit accomplices to his intended crime.
A robustious periwig-pated fellow
Once Claudius and Polonius depart, it’s night time and we have Hamlet talking shop with the players.32 Everyone keeps the bit about “trippingly on the tongue,” but only Branagh includes the whole thing, including the advice to the clowns to stick to the damn script and not try to crack each other up. Most versions do keep Hamlet’s bit about the purpose of playing: “to hold as ‘twere a mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” — language that tracks both what Hamlet has previously said about actors (“they are the abstract and brief chronicles of their time”) and what Ophelia has said about Hamlet (“the mold of form and the glass of fashion”). One gets the impression that Shakespeare was both sentimental about “players” — in their sweet, unknowing way, they give an image and definition to reality that the rest of us cannot approach33— and impatient with them, for so often relying on cheap theatrical tricks and falling short of the ideal he sets for them.
When he’s done with the players, Hamlet links up with Horatio, to lay plans for observing Claudius’s reactions to “The Mouse-Trap,”34 a play that exactly parallels Claudius’ crimes. Hamlet also takes the occasion to launch yet another of his near-soliloquies, an encomium to Horatio’s Stoic, “Roman” character — “A man that Fortune’s35 buffets and rewards / Hast ta’en with equal thanks.” The Stoic ideal, so often proclaimed by Shakespeare throughout his works, has little to do with Hamlet, who certainly does not take Fortune’s buffets “with equal thanks,” but is thrown into despair by them, and complains loudly. The mood of Hamlet is heavily, though not entirely, Christian, entirely apart from the explicitly theological issues that are raised (and then discarded). Rather than being “above” suffering, Christians embrace it as the one necessary thing, as even their delight. Hamlet suffers loudly (and inflicts a great deal of suffering on others), while Ophelia suffers uncomplainingly. This mood is brought to completion, of course, in King Lear, where all of the sympathetic characters are outcasts, poor, naked wretches with no defenses other than their goodness, their self-willed helplessness.36
Once the squares arrive — Claudius, Polonius, and R&G, along with Gertrude and Ophelia — Hamlet reverts to his bitchy mode, mechanically rude and evasive. One wonders what Shakespeare’s intent was in making Hamlet so harsh in these scenes. When Hamlet gulls Polonius into recounting his career as an actor — “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ the Capitol; Brutus killed me” and Hamlet replies “It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there” — what is the point of giving Hamlet such a groaner? Is Hamlet reaching or is Shakespeare? Are we supposed to find Hamlet funny? Are we expected to identify and pity the pain beneath?
The play within a play sequence is quite complex, as our attention shifts back and forth between the players and Hamlet’s endless wisecracks at their expense (and at Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s).37 Branagh, who presents the scene in full, with both the dumb show38 “Mouse Trap” and the spoken version, uses the resources of film to cut back and forth, to catch Hamlet’s bitter asides and give them force without disrupting the flow of the scene. In the Gielguld/Burton version, Burton has to shout out all his lines (so the back rows can hear him), which makes Hamlet come across as a loud boor instead of a sulking one. However, Branagh loses some of the points he’s gained by making the royal theater ridiculously extravagant.
The spoken version of the “Mouse Trap” runs on and on, in not terribly entertaining heroic couplets. Shakespeare, it seems, simply couldn’t shut up. Everyone except Branagh makes some cuts, and the only line that really counts is Gertrude’s “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
Noise so rude
For most of the “Mouse Trap” Hamlet seems more unstable than Claudius, but finally the king gets it, demanding “Give me some light!” and rushing away. Somehow, none of the versions I’ve seen make this fluid, perhaps because Shakespeare doesn’t show us Claudius in the process of getting it. Instead, we have Hamlet compulsively explaining the plot — “You shall see anon how the murthurer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.”39
Once Claudius departs, R&G arrive to summon Hamlet for an interview with Gertrude (Polonius, of course, will be listening to their conversation). Hamlet engages them in some extended quibbling, often reduced in length, before working himself up into his famous outburst regarding the recorders — “do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe!” Polonius shows up as well for a final round of abuse before going off on his final errand.
Hamlet is left alone to deliver a brief soliloquy — “‘Tis now the very witching time of night” — full of the ponderous imagery that he always uses when contemplating his confrontation with Claudius. But when Claudius himself appears, we get a sudden twist: the damned, incestuous, smiling villain is as conflicted and guilt-ridden as Hamlet himself!
This is tough to bring off, because the Claudius we’re given here bears almost no resemblance to the swaggering, controlling big man we’ve seen before. Bruce Myers, in the Peter Brook version, does the best job, giving us a slow, pensive Claudius, ruminating over the wickedness of the world, and the nature of guilt and repentance.40 Hamlet, slipping up behind the king, matches his concern for theological niceties by refusing to murder his enemy while at prayer. After all, you’re just sending him to heaven, and what kind of revenge is that?41 Hamlet, we see, remains all show and no go when it comes to revenge, and all his bloody talk is mere compensation.
The scene that follows — Hamlet’s interview with his mother — provides a remarkable contrast. Throughout the play, Hamlet is never able to confront Claudius. When speaking to him, he falls back on quibbles, evasions, and sarcastic asides. He never looks the dude in the eye. When speaking about Claudius, Hamlet resorts to stilted, repetitious hyperbole.42 But when Hamlet confronts Gertrude (or Ophelia) he never has a problem saying exactly what is on his mind.
Shakespeare creates much of the tension and aggression of this famous scene by having Hamlet and Gertrude turn each other’s words back on one another:
“Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”
“Mother, thou hast my father much offended.”
“Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.”
“Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.”
“How is it with you, lady?”
“Alas, how is it with you,
That do bend your eye on vacancy,
And with the incorporeal air do hold discourse?”
Hamlet, in his furious assault on Claudius’ (and Gertrude’s) character, always avoids the particulars of the matter. Though he comes over and over to the brink of accusing Claudius of murdering his father, he always steps back. Though he accuses of Gertrude of living “In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty,” he never accuses her of incest, which, if it were true, would be true regardless of Claudius’s character and conduct. (And if it is true, why is Hamlet the only one who thinks so?)
There’s remarkably little justification for the fevered picture Hamlet gives of Claudius’s and Gertrude’s marriage (to which he has obviously given considerable thought43 ) since we never see Claudius — or Gertrude, for that matter — behaving lecherously.44 They are, in fact, a remarkably stable, loving, trusting couple. Although Gertrude seems, to her terror, to accept what Hamlet is telling her as “truth” — “O Hamlet, speak no more! / Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct” — as soon as Hamlet leaves her she confesses everything to Claudius (everything except the suggestion that Claudius murdered old Hamlet) and dismisses all of Hamlet’s deeds and words as madness. Poor Polonius, that “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” becomes “the good old man.” After her brief, hectic scene with Hamlet, Gertrude again becomes Claudius’s unquestioning partner in ruling Denmark (though of course she does not know that Claudius is in fact plotting Hamlet’s murder).45
Unsurprisingly, the portrayal of Gertrude’s and Hamlet’s relationship has been much influenced by Freudian psychology. When we first meet them, both the Olivier and the Papp/Kline version show Gertrude kissing Hamlet on the mouth to cheer him up, and in their collision here Kline, Gibson, and Jacobi all get more than a little physical with mama. (In fact, both Mel and Derek climb on top and start humping her.) But the electricity all runs one way. Hamlet is obsessed with Gertrude’s sexuality, but she isn’t obsessed with his. As far as we can tell, she wants to settle down, marry Ophelia, and start giving her grandchildren.
The scenes that follow involve a great deal of rushing around to get Hamlet out of Denmark, with Hamlet making a lot of unfunny wisecracks about worms. All of the production’s except Branagh’s make cuts and condensations, and wisely so, as Shakespeare’s wit is definitely stuck in second gear, to the point that one even feels sorry for R&G as they struggle to get some sense out of Hamlet.
Eventually, Hamlet does ship for England, running into Fortinbras and his army, out to smite the sledded Polack,46 which leads to Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy, a rather forced meditation on the manner in which trivial issues, once inflated by considerations of “honor,” become matters of infinite worth.47 Hamlet’s “point,” that if two armies are willing to die for a contrived cause, he should be willing to do so for a real one, gets a bit muddied, because at times he seems to imply that dying for a “fantasy and trick of fame” is as honorable as dying to avenge one’s father. Hamlet’s conclusion, “O, from this time forth, / let my thoughts be bloody, or nothing worth,” is typical of the forced rhetoric he uses when describing his “thirst” for vengeance.48 Shakespeare, one feels, is as conflicted about Hamlet’s appetite for revenge as Hamlet is himself.
Nothing sure, but much unhappily
With Hamlet offstage, we turn to Ophelia’s “mad” scenes, very difficult to bring off. Lalla Ward, Jacobi’s Ophelia, again does a good job, but here it’s Jean Simmons, in the Olivier film, who turns in the best performance. Simmons had the vocal training and musicianship to make even me like Renaissance music, which is saying something, and she sings as much of the part as possible, to excellent effect. Otherwise, most of Ophelia’s “bawdy” snatches don’t make much sense. She’s mad, after all, because her father’s dead, not because she’s been seduced and abandoned.49 But Simmons is able to show us Ophelia floating off into her own world in a believable manner. It’s the music, rather than the words, that do the job.
With her great lines “Come, my coach! Good night, ladies, good night. Sweet ladies, good night, good night” Ophelia drifts off, to be replaced by Laertes’ spontaneous fury, showing us what a “real” appetite for revenge looks like. Here also Claudius begins to show his real craft. He’s not just a charmer and a back-slapper, but can manage in the face of adversity. He manages to control Laertes even after Ophelia reappears. With Gertrude absent, Claudius begins to reveal Hamlet’s secret fate. When he learns that Hamlet is, unfortunately, still alive, he cleverly involves Laertes in an elaborate plot to murder Hamlet by poison and stealth.50 Gertrude then appears to give a further edge to Laertes’ rage with the news that Ophelia has committed suicide.51
Act V begins with two clowns in a graveyard, a bit that is often cut, and wisely so, because here Shakespeare proves that clowns can be a bore even if they do stick to the script. Most versions begin with the “First Clown” singing to himself and tossing skulls around as Hamlet and Horatio approach.
Even in the shortened version, the gravedigger/clown’s part is probably the greatest temptation to overacting in the western canon. Stanley Holloway, Olivier’s clown,52 does a nice job, but I have to take off my cap and my codpiece to Billy Crystal, who more or less steals the show from all the “guest stars” in Branagh’s Hamlet.53
Confronted with these “Et in Arcadia ego” reminders of the brief and passing nature of life, Hamlet indulges in an orgy of whimsy, much of it not terribly entertaining and often cut, before getting down to business when he picks up poor Yorick’s skull with his famous meditation “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols?”54
Hamlet concludes his thoughts with a tiresome sneer at “my lady” — “tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.” Shakespeare, one feels, has run out of gas, and we’re glad for an interruption — Ophelia’s burial party. Once again, Shakespeare raises a theological issue, whether Ophelia as a suicide, deserves a Christian burial.55 Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare lets Laertes have the last word with the overly punctilious priest: “I tell thee, churlish priest, / A minist’ring angel shall my sister be/ When thou liest howling!”
Although Shakespeare first presented Laertes to us as Hamlet’s opposite, a swaggering hothead, Hamlet himself is quite taken with him (“a very noble youth”), and treats him with the respect he denies to everyone else in the play except Horatio. At the conclusion of their collision over Ophelia’s corpse he claims “I loved you ever,” although we’ve never seen this and, for what it’s worth, Claudius has told us that Hamlet was furiously jealous of reports of Laertes’ skill with the rapier.
They are not near my conscience
Shakespeare quiets the fury of Ophelia’s burial by following it with a long dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio, where we learn of R&G’s death, news that always leaves us with a bad taste in the mouth. Shakespeare tried to “prepare” us for this at the conclusion of Hamlet’s interview with Gertrude, when he tells her that he is leaving for England with “my two schoolfellows,/ Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged,” but, since R&G were not privy to Claudius’ plans for Hamlet’s death, Hamlet’s gruesome revenge, over which he gruesomely gloats, is hardly attractive.
Hamlet, it seems, is particularly proud of this deed because it was a deed. He finally laid aside all his planning and simply acted — “Our indiscretion sometime serves us well/ When our deep plots do pall.” Yes, but what about poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Well, some folks are just expendable. It was a learning experience for Hamlet, and that’s what counts.
There’s even more talk to follow when the “water fly” Osric arrives, bearing Laertes’ challenge. Osric, overly proud of his verbal ruffles and flourishes, draws a not very attractive volley of gibes and snickers from both Hamlet and Horatio — both too fond, to my mind, of making fun of their inferiors.56 Olivier’s version features Hammer Film favorite-to-be Peter Cushing in the role, while in the Branagh version Robin Williams manages not to embarrass himself (rather surprisingly). Most of the productions cut this scene severely, again with good reason.
When Hamlet arrives before the court to take up Laertes’ challenge, he first makes an elaborate apology to him:
Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet!
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged,
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
But before Hamlet always claimed that he wasn’t mad — “I am essentially not in madness,/ But mad in craft.” As an apology it’s a little thin.57
Aught of woe or wonder
The fencing scene is almost always an occasion for a little absurdity. Both Olivier (right) and Branagh give in to their inner Douglas Fairbanks, with predictable results.58Burton, the only one fencing “for real,” does quite a nice job, as do Jacobi and Kline. Campbell Scott clearly does not know how to fence, but he’s the only one who finishes Claudius off with the fury that Shakespeare intended, slamming his blade all the way through the “incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane.”59
Hamlet’s famous death scene, “If thou ever didst ever hold me in thy heart,/ Absent thee from felicity a while, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story,” is interrupted by the arrival of both Fortinbras and the British ambassador, who, Shakespeare feels, must arrive to tell us that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” Shakespeare clumsily ties up the Fortinbras “subplot” by having Hamlet “prophesy th’ election lights” on him, although we hardly knew that the throne of Denmark was elective.60
Many of the productions wisely delete Fortinbras’ arrival, even if they keep him in the play, and give his lines — “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,/ For he was likely, had he been put on,/ To have proved most royal” — to Horatio. Horatio can certainly speak with more authority about Hamlet than Fortinbras could, since those two never met, but the lines themselves are unconvincing. Few characters could be more unsuited to kingly authority than Hamlet, who has no role but to brood on love’s bitter mystery and the incompleteness of life. Once Hamlet overcomes his fear of death, he’s not ready to live, he’s ready to die. Having reconciled himself to death, to its inevitability, he’s done what he had to do.’
The human consciousness that places us above Nature, that is our chief delight, when turned upon itself separates us from Nature and from ourselves. What once empowered now imprisons. And this turning, from innocent self-confidence to endless self-doubting, is, nine times out of ten, the flow of those damnably cunning hormones that push us relentlessly forward to adulthood, whether we will it or no.61 For centuries, the great guide for the divided self to itself was the Bible. Hamlet, with his uncanny insights into the divided soul, strangely coupled with his thrashing attempts to act as honestly as he feels — attempts, one must say, that bring destruction to both the innocent and guilty alike — provides a second authority.
All of the productions discussed here except the Branagh are currently available on disc. The Jacobi version can be rented from Netflix but doesn’t seem to be on sale except as part of a Shakespearean tragedy set from the BBC. There is also a Soviet version of Hamlet from 1964, VHS only, floating around the Internet, and a silent version from 1920, also VHS only, starring once-famous Danish actress Asta Nielsen (above), with a sort of prologue explaining why Hamlet was really a woman. An operatic version of Hamletby Ambroise Thomas is also available. The Poor Yorick Shakespeare Catalogue hasextensive information on all Shakespeare videos. The Riverside Shakespeare is an excellent, though massive (2,057 pages), guide to the Bard, his works, and his times.
- The Internet Movie Database has an excellent “trivia” page devoted to Olivier’s Hamlet. [↩]
- An online reviewer is more upbeat: “Wow! I understand what Hamlet is saying!” [↩]
- Only Zeferelli omits this famous scene entirely. The others give us at least a taste. [↩]
- Of course, the spirits that Horatio speaks of appeared before Caesar’s murder, not after. The “strange eruption” that Horatio speaks of has in fact already occurred. [↩]
- Hamlet and Fortinbras share a quasi-Oedipal bond: they’re both named for their fathers, and Hamlet’s father killed Fortinbras’ father. [↩]
- Since we’re in Denmark in winter, the sun would be rising closer to 9 AM than 1 AM, but when Shakespeare wants the sun to come up, it comes up. [↩]
- Drake, who made his name as the male lead in Broadway classics like Oklahoma, Kiss Me, Kate,and Kismet, seems to have had a strong aversion to Hollywood, appearing in only two films, Tars and Spars (1946) and Trading Places (1983). His short stature may have been a problem, but it may have won him the job in Hamlet, for Burton, no giant, did not like to be reminded of that fact. [↩]
- The incapacity of “mere words” to soothe immediate pain was a frequent theme for Shakespeare, who was fascinated by the both the power and impotence of art. In Love’s Labor Lost, Rosaline sets the following task before her wise-cracking suitor Berowne:
Rosaline: Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit,
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.
Berowne: To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be, it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.
[Act V, scene ii, lines 851–857]
Similarly, in Much Ado About Nothing, Leontas, responding to attempts to console him on the (supposed) death of his daughter Hero, says:
I pray thee peace. I will be flesh and blood,
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have write the style of the gods,
And made a push at chance and sufferance.
[Act V, scene i, lines 34–38] [↩]
- Again, we see Shakespeare trying to link Hamlet and Fortinbras, to no avail. [↩]
- The mood, if not the plot, of Hamlet would make an excellent Kurt Cobain ditty:
“Oh, dad’s a drunk,
Mom’s a whore,
Life is shit,
I wish I were dead,
And, speaking of “The End,” Hamlet also has a lot in common with the Jim Morrison tune. [↩]
- Branagh’s handling of this scene, with what looks like literally a million pieces of confetti, is absurdly lavish. [↩]
- Hamlet’s explosive resentment of his mother, and his fear and mistrust of female sexuality in general, is the most vivid emotion of the play, and it is a theme that Shakespeare returns to again and again, in Measure for Measure, Othello, and Troilus and Cressida, for example. [↩]
- Louis XIV of France assumed personal rule with he was sixteen. [↩]
- What is Hamlet’s period? The story of “Amlothi” first appears in the Historia Danica, which came out all the way back in 1200. Olivier’s version is set in “early middle ages” and looks damned uncomfortable — draughty, dark, and cold. Other versions usually push the play into the Renaissance and beyond, to make things more colorful. [↩]
- Lalla paid the rent by appearing in God’s gift to insomniacs, that infamous, unending Brit sci-fi horror, Dr. Who. According to on-line gossip, Patrick Stewart gave her shit on the set for sinking so low as to appear in sci-fi, though I must confess that if I were to be subjected to torture by TV, I’d rather endure Star Trek than the good doctor. [↩]
- “I could have died laughing” was Mozart’s invariable response to any musician who dared deliver a less than flawless performance in the presence of the petite maestro. [↩]
- From Act I, scene v (lines 15–20):
“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars start from their spheres
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair stand an end,
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.” [↩]
- The effect that Shakespeare seems to be reaching for he achieved in Macbeth where the weird sisters, no matter how much they tell, are always holding back more. [↩]
- In a live performance it is much easier to get across the notion that the ghost’s voice is coming from “underground.” The film versions struggle with this bit and Olivier omits entirely, probably more to save time than to avoid difficulties of staging. (Apparently, no one thought to have the actors do what they do in the Burton stage version — look at the floor after the ghost speaks.) [↩]
- And while I’m bitching about rhymed couplets, may I make a few comments on Elizabethan elisions? Did anyone ever say “e’en so?” and “e’en now”, not to mention “Fie on’t! Fie!” Granted, “Fie on it! Fie!” isn’t much of an improvement, but it is an improvement. So what if we end up with an extra half foot every ten lines? Surely the number of people who can “hear” blank verse (I sure can’t) is smaller than the number that gag on “on’t” and “e’en”! [↩]
- At the time Hamlet dropped, theatrical troupes using child actors in all the roles were very big in London, much to the irritation to Bill and the gang at the Globe. Shakespeare somehow makes Elsinore a suburb to London to make it all fit, sort of. Only Branagh keeps Shakespeare’s text here in its entirety, which is barely intelligible even with a chapter of footnotes. [↩]
- From Act III, scene ii (lines 388–390):
“‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood,” [↩]
- The great antagonists over the role of art in civilization are, of course, Shakespeare and Plato. Get cracking! [↩]
- It is at this point when Hamlet 2000, which has been wavering between “interesting” and “silly,” goes entirely off the rails. Polonius (Bill Murray) puts a wire on Ophelia (Julia Styles), which Hamlet of course discovers. He berates her furiously and stalks off to his glass-and-steel eyrie, which is naturally bursting with cutting-edge video equipment (“Yeah, I’m a prince, but what I really want to do is direct”). Ophelia, burning with guilt, peddles her bicycle over to her hip loft/photography studio and the film settles down into a conventional kids-R-kwel/old folks-R-shit groove. Shakespeare wrote that play, but he called it Romeo and Juliet. [↩]
- Claudius, or rather Shakespeare, makes recourse to the too-predictable metaphor of “The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art.” For a man of the theater, Bill had an awfully hard time getting past makeup. [↩]
- Hamlet’s furious excoriation of girlish behavior — “God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance” — (as though these were the worst sins on earth) is a classic example of Shakespeare’s enormous suspicion of female sexuality, very reminiscent of Hamlet’s set-to with his mother and Othello’s final scene with Desdemona (“Put out the light, and then put out the light”). Not until Antony and Cleopatra would Shakespeare give a sympathetic portrait of women as sexual beings. [↩]
- Absurdly, Branagh gives us a flashback showing Hamlet and Ophelia in the hay, looking like a Marin County couple relaxing with a decent pinot noir and some primo sansemilla. The bit seems primarily intended to show off Branagh’s surfer-dude tan and washboard abs (he wears very tight outfits throughout the film). Shakespeare, one suspects, would not have been amused. [↩]
- And a scene with two hysterical characters gets exhausting in a hurry. [↩]
- Much of Hamlet is in fact written in prose rather than verse, including Hamlet’s collision with Ophelia. Her summation, however, (“O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”) is in iambic pentameter. [↩]
- Does Hamlet know they’re there? Curiously, while several of the productions hint at this, none except Hamlet 2000 makes it explicit. What’s the point of implying that Hamlet may be aware of their presence rather than making it definite? [↩]
- It is at this point that Campbell Scott’s (right) version goes seriously awry. Scott tricks himself up in theatrical makeup — eyeliner, rouge, and lipstick — making Hamlet seem impossibly affected. Throughout the “play within a play” scene, Hamlet, with his endless wisecracks and cute remarks, comes off as a barely endurable asshole. Scott makes him unendurable. For me, Scott’s film never recovered its momentum from this point forward. [↩]
- This is pretty much how old folks feel about young ones — “It doesn’t matter that they’re silly and self-centered. They’re young and we aren’t!” [↩]
- The play, and all of its history, were apparently made up by Shakespeare, a bit of a switch since all of his plays, except Love’s Labors Lost, were adaptations of some sort. [↩]
- Poor Dame Fortune comes in for quite a bit of buffeting herself in Hamlet. Surely only a woman could be the cause of all our sufferings! [↩]
- Shakespeare was endlessly fascinated by people who “cannot” (or at least will not) express their true feelings. Hamlet will not tell his mother that he’s furious with her for marrying Claudius, and Cordelia refuses to tell Lear how much she loves him. He was also fascinated by people who play a role to express their true feelings (Hamlet’s “antic disposition”), and by those who have no defenses, who “cannot pretend” — for example, Hamlet when he pours out his rage on Ophelia, and Ophelia herself, who refuses to defend herself against his fury. Madness — the complete loss of control — is strongly associated with religious purity in Shakespeare, Ophelia and Cordelia being the classic examples. [↩]
- Shakespeare seems to be venting here, making all the cheap jokes he’d like to make during performances of other author’s lousy plays. [↩]
- The dumb show, given only in the Branagh and Jacobi versions, an invitation to extravagant and tedious mime, is eminently cuttable. It’s hard to know why Shakespeare included it in the first place. They had some great costumes? [↩]
- It’s a bit confusing that no one else even suspects that Hamlet is accusing Claudius of murdering the old king. Shakespeare seems determined to keep the knowledge of Claudius’s guilt locked up in Hamlet’s mind. Even in Hamlet’s closet scene with Gertrude he only hints at Claudius’s crime instead of accusing him outright. [↩]
- Often, Claudius’s language tracks Hamlet’s with a precision that is surely deliberate: “In the corrupted currents of this world/ Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,/ And oft ‘tis seen the prize itself/Buys out the law” is a near-perfect match for Hamlet’s “…the law’s delay,/ The insolence of office, the spurns/ That patient merit of the unworthy takes.” [↩]
- Hamlet, it must be said, is a very bad Christian. Earlier, when he greets Horatio, speaking of his father’s death, he says “Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven/ Or I had seen that day.” But Christians should want to see their dearest foe in heaven! Love thine enemies, right? Dr. Johnson, who took his Christianity both seriously and literally, lectured Hamlet on this point. [↩]
- “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!” The ghost speaks of Claudius in the same manner, furiously and repetitiously denouncing him as a drunken, lecherous oaf, although Shakespeare never shows us Claudius acting drunkenly, lecherously, or stupidly. But is Shakespeare portraying Hamlet’s confusion or reproducing his own? [↩]
- For example, he advises Gertrude not to
“Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you ravel all this matter out.” [↩]
- In the Papp/Kline production, Dava Ivey (right), perhaps the best of the nine queens, gives a very sensual performance as Gertrude, though her heat tends to be directed at Claudius rather than Hamlet. In fact, it is she rather than Claudius who appears to be sexually in charge. [↩]
- In the earlier versions of the Hamlet story from which Shakespeare worked, Hamlet wins Gertrude over to his cause. Some productions show Gertrude becoming resentful of Claudius’s commands as the play approaches its climax, but its difficult to sustain this because when Laertes comes bursting in ready to kill Claudius, Gertrude interposes herself between the two and even resists Claudius’s order to step aside. [↩]
- Fortinbras appears onstage briefly, but he and Hamlet do not meet. [↩]
- Shakespeare, who subjects this sort of thinking to withering analysis in Troilus and Cressida,here seems to endorse it. [↩]
- Branagh’s staging of the soliloquy is ridiculously overwrought, the camera furiously receding to take in the great scene all around as Hamlet bellows out the last lines. [↩]
- And, since we have a fairly low opinion of Polonius, it doesn’t seem “right” that his murder would drive Ophelia crazy. [↩]
- Before this, Horatio appears in a brief scene, often cut, reading a letter from Hamlet letting us know that he’s returned from England with “much to tell.” [↩]
- Her elaborate account, with its long detour involving nicknames for “long purples/ That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,/ But our cull-cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them,” is often cut. “Long purples” are a kind of orchid, whose root either resembles genitalia (“orchid” is derived from the Greek word for genitals) — “dog stones,” to use the liberal shepherds’ precise terminology — or fingers, as the “cull-cold [coldly embracing, or chaste] maids” would have it. [↩]
- In the fifties, Holloway would make a nice living for himself as the roguish Mr. Dolittle in the Broadway musical classic My Fair Lady. [↩]
- Crystal wisely does not give us a Jewish gravedigger, or a Sammy, but it would be nice to hear both some time. [↩]
- We’re told in this scene that Hamlet is thirty, and that Yorick has been dead twenty-three years, so that Yorick died when Hamlet was seven. And yet Hamlet says “He hath bore me on his back a thousand times.” I guess they spent a lot of time together. Branagh makes a very poor choice in showing Yorick in flashback, giving us not a witty jester but a pathetic old clown, looking painfully unfunny and, to my perhaps overly skeptical eyes at least, more than a little like a pederast. [↩]
- The two clowns, in their dialogue, suggest, no doubt accurately, that Ophelia is getting a proper burial only because she is well-born. A peasant who committed suicide would be used as an “example.” [↩]
- Hamlet spends a lot of time trying to make Osric put his hat on, but as a mere gentleman it is Osric’s duty to “uncover” before a prince. There are times when Shakespeare could be an awful snob. [↩]
- Othello’s explanation of his murder of Desdemona, that he loved “not wisely but too well” is similarly unconvincing. [↩]
- Branagh, still proud of his tan, also manages to strip to the waist. [↩]
- Hamlet’s sendoff for Gertrude — “Farewell, wretched queen” — though not as vicious, scarcely shows the forgiveness he hinted at earlier: “And when you are desirous to be blest,/ I’ll blessing beg of you.” [↩]
- And why was Claudius “elected” rather than Hamlet? Shakespeare simply ignores all the backstory that would be necessary to explain this, for the very good reason that it would be just about impossible to make it convincing. The story that Shakespeare wants to tell, and does tell, is driven by emotional power rather than logic. [↩]
- Gaining the power to create life, we become obsessed with death. What’s up with that? [↩]