Saturday, January 17, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Olivier '48

The duel Olivier offers us is framed in two traditions. The first is stagecraft, as these are extremely well choreographed set pieces of stage fighting, done in camera by the actors, fierce and dangerous-looking exchanges. The second is the Danish tradition of the world of the play, with highly ritualistic posing before the fight begins, the cannons sounding as Claudius beckons them to, and the courtiers repeating the King's lines during the toast. The weapons are, just as the text indicates, both rapier and dagger, and it's not until the camera zooms in on the sword points, one of them unbaited, that we truly leave the framework of what's expected to enter the more dangerous and unpredictable world of the fight. Almost certainly, if the courtiers could see what we see, they wouldn't be standing so close.

It's unfortunate then that Olivier cuts out so much of Laertes' character, reducing Hamlet's opponent to a near non-entity. During Hamlet's just-as-ritualistic apology, the camera doesn't care to look at Laertes' reaction, nor does he have lines with which to respond. He and Osric look sinister as they shuffle the swords, but that is the whole of it. The speech does make his mother happy, but Claudius and Laertes are presumably so invested in their murder plot, they cannot have an honest reaction to it themselves. Fair enough. If we're talking cuts and changes, note the translation of "union" to "jewel", even though we see what Claudius drops into the cup.
Though each exchange is well done, the second fight is mostly played off camera. There is ANOTHER duel, you see, between Gertrude and Claudius, or perhaps inside Gertrude herself, between self-preservation and a mother's love. It's made clear that she figures out the cup is poisoned, her eyes (and the camera) keep going to the cup, and a sadness overwhelms her. A decision is made. She takes the cup herself, exchanging it for a handkerchief so Hamlet can wipe his brow, and drinks deep. When told not to, she smiles a fatalistic smile. The courtiers cluelessly laugh at her small act of disobedience. She has sacrificed herself for him quite consciously (small cuts allow this to happen more believably).

Before the last exchange, Laertes scratches Hamlet, which shocks everyone, and he immediately starts to back away, as if shocked himself. He is caught cheating, and judged by the assembly, and is suddenly afraid of Hamlet's reaction. Playing up the tension, Hamlet's slow dawning realization gives way to a quick disarming maneuver. No more games, no toying with the opponent, the show is over. The disarm means he can look at the tip of the sword and confirm Laertes' cheating, and when Osric calls out that the two duelists are incensed, it's all in their eyes because nothing has happened yet. The line is like a starter's pistol, and they go at it - again, a strong fight.
Laertes is defeated, the Queen dies and Claudius is revealed as the villain. At this point, the guard and Court, a fickle lot, rally behind Hamlet. Claudius has lost all power, a situation that has been growing since Hamlet went into exile, and is surrounded, trapped. Hamlet stabs him fiercely, and in his last moments, he reaches for the crown he lost in the scuffle, as if that badge of office could protect him. He dies, and the assembly is strangely frozen in space. The shock, but also a sort of fixed moment in time, speaking to the power of History, perhaps, or a skip of the clock as "time out of joint" resets to its proper rhythm. Hamlet uses that short time to sit on the throne, and the Court offers him the crown. He'll be king, finally, for all of three minutes.

His last speech is spoken from that throne, Horatio attending him. Like Laertes, the latter's part has also been shredded. This Horatio doesn't try to commit suicide and follow Hamlet. In fact, for a second, it looks like he won't even get to eulogize Hamlet properly. What actually happens is that he first gives Fortinbras' command to put the bodies on a stage, etc. - there is no Fortinbras in the film - and then comes his eulogy, and a kiss. The ever-mobile camera tracks into blackness, then follows the guards bringing Hamlet up to the top of Elsinore, lingering in each room as it does. Cannons fire, we see one or two smoking. The chapel. The Queen's closet. And finally, silhouettes going up the tower, Hamlet's final stage. Ending as it does outside Elsinore, we may understand the Ghost to be finally exorcised, if indeed it was the camera's point of view, as it often seemed.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Branagh '96

The duel is staged, as most things are in Branagh's version, in the great hall of mirrors. A long thin red carpet has been set up where the fencing action must occur. The color of blood, and the color of Hamlet's robe. Claudius usually wears red, but is here in green, as are all his attendants (not the fullest Court, but then, the country is in political upheaval), as a visual contrast. The most striking thing about the opening moments of this scene is that it is intercut with action outside Elsinore as Fortinbras' army sneaks into the palace and captures it. Poor Francisco is at the gate and is killed. Norway's army is coming. This is Branagh's device to justify Fortinbras' sudden and fortuitous arrival at the end of the play, and because it is the most ironic reading of the play (Claudius' diplomatic overtures to Norway failing and his never noticing), I've always accepted is as Shakespeare's intent, though it's not, I realize now, in the text per se.

But the way the editing underscores the invasion under Hamlet's lines of reconciliation with Laertes creates yet another irony - the arrow over his brother's house, and so on - to the point where one might get the feeling Hamlet made a deal with Fortinbras for the keys to the kingdom. Think about it. When we left him in exile, he was last seen in the company of Fortinbras' army. Fortinbras invades (why else send some war-like volleys at the English ambassador if he wasn't on a war footing), but is shocked and saddened by the royal massacre. He already knows his rights to Denmark, as does Hamlet because his final speech predicts his ascension to the throne. Did Hamlet, in fact, make Fortinbras his heir in exchange for liberating Denmark from Claudius the usurper? Is all the talk of inevitability more about Fortinbras' arrival than the English messenger's?

But returning to the duel... In any production, but in film especially, it may be important to make each of the three exchanges look and feel different. In Branagh's case, the participants, getting hot and sweaty, remove more and more protection, going from full fencing armor, then losing the mask, then the breastplate. The danger is heightened each time, while also affording us a look at the actors' faces as things get out of control. The last exchange isn't just protectionless, but gets off the carpet and uses the entire room. But this is also a skirmish of words. Hamlet in public is cocky and always trying to get laughs, no doubt part of why he's also been so popular with the people. Single-minded Laertes finds none of it funny of course, and takes everything as mockery and personal insult. And because it's all too personal for him, he's more reckless and aggressive in the fight, less strategic, and gets hit twice, then indeed, three times, and fatally. Osric, the nominal judge, takes delight in his duty - he really is just a foolish pawn, because the fact Hamlet is winning doesn't diminish his excitement - and continues even once the sword play goes out of bounds, craning his neck to get the results out to the Court.

After the second exchange, the Queen drinks the poison cup, grabbing it from Claudius who tries to tell her not to drink it, but can't reveal his treachery. She can't intuit his deceit because she offers a drink to Hamlet. She'll go back to her seat unaware, if a bit woozy. Laertes and Claudius are shocked, almost to the point of abandoning their scheme. They now share in the doubt Hamlet's been broadcasting for most of the play. By now, the army is inside the Elsinore, and the alarm cannot be given. Both outside and inside the hall, there is a sense that all is lost, but the concerned parties just don't know it. From the chaos of the last exchange, more chaos erupts. Laertes falls from the second level, the Queen swoons on the other side. Both know they have been poisoned. As attendants scurry, Osric sees the wind's direction turn, tries to take a secret door out of the hall, and is stabbed by a Norwegian soldier. His last line, spoken only a short while later, uses Robin Williams' talent for pathos, as the ridiculous man shows the "war-like volley" as blood on his hand, he too a victim of the tragedy, if not one killed by Shakespeare's own pen.
The climax's swashbuckling action is a little over the top. Hamlet throws the poisoned foil at the King and pins him to his throne, drops down from a rope while a massive chandelier swings down and smashes into Claudius. Hamlet then force-feeds him the last of the poison wine. It is important to the Prince that Claudius be killed by both his treacheries, and poison was always going to be the best poetic justice for him. It's how he killed Hamlet's father.

The usual staging for Hamlet's own death is to have Horatio holding him in his arms. Branagh's staging is a departure from that tradition. Hamlet dies alone on the floor, while Horatio stands shocked at a short distance. He can't help his friend now, and he can't share his fate. Hamlet won't let him. Because Hamlet's death, while something he expected and embraces, cannot mean the voiding of his existence. One of the things that made him delay his revenge was that he relished in his own intellect too much to risk it. So he must die, but someone must relate his story, and Horatio has been groomed to be that person. All is almost lost when he talks to sharing Hamlet's fate, and he must be shocked into dropping the cup. Hamlet will survive as a story, and in that final moment when he speaks his last through a strangled, cramped voice, it's Horatio who is the touching one, no small thanks to Nicholas Farrell's sympathetic performance.

Suddenly, Norway's soldiers crash through the glass on the second level and have the room surrounded. A cold, disaffected Fortinbras walks in, a strange performance from Rufus Sewell, rather ambiguous and unemotional. We saw him like this before, hugging his uncle Norway in a flash-sideways, where we just knew he wouldn't let Denmark go, no matter what he said. So are his words here simply platitudes, things he is expected to say in such circumstances? The English Ambassador, a cameo by Richard Attenborrough, may seem like a bit of over-casting, but the great actor lends the role weight and pathos. He seems genuinely sad that the King isn't alive to hear his macabre news. As Fortinbras takes the throne, England skulks away, lest he become the tragedy's next victim.
In the end, who rules in Denmark isn't really important. The "natural" order has already been upended (as perhaps heralded by the rise of the peasantry behind Laertes), and the last "unnatural act" of the play, as Horatio would put it, is Horatio himself taking center stage, essentially telling the new King what to do. And Fortinbras lets him command such attention. Horatio, the reluctant star, is pushed on stage by the promise he made to his friend, and that friend is carried out in a Messianic, crossed position, evoking his ascension to literary immortality.

In the film's final moments, Hamlet is given a state funeral - there was talk of also burying Gertrude and Claudius here, but the actors weren't available for it, so we get a celebrated Hamlet whose version of the story reigns victorious over the calumniated King and Queen instead - exposed and holding a sword, the action hero he never truly was. The statue of old Hamlet is taken down, shades of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, to be replaced either by Fortinbras, or by Hamlet himself, Denmark's new fallen hero. The ghost is symbolically destroyed without having to reappear to look on his works.

The credits roll under Placido Domingo singing from the Book of Proverbs, lines about the righteous man lying in peace, funereal but hopeful. This Hamlet will not walk the earth as a disturbed spirit.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

V.ii. Duel and Deaths

It's not without irony that Shakespeare's wordiest play ends on an action scene with some of the most detailed stage directions in the canon. But that makes sense. Hamlet has gone from delaying contemplation to doomed action man. In the fact Act, words give way to action, then to silence, the final stage in Denmark's ongoing entropic decay. Let's look at the text before focusing on the play's various adaptations. The Bard's words in italics, as usual, with my breaking in with commentary in normal script.

Enter KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, LAERTES, Lords, OSRIC, and Attendants with foils, & c

KING CLAUDIUS: Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me.

KING CLAUDIUS puts LAERTES' hand into HAMLET's


Notably, Laertes does not give his hand to Hamlet. The King has to do it for him, an early sign that Laertes is his puppet, if only Hamlet could pick up the clues.

HAMLET: Give me your pardon, sir: I've done you wrong;
But pardon't, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish'd
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wrong'd 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 wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o'er the house,
And hurt my brother.

A speech that must be examined in the context of each adaptation in the way it relates to the "problem" of whether or not the Prince is mad or feigning madness. Certainly, he didn't kill Polonius (nor drive Ophelia to suicide) on purpose. But can he really disculpate himself of all wrong-doing by citing mental illness? This is as much for the assembled public's sake than it is for Laertes'.

LAERTES: I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most
To my revenge: but in my terms of honour
I stand aloof; and will no reconcilement,
Till by some elder masters, of known honour,
I have a voice and precedent of peace,
To keep my name ungored. But till that time,
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it.


He plans to wrong it. Though some stagings may start to show Laertes' doubt here.

HAMLET: I embrace it freely;
And will this brother's wager frankly play.
Give us the foils. Come on.
LAERTES: Come, one for me.
HAMLET: I'll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance
Your skill shall, like a star i' the darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.
LAERTES: You mock me, sir.
HAMLET: No, by this hand.
KING CLAUDIUS: Give them the foils, young Osric. Cousin Hamlet,
You know the wager?
HAMLET: Very well, my lord
Your grace hath laid the odds o' the weaker side.
KING CLAUDIUS: I do not fear it; I have seen you both:
But since he is better'd, we have therefore odds.
LAERTES: This is too heavy, let me see another.
HAMLET: This likes me well. These foils have all a length?

They prepare to play

OSRIC: Ay, my good lord.


A choice can be made to keep Osric in the dark about the royal deception or have him in on it. Is he truly a fool, or something more sinister?

KING CLAUDIUS: Set me the stoops of wine upon that table.
If Hamlet give the first or second hit,
Or quit in answer of the third exchange,
Let all the battlements their ordnance fire:


Claudius sure likes his celebratory cannon fire. Given that Fortinbras' invasion force is bearing down on Elsinore during the duel, there's a particular irony here. Does the cannon fire actually MAKE Fortinbras' forces attack, misunderstanding its purpose? At the very least we have a false battle being fought, with the cannons aimed at the sky. Because Hamlet wins, Denmark loses. Further, Claudius is using weapons for trivial purposes, doomed to lose any military conflict coming (compare to Hamlet Sr., who represents military strength). And a third layer of irony: Claudius has concentrated his aggression inward rather than outward. The battleground ought to be outside, not inside, and this will shock Fortinbras.

The king shall drink to Hamlet's better breath;
And in the cup an union shall he throw,


The "union" is a pearl - the latin for pearl or onion, presumably for their visual similarities - is a pun. The "union" in the cup is poisoned and through that poison, Claudius and Gertrude will be joined in death. It's a play on their marriage born of a poisoned or corrupt act, Claudius' murder of her former husband.

Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark's crown have worn. Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heavens to earth,
'Now the king drinks to Hamlet.' Come, begin:
And you, the judges, bear a wary eye.
HAMLET: Come on, sir.
LAERTES: Come, my lord.

They play

HAMLET: One.
LAERTES: No.
HAMLET: Judgment.
OSRIC: A hit, a very palpable hit.
LAERTES: Well; again.
KING CLAUDIUS: Stay; give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;
Here's to thy health.

Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within

Give him the cup.

HAMLET: I'll play this bout first; set it by awhile. Come.

They play

Another hit; what say you?
LAERTES: A touch, a touch, I do confess.
KING CLAUDIUS: Our son shall win.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: He's fat, and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows;
The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.
HAMLET: Good madam!
KING CLAUDIUS: Gertrude, do not drink.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.
KING CLAUDIUS: [Aside] It is the poison'd cup: it is too late.


Adaptations are once again interesting to compare in this moment. Some will choose to have Gertrude know full well that she is being poisoned, giving the game away on purpose. In others, she's just a victim. Is she just having fun, or is this an act of defiance to show she's distancing herself from the King (in which case, their shared fate makes her fail). In a scenario where the royals are still very fond of each other, there is an irony in realizing that she's probably given to drink because Claudius, a notorious drinker, has made it a habit for her at court. He loses her because his vice has corrupted her, in addition to his murder plot gone wrong. And does Hamlet suspect? If he does, what is his reaction?

HAMLET: I dare not drink yet, madam; by and by.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Come, let me wipe thy face.
LAERTES: My lord, I'll hit him now.
KING CLAUDIUS: I do not think't.
LAERTES: [Aside] And yet 'tis almost 'gainst my conscience.
HAMLET: Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
LAERTES: Say you so? come on.

They play

OSRIC: Nothing, neither way.
LAERTES: Have at you now!

LAERTES wounds HAMLET; then in scuffling, they change rapiers, and HAMLET wounds LAERTES


Thematically, the exchange of foils continues the mirroring of the two boys and their similar situations and agendas. They will share the same fate.

KING CLAUDIUS: Part them; they are incensed.
HAMLET: Nay, come, again.

QUEEN GERTRUDE falls

OSRIC: Look to the queen there, ho!
HORATIO: They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?
OSRIC: How is't, Laertes?
LAERTES: Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric;
I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.
HAMLET: How does the queen?
KING CLAUDIUS: She swounds to see them bleed.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: No, no, the drink, the drink,--O my dear Hamlet,--
The drink, the drink! I am poison'd.

Dies

HAMLET: O villany! Ho! let the door be lock'd:
Treachery! Seek it out.
LAERTES: It is here, Hamlet: Hamlet, thou art slain;
No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour of life;
The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
Unbated and envenom'd: the foul practise
Hath turn'd itself on me lo, here I lie,
Never to rise again: thy mother's poison'd:
I can no more: the king, the king's to blame.


When comparing the concept of conscience across the various characters who commit murder in the play, Laertes' situation provides an example midway between Hamlet and the King. Claudius has none, even if he tries to fake it. Hamlet finds himself unable to act because of his conscience, and when he does, it's thoughtlessly and he regrets it. The later Hamlet of Act V will kill, but righteously. With Laertes, we have someone whose conscience only activates after it's too late. He needs to be blooded to understand the toll it takes on the murderer. And yet, like Claudius, he refuses moral responsibility. If Hamlet is the thinker and Laertes the man of action, the latter cannot, even in his final moments, truly assimilate - THINK about - what he's done and what that makes him. Soon after he acts, he dies, so he will never ruminate or repent, except superficially.

HAMLET: The point!--envenom'd too!
Then, venom, to thy work.

Stabs KING CLAUDIUS

All: Treason! treason!
KING CLAUDIUS: O, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt.


But Claudius has no friends in this moment.

HAMLET:Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.

KING CLAUDIUS dies

LAERTES: He is justly served;
It is a poison temper'd by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.

Dies

HAMLET: Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee.
I am dead, Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu!
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,


Hamlet seems to break the fourth wall in this moment, though of course, the Court is present, those same courtiers who did nothing to help Claudius.

Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you--
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead;
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.
HORATIO: Never believe it:
I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:
Here's yet some liquor left.
HAMLET: As thou'rt a man,
Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I'll have't.
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

March afar off, and shot within

What warlike noise is this?
OSRIC: Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland,
To the ambassadors of England gives
This warlike volley.


It is usually understood that Norway is Denmark's aggressor, but that's because we're not inclined to share Claudius and Polonius' naive jubilation at the news from Norway. The play works better if it's sarcastic about this storyline, with a weak Denmark giving Norway free passage and opening its borders to a snake. But textually, if we believe everyone and their evaluation, there's nothing to indicate this is so. Fortinbras had fallen out with his uncle, but is reconciled. He takes a plot of land in Poland. His army doesn't molest Hamlet, and here shoots at England's ambassadors, not Elsinore. That Fortinbras then takes the throne is not necessarily sinister, he's part of a larger royal family and might actually be in line for the throne once everyone else is dead ("rights of memory"), and is sorry to see the carnage inside Elsinore's walls. Hamlet makes him his heir (as another mirror of the Prince) in any case:

HAMLET: O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.

Dies

HORATIO: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Why does the drum come hither?

Though Horatio calls himself a Roman more than a Christian, he sends his friend off with Christian iconography. It is naive or perhaps ironic that Hamlet's fate would be imagined in the hands of angels after his hand-wringing about the undiscovered country and being drawn into Hell by the Ghost of his father, himself trapped between two worlds. Notably, though the Ghost has been avenged, we do not see it (at least in the text) react or be freed. Perhaps revenge doesn't fix a damned thing. (And yes, that's a pun.)

March within

Enter FORTINBRAS, the English Ambassadors, and others

PRINCE FORTINBRAS: Where is this sight?
HORATIO: What is it ye would see?
If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.
PRINCE FORTINBRAS: This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?
First Ambassador: The sight is dismal;
And our affairs from England come too late:
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,
To tell him his commandment is fulfill'd,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Where should we have our thanks?
HORATIO: Not from his mouth,
Had it the ability of life to thank you:
He never gave commandment for their death.
But since, so jump upon this bloody question,
You from the Polack wars, and you from England,
Are here arrived give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' reads: all this can I
Truly deliver.


Horatio acts as prologue after the fact, and the idea that the bodies/characters would be set on a stage during this telling metaphorically restarts the play from the beginning. Has any staging ever thought of starting with this speech and going back in time? And in so doing, have the audience question the narrator's reliability? Does Horatio embellish, justify his friend's actions, demonize the King, add a layer informed by his Classical studies, invent where he can't possibly know, or give second-hand testimony? If so, what does that mean? Did Horatio experience the Ur-Hamlet original source, and become the author of Shakespeare's Hamlet?

PRINCE FORTINBRAS: Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience.
For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune:
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.
HORATIO: Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more;
But let this same be presently perform'd,
Even while men's minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.
PRINCE FORTINBRAS: Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.


Is soldier's music appropriate for Hamlet, or is it a final irony? You might say it is, since he had become, in the end, a man of action. But it was his father who was the soldier, and the image of Hamlet we have in our minds is not the warrior, but the philosopher who, for most of the play, rejected action and saw no point in war for its own sake.

Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

A dead march. Exeunt, bearing off the dead bodies; after which a peal of ordnance is shot off


A long final sequence. We'll have much to discuss in the coming weeks.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Other Hamlets: What Shakespeare Says About Coca-Cola

Not content with co-opting Santa Claus, Coca-Cola tried to appropriate Shakespeare in a 1928 ad campaign that used famous lines from the plays to describe their product. They poached 10 plays this way, including Hamlet. The line they selected was Ophelia's description of Hamlet before he went made in the Nunnery scene (Act II scene 2):

"The glass of fashion and the mould of form, the observed of all observers."

The ad copy is pretty hilarious: "Maybe Mr. Shakespeare didn't always know just what he was writing about. We can't ask him now. We can only take what he wrote for what it is, and in penning the above he must have had Coca-Cola in mind."

Yes, that must be it. Since Ophelia goes on to say all of this is now overthrown, we can only surmise that the ad copy writers didn't always know what THEY were writing about, and this is obviously a reference to Classic Coke as it relates to New Coke.

There might be an essay in how Hamlet was used as a marketing tool through the ages...

Source

Saturday, November 29, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Classics Illustrated

The original
Classics Illustrated spends two thirds of a page on Hamlet telling the story (with the help of forward-moving captions) of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern getting their comeuppance. Uncommon for this comic book adaptation, the artist uses the staging to reveal something about Hamlet:
Shrouded in flames from our and Horatio's point of view, this is a hellish Hamlet who thinks nothing of sending former friends to their deaths, one who will become a devil to destroy a devil. What a king is this, indeed. The scripter isn't as kind to the Danish prince. In the scroll-shaped caption that replaces Osric's appearance entirely, he explains Hamlet's motivation in accepting to take part in a duel:
"Somewhat distressed by his quarrel with Laertes, [he] falls easily into the trap set for him". This is a new, and not particularly compelling interpretation, made possible by the removal of the "readiness is all" speech. This Hamlet may be more ruthless, but he is not at peace with his fate, merely unaware that it is to come.

The Berkley version

The more modern adaptation spends almost three pages on this sequence, even moving the action to a new venue (from graveyard to kitchen) mid-speech. While Hamlet tells Horatio about R&G, as is usual, he handles a knife and gets more animated (through the emphasis placed on certainly words in his speech balloon, not through any real moments of action) when he talks about the King. Artist Tom Mandrake gives us a preview of what Hamlet is planning for Claudius.
And then Osric shows up with a massive comedy hat. He stays for all of three panels, scarcely enough time to play up the comedy. The script cuts to chase quickly, with Osric getting mocked only for his response about Laertes' twin weapon, and from the art's standpoint, his general discomfort. As Horatio shares one last barb, Osric runs off and - this amuses me - seems to trip on the link between two word balloons. Accidental?
In the sequence's last panel, Horatio warns Hamlet, and the Prince defies augury, while practicing his moves. He does not, however, say the famous speech. Cutting to "has aught if what he leaves" makes his attitude even more fatalistic.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Tennant (2009)

The sequence is set in a cluttered storeroom where the broken mirror from Polonius' accidental murder is now housed. From a staging point of view, it allows the actors and the world to be reflected in a fractured way. The Hamlet now before Horatio is much changed from the one who left Denmark. Cutting out the details of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's deaths makes Hamlet's part in those deaths more ambiguous, and potentially more direct. Like Hamlet, Denmark itself is cracked. Why else would someone like Osric be considered for a role in the Court's inner circle? The storeroom in shambles speaks to a broken and messy country where the monarchy has lost the plot. On a literal level, Hamlet has gone back to the scene of the crime that sent him on this journey. His "readiness" was born here, and a murderer looks back at him from the glass.

Osric is played very amusing by Ryan Gage (who also played the Player Queen, make of that what you will), a boyish sycophant with a huge, forced smile. He's quick to respond to Hamlet's requests regarding his hat, but finds it harder and harder to keep concentration as Hamlet proceeds to insult and humiliate him at every turn. The Prince sits down and lounges on the floor in the middle of a sentence, openly mocks him while Horatio chuckles along, and makes rude gestures at him. They mock his effete delivery, his body language, and florid language. In response, Osric swallows hard, sweats bullets and looks pitiful. Part of the reason is that Hamlet dares him to be disrespectful to him, and so perhaps hang himself with his own words. This is how Tennant makes us understand the exchange in which Osric says Hamlet is not ignorant. It's a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don't. Osric can either talk down to the Prince and explain things that should be clear, or else continue to mystify the Prince and be termed opaque and tedious. It's clear in this version, thanks to the CCTV point of view and Osric eye-rolling glance at that camera at the very end, that he's being auditioned for a greater role at Court. If Hamlet were to say no, he would have failed his mission and that audition. So Hamlet makes a threat there. Ultimately, he's ready to face the consequences of his return, and accepts the fencing vest Osric offers.

Interestingly, Horatio expresses no dread at the prospect of Hamlet losing the duel. He doesn't foresee the King's treachery. At least, not until Hamlet expresses his own doubts. This is a less suspicious Horatio, one that truly deserves to be in Hamlet's heart of hearts perhaps, because he doesn't immediately see the bad in people. And following that argument, it means he doesn't see the bad in Hamlet and that's how he can remain a loyal friend to a famous self-loather.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Fodor (2007)

In Fodor's version of the play, Osric and his attendant Lord are figures of almost cartoony disposition, but with a definite sinister streak. As Hamlet and Horatio stand against a white wall - he, sorry for what he's done and she, disappointed - Osric and the Lord are intercut walking, taking the lift, etc. They even have a theme, Coming by Goldie, and "What were the chances?" sampled over their arrivals and departures, an ironic phrase since we know full well the King will put his plan into action now. Just as Horatio approaches Hamlet in comfort and forgiveness, the spell is broken by a comically fast Osric, handing the Prince his card. She is bemused as the Lord creates a set around them - a couch, a table, a plant - and this turns into the sort of interview one might have with an insurance salesman.

So when Osric tells Hamlet he's hot, it's like a test. Do YOU think it's hot? Oh you think it's cold? Okay, let's write that down. And so on. Osric has this fake laugh to indicate he doesn't really understand what the Prince is telling him, or perhaps to disarm him. Meanwhile, Fodor cuts frequently to the over-expressive Lord, just standing there making kooky expressions, or licking his chops lasciviously. The comedy is grotesque so as not to jar too much with the horror of the piece. Belchambers runs through Hamlet's lines in quick, mumbling fashion, but the character's almost incidental after a while. The camera only likes the other three. Horatio is very much amused by Osric and his big wager calculator until a words resonates with her: hangers. It's an executioner's pun. A bell sounds. And from then on, Horatio loses her good spirits and watches Osric carefully. And he looks back at her. They're the two people in the room who understand what's really happening, and Hamlet seems completely oblivious. Osric's face in slow motion as he waits for an answer, like a predator in a nature documentary.

After he leaves, Horatio's warnings make her sound like the wise one, and Hamlet seems naive. Belchambers doesn't give the famous lines from this sequence any kind of gravitas, murders it in fact. No readiness from him, literally and perhaps even on the actor's part. But "let be" and fade to black.

Friday, November 7, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Hamlet 2000

The sequence is set in Hamlet's apartment where Marcella is sleeping, with the Ghost at her bedside. I hadn't realized it before, but she and Horatio are Hamlet's roommates. Why is the Ghost here? This version of Hamlet Sr. haunts this building and has been seen more regularly than the play would have it. His vigil, and Marcella's resemblance to Ophelia, creates an image of grief building on grief, a reminder of two dead characters. As this is a scene about Hamlet's doom and about his allowing the tragedy to run its course, such imagery supports that sinking feeling of dread which is required of it. The Ghost will hear the boys come in and make himself scarce, but will reappear at the very end, and Hamlet seem to look straight at him, an acceptance of his own death to come. "I will join you soon," he seems to say. Hamlet and Horatio keep their voices low so as not to wake Marcella up, but Hamlet's temper will get the better of him when Horatio's questions paint him as not as on board with Hamlet's actions as the Prince would have liked. She soon wanders into the scene.

Hamlet's tale is seen in flashback and features an amusingly awkward modernization of the events recounted in the play. It's set on a plane, instead of a ship (the word "cabin" still fits, in a way), with the comedy relief Rosencrantz & Guildenstern fast asleep, one of them with a night mask. But that's not the awkward part. Hamlet goes into the overhead compartment and pulls out a laptop. And on that laptop, he finds a Word document from Claudius to England, which he edits easily. He hands Horatio a diskette with the original message on it. Now, there WAS an Internet in the year 2000, but I think we can accept that Claudius would not want to create a "paper trail" by sending his hitmen an email. But having an electronic copy of the message, with no way to authenticate it to boot, creates its own problems. Why can't the message be on a piece of paper?

Much better, but in the same vein, is Osric being replaced by a fax machine. The message from the King comes into the apartment via fax and Horatio simply reads the relevant lines. Hamlet's reactions, "How if I answer no?" etc. are thus said in private conversation with his friends, rhetorical or explicitly honest reactions to the message. He's not playing the scene to anyone who might report back to the King. The "readiness is all" speech, he rattles off very quickly, speaking to its inevitability. After a quick cutaway to Claudius poisoning a drink (testing it?), we return to Hamlet's preparations. He removes all the pictures he had on his wall - elements of his collages, pics of Ophelia - and turns off the lights after Horatio gives him a meaningful look that can only say "it's time", leaving a blank wall in a darkened room. Everything speaks to Hamlet's impending doom. He puts his affairs in order, destroys the evidence of his life before allowing the tragedy to destroy that life entire.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Kline '90

Kline keeps most of the sequence intact, give or take a line here and there (the mocking if Osric listing Laertes' twin weapons, for example, may be due to the duel's staging). As his Hamlet tells Horatio about his sea voyage, he seems steadier and far less weepy than before, and holds Horatio by the wrist as if he fears his friend would recoil hearing how their two school chums were murdered. He is shocked, but not too much, though Kline's performance did make me ponder if the scene could be staged where this speech is a veiled threat to Horatio's life. Cross me, and this is what happens. As it ends with Hamlet equating a man's life to a snap of the fingers, it could be quite effective and show a much changed Hamlet.

A line reading of interest: Hamlet stops on "cozenage", which means fraud (Claudius' specifically), and draws attention to its innate pun - it sounds like "cousinage", fusing this fraud with the false kinship the King has shown him, acting as false father, just as he was, in other ways, false brother to Hamlet Sr.

Osric then enters. He's played by Leo Burmester with an Irish accent, perhaps to show a rurality opposed to the other characters' noble births. He's a comic figure for Hamlet to toy with, but not particularly extreme compared to other performances. We see him searching for words as Hamlet gets off-script, and the Prince isn't particularly cruel to him. Once Hamlet has made his point about Claudius' yes men, he walks away. Several lines are cut, and one gets a sense that Osric is too tedious for Hamlet to bother with any longer. There is a strange, lingering moment on "yours, yours", which gives Osric pause. He has just basically send his services are at Hamlet's command, and though "yours" essentially means "thanks" in this context, it also reverses the order of things. Hamlet is at OSRIC's command, since he will be participating in a duel fated to end in tragedy at his behest. In a broken Denmark, a Prince might as well follow the orders of a powerless minion. They are as good as an illegitimate king's.

With the final speech, Hamlet once again grabs Horatio's wrist, this time to stop him from fussing. His defiance of augury is a grander pronouncement, as if spoken to Fortune herself, and Horatio looks spooked. And yet, Hamlet ends it with a resigned smile. Just behind him, a banner with a cross. Everything points to an ending in blood and sacrifice. Cue alarums...

Friday, October 24, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Zeffirelli '90

Having already shown Hamlet switching the letters on the ship, the sequence actually starts with Osric walking in. But this isn't the comic relief we're expecting. Zeffirelli's thuggish Osric is a threatening presence, contemptuous of the Prince. He's deadly serious, impatient with what he views as Hamlet's much-touted madness, refusing the "reality" the King's nephew would impose on him. When Hamlet tells Osric to put his hat on his head, the latter just starts talking of royal wagers, and leaves with a nasty smirk and putting his hat on a little too deliberately, as if in defiance. Zeffirelli really wants Osric to be a harbinger of Hamlet's death here, and Hamlet certainly responds with foreboding, letting as little emotion as possible cross his face, unflinching in the face of this obvious threat. Massive cuts are required to make this work, of course. We have no reference to Osric being a lowly sycophant, nor do Hamlet and Horatio share banter mocking the man. Osric's lines have been severely curtailed to remove the appearance of foolishness. The film is the poorer for it, but there's a certain efficiency to it as well.

After "we defy augury", we cut back to Laertes and Claudius, still plotting. As far as the time line goes, we must assume the duel/wager was called and only later did the conspirators think of it as an opportunity for assassination. Or else Claudius set things into motion before insuring Laertes' participation, which works too. It provides motive for his seduction of the younger man. When we cut back to Hamlet, he is now alone, looking out a window at the sea, smelling in the sea air, ostensibly for the last time. The short "readiness is all" speech is turned into a soliloquy, something he comes to terms with rather than a comfort to his friend. There's something slightly ironic about his enjoying one last sight of Denmark, a country he has railed against steadily since the start of the play, or perhaps we're meant to look at the water and think of the undiscovered country on the other side, Hamlet's final destination.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - BBC '80

Robert Swann's Horatio is often invisible, but his wet, empathic eyes give this scene an extra injection of pathos. We're with him as Hamlet recounts his murder of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern with some relish. The prince licks his lips, and all his friend can do is ask questions in the hope that the answers will absolve him of any guilt. But he can't punch a hole into this story, and there's the sense that "What a king is this" could be about Horatio's own liege lord, Hamlet, and not Claudius. Faced with this all-new, rash Hamlet, Horatio becomes the thinker of the duo, and is the one who makes Hamlet realize England will soon get word of this to Denmark. Hamlet HASN'T thought this through. His reaction doesn't comfort Horatio, who sees his friend's death wish for the first time.

Enter Osric. Peter Gale is quite funny in the role, pushed to the limits of his courteousness to the point where he delivers his lines through subtly gritted teeth. Hamlet mostly ignores him, speaking his lines to Horatio, or turning his back to force him to go around the table, or rising when Osric would sit down and sitting when he gets back up again. As in Olivier's vision, he waves his hat about because he's sweating bullets. Whether that's the temperature or his nerves is up to debate. When Hamlet and Horatio hear Laertes' name mentioned, they share a meaningful look. Right then and there, they know this is a trap. They give Osric more attention then on, but mostly to mock him. Where Osric pronounces "continent" à la French - as much to elevate his language as to wink at Laertes' Frenchification - Hamlet starts pronouncing every work shared by English and French the same way. Horatio's "Is't not possible to understand in another tongue?" becomes a nice punchline. The way Hamlet interrupts Osric consistently makes him hit his lines harder, giving more resonance to "to know a man well, were to know himself", as indeed, the mirroring of Hamlet and Laertes has been very consistent throughout the play.

As Orsic leaves, with his own shame and odd hits, the two other men grow wistful, Horatio especially. He has sympathy for Osric, just as he perhaps had sympathy for R&G and Hamlet's other victims. And perhaps his pity extends to Hamlet, or the Hamlet lost, the one that was sent off to England and apparently never came back.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Olivier '48

In this staging, Claudius and Laertes have just worked out their murder plot, the camera moves away from them, pans up, and Hamlet and Horatio come into view, coming down stairs and stopping by a window. Cut from this conversation is Hamlet's sea voyage, since Rosencrantz & Guildenstern don't exist in the adaptation. We lose the "sea change" that would make Hamlet appear a changed man to Horatio, one able to take lethal action. It's replaced with the "passion' slave" exchange from Act III, commending Horatio's stability, but at this point perhaps also taking on those qualities, "wearing" them in his "heart of hearts". Hamlet himself will seem more at peace and "stable" than ever, while Horatio will be the one panicking and trying to delay the action. It does connect the line with recent events in which Hamlet forgot himself to Laertes, but that's a different type of passion than the one from the text.

Enter Osric. Olivier presents him as a clown, certainly not sinister or even overtly opportunistic. As soon as he arrives, Hamlet and Horatio start walking away, and they will keep walking, with this fop in tow. Osric fans himself constantly with his feathered hat, something that irritates Hamlet by its proximity, motivating the hot/cold on/off exchanges. Osric never does put the hat on his head, even if he accepts Hamlet's reality in principle, so Hamlet has to put it on him at some point. Cue slapstick walking around with the feather in Osric's face. The character will leave with a bow for every "yours" Hamlet utters, and fall down the stairs in a final act of buffoonery.

At the end of the sequence, Hamlet has walked right to the hall where the duel will be staged, and overlooks it. Again we're motivating the text. Hamlet finally tells Osric he'll be walking in this hall, essentially waiting for the duel to come to him. He stops Horatio from calling the whole thing off, and with a smile, comforts his friend with "the readiness is all". Olivier doesn't push on these lines as, say, Branagh does. They're really for Horatio's sake, telling him not to worry, and in "let be", simply telling his friend not to stop whatever gears have started turning already (as opposed to answering some crucial question in the previous few lines).

But Horatio couldn't have stopped it even if he had tried. Within seconds, the Royals arrive with Laertes and a host of trumpeters, and the trial is already under way. In the world of this film, there are barely 6 minutes between Claudius hatching his plan and setting them into motion. Osric was sent less than 2 minutes after his conversation with Laertes. This is more urgency than the play as written musters; Shakespeare put the Hamlet's arrival and Ophelia's death and funeral in between events.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Branagh '96

Elsinore, the next day, with Francisco on guard duty. This sets up Fortinbras' arrival, a means to jump in and out of the palace and expand the world of the play. Inside, Hamlet tells Horatio his tale, their walk keeping the momentum up until they reach what has been Hamlet's inner sanctum in this adaptation, his library. There, Branagh highlights various lines using the props at his disposal - the model theater when he mentions that the play has begun, and his writing station when he explains how he forged the King's letter. The latter's contents he intones in a theatrical voice, mocking courtly messages and the flattery he finds hypocritical, between heads of state as much as in fawning courtiers (which we'll get an example of shortly, but of course includes the now dead Rosencrantz & Guildenstern). Should we infer from the flattery Hamlet includes in his letter that Denmark is subservient to England? His own critique of his homeland may be undermining Denmark. The truth is that the Danish state IS in on the wane, its political fall imminent.

Enter Robin Williams as Osric, one of Branagh's more successful celebrity cameos. Williams plays Osric as a comedy figure, of course, sending up the character's praise of Laertes as a kind of man-crush, all the more obvious thanks to an effeminate lisp. It is obvious that Osric is out of his depth, and we should remember the text calls him "young Osric" even if Williams isn't particularly youthful, because it means he's an inexperienced courtier, and as Hamlet says, one not of noble birth. So he is naturally thrilled to have been asked to take part in this wager and duel, but is soon confused by Hamlet's attacks. He has no experience with rhetorical sparring, and many of the words he uses were prepared in advance to raise himself up to a level where he could indeed address a Prince. He uses French pronunciations - and indeed, Laertes' decadent Frenchness is one symptom of a failing Danish state - and is embarrassed when he's forced to drop the pretense at Hamlet's prodding. The gag where he salutes and knocks his sheathed sword into a chair heightens his awkwardness and lack of practice with courtly affairs. To his credit, he endures Hamlet's humiliations without, for the most part, letting his royalty-pleasing smile break, though probably out of fear.

The steely, intense Lord who follows him provides an interesting contrast. He's more experienced and closer to the King and Queen, delivering messages that are essentially royal commands or advice. One has to be able to look at a Prince in the eye unapologetically. I like to imagine behind the scenes action featuring Osric and this unnamed Lord, where Osric either isn't quite sure if Hamlet agreed to the duel, or understood that it was happening imminently, and someone else has to go in and make sure. The Lord's look of triumph here would fit this scenario. Certainly, the Lord is part of the final scene's urgency, allowing Hamlet no time to reflect or back out. You agreed to this, so let's get this show on the road. The irony is that Hamlet is ready, for once, but who would condemn anyone in this universe for thinking he would delay the action with lots of talking and other distractions?

Claudius is in such a hurry for this duel to take place that Hamlet and Horatio are immediately aware that something is wrong, and that Hamlet is unlikely to walk away from it. Horatio's reaction is to tell Hamlet not to go through with it, his love for his friend leading to tears and an embrace (I can't help but think Osric's show of love for Laertes is a parody of this relationship), but Hamlet, looking older than he ever had, his eyes wet, has come to terms with what must happen or at least could happen. Though they'll have a goodbye scene at the end of the duel, this also serves that purpose. On the commentary track, Branagh says something interesting about Hamlet's speech, calling it a possible answer to the question "To be or not to be?": "Let be." In essence, Hamlet must give in to Fate and meet it with aplomb rather than try to control it. You do not decide whether you live or die, God/circumstance/the author does.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All

The Hamlet project has finally reached the play's last scene, though of course, there's so much material to cover, we'll be splitting it in two. The second will deal with the duel, everyone's tragic ending and Fortinbras' arrival. In this first sequence, we'll be covering Hamlet's tales of travel and treachery, Osric's comic relief, and the famous "readiness is all" speech. A sizable chunk, but many adaptations cut into the text mercilessly to save time, so size will vary. The pieces do matter, however, so we'll see over the next few weeks how our understanding of the play is changed when we lose key explanations or the comedy scene that bridges the intense melodrama of Ophelia's funeral and the action-filled, but tragic climax. For now, let us look at the text itself; Shakespeare, as usual, in italics; my observations, as they come to me, in plain text.

SCENE II. A hall in the castle.

Enter HAMLET and HORATIO
HAMLET: So much for this, sir: now shall you see the other;
You do remember all the circumstance?
HORATIO: Remember it, my lord?
HAMLET: Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let me sleep: methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly,
And praised be rashness for it, let us know,


Hamlet is about to reveal his "rashness" was instrumental in saving his life from England's executioner, and this is key because rashness has not, to date, been his sin. Quite the opposite. It would be fair to say Hamlet was changed by his accidental murder of Polonius - he's been "blooded" - and he meant it when he said "my thoughts be bloody". His readiness - to kill, to revenge, to die - is the unifying theme of this sequence, though Shakespeare (and Hamlet itself, in a way) is rather critical of the stance. Is Hamlet becoming Macbeth?

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,


Hamlet justifies his actions by citing God's will. Already, this makes them suspect.

Rough-hew them how we will,--
HORATIO: That is most certain.
HAMLET: Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf'd about me, in the dark
Groped I to find out them; had my desire.
Finger'd their packet, and in fine withdrew
To mine own room again; making so bold,
My fears forgetting manners, to unseal
Their grand commission; where I found, Horatio,--
O royal knavery!--an exact command,
Larded with many several sorts of reasons
Importing Denmark's health and England's too,
With, ho! such bugs and goblins in my life,
That, on the supervise, no leisure bated,
No, not to stay the grinding of the axe,
My head should be struck off.
HORATIO: Is't possible?
HAMLET: Here's the commission: read it at more leisure.


Any adaptation that would seek to make Hamlet deluded and paranoid who need to excise this line, which provides proof of Claudius' murderous intent.

But wilt thou hear me how I did proceed?
HORATIO: I beseech you.
HAMLET: Being thus be-netted round with villanies,--
Ere I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play--I sat me down,
Devised a new commission, wrote it fair:
I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair and labour'd much
How to forget that learning, but, sir, now
It did me yeoman's service: wilt thou know
The effect of what I wrote?
HORATIO: Ay, good my lord.
HAMLET: An earnest conjuration from the king,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them like the palm might flourish,
As peace should stiff her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma 'tween their amities,
And many such-like 'As'es of great charge,
That, on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.
HORATIO: How was this seal'd?
HAMLET: Why, even in that was heaven ordinant.
I had my father's signet in my purse,
Which was the model of that Danish seal;
Folded the writ up in form of the other,
Subscribed it, gave't the impression, placed it safely,
The changeling never known. Now, the next day
Was our sea-fight; and what to this was sequent
Thou know'st already.
HORATIO: So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't.
HAMLET: Why, man, they did make love to this employment;
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow:
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.


This changed Hamlet, through his own agency and with symbolic support from the Ghost that spurred him to that action (the ring), becomes directly responsible for the deaths of two old friends, and what's more, shows no remorse for his actions. His justification is that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern were corrupted by their own ambition and how it served the corrupt king of a corrupt Denmark. This idea is also present in Osric and Hamlet's attitude towards the fawning sycophant, but has a corollary left unsaid: If Denmark's corruption spreads to its inhabitants, then Hamlet too has been corrupted, and that corruption is most highlighted when he leaves its shores, as if contrast can only exist out there. There is a sort of irony to the idea that the cleansing sea has actually had the opposite effect on him. Or perhaps we're supposed to understand his self-involvement and delayed action were the signs of his corruption, and he has shed them while away. Specific performances might reveal which path each production chose to take.

HORATIO: Why, what a king is this!
HAMLET: Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now upon--
He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother,
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,


A rare reference to Hamlet's right to the throne, and that this is just as good a motive (if not a better one) for deposing or murdering Claudius. Who IS this Hamlet?

Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage--is't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
HORATIO: It must be shortly known to him from England
What is the issue of the business there.
HAMLET: It will be short: the interim is mine;
And a man's life's no more than to say 'One.'
But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his: I'll court his favours.

Hamlet, at least after having calmed down, does recognize he did Laertes wrong by killing his father, something that seemed absent when they were fighting and arguing over or in Ophelia's grave.

But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me
Into a towering passion.
HORATIO: Peace! who comes here?


A note on meter. Though Hamlet and Horatio are best friends and have spoken prosaically with one another, the scene began with more courtly verse. Only when Osric arrives to they switch to prose, and then stay in that mode in the final moments. It's surprising that such famous and poetically cadenced words were not written in verse, but this perhaps speaks to the moment's intimacy. But we're getting ahead of ourselves; back to Osric. Though a courtier, he is not of noble birth, and so speaks and is spoken to in prose. You'd think he'd make an attempt at (comically mangled) verse, but he is incapable even of that, which speaks volumes about his worthiness and the debasement of Claudius' court.

Enter OSRIC
OSRIC: Your lordship is right welcome back to Denmark.
HAMLET: I humbly thank you, sir. Dost know this water-fly?
HORATIO: No, my good lord.
HAMLET: Thy state is the more gracious; for 'tis a vice to know him. He hath much land, and fertile: let a beast be lord of beasts, and his crib shall stand at the king's mess: 'tis a chough; but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt.


On Hamlet's sustained attack on the state and its corruption, he calls even knowing a corrupt individual like Osric a vice. Osric is not an insider by birth, but by money, as represented by land, which Hamlet calls dirt, taking away its value. We can compare this sycophant to R&G and wonder if Osric can survive the play. Indeed, some adaptations will see to it he is among the number killed. At the very least, he is the last uncreative soul Hamlet will run rhetorical circles around, joining R&G, Polonius and Claudius among those ranks (the Gravedigger won his particular match).

OSRIC: Sweet lord, if your lordship were at leisure, I should impart a thing to you from his majesty.
HAMLET: I will receive it, sir, with all diligence of spirit. Put your bonnet to his right use; 'tis for the head.
OSRIC: I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
HAMLET: No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
OSRIC: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
HAMLET: But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.
OSRIC: Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry,--as 'twere,--I cannot tell how. But, my lord, his majesty bade me signify to you that he has laid a great wager on your head: sir, this is the matter,--
HAMLET: I beseech you, remember--


An amusing demonstration of sycophancy at its most absurd, accepting whatever temperature Hamlet claims on the basis of his royal birth. Osric is a living satire of Claudius' court filled with yes men.

HAMLET moves him to put on his hat

OSRIC: Nay, good my lord; for mine ease, in good faith. Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, of very soft society and great showing: indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.
HAMLET: Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you; though, I know, to divide him inventorially would dizzy the arithmetic of memory, and yet but yaw neither, in respect of his quick sail. But, in the verity of extolment, I take him to be a soul of great article; and his infusion of such dearth and rareness, as, to make true diction of him, his semblable is his mirror; and who else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more.
OSRIC: Your lordship speaks most infallibly of him.
HAMLET: The concernancy, sir? why do we wrap the gentleman in our more rawer breath?
OSRIC: Sir?
HORATIO: Is't not possible to understand in another tongue? You will do't, sir, really.
HAMLET: What imports the nomination of this gentleman?
OSRIC: Of Laertes?
HORATIO: His purse is empty already; all's golden words are spent.
HAMLET: Of him, sir.
OSRIC: I know you are not ignorant--
HAMLET: I would you did, sir; yet, in faith, if you did, it would not much approve me. Well, sir?
OSRIC: You are not ignorant of what excellence Laertes is--
HAMLET: I dare not confess that, lest I should compare with him in excellence; but, to know a man well, were to know himself.
OSRIC: I mean, sir, for his weapon; but in the imputation laid on him by them, in his meed he's unfellowed.
HAMLET: What's his weapon?
OSRIC: Rapier and dagger.
HAMLET: That's two of his weapons: but, well.
OSRIC: The king, sir, hath wagered with him six Barbary horses: against the which he has imponed, as I take it, six French rapiers and poniards, with their assigns, as girdle, hangers, and so: three of the carriages, in faith, are very dear to fancy, very responsive to the hilts, most delicate carriages, and of very liberal conceit.
HAMLET: What call you the carriages?
HORATIO: I knew you must be edified by the margent ere you had done.
OSRIC: The carriages, sir, are the hangers.
HAMLET: The phrase would be more german to the matter, if we could carry cannon by our sides: I would it might be hangers till then. But, on: six Barbary horses against six French swords, their assigns, and three liberal-conceited carriages; that's the French bet against the Danish. Why is this 'imponed,' as you call it?
OSRIC: The king, sir, hath laid, that in a dozen passes between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you three hits: he hath laid on twelve for nine; and it would come to immediate trial, if your lordship would vouchsafe the answer.
HAMLET: How if I answer 'no'?
OSRIC: I mean, my lord, the opposition of your person in trial.
HAMLET: Sir, I will walk here in the hall: if it please his majesty, 'tis the breathing time of day with me; let the foils be brought, the gentleman willing, and the king hold his purpose, I will win for him an I can; if not, I will gain nothing but my shame and the odd hits.
OSRIC: Shall I re-deliver you e'en so?
HAMLET: To this effect, sir; after what flourish your nature will.
OSRIC: I commend my duty to your lordship.
HAMLET: Yours, yours.

Exit OSRIC


Hamlet agrees to fight one duel, but has just one another, albeit against an unarmed opponent.

He does well to commend it himself; there are no tongues else for's turn.
HORATIO: This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.
HAMLET: He did comply with his dug, before he sucked it. Thus has he--and many more of the same bevy that I know the dressy age dotes on--only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter; a kind of yesty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.

Enter a Lord
Lord: My lord, his majesty commended him to you by young Osric, who brings back to him that you attend him in the hall: he sends to know if your pleasure hold to play with Laertes, or that you will take longer time.
HAMLET: I am constant to my purpose; they follow the king's pleasure: if his fitness speaks, mine is ready; now or whensoever, provided I be so able as now.
Lord: The king and queen and all are coming down.
HAMLET: In happy time.
Lord: The queen desires you to use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before you fall to play.
HAMLET: She well instructs me.

Exit Lord


There's a certain redundancy in Osric being followed by an unnamed Lord about the same subject. On stage, it heralds the arrival of the King, the Queen and Laertes, and makes the climax seem to arrive sooner than in most film productions. No sooner does Hamlet say he is ever ready that this readiness is put to the test, perhaps a mirror to R&G's execution with "no shriving time allowed". Hamlet too goes to his execution.

HORATIO: You will lose this wager, my lord.
HAMLET: I do not think so: since he went into France, I have been in continual practise: I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart: but it is no matter.
HORATIO: Nay, good my lord,--
HAMLET: It is but foolery; but it is such a kind of gain-giving, as would perhaps trouble a woman.
HORATIO: If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.
HAMLET: Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?


It's clear Hamlet isn't happy about what's about to happen, what must happen and what could happen, but he is ready for it. Though he accepts responsibility for his existence and everything it may mean (to himself, to others, to the metaphysical universe), he remains the doomed existentialist we knew from the first four acts of the play. The potential meaninglessness of one's life cannot be escaped or hidden from. He means to face it with dignity and complete his arc as the character in a revenge tragedy (which I'll meta-textually claim he was always aware of) for in the end, that is all he can do. Hamlet will leave this world only after accepting the rules that govern it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Other Hamlets: Dirtbag Hamlet

You may or may not find "Dirtbag Hamlet" amusing (the complete story HERE, text Mallory Ortberg, pictures Matt Lubchansky), a take on Hamlet that casts him as a modern teenage dirtbag. As satire of either Shakespeare or modern youth, it's pretty blunt, but does it highlight interesting truths about the play itself?

What works, I think, is the simplification of the character to the point where he is just an irreverent, jaded youth. He doesn't avenge his father's death because he rejects all authority, even the truth's. This Hamlet will not be ruled by anything. In fact, he rejects: The King's authority, the notion Hamlet Sr. was his father, his relationship to Ophelia, and the dignity of his own death. Nothing is sacred. And to the real, scripted Hamlet, this is sometimes true, so the take is legitimate. For example, the strip distills Hamlet's relationship to his mother thus:

GERTRUDE walks down the hallway. Enter HAMLET, skateboarding.
HAMLET: SLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU
(HAMLET skates backwards) UUUUUUTT


Take away Hamlet's banquet of words, and you weaken the play and the character considerably - that's not in dispute - but you do get at the essence of the character. Or at least, a certain take on the character.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's song for this sequence relates to Hamlet's great feats of love, outdoing a Laertes that is absent from the music itself. But it doesn't use Hamlet's lines per se. Instead, the three stanzas hark back to other moments in the play, unifying them in the theme of love, and confusing that theme with that of revenge. Before we get into it, let's listen to the song, after which I will post the original French lyrics, and my usual doggerel English translation.


Je l'aimais / Il est fou
Je prendrai un couteau d’acier
Et j’irai dans la forêt
Le jour, la nuit, sans m’arrêter
Sur tout les arbres je graverai
Je l’aimais, je l’aimais, je l’aimais

Je prendrai un bateau d’acier
Et j’irai sur l’océan
Je chercherai des ouragans
Et face au vent je crierai
Je l’aimais, je l’aimais, je l’aimais

Je prendrai un casque d’acier
Et j’irai chercher bataille
Et au milieu de la mitraille
En mourant je hurlerai
Je l’aimais, je l’aimais, je l’aimais

I Love Her / He is Mad
I will take a steel knife
And I will go in the forest
Day and night, without stopping
On every tree I will carve
I loved her, I loved her, I loved her

I will take a steel ship
And I will go on on the ocean
I will look for hurricanes
And facing the wind, I will shout
I loved her, I loved her, I loved her

I will take a steel helmet
And I will look for a battle
And in the middle of the shooting
While I die, I will scream
I loved her, I loved her, I loved her

Sheathing each image in steel may imply the presence of Laertes and presage the duel to come, or may function as a veiled threat to Claudius' person, also present, but it equally represents the violence done to Ophelia. The knife carving love notes on trees is the same that killed her father, and the tree a symbol of her death, its broken branch a herald of her drowning. In the second stanza, Hamlet takes us back to his sea voyage (the steel ship an anachronism, but also a metaphor for a ship of war/piracy), suicidal and unable to be heard, which was his condition before he left Denmark. The third takes us to Fortinbras' army converging on Denmark, then forward to his duel with Laertes and his death. Hallyday's adaptation changes Hamlet's motivation quite clearly. He is not motivated by revenge - the play is about a man who cannot take action on that impulse alone - but by love. He's saying Hamlet's resolve only comes when Ophelia is dead. The woman he came back for, and without whom he has nothing to live for. Everything that came before was merely family drama, investigation, and bitterness at having been jilted by Ophelia at her own family's request.

As he protests his love for her again and again (the last line repeated over and over), the chorus chimes in with "Il est fou" ("He is mad"), repeated from the song Je suis fou/I Am Mad from way back in Act I Scene 5, when the Ghost made him swear an oath. So here we have the final osmosis between revenge and love as the cause of his madness passes from one to the other.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Classics Illustrated

The original
Though this adaptation condenses a lot of sequences it believes won't interest the young boys its producers evidently think are the target audience, the funeral gets more than three pages of large panels. Perhaps they felt that audience would respond well to two guys fist-fighting in an open grave.
One strange element is that they have Hamlet running up to the burial party as soon as he realizes the body is Ophelia's, which means everyone is essentially ignoring him until he jumps into the grave. Of course, the way the flowers fall from Gertrude's hand, it may be a case of wonky perspective:
This might be an intriguing staging notion that would lend sincerity to Laertes' plight, in his grief oblivious to his nemesis' presence, while everyone else is just stunned speechless.

The Berkley version
This adaptation covers the same ground in half the space, but restores a lot of the dialog (but not the fantastical list of tasks Hamlet is prepared to undertake). The words are there, but the visuals are sacrificed. For example, Gertrude's "sweets to the sweet" line asks the reader to already know what's supposed to be going on:
There are no flowers, and the words are spoken before Ophelia's corpse is even set down. This robs the adaptation of Ophelia's symbolic leitmotif and the line of its usual sense. Perhaps it can be salvaged if we interpret the "sweets" to be kind words rather than flowers. Also strange is the exclusion of the priest's judgment, considering Laertes still tells him (or someone) that he'll lie howling. The big cut, however, is Laertes' leap into Ophelia's grave, which sets the adaptation well apart from what seemed like the original Classics Illustrated's whole reason for being. The two boys still fight, but are quickly separated. In the rush to get out of the scene, no sooner is Hamlet out of earshot that he's already telling Horatio about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.

So one adaptation is too decontracted, the other too rushed.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Act IV Scene 4 - A Midwinter's Dream

Another IV.iv omission on my part because again, an adaptation chose to feature it out of order. The "how all occasions do inform me" scene comes after IV.v (Ophelia's madness and Laertes' return) rather than before it. While normally, this helps make Hamlet's journey a more involved one with a "meanwhile" transition, as it were, here it is more a question of balancing a montage's tone. In a Midwinter's Dream, the play goes by in less than four minutes - including some behind the scenes comedy - so after violence (Laertes' return) and laughs (behind the scenes), a few lines from IV.iv, with Hamlet wrapped in mist and an audience wrapped in silent attention, reminds us of the play's stakes, both on and off the stage.Though the oddballs putting on the play sometimes take it to a place of parody, here we're told that it does, nevertheless, WORK.

The lines are "What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more", a just reminder that culture - play-making, play-acting and play-going - is where Man distinguishes himself from the animals. That is protagonist Joe's belief and intent in the film, and in a way, it's also Shakespeare's, contrasting violence and intellectualism in Hamlet's world.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Tennant (2009)

Hamlet, skull still in hand, hides in the bushes as the funeral procession proceeds to give (slim) rites to Ophelia in the shadow of (presumably) Elsinore, a strange corner outside a building. It is clear from his body language that Horatio knows what this is and has failed to tell his princely friend. He keeps a comforting hand on Hamlet, never takes his eyes off his friend to look at the burial party... He just didn't know how to tell him.

The burial itself is observed mostly from Hamlet point-of-view. Laertes usually has his back to us, even when he has lines to deliver. By necessity of the location, perhaps. You could also say we're seeing it from his point of view, hypersensitive to how others react to his sister's death. The priest's disdain. The gravedigger in the background checking his watch. Gertrude is the kindest, so is in close-up, but Laertes only focuses on her because she dares suggest a marriage between his sister and his most hated foe, Hamlet. It leads him to try and hold Ophelia in his arms once more, her arms flopping about in a sickeningly macabre embrace. For Hamlet, this is unbearable, and he shows himself, his sadness turning to outrage and anger. Defiance even.

Hamlet tries to warn Laertes that he is dangerous and that he shouldn't try his patience, he can hardly finish a sentence before Laertes jumps him. There's a scuffle, as a skull looks on from the mound of mud. Foreshadowing. Creepier still is Claudius looking on, a cruel smile creeping on his lips. This is exactly what he wants, to keep Laertes in the right frame of mind so he can kill Hamlet for him. When he says "He's mad", it's to fuel Laertes' fire and stain Hamlet's reputation with any onlookers.
Hamlet's vitriolic "eat a crocodile" speech takes a tone of mockery, exposing the futility of Laertes' grief (and thus his own) and yet admitting he would go to the same lengths (give the first four acts, this is debatable). He humiliates Laertes and calls him a whiner, even as he further incenses him by holding himself over his sister's grave in a parody of sexual posture. Then he's in shock. He doesn't understand Laertes' anger, looks at the grave as if trying to still process its meaning, and disrespectfully bumps into Claudius as he leaves. He completely ignores his mother, the sinner, who is left whirling in her own confused state.

Tennant's performance is, as usual, energetic, but also violently destructive. No one is spared, though some weather it better than others. Having indirectly caused Ophelia's death, he lashes out at everyone and insures the duel that will be his undoing.

Friday, August 22, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Fodor (2007)

Sad music plays over a series of expedient shots separated by fades to black: The burial party approaching, a blue-lipped enshrouded Ophelia in the ground, Hamlet hiding behind a tree. When we pull out and start the scene, the grave is absurdly shallow, which seems a production necessity though does facilitate Laertes' interaction with his sister's corpse. This may be Jason Wing's finest moment as Laertes, who brings more dimension to the character in this scene than in any other. His Laertes is such a psychotic thug, one hardly understands how Hamlet can say "I loved you ever", but here he sustains a believable state of grief balanced with rage. He's a very threatening man, and no one wants to irk him further, which is why he has to repeat his first question twice. The Priest (played by Fodor himself) gives an appropriately nervous performance as the man who must still give the answers.

In a "shocking" production like this one, you'd expect the leap into the grave to be include some objectionable element, but Fodor surprises by letting Laertes show actual kindness. It's not a full-on, incestuous embrace, but the stroke of a cheek, the covering of her face with the shroud, and notably, the taking of a red scarf, the only real color in the scene. It's the color of blood, a symbol of his revenge perhaps. And then Hamlet reveals himself and Laertes goes limp. Not literally, but his performance does. They've built him up as a thuggish monster too much for this confrontation to be so tepid. A couple of men hold him, but they probably shouldn't even have been able to pry him off Hamlet's throat. Horatio, a member of the burial party, is immediately at Hamlet's side (missing the black eye Laertes gave her, oops!), but he doesn't need much holding. Gertrude is so shocked she reverts to her native German. Claudius flies into action, giving orders and shuffling the characters about. He gives the words urgency and power, but when you think about it, he merely sends everyone where they would naturally have gone. Gertrude and Horatio with Hamlet, Laertes with him. It's like telling a cat to do something it's about to do and calling it trained. Such is his power in Denmark.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Hamlet 2000

All told from Hamlet's point of view, we can barely hear Gertrude's and Laertes' lines as he and Horatio come up the hill and see the (closed casket) funeral. He witnesses a drunk Laertes jump into the grave, but doesn't follow him in. He might even have walked away - Horatio certainly tries to pull him in the opposite direction - but Laertes' shouts make him hard to ignore. And yet, the film avoids melodrama. Hamlet simply offers Laertes his hand and the other man takes it. His curse is quiet and bitter. Laertes walks away and it's Hamlet who hounds him, who keeps going after him trying to make him realize the futility of their grief. Hamlet shames him, competes with him, but still, Laertes walks away, and it's not until Hamlet blocks his way that the two come to blows (or rather, pushing and choking). Bodyguards converge on them, but too late, they're tumbling down a hill and wrestling until their energy is spent. The music is sad, bringing out the pathetic futility of the scene, and the way the rest of the family looks at them from the top of the hill recreates the idea of them both in a grave, or in hell. Hamlet eventually leaves Laertes weeping there, on the ground, the victor, but when we see him behind Horatio on the motorcycle, he's letting his emotions out as well. If he has won anything, it's to express his grief away from prying eyes.

Hamlet as aggressor is the innovation here. A hurt Laertes tries to ignore him, tries in fact to respect the plan he and Claudius concocted. Now is not the time. But Hamlet keeps pressing him. Why? Well, in this context, the lines take the bent of a suicide hotline, tough love perhaps, but love. Laertes just asked the gravediggers to bury him with his sister, and Hamlet, passed master at grieving, aims to shock Laertes back into life. His list of great feats do not have a competitive intent, but are rather used to show Laertes there is nothing he can do, however extreme, that will bring his sister back. He's trying to make him move on more quickly than he was able to (never able to). "Why do you use me thus? I loved you ever" becomes more immediate, a reference to what he was trying to do just before Laertes' hands wrapped themselves around his throat.