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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Kline '90

Kevin Kline does something very interesting in this scene, using Ophelia's body a character in its own right. Seconds into revealing himself, he's weeping and using that strange melodramatic voice he sometimes falls into over the course of the play; that's standard for him. Hamlet's emotion is strong enough, especially in comparison to the more steady (or perhaps less able to put things into words) Laertes, who is stunned by it. But then in a mirror of the other boy's interaction with Ophelia's corpse, Hamlet kneels down, caresses and even kisses the dead Ophelia. It's an intimate moment in which he tells her that the dog will have his day, a comforting promise. Deliciously ironic, because he killed her father and drove her to desperation, so he's also the dog that will be put down (a promise that is carried out). The moment comes right after he lets go of his anger and sadness at Laertes' own. There's a mental break there. And all the while, the other characters just let him go, just as they did when Ophelia made her mad speeches (I'm also reminded of Queen Margaret in Richard III; this is a Shakespearean tradition). In the throes of this madness, he then simply gets up and walks away without looking back.

Kline's adaptation is played as if on stage, and the planks are visible in this scene. There is no grave to put Ophelia or leap into. The sequence is played as a rest from the walk to the cemetery, and made to work. Claudius then has the rest of the short trek to remind a still shocked Laertes of their plans. Perhaps he senses the boy's reticence. This is not a particularly angry Laertes, and nothing, except Hamlet's presence, really inflames him. The priest is kind to him, answering his surprise at the slim rites kindly. His request to take Ophelia in his arms once more is dramatic, but shown by Hamlet's ranting to be somewhat insincere, like something he think he ought to do, not something he profoundly feels. Confronted by true emotion, he's no sure what to do. And perhaps are sewn the seeds of doubt, an empathy with the Prince.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli cuts so many lines from this sequence as to cut its INTENT. The funeral is no secret burial, attended by dozens, singing hymns in broad daylight. Naturally, the priest's part is cut, his exchange with Laertes contradicting all of this. In this version then, Ophelia is not suspected of suicide, or if she is, the director has sapped the Christian mores of the past out of the play. There is no casket, Ophelia is naked (so to speak) to the sky, on a stretcher. Gertrude goes to her, kisses her, and sheds a tear, her words private. So when Laertes takes her in his arms, there is no melodramatic leap in her grave, no hellish irony. He merely does what the Queen just did, Ophelia is on the ground, not in a pit, and his words are soft and kind, not spectacle for the assembled grievers.

Hamlet walks into the scene with as little fanfare. He doesn't announce himself, and the dialog is cut to shreds, his list of Herculean tasks gone. What we're left with his Laertes trying to strangle him, both men standing tall, not much of a brawl; the Queen going to Hamlet to kiss and calm him down, as if her were a wild beast whose emotions needed constant managing; and the Prince allowed to walk away after he kisses flowers and puts them on Ophelia's body. The lines that remain give Hamlet a sense of futility, which isn't quite the same as fatalism, but may run in parallel. "What wilt thou do for her?" is sad, more than angry, because there is nothing more to be done (I echo here the priest's cut lines). "Dog will have his day", not slung at the King or anyone else, but that same understanding that what will be, will be, and that Ophelia's corpse is somewhat the manifestation of that idea.

As Hamlet leaves, Claudius shares a long look with his Queen, trying to share a smile or smirk with her, but narrowing his eyes. Has he stopped trusting her, or is he realizing he can't openly condemn Hamlet because she loves her son too much. We know he's plotting something, because in the restructuring of the play, only THEN does he approach Laertes to seduce him into killing his stepson (just like in the Olivier version).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - BBC '80

One thing the Derek Jacobi version of Hamlet does really well is motivate the text. There are several instances of this in the sequence. For example, by having Hamlet and Horatio hide behind a tomb, unable to see the action, motivates and justifies the Prince's lines describing actions the audience sees quite well. He recognizes Laertes' voice, he realizes who they are talking about, through sound alone. (And in the staging, though this isn't all that important on television, all participants would be facing the audience.) In another example, when Laertes jumps into Ophelia's grave, it's to cover her face with her shroud, not mere melodrama. His gesture is a kindness, getting us away from images of incest.

Situations call for lines, but characters react believably to them as well. A pair of notable double-takes tell the story that's found between the lines, for example. The first is Laertes' look at Gertrude when she claims Ophelia was in line to become queen. In that surprised look may be found shock that his sister almost married the man he hates so much, but also a sense of shared responsibility in Ophelia's madness and death, since his misjudgement of Hamlet and the royals caused him to warn her away from the Prince, and quite possibly to betray the couple to Polonius. You can just about see Laertes connect these dots to their fatal end in that moment. Gertrude also registers surprise when Laertes curses the person he deems responsible for her death. She doesn't know Claudius has already poisoned Laertes' mind, and does not see the confrontation coming.

That confrontation, for all its emotion, shows Hamlet in control. Men have to hold Laertes back until his energy is spent, but no one makes any such move against Hamlet. As ever, the Prince is all words, while Laertes would be action. He fights for release, spits at Hamlet (the Prince's own "spitting" is flinging the dog reference at the King, as contrast), and gets a menacing rebuke from Claudius after all is said and done. The King threatens patience into him.

On the issue of this production's minimalistic "exterior" set, it does create an irony here that informs the dialog. When Laertes prays for flowers to bloom on Ophelia's grave, one has to wonder if anything can bloom in this wasteland. Prays fall on deaf ears in a land ruled by an entrenched sinner, and one could say Laertes has inherited his father's capacity for misprision. The blooms he hopes for are impossible in this location, and his emotion blinds him to the fact, as it does to other facts.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Olivier '48

Olivier's version of the cemetery is an impressive space, essentially a multi-tiered quarry so tombstones are visible in every shot, whatever the height of the camera. It also creates a pit that best describes the hell to which the characters are in danger of falling. Interestingly, Horatio is given the line about suicide, and even as he says it, shock and realization flash on his face and he becomes desperate for Hamlet not to investigate further. He is aware of Ophelia's madness, recognizes no doubt the members of the burial party, and puts two and two together. There are things he hasn't told his friend, but things have gotten a lot worse since he left Elsinore to meet Hamlet at the sea port.

Terence Morgan's Laertes, with his fresh face, is more hurt than angry at the priest, and even when he flings an insult, you can't really hate this grieving boy. Morgan eventually gives in to melodrama, with the kind of gestures Hamlet explicitly condemns in actors earlier in the play (but cut in this adaptation), but then the scene almost calls for it. Is there greater melodrama than leaping into someone's grave? Should we see a condemnation of Laertes in this? Shakespeare, Hamlet and/or Olivier may find the boy's action less than sincere by contrasting them with the Prince's description of bad acting. By making Laertes saw the air with his hands, the idea that he is somehow insincere sets in, and Hamlet is better justified in his outrage. The absentee brother's grief is perhaps just a circus replacing the normal obsequies denied Ophelia.

But Hamlet isn't himself innocent of melodrama. He comes "onstage" arms out, like a Christ figure, a monument, one of these tombstones come alive. The irony of Laertes asking the Devil to take him is palpable. He may be "resurrected", but he's not Savior. He is their doom, and his own. In his anger, he rattles his lines off quickly. His last lines are spoken as he walks away, throwing them at specific characters insultingly. Laertes is the mewing cat, a suckling, or if you'll excuse the modern parlance, a "pussy". Claudius is the dog who will have his day, a not-so-veiled threat. Throughout, Gertrude is the loving mother, interceding on behalf of her son and seeing the best in him, excusing his behavior. This prompts a cold reaction from Claudius who is left alone with the grieving Laertes, where he, in this adaptation's restructuring of the play, then seduces the younger man into conspiring to kill Hamlet. This meeker version of Laertes is now primed to do something despicable, where before it might not have been justified.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Branagh '96

Setting is important, and while the stage is limited, film is not. Branagh sets Ophelia's burial in a secluded wood, at night. This explains why Hamlet so quickly realizes the funeral isn't official. He essentially "catches" the Royal Family burying a suicide on the sly, away from prying eyes. And perhaps that bag of coins thrown at the Gravediggers is meant to buy their silence as much as a pay them for their labor. It certainly seems heavy enough. They seem to feel much less recompensed for having been right about the dubious nature of their "tenant's" death, befuddled and cowering as soon as nobility is present and the priest confirms the First Clown's suspicions.

A stunned Laertes eventually loses it and notably, grabs the Bible from the priest's hands, an object he'll later throw at Hamlet's head. There is an element of the profane in all this, one that mixes well with a secret burial attended by a compromised clergyman and in which a grieving brother leaps into his sister's grave and opens the casket to clutch the girl's cold corpse. If this isn't a holy rite, then nothing is sacred, and we already know Laertes the Libertine isn't above the heretical, willing to commit murder in a church. All signs point to the Church having left Denmark, in spirit if not in fact.

Between the melodrama and the action, it's easy to miss the reactions of the less vocal characters, but they are noteworthy. Hamlet's complete surprise at what has happened tells us Horatio has failed to tell him anything, including the fact Ophelia went insane. Gertrude's lack of surprise at seeing Hamlet means his letters to her arrived uncensored, while her motherliness towards Laertes emphasizes the mirror that already existed between this boy and her son. Finally, Claudius' coldness increases the divide between him and his wife.

At the center of the scene (as played) is an important irony. When Hamlet announces his presence and speaks of his great love for Ophelia, Claudius (and then Gertrude) is quick to say the Prince is mad, giving Polonius' theory weight for the first time. But it's also the first time this is true, if we decide that Hamlet is distraught (a temporary madness) because of love. However, it may be more true to say his madness derives from grief, just as before. Over-grief for a father, and now blinding grief for a lover. Blind in that he seems to forget his plans for a minute, forget himself, but also forget the wrongs he has committed against Laertes. Hamlet may have loved him as a brother, but he nevertheless killed his father an driven his sister into a desperate situation. As he regains his emotional footing, Hamlet gives up the fight and walks away. His new readiness seems to have returned, and in that context, the inevitability of the cat mewing, etc. is also that of the tragedy.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral

The second half of the scene sees the burial party arrive as Hamlet and Horatio watch in secret, but the Prince can't help but reveal himself when a distraught Laertes jumps into his sister's grave. The event is, in a way, the first exchange in their duel, or perhaps the second or even third, if you count their competing for the attentions of the King and Ophelia in Act I. Things to watch out for include how the grave jump is achieved, whether or not directors and actors have managed to keep the melodrama believable, and the reactions of characters who have few lines like the King and Queen. But before diving into our various adaptations, let's look at the text itself (which contains an uncommon amount of stage directions). Shakespeare is in italics, as usual. In normal script, intermittent comments.

Enter Priest, & c. in procession; the Corpse of OPHELIA, LAERTES and Mourners following; KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, their trains, & c

HAMLET: The queen, the courtiers: who is this they follow?
And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken
The corse they follow did with desperate hand
Fordo its own life: 'twas of some estate.
Couch we awhile, and mark.

Retiring with HORATIO

LAERTES: What ceremony else?
HAMLET: That is Laertes,
A very noble youth: mark.
LAERTES: What ceremony else?
First Priest: Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warrantise: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o'ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Whether we chose to believe in Gertrude's fanciful tale of an "accident" or that Ophelia committed suicide, the Church recognizes the latter as the truth, and only the King's intercession has granted Ophelia this much respect. Note that she's "allowed" her virgin dress, so the priest even calls her maidenhead into question. That's another clue supporting the theory of a pregnant Ophelia.

LAERTES: Must there no more be done?
First Priest: No more be done:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.
LAERTES: Lay her i' the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.

If Ophelia's purity is in doubt, Laertes doesn't see it, or refuses to. He imagines her as an angel whose grave will see violets bloom. You'll remember violets as the flowers that withered and died when Polonius did, a symbol of fidelity closely associated with Ophelia. Laertes mentioned the flower to her before leaving for France, and it's the flower she would have wanted to give her brother in her mad state. Laertes imagines this natural manifestation will prove the priest was wrong about her.

HAMLET: What, the fair Ophelia!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Sweets to the sweet: farewell!

Scattering flowers

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,
And not have strew'd thy grave.

Act II Scene 2: Gertrude may or may not be surprised Hamlet is courting Ophelia. She seems to support Polonius' stand against such a union. Here, she says she hoped Ophelia might have replaced her as Queen. Kind words said out of grief or to pacify Laertes? Or does she mean them? If she does, it might add to her irritation in the earlier scene, having to suffer her husband's tedious adviser wanting to throw a wrench in her plans, and unable to say anything in front of the King. Dramatically, of course, these words sting the hidden Hamlet and probably help push him to the edge. It also inspires half-treasonous vitriol from Laertes:

LAERTES: O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:

Leaps into the grave

Laertes famously prefigures his joining his sister in death with this gesture.

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.

Jumping into a grave with dubious Christian sanctification, Laertes pointedly turns to the pagan idiom.

HAMLET: [Advancing] What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,
Hamlet the Dane.

Through a twist in the line, Hamlet seems to ask something of Laertes in this speech, until one realizes he's really talking about himself, acting as his own narrator, in effect writing (or "willing") himself back into the action. This reinforces the mirror between the two "adopted sons" of Claudius, and is followed by Hamlet repeating Laertes' action so that he may share his doom.

Leaps into the grave

LAERTES: The devil take thy soul!

They are certainly getting closer and closer TO the devil, both physically and morally.

Grappling with him

HAMLET: Thou pray'st not well.

Even in his grief (and perhaps belying it), Hamlet manifests a sharp wit. Laertes's devilish invocation puts his own soul in peril.

I prithee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For, though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I something in me dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear: hold off thy hand.

This speech mirrors the one Hamlet offered Laertes' sister ("I could accuse me of such things...). Is he still making empty threats, or will he let the beast out?

KING CLAUDIUS: Pluck them asunder.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Hamlet, Hamlet!
All: Gentlemen,--
HORATIO: Good my lord, be quiet.

The Attendants part them, and they come out of the grave

HAMLET: Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O my son, what theme?
HAMLET: I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?
KING CLAUDIUS: O, he is mad, Laertes.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: For love of God, forbear him.
HAMLET: 'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do:
Woo't weep? woo't fight? woo't fast? woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'lt mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.

The duel continues. Hamlet's lines are meant to put Laertes down, but are also a rather poignant treatise on the futility of grief. He rattles on a list of impossible feats before admitting the best they can do is rant. His grief for his father is revisited, and he finds he must once again unpack his heart with words which do not equal what he's actually feeling. But he does ask "what will you do?", and the focus on action is notable. Hamlet means to soon transition from words to action.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: This is mere madness:
And thus awhile the fit will work on him;
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.

Question: Hamlet's letter to his mother. What did it contain? We're never told. How surprised is she to see him here? Does she really believe him mad at this point? Is she covering for him? Clues may be found in specific performances. Her metaphor of a dove waiting for her eggs to hatch is either prescient or a knowing prediction, and could even be code between mother and son. She could be reminding him of his plans and warning him not to sabotage them with this show of emotion. Of course, Claudius and Laertes are hatching plans of their own.

HAMLET: Hear you, sir;
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever: but it is no matter;
Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.


KING CLAUDIUS: I pray you, good Horatio, wait upon him.



Strengthen your patience in our last night's speech;
We'll put the matter to the present push.
Good Gertrude, set some watch over your son.
This grave shall have a living monument:
An hour of quiet shortly shall we see;
Till then, in patience our proceeding be.


Ever the expert politician and manipulator, Claudius makes Laertes, Gertrude and even Horatio members of his team in the way he speaks. Little does he know none will be loyal to him in the end.

Friday, June 27, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Alas, Poor Yorick!

"Alas, poor Yorick" is, along with "To be or not to be?", easily one of Hamlet's most famous lines, and is perhaps the most used as a pop culture icon. And not just the line, but the image of Hamlet holding up a skull while saying that line (or sometimes, erroneously saying "To be or not to be?" in that position). As we wrap things up on this sequence, I thought it might be a fun change of pace if we looked at different ways pop culture has translated this moment. There are hundreds of examples, and I could have trawled the Internet for days on end to collect them all, but I will show five of my favorites, as a sample.

Hamlet is plainly nuts:

Cartoons like this one are abundant. Most are political or topical. This one is just universally goofy:

The motivation poster and LOLcats team up to bring us this:

Everything is awesome:

And a cartoonist who knows my particular pain:
Hope you enjoyed these. Feel free to link to your own favorites in the comments.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's interpretation of the scene is just as tonal a shift musically as it is in the play. Le cimetière (The Cemetery) is a silly rock ditty that creates the gallows humor image of gravediggers bowling with skulls. And while Yorick doesn't specifically figure, Hamlet seeing the whole of humanity in an unknown skull does, irreverent rhymes evoking kings, priests, courtiers, poets, singers, politicians and more, even managing to wring some pathos out of the song near the end. The video is followed, as usual, by the text in the original French, then a fairly literal English translation (certainly not meant to compete with the original in terms of poetics).

Le cimetière
Les fossoyeurs jouent au bowling
Têtes de turcs, têtes de kings
«Vous avez fait d’assez vieux os, place aux jeunes »
Crient les morts nouveaux

Crâne roule et tourneboule
Qui es-tu revenant de terre ?
Tes yeux vides sont pleins de mystère
Avant la pelle, avant la pioche
A quoi ressemblais-tu caboche ?
Crâne qui roule et tourneboule
Quel chapeau te couvrait la tête
Une calotte ?
Une casquette ?
Que vendais-tu à la sauvette
Du Jésus ou de la courbette ?

Crâne qui roule et tourneboule
Quand tu avais, de ton vivant
Une langue derrière tes dents
Etais-tu poète ou menteur
Politiqueur ou bien chanteur
Qui es-tu revenant de terre
Tes yeux vides sont pleins de mystère
Quand ils pouvaient rire ou pleurer
As-tu aimé ?
As-tu aimé ?

The Cemetery
The gravediggers are bowling
Whipping boys, kingpins
"Enough with your old bones, leave room for the kids"
Shout the newly dead

Skull rolls and whirls
Who are you, revenant from the earth
Your empty eyes are full of mystery
Before the shovel, before the pickaxe
What did you look like, noggin?
Skull that rolls and whirls
What hat was on your head?
A cap?
A cap?
What did you sell in haste?
Some Jesus or low bows?

Skull that rolls and whirls
When you had, during your life
A tongue behind those teeth
Were you poet or liar
Politician or singer
Who are you, revenant from the earth
Your empty eyes are full of mystery
When they could laugh or cry
Did you love?
Did you love?

First, a few notes on the translation because it doesn't do justice to Hallyday's word play. "Têtes de turcs, têtes de kings" would have literally been "Heads of Turks, heads of kings", but in the first part, I translated it to what that expression means, and in the second, offered a bowling pun that matches the songwriter's intent. The word "tourneboule" ("whirls") sounds literally like "turn-ball" which is also part of the bowling image. Finally, "calotte" and "casquette" are both "caps" in English, resisting efforts to translate them differently. A translation meant to be sung and recorded would doubtless substitute one of them for a different hat, if one ending in "-ap" were found.

Though this peppy number is filled with black comedy, it does have its poignant moments. The newly dead shouting for the older generation to make way for the younger is both an image of the cemetery as clearing house for the living, and a reminder that skulls are being thrown about to make room for the youthful Ophelia. And with the final question, the Hamlet of the song takes a step away from the Hamlet of the play, giving an emotional context to the cadavers around him. Did they love? Did HE? And in Hallyday's opinion, is that the better mark of a life well lived? Hamlet-as-written cannot succeed until he takes his revenge, but Hallyday's Hamlet cannot win unless he knows love. And Ophelia's death may mean he's already lost.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Classics Illustrated

The original
In this ever-thrifty adaptation, the conversation between Hamlet and the Gravedigger is lost, and we go from Hamlet mentioning the skull "jowled" to the ground (which actually sticks to the Gravedigger's spade most unnaturally) to being handed Yorick's skull. In visual terms, it looks like the the two skulls are one and the same, and only the caption tells us different. And it's too bad, because that would have made a good contraction. As is, it feels like the Gravedigger recognizes Hamlet as someone who might know Yorick because he has no motivation for his little show-and-tell. In the last panel, a cadaverous-looking Hamlet remembers his old jester, and the art has a rare flourish, Yorick's head and wand floating above the curved frame. But the scene ends here, content with giving us the jist and making sure it includes its most famous line. Is this enough to render Hamlet's existential questioning of life and death?

The Berkley version

An odd juxtaposition of images occurs in the more modern adaptation, with the previous sequence ending in the cemetery as Laertes hears of his sister's death, and without provocation, this one starting by her graveside, the Gravedigger singing while he digs. The contraction the original Classics Illustrated fails to make above, the Grant/Mandrake team manage expertly:
Now it becomes a kind of justification for the disrespect shown these earthly remains. A jester isn't very high in the social hierarchy, and this one caused the Gravedigger some grief. By removing the other skulls hurled around the grave, the contraction makes this particular "jowling" more personal, to both the First Clown and Hamlet.
Smelling the skull, Hamlet throws it down into the grave again in disgust, and the mention of Alexander in that exchange stands in for all the talk of great men returning to dust that normally comes later. This is a more efficient way of contracting the story than the original adaptation managed, using a short line to evoke Hamlet's concerns as they relate to his own abbreviated greatness, though perhaps the intended audience would have been ill-prepared to understand it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Slings & Arrows

There's a bit in Slings & Arrows in which Oliver, the director's dead mentor/antagonist/haunter has asked for his skull to be part of the production, but this detail is forgotten until the last minute, so Geoffrey is forced to run to his office, where he keeps the skull as a mint dispenser, during the Gravedigger Scene to get it. It's black comedy, just as the scene on stage is. Most the scene is heard on the P.A. system, and we rejoin the world of the stage just as Oliver's skull makes it to the grave. In the staging of the play inside the show, it's lucky that Yorick's skull doesn't make an appearance until Hamlet picks it up. It stays in the pit until needed. Would this have an effect on the play? In such a version, Ophelia might have lain next to Yorick, her open grave a symbolic doorway to Hell, an infinite space that can contain multitudes. As Hamlet picks it up, we see there are still mints clenched in its jaw. The shot occurs on the line "excellent fancy", which is perfect.

The real world of the actors performing the play, as ever, informs the play itself in Slings & Arrows. In this case, Hamlet is played by Jack Crew, a Hollywood movie star cast by Olivier, dead director turned hack. When Jack holds Oliver's skull in his hands, he holds that of a surrogate father, just like Hamlet does, one he barely knows. He takes his true direction from Geoffrey, a former Hamlet, and so, for Jack, the Ghost of Hamlet Sr. But Jack wouldn't be there without Oliver, tapping into the questions of paternity that animate the play itself.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Tennant (2009)

The Doran/Tennant adaptation goes outside for the first time for this scene, set in a corner off a church-like building. The gravediggers are dressed, absurdly, in suits and ties, despite the fact they are surrounded by heaps of mud. The First Clown is in the grave eating a sandwich and drinking his tea, while the Second stands off to the side with a yellow security vest and a clipboard. On the one hand, it presents these characters as middle class tradesmen; on the other, their choice of attire seems foolish, bordering on work-safe parody. Though we don't get the gallows joke, the discussion on the sinfulness of suicide is retained, and the Gravedigger uses his food to demonstrate his ideas (man as sandwich, water as tea). In that sense, the overly formal attire makes him look like he could be a country lawyer. Having lost the argument, the Second Clown trudges off with a final rude gesture that makes the First laugh.

Laughing is very much his thing, and it's obvious that as fools go, he's a voluntary one. No dimwit here, he knows his dumb answers are jokes and that he's playing with Hamlet. In most stagings of the play, the Prince stops at the grave, curious to see who is to be buried in it, and stays because of the fool's wit. In this case, Hamlet might have gone right past and it's the skulls thrown in his way that make him stop. Or as one might see it, the inevitability of death. Yorick's skull is never thrown, but has been set aside reverently on the edge of the grave since the very beginning. The Gravedigger has a history with its owner, and that fondness seems to extend to his remains. Of course, there's also a real world reason for it: This is Tchaikovsky's skull, bequeathed to the Royal Shakespeare Company after the great composer's death, so rather precious. Whether the audience registers it or not, for the actors, there's a difference. Not only is it a real human skull, but one that used to be a great man's, lending weight to the lines about Caesar and Alexander.
Hamlet remembers who this object used to be, and is aghast, unable to reconcile the one with other. The way he balances it in his hands, makes it almost dance, it's like he's trying to inject Yorick's life and jolliness into it. Alas, it is a dead thing, and completes its metaphysical arc when he mimes using it to stop up a hole. Hamlet's relationship to these human remains evolves through the scene, from a slightly revolted nudge with his foot to holding Yorick's head in front of him, to eventually running off with it when the funeral procession arrives. It stays with him. Again, in the real world, it's so it doesn't get chucked away like the others, but in the world of the play, Hamlet's simply unable to let go, just as perhaps he isn't able to let go of his biological father (Yorick, a surrogate), and also a mirror of Laertes leaping into his sister's grave, another unbreakable bond between the living and the dead.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's version of this scene still features black comedy, but the scene is heavily re-engineered. The jokes are different as are some of the participants. It begins with Hamlet and Bernardo (not Horatio) jogging down a forest path. Because Hamlet's exile was omitted from the film, it's not clear whether he left at all, though he would know of Ophelia's death if he was at Elsinore. Perhaps he's staying at a friend's house - Bernardo's - in the same area. They hear a tussle, noise that leads them to the priest hitting the Gravedigger. Fodor himself plays the priest, a character that steals lines from the First Clown (the Gravedigger in this scene is the dense Second Clown), and from Horatio/Bernardo, acting as bouncing board and exposition.

If he's hitting the 2nd Clown in the beginning, it's for not having found the answer to his riddle. But that's not really where the black comedy comes from because these lines are mostly cut. Instead, there's the matter of the grave being dug in a minefield - surely a comment on a rotting Denmark and the wars Hamlet's father fought - with the addle-brained Clown fiddling around with a found mine (a pun on whose grave it is? "Mine, sir"?), and having both feet in his grave, exploding. The other men are pelted with dirt, the Priest picks up his arm and delivers his original joke's punchline "the gallows may do well to thee". The adaptation has a nasty, horror vibe, but this scene is nasty in another way, and doesn't quite fit. It gets worse.
William Bedchambers is not the most solid of Hamlets at the best of times, but this scene sees him at his worst. Bad line readings that emphasize the wrong words and multiple fluffs as he struggles to get his lines out, an indie budget possibly keeping the production from doing them again. The hesitations give the scene a less rehearsed quality, which could be a positive, but practically shrugging at the fact he knew Yorick as if it were an off-hand remark drains the life out of the moment.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet walks out of an airport terminal in a hoodie, catches a motorcycle helmet, and embraces Horatio. The two of them drive out and stop in a cemetery. There are kids in costumes running around. It seems it's still Halloween. Either it's been a year since Hamlet left, or it's part of the "time out of joint" motif. Why are they there? Does Horatio know about the funeral? Has Hamlet already been briefed? Is this why he's back? By cutting the entire sequence's dialog, these become a possibility. We hear singing, but it's not Shakespeare's verse. A gravedigger "with no feeling of his business" sings Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. Though the lines we hear clearly have little bearing on the scene, the song does link to Hamlet, and Hamlet 2000 particularly, in several ways (see below). The nobles do not engage the man. It's a visual reference to the play without having to actually play the scene.

And yes, that means we don't get any interpretation of "Alas, poor Yorick", a brave thing when it's likely the most iconic image of the play. The modern trappings killed it. It would have been difficult to explain why a modern-day Gravedigger would have been throwing skulls out of a mass grave, or whether "king's jester" has enough of an equivalent to make any measure of sense in the context of the year 2000. We simply move directly to Ophelia's funeral and Hamlet's confrontation with Laertes.

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Only the first couple lines are heard, but the next has a reference to digging the earth, and to the businessmen who stand in as the play's nobility in the film. The verse is an equalizer, just like Hamlet's description of death, with neither businessmen (later, princes) nor plowmen knowing what's going on. Life treated as a joke is Hamlet's thing, so he can be the joker, or this may be a reference to Yorick. And by the end, we have two riders, Hamlet and Horatio, approaching and heralding something furious, a wildcat or howling wind. Though the song isn't about Hamlet, its lyrics do seem to fit a lot of the play's (and film's) details, and makes an interesting choice, even if it isn't featured in the movie enough to make those who don't already know it (and who recognize it from what little we hear) see how its words resonate with Shakespeare's.

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Kline '90

Another adaptation that cuts the 2nd Clown and a few lines besides, the sequence begins with the Gravedigger singing for quite a long time as Hamlet and Horatio approach. Kline's Hamlet is filled with foreboding, as if returning to Denmark to find his grave there, which is in fact what IS happening. There is an interesting hesitation when he inquires if it is a woman's grave, fearing it might be his mother's or Ophelia's, though his worries are dispelled by the clown's amusing rhetoric. MacIntyre Dixon really plays the character as a classic fool, drinking, giggling and taking his time, he is somewhat dense and generally tedious, but can tell what any fool can. The joke goes on a bit too long for Hamlet.
Kline's interaction with Yorick's skull is far more sober than most, keeping it at a certain distance and only the very end smiling wistfully. He doesn't seem transported to a happier time, but rather forces himself to look at the thing Yorick has become, resentful and almost angry that life is rendered into dust in the end. When this Hamlet asks Yorick where his flashes of merriment have gone, their loss is keenly felt, and questions about the undiscovered country are once again raised.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Zeffirelli '90

Hamlet and Horatio on horseback, coming down a winding road. They come upon the graveyard, where singing can be heard, and Hamlet stops to ask whose grave they're digging. "They" because the second gravedigger is present, even though his exchange with the first is cut from the film. It seems he wasn't even ask to fetch some liquor, and just stands witness to the Prince's conversation with his elder. Horatio has the same role to play - all his lines are cut - though we at least cut to his reactions. Horatio perhaps enjoys himself more than Hamlet does in this sequence. While both men get a kick out of the Gravedigger's wit, possibly the reason they dismount and talk to him a while longer, Hamlet eventually stops smiling, faced as he is with an open grave which might as well be his own.
Hamlet's reaction to Yorick's skill is really quite sweet, a good take for Gibson's rawer emotional Hamlet. Though he manages to show some repulsion, he seems transported to the past, to the laughs and the better times. There's affection, tenderness and melancholy in his eyes and speech as he shares his memories of the court jester. In the staging of it, Hamlet uncharacteristically sets the skull on a mound where he would usually hold it in one hand. That may be to give Yorick more autonomy as a character, make him "come alive" if you will, or more likely allows for a steadier close-up on Hamlet's face. Regardless, because the sequence ends with this instead of Hamlet's meditation on History's dead emperors, Yorick necessarily becomes our link to Hamlet's mortality and doom.

And that's an interesting image to focus on. Though Hamlet's death is presaged in that of Caesar and Alexander - great men returning to the earth - our "identification figure" in the realm of the rotting dead is Yorick, a simple clown unceremoniously buried in a common grave. The mirroring between First Clown (gravedigger) and Yorick, and between Yorick and Hamlet (who has taken the mantle of the fool) is unavoidable. Hamlet is looking at himself in the past (in happier times, but also in his guise as a madman) and the future (dust to dust), and this is more relevant than the more grandiose comparisons to powerful men in History, something Hamlet might have aspired to, but which was always denied him.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - BBC '80

Tim Wylton is a more overtly clownish Gravedigger, but one with no less personality. He is a self-important sort, whose jokes are geared to exalting his profession above that of others, and proving his superiority to his associate and to the two noblemen who stop by his grave. He is also a common sort, crass and gross, sleeping on a mound of freshly excavated earth and human remains, eating and drinking there as if unaware of how macabre it is. Because it isn't for him, and in the decaying Denmark metaphor, there is nowhere one can eat and rest that isn't a grave. Interesting staging on the suicide discussion: The Gravedigger uses a pail and a thigh bone to represent water and man. Even more interesting reading: The way he pronounces "will he, nill he", with the proper emphasis on the "h" sounds where many modern readings use "willy-nilly", recalls the original meaning of the expression - whether one wants to or not, as opposed to today's in haphazard fashion - but it also a sort of pun. The suicide wills their own annihilation; Ophelia "nilled" herself.

When Hamlet approaches, he seems tired and bitter. In the skulls flying from the grave, he sees a truth: That everyone, himself included, returns to that state. Everyone is the same in the end, even the noblest is on even terms with the lowest in society. And the Gravedigger represents this. He acts like he's the master of his realm, though others might consider him the lowest of the low, the unclean who touches the dead. Sleeping and eating at the grave, and later kissing Yorick's skull, his world is death and decay, and this is normal. Death and life are equated further in the way he tells Hamlet water is a "sore decayer of your whoreson dead body" as if it were a threat. It evokes the idea of Hamlet thinking of himself as a "whore's son", and that in dramatic (tragical) terms, he is already dead. And hasn't he just been to sea? Water is also associated with Ophelia and her death, which makes the comment even more twisted.
For Jacobi's Hamlet, Yorick's skull is truly repulsive and he does gag at it. He can't even bring himself to stroke it directly, but keeps his fingers at a short distance. His realization that we all return to dust goes from a tired melancholy, to anxious disgust, finally to accepting mockery. His thoughts on Alexander and Caesar see the black humor in it. When he smells his fingers at the very end, is it Yorick's deathly stench that stings his nostrils, or his own?

Through all this, Horatio seems sad and a little spooked by the scene. There certainly isn't the sense of camaraderie evident in Branagh's Hamlet, where the two fellow students team up to chuckle at the Clown. It feels like Horatio can sense what is about to happen and where the Prince's fatalistic dialog will take him. Everything he hears confirms this and he dare not give Hamlet his blessing. Not the most exciting performance, but the minimalism isn't out of character.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Olivier '48

Olivier mercilessly cuts lines, but he also adds to the play through visuals. He dissolves straight from Ophelia's watery grave to her earthly one. We here singing (just as she was singing). A shovel comes into view. The Gravedigger is hard at work, the top of the scene with the Second Clown is missing. He finds a skull, smiles at it in fond remembrance; this is Yorick. He sets it outside the grave for Hamlet to find. And it's this skull that's in the perfect position to give Hamlet's shadow the terrifying face of a Grim Reaper. Hamlet has returned and he is Death, but he is also already dead, as far as Fortune is concerned.

Stanley Holloway makes a good Gravedigger, a simple man who straddles the line between truthsayer and knave. He is sometimes too literal, sometimes pokes fun and sometimes is serious, but in a way that seems consistent. For example, when he delivers the line about the grave being for one that WAS a woman, he goes from the teasing the gentlemen to earnestness. This is what he really believes, that after death, a person ceases to be one and becomes an object. This is the philosophical distance he puts between himself and the beneficiaries of his work. And yet, he can fondly remember them in life, as he does with Yorick, catching the skull's absent nose with affection more than mockery. It can also be seen as sign of how perverse the Ghost is, how contrary it is to the laws of nature better represented by the literally grounded Gravedigger.
Hamlet may say he's repulsed by his late jester's chopless skull, and a touch of macabre realism is inserted when earth spills out of it at one point, but a smile never leaves his lips. He even animates the skull, bringing it close and reenacting a scene from his childhood by whispering in its missing ear. Again, we're seeing a Hamlet who is so close to death, he is already interacting with the dead. And perhaps, this has been so from the very beginning, and the reason the Ghost could speak to him. Metaphorically, Hamlet died the day his father did (they do have the same name, as revealed in this very scene).

A word on Horatio: He shares some of Hamlet's lines in this, so he too can tease the Gravedigger, and Hamlet gives him a sidelong look through most of the scene as if to make sure he doesn't give away the game and blurt out who Hamlet really is. Otherwise, he's the usual sounding board, though Hamlet has less to say in this version. The funeral party interrupts the scene and Hamlet never talks of Caesar or Alexander. But perhaps the visuals achieve the same effect.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Branagh '96

One of Branagh's tricks is to fill the smaller roles with big names to give them, and their words, more power and potency. Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger is one of the better examples of this. If there's a question as to whether this First Clown is foolishly dense (à la Dogberry) or pitting his wits against Hamlet, Crystal's performance and persona make it crystal clear that the latter is true. His Gravedigger is curious, thoughtful, witty, and used to being the smartest man in the room (in his circles anyway). And his incisive intelligence makes it clear as well that the text supports this interpretation better than the other. First, he has a reason to gently take down a nobleman, because he condemns them for having rights (in this case, suicide) the peasantry doesn't. There are nobles and there are noble professions. He sees the difference and it empowers him. Second, there comes a point when he wins the battle of wits, when Hamlet can't help but laugh, which in turn makes the Gravedigger smile. From then on, the Gravedigger answers questions straight, without word play or obfuscation. In other words, the first part of the exchange was a game, a character he was taking on, not unlike the madness assumed by Hamlet earlier. The Gravedigger twists words around and confounds Hamlet just as Hamlet had done to Polonius.

The other cameos are less obvious to American audiences, but still yield better performances than most. The Second Clown is played by Simon Russell Beale, for example, a famous stage Hamlet who gives his gravedigger a sweet innocence. The man is just happy to come up with an answer to the First Clown's joke, and so becomes the most basic of Shakespearean characters - one that hears and reacts to his own language. The dead clown in the scene, Yorick the jester, need not be played by anyone, but Branagh provides us with a flashback to Hamlet's youth - happier times - with Ken Dodd in Yorick's role. This has a few notable effects. It brings a reality to Hamlet's horror, as we too see the skull used to be a living, breathing, sparkling person. The flashbacks also give weight to the idea of Yorick as a surrogate father, though Hamlet Sr. is also in the flashbacks. The idea that Sr. is an idealized figure, while the real family had people like Yorick and Claudius in the actual, practical roles, is only slightly squelched by this. Finally, because Dodd's teeth are rather recognizable, it allows the production to create a similar skull, which is how the Gravedigger can tell who it is, and Hamlet can better recognize it as well.
Because we can tell the skulls apart, there seems to be some light satire to the idea that Hamlet at first identifies it as a lawyer's, and even absent any specific skull, could Shakespeare be doing the same in the text? Hamlet expounds on the decay of all these higher-class professions, but the revelation is that the one he's presented is a clown's. It's a subtle take-down of courtly life. Twisting it back on itself, the iconic image of Hamlet holding a clown's skull becomes a personal experience with death and decay, and turns a comedy scene into human drama again. Cutting to the Gravedigger who finds Hamlet's reaction rather deep and heavy provides some relief at least.

One of the lines that reached out for me in the performance is the one about Caesar's remains patching a wall to expel the winter's flaw. Perhaps it's the frozen-seeming, but winter and Denmark are necessarily connected in the play, and one might wonder if Hamlet is now seeing his own death as the required "patch" to fix a broken country. Everything he says from now on should be taken in the context of his readiness.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene

Shakespeare begins the final act with two clowns, literally comic relief for the audience when juxtaposed with Ophelia's suicide in the previous act. I have divided Scene 1 into two parts, the transition marked by the arrival of the burial party. In the first sequence, Hamlet enters, back from his trip abroad, and meditates on mortality, producing the most famous image from the play: Hamlet holding Yorick's skull. Reproducing this image on film is a necessary beat, and we'll see how different directors staged the action in the coming weeks. Before we begin our cinematic tour, however, let's look at the text itself. The Bard in italics, my comments interrupting in normal script, as usual.

SCENE I. A churchyard.
Enter two Clowns, with spades, & c

First Clown: Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?
Second Clown: I tell thee she is: and therefore make her grave straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.
First Clown: How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?
Second Clown: Why, 'tis found so.
First Clown: It must be 'se offendendo;' it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act: and an act hath three branches: it is, to act, to do, to perform: argal, she drowned herself wittingly.
Second Clown: Nay, but hear you, goodman delver,--
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,--mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is't; crowner's quest law.
Second Clown: Will you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o'Christian burial.
First Clown: Why, there thou say'st: and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their even Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam's profession.

Though "clowns", the gravediggers nevertheless discuss a serious topic, and some of the themes of the play. One of these is religious law's relationship to suicide (also touched on in "To be or not to be"), and another is Denmark's corruption, embodied by Claudius and in this case turning a suicide into an accidental death through legal wrangling. A question hidden in plain sight is whether Fortune, as a force in the play, is like the water that might come to a man and drown him? In other words, if Fate (and in Hamlet's case, we can conceivably talk about the rules and necessities of Tragedy, since he is continually trying to subvert the genre in which he is trapped) is a willful entity, is any character's suicide their own fault? And yes, this extends to Hamlet's suicide-by-Laertes, his readiness to die as suicidal as Ophelia's mad dive into a muddy brook. In less metaphysical terms, we may ask whether any given person's suicide was actually set in motion by events exterior to them. Is Ophelia to blame for her own death, or is Hamlet? Is Hamlet responsible for his doom, or was it inevitable from the moment Claudius killed his father?

Second Clown: Was he a gentleman?
First Clown: He was the first that ever bore arms.
Second Clown: Why, he had none.
First Clown: What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture says 'Adam digged:' could he dig without arms? I'll put another question to thee: if thou answerest me not to the purpose, confess thyself--
Second Clown: Go to.
First Clown: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?
Second Clown: The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.
First Clown: I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows does well; but how does it well? it does well to those that do in: now thou dost ill to say the gallows is built stronger than the church: argal, the gallows may do well to thee. To't again, come.
Second Clown: 'Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?'
First Clown: Ay, tell me that, and unyoke.
Second Clown: Marry, now I can tell.
First Clown: To't.
Second Clown: Mass, I cannot tell.

Enter HAMLET and HORATIO, at a distance

First Clown: Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating; and, when you are asked this question next, say 'agrave-maker: 'the houses that he makes last till doomsday. Go, get thee to Yaughan: fetch me a stoup of liquor.

Historical note: Apparently, Yaughan's was a tavern near the theater, an inside joke lost to the ages. As clowns, the gravediggers can break the fourth wall. This is sometimes done quite literally, with actors winking at the audience, but this is denied to film adaptations. In literary terms, clowns can still "break the fourth wall" by knowing more than the other characters do, often unconsciously, and they may have one foot in the real world (thus the reference to a local water hole; I'd be tempted to change the name to a nearby pub if I were to stage the play) and one in the fiction. This allows the clowns to tell truth to power because they are somehow disconnected from the nobler characters' authority. The First Clown's irreverent interactions with Hamlet are a good example.

Exit Second Clown
He digs and sings

In youth, when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet,
To contract, O, the time, for, ah, my behove,
O, methought, there was nothing meet.

HAMLET: Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?
HORATIO: Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.

Did many heads roll during Claudius' reign, Hamlet Sr.'s, or the transition between them? Or in Hamlet Sr.'s case, did many Danish soldiers die to win his wars? We can ask because the gravemaker is accustomed to digging graves and makes jokes about the gallows' thousands of "residents". Something is rotten in Denmark both figuratively (corruption, vain wars, political executions) and literally (the ground is filled with corpses, so many, some escape to walk the night).

HAMLET: 'Tis e'en so: the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.
First Clown: [Sings] But age, with his stealing steps,
Hath claw'd me in his clutch,
And hath shipped me intil the land,
As if I had never been such.

Throws up a skull

The throwing of skulls is important, not only to set up the famous moment, but to show this is a common grave. Ophelia is not to be buried alone. The implication may be the forgettable denizens of Elsinore (and those it wants to forget) get such a treatment, but in the greater rotten Denmark metaphor, you're likely to find bodies wherever you dig.

HAMLET: That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o'er-reaches; one that would circumvent God, might it not?

Cain's first murder is invoked, bringing us back to Claudius' fratricide.

HORATIO: It might, my lord.
HAMLET: Or of a courtier; which could say 'Good morrow, sweet lord! How dost thou, good lord?' This might be my lord such-a-one, that praised my lord such-a-one's horse, when he meant to beg it; might it not?
HORATIO: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Why, e'en so: and now my Lady Worm's; chapless, and knocked about the mazzard with a sexton's spade: here's fine revolution, an we had the trick to see't. Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with 'em? mine ache to think on't.

The "revolution" of the commoner fiddling with the bones of nobles repeats the image of the King working its way through the guts of a beggar from Act IV Scene iii.

First Clown: [Sings] A pick-axe, and a spade, a spade,
For and a shrouding sheet:
O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.

The gravedigger sings while digging Ophelia's grave. There's a certain poetic continuity to that. And like her, he sings of love and death.

Throws up another skull

HAMLET: There's another: why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?
HORATIO: Not a jot more, my lord.
HAMLET: Is not parchment made of sheepskins?
HORATIO: Ay, my lord, and of calf-skins too.
HAMLET: They are sheep and calves which seek out assurance in that. I will speak to this fellow. Whose grave's this, sirrah?
First Clown: Mine, sir.


O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.
HAMLET: I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in't.
First Clown: You lie out on't, sir, and therefore it is not yours: for my part, I do not lie in't, and yet it is mine.
HAMLET: 'Thou dost lie in't, to be in't and say it is thine: 'tis for the dead, not for the quick; therefore thou liest.
First Clown: 'Tis a quick lie, sir; 'twill away gain, from me to you.
HAMLET: What man dost thou dig it for?
First Clown: For no man, sir.
HAMLET: What woman, then?
First Clown: For none, neither.
HAMLET: Who is to be buried in't?
First Clown: One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she's dead.
HAMLET: How absolute the knave is! we must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us. By the Lord, Horatio, these three years I have taken a note of it; the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe. How long hast thou been a grave-maker?

One choice directors and actors must make is whether the gravedigger is actually a knave or if he's actually able to match wits with Hamlet. And whether Hamlet realizes this. Is "How absolute the knave is!" a compliment or a reproach? Part of the ambiguity is that the prince holds two simultaneous conversations, one with the gravedigger, the other with Horatio. Certainly, he responds to the Clown's audacity, and we may again see Claudius' reign at work. The present king is so base, the moral gap between peasant and courtier is abbreviated; respect for authority is undermined.

First Clown: Of all the days i' the year, I came to't that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
HAMLET: How long is that since?
First Clown: Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that: it was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he that is mad, and sent into England.
HAMLET: Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
First Clown: Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it's no great matter there.
First Clown: 'Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.
HAMLET: How came he mad?
First Clown: Very strangely, they say.
HAMLET: How strangely?
First Clown: Faith, e'en with losing his wits.
HAMLET: Upon what ground?
First Clown: Why, here in Denmark: I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.

The origin of one of the play's most famous "problems", Hamlet's age. If he is thirty, why is he still a student? We may once again invoke the line "Time is out of joint" and wonder if time didn't go by more quickly for those outside Elsinore than for those within. Was Hamlet gone for years? He returns changed and more resolved. That events in Elsinore seemed to speed by days or weeks after his exile may be an illusion. After all, Laertes has to return, a revolution has to spring up... How long was the Royal Family hiding in the castle before he broke down its doors? How long did Ophelia wanders its halls, a mad spirit, before she finally killed herself? All this to say, Hamlet may not have been anywhere near 30 at the beginning of the play, which would allow for his studies, general "teen angst" and for the Court to justify Claudius' usurpation of the throne as a kind of regency.

HAMLET: How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he rot?
First Clown: I' faith, if he be not rotten before he die--as we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in--he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.
HAMLET: Why he more than another?
First Clown: Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body. Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.

A major element of this sequence is Hamlet's fixation on decay and on the transformation from person to base matter that occurs after death. He is already contemplating his own, inevitable death and will compare himself, in effect, to Alexander and Caesar, other great nobles and intellects who nevertheless have been converted to soil, as he will be.

HAMLET: Whose was it?
First Clown: A whoreson mad fellow's it was: whose do you think it was?
HAMLET: Nay, I know not.
First Clown: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! a' poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester.
First Clown: E'en that.
HAMLET: Let me see.

Takes the skull

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.
HORATIO: What's that, my lord?
HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'the earth?
HORATIO: E'en so.
HAMLET: And smelt so? pah!

Puts down the skull

HORATIO: E'en so, my lord.
HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO: 'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
But soft! but soft! aside: here comes the king.

This is his metafictional anxiety. Hamlet is a character who knows himself to be a character in a tragedy, but in love with his own genius and language, tries to subvert that tragedy in various ways. He tries to make it a comedy with shows of madness. He tries to take control over through a proxy, The Mousetrap. And finds ways to delay his revenge so the tragic cycle never completes. All to keep his character alive. The play, once over, may or may not be a success. Will it become so much forgettable air, and its pages used to line some bird cage? Or will it transcend its "physical" existence and survive through words and reputation as Alexander and Caesar did? Hamlet is ever a mouthpiece for the author.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - French Rock Opera

Funereal and pretty, Johnny Hallyday's song plays the same role as Gertrude's speech, casting events in a fantastical light, as much in the lyrics as in the music, which is filled with angelic voices and fairy twinkles. Oddly, it ends on a piano solo that seems a song apart. These sad twinkles could be Laertes' reaction, or possibly, Ophelia's last song as she sinks below the waters, the truth behind Gertrude's grandiose lyrics. There is panic in neither piece of music, as if "incapable of her own distress" was taken literally. We'll discuss the lyrics after we listen to the song. The video is followed by the original French lyrics, then a doggerel translation for those readers who may not be up on that language.

La mort d'Ophélie
Un saule penché sur le ruisseau
Pleure dans le cristal des eaux
Ses feuilles blanches

Ophélie tressant des guirlandes
Vient présenter comme une offrande
Des fleurs, des branches

Pour caresser ses boutons d’or
Pour respirer son jeune corps
Le saule se penche

Mais sous elle un rameau se brise
Le saule en pleurs la retient prise
De part sa manche

Ophélie lui dit «qu’il est bon»
Quand le ruisseau dans un frisson
Casse la branche

Ophélie file au fil de l’eau
Qui vient gonfler son blanc manteau
Contre ses hanches

Son cri s’éteint comme une joie
La boue immonde où elle se noie
Prend sa revanche

Un saule penché sur le ruisseau
Pleure dans le cristal des eaux
Ses feuilles blanches

Ophelia's Death
A willow leaning over a stream
Weeps into the crystal of the waters
Its white leaves

Ophelia tressing garlands
Comes to present, as an offering
Flowers, branches

To caress her buttercups
To breathe in her young body
The willow leans

But under her, a bow breaks
The weeping willow keeps her from falling
On its sleeve

Ophelia tells him "he is so good"
When the stream in a shiver
Breaks the branch

Ophelia goes by on the water
That just inflated her white coat
Against her hips

Her cry is extinguished like a joy
The foul mud in which she drowns
Takes it revenge

A willow leaning over the stream
Weeps into the crystal of the waters
Its white leaves

The song is told from the willow's perspective; it stands in for Gertrude in this instance, but may weep just as much. The image is the same in French where a weeping willow is a saule pleureur, its tears its own garlands of leaves. The willow becomes the last being to have contact with Ophelia, and in these last moments, she knows love and peace. It's the stream that's villainous, that breaks the branch, that drowns the girl. Hallyday doesn't seem to believe in her suicide, and links the gravedigger's story of animated water forcibly drowning a person to redeem Ophelia. "The mud takes its revenge." While the tree is "good", the rest of Nature seems bent on killing this young woman, possibly because she has taken flowers and branches from Her. Obviously, that wilfulness is mere personification, but is Nature personified as specific people? Revenge is Hamlet's affair, and his vengeful quest is the reason her life has been smothered this day. The stream may just be the course of events, or the destructive power of Claudius, more active than muddy Hamlet, who started the ball rolling. And so the tree must be her father, her lone and ultimately useless protector. At least in her mind. One could also take the willow to be Gertrude - and my mind immediately goes to Desdemona's song in Othello, another object of men's affections doomed by them - an off-stage protector grooming Ophelia to be her son's wife, and in this story, weeping for her death and her own inability to prevent it.