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.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Classics Illustrated

Both comic book adaptations teach us about rushing through the play and its effects, though on stage, we would hardly get the same kind of superimposition caused by placing speech bubbles in the same panel/space.

The original
Gertrude is rather thrifty when it comes to telling Laertes his sister has drowned, the words coming out of her mouth even as she rushes through the door. Again, this is due to the way comics work, but keeping everything in the same speech bubble keeps pauses and hesitations out of the Queen's "voice". Her account of Ophelia's death is more detailed, taking up an entire page:
Pitched at a younger audience, Ophelia's death appears to be entirely accidental, albeit as result of her madness. In her poor judgment, she climbs up on a very slim branch, which breaks under her weight. An important lesson about safety, perhaps, but not a suicide. In the end, even her garlands desert her as she sinks to the bottom of the brook.

The Berkley version

The Grant/Mandrake adaptation is even more rushed, though it includes more dialog. Laertes is told not while he's kneeling (or did he just fall to his knees upon hearing the news?) in the cemetery. It's likely that is his father's grave. The next panel looks beautiful, though there seems to be some confusion as to who's crying eyes those are. The speech bubble pointing to the face means them to be the Queen's, but they rather look more like Laertes'. Regardless, the one shot of Ophelia is evocative of John Everett Millais' famous painting of Ophelia.
The cemetery setting underscores Laertes' loss of all family. Notably, his crying despite his announced restraint is cut, so this Laertes manages to hold it together. See also how Claudius' last lines, because they are included in a panel in which Laertes has not yet exited, plays like an aside. Does this Claudius actually fear Laertes' rage against HIM will start up again, or is it an unnecessary confusion resulting from the medium?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Tennant (2009)

Penny Downie is a most vulnerable Gertrude, running in covered in a black shroud, with no make-up, as if having just been awakened with this news. She's actually caught out by Laertes' simple question "where?", hesitating as if she wasn't expecting him to ask. She reaches for the details, possibly inventing them based on the rough outline she's been given, perhaps hoping it actually happened as she tells it, and at times, regretting her choice of words. For example, she seems disturbed by her realization that long purples are also called dead men's fingers. The emphasis brings to the fore the idea that Ophelia is in a way in her dead father's grip, the flowery metaphor turning macabre and dragging her down to her death, in an echo of Hamlet Sr.'s ghostly manifestations. Ophelia, the female (and thus socially powerless) Hamlet, isn't visited by the specter of her father, except in this image.

Claudius seems stunned by the whole affair. Not just Gertrude's story, but Laertes' weepy reaction as well. It's true that he surprisingly lets them speak without ever interjecting, even though Ophelia's death may affect his plans. At most, he seems tired. When Gertrude reaches out for comfort, he fails to notice her gesture and instead rebukes her for what Laertes might now do. She's shaken by how little he cares about her or Ophelia, and how much he cares for his own safety.

One last note, about the director and cinematographer's intent. While Gertrude speaks, the camera moves to a slightly overhead angle so the black polished floor can take on the properties of a murky reflective pool, bringing the muddy brook into the room. It's a neat piece of staging, but not as obvious as the production would have liked it, I think. Still, an element to steal and realize better in future adaptations.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Fodor (2007)

The Ophelia in this adaptation is a junkie, now in withdrawal after her sister Polonia's death, as she was her "medicator". When she finds a syringe and tries to shoot up, she dies from an overdose. Her death is intercut with the previous sequence, increasing the tension, but also drawing a link between the talk of the poison and the girl accidentally poisoning herself. Because events are so different from the ones related by Gertrude, the Queen isn't needed here and does not appear. It's a small mercy, because the actress' handle on the English language is limited. It's not clear that she would have given the speech what it needed.

In contrast to Claudius and Laertes discussing Hamlet in a dark room, Ophelia's sequences are blown-out, a pure white bleaching the color out of the film. The sound design is just as extreme. We may be hearing and seeing her madness and her ecstasy, or we may be experiencing the scenes from the Ghost's limbo. He watches as Ophelia "drowns" in her narcotic bliss, chokes, convulses and finally stops moving. Suddenly, her body is on the beach in the same position. Were we there all along? Has the Ghost moved her? The latter is suggested. He continues to watch as Claudius and Laertes run to her silent (as per the sound design) and apparently unbidden.

One of Fodor's key ideas is keeping the Ghost in the play all the way through as an unseen observer, although here it is suggested he takes an active hand in Ophelia's death. She finds the heroin under mysterious and fortuitous (in a sense) circumstances, in a room filled with his signature white light. He moves her body where she might be found by the people upon whom he wants revenge. Or since this will arguably push Hamlet over the edge, perhaps he's engineering events so that his son finally kills Claudius like he promised. The more his tardy son waits, the more blood will be shed. Fodor's Ghost is a figure from horror stories whose agency is more direct.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Hamlet 2000

Because Gertrude's speech refers to things absent in the modern adaptation - the brook, the flowers, Ophelia's dress - it is completely cut from the play, as is Laertes' scripted reaction. Nothing after the multiple utterances of "drowned" can be heard from either of them, and the film instead opts for an image that contains information one would have gleaned from the text.

In Hamlet 2000, Ophelia is frequently seen flirting with the idea of drowning. She throws herself in a VIP pool with her clothes on, she walks the edge of a fountain in the lobby. It's in that fountain that she is found, drowned in barely a foot of water, and though these things happen, it is just askew enough an image to underline the madness of it. Ophelia simply let herself die. A security guard runs in to try and rescue her but is too late, which answers the question of whether Gertrude was witness to the events or not. Of course, she might have seen it happen from one of the lobby's high balconies and been unable to do anything about it, just as in an Elizabethan or Medieval setting, the Queen might have seen it all from a tower window. The shot ends on her box of letters from Hamlet, floating by her body in the fountain, telling us more definitively that her suicide was driven by lost love, though the letters are also a symbol of the tug of war between her father and her lover - the letter revealed to the Royals, the tokens returned to Hamlet as an excuse to spy on him, and so on - so does double duty.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Kline '90

As this production recreates the play as Kline crafted it on stage, the scene does not allow a flashback to the events Gertrude describes. It does, however, make sense of how wary Laertes is. His reaction to the news is to mistrust it, and his initial question (where?) drips with disbelief. Though he's just been "turned" by Claudius, the King has also shown him how devious and underhanded he could be (the convoluted murder conspiracy). Could Ophelia have been the victim of a similar plot, lest her madness reveal some hidden truths at Court? Because we don't see her suicide, we're allowed to be suspicious as well. Gertrude is certainly sincere, but did she actually witness those events (and thus is guilty of letting them happen), or was she told? And if told, how reliable was the witness? The problem with such an interpretation is that Claudius shouldn't be upset about this death affecting his plans for Hamlet (except with himself, but that's not the performance here).

Dana Ivey stresses the words "cold maid", which is an illuminating choice, as Ophelia is indeed the coldest of maids now. It's doubly interesting because this adaptation's Ophelia, Diane Venora, seems a little old for the part. Was she really a "maid", or is that part of Gertrude's tale to cushion the blow as much as the prettiness of the picture she paints?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Zeffirelli '90

In Zeffirelli's restructuring of the play, Ophelia's last scene is immediately succeeded by her suicide. We see her outside Elsinore, skipping towards the brook while, in voice-over, Gertrude tells the tale. Before cutting to the Queen and the reactions of the court, we get a close-up of Ophelia on the small bridge staring into the water, obviously disturbed. There is no doubt here that this was a suicide and far from the lyrical portrait painted by Gertrude. One simply cannot imagine this Ophelia being "incapable of her own distress"; her pain is too raw.

Is Gertrude painting a pretty picture for Laertes' benefit? She may be. From all the wide shots, including one at the very end with the girl's body floating away, no one seems to have witnessed her death. Gertrude may be enacting a sort of reconstruction based on Ophelia's old habits, the state she was found in, and her own wishful imagination. Glenn Close's performance supports that idea, tearfully smiling through most of it (except for the "muddy death" line) even though women in black are grieving behind her. She's chosen to remember the girl's prettiness, not the ugly side of her madness, and she smiles as one might at a eulogy, in fond remembrance. Laertes is simply shocked, and his "drowned" lines cut back to the scene of Ophelia's death, the camera panning away from her. He can't bear to imagine it.

Now, there are some cuts here, mostly because Gertrude didn't interrupt a conspiracy. Laertes and Claudius will only discuss Hamlet's murder after the Prince's return and Ophelia's funeral. Laertes doesn't get to forbid his tears, nor can Claudius be angry at Gertrude for disturbing his plan.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - BBC '80

The staging here is fairly standard, with the scene playing on a stunned Gertrude, no flashbacks, etc. Interesting things about the performance include her looking straight at Claudius when opening on "woes" (though there's no sign of ironic intent from her), and a breathless delivery, as if she was fighting the urge to pass out.

David Robb's Laertes is slightly over the top at times, but he makes some interesting choices too. His "Oh", a line that can come off as risible, plays as a sigh as he sits down, the wind taken out of his sails. And at the end, he positively shouts the tears out of his eyes, his voice blazing with anger, giving Claudius' reproach to Gertrude the carp of truth. Since Laertes does look angry, Claudius could be setting up Hamlet's death in the duel. He did his best to calm the boy down, but in the end, that's why the duel went wrong. Laertes as willing patsy.

Second Quarto vs. Folio
The Folio, usually used as master text, has Ophelia singing snatches of old tunes. The BBC adaptation uses the Second Quarto's "snatches of old lauds" instead. "Lauds" in this context are hymns praising God, while "tunes" is a more generic term that would easily include the bawdy snippets heard earlier from Ophelia. Critics have been divided on the word choice, some finding contradiction in the sexual nature of the songs we do hear and Ophelia's Christian values in her final moments. Is there though? Her last lines on stage were a prayer for mercy for all Christian souls, and it's in that frame of mind that she went to her watery grave. Her fury, sexual/marital frustration and grief all spent, a calmer, more nihilistic madness came over her in the end. It's possible Gertrude is fudging the details to comfort Laertes, but her expression makes this unlikely.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Olivier '48

Olivier opts for a very literal interpretation of the scene, done completely in voice-over, showing Gertrude's story as fact. In the restructuring of the play, we go directly from Ophelia's madness scene to the suicide, though the literalism turns it into an accident. The camera struggles to follow her out of doors, and turning the corner, finds she's gone. But the brook is in the background outside the next doorway. We then cut to a shot of the swampy stream under the weeping willow and, panning left, find Ophelia singing some songs normally in the previous scene. floating on a cushion of vines. She floats out of shot, vines trailing her for a while, and by the time the camera pans to where she would be, she's gone, swallowed up. As painless for the audience as it is for her. Fade to the next scene's tombstones.

A rather efficient and fairly unambiguous scene then, though one could make the claim that we're seeing a product of Gertrude's or Laertes' imagination.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Branagh '96

Laertes already isn't the most voluble of characters, but learning of his sister's suicide has him react with a simple "oh", an example of Shakespeare showing he wasn't paid by the word, but actually fit word to emotion. What would you say in that situation? What is there to say? Michael Maloney's Laertes is stunned, can't process the information, and by the time Gertrude finishes her account, is still on "she's drowned". Did he even hear the story, need she have told it? Once he's cried, the woman will be out, not just his "female" nature, but he'll have exorcised Ophelia from his life as well. We might compare this image of grief to Hamlet's refusal to exorcise his dead father.

Julie Christie's performance as Gertrude has a lot to fawn over as well. The pace at which she tells the story tells us it's not a prepared speech, she's feeling herself through it, either reliving the experience herself (Branagh's take) or fabricating it out of whole cloth (a cynical take in which the truth might have Ophelia escaping her cell, getting pursued and falling accidentally into the brook). Either way, she couches her words to bring Laertes comfort, making it sound like Ophelia never suffered, her death a lyrical event filled with flowers and prettiness. Christie's hesitation is precisely what highlights Gertrude's word choice.

And if she means to console Laertes, Claudius' angry reaction is even more of a bad move. It shows his motives were self-interested, while hers were genuinely altruistic. She refuses to follow him when asked, and he realizes he's said the wrong thing, and that their relationship is no longer what it was. In effect, she not only refuses his protection, but condemns him for offering it.

Before moving on, we're given a single shot of Ophelia's face a watery surface. And then it's off to meet the clowns. Shakespeare's ironic editing.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death

The tail end of Scene 7 is Gertrude's description of Ophelia's suicide, which immediately asks the question: Did Gertrude watch the girl die and do nothing? Is she instead recounting news as related to her, and who is the original witness who failed to intervene? Even more choices are open to film director who may, unlike stage productions, actually show the event, perhaps without even the benefit of Shakespeare's words supporting the images. This is why I've chosen to isolate such a short sequence. Before heading into the various adaptations, let's take a look at the language itself. As usual, the Bard is in italics, and I use normal script to break in.


CLAUDIUS: How now, sweet queen!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow; your sister's drown'd, Laertes.
LAERTES: Drown'd! O, where?

A strange question. Not "how", but "where". The "why" is self-evident, and so perhaps is the "how". Laertes may assume it's a suicide and not an accident, from what he's seen of his sister's madness, and only wants to go to her.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:

The vegetable imagery, already associated with Ophelia, is here distinctly melancholy. The scene takes place by a "weeping" willow, and dead men's fingers are at once a reference to her dead father and through their grosser name (usually dogstones, but there's a selection of testicular nicknames that might be appropriate), to the question of sexuality and whether or not she slept with Hamlet. The two ideas intermingled in her mad rants.

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

With "coronet" we get the image of a flowery crown, a parody of the crown she might have worn had she become Hamlet's queen. Like Hamlet, her royal destiny has been aborted by Court intrigue.

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

The mermaid image takes us to the sea on which Hamlet has recently sailed. Like her, his life has been saved by that sea, but only temporarily. For Ophelia, death comes swiftly. Hamlet gets another Act, but no more.

Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
LAERTES: Alas, then, she is drown'd?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Drown'd, drown'd.
LAERTES: Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears: but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord:
I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze,
But that this folly douts it.


KING CLAUDIUS: Let's follow, Gertrude:
How much I had to do to calm his rage!
Now fear I this will give it start again;
Therefore let's follow.


In reality, Claudius fears Laertes' rage will be smothered by this new grief, though he says the opposite. We'll see how the acting and staging impacts the sequence in the weeks to come.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Classics Illustrated

The original
One of the side-effects of converting Hamlet to a "boys' adventure" comic is that while many scenes are reduced to a single panel or even caption, the ones that feature ghosts or swordplay are expanded. This is how this scene, despite extensive cuts in the dialog, comes out to almost four pages. This is achieved by having the plotters both flash back to moments prior to the play or imagine their plot coming to fruition. So for example, the story of Lamond (though note the alternative spelling) is recounted and seen:
As gratuitous a panel as they come, though it presents the Normand's prowess on horseback without actually mentioning it. The next panel has Hamlet sparring with him and admitting his jealousy of Laertes, clumsily re-purposing Claudius' line into "I wish and beg Laertes sudden coming o'er to play with him." We then see Laertes' successfully getting his revenge; we're into fantasy.
And strangely, after Laertes gets his poison out, a caption tells us the King has his own poison, not making it clear Laertes is told this.
As a staging idea, it's interesting. The King could speak those lines as an aside and let Laertes believe he is indeed the best swordsman in the land instead of impugning his abilities with his back-up plan.

The Berkley version
Taking the opposite tack, the more modern adaptation doesn't use the scene at all, which may turn out to be a mistake. In a film, moments and expression can make clear that props have been poisoned, that the plotters are working together, and so forth. In a comic, it is much more difficult given the space available. Meaningful cuts to a face, a weapon, a cup, may not come across the same way. We'll see.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Tennant (2009)

This whole section is one of the biggest structural changes director Gregory Doran made to the play. By moving the "My thoughts be bloody" speech where Horatio usually receives the letters, and cutting the messengers entirely, he a jump cuts from Hamlet's bloody thoughts to Laertes' own. The young man is sitting in the straircase we associate with the Polonius household and Ophelia, playing with a sharp object. Claudius walks in and immediately asks if his father was dear to him, everything before - and a lot of what comes after - is cut. There's an interesting repurposing of the line "Hamlet comes back". Instead of acting as a premise for the next question, it's a statement of fact, an announcement as Claudius holds up the prince's letter. A change of venue brings the two of them to Claudius' domain, the dark throne room.

It's obvious Laertes has been told, off-stage, about Hamlet's participation in his father's murder, and he's already thinking about getting his revenge. He's quick to answer when the King tells him about his plan, though one should wonder, as Doran does on the commentary track, why Laertes already has the poison. What would this have been for? He came back to Denmark sword in hand, so it wasn't for the King. For himself, perhaps? For a sort of honorable suicide after committing regicide? Or is he just the kind of person who buys such things in case he ever needs it, and thus quite dishonorable? It's not clear. But though he has his own ideas about how to kill Hamlet, the cuts make the scene play out as less of a seduction. Claudius brings fewer arguments to bear, even assumes Laertes will participate and do what he's told. Laertes is eager. As usual, these cuts weaken Laertes' character, reducing him to a pawn. In his wrathful state, he doesn't even question the King's laugh as he thinks of his back-up plan.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Fodor (2007)

Fodor actually intercuts this scene with Ophelia going to her death, making the two moments more overtly simultaneous and giving Fortune justification for killing a young girl. As Laertes plots against Hamlet for the loss of one sister (the feminized Polonia, so Claudius "loving" Laertes' sister has extra meaning), another is taken from him as payment for his sin. Ophelia's death we will discuss at a later date, but the editing does give the Claudius-Laertes scene more forward momentum and contrasts talk of death with death actually happening. This is largely the function of the darkness in this candle-lit scene, contrasting with the whiteness of Ophelia's ecstatic world (and this "Denmark" in general), though of course, it fits the mood of the conspiracy.

Notably, Laertes initially refuses a glass of wine from Claudius, which is how we might track the seduction (not that this psychotic Laertes needs much prodding, he must only be convinced of the specific plan). The idea of the rapier duel is made acceptable in a modern setting by the inclusion of the oft-cut Lamond, introducing Laertes' reputation for fencing into an era that would normally not feature swords, but Laertes grimaces at first. He'll do it, but it needs something more. He adds poison to the mix (meanwhile, Ophelia is poisoning herself with drugs), and cold, unblinking Claudius puts some in a wine cup as his plan B. Only then does Laertes accept a glass, and they drink together, not realizing this wine is poisoned too. Sealing this deal, they've put into motion the mechanism of their own deaths. They might as well have drunk the venom directly.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Hamlet 2000

Though it does suffer some important cuts, the scene is well-played and well-staged, and features some interesting innovations. For example, there's a bodyguard in the room, which makes sense after Laertes tried to kill Claudius. They can't be left alone together. It also means Claudius has soldiers loyal to him - his power is still real - or else he wouldn't conspire to kill the Prince in front of a third party. The other interesting idea is to stage the scene so Gertrude is in the next room. Low voices, furtive glances, the tension is raised considerably and the conspirators made more conspiratorial as a result.

Laertes accepts Claudius' excuses and is shown the gun Hamlet used in an evidence bag, but his expression is clear. The Royal Family survives while his own pays the price. The State screws the People over (though obviously, the Polonius family wasn't exactly middle-class). He is otherwise cold towards the King, his mind elsewhere perhaps, as he fiddles with Ophelia's hair comb, but that gives a nice spin on the line about warming the sickness of his heart, which in turn highlights Claudius' own about an "ulcer". The only emotion Laertes will allow himself to have is that sickness, a need for revenge, a hate beyond all hate.

Among the many cuts, we of course find the Normand material, which doesn't fit the setting, but also the details of the assassination scheme. In fact, what the characters fear throughout actually happens and Gertrude walks in on them, earlier than in the play. She cuts them off just as Laertes was about to answer Claudius' question about what he would do to show himself his father's son.

A final note: The fax machine used to deliver Hamlet's message turns this "modern-day" version into a period piece after all.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Kline '90

The scene suffers a number of cuts, starting slightly later, removing Lamond (as often happens), and any mention of the wick or snuff that could make Laertes hesitate. This Laertes is consequently all anger, and Claudius has no reason to challenge his commitment. One could almost believe Laertes had always held a certain malice against the prince who was wooing (if we're being tactful) his sister, who had more privileges than he did, who perhaps flaunted his wit and education around the castle. These events have just exacerbated an already tense relationship. One could also believe Laertes already has murder on his mind, and that he comes off thinking he's manipulated the King into giving him permission (which he does, in the sanctuary line). This might explain why his body language is so conspiratorial, giving Claudius a signal to keep quiet when a messenger comes in (after all, he has no reason to think Hamlet's already been sent to his death). Still, Claudius can't know the boy's mind, so does manipulate him a little bit, mostly by repeating the fact that Hamlet is returning, fueling that crucial anger.

This Claudius isn't as cold as some of the others, however, and Brian Murray lays fear into his performance. He's breathless, distracted, has to sit down. He almost shows his hand to the messenger, unwarrantably surprised and angry that the letter comes from Hamlet. It makes his plans sound more improvised and desperate. He's no mastermind, and we understand that it's all getting away from him. And Laertes is foolish to think it's a done deal, smiling like some psychopath and acting suspiciously when Gertrude comes in with some terrible news...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Zeffirelli '90

As with Olivier's adaptation, Zeffirelli moves this scene (or what's left of it) to after Ophelia's funeral and Hamlet's return. The lines cut have the usual effect of weakening Laertes and making him a simple tool for Claudius to use. Here he seems almost gleeful at the thought of killing Hamlet, despite returning from his sister's funeral. He doesn't need to be favorably compared to a Normand horseman, or incensed with talk of his snuffable whick, or even to hear what Claudius has planned. In fact, we cut away before the King reveals it, removing Laertes' part in poisoning the blade. We cut to Osric inviting Hamlet to the bout, and will be shown the scheme as it unfolds, but one would come off thinking it was ALL Claudius' idea.

For all my railing at the black hat portrayal of Claudius in this film, the performance here does have some humanity. Because he speaks to camera, his back to Laertes, when he talks of his love for Gertrude (ironically slipping away at this point), it is sincere, not a manipulation or facile excuse. Rather, it's a moment tinged in shame and he laughs at his own folly, an echo of Polonius telling us he once suffered maddening love himself. Perhaps he thinks of Hamlet and how everyone but him thought love was the cause of his malaise. Love's denier caught in a moment of self-realization that he himself has done the irrational for love's sake.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - BBC '80

Though lines were not cut from the top of this version, the direction still makes it seem like we're catching a conversation in progress. Claudius has been telling Laertes the story of Hamlet's madness and of Polonius' murder. But it hasn't made the best impression. Laertes is still bitter and the performances sell the idea that while the younger man does not think the King is responsible, he still has a lot to answer for in the way he dealt with the aftermath. So it's up to Claudius to disarm Laertes, which he never really manages to do. Showing himself vulnerable, laughing at Laertes' (earnest) "jests", complimenting him on his skills, asking for his counsel... Claudius tries it all. What seems to resonate best is mirroring his bitterness, accusing him of being less than dutiful and such. But Laertes never lets down his guard, never smiles or gets excited. He's a dead man walking.

How much of Claudius' dialogue is sincere is difficult to gauge. It's a safe bet that asking Laertes for advice is a ploy, because Polonius' son is a rather dense character. (As with Olivier's version, Laertes recognizing Lamond is cut from the script, which reinforces his lack of wit.) Patrick Stewart's performance while Laertes explains his plot to poison his sword adds a new wrinkle as well. Given that being the instrument of Hamlet's death and this poison sword business are both Laertes' contributions and not Claudius', it makes sense for the King to see them as wild cards. Though Laertes' scheme is meant to ensure Hamlet's death, it's specifically what makes Claudius start spinning back-up plans. Why? Unless he doesn't really think Laertes' skills are up to the job? He may believe they are initially, but if Laertes himself was confident, he wouldn't need to use poison and lay his hopes on a mere scratch. So if Laertes only hopes for a scratch, then maybe the King would do well not to expect even that. Their failure is all laid in ahead of time here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Olivier '48

Olivier moves this scene to a later position, AFTER Ophelia's burial and Hamlet's return, even conflating it with elements of Scene 5 ("let the great axe fall"), with Claudius capitalizing on Laertes' refreshed grief and anger (this time with Hamlet as the target) to get Laertes on his murderous plan. The front of the sequence moves the characters from the graveyard, up steps into Elsinore. It's there that Laertes is left alone in a way he never is in the play as written, his lines becoming a short soliloquy about what he's lost and the outrages done to his sister, even as he watches the gravedigger shovel dirt into her grave. (It also shows off the set's impressive depth.) But his wish for revenge is overheard by Claudius who recaptures him in that moment.

Through the whole sequence, Laertes seems spent. He's angry at Hamlet, but accepts Claudius' explanations rather easily. Over drinks, the King more or less informs him of the plan. With the cuts to the dialog, Laertes has less to say and when compared to other adaptations, there's less of a sense of a master manipulator making Laertes think it was all his idea to begin with. The Norman cavalier Lamond, for example, is not named (though lovers of the play will find a huge painting of a knight in the room to be in reference to him), only spoken about as a fan of Laertes'. Olivier's cuts weaken the character, and that's a problem for this scene, because Basil Sydney's Claudius is also a weakened character. Weakened more by the two-dimensional, mustache-twirling performance than the cuts, though they of course don't help.

Claudius does get one of his better moments in this scene, however, when he moves over to his throne and fondles it as he speaks his lines about "that we would do". It becomes a confession and justification for his own fratricide (indeed highlighting the idea that Hamlet and Laertes were likely brought up as brothers). It's a testament to Claudius as man of action, the man who acted on a "should", as always in contrast with Hamlet.

Interesting camera movement as the various additions are made to Claudius' plan. It - and we've been trained to think of Olivier's camera as either the Ghost's point-of-view or at least to have some kind of personality and morality - tracks back at the end of each ploy. As pure narration, it wants to leave when the plan is final, but the characters keep drawing it back in to amend it with another lethal element. By the third time, it's almost mocking the complexity of the plan. It feels like a joke. On a moral level, the camera recoils at the murderous instinct, tries to leave though it can't look away. Once done, it moves to another part of the castle and finds Hamlet and Horatio, who will also be making plans and discussing the "would" and the "should", or what Hamlet calls "readiness". Olivier ties the two speeches together by juxtaposing the scenes more closely.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Branagh '96

It's always exciting when lines glossed over in the text are made more interesting and given more power when performed. This happens a couple times in Branagh's well-executed adaptation, featuring an intense but slightly dense Laertes and a devious, always thinking Claudius. They've met over drinks, a sign of their coming together, but also an echo of the poison drink Claudius will offer Hamlet. This whole conversation is also poisonous, meant to poison Laertes' mind, infect it with an idea he would not have thought up himself. In practical terms, the fact Claudius has a drink in hand serves as inspiration for this particular back-up plan. The way Branagh stages the opening part of the scene, Claudius keeps his distance while giving excuses, watching for Laertes' dangerous anger, gauging when best to approach. Laertes' weakness is Ophelia, and it's when he grieves for his sister that the King dares approach, even squeezing Laertes' shoulder in comfort. That's his opening gambit, the rest is all rhetoric to convince Laertes to help him murder Hamlet (by poison, of course, that's his modus operandi).

One line Jacobi gives a nice reading to is "for youth no less becomes / The light and careless livery that it wears / Than settled age his sables and his weeds, / Importing health and graveness." This contrasts, in Claudius' mind, youth and maturity, an opinion that partly explains why his plan will fail. A young man (Hamlet, but more accurately Laertes) is careless and carefree, while an older man is prosperous (a winner) and dignified. Thinking of Hamlet as a youth is a mistake (and part of the play's ambiguity about this 40-year-old "student"), one that underestimates him thoroughly.

The fannish enthusiasm for the Normand Lamond also attracts attention. I was previously unsure of the character's role in the drama except as a way to awe and recruit Laertes, but the description of his as a sort of beast-man, half-man, half-horse, is part of the accumulation of imagery that contrasts Hamlet's behavior with that of men of action. The way he's described, Lamond is all instinct, all action, and apparently something Hamlet aspired to at one point (and in a way, still does). The flattering comparison Claudius makes seduces Laertes, who is much closer to Lamond's instincts already, into becoming such a "beast", as only soulless animals would commit violent murder in a church.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction

I've decided to split Act IV Scene 7 into two sequences: Claudius' Seduction (of Laertes) and Ophelia's Death. The latter is rather short, but its visual imagery is something adaptations tend to approach in a variety of ways, making it worthy of its own series of analyses. The first sequence is much longer, even more so when one considers the conversation started in Scene 5. The sequence is a mirror of Hamlet's first meeting with the Ghost, in which an older father figure counsels a young man to plot a murder.The extent to which the two scene might be staged to highlight this link rests on the each adaptation's director, and will be one of the elements to look out for over the coming articles. What are the differences between the Ghost's rhetorical approach and the King's? Is the Ghost's less convincing, or is Hamlet's delay his responsibility alone? How does Claudius ensure a different result and what can we infer from his brand of leadership? To begin to answer these questions, lets look at Shakespeare's original text (in italics). I'll break in with my thoughts (in normal script) when appropriate.

SCENE VII. Another room in the castle.

KING CLAUDIUS: Now must your conscience my acquaintance seal,
And you must put me in your heart for friend,
Sith you have heard, and with a knowing ear,
That he which hath your noble father slain
Pursued my life.
LAERTES: It well appears: but tell me
Why you proceeded not against these feats,
So crimeful and so capital in nature,
As by your safety, wisdom, all things else,
You mainly were stirr'd up.
KING CLAUDIUS: O, for two special reasons;
Which may to you, perhaps, seem much unsinew'd,
But yet to me they are strong. The queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks; and for myself--
My virtue or my plague, be it either which--
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her. The other motive,
Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces; so that my arrows,
Too slightly timber'd for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aim'd them.

Not only did Hamlet kill Laertes' father and drive his sister insane, he's conveniently not there to defend himself. So it's clever of Claudius to also blame his own inaction in this matter on Hamlet and those who love him. If the King did not take immediate action against the Prince, it's because it would have gone against the Queen and the public's will. Claudius does not take responsibility.

LAERTES:And so have I a noble father lost;
A sister driven into desperate terms,

If this sounds like Hamlet's own "That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd" (IV.iv), that's because it's meant to be.

Whose worth, if praises may go back again,
Stood challenger on mount of all the age
For her perfections: but my revenge will come.
KING CLAUDIUS: Break not your sleeps for that: you must not think
That we are made of stuff so flat and dull
That we can let our beard be shook with danger
And think it pastime. You shortly shall hear more:
I loved your father, and we love ourself;
And that, I hope, will teach you to imagine--

Let us note here that, at this point, Laertes thinks Hamlet is still alive, though Claudius should believe he is dead at English hands or at least well on his way to be. He's about to reveal his already enacted plan when a messenger cuts him off mid-confession.

Enter a Messenger

How now! what news?
MESSENGER: Letters, my lord, from Hamlet:
This to your majesty; this to the queen.
KING CLAUDIUS: From Hamlet! who brought them?
MESSENGER: Sailors, my lord, they say; I saw them not:
They were given me by Claudio; he received them
Of him that brought them.
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, you shall hear them. Leave us.

Exit Messenger

'High and mighty, You shall know I am set naked on your kingdom. To-morrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes: when I shall, first asking your pardon thereunto, recount the occasion of my sudden and more strange return. 'HAMLET.'

Hamlet insults the King by writing his letter in prose, a mode of talk usually reserved for peasants, though also for close friends. The phrasing is that of a loyal, even fawning, subject throwing himself on the King's mercy. Either the King buys this and is a fool, or takes it as scathing sarcasm. It'll be in the playing of it.

What should this mean? Are all the rest come back?
Or is it some abuse, and no such thing?
LAERTES: Know you the hand?
KING CLAUDIUS: 'Tis Hamlets character. 'Naked!
And in a postscript here, he says 'alone.'
Can you advise me?

Another rhetorical tool to draw Laertes in: Claudius, though the man in charge, who has the most information and is by far the most devious, asks for Laertes' advice. The younger man comes up empty (see?), but this has the function of making him more complicit in what will unfold next. Claudius' goal is to make Hamlet's murder LAERTES' idea, thus wiping his hands clean of it.

LAERTES: I'm lost in it, my lord. But let him come;
It warms the very sickness in my heart,
That I shall live and tell him to his teeth,
'Thus didest thou.'
KING CLAUDIUS: If it be so, Laertes--
As how should it be so? how otherwise?--
Will you be ruled by me?
LAERTES: Ay, my lord;
So you will not o'errule me to a peace.
KING CLAUDIUS: To thine own peace. If he be now return'd,
As checking at his voyage, and that he means
No more to undertake it, I will work him
To an exploit, now ripe in my device,
Under the which he shall not choose but fall:
And for his death no wind of blame shall breathe,
But even his mother shall uncharge the practise
And call it accident.
LAERTES: My lord, I will be ruled;
The rather, if you could devise it so
That I might be the organ.

Laertes had one last chance to wipe his own hands clean, but didn't take it. And so, Laertes becomes a willing instrument of Claudius' revenge because he feels it was his idea (to be included). Compare to Hamlet who was forced to swear to an action that proved to be beyond him.

KING CLAUDIUS: It falls right.
The word "falls" falls right indeed.

You have been talk'd of since your travel much,
And that in Hamlet's hearing, for a quality
Wherein, they say, you shine: your sum of parts
Did not together pluck such envy from him
As did that one, and that, in my regard,
Of the unworthiest siege.
LAERTES: What part is that, my lord?
KING CLAUDIUS: A very riband in the cap of youth,
Yet needful too; for youth no less becomes
The light and careless livery that it wears
Than settled age his sables and his weeds,
Importing health and graveness. Two months since,
Here was a gentleman of Normandy:--
I've seen myself, and served against, the French,
And they can well on horseback: but this gallant
Had witchcraft in't; he grew unto his seat;
And to such wondrous doing brought his horse,
As he had been incorpsed and demi-natured
With the brave beast: so far he topp'd my thought,
That I, in forgery of shapes and tricks,
Come short of what he did.
LAERTES: A Norman was't?
LAERTES:Upon my life, Lamond.
KING CLAUDIUS: The very same.
LAERTES: I know him well: he is the brooch indeed
And gem of all the nation.
KING CLAUDIUS: He made confession of you,
And gave you such a masterly report
For art and exercise in your defence
And for your rapier most especially,
That he cried out, 'twould be a sight indeed,
If one could match you: the scrimers of their nation,
He swore, had had neither motion, guard, nor eye,
If you opposed them. Sir, this report of his
Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy
That he could nothing do but wish and beg
Your sudden coming o'er, to play with him.
Now, out of this,--

What is Lamond's function in the play? Here is a never-seen, never-before-mentioned character that apparently captured Hamlet's imagination. The fact Claudius is telling the story makes it suspect. As a rhetorical tool to recruit and control Laertes, it's an example of flattery. Laertes is compared favorably to a great Norman hero (it should be no coincidence that Laertes is a Francophile), and told Hamlet would chomp at the bit to show Laertes how much better a swordsman he is. The calm demeanor with which Hamlet accepts the challenge later belies the attitude Claudius attributes to him here. It might have happened, but Hamlet has grown up since then.

LAERTES: What out of this, my lord?
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, was your father dear to you?
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?
LAERTES: Why ask you this?
KING CLAUDIUS: Not that I think you did not love your father;
But that I know love is begun by time;
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;
And nothing is at a like goodness still;
For goodness, growing to a plurisy,
Dies in his own too much: that we would do
We should do when we would; for this 'would' changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;
And then this 'should' is like a spendthrift sigh,
That hurts by easing. But, to the quick o' the ulcer:--

This is the argument against Hamlet's delay. Had Hamlet heard and followed his advice, Claudius would already be dead. It's also an echo of the "readiness is all" speech. What changed with Hamlet isn't the "would" but the "when". He would escape his dramatic destiny.

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?

Deed and word are opposite, something of the theme of the play. There's probably a thesis about the author's anxiety in there somewhere, for whom words ARE deed, something the play tries to resolve in the "Hamlet as his own author" scheme.

LAERTES: To cut his throat i' the church.
KING CLAUDIUS: No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize;
Revenge should have no bounds. But, good Laertes,
Will you do this, keep close within your chamber.
Hamlet return'd shall know you are come home:
We'll put on those shall praise your excellence
And set a double varnish on the fame
The Frenchman gave you, bring you in fine together
And wager on your heads: he, being remiss,
Most generous and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils; so that, with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and in a pass of practise
Requite him for your father.
LAERTES: I will do't:
And, for that purpose, I'll anoint my sword.
I bought an unction of a mountebank,
So mortal that, but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratch'd withal: I'll touch my point
With this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly,
It may be death.
KING CLAUDIUS: Let's further think of this;

Though Laertes believes himself in the right AND is prized to be the better swordsman, he still feels the need to cheat. Unsure he can stick Hamlet like a pig, he opts for a simple, easier, scratch. And then Claudius hedges his bets and produces a back-up plan if even this fails. Well-prepared, or instinctually aware of their own karma (in the dramatic, rather than religious sense)? Or is he just showing off his cleverness by adding one more convolution to the plan, a convolution he will be punished for? This is Hamlet's tragedy, and he will die because of his own hubris, believing himself too good a character to die during a revenge scheme. But it's also Claudius, for he too will die because HIS brand of hubris forces him to use his innate deviousness to make unnecessary preparations that will cause the death of his queen, and Laertes' final betrayal.

Weigh what convenience both of time and means
May fit us to our shape: if this should fail,
And that our drift look through our bad performance,
'Twere better not assay'd: therefore this project
Should have a back or second, that might hold,
If this should blast in proof. Soft! let me see:
We'll make a solemn wager on your cunnings: I ha't.
When in your motion you are hot and dry--
As make your bouts more violent to that end--
And that he calls for drink, I'll have prepared him
A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom'd stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.

We'll next see how the various adaptations handled the sequence, whether they played up or down the King's manipulative skills or the similarities between Claudius/Laertes and Ghost/Hamlet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Classics Illustrated

The original
A strange choice from comics makers so focused on the "boys' adventure" elements of the play. This would have been a perfect place to insert a visual flashback with ships and pirate battles. Instead, though the adaptation is often merciless with its cuts, we get the entire letter in what is practically a splash page. In other words, the authors have given a lot of weight to what is essentially a linking scene, but did not use that space to do Hamlet's story justice. The most we get is a sailor with an eye patch. So what effect does this rather poor decision (in terms of medium) have on the story? It may tell us Hamlet's story is at least in part a fabrication, and we might imagine a Machiavellian Hamlet who had a ship loyal to him waiting to take him off his stepfather's. The letter to Horatio would be a smokescreen filled with tall tales in case it was ever intercepted. Perhaps Horatio knows this is coded, perhaps he doesn't, but the image above makes clear he's taking a pirate into Elsinore. Why would he provide access for an outlaw if they weren't part of the same rebel faction loyal to the prince? No, I don't think the adaptation thought it through this much, but the creative team's poor visual choice does evoke staging and interpretation ideas.

The Berkley version omits the letter entirely.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Act IV Scene 4 - Tennant (2009)

An omission on my part, because it was out of normal order and I'd lost track of it, is the scenes that includes the speech "How all occasions do inform against me". Doran introduces it later than usual, where Hamlet's letter would normally be read, as a way to juxtapose its final line "my thoughts be bloody" with Laertes' own bloody thoughts just before Claudius comes in to seduce him into murdering Hamlet.

The modernized staging is interesting, with the camera up above as if Fortinbras and then the Captain are looking up at a helicopter, either dropping men off or taking them in. We're still on the same black, mirrored stage most of the play is filmed in, but with snow on the ground, contrasting with black soil and black sky (once we change angles). Hamlet is out in the cold, in darkness, lost. It gives the scene an eerie, dream-like feel, as if these are spirits come to taunt him in the night. The Captain, with his wry barracks humor, smiling contemptuously at the meaningless war he's been asked to fight. Fortinbras, standing in for the ghost of Hamlet's father, a warlike action man throwing Hamlet's inaction back in his face. Fortinbras waging a war for no real reason is the anti-Hamlet, ALL action and no thought, and is meant to prompt the Danish prince TO action.

But look at what actually happens in the staging of it. Hamlet's first reaction is to sit down and talk! The video diary device introduced earlier is hear used to justify the soliloquy, in which Hamlet perhaps sarcastically calls Fortinbras "delicate and tender", and ends with the entirely ironic "my thoughts be bloody." My THOUGHTS. So while Hamlet seems to be telling us that NOW he will act, he does not actually move beyond thinking of acting.

Thursday, November 7, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Kline '90

In this extremely simple version of the scene, with a single silent sailor waiting behind Horatio, a mystery just as the contents of the letter, Kline cuts the lines about pirate ships, giving no real account of how Hamlet escaped his escort. The story works without this complication, of course, but makes the scene almost too simple to warrant an article about it. Perhaps that's our chance to discuss the text a little more, and how even a linking scene like this still has a poetry to it. Hamlet story (though here abridged) is about a reversal of fortune, an exile coming home rather than leaving it, and Shakespeare makes reversal a major theme of his short letter. Horatio is asked to COME to Hamlet speedily as if he was running away FROM death, the pursuer gaining the haste of the pursued. Hamlet's words will create silence. And so on. We should then see "these good fellows" as an ironic confirmation that the sailors are the pirates in the preceding story, and could even see a sly joke about Hamlet having much to say about two people who barely have enough content for a single character.

And of course, the greatest reversal of all is that this tiny scene is the pivot at the center of the play, turning the delaying Hamlet into the revenging Hamlet needed to bring the tragedy to a close.

Saturday, November 2, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli doesn't use the scene in which Horatio reads Hamlet's letter, going straight from Ophelia's last scene to her suicide. He does use some visual shorthand to present the necessary information, however (though it removes the perhaps unnecessary complication of the pirate attack) in a cut-away to Hamlet just before Laertes arrives in Elsinore.

We see Hamlet skulking about the ship while Rosencrantz&Guildenstern sleep, ferret the King's letter out of their bags and read it (it's a voice-over in Claudius' voice, basically the lines that end with "Do it, England!"). He then switches those letters with new letters of his own writing. He makes the sign of the cross over their prone bodies, crossing them as he crosses them, a visual pun. Seeing it in these terms makes Hamlet quite ruthless. He has the letters sending R&G to their deaths before he even finds the King's letter, making us wonder if he would have had them killed regardless.

And we cut straight from that to R&G getting hauled to an executioner's block, where the axe falls on Michael Maloney's neck (out of frame, thankfully). So in very quick succession, we find out the contents of Horatio's letter (no longer needed) and the fate of R&G (which may cut more dialog down the line). Those are some efficacious chops for both Zeffirelli and Hamlet!

Friday, November 1, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - BBC '80

A most unusual staging, but completely supported by the text. We're in a public space, with plenty of people milling around. Horatio is reading at a table when the two sailors walk in. They look around them, not so much to find the one learned man in all of Elsinore, but to make sure they aren't noticed. The lead sailor has a smile on his face, one that might indicate he knows something others don't, a fact that amuses him. The body language speaks to a covert mission, but then, so does the dialog.

Note for example how Hamlet's name is not spoken. They call him the "ambassador bound for England" instead. Then, they make sure the man they are speaking to is indeed Horatio. When Horatio tries to steps away to read the letter, the sailor grabs his arm, restrains him. He won't let Horatio out of his sight, or perhaps it's the letter he's been told not to lose sight of. It mustn't get into the wrong hands, even by accident. One might imagine the sailors taking back and destroying the missive between scenes. And the letter is complimentary to the messengers, as if Hamlet knew full well it would be read in their presence, ennobling the pirates by calling them "warlike".

As they leave, the camera lingers on gamblers throwing dice. A comment on the situation's precariousness?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Olivier '48

The letters' arrival is interwoven into Scene 5, so occurs out of the normal sequence. First, the King and Queen get theirs BEFORE Laertes arrives, using lines from Scene 7, and they walk off reading, each up their own staircase, representing their completely different thoughts on the matter. Gertrude, sad and wanting news from her son; Claudius, surprised and angry Hamlet does not appear to be dead yet.

We then cut Horatio who is watching Ophelia pick flowers. He is approached by two men, the sailors, who give him a letter and step out of shot. As Horatio starts to read, the camera closes in, goes by him to the wall, which dissolves into the tale Hamlet tells, in his own voice. Model ships, some quick swashbuckling action, and Hamlet clasping hands with one one of the very sailors who delivered his message. The effect is very cinematic, and does a good job of clarifying Hamlet's story. It's clearer, for example, that Hamlet has jumped ships on purpose, to escape his English fate. (Of course, without Rosencrantz&Guildenstern, removed from this adaptation, his escort is faceless and he remains guiltless of their "going to it".)

As Horatio gets to the end of the message, the camera tracks back again and we see the sailors have not left outright. Ophelia enters singing, and they appear as haunted by her sadness as Horatio is. They let her pass, silently, and only then rush off to meet Hamlet as we stay with Ophelia, who enters Scene 5, already in progress, as previously discussed.

Sunday, October 27, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Branagh '96

From all accounts, the production got lucky one day when, after spending the whole shoot applying fake snow, a blizzard started up. Wanting to shoot something right away to get that production value, Branagh grabbed Nick Farrell at the lunch wagon and had him do the one scene that doesn't require remembering very many lines (since you can essentially read them). This was matched to an equally snowy establishing shot, which speaks to time having gone by and a less and less hospitable Denmark. Horatio reads the letter with a puzzled tone, with a hint of interrogation at the end of every line, in what feels very naturalistic. Interestingly, as soon as he reads the part about the sailors also bringing letters to the King, he moves away from them, unwilling to let them gossip about whatever his own letter might contain if interrogated by Claudius.

A culture of hyper-surveillance is also present in a short, silent sequent introduced between the moment Horatio hears about the letters and the one in which he receives them. On the way, he stops to open a peep hole into Ophelia's padded cell where she is evidently getting hosed with cold water (all the more cruel when we know the current weather report, and of course, water is her element). Though he leaves with a sad expression on his face, we cut back to Ophelia, who, once the orderly has left, takes a key out of her mouth.
Evidently, she's been hosed for having attacked some guard or maid. The scene is necessary in this version to show how she escaped her cell, free to go out and commit suicide. Branagh smartly inserts a linking scene into what is one of Shakespeare's own necessary linking scenes.

Sunday, October 20, 2013 Hamlet's Letter

Scene 6 is a brief moment that acts as "Meanwhile..." and tells us just what happened to Hamlet after he left Denmark. A dramatic necessity, it allows the prince's story to unfold without adding a complicated action set piece involving two ships. Of course, in movies, that can be shown, and some adaptations have gone through that trouble, replacing or enhancing this scene with visuals. We'll see who did and if it added something over the course of the next articles. For now, let's look at the text itself.

SCENE VI. Another room in the castle.

Enter HORATIO and a Servant
HORATIO: What are they that would speak with me?
SERVANT: Sailors, sir: they say they have letters for you.
HORATIO: Let them come in.

Exit Servant

I do not know from what part of the world
I should be greeted, if not from Lord Hamlet.

Enter Sailors

FIRST SAILOR: God bless you, sir.
HORATIO: Let him bless thee too.
FIRST SAILOR: He shall, sir, an't please him. There's a letter for you, sir; it comes from the ambassador that was bound for England; if your name be Horatio, as I am let to know it is.
HORATIO: [Reads] 'Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this, give these fellows some means to the king: they have letters for him. Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded them: on the instant they got clear of our ship; so I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy: but they knew what they did; I am to do a good turn for them. Let the king have the letters I have sent; and repair thou to me with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death. I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of the matter. These good fellows will bring thee where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their course for England: of them I have much to tell thee. Farewell. 'He that thou knowest thine, HAMLET.'
Come, I will make you way for these your letters;
And do't the speedier, that you may direct me
To him from whom you brought them.


I'll note three things. First, how brazen Hamlet is to also send letters to the King. He is not returning to Denmark under cover of darkness to assassinate Claudius in his sleep. He's giving him fair warning, challenging him. But we'll see how that plays out in that other letter and leave it be for now.

Second, while getting captured by pirates effectively separates him from Rosencrantz&Guildensten and allows him to escape his English fate, the idea that the knew what they were doing and asked a favor of him is an odd loose end. What was this favor, and why isn't it mentioned again? A contrivance then, and easy enough to explain. He would have made his noble birth known and promised to pay some ransom. It's still strange, and if the letter wasn't addressed to Horatio, we might wonder if he's lying. Or is he covering his bases in case someone else spies the letter? After all, he does make allusions to other events he doesn't want to discuss on paper. This is left unresolved, just as it isn't clear how long Hamlet was gone from the realm. Personally, I like to think his incredible charisma made him the pirates' liege lord and that he plans to use them in a potential civil war, then reward them with lands and titles. Indeed, are these sailors delivering his letters some of those same pirates?

Lastly, let's note that while Horatio keeps speaking in verse, Hamlet's letter is written in prose. On the one hand, it's part of the friendly familiarity he owes Horatio, while Horatio himself is maintaining an aloof distance between himself and the more common sailors. But might it also indicate some kind of naturalization of Hamlet while in pirate hands? Has he gone native and gotten used to a more common vernacular? And perhaps more germane to the plot, has his time with them hardened him and made him more of an action man, one that can finally take his revenge on Claudius?