Saturday, October 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All

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

SCENE II. A hall in the castle.

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

HAMLET moves him to put on his hat

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

Exit OSRIC


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

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

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

Exit Lord


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

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


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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Other Hamlets: Dirtbag Hamlet

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

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

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


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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 6, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Classics Illustrated

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Act IV Scene 4 - A Midwinter's Dream

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

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

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

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

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

Saturday, August 16, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Hamlet 2000

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

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

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.

Exit

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

Exit HORATIO

To LAERTES

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.

Exeunt


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.

ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER
"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.