Saturday, October 17, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Olivier '48

The camera tracks back from Claudius and Olivier's Hamlet is revealed at the end of the table. He's been there all along, at the furthest remove from his uncle-father. I'm not a big fan of Olivier's portrayal, though I realize he's the iconic Hamlet. This is a melancholy (i.e. depressed) Hamlet, very much tired of the world as it has become. Unfortunately, it's depressing to watch, especially compared to some of the more vivacious Hamlets. Olivier plays depression with a realistic but undramatic lack of energy.

His relationship to his mother is better than Branagh's.
She is tender and he is not unkind to her. There is no accusation in his tone even if the subsequent speech puts much of the blame on her. Before putting these lines to computer screen, it hadn't really occurred to me that initially, Hamlet is much more angry at Gertrude than Claudius. Claudius may be an opportunist, but she's the one betraying his father. We've gone past "'til death do us part", but in the more puritanical Hamlet's view, the wedding vow is still broken.

Olivier downplays this in his performance, but then, Claudius is such a villain, it's hard to blame anyone but him for what's going on. This Claudius is completely unsympathetic. He chides, scolds and mocks, is slow to dethrone to even come near Hamlet, continually plays to the audience, and even gets a laugh out of them.
Of course, this is a Claudius that seems to give cues to his courtiers that they follow out of fear. Similarly, his announcement that Hamlet is next to inherit is answered by Polonius giving signals for trumpets to sound. It's all quite practiced. Claudius is a fake and a poser.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Olivier plays most of the soliloquy as interior monologue, i.e. voice-over, letting the emotions play on his face. Some lines are spoken aloud, a good way to use Hamlet's parenthetical speech patterns. According to Harold Bloom, Shakespeare's innovation was to allow his characters to hear themselves speak and be changed by the act of hearing. By juxtaposing voice-over and speech in this scene, Olivier demonstrates how that works. Basically, when Hamlet reacts to what he's thinking (voice-over) he comments in his though (with speech). There is thought and there is thought ABOUT thought, a model of how thinking works and, to paraphrase another line of the play, "thought will pluck on thought". Shakespeare's characters grow because their every thought affects the next.

Cuts and Bruises
There are a number of cuts for length, though the soliloquy is kept close to intact. Most notably, we lose Hamlet's first two lines/puns. This makes him more passive and less of an out-and-out rebel before the Court. We also lose something of his playful intellect. There are also some four lines taken out of his first bit, removing the various things that denote grief.

Where we lose something, I think, is in the change from "vailed lids" to "lowered lids". Was it so important the audience understand what "vailed" means at this point? Couldn't it be understood from its context? Vailed is a better word because it is an unintentional pun (for Gertrude) that reveals Hamlet's character. While "vailed" is an archaic word that means "to lower or sink", to a live audience, it sounds liked "veiled". Eyelids are truly "veils" before the eyes, and the eyes being the doorway to the soul, it speaks to Hamlet hiding something. What he hides is at once the profound emotion he feels, but also that great intellect we have yet to discover. His mother here is inquiring as to what he's thinking, so indeed is his soul "veiled". I miss the word when it is substituted "for clarity".


Anonymous said...

Olivier's Hamlet does leave some of the lines out of "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt". Hamlet says "Within a month, ere yet the salt of tears had left their flushing in her galled eyes, she married" (or something like that). Olivier says merely, "Within a month, she married".

Excellent blog, though. Keep it up.

Siskoid said...

Thanks Anon. Top of your head or watching Hamlet 48 at this very moment?