Thursday, December 30, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - Zeffirelli '90

Despite the cuts the part suffered, I must admit Ian Holm's performance is a lot of fun. He catches the royal couple in an open yard and takes them aside in a hurry, out of breath, fidgeting and stammering through a brisk walk-and-talk, quite comical. His big revelation is that Hamlet is mad. By following this with a proud pause, Holm accentuates the comedy. He's taken them aside for this?! Gertrude's impatience becomes justified. All three characters look around in paranoid fashion, so we have to wonder if the court doesn't yet know Hamlet's gone mad. Are they trying to keep it a secret? It would seem to be a smart thing to do, but Hamlet doesn't make it very easy. But back to Polonius... Holm's is very distracted, delighting in where his mind takes him while Gertrude stares into the air, bored and frustrated. He gets her attention again when he takes out the letter. She tries to look at it, but he moves away, looking for more light.
He offers more comic pauses as he breaks from the letter to nostalgically think of his daughter. All quite hilarious. When he asks "What do you think of me?", Gertrude's reaction is priceless, while Claudius humors him verbally, but facing away from him, rolls his eyes. This Polonius is more of a buffoon, and even his closest ally thinks him a fool. When he finishes with his thesis, they simply walk away and he has to run in front of them to get their answer. This is when Claudius asks him for more evidence. Other versions played out the scene as if Claudius wanted to hedge his bets or actively pursue Polonius' theory. Here, we have an unbelieving Claudius who asks for more evidence. The text can definitely read that way. Though Zeffirelli's Claudius is more plainly evil than others, it is his Polonius that keeps him on the path of malfeasance. If Polonius must egg Claudius on, it's because the King has stopped plotting, content with his winnings. The tragedy may not have resolved itself had not the foolish old man continued to meddle.

Cuts: The scene is fairly intact (for Zeffirelli), but does omit the explanation as to why Ophelia should lock herself from Hamlet's resort. It is stated elsewhere, but the royals just take for granted why Polonius required this of her. A minor cut, but it scans strangely.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - BBC '80

Another strong performance from Eric Porter as Polonius. His speech starts out practiced, with formulas that shows him to be just as much a sycophant as his own Reynaldo, but soon starts improvising amendments, distractedly opening parentheses and making jokes ("have while she is mine") to cover an uncomfortable awkwardness. This may well be due to Gertrude's reaction to his calling Hamlet "mad". The word immediately gets her dander up and he tries to quickly explain why he used the word. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continually do this as a double act; Polonius does it for himself. The Queen's ire no doubt motivated her first line "More matter with less art" and at that point, Claudius takes her hand to pacify her, though he soon loses his smile as well due to Polonius' trademark tediousness.

Polonius reads the letter as if for the first time, or if not, at least picking up on key words for the first time. "Beautified" becomes a vile phrase only here - he has not pre-judged the words - and he covers up any post-bosom awkwardness with an "etc." (as per the text, of course). The word "machine" makes him stop and hesitate, as if not expecting it nor really understanding the turn of phrase.

There is a slight cut before Polonius offers to have his head cut off. He no longer asks if he's ever been wrong before, and so Claudius no longer responds with ambivalence. Nothing major, though we do lose a small touch of irony on a point already well made.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - Olivier '48

The scene starts on the King and Queen looking into each other's eyes, hiding the figure of Polonius, showing how focused they are on each other compared to other things. As Polonius starts to speak, they separate and we see him between their heads, a shot reprised a number of times during this section. Olivier's staging is usually very deliberate, so we can infer that Polonius is creating an impediment to their couplehood. He separates them by bringing news of Hamlet, opening a can of worms that the royal couple were not necessarily willing to open. Remember, in this version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not exist, so the royals are here triggered into addressing the Hamlet situation. They are not proactively recruiting agents. Polonius imposes this agenda on them, which will lead to the couple's undoing, as prefigured in the staging here.

Claudius, in fact, couldn't look less compassionate. He's stern and aloof, frequently looking at Gertrude's reactions for cues. While Gertrude does prod Polonius for more direct answers, Claudius isn't any more patient with his well-meaning, but tedious aide. When he says "Not that I know of", there is an underlying sense of mistrust. It's not that Polonius hasn't been a useful counselor, but that he's meddling in things the King might not want to be bothered with. He's only letting Polonius talk to keep the Queen happy. Gertrude, for her part, seems to have given up hope. There's trembling despair in her voice when she asks for "more matter", as if to tell Polonius that it is too serious a subject for him to play with words. Based on that reaction, the King agrees to some token spying. Olivier has Hamlet overhear the whole thing, which will have to be taken into account when discussing his meeting with Ophelia later. He will already know it's a set-up.
On matters related to the letter, in this version, we must accept that Ophelia went to her father and surrendered her correspondence on faith. No scene corroborates it, but Polonius' kindly attitude would not support the more sinister idea that he would have misappropriated them. Jean Simmons' Ophelia is too naive and child-like to keep anything from her parent.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - Branagh '96

As Polonius starts on his "brief" speech, the King and Queen are signing papers (presumably the Norwegian treaty), which is an interesting touch. The Queen in Branagh's version is most definitely involved in governing the kingdom, partnering with Claudius in affairs of state. She is not an "object" to be lusted after, but necessary to the stability of Denmark. This small detail gives her character greater power, and stands in opposition to Ophelia's servile role.

Richard Briars' performance as Polonius is likewise noteworthy. His take on the character is more sinister and less bumbling. He speaks the words with a quick rhythm and in definite earnest. Yes, Gertrude finds him pedantic and tries to rush him, but he's not so long-winded as to be comical. There is no hesitation, no distractedness, no sense that he is reveling in his own wit. This is just how he speaks and thinks, and he will take you through his thought process because he feels it is necessary to your understanding (there's that hubris). And in fact, Gertrude is convinced by the argument. Of course, that may also have something to do with the use of Ophelia in this scene.
Branagh creates a moment that isn't in the text by having Polonius bring in his daughter to read Hamlet's letter (so there is no question she spilled the beans). She does so only haltingly, breaking up after almost every word. Between her reading and the reactions of the listeners, the overwhelming feeling is that of embarrassment. Ophelia is being exposed here, and her father's voice touchingly quivers in sympathy (though he is the monster who forces her to metaphorically disrobe before the Royals), his gorge rising at the vile words. By the time she hits "white bosom", she runs off humiliated. Polonius continues, but we're sent into a flashback that features post-coital Hamlet and Ophelia in bed, when the letter was composed.
The voice-over gives way to Hamlet's own voice, until we return to Polonius for the signature. This flashback has a number of implications. First, Branagh chooses to make the letter genuine. It is an artifact from happier days and is not part of a ploy to deceive Claudius. Second is the rather libidinous turn the word "groans" takes. Hamlet is no stranger to vulgar double-entendres (as per the prelude to the play within a play, for example) and at the end of love-making, is naughty in his word play. Gertrude may be convinced more by Ophelia's behavior than Polonius' words. After all, she too has recently done things in the name of love, and would believe in such a force.

A final note on the text itself, something I've only just now noticed: Ophelia is Polonius' daughter "while she is "his", but Hamlet is hers while his machine (body) is his own. Shakespeare plays with the possessive in this section in a way that begs to be examined. Polonius may think that Hamlet is "his" because he claims to belong to his daughter/property. He'll get him, get at his mystery. However, the question of the play is whether Hamlet is still in control of his faculties. Is his machine still his? If not, then his heart no longer belongs to Ophelia, but rather to his madness/revenge/father. Polonius assumes wrongly once again.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

II.ii. Brevity

The next relevant section of Act II's second act is Polonius' theory about Hamlet as he relates it to the King and Queen. What "To be or not to be" is to Hamlet, this speech is to Polonius, and crucially, it represents the conspiratorial beginnings of a thread that will lead to Polonius' own demise. That Polonius is wrong about the cause of Hamlet's madness goes without saying, but in and of itself does not constitute wrong-doing. Polonius' sin is that he feels the need to prove his theory by covert means. Just as he sent a spy to his son, so will he use his daughter to help him spy on Hamlet. In classical tragedy, hubris is the flaw that usually leads to a character's doom. In Polonius' case, hubris is definitely in play. He even offers to have his head cut off if he is proven wrong, which one would never do unless infected with arrogant self-confidence. Let us look at the text (in italics, as usual) a little more closely:

LORD POLONIUS: My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.


There are several ironies embedded in Polonius' words, and not just the ones he puts there himself. Polonius, of course, does not realize that he is being tedious even in proclaiming brevity. Shakespeare's own ironic streak is also at play. He knows that his play is over-long and that in a sense, it attempts to contain the whole of the world. Hamlet himself will go on at length about various subjects including mortality, theater and humanity, almost reveling in his intellect's ability to apprehend all things. Shakespeare "wastes time", knows it and mocks it. Polonius also claims that madness cannot be defined, which the play also fails to do in Hamlet's case. There is no doubt that Ophelia goes mad, but does her prince? Shakespeare never overtly tell us. Hamlet is said to be mad and so that must be true for the characters who believe it to be true. In fiction, some things must be taken at face value or not at all, like the madness central to the intrigue.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: More matter, with less art.

You'll note that Claudius defers to her in this conversation, again pointing to the idea that it's principally part of her agenda. While Claudius lets Polonius ramble, she is far less patient with him. In a way, this fuels the competition between Polonius and Gertrude as the former's theory contradicts the latter's. Does Polonius feel the need to prove himself exactly because he gets opposition to the King's other great adviser?

LORD POLONIUS: Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity;
And pity 'tis 'tis true: a foolish figure;
But farewell it, for I will use no art.


More dramatic irony: Polonius cannot help to use "art" to say he will use none.

Mad let us grant him, then: and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. Perpend.
I have a daughter--have while she is mine--
Who, in her duty and obedience, mark,
Hath given me this: now gather, and surmise.
[Reads] 'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most
beautified Ophelia,'--
That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase; 'beautified' is
a vile phrase: but you shall hear. Thus:
[Reads] 'In her excellent white bosom, these, & c.'


It will be interesting to compare how Hamlet's letter is used by different directors. In the text, it is read by Polonius, but different filmed versions have allowed others to read it, or have played with the idea that Polonius has taken it, not been given it. This detail changes how we perceive both Polonius and Ophelia. Note also the use of "beautified", as relating to the later line about God giving women one face and their making themselves another, one of Shakespeare's frequent rails against vanity. Why is Shakespeare drawing our attention to this word by making Polonius snag onto it? Should we see sarcasm in Hamlet's poem, and would that not indicate when it was actually written (see my next note).

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Came this from Hamlet to her?
LORD POLONIUS: Good madam, stay awhile; I will be faithful.
[Reads] 'Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
'Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.'


The letter represents one of few glimpses into the happy life of Hamlet before the momentous events of the play. Who was he before his father died (or at least, before he learned his father was murdered)? The play's timeline being what it is (i.e. vague), the letter could still have been written after some of these events, changing its meaning. If written much later, it could seem like a testament to his love for Ophelia no matter what he later says (though she may not have understood the message)­. His actions after Act I are to call everything into doubt because he has been lied to by his uncle. What else is a lie? The play on the word "doubt" here is crucial. There is also more than a little fatalism in the last two lines. Could this letter have been left for her during his last visit to her closet? And is it thus coded with the things he dares not say out loud?

This, in obedience, hath my daughter shown me,
And more above, hath his solicitings,
As they fell out by time, by means and place,
All given to mine ear.
KING CLAUDIUS: But how hath she
Received his love?
LORD POLONIUS: What do you think of me?
KING CLAUDIUS: As of a man faithful and honourable.
LORD POLONIUS: I would fain prove so. But what might you think,
When I had seen this hot love on the wing--
As I perceived it, I must tell you that,
Before my daughter told me--what might you,


Another example of Polonius trying to save face by proudly claiming that he saw what was going on between Hamlet and Ophelia before he was told of it. The Player Queen is not the only character who "protests too much" - Polonius is obsessed with not being perceived as a foolish old man. His foolishness is not in his blindness, but in his misinterpretation of other characters' intentions.

Or my dear majesty your queen here, think,
If I had play'd the desk or table-book,
Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb,
Or look'd upon this love with idle sight;
What might you think? No, I went round to work,


An odd contradiction here as Polonius supposes the Queen would have disapproved of the Hamlet-Ophelia match and she doesn't correct him. Yet, after Ophelia's death, she says she expected them to marry with her blessing. This scene puts the lie to her later words, though the impropriety may be lost to modern eyes, i.e. the match was not the problem, only that the wooing was conducted outside official channels and permissions.

And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
'Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star;
This must not be:' and then I precepts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice;
And he, repulsed--a short tale to make--


This tale has been anything but short.

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for.
KING CLAUDIUS: Do you think 'tis this?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: It may be, very like.
LORD POLONIUS: Hath there been such a time--I'd fain know that--
That I have positively said 'Tis so,'
When it proved otherwise?
KING CLAUDIUS: Not that I know.


One of the King's most foolhearty traits is his blind trust in Polonius, who in fact is proven wrong on almost every point during the play.

LORD POLONIUS: [Pointing to his head and shoulder] Take this from this, if this be otherwise:
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre.
KING CLAUDIUS: How may we try it further?
LORD POLONIUS: You know, sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: So he does indeed.
LORD POLONIUS: At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:
Be you and I behind an arras then;
Mark the encounter: if he love her not
And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters.


Shakespeare laces the play with insinuations that the current regime is not fit to rule in various ways. One of these is overt comparisons to common professions such as farming here, and later those of fishmongers and beggars.

KING CLAUDIUS: We will try it.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: But, look, where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.
LORD POLONIUS: Away, I do beseech you, both away:
I'll board him presently.
[Exeunt KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, and Attendants]


With apologies for all these outward flourishes...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Tennant (2009)

Not for the first time, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are introduced with symmetrical staging, well used to shore up Claudius' confusion as to which is which. He hesitates, but in this instance, gets there names right (which makes his getting wrong later, funnier). Gregory Doran's version very much makes this Gertrude's idea. Claudius searches for words even as she prompts him with her eyes and gestures, and eventually, she feels she must jump in. Their dance is not unlike that of R&G themselves, each making sure the other's words are not misinterpreted. It almost looks like the couple hastily practiced this, and her eventual unrehearsed contribution is to compliment R&G even more. Is she afraid that R&G will betray the royal couple to Hamlet because she believes them to really be his best friends? Or has exact word choice more riding on it? It came to me that Claudius is in effect "leading the witnesses" in the scene. When he says he can't imagine it's anything more than Hamlet's grief at work, he is putting that preconception in their heads (even as he ironically clutches Gertrude's hands, not acknowledging the other possible cause). Is the King asking them to find the cause of Hamlet's madness, or is he asking for them to report that it is indeed grief?

Perhaps Rosencrantz is right to be wary, especially if he's being asked to potentially prove a King wrong. Sam Alexander plays him as the more liberal-minded of the two (in the leather jacket) in opposition to Tom Davey's tall, dark, and more conservative Guildenstern. They do a good job of differentiating the two parts, their choices based on the lines themselves. Rosencrantz is less committed and questions more (why are you asking us rather than ordering us?), while Guildenstern is all about deviating the conversation away from his partner's effrontery and onto the business of boot-licking. Like the royal couple, they offer up a nervous performance where one wants the other to say certain things.

A light touch is used throughout, as R&G are once again misidentified by Claudius, requiring the Queen to correct him. Guildenstern's last lines come after they've been dismissed, turning Gertrude's "Aye Amen" into an impatient but polite reminder that they've overstayed their welcome (a recurring motif throughout this version of the play). Claudius and Gertrude play the entire scene in a state of giddiness, giggling without cue, and smiling whenever they set eyes on each other. Gertrude's allowance for Hamlet's madness being caused by their over-hasty marriage doesn't come off as a reproach - she kisses his finger almost immediately - leading us to believe that their love is more important to them than Hamlet's "tantrum". They know they've been naughty, but perhaps their son needs to get over it. People in love are so cruel to those who are not.
There is a third couple in this section: The Ambassadors from Norway. Their speech is heavily condensed and Cornelius is given lines this time. On one level, it makes sense that if you're going to have an actor on stage, he should get something to do. On another, it creates an opportunity for Doran to mirror the other couples' interruptions. Cornelius interrupts (Lady) Voltimand, for some reason not trusting her to tell the story correctly. An amusing parallel with the rest of the scene is drawn. Of course, with the section's abridgment comes an important cut. There is no longer mention of Fortinbras being rewarded by his uncle, nor is Denmark asked to provide safe passage for his forces. This Claudius is not as blind as some others, even if he has cause to be in the scene, and does not make a crucial political/military mistake. Doran paints a portrait of a largely happy Elsinore, whose King is keenly dealing with affairs of state diplomatically. Claudius is instead weakened by Gertrude's benign control over him, which isn't quite the same thing. Of course, strengthening your villain ultimately strengthens your hero, so this is not an offensive choice.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Fodor (2007)

Though we can hear Claudius' speech to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Fodor's camera instead shows us the dream-like image of Hamlets Jr. and Sr. from an earlier time, sitting on the floor. The child Hamlet is throwing dice and laughing. An image of risk, of invoking Fortune... of the fate awaiting both these characters later in life? Happier times juxtaposed with the present day's misfortunes. This is not strictly a flashback because the father and child become aware of the Claudius scene and watch it. Hamlet Sr. is dead, of course, but how can his young son also be haunting Elsinore. In a sense, all the characters who die in the play are already dead - fated to be so, or by now, in the knowledge held by the audience. Fodor's Elsinore, an overlit, decaying house, could easily pass for an afterlife in which these characters are continually replaying the events leading up to their deaths (a metaphor for theatre). The presence of a ghostly boy Hamlet links him to the dead father and also represents the death of innocence (in grossly symbolic terms) and an image of the memories Hamlet said he would erase. The scene does show a relationship between father and son that is near absent in the text. Though Hamlet extols his father's virtues, his childhood memories feature Yorick, a surrogate parent.
As the director takes an interest in the words being said, the camera's eye moves to the introduction of R&G, though they are not identified more than that. Guildenstern is played by Simon Nader (on the left), but the actor playing Rosencrantz (right, with more hair) is not credited. The scene is interrupted by the arrival of Polonia - which Guildenstern eyes with a measure of lust - who has news about Hamlet. Immediately, she elicits jealousy from Gertrude, whose line about the true cause of Hamlet's madness is thrown out not with regret, but with ire. The scene plays as if calling R&G was Gertrude's idea, and so Polonia's meddling intrusion frustrates her. It is also an artifact of the gender-switching of the Fodor version that the King's closest adviser would sexually compete with the Queen for his attentions.

We'll see in the next section how that particular triangle continues to play out.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli's Hamlet does away with the entire Norwegian subplot and only has us meet Rosencrantz & Guildenstern later, when Hamlet comes upon them. This section is thus reduced to Polonius' boarding of the King (now with Queen) with the supposed cause of Hamlet's lunacy. Zeffirelli even gives Gertrude Claudius' line, unsurprisingly longing to here the news about her son. What we lose is Claudius' interest in the affair. Where the text would have a King whose love for his Queen outweighs matters of State, here he is simply part of a conversation imposed by Gertrude. He even seems reticent to discuss it, guilt or at least discomfort flitting across his face. We also lose Gertrude's allowance for the idea that their hasty marriage is the real cause of Hamlet's madness, robbing the play of a certain irony. Further, though we know R&G were "sent for", we never see them with the King and Queen, making the royal couple much less active in the unfolding tragedy.

The snippet does show Gertrude with a bouquet of wild flowers, linking her with Ophelia, and perhaps hinting at how the Queen knows about the girl's suicide later. Perhaps these flowers are a gift from Ophelia, or perhaps she too like to pick them at the same brook.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - BBC '80

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are introduced with a symmetrical shot that creates the necessary equivalence between them. Claudius continues to play the politician, buttering them up to make sure they will betray Hamlet's confidence (not that he had cause to worry), while Gertrude seems more sincere in her compliments. Both overestimate Hamlet's love for these two individuals, although it's entirely possible the prince would have trusted them more had their mission not been discussed in open Court. When Hamlet later says he knows they were sent for, it may infer that he has spies in the Court, or just that things really aren't so secret in Elsinore. Do they think he's so out of it he won't hear the castle gossip?

R&G are played by Jonathan Hyde (Rosencrantz, on the right) and Geoffrey Bateman (Guildenstern, on the left), who both exude that certain lack of trustworthiness, licking the King's boots as they prepare to betray a friend.
As with the 1996 version, Claudius flips their names around and Gertrude corrects him. They laugh as if this often happens, and bow only to her hand. Claudius is in incredibly good spirits throughout this scene. Only Gertrude seems genuinely concerned. Claudius, when played as a real villain (as he is here), cannot be anything but selfish. He's looking into Hamlet's madness only as a way to keep Gertrude happy, not for her sake, but ostensibly to make his own life easier and more pleasurable. His joy only breaks once - when she awkwardly mentions their over-hasty marriage. She almost doesn't say it. It's the elephant in the room, and Claudius doesn't want to face the possibility. Are those his first pangs of guilt?

The Ambassadors
Claudius' big show continues with the arrival of the ambassadors to Norway. As they reveal Fortinbras' plan, Claudius gesticulates towards Polonius, silently saying "I KNEW IT! I TOLD YOU!" By the end of the ambassadors' tale, he's applauding as is the assembled Court. He has spun a potential danger for the State into a victory, but is deluding himself. He is so giddy, drinking it in, so occupied with the business of looking good, that the ambassadors' story need not be examined. He hands the Norwegian letter to an attendant without even saying the line about reading it later. That small cut makes Claudius even more careless.

There is a missed opportunity I should mention at this point. In their first scene, Voltimand and Cornelius seemed very serious, and I mentioned at the time that it looked like they were unhappy with the recent change in government. I postulated the possibility of their being loyal to Hamlet Sr. and resentful of Claudius' ascension to the throne. Could they be complicit in Norway's betrayal? Did they help arrange Fortinbras' passage through Denmark, a coup in the making? Fortinbras comes in at the end as a conqueror, but says Hamlet would have proven most royal had he ascended. Was he invader or rescuer of Denmark? There to depose Claudius and restore Hamlet to the throne? What the staging needed here to close the loop is a knowing look between the ambassadors. In its absence, they simply appear to have had a change of attitude in between acts, sharing in the happy news they're reporting.

Monday, November 29, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Olivier '48

Olivier omits this section, and in fact, removes Rosencrantz & Guildenstern from the play entirely! The play survives the cut, just as it does that of the ambassadors and the entire Norway subplot, but at the cost of texture. In losing R&G, we lose mirrors of Horatio and Hamlet, though that mirroring does not seem to particularly interest Olivier. R&G are, after all, mirrors of each other, and their interchangeability perhaps a sort of key to the play's themes. Key speeches made at them are turned into monologues, and important exchanges are given to the play's other sycophant, Polonius.

Sad to see these two gone from the play, but it still works. Of course, you could probably convince me that the play works with ANY of the characters removed from it and I'd believe you. Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is but the most extreme example. And the one that's the complete opposite of Olivier's.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Branagh '96

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's section is played in one take, ending on a walk-and-talk, an evocation of the "corridors of power" as later seen in The West Wing (according to Branagh). Though the start of this very long scene can and often is cut for time, Branagh creates a lot of movement in the shot, keeping things moving and presenting us with a living, breathing Elsinore. During the scene, Gertrude is getting dressed, Claudius is drinking tea and tonic and getting his boots shined, maids are making the bed. Aside from painting a believable environment, this also creates a number of effects. First, there's the sense that Claudius is juggling way too many things. He's multi-tasking, but something could fall through the cracks, i.e. the Norway situation. His focus is on Hamlet's distemper, but he's contracting that out as well, and doing so in a hurry (which appropriately diminishes R&G as characters). Second, we're presented R&G in a scene filled with servants. This underscores their own relationship to the King and Queen as subservient to them, and not to Hamlet's friendship. Third, Branagh treats the scene ironically by staging it in the bedroom. Not only are R&G getting into bed with the villain of the play, but it also means Claudius is missing the obvious when he says "What it should be, More than his father's death [...] I cannot dream of."
R&G are played by Timothy Spall (Rosencrantz, above left) and Reece Dinsdale (Guildenstern, on the right). They don't make the characters interchangeable as far as performance goes, but since neither ever gets "his" moment, it remains confusing as to which is which. I don't know if Branagh did a little anti-casting here, because Spall looks more like a Guildenstern to me. They do have character traits in common inspired by the text. The way Spall and Dinsdale play it, it's like they don't trust each other and feel they must always cover for the other, or complete/clarify the other's thoughts to get into the best possible graces with the King and Queen. Their furtive looks add to the sense of this from the dialog. The classic reversed repetition by King and Queen here is played as if Gertrude is correcting Claudius, and the body language bears out that the Queen knows them better than the King does. She can at least tell them apart, which lends more weight to her description of them as Hamlet's best friends. It's at least her perception of the relationship, and as is often the case, the parent may not have been updated on her child's evolving relationships.
Claudius receives a message that his ambassadors have returned from Norway and continues his walk and talk with Polonius this time. They enter the throne room filled with drilling fencers, keeping up with the theme of a living Elsinore and also prefiguring both the warlike entreaty we're about to see and the final scene of the play. Though important affairs of state are about to be discussed, it's Polonius' contention that he's found the cause of Hamlet's madness that actually captivates the King, and Polonius must actually redirect Claudius to the ambassadors. Claudius may well be rushing through the next conversation, which is why he misses the clues to the danger Denmark faces (given his own political treacheries, he should have been sensitive to them).
Voltimand's story is shown in flashbacks, which actually do show more clues to Fortinbras' treachery, with Rufus Sewell looking especially sinister and insincere. Don Warrington was well cast as Voltimand because his rich voice is perfect for narration. Of course, that narration is flawed because it is so upbeat. It paints a rosy picture where none exists, contributing to Claudius' blindness to what's really happening.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals

Scene 2 is huge, so I'll be dividing it into six discrete parts. New Arrivals covers the King & Queen's meetings with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and Voltimand & Cornelius. Brevity will cover Polonius' revelations to them. Polonius Boards Hamlet will have their scene together. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern will be about their scene with Hamlet up to the mention of the players. The Players will take off from there and lead us to Hamlet's soliloquy, which will have its own section under "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I".

For now, we're concerned with the first of these sections, albeit one that is often cut for time in some way or other. Some versions of play do away with the Norway subplot, and so do not need Voltimand's report. Others have Rosencrantz & Guildenstern appear later, without this simpering introduction. By looking at the text itself (in italics), we'll get a better sense of what is lost when directors do so.

SCENE II. A room in the castle.
Enter KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, and Attendants
KING CLAUDIUS: Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!
Moreover that we much did long to see you,
The need we have to use you did provoke
Our hasty sending. Something have you heard
Of Hamlet's transformation; so call it,
Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was. What it should be,


The audience, of course, does not know Hamlet's original form was, though one might expect that he was more like Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - a career student with a certain measure of frivolity.

More than his father's death, that thus hath put him
So much from the understanding of himself,
I cannot dream of: I entreat you both,
That, being of so young days brought up with him,
And sith so neighbour'd to his youth and havior,
That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court
Some little time: so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather,
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus,
That, open'd, lies within our remedy.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Good gentlemen, he hath much talk'd of you;
And sure I am two men there are not living
To whom he more adheres. If it will please you


There's a question as to WHEN exactly Hamlet talked about the duo so much. Certainly, it has to be before his father's death, when he had a use for camaraderie. One wonder if he ever mentioned Horatio, or if his more serious bent kept him out of stories worthy of being told. By the time of the play, the latter has become a steady and loyal confidante, while the former cannot be so trusted. There are friends for having fun, and then there are friends who can keep your secrets. Another way to direct it is to have Hamlet talk much about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern AFTER the Ghost's visit, laying a trap for the King by overplaying his friendship to two knaves he can easily read and manipulate. I like this idea, though I don't think I've seen it inferred. If Hamlet is the mastermind that brought them to Elsinore, he would react differently to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's betrayal, of course.

To show us so much gentry and good will
As to expend your time with us awhile,
For the supply and profit of our hope,
Your visitation shall receive such thanks
As fits a king's remembrance.
ROSENCRANTZ: Both your majesties
Might, by the sovereign power you have of us,
Put your dread pleasures more into command
Than to entreaty.


Though Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are usually played as a foolish double act, there is evidence that they are smart enough. They share Hamlet's keen wordplay and presumably his education, and in the above exchange, recognize Claudius' diplomatic skill. Indeed, the King does not have to ask for a favor when he may just give orders, but we've seen before how he has had to convince and cajole to get his position.

GUILDENSTERN: But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz:


Here is the root of all the jokes about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's interchangeability - the King and Queen's switching names in their thanks - a joke that culminates in Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (which this series will look at eventually). Obviously, there's also the matter of having two characters where one would do, which may or may not have been influenced by Shakespeare's company at the time. Or he may have liked the dynamic of two fawning characters playing off each other, one trying to correct or add to the other's dialog to influence their shared fate. Symbolically, we have Hamlet's one versus two, or their flawed mirroring of Horatio, each false friend being half his worth. For directors, the duo offers a number of options. One can play on their similarity through casting, costuming or performance. In any case, it is true to say that while actors may perform them differently (and indeed, their dialog makes them different), the audience never quite knows which is which, nor does it matter.

And I beseech you instantly to visit
My too much changed son. Go, some of you,
And bring these gentlemen where Hamlet is.
GUILDENSTERN: Heavens make our presence and our practises
Pleasant and helpful to him!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Ay, amen!
Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, and some Attendants


The two arrivals are separated by Polonius' arrival, prefacing the second part of the scene:

Enter POLONIUS
LORD POLONIUS: The ambassadors from Norway, my good lord,
Are joyfully return'd.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thou still hast been the father of good news.
LORD POLONIUS: Have I, my lord? I assure my good liege,
I hold my duty, as I hold my soul,
Both to my God and to my gracious king:
And I do think, or else this brain of mine
Hunts not the trail of policy so sure
As it hath used to do, that I have found
The very cause of Hamlet's lunacy.
KING CLAUDIUS: O, speak of that; that do I long to hear.
LORD POLONIUS: Give first admittance to the ambassadors;
My news shall be the fruit to that great feast.


If Claudius took the threat from Fortinbras lightly in the previous Act, here he would put personal matters before affairs of state. This is part of Shakespeare's continued undermining of Claudius' abilities as a King.

KING CLAUDIUS: Thyself do grace to them, and bring them in.
Exit POLONIUS
He tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found
The head and source of all your son's distemper.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I doubt it is no other but the main;
His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.
KING CLAUDIUS: Well, we shall sift him.


Gertrude is mostly in the right here, but from here on out, the characters will only follow red herrings. Though Hamlet is unusual in the comparative weakness of its female characters, Shakespeare still uses them as engines for truth. Ophelia will do so through her madness, and in this case, only Gertrude really knows her son. The male characters, all shown to be foolish in one way or another, refuse to listen.

Re-enter POLONIUS, with VOLTIMAND and CORNELIUS
Welcome, my good friends!


Again, Claudius acts like a politician would. Though the ambassadors are under his command, he still feels the need to butter them up and call them friends.

Say, Voltimand, what from our brother Norway?
VOLTIMAND: Most fair return of greetings and desires.
Upon our first, he sent out to suppress
His nephew's levies; which to him appear'd
To be a preparation 'gainst the Polack;
But, better look'd into, he truly found
It was against your highness: whereat grieved,


The revelation that Fortinbras is arming himself against Denmark should be cause for concern, but Claudius is foolishly distracted by the madman in his midst. He takes the rest of the news at face value and never questions them again - this strand is forgotten until the last scene of Act V - this, in contrast with Hamlet, who takes nothing at face value, including the Ghost's accusations.

That so his sickness, age and impotence
Was falsely borne in hand, sends out arrests
On Fortinbras; which he, in brief, obeys;
Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine
Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give the assay of arms against your majesty.
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee,
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack:
With an entreaty, herein further shown,

Giving a paper

That it might please you to give quiet pass
Through your dominions for this enterprise,
On such regards of safety and allowance
As therein are set down.
KING CLAUDIUS: It likes us well;
And at our more consider'd time well read,
Answer, and think upon this business.
Meantime we thank you for your well-took labour:
Go to your rest; at night we'll feast together:
Most welcome home!
Exeunt VOLTIMAND and CORNELIUS


Hamlet and Fortinbras are certainly mirrored in the play. Both have an uncle acting as father figure, which both disobey. Norway's weakness and foolishness, then, is an indication of Claudius' own. According to Voltimand's story, Norway was all too easy to convince, and ended up rewarding Fortinbras instead of punishing him, helping him invade Denmark rather than preventing him. Claudius' response is not to question it, and he in fact tables the matter and will read the documents later. Just like Norway, he believes anything he's told, as he will Polonius in the next section.

LORD POLONIUS
This business is well ended.


If Polonius is wrong about everything, then the audience should wonder if this business is ended at all. After all, it is structurally suspect that a subplot would end (and end off-stage) at the start of Act II. It is obvious that Polonius is wrong, and this prefaces a more crucial error.

Friday, November 12, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Classics Illustrated

The original
Ever keen on dispelling ambiguity, the original comics adaptation prefaces Act II with a short, informative scroll:We learn that time had definitely passed, and that Hamlet is in part mad and in part faking it (north-north-west, if you need proof in the text). Artist Alex A. Blum shows us the scene as "reported" by Ophelia, but his less than expressive figure work leaves the scene without much intensity. Ophelia sits through it and though sad, is not "affrighted". A much more timid character, then, who doesn't hold against her father the romantic detente he ordered.
Similarly, Polonius is incredibly calm when he decides to tell the King and Queen about Hamlet's madness. This adaptation continues to be... functional.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake gives up a whole page to the scene, and has it take place in a lush, green garden (perhaps the orchard where the murder took place?). Mandrake plays a lot with contrasts in his adaptation. Just before this scene, Denmark was painted as an austere, foggy netherverse. Here, it is an Eden. It may be his way to indicate time has passed, from the bitter cold of Act I, to the false promise of spring in Act II. Mandrake uses the comics medium to good effect, placing both the tale and the telling next to each other on the page and managing perhaps one of the better exits for Hamlet, truly walking without the help of his eyes.

In both adaptations, Ophelia remains sitting during her visit from Hamlet, making her a passive character things happen to. Is it a visual indictment of her role as motor/catalyst for the action? The passivity shown here (and frankly, in the text) can be used either to show that Hamlet isn't motivated by love at all, or more ironically, that Ophelia moves the action without meaning to. In some ways, she's a red herring and a diversion. She puts Polonius et al. on the wrong track vis-à-vis Hamlet's madness, later interrupts Laertes' vengeance schemes (twice), makes Hamlet lose his focus at the graveyard, etc. even for the audience, she is an abortive romantic subplot.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Slings & Arrows

In Slings & Arrows, Ophelia is played by Kate McNab, who in turn is played by the now ubiquitous Rachel McAdams. In the show, which continually blurs the line between the characters and the actors who play them, Kate has a relationship with Jack/Hamlet. She's his tether, finding him when he runs for it and bringing him back to the theater. This is a notion from the play as well. Ophelia is Hamlet's tether, one he deliberately cuts in the unseen moment before this scene. By letting her go (reluctantly but necessarily), he loses hope for the normal life she represents (but then, Hamlet has lost the sense than marriage is any sort of normalcy).

McAdams/McNab gives an excellent and properly "affrighted" performance. Other characters believe she's really good, and Slings doles out humor in the midst of drama, by having the Culture Minister's wife claim the same based on her cleavage. The show often undercuts its drama with comedy, and vice-versa, which is a perfectly Shakespearean thing to do.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Tennant (2009)

Ophelia comes running through Elsinore in a floral dress (flowers being associated with her quite closely) and finds her father. Here is where I started losing confidence in Ophelia's casting. Mariah Gale is a good actress and expression, tears, etc. are genuine. However, I have problems with her physicality. Her posture through most of this scene is awkward and stilted and her look so shabby as to wonder how she was ever a match for the princely Hamlet. Her deterioration is too rapid and she looks here like she might during her madness scenes.

Oliver Ford Davies' Polonius continues to be highly watchable. When he asks "What said he?", we suddenly understand that he doesn't just want to understand what happened, but that he doesn't trust Ophelia to understand. The conclusions he jumps to based on a second-hand account fill him with pride, and in a complete disconnect from his daughter, smiles through most of the scene.
He consoles her, claiming that Hamlet's breakdown is actually a good thing. It means he loves her, can't she see? Otherwise, his attitude is "ah well"; there is no empathy for her there. His next step is to take her to the King, and he does so almost on automatic, like you'd tell a child with a bloody knee it was time to go to the medicine cabinet. And Ophelia IS a child, which is why I tend to forgive her the awkwardness. However, what does that make the 30-something Hamlet that he is in love with such an immature girl? Of course, this is a question we may ask of almost any production where those ages are respected.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Fodor (2007)

In Fodor's version, Act I is immediately followed by a musical montage using a triple split screen to show characters being put into motion (perhaps as an echo of the chess metaphor from Act I). It resolves into a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet where she has sought him out and he apparently rebuffs her. This is not the scene described in Act II, Scene 1. There is obvious arguing which has him playing the jerk and her leaving. It serves the same function, however, giving Ophelia reason to think Hamlet is acting strangely. It is a calculated move on Hamlet's part. We see him thinking when she's not looking, and the music is Marillion's The Invisible Man. The song recalls the Ghost's existence ("I cannot lift a hand / Lift a hand to stop him / I don't exist What can I do? / What can I do?"), but I think the director and the actor are both telling us that Hamlet is cutting his ties to Ophelia and erasing his self to be at one with his mission of revenge. He ceases to exist as he used to and his relationships are forfeit. The scene ends with Ophelia leaving and Hamlet, apparently in the morgue, kisses his father's corpse on the lips.
It serves as prologue to the To be or not to be speech, which we'll get to later.

Scene 1 begins in earnest after this scene as discussed in our last Fodor article. Ophelia enters her sister's rooms and interrupts her impending murder of Reynalda. Polonia is clearly annoyed at this, and as both Reynalda and the Ghost watch, Ophelia tells her story. Strangely, she delivers the whole text as written, generating a complete disconnect with the montage seen earlier. Either she is making it up/is confused (and this Ophelia is on drugs through the entire film), or there was another, unseen encounter. Perhaps Hamlet tried to change his mind about casting Ophelia aside and then didn't manage it. Certainly, she lies or is mistaken when she says she denied Hamlet access to her, or are we to understand the montage scene was about her breaking up with him, and him acting like he didn't care? Ophelia isn't exactly "affrighted" even though she used the word, but seems to be suffering from the more modern malady we call anxiety. She speaks quickly, starts on a glass of wine, and brushes her hair obsessively. Polonia takes up the latter task for her and turning her murder/sexual weapon into a ribbon for her hair.
Unlike the Polonius of the play, Polonia is played not as foolish, but as sinister and cruel. "That hath made him mad" is said with relish, like it was her plan all along to split Hamlet and Ophelia up to do him harm. There is then a strange moment where Polonia seems to become aware of the Ghost's presence (shots of his eyes meeting her eyeline). Not for the first time, the Ghost seems to have a corrupting influence on the characters. In the previous part of the scene, he seemed to be egging her on to murder Reynalda. Here, he changes the intent of the line "This must be known". Polonia has the sudden realization that if the King and Queen are made aware of Hamlet's madness and/or the cause of that madness, it can create more mayhem.

So where does the evil of the play come from? Though Polonia (like many other characters) is thoroughly corrupt, Fodor makes the Ghost the agent of that evil. In the play, the Ghost is indeed the catalyst for the tragedy. In this film, that idea is taken to a horrific extreme wherein he manipulates not only Hamlet, but the other doomed characters of the play, leading them all off the cliff.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet 2000 continues to play with the play's structure in this section, while also focusing on visuals rather than text. Act II thus begins in Hamlet's apartment, where Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hanh is being interviewed on the television.His text is not Shakespeare's, obviously, but it still informs it. And as Hamlet absorbs this media, it informs his own character and in particular, the "To be or not to be" speech. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about being, and how you must work to be, or rather work at aiming to be. He says it's not possible to be alone in this world and that you need other people in order to be - your parents obviously, but also society and nature. It is actually impossible to be alone, but to be, you must aim to be. The implication is that you must embrace others and the world in order to truly exist. This contrasts with Hamlet's self-imposed isolation, so that when later he asks the famous question, it also implies another: "To embrace others or cut myself off from them." There is death, and there is the death-like state of being forgotten, being apart. In the modern world of the film, where characters are motivated by an individualism not valued in Elizabethan times, being forgotten is just as ignoble an end (Hamlet and Ophelia in particular are artists). It gives new dimension to Hamlet's distress at his father having been forgotten. The scene gives impetus for Hamlet to go and see Ophelia so that he may share himself and "be", though it thematically culminates later in the line "now I am alone". Hamlet's existential struggle is to subsume himself into his role of avenger even though his personality is too great to be so smothered.

But back to the scene... While Thich Nhat Hanh speaks on the television, Hamlet is also holding a small video player where he watches one of his short films. It is Ophelia, hiding her face with a book jacket (and an old man's face - can she ever be separated from her father? Is confiding in her tantamount to confessing to him?), and the book's title perhaps too pointedly being called "Living Dying".
Hamlet is surrounded by media - of his own devising and not - and it helps craft his way of thinking. Does this Hamlet ask himself "To be or not to be" if an Asian guru does not plant the idea in his head? Does he link the speech to his situation if that guru does not mention father and mother among his examples? Does he link the concept to suicide if he is not simultaneously looking at that book jacket? And does he go see Ophelia if those two pieces of media are not played one against the other? Hamlet 2000 presents a character whose thoughts may not be his own, or at least whose environment pushes him towards certain resolutions. In the past, we might have called this destiny. Today, psychology seems a clearer motivator of human affairs. Hamlet receives "messages" or "prods" not from some divine/wicked agency, but from the media that surrounds him.
Wherever the impetus comes from, Hamlet is next seen in a diner attempting to write poetry for Ophelia. The text is the one normally read by Polonius to the King and Queen, though we do see Hamlet ripping up some of the pages, apparently finding his phrases as vile as Polonius does. The text continues in voice-over while Hamlet walks past Ophelia's building, turns around, hesitates, and finally decides to go in. Across the street from Ophelia's is a supermarket decorated in Halloween imagery.
This gives the director an opportunity to create/sustain a funereal and supernatural atmosphere.

Inside, we find Ophelia not sowing, but developing film in her darkroom. The red lighting associates Ophelia to love, pain and blood. In the film, she initially wears a lot of red, though it becomes grayer and then black as time goes on. It's her color, and Hamlet is in her world.
The scene doesn't follow Ophelia's description from the text, though it is just as silent. In this case, Hamlet gives her the poem to read in addition to the usual clutching and sighing. That's an important choice. In the text, we don't know when Hamlet might have written the piece of poetry, but it's suggested it comes from before his breakdown. In this version, it is a product of the isolation he feels after learning of his father's murder. He cannot say the words to her, but codes them in a poem to let her know how he still feels about her. It is only Polonius' appearance at the door that interrupts the scene (Polonius goes to his daughter rather than the reverse - an interfering parent and a child that wants none of that interference and so doesn't run to HIM), and Hamlet's quest for comfort. Perhaps he would have found an ally in Ophelia, but it's not meant to be. In the original play, Hamlet comes to this realization alone. Here, it is forced upon him. He is a weaker version of Hamlet for it.

Polonius arrives with balloons for his daughter, reducing her to the status of a child, although what can we say about the balloon with a dollar on it? It is another visual (and one could argue, a bit too obvious) flourish to show Polonius' ties to the Denmark corporation, his faulty priorities, and his lack of understanding of his daughter's nature. When Hamlet sees him, he kisses Ophelia one last time and flees, embarrassed. The poem drops to the ground, and Polonius grabs it and reads it. This will make a liar out of him when he tells the King and Queen his daughter dutifully gave it to him.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Kline '90

Disastrous.

It starts with very odd staging, with Polonius basically standing around in the dark and Ophelia coming across him in her pink dress as she runs through the palace. Josef Sommer gives was approaches an anti-performance, standing aloof from her and basically cuing her lines. He's neither cold nor emotional, just expressionless. He seems detached from the scene completely - and I mean the actor, not the character. I can't explain the choice and can't reconcile it with any interesting reading of the play. It's just bizarre, and Ophelia's all-too-old casting doesn't help any. Diane Venora plays it competently, but still seems miscast, and her lack of chemistry with her father here - which isn't her fault - plays against her.

In the end, he listens to her go, prompts her from time to time, never makes accusations (that piece of dialog is cut), and takes off to bring her before the king, never even touching her. It's perfunctory in a way that seems to indicate the director wanted to get through the scene as quickly as possible, seeing it as a simple plot point.

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Zeffirelli '90

Not surprisingly, Zeffirelli chooses to show the scene rather than hear talk about it. Though the director often butchers the original text, I do admire how efficient he is with the source material. Here, the scene starts with Ophelia sowing in her closet, singing the valentine song pulled from her madness scene. In one fell swoop, Zeffirelli sets up this character trait so that it makes complete sense when it manifests itself during her madness, and evokes a romantic mood for her and the audience that is ironic in a different way than it is in its proper location.

This Ophelia is a naive slip of a girl who smiles when she sees Hamlet in her chambers, but at the same time, backs away, awkward and perhaps a little afraid. It's obvious from this that she hasn't really been in a room with a man before. This is an as-yet chaste relationship. In Act I Scene 3, we saw how Polonius and Laertes put the idea of her and Hamlet in her head. Bonham-Carter played the moment as if she hadn't even considered it before. Is this the maidenhead-stealing moment they warned her about? And does a part of her want to defy that warning? Of course, it's NOT that moment. Scene 3 is echoed here by having Polonius spy on them, just as Hamlet spied on Scene 3.
On a purely structural level, doing this means we don't have to then have a scene where Ophelia tells her father everything. Redundancy aside, it may also mean that Ophelia would never have told her father (the letters given her in secrecy now take the bent of having been taken without her consent). Zeffirelli's Ophelia is essentially a powerless creature who never becomes an agent of her own destiny, even fleetingly as she usually does in Act II Scene 1. She makes no choice here.

But what of Hamlet? Does he know in this moment that Polonius is listening? Is he therefore putting on a show? It doesn't look like it, though the interpretation is not impossible. He comes near her, he grabs her arm, which is shocking to her. We fear violence. He smells her, like an animal would. Clearly, Hamlet has lost his grip and we can assume he's not being cruel on purpose, knowing he's being seen. But is he symbolically smelling her father's manipulations on her? Like an animal, his instinct tells him it's not safe here and he finds he cannot speak any words, lest he be compromised. He wants to tell her everything, but can't bear to let his secret out to someone who may spill the beans. It's a very effective performance from Gibson. He lets out the piteous sigh, and we see it as cold breath. And then he goes hard, having let out his emotion, and walks out staring at her, but colder, breaking that bond in his mind.

Poor Ophelia is left standing there unconsoled, as Polonius runs off to tell the king. Though we're missing the first part of Scene 1, Polonius' darkness is established another way. We can question his priorities and his status as a seemingly kindly old man.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - BBC '80

Sadly, the BBC television production's version of this story shows off both the actress and the format's flaws. While from the distance afforded by the stage, Lalla Ward's performance would be acceptable, even the medium shot shows her tears to be absent in all but her voice. We're too close for such a performance. We could hear believe that Ophelia is faking it just as Hamlet is, except that Jacobi's Hamlet is well and truly mad (as he'll realize himself later), and Ophelia is meant to be sincerly distraught. But as I say, from a distance, Ward's performance is adequate. There's a fun moment when she is surprised by Reynaldo's exit and catches herself in time to cursorily curtsy. Polonius is kind to her, even when he makes the accusation, his fatherly love evident.
Even when the staging doesn't inspire much, I do try and pick up on a line I haven't examined before, and in this case, and perhaps because Ophelia herself has a fantastic hat, that line is "no hat upon his head". I just now realized that most, if not all, Hamlets I've seen feature a hatless Hamlet from start to finish. Could we infer that Shakespeare staged it differently? Hamlet might have started with a hat - like other courtly characters have - and signified his madness by taking it off and letting his hair flow wildly. Food for a future director's staging.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Olivier '48

Olivier removes Polonius from this scene entirely, and turns Ophelia's words into a soliloquy and flashback. Unlike most other directors, he chooses to show what Ophelia is describing. There is still a certain amount of subjectivity because the image are clearly coming from her mind (thanks to Olivier's often interesting camera and lighting tricks), but still seems to bleed some of the ambiguity out of it. Olivier's melancholy performance follows the text beat for beat, but by accentuating gestures over words, he brings some of the oddness to light. In particular, the shaking of Ophelia's arm and of his own head make you believe in his madness, rather than any planned cruelty. (Hamlet is such an ambiguous text, however, that we might still infer that causing Ophelia harm on purpose causes those physical symptoms. Perhaps Hamlet goes mad because he is forced to act against those he loves - lover and mother - and so feigned madness becomes real.)
As for Ophelia, she's far from frightened by these events. Instead of the rush to see her father, we have a quiet internal monologue. After Hamlet does a number on her, she simply sits down and resumes her sewing. Obviously, she'll go to her father later, because he talks to the King and Queen about it in the next scene, and the implication may be that the voice-over we hear is taken from that unseen meeting. As we don't hear Polonius' reactions, we cannot confirm that. She may have downplayed some elements or emphasized others. In any case, Polonius has been removed from Scene 1, eliminating much from his character.

All this is not to say Jean Simmons doesn't give an intriguing performance here. Her Ophelia is, as we've mentioned before, a child-like dreamer. Instead of panic, she instead gives us bemused reflection as she attempts to make sense of what has just happened. She peruses her own face, reenacting Hamlet's touch and smiling wistfully. The smile drops, perhaps an inner realization that her father must know of it - a natural assumption as we cut to the next scene at that point.

On a personal note, I can't say I'm a fan of Olivier's melancholy Hamlet, but I am a fan of Simmons' naive Ophelia. She brings something entirely different to the role.

Friday, October 22, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Branagh '96

Reynaldo's exit is Ophelia's entrance, out of breath and teary. Kate Winslet gives an intensely emotional performance that prefigures her later madness. One thing Branagh does not do here as director is show us flashbacks of Hamlet's visit. He leaves it to Winslet to mime Hamlet's actions. This is a notable choice in a film that makes wide use of flashbacks to generate interest in scenes described but impossible to stage in the theater. The scene not pictured thus continues to be something of a mystery. We only have Ophelia's highly emotional point of view and cannot know what Hamlet's true intentions were.
One line did resonate with me on this viewing: "He falls to such perusal of my face / As he would draw it." It's a line that harks back to Hamlet's oath to wipe away "all fond records" and erase the book of his memory. Hamlet isn't drawing, he's erasing. In the unseen scene, he almost draws her back into his "book", but as he's sworn to only his father's revenge written there, he cannot. Shakespeare chooses his words well. It's as if he would draw it, but "would" is not the same as actually doing it. Also note the ironic use of he word "fall" in the same line.

Watch Ophelia as Polonius starts responding to the story. When he mentions the ecstasy of love, she looks up, hopeful. Does Hamlet love her? She would rather it be that than some malady out of her control. Polonius then asks "What, have you given him any hard words of late?" as if it's all her fault. It's not fair to say Polonius refuses to take responsibility, because he does in his last few lines, but rather that he can't at first see that it's his own fault. Even when he does take responsibility here, Branagh has him say the lines in an aside, not directly at the sobbing Ophelia. She is left believing it was in a sense her fault, or at least that everyone else thinks it is.
Ophelia crawls into her father's bed, which some will want to label as Freudian, but I don't read any incest into it. Rather, it's more mirroring of characters (this is the Hamlet with the Hall of Mirrors, after all). Just as Ophelia was mirroring Hamlet's gestures earlier, here she takes the place of her father's whore in his bed. This merely emphasizes the old man's hypocrisy and corruption. A few moments ago, he had a girl the same age in his bed, and this staging reminds us of that. At the same time, we have Ophelia in bed with her father instead of Hamlet. She's lost one and now has only the other (which she is also destined to lose), and both men are mirrored through the scene. Both are manipulators, of each other ideally, but of Ophelia specifically.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted

On the heels of Reynaldo's departure comes Ophelia in the second half of Scene 1 (if, indeed, Reynaldo makes an appearance at all in any given version) with a story about Hamlet visiting her closet. Why is this scene told but not shown? Seeing as the actor playing Hamlet is about to come onstage for the longest continuous appearances in all of Shakespeare, was it done for practical reasons? More likely, but just as "practical", the picture painted by Shakespeare would have been considered scandalous on the Elizabethan stage, his pants around his ankles, as it were. In a scene that is already about the trustworthiness of any given point of view, we get a second hand account (a naive spy report from Ophelia) that propels the play exactly where Hamlet means to propel it. It is this account that involves Polonius, and Polonius who involves the King and Queen.

All part of Hamlet's plan? One question directors and actors must ask themselves is whether Ophelia's account is true. It's certainly true for her (though imagine a Hamlet where Ophelia is a willing accomplice, at least, until her father's death), but was Hamlet faking? Did he sacrifice Ophelia's love for his new cause? Is he using her, or was this a heartfelt goodbye? Or both? The text follows in italics, interspersed with my comments.

Enter OPHELIA

LORD POLONIUS: How now, Ophelia! what's the matter?
OPHELIA: O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!
LORD POLONIUS: With what, i' the name of God?
OPHELIA: My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.


Here is the portrait I was referring to. Hamlet is a man who very recently has been loosed out of hell, or from the nether realm in which the Ghost exists, placing this scene very soon after Act I. In fact, it is a reaction to Act I's revelations. There, we had Hamlet vow to erase the slate of his memory and here, his clothes and hair are undone, a graphic representation of an unmade man.

LORD POLONIUS: Mad for thy love?

Polonius immediately jumps to this conclusion. It is his first thought on the matter, and it remains the one he supports until his demise. We've already discussed how Polonius is the man who consistently gets it wrong, and here we see how. Rather than looking at all the evidence, he sticks with his first notion and keeps building upon it even when others suggest alternatives. Why IS it his first thought? Guilt about having given his daughter the interdiction may already have been on his mind.

OPHELIA: My lord, I do not know;
But truly, I do fear it.
LORD POLONIUS: What said he?
OPHELIA: He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,


The use of "thus" encourages the actress playing Ophelia to mime Hamlet's actions, in effect merging with him now that he is ironically out of her grasp. It's a mirror between the two lovers, if you will. Both will suffer from madness, both will have their father slain, etc. This early mimic sets up that mirror.

He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go:


These lines, more than any others, point to Hamlet making his goodbyes and in effect putting to rest his old life. A more ruthless Hamlet could still fake this great sigh, of course, but the audience wants to believe Ophelia here, as she has a privileged relationship with Hamlet.

And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their helps,
And, to the last, bended their light on me.
LORD POLONIUS: Come, go with me: I will go seek the king.
This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures. I am sorry.
What, have you given him any hard words of late?
OPHELIA: No, my good lord, but, as you did command,
I did repel his fetters and denied
His access to me.
LORD POLONIUS: That hath made him mad.


Polonius comes to that conclusion a second time.

I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him: I fear'd he did but trifle,
And meant to wreck thee; but, beshrew my jealousy!
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king:


Polonius accuses himself of wrong-doing, but at the same time justifies those actions. He meddles, but his children lack discretion. It evens out. He must still do what he does. In fact, he'll next go to the King and Queen and meddle some more. The dramatic irony of Polonius is that while other characters in Shakespeare can overhear themselves speaking, he cannot. Other characters can realize things about themselves and adapt, he learns nothing of the truths he speaks.

This must be known; which, being kept close, might move
More grief to hide than hate to utter love.


Wrong again, Polonius.

Exeunt

Visual media can of course show us what here is merely told, through Ophelia's lens or a more objective third person point of view. We'll look at how that choice, among others, affects the various versions of the play under examination through the next few articles.