Saturday, April 17, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Branagh '96

Branagh's version of the scene is without a doubt where I got my impression of disjointed time playing tricks on Horatio, because Nicholas Farrell puts a strong spin on the exchange. Hamlet looks at him impatiently, and he admits to not having heard the clock stroke twelve. Might they have missed the Ghost due to his absent-mindedness?

The King's rouse has started, we hear the cannons fire, and Hamlet is forced to explain the ritual. That's twice in a row Horatio doesn't seem to know what's going on. Should we infer anything from this? We discussed how he must be at least in part a stranger to Elsinore or the Court in the previous article, but it strikes me that there is also a dramatic device at play. In Scene 1, Horatio had difficulty accepting a non-rational universe, one in which a Ghost could exist. As we near the moment of the Ghost's return, we once again enter that non-rational domain and Horatio is lost. The voice of reason has no place here. Shakespeare may be using Horatio's confusion to destabilize the audience. After all, he is something of an audience identifier figure who gets things explained to him, etc.

Branagh chooses here to show us the Claudius' rouse, but is the camera's point of view trustworthy? After all, Hamlet is telling us about it, and he isn't there, placing doubt on these images of Claudius knocking back glass after glass before throwing the Queen on a bed in full view of his ministers.
That last bit is especially incendiary, and based on the subject matter, there's reason to believe it's part of Hamlet's imagination. Even in the play as written, without the benefit of film editing, we only get Hamlet's version of these events. He may be laying it on a bit thick because of his general dislike (is that too weak a word) for Claudius.

I now strikes me that while "the stamp of one defect" is literally about Claudius and ironically about Hamlet (again, see previous article), it also applies to Hamlet Sr. This is a man we are about to hear speak for the first time in the play, and who has been in turn deified and humanized by his son, who by all accounts was a goodly king (but also just "a man"). What defect did he carry? And what corruption stemmed from it? One of the questions of the play is the nature of Hamlet's relationship to his father, who seems to have been absent for most of his life, off to the wars. Is this the defect that helps form Hamlet's opinion about this, and indeed, the one that led to his ruination (absence or cold distance that allowed his wife to fall for Claudius)? We continue to look for clues.
Another element we can look at is Hamlet's moral outrage. He sets himself up as the defender of Danish character, while Claudius gives himself over to debauched tradition. Hamlet is presented as a politicized individual who is "princely" for seeing the bigger picture and recognizing that the King is the head of the state, corruption in one spreading through the other. Or in this case, replace corruption by reputation. It is this moral sensitivity that may explain why he doesn't take to murder very easily.

Branagh's film makes a change from the play in this scene by placing the "Angels and ministers" speech at the end, when Hamlet has left his friends behind (so really, at the start of Scene 5) rather than at the Ghost's appearance. This creates greater urgency, making Hamlet want to follow the Ghost almost immediately and causing Horatio and Marcellus to fear for his sanity, where the text would have him cast a protective spell at the first sign of the supernatural. No, instead, Branagh gives us a running prayer through the woods, and a hellish montage of bubbling smoke, fiery eruptions, cracking earth and funereal memories.
It is a very literal descent into hell. The Ghost does not so much crawl out of hell to meet Hamlet, but brings a part of hell with him. They meet at some halfway point, but then, isn't Denmark rotten enough that it has merged with hell itself? The furious pace of the prayer sends us headlong into the very precipice Horatio sought to avoid, and the images so bizarre compared to the relatively rational reality of the rest of the play/film, that we wonder if we can trust Hamlet's point of view. Is this a product of insanity (again, the fact that others see the Ghost complicates matters). I will at this point criticize Hamlet Sr.'s Santa suit, which pulls me right out of the experience when I see it.
In any case, placing the prayer at the end of the scene (of if you like, at the start of the next) makes Hamlet follow "What should we do?" with "Where wilt thou lead me?", Hamlet lost and his soul in play.

No comments: