Friday, December 30, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - French Rock Opera

On the album, the song "Ophélie! Oh, folie!" comes rather early, and admittedly, it refers to the "kissing carrion" line during Hamlet and Polonius' encounter. However, the song also seems to reference the breeding of sinners, and in its title and ending, Ophelia's impending madness. I have therefore chosen to discuss it here, where all those ideas intersect. Here's the the original text in French, and a rough translation.

Ophélie! Oh, folie!
Le soleil, sans vergogne
Fait d’une peau vermeille
Une infecte charogne
Fuit devant le soleil
Ophélie, Ophélie, Ophélie
Puis le vent, le soleil
Pourrir est sa besogne
Fuit devant le soleil
Il te fera charogne
Ophélie, Ophélie, Ophélie

Ophelia! Oh Madness!
The sun, without shame
Turns a vermilion skin
Into a loathsome carrion
Flee before the sun
Ophelia, Ophelia, Ophelia
Then the wind, the sun
Rot is its work
Flee before the sun
It will make you carrion
Ophelia, Ophelia, Ophelia

What the translation cannot reproduce, of course, is how "Ophélie" and "Oh Folie" sound alike, a trait or fate built into the character in the French version. In English, one might equate her name with "Oh Feel-ia" and even if Shakespeare wasn't making a point with the name, its sonority might have a subliminal impact on the audience. Word play is a major part of the Bard's style, so we can't completely dismiss it.

The song, played as an almost dirge-like lamentation for the character, begins with the image of women as carrion, and their children maggots, fathered by the sun, a common symbol for the male principle. He tells her to run away from the sun (in English, we might be tempted to play on sun/son, but no such relationship exists in French), which ties it to the Nunnery Scene in that way. The second movement of the song uses an angelic choir where the title is used to confuse the two terms ("Ophélie" and "Oh folie") together, making them undifferentiated. As the tempo accelerates, we can feel Ophelia's mind spinning and careening as she dives into madness. Her whole story is here. On the album, we won't hear of her again until her death.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Classics Illustrated

The originalWhile this adaptation sometimes feels like a "boys' adventure", it does surprise the informed reader with a full page devoted to what is essentially a relationship scene. Though cut for space, all the emotional beats are there, even Ophelia's oft-cut speech (in brief). Hamlet doesn't get violent, or even manic, and simply leaves a dejected Ophelia, almost mid-sentence. When she prays for his sanity to be restored, it is in reaction to what, in this context, seems a non sequitur. Devoid of the emotional context actors (or a stronger cartoonist) gives the scene, Ophelia can only conclude Hamlet is spouting nonsense, and never understands those words to be about her. She feels the sting of his telling her he never loved her (not that he ever says this in this cut version, he merely tells her she should not have BELIEVED him - a very different thing - he loved her, but she should not have reciprocated seeing as how things turned out), but nothing more. Claudius, behind the arras, may well conclude that love is not the cause of madness here because Hamlet shows none. There is hardly any passion in the character.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake's adaptation is more sensitive. He allows Ophelia's reaction to play in close-up. Hamlet isn't violent, but he does tower over her, his hands placed in vaguely menacing places. It seems an awkward drawing (middle panel, above), but I believe it is Mandrake's native expressionism that distorts the figures for conscious effect. Ophelia's voice is almost swallowed up, her words get smaller as her spirit is smothered. The staging that sets this adaptation apart is that she runs off during Hamlet's curse. He is left behind shouting as she quickly goes - one might assume - to that nunnery. As she exits, a tapestry is revealed.
Mandrake plays the arras as a progressive reveal. First, Hamlet mentions Ophelia's father. Then, we see the arras they said they were going to hide behind. In a third panel, they are in shadow. Claudius seems to uncover the fourth panel himself and shed light on the spies and his plans. (A final panel on the next page returns the figures to shadow as we transition to the next scene, and restores the scene's final scene.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - A Midwinter's Dream

Because A Midwinter's Dream is all about putting on a performance of Hamlet on Christmas, there is no better day to post this entry. In the film, the play passes by very quickly, with clips from the most famous scenes, but they still yield some interesting, and often amusing, staging ideas. In this case, Ophelia follows "there my lord" with a throwing of the gifts and a powerful slap across the face! There's an in-film, off-stage motivation for this, of course. Nina (Ophelia) and Joe (Hamlet) had been exhibiting feelings for one another, and when Joe left to do a big movie in America on the night of the premiere, she felt betrayed. He comes back to do the play, but the betrayal still stands between them. Nina "uses" it, as they say, and makes her feelings, Ophelia's. While there are some Ophelias, like Zeffirelli's, that play it cross more than sad, no other achieved this kind of passionate fury. I'd love to see if such a portrayal could be sustained in the full context of a production.

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Slings & Arrows

The Nunnery Scene is not in the broadcast Slings & Arrows, but can be found as a deleted scene on the DVD. While the group is rehearsing outside, they coax Jack Crew into using the text instead of his usual paraphrasing - a natural cut because it revealed too early that Jack knew the words and could do them, undercutting the later scene where his director forces him to do "To be or not to be" with the text. His paraphrasing IS pretty ridiculous at times. There is no reason not to use Shakespeare's original on lines like "I loved you, once", for example, since it already sounds modern. The one paraphrase that was interesting to me was the line about the paradox, translated as "Beauty will turn a virgin into a slut before honor will turn a slut into a virgin". This blunt interpretation paints Hamlet as someone who believes there's no coming back from sin. An honorable slut cannot recapture her virginity. Some things cannot be undone. Is he simultaneously talking about the revenge he must take? Is this part of his delay? Truly, murder cannot be undone.

When he switches to the Shakespearean original, Jack proves he can not only do it, but do it well. And his choices are interesting too. He puts a venomous emphasis on the word "mother", for example, highlighting the fact that she's more germane to the discussion than Ophelia is. He puts a manic spin on his ambitions, acts like a mischievous creature, makes Ophelia laugh... How would this have played in context? Making Hamlet impish in this moment rather than cruel wouldn't quite have worked, not without excising Ophelia's implorations to Heaven and soliloquy. It might work within the framework of a more mercurial performance, where he turns to cruelty suddenly, or a production that, through cuts and inferences, made Ophelia more of a knowing ally to Hamlet. In any case, we don't find out because the sprinklers start and Jack switches to King Lear's storm speech. While it does bring up the larger question of the way madness is portrayed in Shakespeare, and draws a connection between the two characters and how, in each play, the protagonist's state of mind is projected onto the environment, it does abort a possible staging for the Nunnery Scene.

Because S&A takes inspiration from the plays in its greater story, it is a nice touch here that the festival administrator, plotting against the production's success, is, Polonius-like, watching the scene from his car.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - The Banquet

China's Hamlet adaptation is too different from the original text to enjoy a scene-by-scene analysis (though I'm tempted to include the snow-tunneling ninjas sometime), but it does feature a few noteworthy staging ideas. In its equivalent of the Nunnery Scene, for example, the fight turns to passionate love-making. Using this ideas on a more traditional adaptation could have various effects on the play, depending on the director's intent. If the colloquial meaning of nunnery is retained, Hamlet has just called Ophelia a whore and then physically turns her into one. This would be especially disturbing if it were their first time. The tenderness Ophelia shows Hamlet in The Banquet does not mean that the prince has renewed their romance, only that she believes he might. Giving the (former) lovers a night of passion need not keep Ophelia from breaking down later. In fact, it can be used to destabilize her further by giving her highs followed by extreme lows (the humiliation of the Mouse-Trap, her lover killing her father). And this has got to be confusing for Hamlet as well, giving in to what he has renounced, and perhaps doing it out of rage more than love. More guilt to pile onto his psyche.

Monday, December 19, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Tennant (2009)

The 2009 adaptation also uses a two-way mirror to hide (or rather, frequently cut to) the spies. Ophelia is steady, at first, while Hamlet is visibly upset and keeps his distance from her. Confronting this part of his life is painful, and seeing him like this, Ophelia quickly starts to break down too. There's a nice hesitation from her on "redeliver", as if looking for the word. She draws attention to that choice. She's not "giving back", she's "redelivering". What, if any, and aside from being more "poetic", are the meanings behind that word? One might infer here a more chaste relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, a romance through correspondence more than intimate contact. Gifts were "delivered" and must now be "redelivered". Not that this adaptation means to paint the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship that way. Perhaps Ophelia is playing down their intimacy for her watching father.

The way Hamlet tries to keep her at a distance, batting and waving her approaches, also gives a slightly different meaning to "I never gave you ought". It seems clearer that he means he's not the same person who gave her those gifts. By accepting his father's mission, he erased all other things from his mind (or tried to, that's the central conflict of the play). He's already renounced Ophelia and love, but here they both are again, and he must reassert his "new self" and push away any and all distractions. New Hamlet cannot be involved with Ophelia and even that past is erased. Compare to how the memory of his father has likewise been excised from the Court's memories. What Gertrude has done to Hamlet Sr., Hamlet Jr. is doing to Ophelia. She's not dead, but of course, the Ghost is a "living" character too. So even when he grabs her, he seems to push her away too, like he's defending himself from her touch and all the earthly concerns it represents. This push and pull is very much symbolic of Hamlet's attitude throughout the play. His goal goes against his values, and he hates the women he loves. "You should not have believed me" is spoken with hands on his head. The paradoxes of the play are making him crack.

While the spies behind the mirror are quiet, the hyper-surveillance element in this adaptation does make a noise as our point of view shifts to that of the security camera zooming in. That's when he realizes it's a set-up and gets angry at Ophelia, shouts at the air to make sure he's heard/recorded, etc. Ophelia is not thrown to the ground, she gets down on her knees to pray. Hamlet's violence is only verbal, though he does rip up the love letters as if they were "broken wedding vows", while she gestures ineffectually to try and save them. When he accuses women of nicknaming God's creatures, he holds up her Bible (which she was reading to color her loneliness). Given how quick she falls to praying, it makes sense this would be her book, but what does Hamlet's line mean? I've struggled with it. According to the Old Testament, Adam was given the task of naming all living things. Is Hamlet really condemning women for subverting God's wishes and in effect RE-naming the animals? It's an image of falsification (like the attack on cosmetics or love/sex games), and I now notice that it's something we get back to in Ophelia's madness scenes where different flowers are given different names and meanings (Gertrude does it too when talking about the suicide). If Shakespeare wasn't such a feminist in other plays, it would be easy to see a vicious misogynistic streak in this one. Women in Hamlet's world are not allowed to define or create their own world, and the naming of creatures and plants has a thematic relationship with Gertrude naming Claudius as her husband. Hamlet's revolt is against his world being shaken up by a woman.
After he leaves, Ophelia sobs through her entire speech and drops to the mirrored floor. As in other mirror-based stagings (like Branagh's), the things she sees and that haunts her is herself, that ugly thing she has become by participating in her father's schemes. In effect, she agrees with Hamlet's evaluation of himself as a monster created by women, and feels responsible for that transformation. However, he also told her not to believe a word he says. Was this a coded message she somehow missed? Part of the tragedy of these characters is that they do not understand one another. Ophelia should know Hamlet well enough to see through his act, read those coded warnings and heed his advice to leave Elsinore. She doesn't. This may be a problem with the Polonius family in general. Polonius certainly doesn't understand why Hamlet does what he does, and Laertes will allow himself to be convinced to work against Hamlet by the play's villain, and need to repent in his last moment.

Polonius, as usual uncomfortable with emotion, comes out of hiding and hands his daughter a handkerchief, and in embarrassment, stresses that he heard it all. That "all" seems to represent all manner of unpalatable things which he doesn't want to rehash, examine or understand. The structure of the play only now has Polonius board Hamlet as the prince runs back and Ophelia scurries away. It makes Polonius even thicker than normal, pursuing a line of inquiry Claudius has just rejected.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Nunnery Scene - Fodor (2007)

The scene comes on the heels of the conspirators discussing their plans to spy on Hamlet while Ophelia boards him, even as they watch him practice fencing from behind a two-way mirror. Hamlet reclines on the floor, and they send Ophelia to him. She kisses him to wake him, and never really seems hurt through the scene. This is an Ophelia that's controlled by her sister (Polonia) through drugs, and one that might well be just as manipulative as her sister. In no way does she appear to be as vulnerable as other Ophelias are, but her confidence may be bolstered by drug use. In any case, the accidental image created by her hair connecting her mind with Hamlet's (above) is merely illusion. There is no emotional understanding between them.
The two-way mirror device is well-used, allowing both Hamlet and Ophelia to look straight at Claudius and Polonia. The effect is different depending on the speaker. Hamlet's words are ironic because he doesn't know (at least initially) who he's really speaking to, while Ophelia can give meaningful looks to her co-conspirators. The image of that free-floating mirror creates an ironic wedding portrait. But while Ophelia remains rather cold, it's Polonia who reacts the most, giving weight to Hamlet's words. While Claudius shakes his head in disbelief, Polonia seems to feel the stings Ophelia does not. This is a new side to her character. Normally, she's basically psychotic, but do we glimpse here empathy for her sister? Or is she as selfish as ever and seeing the stepfather in the son? There's an obvious relationship between Claudius and Polonia in this film, but does he love her? And does she even care seeing as she's manipulating him anyway? It's an effect created by the mirror and the transgendering that we have two couple on each side of the glass. At least some of her reactions come down to embarrassment at being proven wrong about Hamlet's love-induced madness. Certainly, Claudius reacts quite strongly at having his time wasted by this exercise. Is that loss of power over him what she's really reacting to?

As the sound design becomes more and more bizarre - strange, anxious birds, and finally funereal bells - Hamlet seems to realize they might be watched. Having grown up in this house, he probably knows it's a two-way mirror. Ophelia doesn't answer him when he asks where her sister is, either because it would be absurd (the house is everyone's "home") or as a continuation of her passive, numb attitude. He leaves and she's left standing there, with no real reaction, and certainly no speech. On the other side of the mirror, Claudius also leaves, disagreeing with Polonia's take though not resolving to send Hamlet to England. We're left with two sisters, left by their lovers, staring at each other.

Monday, December 12, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Hamlet 2000

In this version, Ophelia is wired by her father and heads for Hamlet's apartment. The transition to that scene is a wall of water (a fountain in Elsinore), water being Ophelia's totem element. She's brought Hamlet a somewhat psychedelic box filled to the brim with letters and other mementos (like a rubber ducky - again an image of water). The whole scene feels particularly modern and, in a sense, mundane. We recognize the (ex) boyfriend-girlfriend dynamic here, playing out an argument as old as time. She's reproachful of his attitude, and he plays the cold bastard with her. Cutting the lines about the paradox makes the dialog more of this time as well. Hamlet's more ambiguous explanation of "are you honest/fair?" is the simpler "I did love you, once", reducing, perhaps, the emotional equation to there being no beauty without honesty. Alternatively, he may be telling Ophelia he loved only her falsified image, and that he does not love the person she actually is under the surface.

The scene really hinges on the line "I loved you not", after which Ophelia for the first time seems to feel emotion (her usual attitude could be described as "numb", or at least, "guarded"). After these wounding words, we cut to a shot of a jet, overhead, an image of something departing, or just a way to underscore a silent beat? And yet, Hamlet isn't without kindness. He seems comforting as he moves to her and rubs her shoulders, and his speech sounds like someone saying "it's for the best" and justifying why the two of them shouldn't marry lest they revisit the sins of their parents on their partners and children. It's one of the play's themes, isn't it? Hamlet's struggle is that having found his parents lacking, he fights not to become like them. One might even find enough evidence here to show that Claudius is Hamlet's biological father, as the latter resists the former's romantic and murderous aspirations. At least this Hamlet tries to leave Ophelia with some measure of kindness. Overwhelmed by emotion, she kisses him out of desperation, perhaps only now understanding that it's over between them. When he tells us to "believe none of us", it may be a warning to keep her safe from the plots that are about to unfold - his madness, yes, but also the courtly schemes, her father's most of all.

And as the scene gets hotter and heavier sexually, he suddenly finds the wire under her blouse. He's been trying to warn her about the conspirators in their midst only to find she's one of them. "Where is thy father?" is spoken with a hand over the microphone, but even under that muffled safety, she doesn't answer (because OF COURSE he would be at home, this is a remote "arras"). Hamlet shouts some of the next lines right into the wire, leaving no doubt that he's discovered it. Ophelia, caught, embarrassed and upset, puts all her things in the box, rips off the wire and packs it too, leaves in a rush. Most of the time, we don't even see Hamlet in frame. This is her scene, her point of view, her pain.
After a bike ride home, we see her burn Polaroids of Hamlet. Why, when the rest of the scene seems to tell us she's still in love with him? She probably thinks it's all her fault if it's over. Things were looking as if they might get back together for a moment there, and then the wire was discovered. Foolish girl, allowing your father to use you against the man you love like that. Because Ophelia's story ends in a suicide, we know her to be self-destructive, and here she destroys the better part of herself, so to speak, as her answering machine picks up Hamlet's curses and nunnery talk. It makes "no more marriages" something more intimate, something only she hears since Claudius and Polonius cannot possibly overhear it. From kindness, Hamlet has moved to cruelty. There can be no ulterior motive to yelling this part of the speech at Ophelia (though one may easily presume Polonius taps her phone).

And as she breaks down, we cut to Hamlet renting videos. He's moving on. From the relationship, and to a more active role in the play itself.

Friday, December 9, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Kline '90

Now let's see how the scene comes across with an older, wiser Ophelia. At least, that's how I read Diane Venora's performance (and she was 38 at the time). Her age makes her less fearful of Hamlet or her father, and perhaps takes part in the scheme willingly, for her own reasons. She makes herself available to Hamlet with a smile and tries to cheer him up, acting like nothing's wrong. The gifts she bears, some letters and a dried flower, could be meant to refresh his memory or focus his wits. When he doesn't accept them, she lays them on the stage, and you'll note that "their perfume lost" is cut. We must then believe her motivation to be elsewhere. She still loves him and giving him back these things is not meant as an affront, reproach, or sign that she doesn't love him anymore. Her bright spirits are nonetheless mitigated by the demons she sees in his eyes and speech, and she eventually backs away from him. But still, she seems hopeful that he can come back from this madness, so she is visibly hurt by his denial of their love. When she says she was "the more deceived", it's with a bitter, but honest laugh. An older woman mocking herself for having acted like a schoolgirl.

Kline does a good job with Hamlet as well. His version of "well, well, well" is robotic, a sample stuck on repeat as he ambles towards her, reaching for her hair. She stops his gesture and at the same time, his words. He peruses her face with his hands, gestures borrowed from the description of their first post-Ghost meeting, a smart use of the text in a different context. If these are Hamlet's mannerisms, why deny him those gestures in the rest of the play? And he eventually destroys the gifts, ripping up the letters, more of the erasure of the past he's been engaged in since he talked with his father's spirit. The nunnery speech is not unkind though. Hamlet has a thin smile, and advises more than accuses. She stops him with kisses, and this time, he's the one who pushes her away with a question about her father's whereabouts. He holds her tight during the next exchange, swinging her around in the parody of a newlywed dance. It gets more violent, he throws her down, hits her with a thrown book, tries to wipe away her make-up (her false face), moves her around as if she were a puppet (which she is - her father's)... Some of this is performance. He shouts at the air and looks around furtively. The kindnesses he does give Ophelia here are non-verbal and hidden in a flurry of strange, violent behavior.
After he leaves, Ophelia is left in the middle of a destroyed shared past, discarded like the trash around her. She grabs a piece of a poem, the "honey of his music vows", still clinging to past happiness, but her life is veritably in ruins. Is she picking up the pieces of her destroyed mind? Claudius seems more moved by these events than Polonius, her cold father who has his back to her and her distress. Ironically, he talks about neglected love as the cause of Hamlet's madness, not realizing he's neglecting his own (and soon to be mad) daughter. When she tries to speak, he stops her, refusing to empathize with her. Ophelia is often played as passive and listless in this moment, but Venora tries to actually say something. Who knows what that might be and what important piece of evidence or insight she might have imparted. She finally walks away, shell-shocked. Does her mind crack here? She'll be more keen in the next act, but it could be said that the first stone has been thrown at her fragile, glass-like mind.

Kline uses a title card here: END PART I. It's where the break would have been at the theater. Perhaps it's a good place to make some set changes, prepare for the play within a play, etc., but evidently Kline also sees this as the mid-point in the play. And it is. From this point on, Hamlet stops doubting himself and proceeds with his plans, while for Claudius, the investigation is over and he is resolved to exile Hamlet as soon as possible. The shift to action, rather than inaction, characterizes the next act.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli splits the Nunnery scene in two, the first just after Ophelia is tasked but before To be or not to be, and the second inserted in the ribaldry preceding the Mouse-Trap, collapsing two of Ophelia's humiliations into the same moment. In the first section, Mel Gibson's Hamlet initially tries to ignore Ophelia, walking away from her at a brisk pace, but she catches him up with "remembrances" (some kind of necklace). That word is well chosen, isn't it? Though Hamlet refuses to take the gift back, it's his memories of a happier time that he can't prevent from returning. And those memories are, in essence, missing, because Hamlet denies their existence. Gibson plays the moment with some measure of dumbfoundedness and self-imposed amnesia.

Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia is more aggressive than most, which is an interesting choice. She's the jilted one here and she won't take his bull. Does she suspect he's only feigning madness? The visual creates irony - the tiniest of girls vs. the action hero - that also exists in the power levels of the characters, both in the court and in the play. "You know right well you did" becomes an accusation. Hamlet laughs at her gesture... did he perchance see the shadows of the spies playing on the wall? Ambiguous. He only goes off shouting at the room and at her after her lie (that her father is home). The camera, trapped in Ophelia's point of view, spins round and round as Hamlet turns the tables and becomes the aggressor. At the end of his rant - which doesn't include the nunnery lines, notably - he runs up the stairs and throws down the just-regifted necklace. She timidly picks it up again in the background - the only reaction left from the text's short speech - as Claudius and Polonius come out of the woodwork to discuss what just happened. Hamlet stands in a doorway, hidden. This is how he knows about the trip to England, and of course, it's a confirmation of the the plot against him.
Nunnery-related lines are inserted during the play-within-a-play's preliminaries, in a more private moment after the more public humiliations of both Ophelia and Gertrude (after "half a year"). Almost swooning, he starts with "Get thee to a nunnery", which he finds strange and upsetting, and leaves off after "Believe none of us" as the play starts. The intimate nature of the sequence takes away any ribald meaning from the word "nunnery", and it becomes an imploration to save herself from both this tragedy and any future tragedy (which comes with child-bearing). She has no answer to give.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - BBC '80

As usual, Derek Jacobi is full of surprises in this scene. When his Hamlet sees Lalla Ward's Ophelia, he first puts his finger on his lips, as if to indicate that she shouldn't speak because he knows they're being spied on. It's not clear. He then grabs her book and reveals she was "reading" it upside down. She winces, her ploy half-discovered, and while we smile, Hamlet becomes hurtful, sarcastic, mocking. It is not without some kind of reproach in his voice that he says his sins are remembered in her orisons. And is there not a mirror of falsification here? She is pretending to read, to be lonely, etc. as much as he is feigning madness, that is, consciously false, and yet working from a kernel of truth. Jacobi's reading turns the line into an accusation or revelation that she is false. When she finally speaks, he treats it as a performance, laughs, mockingly applauds.

I've never found Lalla Ward a very effective Ophelia. Though she sobs through the whole sequence, never are there any tears. This obvious actor's artifice takes some of the punch away from Hamlet's mocking of those sobs, they're more like an actor mocking another. The redelivered gifts are often papers, presumably Hamlet's poetry, but here they go another way with a long green scarf. Hamlet grabs it from Ophelia's hands and uses it to snag her neck, though further violence of that kind does not ensue. He does admit he loved her once, but by this point she's scared. He refutes it almost immediately, of course, and when she says she was the more deceived, Hamlet reacts with a noncommittal gesture. Oh well, that's your problem, isn't it?

Things take a turn when he underlines his line about being a breeder of sinners by making a gesture towards her crotch. The embarrassment makes her look towards the arras, and though Hamlet makes no visible realization, just an odd look, he soon starts shouting his litany of sins at the wall and starts opening secret doors. It seems he didn't know all along, but he is not surprised. Obviously, Ophelia was playing some kind of game, but perhaps he didn't know the spies were so close. His breakdown comes unannounced after the lie about her father and he cries through the next lines. He throws her to the ground, leaves and comes back again a number of times, slaps at the empty air in front of her, shakes her violently, and finally, embraces her.
"It hath made mad" is here an epiphany, a sudden evaluation of his actions and emotions. His tone is unusually apologetic when he says there will be no more marriages, his rage completely drained, even though there is the promise of revenge in his words.

Patrick Stewart's Claudius is equally interesting in the aftermath. Instead of the usual anger, we get fear and foreboding. The quiet tone allows some of the lines to come across differently. For example, the line about sending Hamlet on a sea voyage to change his "settled heart" is better revealed as an image of moving the body to move the mind. Perhaps by uprooting Hamlet from his madness, Claudius can move him away from whatever action he is planning. Ironically, what Claudius does not realize is that Hamlet's madness, in effect, is inaction, not action. By uprooting him from it, he insures Hamlet will return moved to action. The Hamlet who returns from abroad is, indeed, determined, and part of the reason for it is the voyage (specifically, his meeting with Fortinbras' troops on the way).
Instead of ignoring Ophelia completely, as many Claudiuses do, this one is not so cold and says the last line to her directly. That final rhyme is now meant to reassure her (to perhaps cement her loyalty) that what they are doing is for Hamlet's own good. They must watch him to help him. This may in part explain why Ophelia never tells Hamlet that there are plans to spy on him in his mother's closet and so on, though Hamlet's erratic actions have as much to do with it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Olivier '48

When considering Olivier's adaptation, we must contend with the unusual placement of this sequence. It comes after the Fishmonger scene through a time lapse transition and a the set-up from before To be or not to be, and is followed by To be or not to be (which becomes a guilty reaction to it). Jean Simmons' Ophelia is probably the most innocent of them all, almost a child really, and as such, can hardly lie convincingly. Throughout the scene, she keeps glancing at the arras behind which her father and the King are hiding, usually before her cue to speak, leading Hamlet to do the same. He was suspicious when he came in, but Ophelia's jumpy disposition inflames his paranoia. Not that Hamlet doesn't give her cause to be jumpy. He throws her book away to stop her from reading, and his blasé, monotone "well, well, well" doesn't let on that he cares for her. When he doesn't receive the tokens she hands him, she uncomfortably puts them on the table, his cue to grab her hand violently.

By violent, I realize I merely mean sudden. All the violence in this scene is psychological. There are a few moments where Ophelia throws herself at Hamlet and he tears her away and watches her fall, but that's about it. The performances however add a lot of sting to the words themselves. When Hamlet tells her she should not have believed his love, she rubs her cheek, as if she'd been slapped. And in slight change to the accepted text, Ophelia cries out "Help me you sweet heavens" (instead of "Help him"). She's the one in distress, and who emotionally explodes, not Hamlet. His only violence is rejecting her, or refusing to show kindness, and it's what sets off her hysterics. Polonius' claims of madness-for-love aren't so much wrong as they are badly targeted. If the mirroring effects of the play go in a "like parent, like child" direction, we must then recall how Polonius earlier claimed he suffered much for love. It's behavior genetically imposed on Ophelia, but we can't say the same for Hamlet or his absentee father.

Hamlet's lack of interest in Ophelia is counterpointed by his over-interest in the arras and what might wait beyond it. In moments, he is talking not to Ophelia, but directly to the arras. The word "ambitious" in particular is directed at Polonius and the King. Should we infer that the litany of sins Hamlet accuses himself of are actually leveled at them? Or is it an implicit threat to the throne? If it is, it's one that consciously confuses the issue of his motivation. The spies could understandably, if mistakenly(?), believe his motives to be political. By the end of the sequence, Ophelia is on the floor and Hamlet is conversing only with the two people who are ignoring her cries for help. He leaves her with a last kindness, kissing her hand and advising her to get out of Elsinore.

Ophelia's speech is replaced by loud sobbing as the spies completely ignore her. Polonius follows the King around and only spares her a look very late in the game. And even then, he leaves her on the steps alone and walks out.
As we leave the scene, Ophelia is reaching for Hamlet, or for her sanity, or in a more meta-textual way, for the camera's point of view which may or may not be the Ghost's. What does she see going up those steps? Is her mind breaking already? If it is the Ghost and not a proper hallucination, does she recognize Hamlet in it? In any case, the pitiable image stresses how the entire scene has been about violating Ophelia.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Nunnery Scene - Branagh '96

Initially, Branagh's Hamlet is all smiles and teary eyes, soft-spoken and kind, which in turn makes Kate Winslet's Ophelia hopeful and just as teary. The meeting is imbued with a tenderness we have not seen in Hamlet since the events of the play began. After Ophelia's "How does your honor...", they both giggle at the formality, and he answers in kind, as if play-acting. We have to remember that in this adaptation, they've been intimate, so the courtly mannerisms are out of place (except that her father is watching, so Ophelia at least knows not to be too familiar). Hamlet's three "well"s are ever more tender and end in an embrace. He holds her close, kisses her deeply, but she pushes him away to get things back on track. Hamlet appears deeply insulted, red-faced and betrayed, and it's here that the staging seems to both ask and answer a question: Is Ophelia acting from a script? On the one hand, she's being particularly formal and one might say, out-of-character. Then she fails to adapt to the situation (Hamlet's surprise kindness) and reacts, perhaps as scripted, with a complete non sequitur, giving back Hamlet's gifts. Hamlet has just returned her affections, and now she's going on about "perfume lost"? But we WOULD expect Polonius to have given Ophelia a script. She's a girl with no control over her life, and a poor improviser besides, so she pushes her father's agenda no matter what Hamlet says or does. There are other clues that point to this being the case. She looks to the side when, as if by rote, saying the line about rich gifts waxing poor, which really sounds like one of her father's slogans. Is she remembering, or is the eye motion a "tell" that points to the spies in the room?

Does the prince react as he does because he realizes all this already (though the "Where is your father?" line is spoken only later), or is it more visceral than that, an immediate connection between her apparent changeability and his mother's? It's a connection that certainly fuels his anger, since much of the coming speech and violence is transferred from guilty Gertrude to innocent Ophelia. And in terms of changeability, the pots and kettles irony is that Hamlet himself will turn unkind and confuse his would-be princess all the more. He slaps the gifts away, among them the poetry we know he wrote, and denies ever having given them to her. His moving "I did love you once" sounds like he's imploring Ophelia not to go through with this charade. He gives her an out and hopes she'll take it. And then the spies make a noise, and Ophelia lies about where her father is with the guiltiest look in creation on her face. For Hamlet, it's the tipping point. He breaks down crying, hands on face and when Ophelia tries to reach out, he lashes out at her.
The scene would be comical if it weren't so cruel as Hamlet drags Ophelia behind him as he opens one mirrored door after another, in a rage-fueled game of hide and seek. He silences her and pushes her face against a mirror, for the drama's sake, the exact door behind which Polonius and Claudius are hiding. It is telling that neither comes to Ophelia's defense. Though visibly shocked, seeing this through to the end is all they really care about, and they let Ophelia be violated, both physically and psychologically. She has been thoroughly abandoned. It is a violent image, one that distorts her face as a way of evoking her own mind snapping, and perhaps foreshadowing her drowning, the mirror providing a watery distortion.

Hamlet guesses the spies are behind this door, or that they might move to that position during the assault, or can even hear them there at this range. We may assume then that while his anger is genuine, he still puts on a show, using Ophelia as a prop. Violence gives way to a strange kiss when he tells her there will be no more marriages (is he saying in this moment that they'll never be intimate again, marriage being equal to intercourse?) and speaks straight at them (at us!) when he threatens that all but one shall live. They run off before he can catch them, but it is clear they were there. Secret doors don't slam silently. He leaves Ophelia with one last kindness (now that they are gone?), as his last "To a nunnery, go" loses the tone that might connote a whorehouse. It's a plea for her to leave Elsinore before something bad happens, whether that be blood-letting or her own corruption.
Ophelia's speech ends with a strange dawning realization which I wish I had a good handle on. It remains one of this adaptation's mysteries for me (and considering how many times I've seen it, it's great to still be able to admit there are still some). "See what I see" has its own unique tone, and makes us wonder just what it is she suddenly sees. The rest of the speech makes her point of view rather naive. She believes Hamlet has gone mad. What is her epiphany at the end then? Does she see the bigger picture? That perhaps Hamlet's troubles with women begin and end with his mother? That his madness is all for show, perhaps even having her suspect foul play in the death of the previous king and/or the murder Hamlet is planning? Does she foresee her own doom, the only possible end for a dejected lady like her? Ambiguity reigns.
The return of the other men in her life is as traumatic for her as Hamlet's violence. The father who put her in harm's way and failed to rescue her holds her tight and comforts her, not allowing her to talk. Ophelia is emotionally rocked in every direction. As for the King, he completely ignores her and her pain, giving in to anger and brooding. His mood is not improved by Polonius's reiteration of his mad-for-love theory, and he furiously slams his hand against the wall. Polonius almost approaches fatherly kindness in this scene, putting his well-meaning but empty comforting of his daughter above playing the sycophant to the King's frustrations.

Friday, November 11, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene

The last section of Act III Scene 1 is Hamlet's staged encounter with Ophelia, in which he may or may not discover that he's being spied upon by Claudius and Polonius, who close out the scene after Hamlet leaves with important consequences for the prince. Over the course of the next few articles, we'll look at how different directors staged this sequence, and how different actors played it, but first we'll look at the text itself. Shakespeare is in italics, while my comments are not:

OPHELIA: Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?
HAMLET: I humbly thank you; well, well, well.


I love Hamlet's triple repetitions because the actors can play around with them so much. As with the previous "Words, words, words" and "Except my life", actors can take each of the tripled meme and give it its own reading, or find a way to say all three with the same intent.

OPHELIA: My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver;
I pray you, now receive them.


There is something quite touching about the use of the word "remembrances" here. Ophelia is not just returning tokens or gifts, but the memories associated with those objects. Memory plays a big part in this section of the text, as Hamlet then makes like he doesn't remember having given her anything. Hamlet's demeanor has changed and he has, in effect, become someone else, changing the meaning of Ophelia's memories. There is no doubt an interesting thesis to be gleaned from how people's perceptions of one another change, and in turn change their memories of one another, throughout the play. There's the revelation that Claudius is a murderer, of course, which is made to both Hamlet and Gertrude. False friends revealed, lovers lost, princes mistrusted, Norway's intentions, and ultimately, Hamlet's own new understanding of himself.

HAMLET: No, not I;
I never gave you aught.
OPHELIA: My honour'd lord, you know right well you did;
And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,
Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord.
HAMLET: Ha, ha! are you honest?
OPHELIA: My lord?
HAMLET: Are you fair?
OPHELIA: What means your lordship?
HAMLET: That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
OPHELIA: Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?
HAMLET: Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.
OPHELIA: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
HAMLET: You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not.
OPHELIA: I was the more deceived.


Hamlet's harshness may be born of a mirroring effect. Though Ophelia is betraying his trust here, playing a part in her father's scheme, it's not clear whether Hamlet knows about it or not. So why so harsh? If he knows about the spies, it could all be part of the act, a tug of war between what he really feels and the act he's putting on for Claudius and Polonius. His cruelty towards Ophelia is a necessary evil. However, if he doesn't know he's being spied upon (at least until he asks where her father is), it may be more true to say that he's actually talking to his mother. Ophelia did not betray him, but Gertrude did betray his father. Hamlet indicts the entire sex, in a run of motivated misogyny. Women, being attractive to men as they are, make men lose their reason and betray themselves. The solution Hamlet proposes is to lock away women before they cause more men to do so.

HAMLET: Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where's your father?

In these lines, Hamlet blamed his mother not just for betraying his father, but for his own birth. Motivated by present circumstances, an Oedipal impulse (though you know I hate that Freudian interpretation of the play) or his religious beliefs, Hamlet has put all the sins of the world on his mother. His father is dead because Claudius killed him to get her. He must now avenge his father because he exists thanks to his mother. In this sequence, Shakespeare reveals that at least part of the reason Hamlet has been delaying action is that he's been moved to take revenge on the wrong person. Claudius is at fault, sure, and Hamlet hates him. However, the Ghost's warning not to hurt Gertrude is what rankles, and it all comes out in Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia in this scene. We should also mention how "nunnery" is an ironic term for a whorehouse. Just as in an earlier scene, Hamlet called Polonius a "fishmonger" (a colloquialism that can mean "pimp"), Hamlet can again be seen as treating Ophelia/Getrude/women as whores. Nun or whore, neither is meant to be a mother.

The line also holds a few actorly double-entendres, from the concepts of imagination and acting out offences, to the request not to believe the actor's words. It plays on multiple levels, since the actors on stage are not really their characters, and Hamlet is play-acting his madness, though it's still ambiguous.

OPHELIA: At home, my lord.
HAMLET: Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in's own house. Farewell.
OPHELIA: O, help him, you sweet heavens!


Shakespeare doesn't give many stage directions. They're suggested by the text itself. Ophelia's invocation to God here indicates Hamlet is acting strangely, losing himself in madness. His words don't really suggest it, so it's up to the director and actors to figure it out. We'll see how different adaptations dealt with it.

HAMLET: If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell.
OPHELIA: O heavenly powers, restore him!
HAMLET: I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God's creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on't; it hath made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages: those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.


I love the line "the rest shall keep as they are", a fabulously clever continuation of the rot theme of the play. Those that are married already are Gertrude and Claudius. One shall live (Gertrude) and the other shall keep as he is (Claudius). Not "die", but "keep". The idea is that he's dead and rotting already. An image of corruption or of a fate that can no longer be delayed. Note that the other married man in the play is Hamlet Sr., another character that is "kept as he is", preserved by the special state of the undead. Hamlet once again puts up a mirror to the two Kings and in this case, finds them equivalent.

Exit

OPHELIA: O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!


Ophelia''s little soliloquy paints a portrait of Hamlet before he went mad, at least through her eyes. Even after all this, she has not stopped loving him. The perfume has not been lost, we could say. Note how Ophelia feels sorry for herself for having had a particular experience, again a play on memory. If ignorance is bliss, then Ophelia would have rather stayed ignorant. I don't think I've ever come across it, but a director could theoretically use the past tense on that last line to involve Ophelia in the murder of Hamlet Sr. What she sees now is Hamlet's madness. What she has seen in the past could be a secret she's keeping from Hamlet even now, the cause and not just the result of his madness. Just more reasons for her mind to break.

Re-enter KING CLAUDIUS and POLONIUS

KING CLAUDIUS: Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger: which for to prevent,
I have in quick determination
Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England,


Another mirror: If Hamlet cannot touch Gertrude for his father's sake, then Claudius cannot touch Hamlet for his wife's sake. Both men are prevented from taking the action they want by love for another. Claudius chooses exile for Hamlet (though this will change).

For the demand of our neglected tribute
Haply the seas and countries different
With variable objects shall expel
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself. What think you on't?
LORD POLONIUS: It shall do well: but yet do I believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love. How now, Ophelia!
You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said;
We heard it all. My lord, do as you please;
But, if you hold it fit, after the play
Let his queen mother all alone entreat him
To show his grief: let her be round with him;
And I'll be placed, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference. If she find him not,
To England send him, or confine him where
Your wisdom best shall think.


Here, Polonius seals his own fate. The way his particular hubris manifests is in his stubbornness that prevents him from accepting he is wrong (as they play shows, he almost invariably is). Claudius is convinced Hamlet is neither mad nor acting from neglected love. Polonius still disagrees and sets up yet another encounter, this time between Hamlet and his mother, during which Hamlet should admit to being mad for love. And it is spying on this encounter of his own making that gets him killed.

KING CLAUDIUS: It shall be so:
Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.

Exeunt


The pregnancy theory
None of the plays examined by Hyperion to a Satyr make use of the idea that Ophelia is pregnant, but if someone were to do so, this is where the most irony could be drawn from the idea. Ophelia would already be a breeder of sinners, and any injury (both psychic and physical) would be all the more violent for it. If a nunnery is a whorehouse, that may be a clue that Hamlet and Ophelia have been sexually active which plays into the pregnancy theory. Directors who entertain this notion may wish to reveal Ophelia's belly in her madness scenes (adding to the pathos), or have this particular sequence cause her to lose the baby (further motivating her madness).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

II.ii. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I - A Midwinter's Tale

Michael Maloney's lively Hamlet actually jumps into the aisles for his rendition of this speech, letting out all his venom right at the crowd/camera - or at least, the angry section where he screams names at his uncle. Interaction with the audience is one element that naturally can't be part of movie adaptations, but is still an important part of staging the play theatrically. This is where films ABOUT staging Hamlet can inform us. A Midwinter's Tale's Hamlet starts with a machine gun being fired over the heads of the audience, and follows up with a Hamlet that first appears at the back of the room. Though Faj's set design is cheekily described as "people in space", Branagh is true to that idea in his direction. The use of space includes the audience and makes for a visceral watching experience. It helps that the play is staged inside an old church, rather than a standard theater. It removes the demarcation between play and audience, placing the latter IN the set, in the atmosphere.

Monday, November 7, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Brian Cox Masterclass with Theo


Before going on to the next sequence, I thought I'd share this lovely video of Brian Cox teaching a 30-month-old to do Hamlet. Though it's a measure of parroting the words, is there something modern actors or directors can take away from this innocent intonation of the words? There may be. We're used to Hamlet being "too old" to be a student, but how about too young? How does that change our perception of the play? What if Hamlet were a troubled teenager? Or as in this case, he would be meditating on mortality when his entire life stretches before him? It's a magical moment when Theo looks away from Cox and repeats the soliloquy while looking into the distance, somehow getting into the proper performance on instinct.

Brian Cox explains the experiment in a later interview:

Friday, November 4, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Discovering Hamlet

In 1988, Derek Jacobi was asked to direct Kenneth Branagh's first stage Hamlet. It was his only directing job ever - not because he did a poor job, but because he much prefers acting - but the documentary special Discovering Hamlet chronicled the effort (if not the finished play). "To be or not to be" is the only sequence from the documentary I wanted to examine on Hyperion to a Satyr, but it's an incredibly intriguing take on the scene. He sadly doesn't go into detail, but Jacobi claims his approach is wholly rooted in the text. That approach? Having Hamlet speak the lines, not as a true soliloquy, but to Ophelia.

In my estimation, he's entirely correct in thinking this. For one thing, Ophelia is on stage when Hamlet enters, and no stage directions have her leave or hide. Shakespeare's didascalia are always sparse, but entrances and exists are clearly marked. What if the Bard meant for Ophelia to be present and aware of the speech? The main argument against this staging is the final line, "Soft you now! The fair Ophelia," written as an interruptive and usually read as Hamlet's realization that she is present. However, it is possible to read them instead as Hamlet shushing her, giving her permission not to respond to his meditation on mortality. He's not telling himself or the audience to be quiet, but her. "Nymph, in thy orisons Be all my sins remember'd" becomes the actual conclusion to "To be or not to be", Hamlet perhaps admitting what spurred this black speech on, i.e. the guilt of having cut Ophelia off from his affections.

Brought into the scene quite viscerally, Ophelia is both witness and confidante. She may well be the only person Hamlet could say this to (Horatio has been absent a while), showing vulnerability for the first time since he went "mad". So how much greater is Ophelia's betrayal when the spies are discovered? She hasn't just lured Hamlet into the open, but made him show his true self. In other words, Jacobi's staging seems to confirm that the speech is not an act on Hamlet's part, and furthermore indicate that he perhaps would not have made it at all if not for the safety provided by Ophelia. Her presence makes him admit something he should not have. Theatrical conventions aside, it also confirms that the spies heard the speech, which normally would have been a long aside to the audience, representative of inner thought. There's an ambiguity on stage, that can lead the audience to reject that the character is literally talking to himself aloud, and ambiguity that is dispelled in this staging of it.

And of course, it heightens the irony of Ophelia later taking her own life, "acting" where Hamlet was unable to. While her prince seems to be confiding in her, we'll find that he was planting an idea in her head instead. In this version, there is no speech without Ophelia. In any version where she is present - hidden or not - it could be said Ophelia doesn't die but for this speech.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - French Rock Opera

At the center of Johhny Hallyday's Hamlet (at the beginning of Disc 2) is a dirge, constructed as a show-stopping number based on the play's most famous speech. It uses the opening line quite a lot (and as a title), with no translation. Though "Être ou ne pas être" is a famous French phrase, Hallyday opts for the original text because, well, it's famous no matter what language you speak. Before getting into it, here are the words, and then my doggerel translation.

To be or not to be
To be or not to be
To be or not to be
To be or not to be

To be or not to be
To be or not to be
To be or not to be

Encore choisir, choisir encore
Choisir entre chair et poussière
Entre bleu ciel et ver de terre
Pourrir du coeur, mourir du corps
Quelle question tragique à poser

To be or not to be
To be or not to be
To be or not to be

Mourir, dormir, un point c’est tout
Plus de justice à voir boiter
D’amours bafoués à voir ramper
Dormir seul au fond de son trou
Quelle question mortelle à poser

To be or not to be
To be or not to be
To be or not to be

Mourir, dormir, rêver peut-être ?
Voir chaque nuit les souvenirs
Sortir de l’ombre comme des vampires
Et vous tournoyer dans la tête
Quelle question vitale à poser

To be or not to be
To be or not to be
To be or not to be

Sans cette peur au cul blafard
Quel est le fou ou le peureux
Qui perdrait le temps d’être vieux
Alors qu’il suffit d’un poignard
Pour que la question soit réglée

To be or not to be...

To Be Or Not To Be
To be or not to be x6

Again to choose, to choose again
To choose between flesh and dust
Between blue sky and earthworm
Rot of the heart, die of the body
What a tragic question to ask

To be or not to be x3

To die, to sleep, and that's all there is to it
No more justice to see someone limp
Of ridiculed love, to see someone crawl
To sleep alone at the bottom of one's hole
What a mortal question to ask

To be or not to be x3

To die, to sleep, perchance to dream
Each night to see memories
Come out of the shadows like vampires
And spin in your head
What a vital question to ask

To be or not to be x3

Without that pale-assed fear
What fool or coward
Would give up growing old
When all you need is a dagger
To answer the question

To be or not to be...

The odd thing about the arrangement is that it has back-up singers. In the rock opera, these usually represent the people, courtly whispers or Danish opinion. Hamlet's voice is Hallyday's, and in this most private of moments (spied on or not), he is somehow accompanied by others. I'd like to say that it's the line reverberating across history, its sentiment universal. I rather think it's a mistake, thematically, and that Hallyday's wish to make this a bigger production number made him forget the conventions of his own opera.

The question gets asked a lot in this version of the speech, acting as a driving beat. It is asked in other ways as well. For example, the question is initially "tragic" and "mortal" (some word play here, since "mortelle" means both mortal and lethal), and later, "vital". Hamlet moves between life and death, flesh and dust. The choice predominates. The first line gives a false choice ("Again to choose, to choose again"), while also making the choice a repeated one. Hamlet has been on the line between choosing life and suicide since before the start of the play. Hallyday correctly understands this speech as a last time he will consider death as an alternative to action. He makes the choice again, but for the last time. Are we also to understand he believes the question to be a false choice? Because ultimately, it is. Hamlet may claim to long for death, but he argues strongly against it. Given who he is, and the fact that he has not yet taken his own life, this contemplation can have only one outcome. And yet, he hasn't acted. The alternative to dying has not been living, but rather, doing nothing. His thoughts, here described as vampires, have sucked the action out of him. So while Hamlet was never going to kill himself, he needs to strike the option off his list with words, so that he can move on to the active option of revenge.

Lost in translation
There's a nice pun in "Entre bleu ciel et ver de terre" lost in the literal translation I offered. "Bleu ciel" is not truly "blue sky", but rather "sky blue", the color. "Ver de terre" is "earthworm" (a link to the one going through the guts of Hamlet's metaphorical beggar), but is homophone of "vert de terre", which would mean "earth green". In French, the choice is between two colors, on representing life and the other death, though in the funereal world of the speech, could both be visions of the afterlife.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Classics Illustrated

The originalClassics Illustrated stages the speech on a single splash page, with all the important elements in frame, reminding one of Medieval engravings. Hamlet is center stage, coming up behind Ophelia holding her book, and in the background, the two spies drawing back a curtain. The entire speech fills a single speech bubble, a steady stream of consciousness that lacks any kind of nuance (through pauses, for example). Four words are identified as difficult and given footnote translations. Oddly, "conscience" is one of these (given as "self-examination"). Seemed pretty straightforward to me. But the narrator is also quite obvious, telling us upfront that the speech is about contemplating suicide. You know, lest we miss the point. The target audience may well have, but it's still an awkward Cliffs note.

Still, it's one of the better pages in the comic, with a composition stronger than most. Hamlet creeping up behind Ophelia is more sinister and menacing than the eventual outcome of their meeting, and there's something intriguing about having all the characters in the line of sight, as if Ophelia was bait on a hook, the spies as fishermen about to reel in the prince. But these seem more accidental than planned. They suggest some interesting staging ideas for the play, but are flawed in the context of the book itself.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake's adaptation also stages the speech on a single page, but paces it through the use of multiple speech bubbles. The pauses created are pretty standard, but Mandrake seems to have thought about them. For example, there's an early pause after "outrageous fortune", indicating that perhaps "taking arms" is an option he had not directly considered before. He's been suffering all this time and "acting" has not truly been considered until this point. Though the speech often seems like Hamlet is regressing after the promise of the Mouse Trap, it can also be seen as a driving force for the second half of the play. Hamlet convinces himself that not acting is the wrong way to go.

Unlike the original Classics Illustrated, Hamlet is shown walking alone. He is not being overheard, nor is Ophelia in sight. She turns up out of nowhere in the next page, surprising both the reader and Hamlet. The single panel here is placed inside the greater layout of the page which shows sea-tossed Elsinore. The decaying building with the sea of troubles at its gates is an image of Hamlet himself. He contemplates his own mortality, even as Denmark - something much more permanent - is described as rotting around him. If a castle or a country are mortal, what chance does a man have?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Slings & Arrows

"To be or not to be" is a pivotal moment in Slings & Arrows (Season 1, episode 5), as movie star Jack Crew is taken aside by director Geoffrey Tennant and asked to finally do a scene with the text. Up to that point, Jack has been paraphrasing, frustrating his cast mates and preventing the director from "seeing the play". Jack's problem is every actor's. How do you make these words - this speech especially - sound fresh? How do you escape from the shadow of all the great actors who have gone before? On a meta-textual level, the speech IS about to be Hamlet or not to be Hamlet. To make something of oneself, or to fail. In the text, though Hamlet is nominally talking about actual, lethal suicide, on another level he's talking about professional suicide. Hamlet is a role filled with risk. It is fearsome. The fear of "dying" on stage may keep you from ever attempting the role, but if it does, you deny yourself the possibility of an enterprise of great pith and moment. That's what's at stake for the actor as much as it is for Hamlet, himself an improvized actor and playwright.

Geoffrey also asks him to make an important choice: Does Hamlet know he is being overheard or not? Jack doesn't have to reveal his choice so long as he makes it. Ambiguity lingers. Jack sits his back to the spies, but also smirks at the end of it. That smirk may be directed at the appearance of Ophelia to stage right though. So did Hamlet just perform for Claudius and Polonius and smiles to himself, a job well done? Or is he darkly amused at remembering his sins thanks to Ophelia's appearance? Or while unaware of the spies' presence, does he nevertheless see through the transparent ploy of his ex-girlfriend being "loosed" upon him? In any case, while Jack's delivery is solid, if without much nuance, his body language makes good use of the actor's own discomfort and shame. Jack is visibly contemptuous of his ability to portray Hamlet, and that makes his Hamlet contemptuous of his own ability to trap Claudius and avenge his father.

As Jack utters the speech, Geoffrey starts to see the play take shape (with the usual musical cue the show uses to render the theater as a magical place), and he and the ghostly Oliver walk through the fantasy. Geoffrey's image of scene has the spies behind a red curtain, steeped in blood as they are, and Hamlet surrounded by candles, a symbol of spiritual illumination, or perhaps an image of mortal life's brevity and snuffability. As the sequence ends, we return to reality and Hamlet stands up to face his Ophelia, a look of marked disappointment in himself on his face. The regret is palpable.
During the play in episode 6, we briefly alight on the sequence again. Budget cuts have made the fantasy version of the play impossible, but the show must go on. Jack's new Hamlet costume is a simple hoodie out of his own wardrobe. The jewelry, including the appropriate skull ring, is also his, part of the osmosis between role and actor that is part and parcel of Slings & Arrows.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Tennant (2009)

One thing the restructured Hamlets make clear is that putting "To be or not to be" before the Players arrive, rather than after, works better if Hamlet is not spied upon or at least doesn't know he's being spied upon. A Hamlet so structured has yet to see a glimmer of hope and may thus be more sincere in his mediation on self-oblivion. And so it is here, and though spies lie in wait, the moment is so intimate, and actually outside the room, so we may infer that the spies do not hear him. The speech is played around the corner of a wall, in near-darkness, with Hamlet progressively revealed. The way he is initially framed and backlit makes him skeletal (something supported by his t-shirt print), an image of mortality and vulnerability, and of revealing something to the audience that is under the surface.

Tennant has a fresh approach to almost every line in the speech, something that's very much not obvious with "To be or not to be". He uses long, pregnant pauses to make us feel like he's thinking those words up for the first time. One of Tennant's best qualities in the role is that he doesn't seem to know what he'll say next, even though he's speaking some of the best known words in all of English literature. The best example of this "freshness" is that though "To be or not to be" is the question, he asks another, putting a question mark on the end of "by opposing, end them?" Hamlet is filled with anguish, which slowly builds towards bitterness. His eyes are closed in pain until he finally looks at us on "there's the rub". At "must give us pause", he swallows hard. Just as his "gorge rises at it" in the graveyard scene later, Hamlet is here physically repulsed by what lies waiting in the afterlife, by extension, his own father's ghost. Bringing a measure of fear to this speech makes perfect sense in the context of having met an undead parent earlier. The physical signs of that repulsion continue through to "sicklied o'er", manifesting what is in the text merely a mental image. It continues the image of sickliness that is background for most of the play, one that covers the whole of Denmark, and is caused by the depraved behavior of its King, and possibly the madness of its Prince as well.

"Soft you now" comes hard and fast on the heels of "lose the name of action", springing TO action even as one gives up hope that any action can occur. Ophelia's appearance thus surprises Hamlet and his audience, taking us out of the meditation and back to more earthly matters.

Friday, October 14, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's Hamlet places the speech very early in the story, as Hamlet sits at his reel-to-reel and speaks into a microphone just after a musical montage representing his first encounter with Ophelia (unseen but described in the play). It is then followed by Polonia's scene with her spy Reynaldo (or here, Reynalda). In effect, the speech is now part of Hamlet's initial set of reactions to meeting his father's ghost. At that point in his emotional journey, Hamlet is actively thinking about revenge, cutting off ties to loved ones, setting up his cover as a madman, and in this repurposed sequence, leaving a record of his thoughts for posterity. It's a suicide note on audio, except he doesn't go through with it. Hamlet's pace suggests he's been composing it in his head. He rattles off the speech rather quickly, especially the list of ills we must bear here on Earth.
The speech intercuts between the first frame shown and the one above, Hamlet's half-face (an image of ambivalence?). The camera in that shot gets ever closer to him as we delve deeper into his consciousness. These shots are further intercut with Hamlet Sr.'s funeral, as various characters kiss his dead mouth goodbye. We see Polonia in particular, intimating a relationship between her and the former King and a possible role in his betrayal. At "To die, to sleep, perchance to dream", those flashbacks begin, with a frame of various characters all fated to die, lined up in a row. At the very end, as Hamlet himself kisses his father's cadaver, we hear the sounds of bells and sea birds, disturbing elements taking us further into the memory. Those flashbacks are blown out even more than the present day's film treatment, adding a greenish tinge to the proceedings that evoke both a sickliness and perhaps the "pale cast of thought" itself.

A notable cut: The speech is largely intact but omits "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come". Why? I am unable to come up with an answer. Perhaps Fodor felt it was too pretty and precious a line for his horror story. Perhaps the actor skipped over it. Theories?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet 2000 has a unique placement for the speech: Just after the spies make their plans, and before Hamlet meets up with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. It's a scene completely divorced from the rest of the characters. No one sees or hears Hamlet (who goes in and out of voice-over anyway), nor does the Nunnery scene (still to come) weigh on him. The staging is, I must admit, a little precious for my tastes.

The scene takes place in a Blockbuster, specifically its Action section (to go with "lose the name of action"). Hamlet is a film buff and amateur filmmaker, which makes the setting fairly natural for him. The screens behind him show fiery explosions of the same kind seen during Hamlet's meeting with the Ghost, where they evoked the hell the latter had escaped from. Here, it is the "undiscovered country" Hamlet fears. Though chronologically before Hamlet's meditation on the Player in the film, we at Hyperion to a Satyr can remember that scene's use of James Dean as the nominal actor. When we discover at the end of the "To be or not to be" speech that the explosive film behind Hamlet is The Crow, a link is made between Dean and The Crow's star, Brandon Lee (who gives a kind of salute to camera). Hamlet seems to be fascinated by actors who tragically died young, his own death prefigured in those of his idols.

As for the performance, Ethan Hawke makes his walk as nonchalant as possible, whispering the words when they aren't coming from voice-over, running through.lines at a quick, pause-free pace. This is a jaded Hamlet, one who is either verbalizing things he's already thought about, or repeating words he's written for one of his short films. It takes away from the power of the speech, but is legitimate in the context of the film.