Wednesday, February 2, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Branagh '96

Branagh makes plain that Hamlet is putting "an antic disposition" on in this scene. When he is first seen reading, he keeps Polonius and the Royals in the corner of his eye. And when Polonius boards him, Hamlet scares him with a death mask, so he was well prepared for this meeting, even if he'll find it rather annoying. The mask is a nice touch, part of the overall fatalism of the sequence, supported by other lines ("into my grave", "except my life", etc.) and invoking the graveyard scene that comes much later.

Hamlet's feigned madness allows him to be mercurial with Polonius, sometimes angry (that he does not admit to being a fishmonger, for example), sometimes serious, sometimes silly. He uses the repetitive lines in the scene to make those changes evident. It strikes me that these have a threefold use: One is to allow Hamlet to quickly change his delivery to simulate insanity, another is to show Polonius off as a dense (or obstinate) man who needs things repeated to understand them, and yet another, more metaphorical, is to tell the audience that Hamlet is a "complete" character who is never just one thing. This is an important point to make about Shakespeare's mature drama and how it was a change from the "cartoonish" theater of his era - from archetypal representations to psychological individuals. So when he says "Words, words, words", each "word" is different. The first is bored with the question, the second makes the answer obvious and the questioner stupid, and the third is completely mad as Hamlet twists his mouth bizarrely around each sound.
Not that he really reads. His slanders seem his own, looking at Polonius as if composing them on the spot. He reads Polonius, not the book. I didn't speak about the crab metaphor in the previous article, but it seems to me, among other things, that it continues the play on disjointed time. Going backward in time is physically impossible, though any murder mystery is essentially a mental game of time travel to the past. The disjointed temporality of the play could be a manifestation of that straddling between the past (the dead father) and the future (the prince's aborted ascension).

As Polonius sweats through the conversation, stopping for asides often to take a break from Hamlet's not-so-veiled attacks, the characters migrate to the exterior of Elsinore, a transition to the next sequence. We're reminded of their individual status here, because Polonius is forced to follow Hamlet into the snow only to ask to take his leave. It's not enough that the prince walk away from him. It's also an indication that Polonius doesn't pick up on things quite as deftly as he believes. Finally, we have the second repeated line in the sequence, "Except my life". Again, Branagh gives each repeated meme its own reading. The first is the more neutral, voice cracking slightly, but not really making a point with it, except perhaps to himself. Does he give away too much? Perhaps that's why he decides to make it part of his mad-speak. The second is said in a hushed and serious tone, a threat. The third is completely loopy, using the kind of sing-song voice you would telling spooky campfire stories. Though there is "method in it", Polonius isn't equipped to discern just what is real, what is implied and what is Hamlet's feigned lunacy, more serious readings forgotten smothered in the mad ones that follow them.

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