Wednesday, February 9, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Zeffirelli '90

At the end of the previous sequence, mad Hamlet walks into the lobby, ripping pages out of his books and throwing them away, but the fishmonger scene actually occurs in the library. When Polonius walks in, Hamlet climbs to the top of the shelves, underscoring his elevated status (both as a prince and as a character), as Olivier did, throughout the exchange. We also may note here that Hamlet wears only one boot, part of his "disguise" as a madman. Polonius thinks himself clever, picking up a book like he's there only by coincidence, but he never reads much of anything, and that includes Hamlet.

The actors keep the scene light, laughing at misunderstands and word play, though Polonius sobers up when his daughter is mentioned. "Words, words, words" has Hamlet looking through his book as if to check on its contents, then on the final word, confirming this fact to Polonius, and inviting him to climb up the ladder to get closer to him, to his truth. Upon reading the slanders, he rips the dishonest page from the book and throws it, crumpled, at Polonius' head. He follows up, on "go backward", by pushing the ladder back with his foot, causing Polonius to fall.
All of this is playful, if cruel, on the part of both the actors and the director. Polonius scurries off, afraid for his safety, and as he stumbles, Hamlet throws out an almost mocking "except my life". Polonius reaches the door, but stops at another "except...". Will Hamlet say something else? Something more serious? No, as we know, it is again "... my life". And when Polonius is gone, Hamlet realizes that what he said in jest is the truth. The last repetition, softly spoken to himself, reveals how far he is truly willing to go in his quest for revenge. It's a great moment. In a final gesture to punctuate the scene, he drops his book from on high and it hits the floor with a satisfying sound. Though this version of the scene is lighter than others, and the fatalism of some lines underplayed, that fatalism resounds in that final moment.


Michael May said...

For the reasons you mentioned, this is one of a couple of scenes that make Zeffirelli's a favorite version of mine.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

While very different from how I would stage it, I agree this is one of the more interesting stagings. And, much as I am loathe to compliment Mel Gibson, it may be my favorite reading of "words. words. words.". :-)