Friday, May 27, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Zeffirelli '90

Structurally, Zeffirelli's version continues to distance itself from other Hamlet. The Players are not, in this case, announced by Polonius. Pete Postlethwaite (First Player) arrives with his troupe, wagon and pack animals, interrupting Hamlet and R&G's gloomy picnic. They are dirty, "medieval peasants", and come with circling seagulls that evoke the stench of humanity and the garbage it leaves behind. Does this work against the play's intent? In a way it does, reducing the Player King's mirror nobility which one could argue should outshine Claudius'. It seems to comment negatively on the Players themselves. On the other hand, it draws parallels with the worm-eating beggar of Hamlet's parable, widens the divide between the pampered nobility of the court and the rotting Denmark "out there", supports Polonius' impression that they "deserve less", and, when the mirror is finally held up to the King, intensifies the irony.

In any case, Hamlet is ebulliant and calls them "masters". The scene then cuts to Hamlet entering Elsinore with the troupe, wearing a costume and playing music. He is part of this troupe, and their festive joy us contagious. Even the villains are smiling and laughing. This is how things could be between Claudius and Hamlet if not for the regicide that stands between them. Again, irony is intensified, and one could even imagine a reading of Hamlet in which Denmark is not rotting because its King is corrupt, but rather because it hangs on its true ruler (the Prince)'s every mood (as Gertrude does). Denmark is in a sorry state because Hamlet is depressed, and here the entire citizenry shares in his moment of joy. When Hamlet falls, so too does Denmark, at the hands of Fortinbras. It's Denmark-as-Hamlet by way of Gertrude-as-Denmark. We're told she lives and dies by his looks, and so too does the country. It's an interpretation that could be used to explain how she knows so much about Ophelia's suicide (she IS the river as much as the rest of the land), and turns the closet scene into a public accusation forcing an entire country to face the fact they happily let a pretender on the throne. And after all, if Claudius is not the rightful King, and perhaps the Prince is not ready, wouldn't the Queen actually be ruler?

That this scene evokes all this makes me forgive its savage cutting of the Player's speech, and indeed, Hamlet's own. We go from the Players' arrival directly to "Will you see them well-bestowed?" This massive cut, and Polonius' late entry means Hamlet need not be angry at the the councilor's comments. His retort ("who shall 'scape whipping?") is said with wit and a pleasant measure of sarcasm, but not anger. Polonius has not deserved any - he hasn't interrupted or criticized the Player's speech. Hamlet then announces they will hear a play tomorrow night, though the exchange between him and the Player is not shown. We might infer - knowing the play as we do - that Hamlet and the Player devised the "Mouse-Trap" on the way to the castle, but that will not be apparent to the uninitiated. It seems strange to us that Zeffirelli would try to hide 400-year-old plot points, but he is evidently crafting an accessible Hamlet for large movie audiences who might not know the story, playing out its twists and turns as surprises.
It is only after all this that he confides in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern that he is ony partly mad, moving the line from the end of the previous sequence to the end of this one. In its new position, and with the King and Queen now part of the sequence, the line acts as a loyalty test. Hamlet makes like he's leaving, but pops his head back out to watch R&G run to the King and tell him everything that's just gone between them and Hamlet. This confirms their treachery, and acts as a precursor to Hamlet's confirmation that Claudius is likewise a villain. So again, though Zeffirelli plays fast and loose with the text, he replaces it with visuals that, in their own visual way, informs. His version benefits from this closer reading.

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