Sunday, September 11, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Branagh '96

Hamlet has been called to the Hall of Mirrors, but no one's there. He enters trepidatiously and ends up facing himself in a mirror, triggering a meditation on self-slaughter. Each of those mirrors is also a door, and at least some of those doors have a special feature that allows you to look through the mirror. It's a wonderful cinematic conceit that allows Hamlet to say the speech directly to Claudius and Polonius, giving it an additional layer of irony and meaning. Suddenly, the "sea of troubles" is right behind the door and Hamlet talks about taking arms against his uncle.He simultaneously would take arms against himself, as he is talking to his own reflection. In this one mise en scène, everything Hamlet is facing is represented. The enemies both without and within (for what if his madness is making him believe all this?). The scene's central ambiguity remains. Does Hamlet know he's being seen? We've seen him navigate Elsinore's various secret passages and priest holes, so it's possible he knows (or at least suspects) spies are on the other side of the mirror. We can't know if ALL the mirrors are two-way, or if Hamlet specifically chose one that was. The irony works whether Hamlet is aware of it or not, of course.

Taken as an address to Claudius, the words take on a different bent, in particular the enumeration of this world's evils one (he) must bear. The oppressor's wrong is most on the nose, but there's also law's delay (justice for his father's murder subverted) and insolence of office. Hamlet must also deal with despised love and at least one proud man. Reverse the idea and make Hamlet address himself. How much of what he says can apply to him? In the next sequence, he will admit to being proud, for example. If his talk of suicide is sincere, how much of it is motivated by an unwillingness to become the monster he knows he must become to enact his revenge? How much is to protect his loved ones from himself? Hamlet knows he's about to get a confession from Claudius, knows events are about to speed towards a dreadful resolution. One answer to why he would contemplate suicide at the turning point of the play is that it's his last chance to prevent the evils that must surely befall Elsinore if he goes through with his plan.
At the end of a slow advance towards the mirror, Hamlet pulls out a dagger (the "bare bodkin"), eliciting a startled reaction from the men watching on the other side. Claudius almost seems to grab at Polonius to make sure the man doesn't cry out or attempt to stop Hamlet. The frame (above) quotes an earlier moment in which Hamlet kisses the sword and swears revenge. The death of a father, the promised murder of a stepfather, the idea of self-annihilation. These ideas are interconnected. As Hamlet speaks the "safe words", making his plans "lose the name of action", he taps the point of the dagger on the mirror. The image is ambiguous, but full of possibilities. Hamlet might be killing himself symbolically, or at least his past self, finally shedding the man who would never commit murder, finally erasing the books in his mind as promised at the end of Act I. He points the dagger at Claudius, but really sees himself, so might the mirror create an osmosis between murderers past and future? He might be attacking unreality itself, the world of thoughts but not of deeds. Or it could be an interesting way to stage the impossibility of suicide, as the blade hits a barrier of self-preservation before it can ever reach Hamlet's self.

In this most astute piece of staging, Branagh manages to open the speech up to new and interesting interpretation.


goddessborn said...

One thing I especially like about this post is that it never offers one answer. Because Shakespeare never does. And I think it's to Branagh's credit that his Hamlet remains as frustratingly ambiguous as the text itself.

Your mention, too, of 'To Be or Not to Be' as a turning point in the play and in Hamlet's character is very interesting. I never inferred that in the text, but it offers some interesting possibilities in future readings. And I certainly want to rewatch this production to see if I've missed anything along those lines. You see, I always regarded Hamlet's jubilation after the play within a play as his character's turning-point, the moment when he knows he can do murder--so I always put more emphasis on his 'now might I do it pat...' and its implications (his refusal to send his uncle to heaven, the irony of Claudius' failure to absolve himself, etc.).

You're good. I've never been here before, but I want to read what you have to say. Cheers!

Siskoid said...

Thank you very much, Goddessborn! I hope you'll avail yourself of the rest of the blog!

I like very much what you had to say about later scenes, it's left a mark whose impact will certainly be felt when I get to them.

Hamlet's role as Western Literature's premier problem play could well mean there are multiple turning points, leaving it to the interpreters to choose which they'll focus on.