Wednesday, September 28, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli places the speech between the Nunnery scene and his meeting with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and then the Players' arrival. He has just violently rejected Ophelia, and has yet to have his spirits lifted by the newcomers. Mel Gibson plays it as Hamlet at his lowest. He enters his ancestors' crypt, and surrounded by tombs and skeletons, he intones the speech. There is no question that he is alone and unheard. This is his depression talking as he faces death itself.

At first, I felt the intent of the speech was muddled by this staging. Shots of dead royals in their tombs as Hamlet talks about ending one's own life seemed jarring. Surely, those kings and queens didn't all commit suicide? And Hamlet praying to two different tombs surely took away from what would otherwise be a visit to his father's. But time and again, Zeffirelli has created meaning from imagery, replacing or supplementing the text. Looking at it with a more open mind, a new interpretation emanates from the scene. Zeffirelli's Hamlet isn't just facing suicide, but mortality itself. And opening this speech up to other ways of dying reminds us of a simple fact: There are more ways to commit suicide than the sudden stab of a dagger, or fall from a great height. By simply choosing to go against his uncle, Hamlet spells his own doom. It's not that he would commit suicide rather than commit regicide, it's that regicide is its own suicide. Not many men come out of such a mission unscathed or alive. We know this is a tragedy, so we know too that by choosing to act, Hamlet in effect commits suicide. He goes to his own death willingly. (Or does "the water come to him"? We must surely compare this speech to the gravedigger's later in the play.)

So though Zeffirelli changes the structure of the play to render moot the problem of Hamlet's backpeddling in Act III AFTER "the play's the thing", his staging here still evokes a justification for it. As written, Hamlet may well feign a speech about suicide to confuse the spies, but at the same time may sincerely discuss doubts about going through with his planned action. For such action will likely result in his death, and such an outcome naturally creates doubt, the nature of which he mentions.

Hamlet's anger rises through the speech - nothing new for Gibson's visceral performance - but ends in rhetorical defeat as the prince admits that great enterprises turn awry when they are over-thought, as they are here. His voice cracks, his shoulders stoop, and he goes back up to the world. In the next (previously discussed) scenes, he'll find his second wind.

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