Wednesday, October 19, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Tennant (2009)

One thing the restructured Hamlets make clear is that putting "To be or not to be" before the Players arrive, rather than after, works better if Hamlet is not spied upon or at least doesn't know he's being spied upon. A Hamlet so structured has yet to see a glimmer of hope and may thus be more sincere in his mediation on self-oblivion. And so it is here, and though spies lie in wait, the moment is so intimate, and actually outside the room, so we may infer that the spies do not hear him. The speech is played around the corner of a wall, in near-darkness, with Hamlet progressively revealed. The way he is initially framed and backlit makes him skeletal (something supported by his t-shirt print), an image of mortality and vulnerability, and of revealing something to the audience that is under the surface.

Tennant has a fresh approach to almost every line in the speech, something that's very much not obvious with "To be or not to be". He uses long, pregnant pauses to make us feel like he's thinking those words up for the first time. One of Tennant's best qualities in the role is that he doesn't seem to know what he'll say next, even though he's speaking some of the best known words in all of English literature. The best example of this "freshness" is that though "To be or not to be" is the question, he asks another, putting a question mark on the end of "by opposing, end them?" Hamlet is filled with anguish, which slowly builds towards bitterness. His eyes are closed in pain until he finally looks at us on "there's the rub". At "must give us pause", he swallows hard. Just as his "gorge rises at it" in the graveyard scene later, Hamlet is here physically repulsed by what lies waiting in the afterlife, by extension, his own father's ghost. Bringing a measure of fear to this speech makes perfect sense in the context of having met an undead parent earlier. The physical signs of that repulsion continue through to "sicklied o'er", manifesting what is in the text merely a mental image. It continues the image of sickliness that is background for most of the play, one that covers the whole of Denmark, and is caused by the depraved behavior of its King, and possibly the madness of its Prince as well.

"Soft you now" comes hard and fast on the heels of "lose the name of action", springing TO action even as one gives up hope that any action can occur. Ophelia's appearance thus surprises Hamlet and his audience, taking us out of the meditation and back to more earthly matters.

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