Saturday, November 26, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene - Olivier '48

When considering Olivier's adaptation, we must contend with the unusual placement of this sequence. It comes after the Fishmonger scene through a time lapse transition and a the set-up from before To be or not to be, and is followed by To be or not to be (which becomes a guilty reaction to it). Jean Simmons' Ophelia is probably the most innocent of them all, almost a child really, and as such, can hardly lie convincingly. Throughout the scene, she keeps glancing at the arras behind which her father and the King are hiding, usually before her cue to speak, leading Hamlet to do the same. He was suspicious when he came in, but Ophelia's jumpy disposition inflames his paranoia. Not that Hamlet doesn't give her cause to be jumpy. He throws her book away to stop her from reading, and his blasé, monotone "well, well, well" doesn't let on that he cares for her. When he doesn't receive the tokens she hands him, she uncomfortably puts them on the table, his cue to grab her hand violently.

By violent, I realize I merely mean sudden. All the violence in this scene is psychological. There are a few moments where Ophelia throws herself at Hamlet and he tears her away and watches her fall, but that's about it. The performances however add a lot of sting to the words themselves. When Hamlet tells her she should not have believed his love, she rubs her cheek, as if she'd been slapped. And in slight change to the accepted text, Ophelia cries out "Help me you sweet heavens" (instead of "Help him"). She's the one in distress, and who emotionally explodes, not Hamlet. His only violence is rejecting her, or refusing to show kindness, and it's what sets off her hysterics. Polonius' claims of madness-for-love aren't so much wrong as they are badly targeted. If the mirroring effects of the play go in a "like parent, like child" direction, we must then recall how Polonius earlier claimed he suffered much for love. It's behavior genetically imposed on Ophelia, but we can't say the same for Hamlet or his absentee father.

Hamlet's lack of interest in Ophelia is counterpointed by his over-interest in the arras and what might wait beyond it. In moments, he is talking not to Ophelia, but directly to the arras. The word "ambitious" in particular is directed at Polonius and the King. Should we infer that the litany of sins Hamlet accuses himself of are actually leveled at them? Or is it an implicit threat to the throne? If it is, it's one that consciously confuses the issue of his motivation. The spies could understandably, if mistakenly(?), believe his motives to be political. By the end of the sequence, Ophelia is on the floor and Hamlet is conversing only with the two people who are ignoring her cries for help. He leaves her with a last kindness, kissing her hand and advising her to get out of Elsinore.

Ophelia's speech is replaced by loud sobbing as the spies completely ignore her. Polonius follows the King around and only spares her a look very late in the game. And even then, he leaves her on the steps alone and walks out.
As we leave the scene, Ophelia is reaching for Hamlet, or for her sanity, or in a more meta-textual way, for the camera's point of view which may or may not be the Ghost's. What does she see going up those steps? Is her mind breaking already? If it is the Ghost and not a proper hallucination, does she recognize Hamlet in it? In any case, the pitiable image stresses how the entire scene has been about violating Ophelia.

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