Friday, November 4, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Discovering Hamlet

In 1988, Derek Jacobi was asked to direct Kenneth Branagh's first stage Hamlet. It was his only directing job ever - not because he did a poor job, but because he much prefers acting - but the documentary special Discovering Hamlet chronicled the effort (if not the finished play). "To be or not to be" is the only sequence from the documentary I wanted to examine on Hyperion to a Satyr, but it's an incredibly intriguing take on the scene. He sadly doesn't go into detail, but Jacobi claims his approach is wholly rooted in the text. That approach? Having Hamlet speak the lines, not as a true soliloquy, but to Ophelia.

In my estimation, he's entirely correct in thinking this. For one thing, Ophelia is on stage when Hamlet enters, and no stage directions have her leave or hide. Shakespeare's didascalia are always sparse, but entrances and exists are clearly marked. What if the Bard meant for Ophelia to be present and aware of the speech? The main argument against this staging is the final line, "Soft you now! The fair Ophelia," written as an interruptive and usually read as Hamlet's realization that she is present. However, it is possible to read them instead as Hamlet shushing her, giving her permission not to respond to his meditation on mortality. He's not telling himself or the audience to be quiet, but her. "Nymph, in thy orisons Be all my sins remember'd" becomes the actual conclusion to "To be or not to be", Hamlet perhaps admitting what spurred this black speech on, i.e. the guilt of having cut Ophelia off from his affections.

Brought into the scene quite viscerally, Ophelia is both witness and confidante. She may well be the only person Hamlet could say this to (Horatio has been absent a while), showing vulnerability for the first time since he went "mad". So how much greater is Ophelia's betrayal when the spies are discovered? She hasn't just lured Hamlet into the open, but made him show his true self. In other words, Jacobi's staging seems to confirm that the speech is not an act on Hamlet's part, and furthermore indicate that he perhaps would not have made it at all if not for the safety provided by Ophelia. Her presence makes him admit something he should not have. Theatrical conventions aside, it also confirms that the spies heard the speech, which normally would have been a long aside to the audience, representative of inner thought. There's an ambiguity on stage, that can lead the audience to reject that the character is literally talking to himself aloud, and ambiguity that is dispelled in this staging of it.

And of course, it heightens the irony of Ophelia later taking her own life, "acting" where Hamlet was unable to. While her prince seems to be confiding in her, we'll find that he was planting an idea in her head instead. In this version, there is no speech without Ophelia. In any version where she is present - hidden or not - it could be said Ophelia doesn't die but for this speech.

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