Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Nunnery Scene - Branagh '96

Initially, Branagh's Hamlet is all smiles and teary eyes, soft-spoken and kind, which in turn makes Kate Winslet's Ophelia hopeful and just as teary. The meeting is imbued with a tenderness we have not seen in Hamlet since the events of the play began. After Ophelia's "How does your honor...", they both giggle at the formality, and he answers in kind, as if play-acting. We have to remember that in this adaptation, they've been intimate, so the courtly mannerisms are out of place (except that her father is watching, so Ophelia at least knows not to be too familiar). Hamlet's three "well"s are ever more tender and end in an embrace. He holds her close, kisses her deeply, but she pushes him away to get things back on track. Hamlet appears deeply insulted, red-faced and betrayed, and it's here that the staging seems to both ask and answer a question: Is Ophelia acting from a script? On the one hand, she's being particularly formal and one might say, out-of-character. Then she fails to adapt to the situation (Hamlet's surprise kindness) and reacts, perhaps as scripted, with a complete non sequitur, giving back Hamlet's gifts. Hamlet has just returned her affections, and now she's going on about "perfume lost"? But we WOULD expect Polonius to have given Ophelia a script. She's a girl with no control over her life, and a poor improviser besides, so she pushes her father's agenda no matter what Hamlet says or does. There are other clues that point to this being the case. She looks to the side when, as if by rote, saying the line about rich gifts waxing poor, which really sounds like one of her father's slogans. Is she remembering, or is the eye motion a "tell" that points to the spies in the room?

Does the prince react as he does because he realizes all this already (though the "Where is your father?" line is spoken only later), or is it more visceral than that, an immediate connection between her apparent changeability and his mother's? It's a connection that certainly fuels his anger, since much of the coming speech and violence is transferred from guilty Gertrude to innocent Ophelia. And in terms of changeability, the pots and kettles irony is that Hamlet himself will turn unkind and confuse his would-be princess all the more. He slaps the gifts away, among them the poetry we know he wrote, and denies ever having given them to her. His moving "I did love you once" sounds like he's imploring Ophelia not to go through with this charade. He gives her an out and hopes she'll take it. And then the spies make a noise, and Ophelia lies about where her father is with the guiltiest look in creation on her face. For Hamlet, it's the tipping point. He breaks down crying, hands on face and when Ophelia tries to reach out, he lashes out at her.
The scene would be comical if it weren't so cruel as Hamlet drags Ophelia behind him as he opens one mirrored door after another, in a rage-fueled game of hide and seek. He silences her and pushes her face against a mirror, for the drama's sake, the exact door behind which Polonius and Claudius are hiding. It is telling that neither comes to Ophelia's defense. Though visibly shocked, seeing this through to the end is all they really care about, and they let Ophelia be violated, both physically and psychologically. She has been thoroughly abandoned. It is a violent image, one that distorts her face as a way of evoking her own mind snapping, and perhaps foreshadowing her drowning, the mirror providing a watery distortion.

Hamlet guesses the spies are behind this door, or that they might move to that position during the assault, or can even hear them there at this range. We may assume then that while his anger is genuine, he still puts on a show, using Ophelia as a prop. Violence gives way to a strange kiss when he tells her there will be no more marriages (is he saying in this moment that they'll never be intimate again, marriage being equal to intercourse?) and speaks straight at them (at us!) when he threatens that all but one shall live. They run off before he can catch them, but it is clear they were there. Secret doors don't slam silently. He leaves Ophelia with one last kindness (now that they are gone?), as his last "To a nunnery, go" loses the tone that might connote a whorehouse. It's a plea for her to leave Elsinore before something bad happens, whether that be blood-letting or her own corruption.
Ophelia's speech ends with a strange dawning realization which I wish I had a good handle on. It remains one of this adaptation's mysteries for me (and considering how many times I've seen it, it's great to still be able to admit there are still some). "See what I see" has its own unique tone, and makes us wonder just what it is she suddenly sees. The rest of the speech makes her point of view rather naive. She believes Hamlet has gone mad. What is her epiphany at the end then? Does she see the bigger picture? That perhaps Hamlet's troubles with women begin and end with his mother? That his madness is all for show, perhaps even having her suspect foul play in the death of the previous king and/or the murder Hamlet is planning? Does she foresee her own doom, the only possible end for a dejected lady like her? Ambiguity reigns.
The return of the other men in her life is as traumatic for her as Hamlet's violence. The father who put her in harm's way and failed to rescue her holds her tight and comforts her, not allowing her to talk. Ophelia is emotionally rocked in every direction. As for the King, he completely ignores her and her pain, giving in to anger and brooding. His mood is not improved by Polonius's reiteration of his mad-for-love theory, and he furiously slams his hand against the wall. Polonius almost approaches fatherly kindness in this scene, putting his well-meaning but empty comforting of his daughter above playing the sycophant to the King's frustrations.


snell said...

Perhaps Ophelia's "see what I see" can be read as a feeling of her own guilt. This production did, after all, have Hamlet shoving her face into a mirror, so what see saw most of was herself.

Given your reading of the scene, Hamlet was fine until she gave away the game. So she blames herself for her duplicity, for putting her father's plan ahead of her feelings for Hamlet, and for his reaction to her behavior.

So what has she seen? Herself. And she didn't like what she saw. Which also helps explain her descent into madness, which could now be read as more of a reaction to her own guilty conscience than merely because Hamlet was mean to her...

Siskoid said...

That is a great read on it, Snell!