Sunday, December 30, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's concept album includes two songs relevant to the Closet scene. "Ta mère est putain" (Your Mother Is a Whore) does not feature Hamlet's voice, but rather uses the chorus - either the voice of the Danish people or whatever devil is on his shoulder - and an up-tempo reprise of "The Old King Is Dead" motif that links many of the scenes. Here it is, followed by the French lyrics, and then my translation into doggerel:

Ta mère est putain
Le vieux roi est mort
Ta mère est putain
Te voilà d’un coup
Deux fois orphelin
Le vieux roi est mort
Mais pas encore froid
Qu’on change les draps
Pour un autre roi
C’est mal
C’est mal
C’est mal

You Mother Is a Whore
The old king is dead
Your mother is a whore
You, in a single stroke
Are twice orphaned
The old king is dead
But still isn't cold
That the sheets are changed
For another king
It's wrong
It's wrong
It's wrong

The short song is related to the Closet scene only insofar as it pushes Hamlet to visit his mother with violent intent. It's what he hears in his head as he goes up the steps. The second song, is "Pour l'amour" which actually has a double meaning. It can be translated as "For love" (which is what I've done in the translation), but it is also an expression that shortened "For the love of God", equivalent to "For God's sake" in English. Bear this in mind as you read the translation. Hamlet is at once saying "for love" and expressing his (untranslated) dismay. Once again, a video, the original French, and an English translation devoid or rhyme and meter.

Pour l'amour
Pour l’amour, vous n’avez plus l’âge
Votre sang est devenu sage
Votre chair est devenue molle
Et vos seins se rapprochent du sol

Pour l’amour, vous n’avez plus l’âge
Vous ne savez plus, plus faire naufrage
Vous n’avez plus l’eau à la bouche
Ni la tempête quand on vous touche

Arrêtez de tordre vos mains
Je ne crois pas à vos chagrins
Les crocodiles pleurent comme vous
Laissez-moi tordre votre cou

Pour l’amour vous n’avez plus l’âge
Votre corps est un marecage
Le moindre souffle y fait des plis
Il sent la vase et le moisi

Pour l’amour vous n’avez plus l’âge
Pourquoi bisser un mariage
Pourquoi vous maquiller d’ivresse
Vous étiez si belle en tendresse

Arrêtez de tordre vos mains
Je ne crois pas à vos chagrins
Les crocodiles pleurent comme vous
Laissez-moi tordre votre cou, etc.

For Love
For love, you no longer have the age
Your blood has become tame
Your flesh has become soft
And your breasts are closer to the ground

For love, you no longer have the age
You no longer know how, how to shipwreck
Your mouth no longer waters
Neither do you feel the storm when you are touched

Stop wringing of your hands
I don't believe in your chagrins
Crocodiles cry like you do
Let me wring your neck

For love, you no longer have the age
Your body is a swamp
The smallest breath makes it fold
It smells like mud and mold

For love, you no longer have the age
Why encore a marriage
Why make yourself up in drunkenness
You were so beautiful in tenderness

Stop wringing of your hands
I don't believe in your chagrins
Crocodiles cry like you do
Let me wring your neck, etc.

As you can see, Hallyday uses a lot of Shakespeare's original words, but is even more insulting regarding his mother's age, particularly in the first stanza (for rhyme, most likely). In the second, the shipwreck metaphor is a common poetic image of intercourse, the ship landing, spent, on the beach, and it prefigures Hamlet's disappearance at sea later in the play. While Hamlet attacks his mother on the grounds that she's entered into another marriage for lust, the comparison between the two husbands is merely suggested by the use of contrasting metaphors. The first stanza's images are all about earth, and the second about water. In the fourth, we see a merging of the two, as a swamp, which brings us back to the image of a decaying Denmark. How one husband has tainted the memory of the other.

The refrain also contains a shortcut to the rest of he scene. Instead of "let me wring your heart", Hamlet says "let me wring your neck", which introduces the violence of the scene. Gertrude's death is prefigured in the image of drunkenness (Claudius) vs. Hamlet Sr.'s tenderness, the poison cup of wine lyrically already at her lips. Polonius' murder, the Ghost's intervention, these are left as impressions and do not appear in the songs themselves. To a listener not familiar with the play, there are missing pieces of the puzzle. Gertrude is not brought into Hamlet's secret. The song ends with the prince still distrusting his mother.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Classics Illustrated

The original
While the original adaptation cuts a lot of the play down to the bare essentials, it gives this scene seven pages, including a two-page splash. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, since these comics had a Boy's Own Adventure style, and the scene features both a sword killing and the Ghost. There are still a lot of cuts, mind you. The extra space is given over to action, not words.
As you can imagine, though this Gertrude looks young and sexy, the comic removes Hamlet's rage his mother's sexuality. Classics Illustrated was hardly an innovative enterprise, but we do get a very comic book moment in the showing of the counterfeit presentment of the two brothers, with their pictures inset in the corner, facing each other.
Something else comics do differently than plays and films is the use of captions that interpret the action in third person omniscient. The adaptation does so to cover cuts or clarify actions that would not be clear to its likely pre-teen audience. Some of those interpretations are a little dubious. As Hamlet attacks his mother in the panel following the one above, we learn that he "continues as though the queen had not spoken", suggesting the author believes her expressed regret was contrition enough. Captions are also quick to clarify that she can't see the Ghost.
Above is the two-page splash designed to entrance young readers. While lines are cut like so much fat, a lot of space is devoted to keeping this audience interested. Is that so different from how it's done in the theater? Speaking of cuts, the scene soon wraps up with massive ones made to Hamlet's final conversation with his mother. After "Thou has cleft my heart in twain", she doesn't speak again. Hamlet simply tells her to throw away the worst part and that he's off to England. Even the "grave" pun is omitted in the rush to drag Polonius' body out of the Queen's closet and move on.

Footnotes - Words kids are not expected to know: Glass (mirror); adders (very poisonous snakes).

The Berkley version
In contrast, the Steven Grant/Tom Mandrake adaptation keeps the scene down to three pages, but manages to keep more of the text intact. As usual, Mandrake's art expresses a dark and foreboding mood. Coming into the room, Hamlet already has his sword out and the Queen is already running from it, which changes the tenor of her lines, and Hamlet's too. "Would it were not so, you are my mother" has a murderous edge with a sword in frame, as if the prince is ready to end that state, just as his "father" became a "ghost". When there are cuts, they're unusual and striking. Polonius doesn't cry for help, nor does Hamlet look for a "rat". Either he noticed someone behind the arras beforehand, or he heart a shuffling there, but he just stabs the arras out of the blue, as panel borders get drenched with blood.
Mandrake raises the level of intensity in Hamlet's tirade, closing in with each successive panel on Hamlet's eye and his mother's tear, a skull appearing in the prince's pupil (a Mandrake trademark).
There is no actual movement, no throwing on the bed, no counterfeit presentment, just the sense that Hamlet is dominating his mother, his image impossibly close to hers in that last panel, even as his voice goes down to a whisper. A threat has never been so well implied with so little.

The Ghost breaks the spell and creates another. Unusually, it stays in the picture after Hamlet says it steals away (crucially, "out of the portal" is omitted). So it is present when the prince gives his mother instructions to stop sleeping with Claudius. As with the previous adaptation, this end sequence is heavily cut, though it retains such lines as "I must be cruel only to be kind". Still, Gertrude stops speaking even earlier, at "yet all there is I see". In other words, she does not actually repent. Hamlet only takes it for granted that she does. In this version, it's the Ghost that makes Hamlet realize he should endeavor to save his mother, and her own reactions have nothing to do with his volte-face.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - A Midwinter's Tale

The rush of the montage, doing the entire play in only a few onscreen minutes and providing moments of humor throughout, gives us another dynamically staged excerpt from Branagh's comedy. Hamlet pushes his mother across the stage until she backs to the draped doors where Polonius is hidden, and as if part of the same movement that would have seen his mother harmed, the prince kills the "rat" whose shadow is revealed there. Blood is splashed on the curtains in a horror movie kind of way and as a means to intercut with a shocked audience for comic effect, but the underlying point remains: The answer to "thou wilt not murder me?" might well have been yes without Polonius' fortuitous interruption. And indeed, his entry into the after-life could be what signaled the Ghost that something was amiss. Without Polonius there, behind the arras, things might have turned out very differently. The old man did something right after all, in the end.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Slings & Arrows

Playing it on the floor, Slings & Arrows offers a simple, paired down staging that really speaks to the power of the scene. We don't get enough of it to discuss any particulars, but the fact that such a brief excerpt still manages to move this viewer speaks volumes. The scene is, of course, helped by a shot of the audience, enraptured, but that's one of the things the Canadian series does very well - show the power theater AS theater (as opposed to the adaptations in other media this blog is forced to use). Due to my location, I have never had the pleasure of seeing Hamlet on stage, but I can only imagine. What must it be like to actually be PRESENT as actors/characters experience Shakespeare's poetically-heightened emotions.

Why haven't you watched Slings & Arrows yet? It's just three 6-episode seasons, and I'll guarantee you'll love it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Tennant (2009)

Penny Downie's Gertrude starts the Closet Scene by taking off her Queen's reinments. This is to be an intimate scene, without benefit of make-up or hair piece, played in simple gray silk pajamas. When Polonius comes in, she's smoking a cigarette, drinking scotch whiskey and generally angry at both her son and this little man who imposes his presence on the moment. He hides behind a mirrored closer door, which will become an important symbol, as she downs her liquid courage. Hamlet can be heard coming from deep inside Elsinore, shouting and ranting, cawing "Mother" as if a crow. When he enters, he's still wearing his player's crown, which takes off his head impatiently. For all her outrage and bluster, she misses the point that this is exactly what she did to him by marrying his uncle, interrupting the normal succession. She took a crown from him. But Gertrude, though sharp-witted, has a particular blind spot when it comes to her family relationships and for example, did not catch the suggestion that Claudius killed her first husband from the details of Hamlet's play. The trouble they have communicating, likely a recent development, is what makes them act so impatiently towards one another. She almost slaps him, but turns into a kinder tap on the chest. Emotional blackmail rather than punitive violence, but Hamlet, at this point, will have none of it and responds with violence.

Tennant's acting strategy is to discover the text as he says it, which creates an impressive freshness to words more than 400 years old. For example, he plays with "your husband's brother's wife" as if comically working out its complexities. Later he'll find epithets like "fanged" only after a pause, considering the word "adders" less than sufficient to describe the treacherous Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. And so it is with the violence and intensity of the scene. He throws Gertrude on the bed, pulls her face towards newspapers with photos of the two kings, jumps on the bed, and makes it all seem unchoreographed and dangerous. He also discovers Gertrude's text. When she asks if he would murder her, it makes him take pause, disturbs him, shocked that he might have done it in a fit of rage. She starts to crawl towards her nightstand, in fear for her life, and in the drawer is a gun, but she doesn't draw it. That's when she starts to shout for help, making it very clear that she's asking for Polonius specifically, her eyes darting to the closet. Typically, he's slow on the uptake. Hamlet grabs the gun and shoots him, shattering the mirror (a device also used on a large mirrored wall in the stage play). Polonius stumbles out and collapses behind more mirrors, and it's only when Hamlet illuminates his form with a match that he realizes it wasn't the King. As the match burns out, Polonius' life on stage is extinguished forever.
The fractured mirror is an important element in the staging of this adaptation. Hamlet looks at himself in it, an image of his fractured mind (even if we accept he is not mad, he is still split between competing motivations, as is the Queen by the end of this scene). The shattered mirror occurs when Polonius is killed, representing the fracturing of Danish society. Remember that Laertes will return to avenge his father, revolt in his voice, and rebels at his heels. And it's also a play on the idea that Claudius and the Ghost are played by the same actor, the latter character walking "out of the portal" i.e. that shattered mirror. The presentment of two brothers, nearly identical, takes the bent of irony, but as we accept them as two different men, we'll note that Gertrude looks long and hard at her first husband in the newspaper, still apparently grieving. She knows what she's lost and that her second love doesn't invalidate her first. In fact, she turns to Hamlet and recognizes his father's bearing in him. The love she bears for her son informed by Hamlet being all that's left of Hamlet Sr.
We were warned about the witching hour, and it arrives with a gently chiming clock on the dresser. It's midnight and the Ghost makes its appearance, a gray figure, pointing at its son, angry. When it notices Gertrude, it grows kinder, and director Gregory Doran's contribution to the scene is to place them in the same shot, close together, an image of a family reunited. The Ghost even touches her hair, which she slips back into place without noticing. It's an image that will make Hamlet accept he must work with his mother rather than against him, but it's also an ironic image. For all his allusions to Claudius being death itself, a somehow revolting rotting thing, here his mother is sitting on the bed with an actual dead man. This is the state Hamlet would have preferred for his mother, a widow sleeping with the ghost of her husband forever more. Gertrude's subtle reaction to his saying her blood is tame says it all. Children seldom want to recognize their parents' sexuality, even though they obviously sprang from it.

Because she can't see this apparition, her fears that Hamlet is truly mad are confirmed, and his attempts to reel her back into his plan very nearly fall on deaf ears. What she responds to is the childish part of him, which comes and goes. They are trying to reconnect, but though he can plead with her "don't tell [step]dad" and hug her waist, and she can play a game of secrets with him, fingers on lips, and shush him while he cries, it's not long before he must become an adult again, one that talks of killing. They don't need to find the old connection, they need to forge a new one, and it's what they do as uneasy co-conspirators. Gertrude's reactions in this last sequence are incredible. When Hamlet asks her to throw away the worse part of her cleft heart, she laughs in his face with an expression that says "easier said than done" (because it's not a woman's place to refuse her husband's advances? Or because she can't deny someone she loves or, perhaps, someone who could kill her?). It's why he keeps giving her advice in that sense, showing her how she might stay on the wagon, as it were. Penny Downie's performance is incredibly naturalistic as Gertrude's own mind is in danger of snapping under the emotional strain.

Before Hamlet leaves, a final cruelty. Though he repents what he's done to Polonius, he can't help but pronounce a disdainful eulogy for the man. He gives his mother a quick and surprising kiss on the lips, and knavishly intones his good nights. The absurdity of it all makes her break out laughing, a laugh that immediately turns into a tear-stained grimace. This adaptation of the play continues to enchant and surprise.

Friday, November 30, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's Hamlet really scrambles this scene up, changing the order of lines and events, to get the most creepiness out of it, but also to cover the fact that Gertrude hates her romantic rival Polonia, and the latter would not scream for help if Gertrude were in danger. Polonia's death scene thus comes at the end, rather than early on.

One of the points of view in the scene is a security monitor watched by the Ghost, who looks bored and distant, cold. This is an odd conceit, but as the scene develops, one used to create an image of the land of the dead. When the Ghost appears to Hamlet, there's a flicker that makes the normal image desaturate and distort, as if we were suddenly looking through the monitor. The effect heralds the Ghost's presence and is not sustained throughout the visitation, though Hamlet's POV is blown out, irridescent, whereas his mother's is normal. It's not just the sense of the supernatural that's conveyed here, but perhaps that he's having some kind of psychotic episode, hallucinating. And indeed, it's the Ghost that nods pointedly in the mirrored closet's direction from where Polonia watches. Real or not, it's the proverbial voice telling Hamlet to kill. And it makes sense that this Ghost would want Polonia dead, as she appears to have been a co-conspirator in his murder, or he may just want to push Hamlet over the edge to turn him into the weapon he needs him to be. If the Ghost is NOT real, the Hamlet is merely picking up on his mother's early reference to seeing black and grained spots as she looks right into the mirrored door, a silent cue to warn him they're being watched, something his psychotic break makes him subconsciously realize. Because we so often see the Ghost from an omniscient, third person POV, we must surely accept the Ghost is real, however, though it may be we are as mad as Hamlet.

The way the lines are stacked (and performed) in this adaptation, Hamlet is less of an accuser and more of a convincer. That's because Gertrude is already well on her way to rejecting Claudius, who she knows is already being unfaithful to her (with Polonia). As her son begins to speak, flashbacks to such indiscretions cross-fade through the screen. These same words and if somehow shared, images, bring a smile to closet queen Polonia's face. There is no real violence between mother and son, even once Hamlet pulls out a gun, and after Polonia's death, Gertrude easily promises not to let Claudius tempt her to bed, nodding emphatically, comforting him, completely sincere. Once again we must contend with parts of her dialog being delivered in German, which isn't so baffling in the context of royal pairings. Gertrude might well have been another country's alliance with Denmark, a rare pearl from another realm that two brothers fought over, though that's not very relevant to this modern staging.
After the Ghost leaves, a pounding beat is introduced in the score, Hamlet makes his mother sit in front of the mirror (introducing the line about setting up a glass much later in the scene) as he points a gun at her reflection. Her death will be a symbolic one, the death of the mother he hates, allowing her to be reborn on his side rather than her husband's. Polonia senses the bullets flying around her, and in an interesting bit of editing, flashes (as perhaps Hamlet does too) to the icepick murder shown in Hamlet's film. As the icepick enters the ear, so does a bullet penetrate her. The door opens, and to Hamlet's horror, he hasn't killed Claudius but Polonia (horror at having killed, at any rate, and in realizing he must kill again to honor his revenge pact). Polonia is framed in a smaller screen, her skin blue, with a treatment that makes it seem like she's part of Hamlet's film, odd slowed-down, choking sounds coming from her. This is where the fantasy of death and its reality converge, the cognitive dissonance Hamlet experiences. Polonia's death is almost painterly, a posed tableau. And eventually, the screen, colors and treatment adjust to normality (or what passes for it in this horrific version), and her death becomes real. Hamlet cries, for his own soul if not for this villain's.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Hamlet 2000

It must be said that Hamlet 2000 cuts out many lines, for time as much as anachronism, but these do create dialog juxtapositions that can, at times, illuminate the text. And as usual, part of the joy of watching the play translated into a contemporary setting is to see modern props, settings and attitudes used to give well-known scenes a new spin. The setting in this case is an odd bedroom, the bed's backboard right to a wall of skyscraper windows, no curtains (this later causes a technical hiccup when the boom microphone becomes visible in its reflection, but that's neither here nor there). A kind of tower from which the Royals can survey the realm, but also one where their incestuous debauchery would be visible to everyone. They are clearly shameless, and shame (or lack of it) is an important theme in this scene. As we come into it, it is set up like a bedroom farce. Polonius is sitting on the bed and rushes off to a mirrored closet, coming out again comically to grab his forgotten coat. There may not be something going on between Gertrude and Polonius (at least, we hope not), and Bill Murray's effete performance takes us away from any post-coital thoughts, but he is acting as the King's proxy and at least creating the image of an affair, perhaps an echo of Gertrude's original adultery.

Hamlet walks into her apartment and immediately moves to the bedroom, which is a bit suspect, but makes sense if he thinks to find Claudius there, or plans to accuse his mother of adultery in full sight of the bed (which seems a bit calculated for this particular Hamlet, but is still possible). He angers her and gets slapped, hard, at which points he actually uses the closet door to "set [her] up a glass", literally showing her her own sin. When Polonius starts shouting, it's not a dagger Hamlet pulls out, but a pistol, and he shoots through the mirror, breaking its reflection and, in effect, his family's status quo. Polonius walks out, having been shot through the eye, before collapsing.
This is one instance where the modern trappings can create an image the original props would have had difficulty with. Here we have a spy ironically shot through the eye, and layering in more irony, that spy can be called a blind fool. Gertrude seems surprised at her son's subsequent accusation, so despite her rather callous manner prior to this, she appears not to have been in on her husband's murder. Scared for her life, she attempts to grab the telephone, at which point Hamlet uses the "wringing of your hands" line to take it away from her. He jumps on the bed, throwing up the covers, grabs her and chokes her with the bedspread, he gives in to violence, but not to Oedipal lust (thankfully). In this adaptation, the Queen isn't shown the presentment of two brothers, the momentum is kept through movement, not words.
The Ghost appears to Hamlet as Gertrude is ready to pass out, sitting in the room. The cuts juxtapose "he glares" with "Do not look at me!", putting the focus on Hamlet's own shame. He has lost control, killed a man, and almost killed his mother, and the Ghost's judgment is unbearable. In his own mind, that judgment has just linked him to Claudius. The Prince thus acts as an example to his shameless mother. All are sinners, but having sinned, this is how one should feel. Thematically, it's what cleaves his mother's heart in twain. She is split between Claudius' hedonistic values and Hamlet's puritanical ones. There's also a lovely moment for the Ghost, a reaction shot to Gertrude saying she sees "nothing at all". He looks ascant, saddened and regretful that he cannot be seen by the love of his life. She cannot see him now, perhaps like she didn't really see him before. There's existential angst as the Ghost himself doubts his reality, and he dies again (never to reappear in the play) having been ignored and forgotten by his widow.

The end of the scene is cut with a silent sequence in which Hamlet drags Polonius' enshrouded body through corridors, and near the building's laundry, he calls Gertrude on a payphone to have "one more word". Structurally, the purpose this serves is to put the "neighbour room" well away from her apartment, a requirement the way this "Elsinore" is represented. It might also have been used as a reveal that Claudius is sitting in on the phone call, but that doesn't happen. Gertrude does not betray Hamlet. His "good night, mother", after the phone has been hung up, because more symbolic than literal, as if he's closing a chapter on his life. He's soon off to England and does not speak to her again before he leaves (and hardly after, in the play), but more importantly, his thoughts of taking revenge on her have been quelled. It's good night to that part of his plans.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Kline '90

No bed, no inappropriate mounting of one's mother, we seem well away from Zeffirelli's Oedipal staging, though by the end, Kline does give us a light kiss and a lot of hair and face stroking. Tender affection only brought on when Hamlet sees a hope for his mother's soul. But until then, the scene is set in a black room with red curtains, a red carpet and red chairs, foreshadowing the bloody deed that is to come and giving the entire scene, played mostly on the floor, a sense of violence.

Polonius goes out behind the arras earlier than in the text, at "I'll silence me, even here", which stressed this way, is rather like a suicide note. He'll come out again for one last line and bit of comic business before Gertrude asks him to withdraw. Dana Ivey as Gertrude is the one to watch here. Before Hamlet walks in, she's pacing, nervous, but once he enters, she becomes poised and regal, demanding answers as a Queen would. She puts on this character in part out of habit, and in part because it should work on a grown son who acts like a child. Queen/Mother, Country/Son - these concepts are connected, and when Hamlet asks her not to make things worse, he uses the rank weeds metaphor that we linked to Denmark as unweeded garden way back in Act I. From that angle, Hamlet is the rebellious country unhappy with its leaders' decisions, or rather that country's vocal discontents, as Laertes will actually lead the violent revolution. Should we then see Gertrude's mix of chiding and kindness as part of that allegory? A patronized Danish people who can get out of hand because of weakness at the top?

The scene plays out as more of a conversation than most adaptations allow. Gertrude genuinely wants answers and Hamlet is trying hard to convince her of the error of her ways. As the emotions reach a crescendo, the volume does go up, until Gertrude is screaming, through some very real anguish, for her son to stop. By showing her her two husbands, he seems to trigger her guilt and grief, but Gertrude always gets more agitated when he demands she stop sleeping with Claudius (and she gets a number of opportunities, he just won't let it go). Is the King violent? Does she fear political reprisal? Does she use sex as a weapon, and was planning to undo Hamlet's exile this very night with her feminine wiles? Does she truly love Claudius? Is she traumatized by the revelation that Claudius killed Hamlet Sr.? Any of these are possible and could make for interesting staging, though here it remains ambiguous.
The Ghost appears with a slight shift in lighting (no special effects, this was a theatrical production, after all), and it keeps to behind Gertrude, across from Hamlet, a most effective staging of the scene. The sense of worry Gertrude has for her son throughout returns to her here, and even Hamlet seems to be trying to convince himself of his mental health when he talks about his pulse keeping the time. Does it? Keeping time in this play is a most difficult enterprise. Kline's Hamlet doesn't appear to only be mad in craft, as evidenced by his murder of Polonius, and the way he speaks to the old man as if he were still alive. He drags him away, the red curtain getting caught on Polonius' foot and creating a sense of blood even though the scene is actually bloodless. His final good night is somber and macabre. The performance, as much as the text, puts Gertrude in an untenably ambiguous position. Madness and reason, violence and kindness, the men she loves both murderers, and this goodbye that does nothing to quiet her motherly concerns.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Zeffirelli '90

Ok. Let's talk Freud. While the world knows him best as a psychoanalyst, literature (and literary criticism) owes him a debt as well (the same is true of Jung, though this is not relevant to this discussion). Freud's use of myth and literature to illuminate human behavior created a new filter through which to analyze not just that behavior, but literary works as well. His analysis of Hamlet, connecting it to the Oedipus myth is justly famous, though it did inspire staging I deeply dislike, and among the best known filmed versions, is most obvious in Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation. The idea is that Hamlet is an Oedipal character who literally (whereas non-fictional men do so metaphorically) feels the need to kill his father to marry his mother. According to Freud, and I'm simplifying here, men love their moms and compete with their fathers for her attentions (the Electra complex reverses this paradigm for women). Whether we agree with Freud's generalizations or not, we must agree it is a viable lens through which we can look at Hamlet. Even if Shakespeare predates Freud by centuries, he was working within a theatrical tradition that included Sophocles' original Oedipus Rex, so the comparison is sound. Or did Shakespeare draw similar conclusions about human behavior, and expressed them in this play, in his own idiom?

There's certainly something going on under the surface in the text. Hamlet's obsession with his mother's sexuality is proof of that. In a sense, his father's Ghost possesses him, and he takes on the wronged husband's jealousy. He does not want to kill his father per se (though one could imagine a disturbing staging where a psychopathic Hamlet had killed Hamlet Sr. himself and was lying to various spies - us? - throughout the play), but he wants to kill a false father figure. This scene is particularly important to Freudians because in it, Hamlet kills a father (Ophelia's) and then confronts his mother about her infidelity. Has she betrayed her first husband, or her son? Zeffirelli goes the "fashionable" route by taking things a bit too far, in my opinion. When Hamlet is his rage, he starts humping his mother in a kind of mock rape. That's certainly not unique to this adaptation, but he then has Gertrude stop Hamlet's mouth with a deep kiss, and it then seems like it would have gone further had the Ghost not walked in on them. Where we might believe Hamlet's Oedipal complex from textual evidence, there's really nothing that should push Gertrude into an incestuous compulsion. It out-ironies irony that a confrontation about technical incest (she marries her husband's brother) turns to actual incest. Going this far undermines the entire play because it infers a precedent to this inappropriate contact. We're suddenly wondering Hamlet is jealous of Claudius because he used to share his mother's bed, and if so, why defend his father's memory so adamantly? In fact, why isn't the Ghost angrier to catch his son making out with his mother?
The staging just doesn't work. You can follow in Freud's footsteps, but you have to lay the idea in before this scene to make it work.

Otherwise, Zeffirelli's staging is often predicated by what dialog he's cut from the play. For example, Polonius starts this scene without a plan to spy on Hamlet and Gertrude from behind an arras. He seems to notice the tapestry as he's about to go out and decides to slink behind it. This Polonius is definitely more benign than the text would have him, and certainly less of a schemer. His end is tragic, but less warranted this way. As written, he thinks himself crafty and plans his spycraft well in advance, so there's a sense of satisfaction when he's hoisted by his own petard. His death here feels much more accidental. And does Hamlet see him there well before he starts to shout for help? He slides behind the arras just as Hamlet arrives, and it looks like the Prince notices the arras moving, at the very least, or even a dark shape behind it. It's a problem. Are we then to believe what he says to his mother is for the spy's benefit? Is that why he's so cocky, why he mocks his mother's anger? Possibly. There is a moment when he forgets himself, when she slaps him and he lets out an inhuman bellow, which might make this idea work. From then on, as he pushes his mother back at sword's point, he may have completely forgotten about the spy lurking behind the arras. When he "rediscovers" the spy, he doesn't have time to process the impossibility of it being the King whom he left in the chapel moments before, to which his victorious gesture testifies. The regret that follows may be motivated by not having killed the King, or for the consequences sure to follow for the death of Polonius, but as Gertrude starts to step away, he drops his sword and through his body language, tries to make her feel safe.

Where many Gertrude's vacillate between sadness and anger through these moments, Glenn Close's performance is heightened by abject fear. Her son is clearly mad and dangerous, and after that animalistic scream and on through their kiss, it's fear that motivates her. And it may not just be fear of her son. Fear of being discovered, perhaps? Her question "I mean what act?" seems to indicate a distinction between deeds and thoughts (a theme throughout the play, look back to the things Hamlet accuses himself of in the Nunnery scene). So... did she know about the King's murder? Was she in on it? Did she, at the very least, look the other way? The burial scene at the start of the film showed there was already a connection between her and Claudius, so could she be feeling guilty that their brewing affair resulted in the murder? The necklaces with pendants picturing her two husbands are once again used, violently so, as Hamlet almost chokes her with hers. It's Claudius' evil made manifest, a way for Hamlet to emphasize the blight her represents.

After the Ghost's appearance - or perhaps after the kiss - Hamlet grows kinder. There is no panic at seeing a spectral figure, but rather reverence. A calm falls upon him that contrasts with her own distress. He pleads with her to understand that he is not mad, never moving to coldness or anger as other, more mercurial Hamlet have sometimes done. He gives her his necklace as a reminder of her former husband and to show they're now on the same side (hopefully). It's interesting that this happens after she says her heart has been cleft in twain, because she was already a creature of two halves. Trapped between two husbands, or more likely between a son and a husband. That it is now cleft merely means she's been asked to choose between her two loves. The "purer" half is the motherly one, which Zeffirelli unfortunately compromised with his Oedipal stylings.

Hamlet's kindness extends to his taking Polonius' body out of doors, putting him upright before dragging him, less "guts" and more a person with a certain dignity. He even leans into his ear when he talks to him, through tears as things start to spiral out of control. Gertrude is left to look at the pendant her son has given him. What choice will she really make?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - BBC '80

As we find Gertrude, she's taking her rings off, getting ready for bed. It's hard not to see this as symbolic, since it prefaces a scene where she is asked to divest herself of a husband. She's agitated and angry to start with, at Hamlet more than at Polonius getting above himself, which comes to a head when she slaps Hamlet for his impertinence. Though it's a good performance, Derek Jacobi overwhelms the scene as usual, so mercurial as Hamlet that any given line may evoke some new analysis. For example, this is the first time Gertrude's "idle tongue" line resonates with so much irony for me, as his delivery of "go, go", a thoughtless reflection of her "come, come", is "idling" in every sense of the word. She makes him idle, just as his line makes her wicked (thus, the slap). As she attempts to leave, he blocks her with a drawn sword, the same he then uses to repeatedly stab the arras.

Anguish is on his face as he commits the blind murder, rather than anger, Jacobi truly making this about Hamlet killing the more ethical part of himself, and finally giving in to the revenge he's denied for so long. Contrast with his counsel to the Queen that she should throw away the worst part of her heart. He has done the opposite. Uniquely, Polonius takes some time to die after he's fallen, extending a hand towards his killer, much as Hamlet Sr. must have done towards Claudius, making the scene even more unbearable for Hamlet. After he's dead, Hamlet shouts his warning of danger at the corpse, as if trying to reach him in the afterlife, and bringing up the question of what happens to the soul after death, central to his early delay of action and his father's true fate (indeed, does the Ghost's appearance in this scene have any relationship to Polonius' sudden entry into Hell?). The emphasis on the line also makes us think of the Ghost as a "busy" schemer, whose machinations will bring on more danger.
From there, Hamlet frequently alternates between quiet kindness and violent accusations. The pictures of the two husbands on each character's necklaces is not a new trick, but Gertrude's reaction to these is always of interest. She refuses to look at either man, especially Hamlet Sr., seeming to grieve anew for him. She tries to flee her son, pacing back and forth in the antechamber, until Hamlet throws her into the bedroom and onto the bed. Here, it becomes a little disturbing, exploiting the Oedipal connections violently and sarcastically. The King's "compulsive ardour" is actually mimed, Hamlet humping his mother frenetically before he breaks down, his face in a pillow. Just when you think it's over, he starts on the "enseamed bed" section and tickles her cruelly, yipping like a lascivious loon on each beat. This behavior is not Oedipal in the sense that Hamlet seems truly in love with his mother, but is rather a parody of the Oedipal compulsion, showing the unnatural in the Claudius/Gertrude relationship through a grotesque lens.
The Ghost appears, still in armor even if many productions choose to dress him in more relaxed attire. But this is not a relaxed Ghost. He is very strict with his son and only mellows slightly at Gertrude's plight. The visitation is fairly standard otherwise, but what comes after provides more examination of the lines through Jacobi's unusual line readings. It's the word "ecstasy" that brings Hamlet back down to earth, when he goes cold and mean to his mother. The tone Jacobi uses makes it clear that the Prince is essentially saying "Don't you DARE say my madness and not your sin is the cause of all this". This Hamlet is far less forgiving than others, even after the Ghost has interceded on her behalf. And yet, he's looking for a way out, and believes he's found it when she says her heart has been cleft in twain. He starts laughing with relief. He believes she can be saved. But can she? She hugs him, seems to believe all will be well, but when he warns her about sleeping with Claudius, she stops. In fear? In shame? Remembering her love or lust for Claudius? In hesitation because she DOES love Claudius? His warnings turn to supplication and back again. There's still anger there, and contempt. Jacobi turns "I'll blessing beg of you" into an attack at her ability to repent, as if to say "You can judge me only when you've admitted your own sin". He is so changeable that you can hardly trust him when he says he's "essentially not in madness". Stern one minute, repentant the next, showing a flash of anger when his mother forgets he's off to England, and then giggling as he imagines his revenge on his school friends.

Polonius' eulogy fits this same pattern. Hamlet is able to choke back a sob by the end (but is he crying for Polonius, for Ophelia, or for his own soul?), and yet still make a Bondian death pun. Notably, he puts the murder weapon on Polonius' body, in a parody of a soldier's funeral, as if to represent machinations "fall'n on the inventors' heads". This is part of Hamlet's denial of action, justifying the accidental murder by blaming the victim. As the scene ends, we're treated to a staging that reveals Hamlet Prince of Denmark as a black comedy, Hamlet dragging a dead body while cheerily wishing his mother good night.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Olivier '48

Although I think Eileen Herlie does a wonderful job with Gertrude in this scene, she is still playing a weaker version of the character than Julie Christie's. As the scene begins, Polonius is very stern with her, treating her like he does Ophelia, despite the difference in rank. This, more than anything, weakens her, though how quiet she is with Hamlet at first, more sad and exasperated than angry (making her "wicked tongue" an odd accusation to make), does too. While we might question her power as Queen, it does strengthen her connection to Ophelia, likewise a victim of all these men. Even Polonius exercises power over her, though to be fair, he's never been as much a representative of the King as he is here. Even the arras behind which he hides has the picture of a King, and it's King's death he suffers. Though this interpretation of Polonius seems rather benign, a more overtly ambitious Polonius is entirely possible, living - and dying - vicariously through the King.

As Hamlet comes in, he holds his sword threateningly, and quite close to his mother's throat too, but her question isn't as fearful as other performances have made it. She's calm enough to try and convince her son not to do something rash. Which he does by stabbing the arras, joyful and happy at the idea that he might just have killed the King, Olivier taking just enough of a beat to make the murder deliberate rather than an act of pure passion, though surely, he must realize he just left Claudius downstairs in the chapel. The staging is rather great, with Gertrude in the foreground (we'll come back to this), and Hamlet letting the sword stick in the arras, keeping its victim upright, for the longest time. It makes sense thematically. Though he's killed Polonius, the text has him only notice a few lines later as he first discusses the Queen's alleged sins. He literally "puts a pin in it", and creates tension while we wait for the inevitable reveal that he has killed the wrong man.
Now the Queen gets afraid and angry, but Hamlet responds with a strange disconnectedness to his own words. His verbal attacks are made with the hint of a smile, and his cool accusations contrast heavily with his mother's tears. He's almost having fun and does not engage emotionally with her. Lack of empathy as madness? Where he IS engaged emotionally is with his father. When he compares Gertrude's husbands, we see they both have lockets, Hamlet's containing Hamlet Sr.'s, and Gertrude's, Claudius'. As he describes his father, Gertrude looks at HIM, not the picture, seeing Senior's features in Junior. Here the adaptation starts to flirt with Oedipal themes, and seem to justify a couple of kisses between them later, one chaste, the other a little more passionate (I'll have cause to discuss Freud's influence on the play at a later date, using a more overtly Freudian adaptation to do so). Perhaps because of movie standards of the time, Olivier, while presenting a hint of incest in this scene, did cut or change lines that had a son discuss his mother's sexual activities. For example, her "enseamed bed" becomes the cleaner "lascivious bed". The film maker thus puts some distance between a potential perversion in the plot, and perverse language, leaving the relationship in cleaner, but just as ambiguous, waters.
As an angry Hamlet starts to choke the life out of his mother, the Ghost intervenes. Drum beats signal its presence, distracts Hamlet and makes him swoon. We only see it in one shot, as a slightly glowing shadow in the doorway, something Gertrude does not herself see. Otherwise, we're squarely in the Ghost's point of view, as Hamlet looks straight into the camera and points at us, the audience. This certainly reinforces the idea that the camera in the film is so often motivated by the Ghost's gaze. In the early part of the scene, the camera is, in fact, more often close to Gertrude than it is to Hamlet, and the Ghost loves HER. It is her plight, more than Hamlet's tardiness, that calls the Ghost to action (after all, Hamlet's been goofing around for a long time by now). Not seeing the Ghost doesn't make it less creepy. Olivier makes his own performance do that work, squirming on his side as he does when the Ghost leaves. After it's left, we hear church bells chiming, a possible call-back to the Ghost's first departure at the cock's crow. Is it morning already? Has "witching hour" ended and sent the poor soul back to Hell? Or was this all an artifact of Hamlet's madness brought on by the cognitive dissonance surely inherent to (almost) murdering a loved one?

From there, he grows kinder to his mother (inappropriately so, you might say), but what's really interesting about the end of the scene is the way Hamlet talks about having to leave for England. As so often happens in Shakespeare, there are so many words that some will often go by unnoticed, until a slightly different emphasis in a performance somehow makes it shine. Here it's "This man [Polonius] shall set me packing". Though the trip to England is "concluded on", Polonius' murder makes the exile unavoidable now. And Hamlet, who does not trust his travel companions, may realize that he's actually being sent to his death (thus his quick action to turn the trick back on his fellows). But turnabout is fair play, as Hamlet has ALSO sent Polonius on a one-way trip, to the undiscovered country from the "To be or not to be" speech. This is where Shakespeare's traveler metaphor achieves its apogee (though a travel metaphor continues to be used in later scenes, like the one through the guts of a beggar).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Branagh '96

Surprisingly for a production that features a lot of mirrors (in the hall, but at least two in the Queen's closet), Branagh does not use them on the "set you up a glass" line, completing an image from the Nunnery Scene and linking Ophelia's potential whoredom with Gertrude's proven one (all in Hamlet's mind, of course). The scene doesn't suffer as a result, however, since the line itself does some of the work. The backdrop surrounding the room is of particular interest, a painting of people and the occasional dog sitting on steps and balconies, like a makeshift audience. This is judgment day for the Queen, and all of Denmark metaphorically looks on, trying to force shame on her. The scene begins with some energy, as Polonius rushes in and Gertrude, ever impatient with him, pushes him behind a curtain. Hamlet's own entrance rides that momentum, motivated as he is by a mixture of elation from the success of his play, and anger at not having been able too kill Claudius. He goes for the Queen's throat, and she naturally cries "murder", though one might imagine he was merely looking for some locket with the King's picture in it... except that while other productions use such a prop, this one has bigger bedside framed pictures.

The accidental murder of Polonius is well-choreographed, as he falls wrapped in the thick curtain, keeping his identity hidden from Hamlet for the time it takes the prince to inquire if it's the King. Polonius' highly redundant "I am slain" is retained, making the character's last words completely unnecessary verbiage, the perfect epitaph for the character. Branagh makes it clear this changes Hamlet as a person, though it may take a few moments to truly sink in. He is now a murderer, the same sin he holds against Claudius, and worse, he has killed a father. His voice breaks when he gives Polonius his farewell,  and he drops the dagger in disgust. He gets back on track as soon as he sees his mother wringing her hands, however, as if she has no right to this shock when her own hands are stained with his own father's blood.
He throws her on the bed where much of the scene takes place, but thankfully, Branagh does not go down the Freudian route, at least not explicitly. He lets the words do the work of presenting a sexually immature Hamlet who, like a child in this part of the scene, is repulsed by the idea of his parents having sex. If the audience wants to read an Oedipal complex in the inappropriate way he talks about his mother's sexuality, they are free to do so, but the idea is not expressed in the staging. Violence and impertinence, yes, but the characters are not sexually inappropriate with one another. As the scene progresses, the life is sucked out of Gertrude by her son's revelations and/or reproaches. Shame or tiredness? Her expressions are ambiguous. It is perhaps important that Gertrude looks only at her former husband's picture and not Claudius', but again, it is ambiguous whether the memories evoked are good or bad, and whether she's evaluating the brothers against Hamlet's praise and slander.
The Ghost reappears, this time as a veritable "king of shreds and patches", kinder and sadder than his angry, armored self. The Queen's point-of-view omits him, leaving the audience to wonder if he is real and in control of who can see him, or if is he completely imaginary and as the Queen fears, an artifact of Hamlet's madness. Hamlet is, in fact, desperate for his mother to also see the Ghost, actively questioning his own sanity when she does not. The speech that follows about his sanity is in that sense as much for himself as it is for her. The Ghost, potentially a devil in the earlier scene, has a very different attitude, obviously tempered by his obvious love of Gertrude and his wish that no harm come to her. It's almost as if he regrets the fury with which he gave his earlier command, and wishes not only to sharpen his son's "blunted purpose", but to make up for the consequences his dread command incurred. It's all gone off the rails, as they say, and it's ultimately his fault. If Hamlet was impetuous before, in front of his father he is truly a child, and he cries like one.

Once the Ghost has left, he attempts to prove his sanity, a difficult feat given that he starts by pushing his mother onto a bench after she's seen him hallucinate. But this visitation, and the blood now on his hands, have changed him, even possibly awoken him from madness. He'll be far more in control of his words and actions from here on out. Moving away from the childish outrage of mere moments ago, he takes on a paternal attitude towards Gertrude, instructing her calmly on what to do about her situation. The fact that he's now a sinner too has leveled the playing field. He asks her to repent, but repents his own actions as well, as an equal partner should. He's gone too far and knows it, and if his assumed madness became real, he now reigns it in, turning it back into craft. As Hamlet takes responsibility for what he's done and for what he must do, he becomes a darker, even more fatalistic Hamlet. The resigned way he takes care of Polonius' body, calling it "guts" (previous speeches have been concerned with the state of the soul after death, but from here on out, the dead are decaying objects), is proof of that.
The final image of the scene, with a reflective puddle of blood dominating the foreground as Gertrude paces anxiously and tries to make a decision about who to trust, is symbolic of her part in Hamlet Sr.'s murder (she was its inspiration) AND of her son's madness which caused Polonius' death. She is torn between the two, and given how under-written Gertrude is, it will take some time to clear up just which side she takes.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene

The Closet Scene is one of the play's most famous, discussed and pivotal. Hamlet confronts his mother about her betrayal of his father, kills a spying Polonius, has another encounter with the Ghost, and reveals Claudius' crime to Gertrude. It's a true turning point, as Hamlet must finally face consequences for one of his actions, Gertrude must now make a choice, and of course, the play loses its first character. In killing Polonius, Hamlet becomes Claudius, a father's killer, turning Ophelia into another version of Hamlet, one whose madness will overwhelm her. And for actors, directors and even audiences, there are some important choices to be made in this scene. What is the nature of the Ghost? Hamlet sees him, but Gertrude doesn't (unlike Horatio and the soldiers who vouched for its existence). Was it real then and is imaginary now? Can it simply choose who can see it? And if so, why not show itself to the Queen and confirm Hamlet's story? We can also ask whether Gertrude knew about her husband's murder already, or whether she cares? On whose side is she? How does her attitude towards Claudius change after this scene? as the most underwritten character in the play, this ambiguity rests on the actress' performance and the choices made in this scene. Before getting into the examined films, etc.'s specific choices, let's look at Shakespeare's text (in italics) to look for clues as to the answers.

Enter QUEEN GERTRUDE and POLONIUS

LORD POLONIUS: He will come straight. Look you lay home to him:
Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with,
And that your grace hath screen'd and stood between
Much heat and him. I'll sconce me even here.
Pray you, be round with him.
HAMLET: [Within] Mother, mother, mother!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I'll warrant you,
Fear me not: withdraw, I hear him coming.


POLONIUS hides behind the arras
Enter HAMLET

HAMLET: Now, mother, what's the matter?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Why, how now, Hamlet!
HAMLET: What's the matter now?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Have you forgot me?
HAMLET: No, by the rood, not so:
You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife;
And--would it were not so!--you are my mother.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak.
HAMLET: Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: What wilt thou do? thou wilt not murder me?
Help, help, ho!


While there are no stage directions, it is obvious here that Hamlet should be violent or threatening in his actions. That violence is not in the words, except poetically, where Gertrude is afraid of being killed by her own reflection. In these lines, an actress might justify a certain measure of sublimated shame for what Gertrude has done (posthumous infidelity if not collusion in murder).

LORD POLONIUS: [Behind] What, ho! help, help, help!
HAMLET: [Drawing] How now! a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!

Makes a pass through the arras

LORD POLONIUS: [Behind] O, I am slain!

Falls and dies

QUEEN GERTRUDE: O me, what hast thou done?
HAMLET: Nay, I know not:
Is it the king?


Important to note here that Hamlet thought this might be the King spying on him. In other words, he WOULD have gone through with it earlier if the circumstances had been right (caught a-spying rather than a-praying), or we could say that the passionate hate he shows towards his mother is what drives him to lash out and kill, but without that catalyst of rage, he could not have done it.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
HAMLET: A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: As kill a king!


Choice: Is the Queen surprised that a king was killed (and if so, which king, does she fear for the absent Claudius?), or that Hamlet knows about a murder she's already aware of? Note also Hamlet's accusation here. He says Gertrude did BOTH the marrying AND the killing. A case of "man and wife is one flesh"? Or an intrusion of madness, putting all crimes on his mother's shoulders?

HAMLET: Ay, lady, 'twas my word.

Lifts up the array and discovers POLONIUS


Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune;
Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger.
Leave wringing of your hands: peace! sit you down,
And let me wring your heart; for so I shall,
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damned custom have not brass'd it so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?
HAMLET: Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers' oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven's face doth glow:
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Ay me, what act,
That roars so loud, and thunders in the index?
HAMLET: Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:


Hamlet's idealized description of his father uses, as Horatio would, pagan gods even though Hamlet's idiom is more often fiercely Puritanical. Is there a reason for this? Has the fact that his father has been denied Heaven forced Hamlet to look outside his faith for proper comparisons? The mention of Mars, the god of war, is unsurprising given Hamlet Sr.'s military background, but is there not also the notion that the former king can be idealized because, like these gods from myth, he was remote, unknowable, untouchable? Again and again, the play suggests Hamlet wasn't close to his father and basically admired him from afar.

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear,


The reference to an ear is not lost on this reader.

Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it's humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment


Hamlet, like most children, would rather not think of his parents as sexual beings. His dismissal of his mother's passion and libido is his mistake, and explains in part why he can't understand or accept his mother's relationship to his uncle. The line is also at odds with a reality in which Gertrude does NOT love Claudius, and would have married him for political reasons (as was addressed back in Act I). If the marriage was under those terms, made through "judgement" rather than "blood", why can't Hamlet see it? He has little objectivity on the matter. As we'll see in various stagings, the casting of Gertrude adds another layer here. Is she in fact an older woman, a younger one, one with sex appeal or not?

Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex'd; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne'er so thrall'd
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?


We are back to a Christian idiom, but a hellish, not heavenly, one. The irony is that his father's Ghost is now one such devil. Whether the Ghost told the truth or not (and it seems it did) does not mean it's not trying to draw more souls into sin (already, Hell has won Polonius' soul).

Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,


More ears.

Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax,
And melt in her own fire: proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn
And reason panders will.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
HAMLET: Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,--
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O, speak to me no more;
These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears;


A murder weapon in the ear. It's like a mantra used to invoke the murder and summon up the victim.

No more, sweet Hamlet!
HAMLET: A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings;
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: No more!
HAMLET: A king of shreds and patches,--

Enter Ghost


It has been common to show the Ghost dressed in "shreds and patches" when it appears (as opposed to the war armor it wears in previous scenes), so as to heighten the irony and/or complete the invocation. The present state of the former king is in fact closer to Hamlet's description of Claudius in this scene than to that of the idealized father figure. The images of putrefaction, for example, or likening him to a moor, a marsh-land that is closer to Hell than the otherwise described (Heavenly) mountain.

Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alas, he's mad!
HAMLET: Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
The important acting of your dread command? O, say!
GHOST: Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul:
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works:
Speak to her, Hamlet.
HAMLET: How is it with you, lady?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?
HAMLET: On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: To whom do you speak this?
HAMLET: Do you see nothing there?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.
HAMLET: Nor did you nothing hear?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: No, nothing but ourselves.
HAMLET: Why, look you there! look, how it steals away!
My father, in his habit as he lived!
Look, where he goes, even now, out at the portal!

Exit Ghost

QUEEN GERTRUDE: This the very coinage of your brain:
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.
HAMLET: Ecstasy!
My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,


This is not a trustworthy image, since time has been co-opted and distorted in the play, A clue that Hamlet's madness is very real indeed?

And makes as healthful music: it is not madness
That I have utter'd: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that mattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.


A clue that Gertrude is in love with Claudius? While the image is that of a broken heart, it's one that is broken in two pieces, one for her son and one for her husband. Is one piece bigger than the other? Hamlet urges her to get rid of the one that holds Claudius:

HAMLET: O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night: but go not to mine uncle's bed;
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either reign the devil, or throw him out


Hamlet's recipe for using habit to get rid of a certain behavior is enlightening. The suggestion is that if you assume a virtue (or, by extension, a fault), custom and repetition will make it become "true". This may be a way to understand Hamlet's madness. He starts out playing mad, which makes him mad. Only after taking a break from that madness (during his upcoming exile) does he become more reasonable and ready to commit to action.

With wondrous potency. Once more, good night:
And when you are desirous to be bless'd,
I'll blessing beg of you. For this same lord,

Pointing to POLONIUS

I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.


A villainous justification for wrong-doing, and possibly how Claudius justified his own actions. In a staging where Claudius is more sympathetic, we might imagine him wrestling the crown from a corrupt Hamlet Sr. (whose going to Hell is not an injustice) constantly plunging Denmark in war, and/or kills for love of Hamlet Sr.'s neglected Queen. That Claudius might have explained his actions as a question of destiny, as Hamlet does here.

I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: What shall I do?
HAMLET: Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. 'Twere good you let him know;
For who, that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise,
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib,
Such dear concernings hide? who would do so?
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house's top.
Let the birds fly, and, like the famous ape,
To try conclusions, in the basket creep,
And break your own neck down.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.


Foreshadows her own death.

HAMLET: I must to England; you know that?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alack,
I had forgot: 'tis so concluded on.
HAMLET: There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way,
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard: and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,


His father's son, as Hamlet gets closer to his goal (i.e. the Ghost's), he starts to use military metaphors. We'll see if it holds or if it's a temporary affect caused by the Ghost's visitation, but Hamlet is soon to meet an entire army on his way to exile.

When in one line two crafts directly meet.
This man shall set me packing:
I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.
Mother, good night. Indeed this counsellor
Is now most still, most secret and most grave,


Note the pun.

Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
Come, sir, to draw toward an end with you.
Good night, mother.

Exeunt severally; HAMLET dragging in POLONIUS


In the coming weeks, we'll see how various films, comics, songs, etc. have dealt with this complex and difficult scene.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Spider-Hamlet

Comic Book Resources collected various comics art crossovers with the works of the Bard this week, and I wanted to show the Hamlet-inspired ones before we move on to the next scene.
Artist Sean McFarland offers a Spider-Man incapable of killing his uncle's murderer due to Marvel Comics angst, making that murderer Norman Osborn (The Green Goblin), though Osborn killed Gwen (Ophelia), not Uncle Ben. McFarland still manages to hit a few metaphorical cords, with Harry as Laertes being the son of Claudius/Norman, which is how the King initially treats Laertes (giving him leave to go first, and only later calling out to Hamlet). The Goblin of course never married Aunt May/Gertrude, though Doctor Octopus once did, but he probably wouldn't have worked as well in relation to the other characters depicted. Where's Flash Thompson as Rosencrantz or Guildenstern?

From a later scene, John Trumbull shows this piece featuring Spider-Ham (the funny animal version of Spider-Man):
Strangely enough with Mysterio as Horatio. The joke is in like-sounding names, but having a master of special effects and illusion as Hamlet's best friend does play on the idea that Horatio is causing the play to happen, and in this case, that he would have been responsible for the appearance of the Ghost (a projection, no doubt). Could Horatio be working for Fortinbras, which is why he's left to tell the tale at the end? It's really a debriefing?

Friday, October 5, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - French Rock Opera

With Tue-le/Kill Him, Johnny Hallyday does away with the King's confession to the audience and his plight in facing his maker, incapable of remorse. It only deals with Hamlet's own feelings coming upon Claudius a-praying, and uses the chorus as a kind of angel/devil on his shoulder, pushing him to kill with whispers and full-on opera, but also warning him that to do so now could result in Claudius going to Heaven. Here are the lyrics and my usual doggerel translation.

Tue-le
Tue-le ! Tue-le ! Tue-le !

Quand des sept capitaux
Il choisit un péché
Quand il a un pied en enfer

Quand il manque une marche
Qu’il jure le « nom de Dieu »
Quand il a un pied en enfer

Tue-le ! Tue-le ! Tue-le !

Quand ces doigts sont crochus
Qu’il recompte ses sous
Quand il a un pied en enfer

Quand il se fait plaisir
En rêvant de seins doux
Quand il a un pied en enfer

Mais ne le tue pas quand il prie
Avec Dieu on ne sait jamais
Ne l’envoie pas au paradis

Tue-le ! Tue-le ! Tue-le !

Quand pour tourner la page
Il compte sur le vent
Quand il a un pied en enfer

Quand il boit comm’un trou
Et qu’il pisse à côté
Quand il a un pied en enfer

Tue-le ! Tue-le ! Tue-le !

Quand sa tête est gonflé
Quand il se prend pour un Dieu
Quand il a un pied en enfer

Quand des sept capitaux
Il envie les péchés
Quand il a les pieds en enfer

Mais ne le tue pas quand il prie
Avec Dieu on ne sait jamais
Ne l’envoie pas au paradis

Mais ne le tue pas quand il prie
Avec Dieu on ne sait jamais
Ne l’envoie pas au paradis

Tue-le !

Kill Him
Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!

When of the seven deadly
He chooses a sin
When he has a foot in hell

When he misses a step
When he curses "My God"
When he has a foot in hell

Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!

When his fingers are crooked
When he counts his money again
When he has a foot in hell

When he pleases himself
By dreaming of soft breasts
When he has a foot in hell

But don't kill him while he prays
With God we never know
Don't send him to paradise

Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!

When, to turn the page
He counts on the wind
When he has a foot in hell

When he drinks like a hole
And he pisses on the side
When he has a foot in hell

Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!

When his head is swollen
When he thinks he's God
When he has a foot in hell

When of the seven deadly
He envies the sins
When he has a foot in hell

But don't kill him while he prays
With God we never know
Don't send him to paradise

But don't kill him while he prays
With God we never know
Don't send him to paradise

Kill him!

As you can see, while his impulses (to kill or not to kill) are handled by voices sung in his ear, his own lyrics are all to do with planning the better moment to murder Claudius. Just like in the play, the Prince lists the various occasions when Claudius already as "a foot in hell", and would thus be easy to "trip up". Hallyday's song creates its own imagery, including a rather subtle image of combined lazyness and vindictiveness (When, to turn the page / He counts on the wind), which is also a play on the word "count" used in the image of greed. The Seven Deadly Sins are in fact all represented, the most ironic being Pride, a line which creates the image of God in Hell. The last lyric sung by Hamlet is a strange one about the King envying one of the deadly sins, which I'm still not sure how to interpret, though it seems to me it could be the only element of Claudius' dilemma left in this highly edited version of the play. His sin is so great, that he envies the other sins their relative unimportance. But that's a reading based on knowing what's been omitted quite well, and in the structure of this adaptation, it is probably just an image of sin plucking on sin.

Also of interest, at least if we understand the chorus to stem from Hamlet as much as his own words, is "With God we never know", which makes God a less trustworthy agent than He is in the play. It's a valid interpretation, seeing as Fortune's evils are often invoked, and Hamlet Sr.'s fate is (presumably) an unfair one. God is as uncertain as the "undiscovered country" that lies beyond death. In other words, the song makes it plain that Hamlet can't be sure killing Claudius at this point will result in a heavenly ascension, but he's taking no chances, or it's just another excuse to delay the action. The image of a mistrusted God highlights the fact that though Hamlet has a strict morally Christian world view, he is not an agent of the Divine. Indeed, his mission was given him by a creature from Hell.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Classics Illustrated

The original
This page is preceded by two brief panels whose sole function is to keep the plot alive. In the first, Claudius dispatches Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to take Hamlet to England. In the second, Polonius describes his plan to hide in the Queen's closet, to which Claudius merely says "thanks". Such brevity is in complete contrast to the page above, which forces the characters to let out an entire speech fixed in a single pose. That's a weakness of the comics medium, but does it inform our reading of the play anyway? Claudius says his speech with an obvious headache and because he doesn't actually kneel before the next panel, he seems to decide that prayer, which he believed impossible, remains the only avenue left open to him. Hamlet, in the second, never approaches the King, and so likely does not hear the coda in the last panel, but note that in that panel, the King does not stop praying. In this version then, Claudius' attempts at prayer may go on longer, and might even succeed off-panel. These words become part of the same self-doubt he shows in the preceding speech. Can he overcome it and find salvation?

That large candle in front of him reminds us that he asked for "light" in the previous scene, and that this light may be physical or spiritual. He needs to shed light on his darkened soul. Should have caught that link earlier, but see how a simple (and fairly primitive) image can, uhm, shed light on Shakespeare's text.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake's adaptation omits Polonius (keeping his appearance in the closet scene as something of a surprise), but keeps Claudius' orders to R&G. As in the previous adaptation, they don't get to say their lines, and Claudius, his face in constant, unreadable shadow, dismisses them with his back turned. This is a man who cannot bear to let anyone see him in this state and he might even run from a mirror at this point. Before they've even left, his voice goes to a whisper (smaller lettering) as he starts on his speech. Finally, we're allowed to see his eyes, but he's hiding his face from the reader with his metaphorically blood-soaked hand. Mandrake, as always, is very strong at representing anxiety, and we won't see the King's eyes again in the scene, as he can't bear to look at any part of himself.
Behind his, a shadow with sword drawn. Is that pity in Hamlet's glittering eye? Or regret to find such a pioous Claudius? It does seem like he overhears the prayer if not the admission of murder, and yet, is powerless to act on that confirmation. He turns away and likely misses Claudius' final lines, but you'll note that his own speech is completely omitted. Mandrake is well aware that his reader has probably read or seen the play before, and allows us to fill in that blank. For the uninitiated however, he avoids the theological discussion and lets them assume... what? That Hamlet is satisfied with the King asking for forgiveness? That his mother is the greater target and that this is a result of his "blunted purpose"? It's a rather more ambiguous representation of the scene.