Sunday, September 23, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Tennant (2009)

Though he kept his cool during the Hamlet's play, Claudius now seems slightly more agitated. Still, he deals with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern with calm and diplomacy, giving them orders to ferry his dangerous stepson to England. While the scripted fawning can make the audience grow as impatient as Claudius in this scene, this version's R&G keep the moment alive with comedy. Guildenstern is, as usual, in deadly earnest and prompts the less resolute Rosencrantz to fawn along with him. So Rosencrantz looks at Guildenstern, not Claudius, while he searches for the right metaphor, then realizes almost too late that he's gone on too long, that the King is looking at him, so he gulps down the last words. Might this "wheel" metaphor also betray a lower birth, which is doubly embarrassing for Rosencrantz? I'm thinking specifically of Polonius' line about keeping a farm and carters, and something as mundane as a wheel not being a fit symbol for a King. R&G's gauche imagery could stem from their essentially being posers, men whose ambitions outpace their place in the hierarchy (contrast with Horatio's humility). As for Polonius, he is still deluded, and laughs through his lines as if all will be well as soon as the Queen speaks to her son. Not only is he wrong about Hamlet's motivations, but he completely misgauges Claudius' mood.

As soon as he's alone, Claudius' guilt - or perhaps his fear of being caught - catches up to him and makes him retch in a handkerchief. Patrick Stewart gives reality to the rank smell mentioned in the lines. It's a very physical performance, one that betters 1980's version by a mile. The act of prayer is denied him, his hands acting as polar opposites and refusing to make contact. He laughs at the absurdity of praying with bloody hands, linking the pious position to the metaphysical state of prayer. At the end of the speech, when he is finally able to touch his palms together, that seems enough to give him the hope that "all may yet be well". If it's all about the physical with Claudius, it's in direct opposition to Hamlet who is all thought and no action, and it also relates well to his carnal motivations. Claudius is a man of this Earth, a man of flesh, not one of Heavenly spirituality.
Enter Hamlet with a switchblade, his crooked theater crown still on his head, a visual link to the killer king who murdered his father. In the theater, this was a cliffhanger where their put the intermission. Clever to put it in the middle of a scene rather than at the end of an Act, even if today's audiences know very well the scene ends in anti-climax. The energy of the scene is all and insures patrons will return promptly to their seats. On DVD, of course, there is no such break, and the action continues with Hamlet standing right over the kneeling Claudius who is putting his whole body into a semblance of prayer. Hamlet switches to voice-over for realism's sake, but soon runs off behind a pillar, breathless, to speak more directly to the audience.

An ambiguity: At the very end, Claudius wakes from his useless prayer and smiles, turning his eyes on us. It's slightly creepy, and through the self-disgust, you might wonder if there's a also a sense of satisfaction at having tricked Hamlet. Did he feel him there? Did he intensify his physicality to MAKE Hamlet come to that conclusion? In the midst of prayer, did Claudius suddenly let go of his guilt and self-servingly feigned piousness to selfishly save his own life? Whatever the case may be, he then rips his jacket open in anger, defeated and frustrated by that "physic" (and a well-chosen pun it is, in the wake of this discussion).

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