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).

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