Sunday, November 11, 2012
III.iv. The Closet Scene - Zeffirelli '90
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?
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?