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?


Lee Shackleford said...

I've been looking forward to this post for a long time! As soon as I became a fan of this blog I started wondering how you felt and thought about the big Glenn/Mel kiss in this movie. I once showed these closet scenes, one after the other, to a class of aspiring Shakespeare scholars. I saved Zeffirelli's for last. Their reaction in general was: "No. No no no." With the occasional "Ick." And I concur.

I remember seeing the Zeffirelli HAMLET for the first time, in the theatre in 1990... the house was packed; it was a great audience. But Hamlet's pelvic thrusts drew gasps of astonishment from the audience, and then the kiss ... well, a lot of people laughed. In that "oh, my God, we've gone over the top" kind of way. It felt to us, I think, like a stunt -- like Zeffirelli saying to us, "I'm going to build some buzz about this movie by doing something shocking. Behold and be outraged! Then go tell your friends!" I have a lot of difficulty believing that Zeffirelli -- who in 1968 made my favorite Shakespeare film of all time -- seriously thinks Hamlet and Gertrude have a sexual relationship. I think he understands the text too well and he knows damn well it's NOT IN THE TEXT. The whole "Hamlet needed his mother" thing is purely from the mind of Freud, who thought everything we think, do, and say has something to do with sex -- and the succeeding years we've confused his writings with Shakespeare's intent. It's gone down deep into our cultural consciousness. When I said "Hamlet needed his mother" just now, I was quoting from the musical ANNIE, of all things -- that's how deep the cultural damage of Freud's incest idea about this play has gone.

That's what I think, anyway.

Siskoid said...

Well, I'm glad I'm not alone. While I'm fine, in the abstract, about Hamlet turning into Hamlet Sr. (his hand for revenge, his pelvis for... other things), I think the reason Zef goes too far is that GERTRUDE initiates the kiss.

It's not even the Oedipus complex anymore. It's the mother's compulsion to bed her child. And that's, as you say, shocking for shock's sake.

Definitely a fan of his Romeo and Juliet though. The difference 22 years make, I guess.

Stan Szczesny said...

Great post! I don't think the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet is viable. Things have to be stretched and emphasized beyond proper bounds. Zeffirelli made me wonder for many years if there was something I was missing, but I really don't think there is. His version of the scene does nothing to help one understand the characters or the play. It only serves to confuse and to gratuitously disgust.

Anonymous said...

IMHO, the Freudian interpretation is a case of modern critics trying to graft contemporary attitudes onto a play that was written in a different time. Freudian psychology was the latest fad among the self-styled intelligentsia in the 1920's, so it was chic to imply sexual tension between Hamlet and his mother in Barrymore's version. That interpretation seems to have stuck, and Olivier and Zeffirelli followed the trend. Even if you accept that Hamlet had Oedipal feelings, there is no indication in the original play that Gertrude encouraged him.

Siskoid said...

The interpretation originated with Freud himself whose psychoanalytical reading of Hamlet was and still is one of the most influential critical analyses of the play. That directors would take this reading to heart is not surprising, especially in the wake of psychoanalysis as a fad.

I think it's a legitimate take on the material. Shakespeare didn't know psychoanalysis, obviously, but he would have known the Oedipus myth, which is the basis for Freud's reading. Legitimate or not, I just hate to see it taken to such an extreme.