Saturday, July 12, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Branagh '96

Setting is important, and while the stage is limited, film is not. Branagh sets Ophelia's burial in a secluded wood, at night. This explains why Hamlet so quickly realizes the funeral isn't official. He essentially "catches" the Royal Family burying a suicide on the sly, away from prying eyes. And perhaps that bag of coins thrown at the Gravediggers is meant to buy their silence as much as a pay them for their labor. It certainly seems heavy enough. They seem to feel much less recompensed for having been right about the dubious nature of their "tenant's" death, befuddled and cowering as soon as nobility is present and the priest confirms the First Clown's suspicions.

A stunned Laertes eventually loses it and notably, grabs the Bible from the priest's hands, an object he'll later throw at Hamlet's head. There is an element of the profane in all this, one that mixes well with a secret burial attended by a compromised clergyman and in which a grieving brother leaps into his sister's grave and opens the casket to clutch the girl's cold corpse. If this isn't a holy rite, then nothing is sacred, and we already know Laertes the Libertine isn't above the heretical, willing to commit murder in a church. All signs point to the Church having left Denmark, in spirit if not in fact.

Between the melodrama and the action, it's easy to miss the reactions of the less vocal characters, but they are noteworthy. Hamlet's complete surprise at what has happened tells us Horatio has failed to tell him anything, including the fact Ophelia went insane. Gertrude's lack of surprise at seeing Hamlet means his letters to her arrived uncensored, while her motherliness towards Laertes emphasizes the mirror that already existed between this boy and her son. Finally, Claudius' coldness increases the divide between him and his wife.

At the center of the scene (as played) is an important irony. When Hamlet announces his presence and speaks of his great love for Ophelia, Claudius (and then Gertrude) is quick to say the Prince is mad, giving Polonius' theory weight for the first time. But it's also the first time this is true, if we decide that Hamlet is distraught (a temporary madness) because of love. However, it may be more true to say his madness derives from grief, just as before. Over-grief for a father, and now blinding grief for a lover. Blind in that he seems to forget his plans for a minute, forget himself, but also forget the wrongs he has committed against Laertes. Hamlet may have loved him as a brother, but he nevertheless killed his father an driven his sister into a desperate situation. As he regains his emotional footing, Hamlet gives up the fight and walks away. His new readiness seems to have returned, and in that context, the inevitability of the cat mewing, etc. is also that of the tragedy.

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