Saturday, October 4, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Branagh '96

Elsinore, the next day, with Francisco on guard duty. This sets up Fortinbras' arrival, a means to jump in and out of the palace and expand the world of the play. Inside, Hamlet tells Horatio his tale, their walk keeping the momentum up until they reach what has been Hamlet's inner sanctum in this adaptation, his library. There, Branagh highlights various lines using the props at his disposal - the model theater when he mentions that the play has begun, and his writing station when he explains how he forged the King's letter. The latter's contents he intones in a theatrical voice, mocking courtly messages and the flattery he finds hypocritical, between heads of state as much as in fawning courtiers (which we'll get an example of shortly, but of course includes the now dead Rosencrantz & Guildenstern). Should we infer from the flattery Hamlet includes in his letter that Denmark is subservient to England? His own critique of his homeland may be undermining Denmark. The truth is that the Danish state IS in on the wane, its political fall imminent.

Enter Robin Williams as Osric, one of Branagh's more successful celebrity cameos. Williams plays Osric as a comedy figure, of course, sending up the character's praise of Laertes as a kind of man-crush, all the more obvious thanks to an effeminate lisp. It is obvious that Osric is out of his depth, and we should remember the text calls him "young Osric" even if Williams isn't particularly youthful, because it means he's an inexperienced courtier, and as Hamlet says, one not of noble birth. So he is naturally thrilled to have been asked to take part in this wager and duel, but is soon confused by Hamlet's attacks. He has no experience with rhetorical sparring, and many of the words he uses were prepared in advance to raise himself up to a level where he could indeed address a Prince. He uses French pronunciations - and indeed, Laertes' decadent Frenchness is one symptom of a failing Danish state - and is embarrassed when he's forced to drop the pretense at Hamlet's prodding. The gag where he salutes and knocks his sheathed sword into a chair heightens his awkwardness and lack of practice with courtly affairs. To his credit, he endures Hamlet's humiliations without, for the most part, letting his royalty-pleasing smile break, though probably out of fear.

The steely, intense Lord who follows him provides an interesting contrast. He's more experienced and closer to the King and Queen, delivering messages that are essentially royal commands or advice. One has to be able to look at a Prince in the eye unapologetically. I like to imagine behind the scenes action featuring Osric and this unnamed Lord, where Osric either isn't quite sure if Hamlet agreed to the duel, or understood that it was happening imminently, and someone else has to go in and make sure. The Lord's look of triumph here would fit this scenario. Certainly, the Lord is part of the final scene's urgency, allowing Hamlet no time to reflect or back out. You agreed to this, so let's get this show on the road. The irony is that Hamlet is ready, for once, but who would condemn anyone in this universe for thinking he would delay the action with lots of talking and other distractions?

Claudius is in such a hurry for this duel to take place that Hamlet and Horatio are immediately aware that something is wrong, and that Hamlet is unlikely to walk away from it. Horatio's reaction is to tell Hamlet not to go through with it, his love for his friend leading to tears and an embrace (I can't help but think Osric's show of love for Laertes is a parody of this relationship), but Hamlet, looking older than he ever had, his eyes wet, has come to terms with what must happen or at least could happen. Though they'll have a goodbye scene at the end of the duel, this also serves that purpose. On the commentary track, Branagh says something interesting about Hamlet's speech, calling it a possible answer to the question "To be or not to be?": "Let be." In essence, Hamlet must give in to Fate and meet it with aplomb rather than try to control it. You do not decide whether you live or die, God/circumstance/the author does.

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