Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet 2000 takes the Romeo+Juliet route, setting the play in modern times, shuffling words around to make it all make sense in a world without swords and royalty. The film sets Hamlet in millennial New York City and right away, we're told via captions that "The King and CEO of the Denmark Corporation is dead." So the filmmaker's solution is to equate power with power. Corporations as nations, wherein the true power may well lie today. This solves a number of problems with adapting the text for the modern era. Denmark will be the name of the (family-controlled) company, something to be inherited as much as a throne, and something to kill for - power, money, women. The head of a company has advisers (Polonius), security (guards) and a base of operations, in this case, Hotel Elsinore.
The captions further reveal that the new CEO (called King in a media-savvy kind of way) has hastily married his brother's widow, and that Hamlet has returned from school suspecting foul play. This is new information. While it's entirely possible to interpret the play that way (if simply based on the line "My prophetic soul!"), Hamlet does not necessarily suspect murder until it is revealed to him by the Ghost. Of course, "foul play" may speak to adultery as much as murder, but that still informs Hamlet's frame of mind. He's not just grieving for his father's death, he suspects and is thus extremely resentful of both his mother and stepfather. Ethan Hawke's Hamlet is thus an angry young man, somewhat passive-aggressive. In modern terms, he is emo.

This Is All Prologue
In this prelude, we're also introduced to a device to "modernize" Hamlet's soliloquies: Video diaries. Less the scholar/warrior that a "student" might represent in Medieval and Renaissance settings, this Hamlet is an artist. He uses video montage to express his ideas.
These make liberal use of auto portrait, but also include "ironic" footage from secondary sources and, of course, text from the soliloquies over the action. The prologue uses a speech displaced from Act II Scene 2, on the qualities of man ("the paragon of animals"). It fits as an introduction to Hamlet's emotional state (more true than in the original scene where "I have of late, but wherefore I know not" is disingenuous), presenting a Hamlet that is far more isolated (or "dreadfully attended", since we're already quoting from that scene) than in the standard play. If the modern world tends to isolate people more than ever before, then an isolated Hamlet goes inside himself - a strong image of the soliloquies - only expressing his true self in the digital world, in coded fashion at that. It is telling that he's shown watching his own work (there are quite few instances where he allows others to see it).

From the video to static, from static to the title card HAMLET in bold letters over a red background, and then off to the wedding scene.

What About Scene 1?
Scene 1 does exist, in abbreviated form, as a flashback interwoven with the end of Scene 2. As Horatio and his girlfriend Marcella (Marcellus changes gender) tell the story of the Ghost, we see snippets from the scene as written. Horatio, Marcella and security guard Bernardo see the Ghost on a security monitor, riding an elevator (up from hell?). They follow it to another floor and Horatio tries to speak to it, and the Ghost disappears.
That is the extent of it. Fewer than 7 lines in total. The trio, reduced to bit parts, increase Hamlet's isolation, but they do remove the soldier/scholar contrast that could otherwise exist. This is not a martial world, however, soldiers being out of place.

The Ghost
Played by the great Sam Shepard, the Ghost seems a mix of solid and intangible, obviously leaning on a wall, weary in his frumpy trench coat, and yet walking right through a soda machine as he goes transparent. While the ONE Pepsi machine showing through him is an intriguing image, I'm not sure what it's meant to portray. One King? First King? Scene One? Simply an allusion to the Coke/Pepsi taste test (Hyperion/Satyr, Hamlet Sr./Claudius)? I'll let the viewer decide.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Kline (90)

A Broadway Theatre Archive presentation, Kevin Kline's Hamlet (co-directed by Kirk Browning) is representative of many filmed stage productions, preserving performances and staging for posterity, this one of a well-remembered New York Shakespeare Festival production. It sets the play somewhere in the 18th or 19th century, or perhaps even the early 20th, since the costuming might just as well be Edwardian. Its Denmark is a bare stage, using darkness in the way that the BBC production uses fog.We're in a no-man's land, atmospheric and universal. A moving search light in the background plays on the idea that "Denmark is a prison".

The Ghost
Played as basically a shadow here, using the back lighting to its maximum effect, and I think showing Olivier's influence (Kline's performance bears this out as well). It appears only once in this abridged scene and quite briefly, the cock crowing soon after. There is no striking of the partisans, no proof of intangibility. Given all the shadowplay, an uninformed audience might believe this IS a hoax as Horatio first believes.

And this is an interpretation sorely lacking in the supernatural. The Ghost fills Horatio with more awe than fear and cut from the scene are all mentions of the magical. And yes, that means they cruelly cut Marcellus' wonderful "Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes" speech. Obviously, Horatio no longer speaks of the dead walking Rome's streets (or explains Denmark's historical context), which is really too bad because Peter Francis James gives a strong performance as a "Roman" Horatio.
But cutting his classical references early on undermines that performance's relevance.

In this version, the scenes flies by and you're left missing key elements. Literally missing them and wishing they'd been included.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - BBC 80

Part of the BBC's Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare collection, this production directed by Rodney Bennett is a studio-bound, multi-camera affair that almost uses the integral text. There are some cuts, mostly a line here and there, but sometimes more important. I won't forget to mention them.

Setting the Scene
This version's exterior scenes are particularly minimalist, and yet extremely dramatic. Denmark is represented as a fogbound, snowy plain with a far-off horizon. An empty studio floor painted white, basically. Bleak is a word that comes to mind, which is certainly appropriate, a luminous but empty background against which shadowy figures are heavily contrasted.The soldiers are somewhat unconvincing, or a little bit too jaded, not all that afraid of the Ghost when it appears, or easily recovering from the shock. Marcellus' "It faded on the crowing of the cock" speech is delivered so matter-of-factly, it loses the awe for the supernatural it usually holds. These soldiers are simple people, not thinkers or even folk philosophers.

Robert Swann's Horatio plays well this unbeliever who even chuckles at the soldiers' claims and so is then profoundly disturbed by the Ghost's manifestation.
Sadly, his Roman streets speech has been cut, neglecting the paganism that comes with studying classical texts, as both he and Hamlet must have done.

A couple of lines jumped out at me here that make me mistrust Horatio in the role of the chorus here (though the performance is sincere). When making the ID, so to speak, of the King, one has to wonder if Horatio was ever on the battlefield. As a scholar, it wouldn't seem so, but he knows just how Hamlet Sr. frowned when he smote the Polacks. That's a very clear detail. The potential answer is in this passage:

Who is't that can inform me?
HORATIO: That can I;
At least, the whisper goes so.

I'd never really thought about the punctuation (funny how the stops in a line reading can make you see all sorts of new things), and presumed it was "The whisper goes so: Our last king, Whose image even but now appear'd to us..." It isn't. The whisper (rumor or story) isn't about the King, it's about Horatio being knowledgeable. "I can inform you, or so they say." Is Horatio admitting to being a teller of tall tales? An embellisher? Someone who speaks first hand of things he has only second-hand knowledge of? It could explain his intelligence on the Polack wars as well as how he fills in the details of Hamlet's story after the play. Those that would make him out to be a more sinister character can also find a way in through these lines. For Shakespeare, it may just be part of his continued juxtaposition of reality and play, a subversion of the story's historical roots.

The Ghost
Due to the production's technical limits, the Ghost is created simply with lighting and Patrick Allen's performance. Sadly, he feels a bit like an armored zombie, shambling across the stage, and that's mostly due to sound. You can hear the steps and the clinks of the armor from the on stage sound, giving altogether too much reality to this creature of the ether. In a sense, and combined with the soldiers' performances, this is a less phantasmagorical Denmark. The Ghost is solid and the people take their superstitions for granted.

Three things to notice about the staging of this scene:
1) The cock actually crows. For some reason, other films have been loathe to include a sound effect.
2) The fog is well used to make the Ghost appear in different places as the soldiers shout "'Tis here!", creating a confusion that would not be so easy to produce on stage (unless you had multiple actors doing the Ghost... not a bad idea).
3) The transition between this scene and the next. Applause from the wedding scene overlaps with the end of Scene 1. A slightly jarring, but I think appropriate, reminder that this is theater. Does make it seem like the director is giving his first scene an ovation though.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Zeffirelli 90

As for the Mel Gibson Hamlet, Zeffirelli sets it in an authentic Medieval castle, or rather, the ruins of one. Though the place must have been a lot more vibrant in its heyday, using the location pretty much as is gives us the rotten Denmark of the play.Prologue
This time, the story begins what must be two months hence, with Hamlet Sr.'s burial.
Instead of Horatio and the soldiers, the first characters we meet are the principals - Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius - four characters marked for death. It is thematically fitting that we first see them in a tomb. Mostly silent, the scene gives the actors the chance to present their characters physically. Hamlet is already a watcher. Claudius is imperious and domineering. Polonius is already noticing a problem with Hamlet's melancholy.
Gertrude is "all tears" as the play later tells us, but she also gives Claudius an odd look. Does she suspect? Not according to later scenes. Is it guilt from perhaps an affair she's been having with her husband's obviously younger brother? The play does infer a relationship there, with Hamlet Sr. off to the wars a good part of the time (not that we hear much about this in this version) and the hasty marriage. Or is it simply a response to his own look of "MINE, ALL MINE!" that makes her realize she must make a political move if she is to survive?

This prologue does borrow a few lines from later in the play. "Think of us as of a father..." stating very early on that Hamlet is next in line. It works as the first line of the play, presenting us at once with the story of a lost and replaced father, and the idea that Hamlet's own rise to power has been momentarily usurped. In effect, not only has Claudius replaced Hamlet Sr., but he's also taken Hamlet Jr.'s place.

I'll discuss the casting when these characters get a proper scene.

And Act 1 Scene 1?
Completely cut from the film. We do not meet Horatio and the soldiers until the end of Scene 2 when they come to tell Hamlet of the previous night's apparition. A natural cut since the scene is recounted anyway, but it does remove some elements from the play. Once again, we have an apolitical Denmark that doesn't necessarily seem unstable, and Horatio's role is cut down terribly, so there's little to learn about Hamlet's attitude through him.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Act 1 Scene 1 - Olivier 48

Going back in time now to Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning 1948 version, to a definitely "Medieval Gothic" version of Elsinore. The model castle looks like a veritable maze, shrouded in fog and sitting atop a remote cliff.It's a closed and claustrophobic system, perhaps an image of Hamlet's complex and ultimately unknowable mind (unknowable even to himself). You know, there's a high school in my town where, after a rash of juvenile suicides, a crazy story rose up about the floorplan of the school being in the shape of a gun, and that students walking those halls were conditioned to take their own lives by this trajectory. Kids trying to make sense of terrible tragedy, but it's the same idea here. You can imagine Hamlet walking that mad labyrinth and losing himself. And as we'll see each time we revisit the 1948 Hamlet, the camera makes great use of the maze, trolling about looking for action in this room and that. Like we can't quite find Hamlet either.

Olivier adds a prologue to the play, a reading of Scene 4's "Oft it chances in particular men".
Shakespeare's best constructed plays usually have lines or speeches that hold the argument of the play. The above speech, though nominally about Claudius, can also be applied to Hamlet. It can actually be applied to any tragic hero. It's the essence of tragedy - the tragic flaw. Olivier then goes on to pronounce the only words in the film not written by Shakespeare: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Bleh. Not only does this talk down to the audience, I also don't think it's true. It's not that Hamlet can't make up his mind - i.e. that he has multiple choices and cannot choose between them - it's that he delays acting on his decision until it's too late. The reasons for that delay can vary from interpretation to interpretation, to which it owes part of its longevity. Olivier's reduction probably frustrates me because I'm a "show, don't tell" kind of guy. We'll have to keep Olivier's argument (Hamlet's indecision) in mind as we go through his film.

He also shows us Hamlet high on a "stage", perhaps to explain what "tragedy" means, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say it's to link the end and the beginning - Hamlet as a story told by Horatio. Finally, we get to the play's actual beginning.
Bernardo gives "Who's there?" the same urgency we saw in the Branagh film, but the scene carries far less edginess after that. Bernardo's "Long live the king!" lacks the "!", here hinting at a less than glowing opinion of the new royal Dane. Though the scene is reasonably well played, I do find myself wishing that John Laurie had played Marcellus instead of the tiny role Francisco. His reading of "and I am sick at heart", where he seems to surprise himself with the statement, creates a kind of mystery. Sadly, there's not enough of a role here to reveal just what kind of character Francisco is. An interesting line reading and that's it. Is this old guard only now noticing that something has changed?

New realization: The play begins with a changing of the guard. And of course, the same thing just happened at the royal level. And in fact, by the end of the play, Denmark's bloodline gives way to Norway's.

The Ghost
The Ghost first makes its presence known as a general anxiety among the witnesses. Olivier provides the sound of a heartbeat matched to the beating of the camera's focus. Quite effective, the effect falls on the line "The bell then beating one". He keeps the Ghost himself shrouded in fog, and to make it creepier still, it seems to sometimes be played by a puppet (certainly when it speaks later). What we have here is a stiff undead king, obviously decomposing just as the "rank garden" of Denmark is.

There's a high shot of the witnesses at one point that provides a clue about the camera's oddly detached, voyeuristic style through the rest of the film. Is the camera the Ghost's point of view? In this version, I dare say it is, which means the Ghost is always "on stage", and its reactions will provide more grist for the mill.

Horatio's reaction to the Ghost, aside from freaking out when it approaches (making him cry out "Stay and speak!") is much calmer than in Branagh's version. It makes a certain kind of sense that in a play set before the Age of Reason, the supernatural would be easier to accept. Horatio's beliefs aren't shaken to their very core in this interpretation. These are things that happen, and they are not THAT "wondrous strange".

The Cuts
Norway does not survive Olivier's editing. Obviously, the preparations for war are cut (they usually are), but we also lose any mention of Hamlet Sr.'s role in the former wars. This supports the effect created by the production design. Denmark is isolated to the point of not having much trade with other countries (France and England are still destinations later, however), certainly nothing so intimate as a war.

Cutting out Horatio's long speech brings the Ghost's two appearances together, so he only appears once. Cuts are further made to the exchanges between the men as the cock crows, with one of Horatio's speeches given over to Bernardo. Horatio is no longer the one to talk about the powers of cock's song, leaving the old wives' tales to the soldiers. A small change that puts part of Horatio's paganism in Bernardo's mouth ("the god of day"), leaving none of it in the scene. The references to Rome have been removed and his "Before my God, I might not this believe" now sounds Christian.

Without the uneasiness of a coming war, or the comparison to a nightmarish Rome, Olivier feels the need to get Marcellus' Scene 4 line out right here: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." The point just hasn't been made strongly enough.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Act 1 Scene 1 - Branagh 96

Branagh's version of the play uses the complete text and so is where I shall always start. As this is my first chance to talk about this version, let's get a couple things out of the way:

Avoiding the usual Medieval Gothic, Branagh sets the action much closer to us, in a 19th-century Viennese-style palace. This will allow for some interesting mise en scène (via the Hall of Mirrors) later, but more than that, the palace looks less like a grungy old castle, and more like what could today still be the seat of government. And when we look at this era, we think more readily of political machinations, adding that layer to the play.

It's nice to see a snowy Denmark as well. We know from the play it's supposed to be "bitter cold", but too rarely are we allowed to see it. Freezing the country over gives us one of those Shakespearean "stolen seasons" that allows the action of the play to unfold when we know real life would normally intrude. Symbolically, we have the death of nature following the death of the land's king (Hamlet Sr.).

More superficially, the oft-used concept of changing the play's time period proves the story is "universal".

So does casting, in this instance. Branagh does the same thing he did in Much Ado About Nothing and casts non-British and non-white actors. Where there many black men and women in Denmark in the time period depicted? I wouldn't know, but then let me ask you this: Were there many people called Francisco and Bernardo in Denmark at ANY time? Shakespeare has already created a universe that is multi-cultural and has little respect for historical details. It's not about recreating medieval Denmark, it's about so much more than that.

Of course, a lot of people took exception to the use of high profile actors (especially Americans) in various bit parts, but there are two very good reasons why this is a good thing. First, when the play is this long and you're not going to make any cuts, you have to give the public some spectacle. Second, putting a big actor in a small part gives that part more importance. The much maligned Jack Lemmon, for example...
Sure, he doesn't try to approximate even a "period" English accent, but Marcellus can so often be "second guard from the right". The character deserves more. He is the soldier to Horatio's scholar and has that wonderful speech at the end that also contrasts his beliefs to those of Nicholas Farrell's unbelieving Horatio. (And accent or no, Lemmon offers a great, soulful performance there.)

A Scary Movie
This version of the play turns the first words into a proper fright for the audience. "Who's there?" is shouted as the older Bernardo jumps the younger Francisco (a test? paranoia?).
The soldiers are definitely edgy about something. One the one hand, there's a ghost haunting these parts, scarier for what it might portend, but on the other, there are preparations being made for war and the guards are completely out of the loop - they need to ask Horatio. So while the soldiers are simple men who don't know what's happening in the Court they guard, they can still feel something is wrong in the land, and in the play's world view, that something is wrong with their new king.

A line that jumped out at me on this particular viewing is:

Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;

Another indication that the new leader has adopted "unnatural" policies that could raise God's ire, a point that culminates with Horatio's pagan comparison of Denmark with a zombie-filled, perpetually eclipsed Rome.

The Ghost
There are so many descriptions in the play that it's hard to do anything more than follow them. I do like the idea of matching Hamlet's statue with the appearance of the Ghost, with the statue pulling at its sword to underscore the first line. Is it the soldier's imagination? In the full text, it can't remain so, however. It must appear to three people here. While the floating figure effect is fine, what sells the scene is the three men's terrorized reaction. Their fear sends them immediately running, giving the play its first taste of momentum, momentum that helps drive Horatio's long speech. These guys have just seen a ghost and will see one again in a minute, and they never forget that. Horatio, who's seeing it for the first time, even needs a little liquid courage.
This is a man who thought he had it all figured out. The learned man more comfortable with mythology than faith. These things happen in books, not in life. It shakes him to his very core. He's finding out he's a literary character, in a sense. Hamlet is quite self-conscious about its own status as a play, especially to modern ears. The ghostly dramatic device, the night that passes in the space of a scene, and of course, the heightened language all contribute.

To make Horatio's long speech more interesting, Branagh throws some visuals at us. There's the cannon-building (not to be confused with canon-building, something this play has done so much of) and the flashes to young Fortinbras' military campaign.
Showing us Rufus Sewell at this point gives Fortinbras a lot more power. In the play, though he's mentioned on at least three more occasions, he isn't seen until the very end. Here, not only do we get a quick early glimpse of him, he's immediately recognizable. He's a fully realized character. It becomes a lot easier for an audience to now register the information about Fortinbras and contrast him and Hamlet. Just like the title character, he's had a father slain, though perhaps not in such an ignoble way. Like Hamlet, he is a charismatic that surrounds himself with followers, his "landless resolutes" not necessarily any more disreputable than some of Hamlet's friends (he is "most dreadfully attended"). However, unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras is a man of action, what Hamlet might have become had he not been plagued by the author's incredible intellect.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Act I Scene 1

Our play begins with the text. Act 1 Scene 1 is often shortened, directors cutting out Horatio's delivery of the play's historical context, even if it means Fortinbras' arrival at the end comes out of nowhere. I prefer to think of it as building suspense for the appearance of the Ghost. But let's get into the words, Shakespeare's in italics.

SCENE I. Elsinore. A platform before the castle.

FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO
BERNARDO: Who's there?

Really, that's the whole question of the play. Hamlet is a play about playwriting, about one character's creation of himself as a character, and so the first words (which I always find significant in Shakespeare, even when they're this innocuous) ask the same question the audience is always asking as actors cross the stage. Who's that? Who is this about? And in terms of the rest of the play, it is Hamlet asking himself who he is and who others are (loyal or not?).

FRANCISCO: Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
BERNARDO: Long live the king!
FRANCISCO: Bernardo?
FRANCISCO: You come most carefully upon your hour.
BERNARDO: 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
FRANCISCO: For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
BERNARDO: Have you had quiet guard?
FRANCISCO: Not a mouse stirring.
BERNARDO: Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
FRANCISCO: I think I hear them. Stand, ho! Who's there?


HORATIO: Friends to this ground.
MARCELLUS: And liegemen to the Dane.
FRANCISCO: Give you good night.
MARCELLUS: O, farewell, honest soldier:
Who hath relieved you?
FRANCISCO: Bernardo has my place.
Give you good night.

MARCELLUS: Holla! Bernardo!
What, is Horatio there?
HORATIO: A piece of him.

I like this line. Horatio is an incomplete character without Hamlet. He is the title character's satellite, and without him here, only a piece of him appears. From his point of view, it may be his way of saying that he remains unconvinced of the Ghost's existence, not going into it with both feet.

BERNARDO: Welcome, Horatio: welcome, good Marcellus.
MARCELLUS: What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
BERNARDO: I have seen nothing.
MARCELLUS: Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
HORATIO: Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
BERNARDO: Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.
HORATIO: Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
BERNARDO: Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--

Enter Ghost

It's classic show, don't tell. One of the challenges of directing Hamlet is what to do with the Ghost. How supernatural is he? How do you make him appear? And how does this first appearance tie in which his others, especially the problematic one in Gertrude's chamber? If anyone and everyone can see the Ghost here, why can't Gertrude see him later? A director cannot simply decide the Ghost is a figment of Hamlet's imagination, not without some major cuts. So looking at this scene in films, we'll certainly take note of the effect created by the Ghost's appearance.

MARCELLUS: Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!
BERNARDO: In the same figure, like the king that's dead.
MARCELLUS: Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
BERNARDO: Looks it not like the king? mark it, Horatio.
HORATIO: Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder.
BERNARDO: It would be spoke to.
MARCELLUS: Question it, Horatio.
HORATIO: What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak!
MARCELLUS: It is offended.
BERNARDO: See, it stalks away!
HORATIO: Stay! speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!

Exit Ghost

MARCELLUS: 'Tis gone, and will not answer.
BERNARDO: How now, Horatio! you tremble and look pale:
Is not this something more than fantasy?
What think you on't?
HORATIO: Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.

In Horatio, we find an outline for Hamlet, linked as they are by both friendship and a similar education. He prefigures here Hamlet's attitude towards the Ghost, the murder, everything. Doubt is the scholar's perview. Let's call it true skepticism. Reducing Horatio to a bit part, as some versions have done actually impairs our understanding of the lead.

MARCELLUS: Is it not like the king?

Note the leitmotif of dead things being LIKE the king. Claudius as faux-king is its metaphorical expression, but in tragedy, characters doomed to die can easily be referenced as dead already. When Hamlet dies at the end, it is only after the mantle of leadership has already passed onto him.

HORATIO: As thou art to thyself:
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
'Tis strange.
MARCELLUS: Thus twice before, and jump at this dead hour,
With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch.
HORATIO: In what particular thought to work I know not;
But in the gross and scope of my opinion,
This bodes some strange eruption to our state.
Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who is't that can inform me?
HORATIO: That can I;
At least, the whisper goes so. Our last king,
Whose image even but now appear'd to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick'd on by a most emulate pride,
Dared to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet--
For so this side of our known world esteem'd him--
Did slay this Fortinbras; who by a seal'd compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return'd
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design'd,
His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in't; which is no other--
As it doth well appear unto our state--
But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost: and this, I take it,
Is the main motive of our preparations,
The source of this our watch and the chief head
Of this post-haste and romage in the land.
BERNARDO: I think it be no other but e'en so:
Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch; so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars.

Usually the first big cut made to the play, this last speech nevertheless serves a function. Not only does it make us wait for the Ghost's second appearance, but it tells us who this Ghost IS, building his legend and thus Hamlet's worthiness as royal successor. If the State is a reflection of its leader (which it always is in Shakespeare), then the preparations for war are very much relevant to the idea of an unstable Denmark... and an unstable king? (See the next 15 lines.) We can understand why film makers would want to cut this expository speech out.

HORATIO: A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.--
But soft, behold! lo, where it comes again!

Re-enter Ghost

I'll cross it, though it blast me. Stay, illusion!
If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,
Speak to me:
If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me,
Speak to me:

Cock crows

The play starts around midnight, the Ghost appears around 1h, and now the cock crows already. Theatrical convention, sure, but time speeding by like this is a sign of Denmark being "out of joint". Maybe this is how Hamlet can be 30 and still a student. Is this something a film could play with visually?

If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, O, speak!
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it: stay, and speak! Stop it, Marcellus.
MARCELLUS: Shall I strike at it with my partisan?
HORATIO: Do, if it will not stand.
BERNARDO: 'Tis here!
HORATIO: 'Tis here!
MARCELLUS: 'Tis gone!

Exit Ghost

We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence;
For it is, as the air, invulnerable,
And our vain blows malicious mockery.
BERNARDO: It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
HORATIO: And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.
MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

A favorite speech of mine. I guess Hamlet doesn't take place at Christmas.

HORATIO: So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,
As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?
MARCELLUS: Let's do't, I pray; and I this morning know
Where we shall find him most conveniently.


Some directors will want to use the trio's retelling of these events in Scene 2 to eliminate the scene entirely, perhaps flashing back to them. If so, how do you effectively start the play? The wedding scene works, but it doesn't have the tension inherent in Scene 1's opening words.

Next: We really get into it with Brannagh's version of Act I Scene 1.

Friday, July 3, 2009

My Hamlet Collection

For Hyperion to a Satyr to work, I needed a proper sample of filmic staging, but it all starts with the text. Though I have a few editions at home, four of them from Complete Works and one of them in Klingon, I'll just be copy/pasting the scenes right off the Net. Hamlet's in the public domain, right? Still, my most-read edition is a pocket sized printed for classical schools, in which the dirty bits have been removed. Wouldn't want to taint the children's minds with Fortune's favours or heads between maids' legs! I've course restored the text in pencil and it's the copy I've carried around for years. One day, I'll be able to perform the whole play by heart, I'm sure.

The Movies
Kenneth Branagh (1996): Because Branagh's version uses the integral text, it's going to be the first one I look at for each scene. It's the standard. Clocking in at more than 3½ hours, this Hamlet makes the characters a lot more ambiguous. Scenes usually cut (even for stage performances) would make Polonius a lot more sinister than he usually is, just as Claudius, too often the cardboard villain, is more sympathetic. Branagh knows how to entertain, throwing movie stars into the bit parts and making them shine. I'm never bored despite the length.

Laurence Olivier (1948): I'll then proceed chronologically, starting with Olivier' Oscar-winning interpretation. Though a black&white from the 40s, this feels like a very modern film, using trick photography to get into the title character's head. His Hamlet is no doubt where the modern cliché of the melancholy Hamlet comes from. He's such a sad sop. Like most of the films mentioned here, I still have the old VHS tape and in this case, only recently converted to DVD.

BBC (1980): Part of the BBC's complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, directed by Rodney Bennett and starring Derek Jacobi in the title role. Despite the television look of the production, Jacobi is really quite excellent, tapping more into the trickster Hamlet than others before or after him. It's unfortunate that I didn't feel as positive about Patrick Stewart's Claudius. Like Branagh's 1996 version, it uses the complete text.

Franco Zeffirelli (1990): No doubt the most popular film version, starring Mel Gibson's quite visceral Hamlet. It's a very different interpretation, but it really works. Shame about the various cuts made to the text however. It's fine for casual viewers as a sort of Braveheart 0.5, but I found the through line to be thoroughly butchered and many characters turned into clichés. Also: I do so hate it when directors go the Freudian route with Hamlet/Gertrude scenes.

Kevin Kline (1990): Included as an example of a filmed stage performance, as opposed to an actual film, and because it's in my collection. Kline owes his performance to Olivier's Hamlet mostly, but I found some of the actors miscast. Ophelia, for example, is way too old for the part. What effect this has will be food for discussion on this blog eventually.

Hamlet 2000: Michael Almareyda's Lurmanized Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, soliloquizing on his webcam and stalking the halls of the local Blockbuster. It doesn't quite work as well as Romeo+Juliet, though it is infinitely better acted, and required a lot of moving scenes about. The highlight for me wasn't so much the modern trappings as the performances of Bill Murray as Polonius and Sam Shepard as the Ghost.

Alexander Fodor (2007): Another modernization, this art house Hamlet is sometimes clever, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes amateurish. In the final analysis, it doesn't work, but where else can we see a scheming female Polonius and Ophelia high on heroin? The experimentation is taken to an extreme, which is fascinating and certainly worthy of discussion, but this is the only film credit of most participants and it shows.

Plays Within Plays
There are two filmic works of interest in which Hamlet is staged as part of the story, and we see sizable enough portions of the play to be able to draw discussion from them. These are:

Slings & Arrows Season 1: This wonderful Canadian comedy explores both the backstage and on stage travails of a Shakesparean theater festival. In the first season, not only does the storyline mirror Hamlet's (we won't get into that), but they must also stage the play with a young Hollywood action star in the title role. Would be worth it just for the smart discussion about staging the play even if it weren't so darned good.

A Midwinter's Tale: A small black and white project by Kenneth Branagh in which a troupe of loser actors must put on Hamlet for Christmas. Hilarity ensues. Called In the Bleak Midwinter in the UK, this gem features a lot of Branagh's regular players, but sadly isn't out on DVD yet. I might be taking photographs straight off the television for this one. Despite the comedy, the Hamlet that eventually comes out of these unlikely thespians has some rather lovely bits.

Other Media
Comics: I have two Classics Illustrated stories of Hamlet, one the original and rather straightforward adaptation from 1955, the other the fancier 1990 version with more evocative art by Tom Mandrake. I can tell you which I prefer, though neither is truly satisfying. We won't dwell too much on these, but we'll certainly give them their due.

Music: French songwriter-composer Johnny Hallyday once wrote a sort of rock opera about Hamlet, available to Francophiles as a 2-cd set. It's at times wonderful and at others, completely ridiculous. Again, since I don't plan to put sound on the blog, I won't be lingering too long on each song, but I think interested parties deserve to at least see a translation of those songs.

Games: Mike Young designed a really cool Hamlet-themed game published by Interactivites Ink that requires players to take on the various roles and attempt to accomplish their characters' goals (even if they change the story). I wish he'd done the same with other plays, because it's really cool. I don't plan to discuss the silly text-based game that's available on the Internet, but have fun with it if it's your kind of thing.

Holy Grails
These would be my principal sources, but since this project is expected to take many years, there's a more than average chance I'll be adding to them. Richard Burton's Hamlet very much interests me, but Criterion isn't selling it cheap, and I've usually balked at the 50$ price tag. I saw Nicol Williamson's performance once on tv, but it doesn't exist on DVD and I'm well past buying new VHS tapes. And I hear that David Tennant's Hamlet will be filmed and broadcast on BBC2 with possible DVD release, which I won't be able to resist as a Doctor Who geek.

If I do add a Hamlet to the list, I'll play catch-up through the scenes already covered, and everything'll be easily accessible through the sidebar table of contents. You'll be able to search by specific film and by specific scene.

Hyperion to a Satyr

Welcome to Hyperion to a Satyr, a new project of mine that consists of examining in altogether too much detail my favorite play of all time, Hamlet Prince of Denmark by one William Shakespeare, and its varied dramatic representations, with an eye towards staging, performance and text.

What does that mean exactly?

This blog will look at Hamlet, scene by scene (or scene fragment, some scenes are just too long for single posts). First, we'll talk about the text itself, what staging and performance problems it poses, what ambiguities have been laid into it by, and so on. Then, the scene will be discussed through the filter of filmed versions of the play. How did each filmmaker or actor address the play's problems and ambiguities? What effect do their choices and cuts have on our understanding of the characters and their world? Now, if you search for Hamlet on IMDB, you'll find more than 70 iterations, and that's just for "exact title matches". I will not be using them all for this project. In my next post, I'll detail which Hamlets have actually made the cut (short answer: still plenty). And in addition to movies, you can also expect Hamlet in other media, like comics, music and games.

Whether you're a Shakespeare fan or a movie fan, I hope you'll enjoy your visits here. I'm particularly interested in how this classic work can be given so many interpretations, and how each interpretation can shed new and different light on the Bard's masterwork.

Literary critics have said that Hamlet is the deepest well ever created in literature, that you can never get to the bottom of it, never draw a "single" answer from it. I think this little exercise will show that statement to be true!