Sunday, October 25, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - BBC '80

Jacobi's Hamlet is a proactive one, in the scene from the start. His first line is NOT an aside, it is spoken out loud and full of scorn. This Hamlet is asking for a fight, goading Claudius, but the new king won't be stirred to anger in front of the Court. This is the first time I've really thought about it, but Hamlet no doubt grew up with his uncle around and knows his flaws. It's how he's judged him unfit to marry his mother. In this performance, Jacobi is clearer than most about those flaws. Often, Hamlet in unhappy about the situation, but here he hints at why Claudius is such a "satyr".

An incomprehending mother responds with platitudes, the same kind that Claudius uses to calm the peasantry, but she may actually believe. As he chides Hamlet, Gertrude's hand often goes to her husband, as if to restrain him from being too harsh. Such is the relationship inside which Hamlet is trapped. The staging is apt: Hamlet keeps his distance until he makes that first speech (usually one pronounced in sadness, but here more in bitterness). When his mother speaks to him, he turns his head around. When Claudius does, he keeps his back turned to him.
Later, he looks almost sick when Claudius has his paws on him and tells him he is most immediate to the throne, at which point he scampers away. The story is told in body language. An interesting choice: Hamlet bursts out laughing at the line "'Tis unmanly grief", as if he either kind of agrees and laughs at himself, or believes that his too much grief is manly grief indeed, or possibly that he doesn't think much of Claudius' manliness and/or grief. The latter is probably the best interpretation. He shows too much grief precisely because his parents show too little.

When Hamlet agrees to stay at Elsinore, that agreement is sarcastic indeed, but Claudius once again Claudius is too political to acknowledge it. He takes it at face value, spin doctoring the line in situ, if you will. Then, the Court leaves Hamlet alone.
Though he remains bitter and sarcastic through the first part of the scene, sadness finally creeps into his voice fully during the soliloquy. Here he is alone and may speak his true emotion. A device used here and throughout the play is speaking directly into the camera at the audience.
A perfectly acceptable way to do theatrical asides, but it can be unsettling. Good. We should be unsettled by this rotten Denmark. You don't think a character should break the fourth wall? Fine. Brothers shouldn't marry sisters and wives should grieve for their husbands. Time - and theatrical presentation - is out of joint here.

But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.
On that last line, Hamlet has another of those sad laughs. Jacobi infuses the character with a certain self-deprecation because the soul-searching Hamlet knows full well his fault. He MUST hold his tongue simply because that's how he is and he knows it. It's a nuance that takes the political and familial away from center stage and rather makes Hamlet's psychology the cause of his silence and delay.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Olivier '48

The camera tracks back from Claudius and Olivier's Hamlet is revealed at the end of the table. He's been there all along, at the furthest remove from his uncle-father. I'm not a big fan of Olivier's portrayal, though I realize he's the iconic Hamlet. This is a melancholy (i.e. depressed) Hamlet, very much tired of the world as it has become. Unfortunately, it's depressing to watch, especially compared to some of the more vivacious Hamlets. Olivier plays depression with a realistic but undramatic lack of energy.

His relationship to his mother is better than Branagh's.
She is tender and he is not unkind to her. There is no accusation in his tone even if the subsequent speech puts much of the blame on her. Before putting these lines to computer screen, it hadn't really occurred to me that initially, Hamlet is much more angry at Gertrude than Claudius. Claudius may be an opportunist, but she's the one betraying his father. We've gone past "'til death do us part", but in the more puritanical Hamlet's view, the wedding vow is still broken.

Olivier downplays this in his performance, but then, Claudius is such a villain, it's hard to blame anyone but him for what's going on. This Claudius is completely unsympathetic. He chides, scolds and mocks, is slow to dethrone to even come near Hamlet, continually plays to the audience, and even gets a laugh out of them.
Of course, this is a Claudius that seems to give cues to his courtiers that they follow out of fear. Similarly, his announcement that Hamlet is next to inherit is answered by Polonius giving signals for trumpets to sound. It's all quite practiced. Claudius is a fake and a poser.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Olivier plays most of the soliloquy as interior monologue, i.e. voice-over, letting the emotions play on his face. Some lines are spoken aloud, a good way to use Hamlet's parenthetical speech patterns. According to Harold Bloom, Shakespeare's innovation was to allow his characters to hear themselves speak and be changed by the act of hearing. By juxtaposing voice-over and speech in this scene, Olivier demonstrates how that works. Basically, when Hamlet reacts to what he's thinking (voice-over) he comments in his though (with speech). There is thought and there is thought ABOUT thought, a model of how thinking works and, to paraphrase another line of the play, "thought will pluck on thought". Shakespeare's characters grow because their every thought affects the next.

Cuts and Bruises
There are a number of cuts for length, though the soliloquy is kept close to intact. Most notably, we lose Hamlet's first two lines/puns. This makes him more passive and less of an out-and-out rebel before the Court. We also lose something of his playful intellect. There are also some four lines taken out of his first bit, removing the various things that denote grief.

Where we lose something, I think, is in the change from "vailed lids" to "lowered lids". Was it so important the audience understand what "vailed" means at this point? Couldn't it be understood from its context? Vailed is a better word because it is an unintentional pun (for Gertrude) that reveals Hamlet's character. While "vailed" is an archaic word that means "to lower or sink", to a live audience, it sounds liked "veiled". Eyelids are truly "veils" before the eyes, and the eyes being the doorway to the soul, it speaks to Hamlet hiding something. What he hides is at once the profound emotion he feels, but also that great intellect we have yet to discover. His mother here is inquiring as to what he's thinking, so indeed is his soul "veiled". I miss the word when it is substituted "for clarity".

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Branagh '96

As Claudius finally turns to Hamlet, the camera pans through the audience, a metaphorical wall, to Hamlet very much waiting in the wings. The camera, in a sense, reveals the actor backstage waiting for his cue. In this staging, Hamlet is not in full view of everyone, he enters when called. This works hand in hand with other elements to soften Claudius. He doesn't appear to purposefully ignore Hamlet here.

With his first pun ("A little more than kin and less than kind"), the device of hearing asides spoken in thought/voice-over is introduced. Branagh alternates between this and spoken word, mostly in spots where he doesn't want the character to be overheard, but sometimes just for variety or to keep a physical performance free of vocal affectation. Here, it keeps the pan intact, obviating the need for a close-up that might break from it, and it also makes plain that no one hears that bit of disrespect. Disrespect is conveyed more subtly by body language, in this case sitting forcefully in the presence of his royal parents.
Though there are people sitting in the crowd, anyone near the royal couple stands, so his statement isn't lost on the assembly. In fact, the camera cuts to their sour expressions. Though the play tells us the people love Hamlet (which is why Claudius stalls when it comes to killing him), here it seems like they disapprove of him. We've just been told they approve of Claudius' ascension, so Hamlet's disrespect may not sit well with them, though you could also read their expressions as concert for the grieving prince. In any case, he is "too much i' the sun" by being the object of public scrutiny, easy to spot in such a bright environment in his black clothes. The pun is that Claudius has already called him "son" enough already, a dubious honor he does not want.

Julie Christie's Gertrude finally speaks and it's to show motherly concern, and it brings us to one of my favorite line readings.
She says "Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die", to which he answers "Ay, madam, it is common." Branagh bites on the last word making us aware of yet another double meaning. It's not that he agrees with his mother's claim, it's that he finds her comment and attitude vulgar (common as root word of commoner). His entire demeanor during this part of the scene may be sadness, but there is a liberal dose of barely contained outrage as well.

What he is saying in the "trappings of woe" speech is that they're inadequate. They SEEM, but he wants them to do MORE than seem. Hamlet isn't just expressing his own emotion, but trying to stir it in his mother, to shame her. To his eyes, she doesn't even SEEM to grief, and in fact appears quite happy and in love with Claudius. Hamlet cannot reconcile how she SHOULD feel and how she appears to feel. He will inquire about her blush later in the play, but it certainly isn't here either.

As for King Claudius, it's hard to take Hamlet's side against him. He's sweet and kind, and unlike a lot of other Claudiuses, embraces Hamlet. His arguments against prolonged grief are reasonable and meant to comfort. Jacobi is careful not to chide with his delivery. He even makes the moment a private one, talking softly and closely with Hamlet, close-ups and sound doing a good job of isolating the family from the Court. He doesn't make it public until the very end, when he tells everyone the results of the discussion, and probably doesn't want rumors to go flying. And yet, just telling Hamlet that he's his father now is painful to his nephew.
Of course, Hamlet's parents are missing the point. Hamlet's grief isn't just for a father dead, but for a father replaced. A lot of this conversation is played on reactions, and Gertrude's are especially interesting. On "a fault against the dead", she has a momentary look to the left (memory). It is the smallest of regrets for her betrayal and highlights for the viewer/reader the hypocrisy of Claudius' well-turned phrases. His attacks on will incorrect to heaven and minds impatient might as well be directed at him.

When Claudius is happy with the result, there's the film's iconic confetti scene.
Flying in the face of Hamlet's sadness, it's a huge celebration. Branagh uses this moment to have Ophelia go to Hamlet and Laertes gently pull her away, setting up their relationships for later. It's the same thing we saw in Hamlet 2000, but less on the nose. Hamlet is left alone and as in his the opening line of his next speech, he physically melts.
The great weight of APPEARANCES, whether we're talking about the public eye or a son's attitude towards his mother, is lifted and relief takes it place. He's free to speak his mind, if only to himself. Throughout the speech, Hamlet is emotionally unstable, moving from anger to sorrow and back again, full of asides and parentheses. It all comes flowing out of him in a great torrent once the floodgates have been opened.

His speech turns this beautiful, glittering Denmark into an unweeded garden, where the confetti might as well be the ashes of the previous world. Hamlet's point of view is post-apocalyptic. With the death of the True King comes the death of the Nation and being left to survive in the ensuing wasteland is unbearable. And yet he holds his tongue, for both political reasons and a son's duty to his mother.

This speech was all done in a single take, a take that continues through the next bit of scene as well. Branagh gives us what we might get in a theater while also keeping the the camera dynamic and close to the actors. It helps sell his mercurial Hamlet as we're not watching edited takes from different performances. Hamlet's changeability is part of who he is.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet

The next section of Act I Scene 2 that will be examined includes Hamlet's parents discussing his father's death with him and his first soliloquy. The character we meet is unlike any other in the play and showcases well Shakespeare's ability to give each character its own voice. We've had the simple, folksy soldiers, Horatio and his histories, the ironical Claudius... And while they all used some manner of word play, Hamlet's first two lines are puns. We'll discover a character here that has mastered language so completely, that everything is wordplay and allusion to him. His is a metaphorical world, and "all the world's a stage" is perhaps its central metaphor.CLAUDIUS: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,--
HAMLET [Aside]: A little more than kin, and less than kind.
CLAUDIUS: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
HAMLET: Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.

Finally, Claudius notices Hamlet. While you may take this to mean "most important for last", directors have a great many choices in how they reveal Hamlet's presence. Has he made himself elusive or has he been in plain sight all along? What is Claudius' attitude towards him? Body language and staging says a lot about just why he was saved for last and what their relationship is at the start of the play.

GERTRUDE: Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
HAMLET: Ay, madam, it is common.

Getrude's first lines, but I'm always more interested in Hamlet's response. There's yet another play on words with "common", but I think I'll keep my comment for the Branagh version which made me first realize it.

GERTRUDE: If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
HAMLET: Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Hamlet's first real speech and one of my favorites. This is where the theme of Stage/World really takes off, culminating in the bodies being placed on a literal stage where Horatio will tell/perform the tale. Hamlet comments "actions that a man might play", and the actor playing the part is literally doing that. Or is he? Shakespeare may have been the first proponent of "the method", asking his actor to go inside himself and have that something "which passeth show". In a very real sense, Hamlet is a meditation on theater itself. As far as the story goes, they are also damning words aimed at Claudius who IS feigning grief.

CLAUDIUS: 'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corpse till he that died to-day,
'This must be so.' We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father: for let the world take note,
You are the most immediate to our throne;

Another example of Claudius' charismatic ability to turn an argument on its head. Here he puts Hamlet in the wrong and makes the grand announcement that the prince is next in line for the throne. It's all for the audience, once again corralling them to his side with honeyed words. It also shows his natural pragmatism: Dead is dead, you have to move on, and in any case, you're next in line and that's all that counts, right?

And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart toward you. For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
GERTRUDE: Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

In the Comments section, Snell made a remark that should really be included in the main body of the blog:
"A further contrast twixt Wittenberg and France: Wittenberg wasn't just a university town, but in Shakespeare's day was probably even better known as home of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

That adds, I think, to the Christain/pagan schism we discussed earlier. And, perhaps, it explains why Hamlet comes across as more Christian (even prudish) than the rest of Danish nobility. Only Hamlet considers the wedding to be incestuous; he gives an almost Puritan anti-wassailing speech; he won't kill Claudius while the King is praying because he fears Claudius will go to heaven, where Laertes would kill Hamlet 'in a church', afterlife be damned.

Those are just a few examples. And, perhaps, it explains Hamlet's reluctance to act before all the data is in, as the play becomes the struggles of the prince to be Christian in a pagan (or at least not devout) court, in a situation where rash, unchristian behavior might be called for."

A great new filter for me to play with, thanks Snell.

HAMLET: I shall in all my best obey you, madam.
KING CLAUDIUS: Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply:

As soon as Hamlet agrees to Gertrude's request, Claudius washes his hands of it and is happy with the outcome. He doesn't get it, or at least wants to close the matter before his audience gets weary. He knows to finish a conversation when he's on its winning side.

Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come;
This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart: in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.
Exeunt all but H
AMLETNow begins Hamlet's first soliloquy:

HAMLET: O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother

And if you didn't already, now you know where my blog title came from. I felt it was the perfect line to appropriate since we were going to discuss adaptations. If the text is the purest form of the play (or its Hyperion), then any adapation is something of an imperfect Satyr. I don't really believe that, though some critic (like Harold Bloom) seem to resent every possible staging. The reason is simple: The text can yield all manner of interpretation, while a particular staging has to select its own interpretation and is therefore less open and bountiful.

That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:

Hamlet's fourth classical allusion in this speech is an interesting one. If Hercules is known for his "Twelve Labours", and Hamlet considers himself far removed from Hercules, it prefigures his lack of action in the rest of the play.

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

The next series of articles will discuss how this part of the scene is used in various adaptations, as well as Hamlet's casting.