Saturday, January 30, 2010

Act I Scene 3

Though Laertes had lines in Scene 2, Scene 3 is our first real introduction the characters of Ophelia and Polonius. In the latter, we have the third image of fatherhood in the play, and if Hamlet and Laertes are to be contrasted, we need to also contrast Polonius with Claudius (also Laertes' other father) and Hamlet Sr. In Scene 3, Shakespeare gives us the second of three fathers counseling their children. Claudius chided Hamlet and asked him to stay in Scene 2 and the Ghost will spur Hamlet to revenge in Scene 4. In Scene 3, Polonius does the reverse for each of his children. He sends Laertes with doting advice, and forbids Ophelia to fulfill her destiny. Though the most "present" father in the play, his influence also tends to be the weakest.

As for Ophelia, is she to be a contrast to Gertrude? There's an interesting inversion in the play where the young hot-blooded girl is kept chase and the more mature, "tamer" woman is a wanton. In the following lines, the relationship between all three members of the Polonius family (and if I speak of inversions, it's that it is an inversed Hamlet family, with the mother dead) are introduced to the reader/viewer. I will cut in when something catches my attention. Shakespeare is the one in italics. Oh, and the brilliant one.

SCENE III. A room in Polonius' house.

LAERTES: My necessaries are embark'd: farewell:
And, sister, as the winds give benefit
And convoy is assistant, do not sleep,
But let me hear from you.
OPHELIA: Do you doubt that?
LAERTES: For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.

The position of Ophelia in the play is very weak, often thought of as an object manipulated by men, caught between her father's and brother's will, Claudius' schemes and Hamlet's love. The very first time she speaks, she is ignored. Laertes does not actually answer her question, but instead follows his own train of thought and warns her against Hamlet. Note also the use of "violet" here, a flower we return to in Ophelia's madness. The violet is described as impermanent and fleeting, and Ophelia later comes back to this image with the violets that all wilted when her father died. This double use creates a link between the two scene between Ophelia and her brother. Love is fleeting (here) as is life (there), and by implication so is Ophelia's health and sanity. Like the violet, Ophelia is "in the youth of primy nature". She too is "sweet". And like most characters in the play, her life is impermanent.

OPHELIA: No more but so?
LAERTES: Think it no more;
For nature, crescent, does not grow alone
In thews and bulk, but, as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will: but you must fear,
His greatness weigh'd, his will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth:
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself; for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state;
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head. Then if he says he loves you,
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it
As he in his particular act and place
May give his saying deed; which is no further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.
Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity.

Laertes invokes Hamlet's royal destiny here. The idea that Hamlet's will is not, ultimately, his own stands in stark opposition to "To thine own self be true" (a line I will come back to in due course). As the play unfolds, Hamlet will continually stop himself short of fulfilling his destiny, whether we're talking about avenging his father or becoming King of Denmark.

Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

More imagery related to a corrupted natural world, as spring is subverted in Denmark's unweeded garden. The play does tend to show sexuality as a corruptive element. Laertes and Polonius do not wish to see Ophelia stained, and Claudius sleeps in incestuous sheets. Those that obviously had sex before the start of the play are either dead (the Ghost and Ophelia's mother) or doomed to die (Getrude and Polonius). Perhaps they are right to steer Ophelia away from it, and Hamlet is later right to push her to go to a nunnery. She does not, and she dies.

Be wary then; best safety lies in fear:
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
OPHELIA: I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

Ophelia's warning about hypocrisy is a recurring theme in the play. We'll soon have the notoriously foolish Polonius impart his wisdom to Laertes, and otherwise have a number of characters lying to Hamlet and to others, feigning to be what they are not.

LAERTES: O, fear me not.
I stay too long: but here my father comes.


A double blessing is a double grace,
Occasion smiles upon a second leave.

POLONIUS : Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!

Polonius gets his first proper scene and it's one that highlights his foolishness. He chides his son for being tardy and then sits him down for a long chat. Polonius gets it wrong for the first, but certainly not the last, time. Polonius is written with dramatic irony in mind, and characterized as tedious (at his most benign) or pompous (at his least). The advice that follows was meant to parody the maxim writers of the Elizabethan Age, equivalent to today's slogan-happy self-help books, but Shakespeare comments on the play at the same time.

And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.

For example, here. Hamlet will struggle with this for most of the play, trying to understand the true "proportion" his thoughts and actions.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

How does this relate to the bond between Laertes and Hamlet? Though they have a falling out, their souls are in the end bound together, following each other closely to the afterlife.

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware

And is this a reference to the Laertes-Claudius partnership? The dangling "Beware" is as much for this as for the next line.

Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.

"Beware of entrance to a quarrel", the exact event that leads to Laertes' undoing.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,

There we have it. Each of Shakespeare's great plays, I find, has a line hidden in it that expresses its theme. And I say hidden because it seems to come early and in a context that doesn't draw attention to it. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, it's "they stumble that run fast". In Hamlet, it's "To thine own self be true". This is the advice that Hamlet does not follow and that causes the tragedy.

And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!
LAERTES: Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.
POLONIUS: The time invites you; go; your servants tend.
LAERTES: Farewell, Ophelia; and remember well
What I have said to you.
OPHELIA: 'Tis in my memory lock'd,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
LAERTES: Farewell.


POLONIUS: What is't, Ophelia, be hath said to you?
OPHELIA: So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.
POLONIUS: Marry, well bethought:
'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:
If it be so, as so 'tis put on me,
And that in way of caution, I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? give me up the truth.
OPHELIA: He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.
POLONIUS: Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?
OPHELIA: I do not know, my lord, what I should think.
POLONIUS: Marry, I'll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or--not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus--you'll tender me a fool.
OPHELIA: My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honourable fashion.
POLONIUS: Ay, fashion you may call it; go to, go to.
OPHELIA: And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.
POLONIUS: Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,

Yet another image of nature subverted. A couple of things jump out in the wake of Polonius' speech to Laertes. For one thing, Polonius is a hypocryte. Having told Laertes to be true to himself, he forbids the same to Ophelia. He once again sets himself up to "get it wrong" by instigating the factor he will later believe is the cause of Hamlet's madness. His portrayal of Hamlet as a sexual predator is also contradicted by the rest of the play (though directors coud choose to play this differently).

When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire. From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley. For Lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him, that he is young
And with a larger tether may he walk
Than may be given you: in few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile. This is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to't, I charge you: come your ways.
OPHELIA: I shall obey, my lord.


Polonius is a lot harsher than Laertes. Where the brother didn't doubt that Hamlet loved her NOW, the father is convinced he never has. Both of them worry a great deal about Ophelia's virginity (which today adds to the unnaturalness of the play, but was a fairly common concern back in the day), but we have to wonder why. As the play will show, Gertrude had earmarked Ophelia to be Hamlet's wife, and certainly the Polonius family was closely tied to Hamlet's. If there's a concept of having to marry another country's princess to forge an alliance, it's not mentioned in the play. It does not seem to be a way to resolve the conflict with Norway, which is populated only with male characters. We're left with more questions. HAS there been something going on and so, Ophelia is lying? Polonius' command that she should not even SPEAK with Hamlet... Is that because he worries Hamlet will turn her against him and Claudius? What does he know about Claudius' ascension that we don't? Or is he simply worried that Hamlet's mental instability will cause problems for her? In a less sinister vein, having lost a wife, does he simply not want to lose the daughter that is taking care of him in his old age?

Directors will sometimes try to give us a clue as to his motivation. Something to watch.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

I.ii. Ghost Stories - French Rock Opera

This part of the scene is covered by a short 1min15 song called Le Spectre du Roi (The Spectre of the King). Part of it can be heard HERE, as usual, and the last bit is HERE. The complete lyrics in French and an attempted translation follow:

Le Spectre du Roi
Du fond du royaume des ombres
Le vieux roi nous est revenu
Son ombre est ressorti de l'ombre
Et nous l'avons vu, nous l'avons vu

Si le roi refuse sa tombe
Et qu'il revienne, comme je vous vois
J'irai au royaume des ombres
Chercher le comment, le pourquoi
J'irai au royaume des ombres
Chercher le comment, le pourquoi

The Spectre of the King
From the depths of the realm of shadows
The old king has returned to us
His shadow has come out of the shadows
And we saw him, we saw him

If the king refuses his tomb
And he returns, as I see you
I'll go to the realm of shadows
Find the how and the why
I'll go to the realm of shadows
Find the how and the why

The first four lines are choppily sung by a children's choir, turning Horatio and the soldiers into fairies or spirits. It's an odd choice, but Hallyday does this a lot to differentiate Hamlet from other characters. It does work on the context of the song at setting up a supernatural element. Once those are done, the electric guitar jumps in (Hamlet is a rock star in this) and Jos Dassin-like, Hamlet speaks rather than sings his lines. This is his soliloquy, and the echo on his voice has the same effect as the voice-over used in some of the movie versions. He repeats the last lines a few times, crying in the wilderness at nothing, and the music peters out before he does before the next track comes on.

Looking at the lyrics themselves, Hallyday would have Hamlet go to hell itself to get answers from the Ghost. Not something that happens in the play, but as we'll see, some directors like to turn the Ghost's surroundings into a hellish place, and playing on the irony of the play, we might infer that the Ghost may walk the soil of Denmark because it has slipped into an evil realm thanks to its corrupt leader.

Friday, January 22, 2010

I.ii. Ghost Stories - Classics Illustrated

The Original
The original Classics Illustrated spent a lot of time on the first Ghost scene, and so little on Scene 2, that it felt no need recaping Horatio's story a mere two panels after it happened. (In fact, all of Scene 2 is reduced to 2 panels.)The gist of the scene is told in a caption, with Hamlet's short soliloquy featured in a thought bubble - the equivalent of the voice-over technique. Economical, even if it removes any nuances in the Hamlet-Horatio relationship.

The Berkley version
Conversely, Mandrake spends two pages on this part of the scene, with Horatio and Bernardo (Marcellus is not in this adaptation) seeming to come out of the water-colored fog that often serves as the moody backdrop of the story. Though much of the text is used, the "test" is not. Hamlet believes immediately, but the period pictured is conducive to such beliefs (and the comic book form is replete with the supernatural, so there is that built-in suspension of disbelief). I especially appreciate the way Mandrake nuances the lines by fiddling with the lettering. For example, Horatio's first line is rendered as "Hail to your [change bubbles and in a small font:] lordship*". The asterisk and drop in volume make Horatio suddenly stop, perhaps realizing he has caught Hamlet in a private moment. He's awkward around the prince and later has much hesitation in his speech: "My lord, the... king... your... father..." It's a good line reading, and we could speculate about why Horatio is so awkward. Is it a natural class-based timidity? Is he self-conscious about Hamlet's grief, uncomfortable as many people are in such situations? Or did Hamlet embarrass him with his funeral/wedding crack?

I'm less enthusiastic about one line change: "I think I saw him yesterday." Is "yesternight" so difficult a word to understand from the context?

One thing that is a little off-putting about Mandrake's work in this adaptation is the way he moves the "camera". We go from close-ups, to "spy" shots where the characters are in silouette behind windowpanes, to oddly angled top shots. This may be to create the sense of a disjointed Denmark, and on the second page of this scene, he creates an edgy panel layout that works in the same way.
Hamlet has just heard about his father risen from the grave and suddenly, the panels are anxious and broken. His world is being shattered. It is a panel structure that does not recur again in the book. Mandrake has chosen it to be the pivotal moment upon which everything turns. After this point, there can be no turning back. I haven't really heard this discussion before, but one could say that if Horatio had kept the ghost story to himself, the tragedy would not have happened. Meta-textually, there is something interesting about the character who will become its teller in the last scene CAUSING it to happen in the first place.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Midwinter's Tale

Everything that's part of the Hamlet performance in Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale / In the Bleak Midwinter on one tidy you-tube.

I wait for it to come out on DVD one day, but I thought Hyperioneers would enjoy seeing a version what is perhaps inaccessible to them otherwise. Now you'll know what I'm talking about!

I.ii. Ghost Stories - Fodor (2007)

In Fodor's more experimental contemporary version, Horatio and the "soldiers" board Hamlet during the wedding party (Hamlet does not, however, have a talk with his parents, nor intone his soliloquy). This is intercut with other parts of Scene 2 and 3, all going on simultaneously. Without Hamlet's usual introduction, Fodor is free to rid him of his melancholy, and in fact, this Hamlet seems mostly amused by the proceedings, including the tale of his father's ghost. Throughout the scene, he's distracted by Ophelia (who is in the middle of Scene 3), constantly looking over to her. Our first introduction to Hamlet brands him as the White Pawn.This is an important shift from other versions of the play. First of all, his color is White, as is that of Claudius and Gertrude, whereas Polonia, Ophelia and Laertes are Red - two families pitted against one another in a grand chess game. By making Hamlet the Pawn, Fodor robs the character of his usual power. Usually, Hamlet dictates the terms of the play. We say "Olivier's Hamlet", for example, not because he directed it, but because he played the title role. It's what's inside the actor that changes our understanding of the play because the character IS the play. Hamlet is not a pawn, he rules this universe, and the plot is resolved only when HE says he's ready. But not here. The experimentalism of the film is what often takes center stage, and the unknown actor who plays Hamlet has less to bring to the role. And by this, I don't mean to slight William Belchambers, but rather that the director has cut many of his lines and moments, choosing to make the mise en scène the real star of the show. Making him the Pawn weakens him before the other characters, including his transgendered Horatio, who is more driven than he is.

Speaking of Horatio, I happen to think Katie Reddin-Clancy's performance is one of the better things about this version. She is dubbed the White Knight.
In the film's chess metaphor, that makes her equivalent to Laertes. Both are strong influences in the lives of their respective Pawns (Hamlet and Ophelia) and in this version, both are resentful of the Pawns' relationship - Laertes as scripted, and Horatio from her attitude. The Knight is a "driving" influence, the "motive horse" to the Pawn's more limited movement and better able to see the big picture (the Knight's ability to "jump" over other pieces). The chess metaphor is an interesting way to look at the royal relationships in the play, but is not pursued beyond these introductions. It is doubtful, in any case, that it could have carried through to the end and still made sense.

By virtue of being intercut with other moments, we do not see Horatio board Hamlet. She's already telling the ghost story when we get to her. The scene is played unlike any other version's, being even more cynical than Hamlet 2000's.
Hamlet is dismissive, sarcastic and aloof, punching holes in Horatio's story, while she loses patience with his attitude, rewarding sarcasm with sarcasm. His questions are treated like stupid ones, to be answered in a "you know very well what I mean" tone, rolling eyes and all. They have a very familiar relationship (in the absence of any class system), but argumentative. Part of the reason may be Horatio's new gender. Having Hamlet and Ophelia an item, and Horatio strictly relegated to the "friend zone" creates sexual tension between them. Hamlet isn't just laughing at the ghost story, he's also distracted by Ophelia. He's dismissing Horatio herself, not just her story, and this creates a noticeable spark. In the end, he agrees to do the watch with them tonight, which Horatio accepts with a silent ok. It's the best she's going to get given the situation.

As written, Hamlet is looking for a reason to kill his uncle (and then a reason not to), but in Fodor's Hamlet, we have an oblivious Hamlet who cares nothing about his mother's new husband until the Ghost actually forces a promise out of him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I.ii. Ghost Stories - Hamlet 2000

There's a buzz at the door, interrupting Hamlet's soliloquy. It's Horatio, his girlfriend Marcella (the transgendered Marcellus) and Elsinore security guard Bernardo. It's our first introduction to all these characters, done in a way as to reduce their importance in the story. Bernardo's uniform places him at the bottom of the security totem (well under police and military). Marcellus, the role ripped from its soldierly roots, becomes an accessory to Horatio. And Horatio himself is a cold Brit with a modern accent, whose more cynical (i.e. also modern) relationship with Hamlet borders on the aloof. Hamlet is consequently a lot more incredulous (which makes sense in a modern context where ghosts are largely relegated to superstition). Instead of an embrace, this Horatio gets a curt "What make you from Wittenberg?" as in "What are YOU doing here?" Their relationship is harsher, less tender, but probably just as honest. In this version, the various cut lines prevent Hamlet from correcting Horatio when he calls himself a truant, and so we might wonder what kind of people this Hamlet runs around with. Certainly, his lifestyle doesn't match his parents'.

The story of the Ghost is seen for the first time as a flashback (a flashback we discussed along with Act I Scene 1), recreating a fog-bound Denmark on a black and white security monitor.
Though getting it second hand like this, we might be inclined to mistrust Horatio's tall tale, but the tellers' anxiety is shown through their smoking (helpful, seeing as Karl Geary's performance is entirely too stonefaced for my tastes). Despite Hamlet's misgivings, he doesn't really test the story, in large part because the lines refer to armor and beards and other details the film's aesthetic hasn't made use of. A strange mistranslation occurs in one of his final lines: "I'll require [requite] your loves" turns a promise into a demand. It works for this harsher (more spoiled?) Hamlet, but still sounds wrong to the trained ear.
For the short soliloquy that follows, director Michael Almereyda uses some tricks taken from Olivier. He has the camera follow Hamlet from a strange angle, as if representing the Ghost's point of view (another reason why we, the audience, should trust Horatio's story), and he uses voice-over rather than have Ethan Hawke speak aloud (pretty standard, and also creates the effect of the Ghost's presence, over-hearing his thoughts).

Friday, January 1, 2010

I.ii. Ghost Stories - Kline '90

Kline's Hamlet does not look up when Horatio and the soldiers (in modern dress uniforms) walk in. When he does realize who accosts him, there is immediate warmth and the sense that these two men already share a bond. Horatio is teary-eyed - did he notice Hamlet's red eyes? Is he also grieving for his friend's father? Or is this an effect of the awe generated by the charismatic Hamlet character (even if Kline doesn't quite project it)? In any case, the relationship is a tender one, and even Hamlet ironic turns lack any barbs. Just soft, self-deprecating wit that even a third party (Horatio) cannot take to be aggressive. A Hamlet emerges here that isn't as sanguinary as some of the others, possibly a byproduct of setting the play later. He finds the situation impossible to bear, but his tone makes it seem like the fault is in himself. He's the problem because he can't bear what others seem to take in stride.

He's taken totally unawares when Horatio tells him he saw his father "yesternight", another example of Kline's best bits involving a shellshocked Hamlet. Horatio delivers the story in a convincing trembling voice (Peter Francis James' performance is one of the better things about this version) and Hamlet is completely taken in.
He SO wants to believe, in fact, that his questions don't constitute a test, but rather seem to be leading the witness. He's convincing himself that the story is credible. And it's true that, upon inspection, Hamlet's lines in this section ARE leading questions. He either asks a confirmation or gives multiple choices, but his questions are not open-ended. This attitude changes the way the lines are read. When played as a test, "His beard was grizzled--no?" is a trap, and Horatio corrects Hamlet with "It was, as I have seen it in his life, A sable silver'd." Here, Horatio's line is a confirmation as if "grizzled" and "sable silver'd" were synonyms, the second just more respectful of royalty than the first. The story animates Hamlet for the first time as he swears to meet the Ghost. The embrace often associated with Hamlet's recognition of Horatio comes here instead.
And it's an ardent one (I don't want to bring too much attention to the homoerotic context of these scenes, but this Hamlet's effete mannerisms might make this an issue later on). As far as staging goes, this may represent Hamlet finally having something to latch on to. Horatio is hope personified.

The less said about Kline's spooky delivery of the next aside the better. It is the stuff of campfire tales.

A line revealed by its omission
While looking at the nips and tucks suffered by the text in the last two adaptations, I noticed a line that should have sprung out at me before. When Horatio calls himself a truant (cut from this version), Hamlet says "I would not hear your enemy say so, Nor shall you do mine ear that violence". How could I never have noticed that this foreshadows the circumstances of his father's death?