Sunday, April 25, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Olivier '48

Visually, Hamlet is already teetering on the edge - of sanity - as we come into Scene 4. He's still rather calm and Horatio is at best matter-of-fact, as per their usual characterizations in this film. It continues the feeling set up in Scene 1 that the supernatural is a normal part of this world.

This time, we see the King's rouse, albeit from afar, down in the courtyard.
So we can trust Hamlet's take on events a lot more, and in any case, the party doesn't take on the feeling of a private orgy it does in Branagh's version. And Olivier doesn't play Hamlet's speech as a rant either, but more as a reflection. He isn't outraged, but perhaps more disappointed in his own countrymen's reputation. The pauses he takes makes it all seem like a new idea rather than an old point of contention. Branagh's Hamlet had rehearsed the speech a hundred times in his head (which certainly fits the idea of Hamlet as a Player), but Olivier's speaks/hears it for the first time (more in line with Bloom's "characters overhearing themselves" concept.

The Ghost's arrival is heralded by a sense of anxiety created by a pulsing heartbeat that makes the camera go in and out of focus on Hamlet.
Along with Hamlet's suicidal tendencies shown at the top of the scene through its staging, this camera trick helps create a point of view for the character. Is he in fact insane? He's certainly unstable, and Horatio will be right to fear that the Ghost will drawn him "into madness". One answer to the reality/unreality of the Ghost is that it is real (in this supernatural world), not a figment of Hamlet's madness, but responsible for it. He only needs a small push, and this apparition gives Hamlet one more ball to juggle in his already confused mind. However, while supernatural is accepted by the characters, we might still believe it to be the result of superstition. In that case, the Ghost's appearance is merely a by-product of their point of view, and the modern viewer could say it was due to a trick of the light and the fog. And when it speaks, it is Hamlet's madness that speaks (but then the end of Scene 5 might be problematic). Certainly, this image of the Ghost is indistinct enough to support that interpretation.
Hamlet pulls out his sword to "make a ghost that lets" him, but also uses it as a cross to protect himself from evil before taking off after the Ghost.
The last exchange between Horatio and Marcellus is cut from this version (just as a number of words are changed, "clep" to "call" is a particularly annoying example), again supporting Hamlet's point of view through this scene. He wouldn't have heard them. The effect on plot is minimal, though it does remove some well-known lines. This version of the film continues to marginalize these secondary characters in favor of Hamlet, which is a perfectly legitimate way of addressing the play's length.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Branagh '96

Branagh's version of the scene is without a doubt where I got my impression of disjointed time playing tricks on Horatio, because Nicholas Farrell puts a strong spin on the exchange. Hamlet looks at him impatiently, and he admits to not having heard the clock stroke twelve. Might they have missed the Ghost due to his absent-mindedness?

The King's rouse has started, we hear the cannons fire, and Hamlet is forced to explain the ritual. That's twice in a row Horatio doesn't seem to know what's going on. Should we infer anything from this? We discussed how he must be at least in part a stranger to Elsinore or the Court in the previous article, but it strikes me that there is also a dramatic device at play. In Scene 1, Horatio had difficulty accepting a non-rational universe, one in which a Ghost could exist. As we near the moment of the Ghost's return, we once again enter that non-rational domain and Horatio is lost. The voice of reason has no place here. Shakespeare may be using Horatio's confusion to destabilize the audience. After all, he is something of an audience identifier figure who gets things explained to him, etc.

Branagh chooses here to show us the Claudius' rouse, but is the camera's point of view trustworthy? After all, Hamlet is telling us about it, and he isn't there, placing doubt on these images of Claudius knocking back glass after glass before throwing the Queen on a bed in full view of his ministers.
That last bit is especially incendiary, and based on the subject matter, there's reason to believe it's part of Hamlet's imagination. Even in the play as written, without the benefit of film editing, we only get Hamlet's version of these events. He may be laying it on a bit thick because of his general dislike (is that too weak a word) for Claudius.

I now strikes me that while "the stamp of one defect" is literally about Claudius and ironically about Hamlet (again, see previous article), it also applies to Hamlet Sr. This is a man we are about to hear speak for the first time in the play, and who has been in turn deified and humanized by his son, who by all accounts was a goodly king (but also just "a man"). What defect did he carry? And what corruption stemmed from it? One of the questions of the play is the nature of Hamlet's relationship to his father, who seems to have been absent for most of his life, off to the wars. Is this the defect that helps form Hamlet's opinion about this, and indeed, the one that led to his ruination (absence or cold distance that allowed his wife to fall for Claudius)? We continue to look for clues.
Another element we can look at is Hamlet's moral outrage. He sets himself up as the defender of Danish character, while Claudius gives himself over to debauched tradition. Hamlet is presented as a politicized individual who is "princely" for seeing the bigger picture and recognizing that the King is the head of the state, corruption in one spreading through the other. Or in this case, replace corruption by reputation. It is this moral sensitivity that may explain why he doesn't take to murder very easily.

Branagh's film makes a change from the play in this scene by placing the "Angels and ministers" speech at the end, when Hamlet has left his friends behind (so really, at the start of Scene 5) rather than at the Ghost's appearance. This creates greater urgency, making Hamlet want to follow the Ghost almost immediately and causing Horatio and Marcellus to fear for his sanity, where the text would have him cast a protective spell at the first sign of the supernatural. No, instead, Branagh gives us a running prayer through the woods, and a hellish montage of bubbling smoke, fiery eruptions, cracking earth and funereal memories.
It is a very literal descent into hell. The Ghost does not so much crawl out of hell to meet Hamlet, but brings a part of hell with him. They meet at some halfway point, but then, isn't Denmark rotten enough that it has merged with hell itself? The furious pace of the prayer sends us headlong into the very precipice Horatio sought to avoid, and the images so bizarre compared to the relatively rational reality of the rest of the play/film, that we wonder if we can trust Hamlet's point of view. Is this a product of insanity (again, the fact that others see the Ghost complicates matters). I will at this point criticize Hamlet Sr.'s Santa suit, which pulls me right out of the experience when I see it.
In any case, placing the prayer at the end of the scene (of if you like, at the start of the next) makes Hamlet follow "What should we do?" with "Where wilt thou lead me?", Hamlet lost and his soul in play.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Act 1 Scene 4

Hamlet's decisive fearlessness in this scene contrasts with the ambivalence he shows in the rest of the play, as if by feigning madness, he may have lost himself along the way. If he loses himself in the part, then he does not become this Hamlet again until the last act, after "finding himself" on his sea voyage. Scene 4, in which Hamlet joins Horatio and the soldiers on the platform to verify the Ghost's existence for himself, is made up of two parts: First, Hamlet Wittenbergian railing against the custom of the King's rouse, and second, his seduction by the Ghost, making him leave his friends behind.

For directors, there are a few choices to be made here. How debauched is the rouse? The less extreme it is, the more Hamlet seems intolerant and/or simply hateful of anything Claudius does (which actually helps the case for a mad Hamlet). The presentation of the Ghost may also be problematic. While it is a seductive idea to have him be a figment of Hamlet's imagination, there can be no question that in the text, other people see it. And yet they do not hear its message in Scene 5, so ambiguity may persist, and directors may well find ways to manipulate the play to stage things differently.

The full text follows in italics, with some comments from me interspersed throughout.SCENE IV. The platform.
HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.
HAMLET: What hour now?
HORATIO: I think it lacks of twelve.
HAMLET: No, it is struck.
HORATIO: Indeed? I heard it not: then it draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.

Once again, images of time being out of joint. Horatio has lost track of the time.

A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off, within

What does this mean, my lord?

This is an odd question coming from Horatio who, up until this moment, seemed to be a fellow Dane. Why does he not know this custom? Is he from elsewhere? Hamlet seems to infer that even other countries are aware of this tradition that has given Denmark a bad reputation. What would be the consequences of a non-Danish Horatio? In some ways, Horatio is a stranger looking in and the "author" of the play. One might even see his ambiguous nationality as the reason for the play's Englishisms. On a more thematic note, it places Horatio outside Denmark's corruptive influence, and in this short exchange, he doesn't seem to feel the cold as strongly as Hamlet. Denmark's hold is not as strong on him as it is for others (his lesser fear of the Ghost being another example).

HAMLET: The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
HORATIO: Is it a custom?
HAMLET: Ay, marry, is't:
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,

The word "mole", later applied to the Ghost traveling in the underworld, is first used here. In both cases, Hamlet evokes the idea of a demon, which may indicate that from the first, he does not trust his father's Ghost entirely.

As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.

The essence of tragedy is spelled out here. The idea that a character's one defect can and will destroy him is as much as part of this play as it is any of Shakespeare's tragedies (Othello's jealousy, Romeo & Juliet's impatience, etc.). It's entirely too simple to say Hamlet's defect is his indecision, as it is far more ambiguous than that. Various actors and directors have give that indecision different motives over the years, and these motives are the true defect. It may be mistrust, intellectualism, hubris, uncertainty, or something else entirely. This is a large part of what makes Hamlet such a rich play.

Note also the leitmotif of a poisonous cup. Claudius' drunken revels poison his soul (and thus all of Denmark's); the poison pours into Hamlet Sr.'s ear; the poison cup in Act 5. Indeed, even innocent Ophelia is drowned.

HORATIO: Look, my lord, it comes!

Enter Ghost

HAMLET: Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?

These lines make up a wonderful horror poem. Note how Hamlet cannot yet determine if the Ghost is angel or demon, something perhaps never truly resolved in his mind.

Ghost beckons HAMLET

HORATIO: It beckons you to go away with it,
As if it some impartment did desire
To you alone.
MARCELLUS: Look, with what courteous action
It waves you to a more removed ground:
But do not go with it.
HORATIO: No, by no means.
HAMLET: It will not speak; then I will follow it.
HORATIO: Do not, my lord.
HAMLET: Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life in a pin's fee;
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself?
It waves me forth again: I'll follow it.
HORATIO: What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Again the idea of drowning.

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:

Is this where Hamlet gets the idea for his feigned madness? Or is it that he is actually drawn into madness, just as Horatio foretold here?

The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
HAMLET: It waves me still.

Even unconsciously, Hamlet remains a punster. He is "waved" toward the "sea".

Go on; I'll follow thee.
MARCELLUS: You shall not go, my lord.
HAMLET: Hold off your hands.
HORATIO: Be ruled; you shall not go.
HAMLET: My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.
Still am I call'd. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away! Go on; I'll follow thee.

Exeunt Ghost and HAMLET

HORATIO: He waxes desperate with imagination.
MARCELLUS: Let's follow; 'tis not fit thus to obey him.
HORATIO: Have after. To what issue will this come?
MARCELLUS: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
HORATIO: Heaven will direct it.
MARCELLUS: Nay, let's follow him.


Horatio's call for Heaven to direct it is contradicted by the more intuitive Marcellus ("Nay"). Shakespeare lays on another layer of ambiguity, ever making us question whether the Ghost is true to its word or not. One answer, of course, is that the Ghost is telling the truth AND spurs Hamlet to ruinous revenge against the laws of God. If Hamlet is more puritanical than the countrymen around him, then it may be that murder, even to revenge a father, is antithetical to him. It may be the reason he delays his action for so long, often questioning the Ghost's morality. And the text does make Claudius guilty of regicide, but also sets a high price for revenge. What is madness, but an inability to reconcile two contrary impulses?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Classics Illustrated

The Original
Because the wedding banquet was completely cut from the original Classics Illustrated, Scene 3 is where we meet the Polonius family for the first time, and in only two short panels:As you can see, narration covers the ground we missed, explaining the details of Laertes' trip as well as the gist of both parts of the scene. There is never very much to these, because the comic wants to get to the Ghost as quick as possible (being aimed at young boys), but the way the dialog is cut is interesting. Polonius only has time/room for one piece of advice before the classic "To thine own self" line. The adaptation has chosen "Give thy thoughts no tongue, not any unproportion'd thought his act", probably the most ironic in the context of "To thine own self". A judicious choice that highlights Polonius' harebrained hypocrisy.

The Berkley version
Mandrake gives the scene an entire page, but puts the focus on Polonius' talk with Ophelia rather than his advice to Laertes. The scene starts with "To thine own self" and quickly sends Laertes away. This removes some of Polonius' tediousness (for time/space), though the character trait will make its return in due course. A scene to be worked through, in this case, with no revelations of interest.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - The Banquet

The Banquet has probably the best explanation for Ophelia being warned off Hamlet I've ever heard. It's all about politics, though in the play, no one would ever explain it to poor, innocent, apolitical Ophelia. But the father in The Banquet does:
When Hamlet Sr. was king, a match between Hamlet and Ophelia was a good thing for the Polonius family. Now that Claudius is king, and Hamlet has fallen out of favor with that regime, any alliance with the Prince may put the Polonius family in political jeopardy. Polonius is nothing if not a political creature. It also helps explain why Gertrude goes on about marrying Hamlet and Ophelia after the latter's suicide. On the Hamlet side of the family, this was seen as a good match. But Polonius would not have expected the same reaction from Claudius.

Speaking of Gertrude, the dialog here goes on to make a point about mirroring the play's two women:
"My heart will never change."
"Make it change. Learn from the Empress."
In this reimagining of the play, Ophelia's father asks her to change her heart, just as the State asked Gertrude to do the same (in line with the unwilling wife aspect of this version).

All interesting notions as we delve deeper into the play.