Monday, November 29, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Olivier '48

Olivier omits this section, and in fact, removes Rosencrantz & Guildenstern from the play entirely! The play survives the cut, just as it does that of the ambassadors and the entire Norway subplot, but at the cost of texture. In losing R&G, we lose mirrors of Horatio and Hamlet, though that mirroring does not seem to particularly interest Olivier. R&G are, after all, mirrors of each other, and their interchangeability perhaps a sort of key to the play's themes. Key speeches made at them are turned into monologues, and important exchanges are given to the play's other sycophant, Polonius.

Sad to see these two gone from the play, but it still works. Of course, you could probably convince me that the play works with ANY of the characters removed from it and I'd believe you. Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is but the most extreme example. And the one that's the complete opposite of Olivier's.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Branagh '96

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's section is played in one take, ending on a walk-and-talk, an evocation of the "corridors of power" as later seen in The West Wing (according to Branagh). Though the start of this very long scene can and often is cut for time, Branagh creates a lot of movement in the shot, keeping things moving and presenting us with a living, breathing Elsinore. During the scene, Gertrude is getting dressed, Claudius is drinking tea and tonic and getting his boots shined, maids are making the bed. Aside from painting a believable environment, this also creates a number of effects. First, there's the sense that Claudius is juggling way too many things. He's multi-tasking, but something could fall through the cracks, i.e. the Norway situation. His focus is on Hamlet's distemper, but he's contracting that out as well, and doing so in a hurry (which appropriately diminishes R&G as characters). Second, we're presented R&G in a scene filled with servants. This underscores their own relationship to the King and Queen as subservient to them, and not to Hamlet's friendship. Third, Branagh treats the scene ironically by staging it in the bedroom. Not only are R&G getting into bed with the villain of the play, but it also means Claudius is missing the obvious when he says "What it should be, More than his father's death [...] I cannot dream of."
R&G are played by Timothy Spall (Rosencrantz, above left) and Reece Dinsdale (Guildenstern, on the right). They don't make the characters interchangeable as far as performance goes, but since neither ever gets "his" moment, it remains confusing as to which is which. I don't know if Branagh did a little anti-casting here, because Spall looks more like a Guildenstern to me. They do have character traits in common inspired by the text. The way Spall and Dinsdale play it, it's like they don't trust each other and feel they must always cover for the other, or complete/clarify the other's thoughts to get into the best possible graces with the King and Queen. Their furtive looks add to the sense of this from the dialog. The classic reversed repetition by King and Queen here is played as if Gertrude is correcting Claudius, and the body language bears out that the Queen knows them better than the King does. She can at least tell them apart, which lends more weight to her description of them as Hamlet's best friends. It's at least her perception of the relationship, and as is often the case, the parent may not have been updated on her child's evolving relationships.
Claudius receives a message that his ambassadors have returned from Norway and continues his walk and talk with Polonius this time. They enter the throne room filled with drilling fencers, keeping up with the theme of a living Elsinore and also prefiguring both the warlike entreaty we're about to see and the final scene of the play. Though important affairs of state are about to be discussed, it's Polonius' contention that he's found the cause of Hamlet's madness that actually captivates the King, and Polonius must actually redirect Claudius to the ambassadors. Claudius may well be rushing through the next conversation, which is why he misses the clues to the danger Denmark faces (given his own political treacheries, he should have been sensitive to them).
Voltimand's story is shown in flashbacks, which actually do show more clues to Fortinbras' treachery, with Rufus Sewell looking especially sinister and insincere. Don Warrington was well cast as Voltimand because his rich voice is perfect for narration. Of course, that narration is flawed because it is so upbeat. It paints a rosy picture where none exists, contributing to Claudius' blindness to what's really happening.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals

Scene 2 is huge, so I'll be dividing it into six discrete parts. New Arrivals covers the King & Queen's meetings with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and Voltimand & Cornelius. Brevity will cover Polonius' revelations to them. Polonius Boards Hamlet will have their scene together. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern will be about their scene with Hamlet up to the mention of the players. The Players will take off from there and lead us to Hamlet's soliloquy, which will have its own section under "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I".

For now, we're concerned with the first of these sections, albeit one that is often cut for time in some way or other. Some versions of play do away with the Norway subplot, and so do not need Voltimand's report. Others have Rosencrantz & Guildenstern appear later, without this simpering introduction. By looking at the text itself (in italics), we'll get a better sense of what is lost when directors do so.

SCENE II. A room in the castle.
KING CLAUDIUS: Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!
Moreover that we much did long to see you,
The need we have to use you did provoke
Our hasty sending. Something have you heard
Of Hamlet's transformation; so call it,
Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was. What it should be,

The audience, of course, does not know Hamlet's original form was, though one might expect that he was more like Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - a career student with a certain measure of frivolity.

More than his father's death, that thus hath put him
So much from the understanding of himself,
I cannot dream of: I entreat you both,
That, being of so young days brought up with him,
And sith so neighbour'd to his youth and havior,
That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court
Some little time: so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather,
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus,
That, open'd, lies within our remedy.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Good gentlemen, he hath much talk'd of you;
And sure I am two men there are not living
To whom he more adheres. If it will please you

There's a question as to WHEN exactly Hamlet talked about the duo so much. Certainly, it has to be before his father's death, when he had a use for camaraderie. One wonder if he ever mentioned Horatio, or if his more serious bent kept him out of stories worthy of being told. By the time of the play, the latter has become a steady and loyal confidante, while the former cannot be so trusted. There are friends for having fun, and then there are friends who can keep your secrets. Another way to direct it is to have Hamlet talk much about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern AFTER the Ghost's visit, laying a trap for the King by overplaying his friendship to two knaves he can easily read and manipulate. I like this idea, though I don't think I've seen it inferred. If Hamlet is the mastermind that brought them to Elsinore, he would react differently to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's betrayal, of course.

To show us so much gentry and good will
As to expend your time with us awhile,
For the supply and profit of our hope,
Your visitation shall receive such thanks
As fits a king's remembrance.
ROSENCRANTZ: Both your majesties
Might, by the sovereign power you have of us,
Put your dread pleasures more into command
Than to entreaty.

Though Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are usually played as a foolish double act, there is evidence that they are smart enough. They share Hamlet's keen wordplay and presumably his education, and in the above exchange, recognize Claudius' diplomatic skill. Indeed, the King does not have to ask for a favor when he may just give orders, but we've seen before how he has had to convince and cajole to get his position.

GUILDENSTERN: But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz:

Here is the root of all the jokes about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's interchangeability - the King and Queen's switching names in their thanks - a joke that culminates in Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (which this series will look at eventually). Obviously, there's also the matter of having two characters where one would do, which may or may not have been influenced by Shakespeare's company at the time. Or he may have liked the dynamic of two fawning characters playing off each other, one trying to correct or add to the other's dialog to influence their shared fate. Symbolically, we have Hamlet's one versus two, or their flawed mirroring of Horatio, each false friend being half his worth. For directors, the duo offers a number of options. One can play on their similarity through casting, costuming or performance. In any case, it is true to say that while actors may perform them differently (and indeed, their dialog makes them different), the audience never quite knows which is which, nor does it matter.

And I beseech you instantly to visit
My too much changed son. Go, some of you,
And bring these gentlemen where Hamlet is.
GUILDENSTERN: Heavens make our presence and our practises
Pleasant and helpful to him!
Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, and some Attendants

The two arrivals are separated by Polonius' arrival, prefacing the second part of the scene:

LORD POLONIUS: The ambassadors from Norway, my good lord,
Are joyfully return'd.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thou still hast been the father of good news.
LORD POLONIUS: Have I, my lord? I assure my good liege,
I hold my duty, as I hold my soul,
Both to my God and to my gracious king:
And I do think, or else this brain of mine
Hunts not the trail of policy so sure
As it hath used to do, that I have found
The very cause of Hamlet's lunacy.
KING CLAUDIUS: O, speak of that; that do I long to hear.
LORD POLONIUS: Give first admittance to the ambassadors;
My news shall be the fruit to that great feast.

If Claudius took the threat from Fortinbras lightly in the previous Act, here he would put personal matters before affairs of state. This is part of Shakespeare's continued undermining of Claudius' abilities as a King.

KING CLAUDIUS: Thyself do grace to them, and bring them in.
He tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found
The head and source of all your son's distemper.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I doubt it is no other but the main;
His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.
KING CLAUDIUS: Well, we shall sift him.

Gertrude is mostly in the right here, but from here on out, the characters will only follow red herrings. Though Hamlet is unusual in the comparative weakness of its female characters, Shakespeare still uses them as engines for truth. Ophelia will do so through her madness, and in this case, only Gertrude really knows her son. The male characters, all shown to be foolish in one way or another, refuse to listen.

Welcome, my good friends!

Again, Claudius acts like a politician would. Though the ambassadors are under his command, he still feels the need to butter them up and call them friends.

Say, Voltimand, what from our brother Norway?
VOLTIMAND: Most fair return of greetings and desires.
Upon our first, he sent out to suppress
His nephew's levies; which to him appear'd
To be a preparation 'gainst the Polack;
But, better look'd into, he truly found
It was against your highness: whereat grieved,

The revelation that Fortinbras is arming himself against Denmark should be cause for concern, but Claudius is foolishly distracted by the madman in his midst. He takes the rest of the news at face value and never questions them again - this strand is forgotten until the last scene of Act V - this, in contrast with Hamlet, who takes nothing at face value, including the Ghost's accusations.

That so his sickness, age and impotence
Was falsely borne in hand, sends out arrests
On Fortinbras; which he, in brief, obeys;
Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine
Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give the assay of arms against your majesty.
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee,
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack:
With an entreaty, herein further shown,

Giving a paper

That it might please you to give quiet pass
Through your dominions for this enterprise,
On such regards of safety and allowance
As therein are set down.
KING CLAUDIUS: It likes us well;
And at our more consider'd time well read,
Answer, and think upon this business.
Meantime we thank you for your well-took labour:
Go to your rest; at night we'll feast together:
Most welcome home!

Hamlet and Fortinbras are certainly mirrored in the play. Both have an uncle acting as father figure, which both disobey. Norway's weakness and foolishness, then, is an indication of Claudius' own. According to Voltimand's story, Norway was all too easy to convince, and ended up rewarding Fortinbras instead of punishing him, helping him invade Denmark rather than preventing him. Claudius' response is not to question it, and he in fact tables the matter and will read the documents later. Just like Norway, he believes anything he's told, as he will Polonius in the next section.

This business is well ended.

If Polonius is wrong about everything, then the audience should wonder if this business is ended at all. After all, it is structurally suspect that a subplot would end (and end off-stage) at the start of Act II. It is obvious that Polonius is wrong, and this prefaces a more crucial error.

Friday, November 12, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Classics Illustrated

The original
Ever keen on dispelling ambiguity, the original comics adaptation prefaces Act II with a short, informative scroll:We learn that time had definitely passed, and that Hamlet is in part mad and in part faking it (north-north-west, if you need proof in the text). Artist Alex A. Blum shows us the scene as "reported" by Ophelia, but his less than expressive figure work leaves the scene without much intensity. Ophelia sits through it and though sad, is not "affrighted". A much more timid character, then, who doesn't hold against her father the romantic detente he ordered.
Similarly, Polonius is incredibly calm when he decides to tell the King and Queen about Hamlet's madness. This adaptation continues to be... functional.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake gives up a whole page to the scene, and has it take place in a lush, green garden (perhaps the orchard where the murder took place?). Mandrake plays a lot with contrasts in his adaptation. Just before this scene, Denmark was painted as an austere, foggy netherverse. Here, it is an Eden. It may be his way to indicate time has passed, from the bitter cold of Act I, to the false promise of spring in Act II. Mandrake uses the comics medium to good effect, placing both the tale and the telling next to each other on the page and managing perhaps one of the better exits for Hamlet, truly walking without the help of his eyes.

In both adaptations, Ophelia remains sitting during her visit from Hamlet, making her a passive character things happen to. Is it a visual indictment of her role as motor/catalyst for the action? The passivity shown here (and frankly, in the text) can be used either to show that Hamlet isn't motivated by love at all, or more ironically, that Ophelia moves the action without meaning to. In some ways, she's a red herring and a diversion. She puts Polonius et al. on the wrong track vis-à-vis Hamlet's madness, later interrupts Laertes' vengeance schemes (twice), makes Hamlet lose his focus at the graveyard, etc. even for the audience, she is an abortive romantic subplot.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Slings & Arrows

In Slings & Arrows, Ophelia is played by Kate McNab, who in turn is played by the now ubiquitous Rachel McAdams. In the show, which continually blurs the line between the characters and the actors who play them, Kate has a relationship with Jack/Hamlet. She's his tether, finding him when he runs for it and bringing him back to the theater. This is a notion from the play as well. Ophelia is Hamlet's tether, one he deliberately cuts in the unseen moment before this scene. By letting her go (reluctantly but necessarily), he loses hope for the normal life she represents (but then, Hamlet has lost the sense than marriage is any sort of normalcy).

McAdams/McNab gives an excellent and properly "affrighted" performance. Other characters believe she's really good, and Slings doles out humor in the midst of drama, by having the Culture Minister's wife claim the same based on her cleavage. The show often undercuts its drama with comedy, and vice-versa, which is a perfectly Shakespearean thing to do.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Tennant (2009)

Ophelia comes running through Elsinore in a floral dress (flowers being associated with her quite closely) and finds her father. Here is where I started losing confidence in Ophelia's casting. Mariah Gale is a good actress and expression, tears, etc. are genuine. However, I have problems with her physicality. Her posture through most of this scene is awkward and stilted and her look so shabby as to wonder how she was ever a match for the princely Hamlet. Her deterioration is too rapid and she looks here like she might during her madness scenes.

Oliver Ford Davies' Polonius continues to be highly watchable. When he asks "What said he?", we suddenly understand that he doesn't just want to understand what happened, but that he doesn't trust Ophelia to understand. The conclusions he jumps to based on a second-hand account fill him with pride, and in a complete disconnect from his daughter, smiles through most of the scene.
He consoles her, claiming that Hamlet's breakdown is actually a good thing. It means he loves her, can't she see? Otherwise, his attitude is "ah well"; there is no empathy for her there. His next step is to take her to the King, and he does so almost on automatic, like you'd tell a child with a bloody knee it was time to go to the medicine cabinet. And Ophelia IS a child, which is why I tend to forgive her the awkwardness. However, what does that make the 30-something Hamlet that he is in love with such an immature girl? Of course, this is a question we may ask of almost any production where those ages are respected.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Fodor (2007)

In Fodor's version, Act I is immediately followed by a musical montage using a triple split screen to show characters being put into motion (perhaps as an echo of the chess metaphor from Act I). It resolves into a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet where she has sought him out and he apparently rebuffs her. This is not the scene described in Act II, Scene 1. There is obvious arguing which has him playing the jerk and her leaving. It serves the same function, however, giving Ophelia reason to think Hamlet is acting strangely. It is a calculated move on Hamlet's part. We see him thinking when she's not looking, and the music is Marillion's The Invisible Man. The song recalls the Ghost's existence ("I cannot lift a hand / Lift a hand to stop him / I don't exist What can I do? / What can I do?"), but I think the director and the actor are both telling us that Hamlet is cutting his ties to Ophelia and erasing his self to be at one with his mission of revenge. He ceases to exist as he used to and his relationships are forfeit. The scene ends with Ophelia leaving and Hamlet, apparently in the morgue, kisses his father's corpse on the lips.
It serves as prologue to the To be or not to be speech, which we'll get to later.

Scene 1 begins in earnest after this scene as discussed in our last Fodor article. Ophelia enters her sister's rooms and interrupts her impending murder of Reynalda. Polonia is clearly annoyed at this, and as both Reynalda and the Ghost watch, Ophelia tells her story. Strangely, she delivers the whole text as written, generating a complete disconnect with the montage seen earlier. Either she is making it up/is confused (and this Ophelia is on drugs through the entire film), or there was another, unseen encounter. Perhaps Hamlet tried to change his mind about casting Ophelia aside and then didn't manage it. Certainly, she lies or is mistaken when she says she denied Hamlet access to her, or are we to understand the montage scene was about her breaking up with him, and him acting like he didn't care? Ophelia isn't exactly "affrighted" even though she used the word, but seems to be suffering from the more modern malady we call anxiety. She speaks quickly, starts on a glass of wine, and brushes her hair obsessively. Polonia takes up the latter task for her and turning her murder/sexual weapon into a ribbon for her hair.
Unlike the Polonius of the play, Polonia is played not as foolish, but as sinister and cruel. "That hath made him mad" is said with relish, like it was her plan all along to split Hamlet and Ophelia up to do him harm. There is then a strange moment where Polonia seems to become aware of the Ghost's presence (shots of his eyes meeting her eyeline). Not for the first time, the Ghost seems to have a corrupting influence on the characters. In the previous part of the scene, he seemed to be egging her on to murder Reynalda. Here, he changes the intent of the line "This must be known". Polonia has the sudden realization that if the King and Queen are made aware of Hamlet's madness and/or the cause of that madness, it can create more mayhem.

So where does the evil of the play come from? Though Polonia (like many other characters) is thoroughly corrupt, Fodor makes the Ghost the agent of that evil. In the play, the Ghost is indeed the catalyst for the tragedy. In this film, that idea is taken to a horrific extreme wherein he manipulates not only Hamlet, but the other doomed characters of the play, leading them all off the cliff.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet 2000 continues to play with the play's structure in this section, while also focusing on visuals rather than text. Act II thus begins in Hamlet's apartment, where Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hanh is being interviewed on the television.His text is not Shakespeare's, obviously, but it still informs it. And as Hamlet absorbs this media, it informs his own character and in particular, the "To be or not to be" speech. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about being, and how you must work to be, or rather work at aiming to be. He says it's not possible to be alone in this world and that you need other people in order to be - your parents obviously, but also society and nature. It is actually impossible to be alone, but to be, you must aim to be. The implication is that you must embrace others and the world in order to truly exist. This contrasts with Hamlet's self-imposed isolation, so that when later he asks the famous question, it also implies another: "To embrace others or cut myself off from them." There is death, and there is the death-like state of being forgotten, being apart. In the modern world of the film, where characters are motivated by an individualism not valued in Elizabethan times, being forgotten is just as ignoble an end (Hamlet and Ophelia in particular are artists). It gives new dimension to Hamlet's distress at his father having been forgotten. The scene gives impetus for Hamlet to go and see Ophelia so that he may share himself and "be", though it thematically culminates later in the line "now I am alone". Hamlet's existential struggle is to subsume himself into his role of avenger even though his personality is too great to be so smothered.

But back to the scene... While Thich Nhat Hanh speaks on the television, Hamlet is also holding a small video player where he watches one of his short films. It is Ophelia, hiding her face with a book jacket (and an old man's face - can she ever be separated from her father? Is confiding in her tantamount to confessing to him?), and the book's title perhaps too pointedly being called "Living Dying".
Hamlet is surrounded by media - of his own devising and not - and it helps craft his way of thinking. Does this Hamlet ask himself "To be or not to be" if an Asian guru does not plant the idea in his head? Does he link the speech to his situation if that guru does not mention father and mother among his examples? Does he link the concept to suicide if he is not simultaneously looking at that book jacket? And does he go see Ophelia if those two pieces of media are not played one against the other? Hamlet 2000 presents a character whose thoughts may not be his own, or at least whose environment pushes him towards certain resolutions. In the past, we might have called this destiny. Today, psychology seems a clearer motivator of human affairs. Hamlet receives "messages" or "prods" not from some divine/wicked agency, but from the media that surrounds him.
Wherever the impetus comes from, Hamlet is next seen in a diner attempting to write poetry for Ophelia. The text is the one normally read by Polonius to the King and Queen, though we do see Hamlet ripping up some of the pages, apparently finding his phrases as vile as Polonius does. The text continues in voice-over while Hamlet walks past Ophelia's building, turns around, hesitates, and finally decides to go in. Across the street from Ophelia's is a supermarket decorated in Halloween imagery.
This gives the director an opportunity to create/sustain a funereal and supernatural atmosphere.

Inside, we find Ophelia not sowing, but developing film in her darkroom. The red lighting associates Ophelia to love, pain and blood. In the film, she initially wears a lot of red, though it becomes grayer and then black as time goes on. It's her color, and Hamlet is in her world.
The scene doesn't follow Ophelia's description from the text, though it is just as silent. In this case, Hamlet gives her the poem to read in addition to the usual clutching and sighing. That's an important choice. In the text, we don't know when Hamlet might have written the piece of poetry, but it's suggested it comes from before his breakdown. In this version, it is a product of the isolation he feels after learning of his father's murder. He cannot say the words to her, but codes them in a poem to let her know how he still feels about her. It is only Polonius' appearance at the door that interrupts the scene (Polonius goes to his daughter rather than the reverse - an interfering parent and a child that wants none of that interference and so doesn't run to HIM), and Hamlet's quest for comfort. Perhaps he would have found an ally in Ophelia, but it's not meant to be. In the original play, Hamlet comes to this realization alone. Here, it is forced upon him. He is a weaker version of Hamlet for it.

Polonius arrives with balloons for his daughter, reducing her to the status of a child, although what can we say about the balloon with a dollar on it? It is another visual (and one could argue, a bit too obvious) flourish to show Polonius' ties to the Denmark corporation, his faulty priorities, and his lack of understanding of his daughter's nature. When Hamlet sees him, he kisses Ophelia one last time and flees, embarrassed. The poem drops to the ground, and Polonius grabs it and reads it. This will make a liar out of him when he tells the King and Queen his daughter dutifully gave it to him.