Thursday, December 30, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - Zeffirelli '90

Despite the cuts the part suffered, I must admit Ian Holm's performance is a lot of fun. He catches the royal couple in an open yard and takes them aside in a hurry, out of breath, fidgeting and stammering through a brisk walk-and-talk, quite comical. His big revelation is that Hamlet is mad. By following this with a proud pause, Holm accentuates the comedy. He's taken them aside for this?! Gertrude's impatience becomes justified. All three characters look around in paranoid fashion, so we have to wonder if the court doesn't yet know Hamlet's gone mad. Are they trying to keep it a secret? It would seem to be a smart thing to do, but Hamlet doesn't make it very easy. But back to Polonius... Holm's is very distracted, delighting in where his mind takes him while Gertrude stares into the air, bored and frustrated. He gets her attention again when he takes out the letter. She tries to look at it, but he moves away, looking for more light.
He offers more comic pauses as he breaks from the letter to nostalgically think of his daughter. All quite hilarious. When he asks "What do you think of me?", Gertrude's reaction is priceless, while Claudius humors him verbally, but facing away from him, rolls his eyes. This Polonius is more of a buffoon, and even his closest ally thinks him a fool. When he finishes with his thesis, they simply walk away and he has to run in front of them to get their answer. This is when Claudius asks him for more evidence. Other versions played out the scene as if Claudius wanted to hedge his bets or actively pursue Polonius' theory. Here, we have an unbelieving Claudius who asks for more evidence. The text can definitely read that way. Though Zeffirelli's Claudius is more plainly evil than others, it is his Polonius that keeps him on the path of malfeasance. If Polonius must egg Claudius on, it's because the King has stopped plotting, content with his winnings. The tragedy may not have resolved itself had not the foolish old man continued to meddle.

Cuts: The scene is fairly intact (for Zeffirelli), but does omit the explanation as to why Ophelia should lock herself from Hamlet's resort. It is stated elsewhere, but the royals just take for granted why Polonius required this of her. A minor cut, but it scans strangely.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - BBC '80

Another strong performance from Eric Porter as Polonius. His speech starts out practiced, with formulas that shows him to be just as much a sycophant as his own Reynaldo, but soon starts improvising amendments, distractedly opening parentheses and making jokes ("have while she is mine") to cover an uncomfortable awkwardness. This may well be due to Gertrude's reaction to his calling Hamlet "mad". The word immediately gets her dander up and he tries to quickly explain why he used the word. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continually do this as a double act; Polonius does it for himself. The Queen's ire no doubt motivated her first line "More matter with less art" and at that point, Claudius takes her hand to pacify her, though he soon loses his smile as well due to Polonius' trademark tediousness.

Polonius reads the letter as if for the first time, or if not, at least picking up on key words for the first time. "Beautified" becomes a vile phrase only here - he has not pre-judged the words - and he covers up any post-bosom awkwardness with an "etc." (as per the text, of course). The word "machine" makes him stop and hesitate, as if not expecting it nor really understanding the turn of phrase.

There is a slight cut before Polonius offers to have his head cut off. He no longer asks if he's ever been wrong before, and so Claudius no longer responds with ambivalence. Nothing major, though we do lose a small touch of irony on a point already well made.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - Olivier '48

The scene starts on the King and Queen looking into each other's eyes, hiding the figure of Polonius, showing how focused they are on each other compared to other things. As Polonius starts to speak, they separate and we see him between their heads, a shot reprised a number of times during this section. Olivier's staging is usually very deliberate, so we can infer that Polonius is creating an impediment to their couplehood. He separates them by bringing news of Hamlet, opening a can of worms that the royal couple were not necessarily willing to open. Remember, in this version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not exist, so the royals are here triggered into addressing the Hamlet situation. They are not proactively recruiting agents. Polonius imposes this agenda on them, which will lead to the couple's undoing, as prefigured in the staging here.

Claudius, in fact, couldn't look less compassionate. He's stern and aloof, frequently looking at Gertrude's reactions for cues. While Gertrude does prod Polonius for more direct answers, Claudius isn't any more patient with his well-meaning, but tedious aide. When he says "Not that I know of", there is an underlying sense of mistrust. It's not that Polonius hasn't been a useful counselor, but that he's meddling in things the King might not want to be bothered with. He's only letting Polonius talk to keep the Queen happy. Gertrude, for her part, seems to have given up hope. There's trembling despair in her voice when she asks for "more matter", as if to tell Polonius that it is too serious a subject for him to play with words. Based on that reaction, the King agrees to some token spying. Olivier has Hamlet overhear the whole thing, which will have to be taken into account when discussing his meeting with Ophelia later. He will already know it's a set-up.
On matters related to the letter, in this version, we must accept that Ophelia went to her father and surrendered her correspondence on faith. No scene corroborates it, but Polonius' kindly attitude would not support the more sinister idea that he would have misappropriated them. Jean Simmons' Ophelia is too naive and child-like to keep anything from her parent.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - Branagh '96

As Polonius starts on his "brief" speech, the King and Queen are signing papers (presumably the Norwegian treaty), which is an interesting touch. The Queen in Branagh's version is most definitely involved in governing the kingdom, partnering with Claudius in affairs of state. She is not an "object" to be lusted after, but necessary to the stability of Denmark. This small detail gives her character greater power, and stands in opposition to Ophelia's servile role.

Richard Briars' performance as Polonius is likewise noteworthy. His take on the character is more sinister and less bumbling. He speaks the words with a quick rhythm and in definite earnest. Yes, Gertrude finds him pedantic and tries to rush him, but he's not so long-winded as to be comical. There is no hesitation, no distractedness, no sense that he is reveling in his own wit. This is just how he speaks and thinks, and he will take you through his thought process because he feels it is necessary to your understanding (there's that hubris). And in fact, Gertrude is convinced by the argument. Of course, that may also have something to do with the use of Ophelia in this scene.
Branagh creates a moment that isn't in the text by having Polonius bring in his daughter to read Hamlet's letter (so there is no question she spilled the beans). She does so only haltingly, breaking up after almost every word. Between her reading and the reactions of the listeners, the overwhelming feeling is that of embarrassment. Ophelia is being exposed here, and her father's voice touchingly quivers in sympathy (though he is the monster who forces her to metaphorically disrobe before the Royals), his gorge rising at the vile words. By the time she hits "white bosom", she runs off humiliated. Polonius continues, but we're sent into a flashback that features post-coital Hamlet and Ophelia in bed, when the letter was composed.
The voice-over gives way to Hamlet's own voice, until we return to Polonius for the signature. This flashback has a number of implications. First, Branagh chooses to make the letter genuine. It is an artifact from happier days and is not part of a ploy to deceive Claudius. Second is the rather libidinous turn the word "groans" takes. Hamlet is no stranger to vulgar double-entendres (as per the prelude to the play within a play, for example) and at the end of love-making, is naughty in his word play. Gertrude may be convinced more by Ophelia's behavior than Polonius' words. After all, she too has recently done things in the name of love, and would believe in such a force.

A final note on the text itself, something I've only just now noticed: Ophelia is Polonius' daughter "while she is "his", but Hamlet is hers while his machine (body) is his own. Shakespeare plays with the possessive in this section in a way that begs to be examined. Polonius may think that Hamlet is "his" because he claims to belong to his daughter/property. He'll get him, get at his mystery. However, the question of the play is whether Hamlet is still in control of his faculties. Is his machine still his? If not, then his heart no longer belongs to Ophelia, but rather to his madness/revenge/father. Polonius assumes wrongly once again.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

II.ii. Brevity

The next relevant section of Act II's second act is Polonius' theory about Hamlet as he relates it to the King and Queen. What "To be or not to be" is to Hamlet, this speech is to Polonius, and crucially, it represents the conspiratorial beginnings of a thread that will lead to Polonius' own demise. That Polonius is wrong about the cause of Hamlet's madness goes without saying, but in and of itself does not constitute wrong-doing. Polonius' sin is that he feels the need to prove his theory by covert means. Just as he sent a spy to his son, so will he use his daughter to help him spy on Hamlet. In classical tragedy, hubris is the flaw that usually leads to a character's doom. In Polonius' case, hubris is definitely in play. He even offers to have his head cut off if he is proven wrong, which one would never do unless infected with arrogant self-confidence. Let us look at the text (in italics, as usual) a little more closely:

LORD POLONIUS: My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.

There are several ironies embedded in Polonius' words, and not just the ones he puts there himself. Polonius, of course, does not realize that he is being tedious even in proclaiming brevity. Shakespeare's own ironic streak is also at play. He knows that his play is over-long and that in a sense, it attempts to contain the whole of the world. Hamlet himself will go on at length about various subjects including mortality, theater and humanity, almost reveling in his intellect's ability to apprehend all things. Shakespeare "wastes time", knows it and mocks it. Polonius also claims that madness cannot be defined, which the play also fails to do in Hamlet's case. There is no doubt that Ophelia goes mad, but does her prince? Shakespeare never overtly tell us. Hamlet is said to be mad and so that must be true for the characters who believe it to be true. In fiction, some things must be taken at face value or not at all, like the madness central to the intrigue.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: More matter, with less art.

You'll note that Claudius defers to her in this conversation, again pointing to the idea that it's principally part of her agenda. While Claudius lets Polonius ramble, she is far less patient with him. In a way, this fuels the competition between Polonius and Gertrude as the former's theory contradicts the latter's. Does Polonius feel the need to prove himself exactly because he gets opposition to the King's other great adviser?

LORD POLONIUS: Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity;
And pity 'tis 'tis true: a foolish figure;
But farewell it, for I will use no art.

More dramatic irony: Polonius cannot help to use "art" to say he will use none.

Mad let us grant him, then: and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. Perpend.
I have a daughter--have while she is mine--
Who, in her duty and obedience, mark,
Hath given me this: now gather, and surmise.
[Reads] 'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most
beautified Ophelia,'--
That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase; 'beautified' is
a vile phrase: but you shall hear. Thus:
[Reads] 'In her excellent white bosom, these, & c.'

It will be interesting to compare how Hamlet's letter is used by different directors. In the text, it is read by Polonius, but different filmed versions have allowed others to read it, or have played with the idea that Polonius has taken it, not been given it. This detail changes how we perceive both Polonius and Ophelia. Note also the use of "beautified", as relating to the later line about God giving women one face and their making themselves another, one of Shakespeare's frequent rails against vanity. Why is Shakespeare drawing our attention to this word by making Polonius snag onto it? Should we see sarcasm in Hamlet's poem, and would that not indicate when it was actually written (see my next note).

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Came this from Hamlet to her?
LORD POLONIUS: Good madam, stay awhile; I will be faithful.
[Reads] 'Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
'Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.'

The letter represents one of few glimpses into the happy life of Hamlet before the momentous events of the play. Who was he before his father died (or at least, before he learned his father was murdered)? The play's timeline being what it is (i.e. vague), the letter could still have been written after some of these events, changing its meaning. If written much later, it could seem like a testament to his love for Ophelia no matter what he later says (though she may not have understood the message)­. His actions after Act I are to call everything into doubt because he has been lied to by his uncle. What else is a lie? The play on the word "doubt" here is crucial. There is also more than a little fatalism in the last two lines. Could this letter have been left for her during his last visit to her closet? And is it thus coded with the things he dares not say out loud?

This, in obedience, hath my daughter shown me,
And more above, hath his solicitings,
As they fell out by time, by means and place,
All given to mine ear.
KING CLAUDIUS: But how hath she
Received his love?
LORD POLONIUS: What do you think of me?
KING CLAUDIUS: As of a man faithful and honourable.
LORD POLONIUS: I would fain prove so. But what might you think,
When I had seen this hot love on the wing--
As I perceived it, I must tell you that,
Before my daughter told me--what might you,

Another example of Polonius trying to save face by proudly claiming that he saw what was going on between Hamlet and Ophelia before he was told of it. The Player Queen is not the only character who "protests too much" - Polonius is obsessed with not being perceived as a foolish old man. His foolishness is not in his blindness, but in his misinterpretation of other characters' intentions.

Or my dear majesty your queen here, think,
If I had play'd the desk or table-book,
Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb,
Or look'd upon this love with idle sight;
What might you think? No, I went round to work,

An odd contradiction here as Polonius supposes the Queen would have disapproved of the Hamlet-Ophelia match and she doesn't correct him. Yet, after Ophelia's death, she says she expected them to marry with her blessing. This scene puts the lie to her later words, though the impropriety may be lost to modern eyes, i.e. the match was not the problem, only that the wooing was conducted outside official channels and permissions.

And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
'Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star;
This must not be:' and then I precepts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice;
And he, repulsed--a short tale to make--

This tale has been anything but short.

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for.
KING CLAUDIUS: Do you think 'tis this?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: It may be, very like.
LORD POLONIUS: Hath there been such a time--I'd fain know that--
That I have positively said 'Tis so,'
When it proved otherwise?
KING CLAUDIUS: Not that I know.

One of the King's most foolhearty traits is his blind trust in Polonius, who in fact is proven wrong on almost every point during the play.

LORD POLONIUS: [Pointing to his head and shoulder] Take this from this, if this be otherwise:
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre.
KING CLAUDIUS: How may we try it further?
LORD POLONIUS: You know, sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: So he does indeed.
LORD POLONIUS: At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:
Be you and I behind an arras then;
Mark the encounter: if he love her not
And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters.

Shakespeare laces the play with insinuations that the current regime is not fit to rule in various ways. One of these is overt comparisons to common professions such as farming here, and later those of fishmongers and beggars.

KING CLAUDIUS: We will try it.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: But, look, where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.
LORD POLONIUS: Away, I do beseech you, both away:
I'll board him presently.
[Exeunt KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, and Attendants]

With apologies for all these outward flourishes...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Tennant (2009)

Not for the first time, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are introduced with symmetrical staging, well used to shore up Claudius' confusion as to which is which. He hesitates, but in this instance, gets there names right (which makes his getting wrong later, funnier). Gregory Doran's version very much makes this Gertrude's idea. Claudius searches for words even as she prompts him with her eyes and gestures, and eventually, she feels she must jump in. Their dance is not unlike that of R&G themselves, each making sure the other's words are not misinterpreted. It almost looks like the couple hastily practiced this, and her eventual unrehearsed contribution is to compliment R&G even more. Is she afraid that R&G will betray the royal couple to Hamlet because she believes them to really be his best friends? Or has exact word choice more riding on it? It came to me that Claudius is in effect "leading the witnesses" in the scene. When he says he can't imagine it's anything more than Hamlet's grief at work, he is putting that preconception in their heads (even as he ironically clutches Gertrude's hands, not acknowledging the other possible cause). Is the King asking them to find the cause of Hamlet's madness, or is he asking for them to report that it is indeed grief?

Perhaps Rosencrantz is right to be wary, especially if he's being asked to potentially prove a King wrong. Sam Alexander plays him as the more liberal-minded of the two (in the leather jacket) in opposition to Tom Davey's tall, dark, and more conservative Guildenstern. They do a good job of differentiating the two parts, their choices based on the lines themselves. Rosencrantz is less committed and questions more (why are you asking us rather than ordering us?), while Guildenstern is all about deviating the conversation away from his partner's effrontery and onto the business of boot-licking. Like the royal couple, they offer up a nervous performance where one wants the other to say certain things.

A light touch is used throughout, as R&G are once again misidentified by Claudius, requiring the Queen to correct him. Guildenstern's last lines come after they've been dismissed, turning Gertrude's "Aye Amen" into an impatient but polite reminder that they've overstayed their welcome (a recurring motif throughout this version of the play). Claudius and Gertrude play the entire scene in a state of giddiness, giggling without cue, and smiling whenever they set eyes on each other. Gertrude's allowance for Hamlet's madness being caused by their over-hasty marriage doesn't come off as a reproach - she kisses his finger almost immediately - leading us to believe that their love is more important to them than Hamlet's "tantrum". They know they've been naughty, but perhaps their son needs to get over it. People in love are so cruel to those who are not.
There is a third couple in this section: The Ambassadors from Norway. Their speech is heavily condensed and Cornelius is given lines this time. On one level, it makes sense that if you're going to have an actor on stage, he should get something to do. On another, it creates an opportunity for Doran to mirror the other couples' interruptions. Cornelius interrupts (Lady) Voltimand, for some reason not trusting her to tell the story correctly. An amusing parallel with the rest of the scene is drawn. Of course, with the section's abridgment comes an important cut. There is no longer mention of Fortinbras being rewarded by his uncle, nor is Denmark asked to provide safe passage for his forces. This Claudius is not as blind as some others, even if he has cause to be in the scene, and does not make a crucial political/military mistake. Doran paints a portrait of a largely happy Elsinore, whose King is keenly dealing with affairs of state diplomatically. Claudius is instead weakened by Gertrude's benign control over him, which isn't quite the same thing. Of course, strengthening your villain ultimately strengthens your hero, so this is not an offensive choice.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Fodor (2007)

Though we can hear Claudius' speech to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Fodor's camera instead shows us the dream-like image of Hamlets Jr. and Sr. from an earlier time, sitting on the floor. The child Hamlet is throwing dice and laughing. An image of risk, of invoking Fortune... of the fate awaiting both these characters later in life? Happier times juxtaposed with the present day's misfortunes. This is not strictly a flashback because the father and child become aware of the Claudius scene and watch it. Hamlet Sr. is dead, of course, but how can his young son also be haunting Elsinore. In a sense, all the characters who die in the play are already dead - fated to be so, or by now, in the knowledge held by the audience. Fodor's Elsinore, an overlit, decaying house, could easily pass for an afterlife in which these characters are continually replaying the events leading up to their deaths (a metaphor for theatre). The presence of a ghostly boy Hamlet links him to the dead father and also represents the death of innocence (in grossly symbolic terms) and an image of the memories Hamlet said he would erase. The scene does show a relationship between father and son that is near absent in the text. Though Hamlet extols his father's virtues, his childhood memories feature Yorick, a surrogate parent.
As the director takes an interest in the words being said, the camera's eye moves to the introduction of R&G, though they are not identified more than that. Guildenstern is played by Simon Nader (on the left), but the actor playing Rosencrantz (right, with more hair) is not credited. The scene is interrupted by the arrival of Polonia - which Guildenstern eyes with a measure of lust - who has news about Hamlet. Immediately, she elicits jealousy from Gertrude, whose line about the true cause of Hamlet's madness is thrown out not with regret, but with ire. The scene plays as if calling R&G was Gertrude's idea, and so Polonia's meddling intrusion frustrates her. It is also an artifact of the gender-switching of the Fodor version that the King's closest adviser would sexually compete with the Queen for his attentions.

We'll see in the next section how that particular triangle continues to play out.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli's Hamlet does away with the entire Norwegian subplot and only has us meet Rosencrantz & Guildenstern later, when Hamlet comes upon them. This section is thus reduced to Polonius' boarding of the King (now with Queen) with the supposed cause of Hamlet's lunacy. Zeffirelli even gives Gertrude Claudius' line, unsurprisingly longing to here the news about her son. What we lose is Claudius' interest in the affair. Where the text would have a King whose love for his Queen outweighs matters of State, here he is simply part of a conversation imposed by Gertrude. He even seems reticent to discuss it, guilt or at least discomfort flitting across his face. We also lose Gertrude's allowance for the idea that their hasty marriage is the real cause of Hamlet's madness, robbing the play of a certain irony. Further, though we know R&G were "sent for", we never see them with the King and Queen, making the royal couple much less active in the unfolding tragedy.

The snippet does show Gertrude with a bouquet of wild flowers, linking her with Ophelia, and perhaps hinting at how the Queen knows about the girl's suicide later. Perhaps these flowers are a gift from Ophelia, or perhaps she too like to pick them at the same brook.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - BBC '80

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are introduced with a symmetrical shot that creates the necessary equivalence between them. Claudius continues to play the politician, buttering them up to make sure they will betray Hamlet's confidence (not that he had cause to worry), while Gertrude seems more sincere in her compliments. Both overestimate Hamlet's love for these two individuals, although it's entirely possible the prince would have trusted them more had their mission not been discussed in open Court. When Hamlet later says he knows they were sent for, it may infer that he has spies in the Court, or just that things really aren't so secret in Elsinore. Do they think he's so out of it he won't hear the castle gossip?

R&G are played by Jonathan Hyde (Rosencrantz, on the right) and Geoffrey Bateman (Guildenstern, on the left), who both exude that certain lack of trustworthiness, licking the King's boots as they prepare to betray a friend.
As with the 1996 version, Claudius flips their names around and Gertrude corrects him. They laugh as if this often happens, and bow only to her hand. Claudius is in incredibly good spirits throughout this scene. Only Gertrude seems genuinely concerned. Claudius, when played as a real villain (as he is here), cannot be anything but selfish. He's looking into Hamlet's madness only as a way to keep Gertrude happy, not for her sake, but ostensibly to make his own life easier and more pleasurable. His joy only breaks once - when she awkwardly mentions their over-hasty marriage. She almost doesn't say it. It's the elephant in the room, and Claudius doesn't want to face the possibility. Are those his first pangs of guilt?

The Ambassadors
Claudius' big show continues with the arrival of the ambassadors to Norway. As they reveal Fortinbras' plan, Claudius gesticulates towards Polonius, silently saying "I KNEW IT! I TOLD YOU!" By the end of the ambassadors' tale, he's applauding as is the assembled Court. He has spun a potential danger for the State into a victory, but is deluding himself. He is so giddy, drinking it in, so occupied with the business of looking good, that the ambassadors' story need not be examined. He hands the Norwegian letter to an attendant without even saying the line about reading it later. That small cut makes Claudius even more careless.

There is a missed opportunity I should mention at this point. In their first scene, Voltimand and Cornelius seemed very serious, and I mentioned at the time that it looked like they were unhappy with the recent change in government. I postulated the possibility of their being loyal to Hamlet Sr. and resentful of Claudius' ascension to the throne. Could they be complicit in Norway's betrayal? Did they help arrange Fortinbras' passage through Denmark, a coup in the making? Fortinbras comes in at the end as a conqueror, but says Hamlet would have proven most royal had he ascended. Was he invader or rescuer of Denmark? There to depose Claudius and restore Hamlet to the throne? What the staging needed here to close the loop is a knowing look between the ambassadors. In its absence, they simply appear to have had a change of attitude in between acts, sharing in the happy news they're reporting.