Sunday, January 30, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene

More than any other in the play, this is the sequence that led to this project. It's a fun scene in which Hamlet plays the madman for Polonius' benefit, taking the piss as it were by transmuting his impatience with the older man's tediousness into rather mean-spirited teasing. Two repetitions - "Words, words, words" and "Except my life" - can be said to have inspired Hyperion to a Satyr. Each actor's interpretation, either giving different line readings to each repeated meme or an overall reading of the line, has become my favorite part of watching any new iteration of Hamlet. Here's a link to a website that offers video comparison between many more Hamlets than I'm doing, if you'd like to compare for yourself. But first, lets look at the text itself, in italics to differentiate it from my own comments:

Enter HAMLET, reading
LORD POLONIUS: O, give me leave:
How does my good Lord Hamlet?
HAMLET: Well, God-a-mercy.
LORD POLONIUS: Do you know me, my lord?
HAMLET: Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.

Famously, a "fishmonger" is a colloquial term for a pimp (a rather rude one when you think about the etymology). Either Hamlet knows that Polonius aims to use his daughter against him, or irony is at work. It also lends support to the idea that Hamlet has bedded Ophelia, as do many other sexually suggestive lines throughout the play.

LORD POLONIUS: Not I, my lord.
HAMLET: Then I would you were so honest a man.
LORD POLONIUS: Honest, my lord!
HAMLET: Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.

The play is very much interested in the idea that everyone is an actor. Here, Hamlet acts the fool and Polonius patronizes him, both ironically searching for the truth, but neither showing their true selves. As in the "beauty/honesty" exchange that comes later, Hamlet here says that he'd rather Polonius admit he is a "fishmonger" than keep up pretenses. Avowed criminals are at least honest in that they do not pretend to be innocent.

LORD POLONIUS: That's very true, my lord.
HAMLET: For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter?
LORD POLONIUS: I have, my lord.
HAMLET: Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.
Friend, look to 't.

Hamlet again suggest that he has had his way with Ophelia, though naysayers can justify it as simple cruelty towards her father. The potential pun between "sun" and "son", however, may indicate more. Hamlet creates a disturbing image in which he compares children to maggots and women (Ophelia? Gertrude?) to carrion (a dead dog, specifically). There is a streak of self-loathing in this even if Hamlet may sarcastically be comparing himself to the sun and a god. If Gertrude is the carrion, then he is a maggot. If Ophelia, then he is the breeder of maggots and warns Polonius against himself. In the broader picture, what is "bred" in Elsinore is decay. Hamlet warns that everyone's actions are leading to tragedy, including his own. Of course, Polonius doesn't get it.

LORD POLONIUS: [Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love; very near this. I'll speak to him again. --What do you read, my lord?

It's the first we hear of Ophelia's mother (possibly), and an actor could use it as justification for why Polonius is so adamant that Hamlet's madness stems from deflected love.

HAMLET: Words, words, words.

The first crucial repetition.

LORD POLONIUS: What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET: Between who?
LORD POLONIUS: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
HAMLET: Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.

Hamlet plays more than the fool in this scene, he plays the Fool. This character present in both Greek and Elizabethan drama acts the clown, but tells the truth, usually escaping punishment for the latter thanks to the former. In this sequence, we have Hamlet doing just that (though he is safe for other reasons). He tells Polonius exactly what he thinks, but the veil of madness means he may not be taken seriously. As the scene continues, Hamlet even prophesies his own death:

LORD POLONIUS: [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't. --Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
HAMLET: Into my grave.
LORD POLONIUS: Indeed, that is out o' the air.
[Aside] How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of. I will leave him, and suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter.--My honourable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.

The mention of pregnancy has not fallen on deaf ears. Shakespeare, through Hamlet, has just underlined the power of words, after all.

HAMLET: You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will more willingly part withal: except my life, except my life, except my life.

The second crucial repetition and one that is indeed more "pregnant" than the first. Plus, it's preceded by an excellent barb.

LORD POLONIUS: Fare you well, my lord.
HAMLET: These tedious old fools!

At the very end, Hamlet may be letting go of the pretense, commenting on the exchange, though if Polonius is still present (and in the text, he is), it's one more "mad" sting shot in his direction. But as Hamlet's attitude changes in the next sequence (with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern), we must assume he was putting on a show in this one.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

II.ii. Brevity - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's Hamlet is very much about Hamlet's point of view, and while we may hear the peasantry moan in the choir, there really aren't songs to represent scenes in which Hamlet does not appear. Now, while Hamlet does not appear in person in Polonius' big moment, he is present in the form of his letter to Ophelia. After all, it is his words we hear (butchered though they might be by foolish Polonius). Hamlet is such a large character that he tends to be on stage even when he isn't. The letter IS represented by a song called Doubt (click for the You-Tube "video"). As usual, here are the words in French, followed by a very bad (but accurate) translation by yours truly.

Que le soleil nous tourne autour
Qu’une étoile morte puisse briller Doute
Que la vérité ne soit vraie
Mais ne doute pas de mon amour Doute
Qu’un Dieu ait tout fait en 7 jours
Et que la terre soit une poussière Doute
De l’infini, de l’univers
Mais ne doute pas de mon amour

Piège à bécasses trompe femelles
N’écoute pas le loup qui bêle
Sa langue est d’or, mais ses dents brillent
Piège à pucelles et trompe-filles

Que l’enfer soit plus chaud qu’un four
Et que la gravité ait un centre
Ô Doute
Qu’un enfant vive dans un ventre
Mais ne doute pas de mon amour Doute
Que mon coeur batte comm’un tambour
Et que ma vie coule des pendules Doute
Qu’un jour je crève comm’une bulle
Mais ne doute pas de mon amour

That the sun turns around us
That a dead star could shine Doubt
The truth be a liar
But do not doubt my love Doubt
That a God did everything in 7 days
And that the Earth is a dust mote Doubt
The infinite, the universe
But do not doubt my love

CHORUS (choir)
Traps for woodcocks trick females
Don't listen to the wolf that bleats
His tongue is gold, but his teeth shine
Traps for maids trick the girls

That hell he hotter than an oven
And that gravity has a centre
O Doubt
That a child live in a belly
But do not doubt my love Doubt
That my heart beats like a drum
And that my life drips off clocks Doubt
That a day I will burst like a bubble
But do not doubt my love

CHORUS repeats twice

We recognize Hamlet's poem immediately ("Doubt") and Hallyday even translates actual elements from it ("that the stars doth move"; "truth to be a liar"). He also picks up lines from elsewhere in the play, such as Polonius' own doubt in the chorus ("springes to catch woodcocks"). So in the same song, Hamlet implores Ophelia not to doubt his love, even as the choir plays Polonius' (and popular opinion? the audience's?) doubts concerning Hamlet's true intentions. While the chorus plays with a distinct animal theme, Hamlet's sections are more nihilistic. The sun is a dead star, Earth is a particle of dust, hell is invoked, and time is an enemy, not a friend. The suggestion of pregnancy is an intriguing one, and makes us wonder if Hallyday thought Ophelia might have been pregnant. There is talk later of breeding sinners, and Hamlet teases/tortures Polonius with the possibility of Ophelia conceiving. Is Ophelia's suicide also an abortion? This isn't something that's attempted in the various filmed versions, but the play hints at it in various ways (and yet, it's the first time I've thought about it).

Of course, we're allowed to doubt this, so Hallyday may be reacting to the suggestion, but doesn't give us a definitive answer (and neither did Shakespeare). It can also be interpreted as Hamlet's trademark nihilism denying his own birth, just as he denies his own mother.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

II.ii. Brevity - Classics Illustrated

The which Polonius actually IS brief. The original Classics Illustrated is so fixated on plot that it tries to often distill the drama to that alone. The inexpressive figure work does not, in any case, have the subtlety required to make characters "act". They just render (heavily edited) dialog and walk off panel. It is very strange to read a brief Polonius. None of his usual digressions are present, not even his criticism of Hamlet's letter. He comes in, he tells the King and Queen Hamlet is mad and that a letter from his daughter might shed light on the matter. He reads it, the King agrees while the Queen says nothing and Polonius unveils his plan to spy on the prince. In this cut down version, the King asks Polonius "Do you think 'tis this?", not Gertrude. Since this is her first appearance in the comic, it doesn't fill one with hope that her character will amount to much.
Act 2 Scene 2 is our first look at the King as well (the comic does not show the wedding banquet), and he is basically made to look like an evil wizard with a fat crown on his head. Immediately sinister. Meanwhile, the queen is a buxom, silent woman in light blue, apparently a clueless, but guiltless pawn in the drama, showing more shoulder than character.

The Berkley version
Artist Tom Mandrake gives Polonius his due in his watercolor version, allowing the character to dominate the page. Though there are cuts to the text, his digressions remain, and the number of speech bubbles helps support the idea of his ironic lack of brevity. One major change from all other versions we've looked at is that Polonius recites Hamlet's letter by heart. He does not physically hold a letter in the scene. What does this mean? Did Ophelia allow him to read it, but did not give it away? Is there no "letter" per se, just words he once told her and that she repeated to her father and that he repeats to the King and Queen? The stage directions tell us Polonius "reads", but the dialog itself does not specify a letter. "This" can just be the words, as words in Shakespeare are all-powerful. In a stage/film production, where actors can be more expressive than drawings in a comic (trapped, as they are, in a finite number of poses/expressions), this device could also be used to put Polonius' story into doubt (and as the word "doubt" comes up at the top of the "letter", that's fitting). A sinister, manipulative Polonius could well be inventing or exaggerating the whole thing, and if so, could provide a disturbing portrait of a father talking about his daughter's bosom, etc.

The King, for his part, looks bored through the exchange, I suspect more because he does not truly care about his stepson than Polonius' pedantry. Hamlet arrives reading before the King and Polonius make plans to "further try this". The King is less interested in dealing with Hamlet in this version, but will be swept into action more and more as Hamlet pushes him into a corner.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

II.ii. New Arrivals - Classics Illustrated

The originalWe don't learn much about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in the original Classics Illustrated upon meeting them, only that they are two of Hamlet's friends and that they have been called to help find the cause of Hamlet's strange behavior. One dresses in green, the other in blue. They do not reappear until after the play within a play and are basically used only as escorts for Hamlet to England. Their inclusion here, without having them board Hamlet and drawing the "What a piece of work is a man" speech, is a complete waste.

The Berkley version does not include this first meeting with R&G, but does have them boarding Hamlet as false friends later in the scene.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

II.ii. Brevity - Tennant (2009)

From the very start, this Gertrude finds this Polonius tedious, rolling her eyes and his formulations. Claudius shares a secret smile with her, sympathizing, but finding humor in his counselor's natural disposition. Oliver Ford Davies continues to shine as a very distracted Polonius. For example, his attention starts to drift at "time is time", as if lost in the line's philosophical implications. Keeping the control she had the scene's beginning, Gertrude snaps him out of his reverie by clearing her throat. So it's with embarrassment that he pledges brevity.

Side-note on the text: We've often talked about how time works strangely in the play (regarding Hamlet's age, for example, or how quickly the nights go by "why day is day, night is night"). Polonius' emphasis on "time is time" here evokes that theme again. Shakespeare may be admitting that the timeline (as opposed to the time line) will not be explained or explainable. It would be a waste of time. He is deftly deflecting nitpicks regarding the apparent flaws in his story. Such is his power that he actually has us referring to symbolic time as a justification for them.

As he continues, the Queen's reactions do nothing but terrorize him. He knows where he stands with the King, but not his lord's new relationship. It gives him a quick, stammering delivery as he tries to disarm the Queen with his words, overexplaining himself even as she requested he get to the point more quickly. He knows he's testing the Queen's patience, but can't seem to find a way out. When he calls Hamlet mad, the Queen's resounding (and unscripted) "Ha!" perhaps shows him that brevity has its own problems. His statement is insultingly obvious to her.
Polonius calls for his daughter as he gets ready to read the letter she's given him, neatly stored in a portfolio. A servant brings Ophelia in. She basically stands there during what's left of the scene, more papers in her hands. This is because director Doran has chosen to follow the scene order from the so-called "bad quarto" that places the To Be or Not To Be speech and subsequent meeting between the former lovers right after this sequence. We'll see later how this affects our understanding of the play. For now, we're still on Polonius' dime.

He reads the letter as if for the first time, stopping at "bosom", surprised and embarrassed, skipping ahead with that comical "etc.". He keeps the paper away from the Queen until he's finished reading. This is his time to shine, and there's a sense that he's competing with Gertrude for the King's attention. Though he has risen with his lord, he's still a peg too low in his opinion. Watch him in the background when the Queen says of his theory "it may be". He doesn't look vindicated. He frowns, not understanding how she can doubt him ("may" rather than "must").

As for Ophelia's role in this sequence, there are some silent reactions to look for. When Gertrude hears about this "young love", she looks at Ophelia, as if for the first time. It seems the royals were not really aware of the relationship. This makes sense, since Polonius himself had to wring it out of his daughter, so it must have been a fairly discreet affair. And when Gertrude agrees that Hamlet may be going mad for love, Ophelia smiles brightly. An odd reaction perhaps, but Ophelia is focusing on the idea that Hamlet may love her, rather than the madness. At that moment, she is accepted by the Queen as a potential mate for Hamlet, and we find out later that (sincere or not), Gertrude would have liked to see them married. We will have to stay aware of the evolving relationship between the play's two female characters to see how we get from here to there.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

II.ii. Brevity - Fodor (2007)

Polonia's brevity speech is a seduction scene. As she makes her case, lacing her speech with false concern and furtive smiles, the tribal drums behind her voice turn to a driving dance beat. The lighting becomes more and more blown out, and the camera represents more and more the King's point of view. His head sways from side to side, like a man hypnotized by a snake, and though they're discussing a serious matter, he smiles through the whole thing.
Gertrude notices the effect Polonia has on her new husband and after failing to dismiss the younger woman's words, she becomes more apprehensive. Lines cut from this section turn one in particular on its head. When Polonia says "Your son is mad", the Queen immediately throws out "More matter with less art", giving it a sarcastic turn that attacks Polonia's bluntness and obviousness. Polonia ignores her, fixating on the King throughout, and continues with "Mad let us grant him then", since everyone agrees with her thesis. Gertrude loses ground quickly through this scene until we're well into the King's POV and her lines turn into a foreign language (sounds like German, but I can't be sure). He no longer hears her.

As Polonia reads her sister's letter, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern look at each other lasciviously. The Ghost is still walking around. The characters in the play are much more exposed in this version, often present when Shakespeare dictated they should not be. As we get to the section's climax and Polonia's plot to spy on Hamlet and prove his madness, the dance beat goes up tempo, and R&G turn into Polonia's back-up band, and then it all cuts out. The lighting effect and music disappear as Hamlet and Horatio enter the room, breaking the spell. Awkwardness ensues...

Friday, January 7, 2011

II.ii. Brevity - Hamlet 2000

From Act II onwards, Hamlet 2000 makes some big structural changes to the play. Scenes are rarely in the order we're used to. In this case, Polonius boards Hamlet reading BEFORE he goes to the King and Queen. He has seen the madness first hand, and is not getting his information from his (tight-lipped) daughter, any intercepted message, or Hamlet's public behavior. When he tells Gertrude her son is mad, there is surprise there. She wasn't aware of any problem since the modern setting has Hamlet often outside the Elsinore building, and she's been too wrapped up in her own happiness besides. There is also something to be said for both Hamlet and Ophelia already acting crazy, as modern youths are more likely to give in to their moods and eccentricities than those of the Elizabethan era.

The scene is set at a pool high in the sky, signifying the opulence afforded these corporate Royals, but also in keeping with Ophelia's thematic link to water. Polonius has brought her (and her rather outrageous baggy jeans) to his meeting with the Royals. He is cocky and proud of himself, at times rehearsed and often expecting reactions and getting none. Bill Murray's comic timing is impeccable here, leaving gaps for the other characters to respond when they don't have any lines. Gertrude's impatience is evident, though she tends to hide it from Polonius by hiding behind her husband's back.
Ophelia, for her part, is disaffected and numb through most of the exchange, having cut herself off from her emotions to bear the humiliation. Her father produces the letter he took from her at the start of the Act, lying about her giving it to him voluntarily. He's bagged it as a piece of evidence. Ophelia reaches for it, like a child whose toy has been taken away, but he keeps it away. It happens again while he unenthusiastically reads it, as she runs for it from out of frame. This is wonderfully comic while also being tragic. The girl then starts walking along the pool's edge as if it were a tightrope. One irony of the play that is brought to light when directors include Ophelia in this scene is that while Hamlet may or may not have gone mad for love, Ophelia most definitely suffers for love and no one realizes it. Hamlet remains the focus of the play, but it's Ophelia who takes her life and should have been on suicide watch. The idea of having her humiliated here makes the adults of the play complicit in driving her to it. And this Ophelia is definitely "on the edge".

Polonius walks towards camera before he asks what the Royals think of him, hiding a smile indicating that, at least in his own mind, he's manipulating them. Not that he has an ulterior motive, but he does like it when he speaks to authority and they listen. This is an arrogant Polonius. As he chides Ophelia about Hamlet being a prince out of her star, he turns to her, chiding her for a second time. That's when she jumps into the water, prefiguring her later drowning.
This is but a fantasy, and we return to the scene. They never saw her jump, but for the audience, it's a sign of things to come. Ophelia has a deep desire to drown out the world around her - showing us the dive muffles the sound of the dialog. The scene cuts the plan between Claudius and Polonius, allow Claudius to just give his counselor a look that makes him feel pressure to promise more detective work.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

II.ii. Brevity - Kline '90

Having omitted the first part of the scene, Act II here begins with Polonius' address to the King and Queen. It seems artificially staged, with the three of them just standing there. However, the acting more than makes up for it. Josef Sommer's Polonius is excellent here, chuckling through the entire encounter, his tension and discomfort realized as laughter ("a vile phrase - haha!). His foolishness is presented as mirth while addressing a serious matter, which culminates with irony when he says "and all we mourn for". No wonder Gertrude loses her patience with him.

The Royals are initially warm with the old man, Claudius especially so. There is a kindness there for an old man who has been, at the very least, a friend of the family. When Polonius says that Hamlet is mad, Gertrude acts like this is new information, or at least a new diagnostic. Where we usually have an ironic turn in which Polonius asks conference only to state the obvious, we now have a revelation. It's true that without the front end of the scene, we've lost the Royals' concern over Hamlet (they do not recruit Rosencrantz & Guildenstern before our eyes), but even had we had it, it is his melancholy that's the problem, not outright madness. The Royals were simply not aware of how badly things had become. Kline's vision does not afford them the weariness we've seen from the Royals by this point in other versions.