Thursday, February 24, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Tennant (2009)

There's a major structural difference at this point in Gregory Doran's version of the play. The Fishmonger scene now occurs after "To be or not to be" and Hamlet's staged encounter with Ophelia. This means that he's already angry at Polonius and his meddling, but also that Claudius has already rejected Polonius' thesis about love-induced madness. It gives Hamlet more reason to toy with Polonius, and in the latter's case, either more reason to try and prove his point or simply a more obvious inability to analyze a situation. The way this is played, I'd say the latter. Placing the scene back to back with the Hamlet-Ophelia sequence also creates some staging opportunities. Claudius is still behind a two-way mirror, and Hamlet sticks his face on the glass, trying to see him there. It also gives Hamlet the opportunity to pick up the book Ophelia was reading, so that Hamlet is turning the staging back on Polonius. The older man, of course, doesn't understand this meeting is just as staged as the previous one.

The structure also asks a question regarding why Hamlet came back to the scene of the crime. He's just thrown Ophelia around and been very cruel to her, and done it in front of the cameras (he knows he's being watched, though not from so near). He leaves, then returns. Why? Is he coming back to comfort Ophelia, having calmed down? Or to take her into his secret? Or is he specifically returning to catch Polonius or even Claudius in the act of mopping up, and to further confuse the conspirators?

Hamlet has a good crazy act going in this sequence, while Polonius makes all his asides directly to camera. This trick can be off-putting, but somehow makes the man more senile. I'm not sure if it's an effect of our knowing actors shouldn't look directly into camera (and so a "mistake" in our minds), but it seems more unhinged than simply staring into the distance and speaking to oneself. The barefoot Hamlet is on his back and has the book sitting squarely on his face by the time Polonius asks him what he's reading. This is a doubly clueless question as 1) it's the book Polonius himself might have given Ophelia to read, and 2) Hamlet is merely covering his eyes with it, not reading. The answer is our first triple repetition, "Words". The first is a plain statement of fact, the second over enunciated (not unlike Branagh's third), and the last is asked as a question, a timid one like "is that the right term?" as if Polonius had shaken Hamlet's faith in his answer.

Good comic timing on the slanders too. With each line, Hamlet pauses to look up and check on their veracity as Polonius gets more and more visibly insulted. The exchange subverts many of the usual stagings by placing Hamlet in a lower physical position to Polonius', but this is ironic. Despite being in a prone position, Hamlet dominates here. He attacks Polonius who, in turn, cannot defend himself, only retreat. Hamlet finally stands up at the end, and has one of only a couple of "Doctorish" moments in the entire performance. When checking on Polonius' "lack of wit", he has an evaluating "well..." moment that is very Doctor Who. On the crab line, he grows distracted and walks away.

"Indeed that is out of the air" is made part of the "pregnant" aside here, which makes Polonius seem even more goofy as he attempts to show the audience how perceptive he is. Which leads us to the second repeated line, "Except my life".
The first is a tense, tragic warning, in earnest. The second shows contempt for that life. In the third, he starts shambling towards Polonius, distorting his face like a monster on a member of Monty Python's Flying Circus. It is a parody of his own feigned madness, taking his act to a ridiculous extreme. Again, Polonius fails to properly gauge the situation and runs off, taking the act for the truth. Hamlet almost screams his "These tedious old fools", exasperated. And yet, Polonius doesn't realize he's being played.

Friday, February 18, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Fodor (2007)

As Polonia speaks to the Royals, Hamlet and Horatio walk in on them (as well as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern). Instead of an intimate conversation between Hamlet and Polonia, it happens in a tightly packed group. This certainly makes Hamlet seem crazier, though the fact that Horatio is also there belies this idea. Hamlet is mocking her (and them all) openly, and Horatio looks on amused. I'm not complaining about Horatio being included in many more scenes, turning her and Hamlet into a cruel double act, but I do wonder about their thinking. If Hamlet is trying to appear insane, then having his best friend as an open accomplice defeats the purpose. Of course, in Fodor's film, all the characters appear insane, so it's possible the distinction is that Hamlet is DANGEROUSLY insane. The Royals might still be able to believe that Horatio humors her friend, but does not realize he's dangerous. Fodor's choices do sometimes tend to create more problems than the problem play already has.

So Hamlet walks in and starts sniffing Polonia, making the fishmonger comment an even ruder proposition than usual (or perhaps restoring that rudeness, since contemporary audiences no longer register it). Fodor plays up the gender change here, for example making Hamlet slap Polonia's bottom on "Friend, look to it". His closeness and varied comments, turned on a woman rather than an old man, gives a threatening sexual charge to the sequence. The implication is that Hamlet threatens his lover's sister with sexual violence. As for the text, the gender is sometimes changed and sometimes isn't. Hamlet says "so honest a woman", but then calls her "sir" and says that "to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one MAN picked out of ten thousand". He even emphasizes it. This does connect to Hamlet's mistrust of the women in his life. He also questions Ophelia's honesty, and of course, feels betrayed by his mother. In other words, one man in 10,000 is honest, but no woman ever is.

Again, a modern staging does away with the book, with "Words, words, words" and with the slanders (which would have had to be completely rewritten since Polonia is not an old man). In this case, we also get only one "except my life", in a mock serious tone following a more clownish answer to Polonia asking to take her leave. Though the characters in the room may be able to dismiss it as mockery - everything else he says and does seems to fall in that category - the audience may infer he's serious because it's already seen the "To be or not to be" speech, recorded on a reel-to-reel in an earlier scene.

Then comes a transition to the next sequence, the child Hamlet dancing and singing in a yellowishly glowing flashback. This lyrical image may represent Hamlet's victory over Polonia in the preceding sequence and the sense of play that informed his behavior. Despite his grief and the revenge that is to come - and this is true in many stagings - Hamlet at this point seems to be having fun with his feigned madness.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Hamlet 2000

This sequence appears before Polonius' talk with the Royals, and so gives it a different spin. In this version of the play, Polonius checks on Hamlet before going to his parents and is the smarter for it, even getting the jump on a startled Hamlet in stark opposition to other portrayals that have Hamlet sneaking up on the older man, on eye over the edge of his book. And of course, there is no book here. Instead, Hamlet is viewing one of his video diaries, one that contains part of the speech that discusses Claudius taking part in the "King's rouse" (" oft it chances in particular men..."). Not only does Polonius surprise him, but he has also glimpsed something of Hamlet's true interior monologue. Hamlet is less mad here than angry with himself and trying to cover with feigned madness, throwing Polonius off-track by mentioning his daughter.

The use of the video diary also means we don't get "Words, words, words", sadly, which also means the slanders are absent.

Not for the first time, and a good nine years before the Tennant version, security cameras are used to cover the scene and give the sense of hyper-surveillance that, in Elizabethan drama, is the purview of arrases. Polonius speaks his asides to this camera. Who is watching? Not the King, certainly, because Polonius hasn't yet informed him of his suspicions. His own video diary then, using Elsinore's entire network. Or us, if you want to go postmodern with it.
When he catches up to Hamlet, the prince hides a gun, throwing a shadow over his next line about walking into his grave. Just before the sequence's final repetition, Hamlet pops his head out of the corridor and is himself repeated in the mirrored wall. An image of... a man with two sides to his personality? Or is it that Alice-like, he walks through the looking glass and into a fantasy of his revenge?
Though the first "except my life", as normal, is spoken to Polonius, the next shot has Hamlet repeating the line three times (one more than in the play) as voice-over even as he walks through his uncle's offices with his gun. Shades of the confessional scene that comes later, this time Hamlet cannot do the deed because Claudius isn't there (he's in the pool, upstairs). Hamlet 2000's protagonist appears at that moment quite capable of carrying off his revenge, or is it all fantasy (no one notices or reacts)? The idea is that the more the play progresses, the more time Hamlet has to reflect on his actions, the less he's able to commit murder. A crime of passion is possible for him, but he can't intellectually commit to such an act.

Though the text itself does not feature such a scene, this idea nonetheless runs through the play. Hamlet is, in a way, about morality being an artifact of reason. Where Claudius is able to kill his own brother for passion's sake (the Gertrude defense), Hamlet the university student cannot commit murder once he starts verbalizing his emotions and condition. At the end, he only kills once he's incensed by the sword fight and his mother's murder. Hamlet's killings are done in anger, and though he's intellectualized them a priori, they ARE crimes of passion when they finally occur.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Kline '90

In Kline's version, Polonius skulks around pillars, in and out of sight like a clownish spy. He smiles a lot, sometimes trying to lull Hamlet into a false sense of security, sometimes because he doesn't get the importance of what he's heard. How else to explain his smile when, in an aside, he talks about the "happiness" the prince's madness has hit on. Kline's Hamlet, for his part, does a lot of shouting, but some of his line readings are nonetheless interesting, especially in regards to the accompanying gestures.

When he talks about conception, for example, he blesses Polonius' forehead. Is this meant as an insult? He's just discussed the conception of maggots from carrion, so Polonius may just have been compared to that "fatherly" carrion rather than the Fatherly son. Ophelia has no mother to be that carrion after all, and in the play's structure, has come out of her father whole, just as maggots seemed created from carrion to Medieval eyes.

Hamlet's "Words" are revealed to the clueless Polonius, not as if Hamlet were speaking to a child, but rather to a co-conspirator. He talks to Polonius in his own language, if you will, but mocking that language and the older man's self-importance. On the third "Word", he almost throws the book into Polonius' face, again very tactile and familiar with him. When he talks about the slanders, both characters are sitting on the floor at the same level. One reaches to high, the other mocks him by lowering himself. A mad Hamlet is equal to a supposedly healthy Polonius. The effect is that they both seem out of it in their own way. Hamlet ends that part of the conversation by ripping the offending page out of the book and sticking it to Polonius' anointed forehead. He labels him with those words.
"Except my life" is again a conspiratorial revelation that mocks Polonius' ability to keep a secret. When Polonius stays, despite having just said he was leaving (another failure on his part), Hamlet repeats the line twice, the last in a stage whisper accompanied by a clownish wave of his hand. There is no sense that Kline's Hamlet means it, or at least, that he recognizes his own fatalism here. As soon as Polonius has left, he immediately intones "These tedious old fools!". Amusingly, having heard, Polonius sticks his head in again. Hamlet covers by showing him the book and acting like he was reading from it. Indeed, the line is connected to the earlier slanders. He then goes to sleep on the floor with the book over his head, a visual link to such lines as "the book and volume of my brain". Hamlet has just erased that book and now works on another. The book here played as part of his madness replaces his mind in the short term. We've heard that Hamlet has been walking up and down the lobby reading of late, and this may be an image of an erased man/book, trying to fill himself up with words again, words he unleashes with fury in the rest of the play (to the point of frustration, as the "Rogue and peasant slave" speech indicates).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Zeffirelli '90

At the end of the previous sequence, mad Hamlet walks into the lobby, ripping pages out of his books and throwing them away, but the fishmonger scene actually occurs in the library. When Polonius walks in, Hamlet climbs to the top of the shelves, underscoring his elevated status (both as a prince and as a character), as Olivier did, throughout the exchange. We also may note here that Hamlet wears only one boot, part of his "disguise" as a madman. Polonius thinks himself clever, picking up a book like he's there only by coincidence, but he never reads much of anything, and that includes Hamlet.

The actors keep the scene light, laughing at misunderstands and word play, though Polonius sobers up when his daughter is mentioned. "Words, words, words" has Hamlet looking through his book as if to check on its contents, then on the final word, confirming this fact to Polonius, and inviting him to climb up the ladder to get closer to him, to his truth. Upon reading the slanders, he rips the dishonest page from the book and throws it, crumpled, at Polonius' head. He follows up, on "go backward", by pushing the ladder back with his foot, causing Polonius to fall.
All of this is playful, if cruel, on the part of both the actors and the director. Polonius scurries off, afraid for his safety, and as he stumbles, Hamlet throws out an almost mocking "except my life". Polonius reaches the door, but stops at another "except...". Will Hamlet say something else? Something more serious? No, as we know, it is again "... my life". And when Polonius is gone, Hamlet realizes that what he said in jest is the truth. The last repetition, softly spoken to himself, reveals how far he is truly willing to go in his quest for revenge. It's a great moment. In a final gesture to punctuate the scene, he drops his book from on high and it hits the floor with a satisfying sound. Though this version of the scene is lighter than others, and the fatalism of some lines underplayed, that fatalism resounds in that final moment.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - BBC '80

Jacobi's Hamlet walks in on Polonius and the Royals, reading and feigning madness. This is very different staging from the usual scurrying away, allowing Hamlet to interact with his parents in this "state". He makes a show of being repulsed by and afraid of his mother, but his furtive looks provide proof that this is an act. His puts a lot into his gestures, for example actively seeing things he mentions as metaphor, pointing to God and to carrion (carrion that shockingly makes him think of asking about Ophelia). This is a character trait he picks up from other places in the play, such as when he makes Polonius look at clouds.

But of course, it's in his interpretation of the words that Jacobi shines most. He gives every line its own nuance. For example, his "God have mercy", usually an annex to his "Well" (i.e. thank the Lord that yes, I am well) becomes a show of exasperation with Polonius. His "Words, words, words" starts out as a strange realization that he is reading words, followed by disgust that that's all they are. Jacobi turns the line into a precursor for Hamlet's distress when he must "unpack his heart with words". For Hamlet, while words are his greatest gift and weapon, they are not enough to express his being - a central irony of the character. Hamlet actively dislikes being bound by his author's words, which is why we often talk about him getting away from Shakespeare.

From moment to moment, Hamlet's attitude may change. At "between who", he becomes conspiratorial, a parody of Polonius' obsession with hyper-surveillance. At "into my grave", where other actors have made the line sarcastic, Jacobi makes his Hamlet feign great fear and anguish, as if he were both misunderstanding Polonius and taking him at his word. He lets out little laughs, lascivious ooohs, and injects comic pauses (for example, when reading the "slanders", as if to confirm the words using Polonius as a template).

"Except my life" becomes a full-blown suicide attempt (again, for show), putting his dagger to his stomach and threatening to push it in.
Polonius' reaction is to quickly walk away, afraid perhaps of being accused of murdering Hamlet, or of pushing him into suicide. As soon as he runs, Hamlet stops this pretense, but it is a dark, cruel joke he revisits more seriously in the "To be or not to be" speech.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Olivier '48

Olivier's Hamlet is far less loony, his madness manifesting itself as deep depression, or else through his words. In this sequence, he is aloof and superior, speaking to Polonius always from a higher vantage point. Again, the idea of status is presented, and though minor cuts keep Polonius from comparing his love sickness to Hamlet's, there is a sense that this man should not try to match or keep up with the prince. He think he can, early on narrowing his eyes when he believes he has confirmation about his daughter's role in this, but the staging never allows him to win. Polonius is always looking up, and Hamlet down. The slanders are directed entirely at Polonius, Hamlet's eyes never moving to the book. He is in control here. That higher walkway also plays delightfully with the phrase "walk out of the air", as Hamlet seems to walk on it, while Polonius could be seen to be in the grave.

The first aside is done away with in favor of Polonius running back to the Royals, hidden behind a piece of scenery, to deliver his lines to them instead of us. This live report does little to change the scene except to make him look more clownish.

As for the sequence's key repetitions, Olivier chooses to deliver each as part of the same line, in the same tone. "Words, words, words" is one line, not three, and his only flourish is to show the book from afar as proof of what he says.
"Except my life" is spoken thrice as he walks off stage, obvious melancholy in his voice, but with very little variation in his tone. There's lassitude there, that of a character who is tired of life. And while it is theatrical in that he raises his voice so that the audience may hear him, Polonius has already run off. It's not for his sake. Must we assume that here he is finally speaking his true self? That would make cool, collected, aloof Hamlet the act, and depressed Hamlet his true self. Is this Hamlet madder alone than when he plays at being mad?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

II.ii. The Fishmonger Scene - Branagh '96

Branagh makes plain that Hamlet is putting "an antic disposition" on in this scene. When he is first seen reading, he keeps Polonius and the Royals in the corner of his eye. And when Polonius boards him, Hamlet scares him with a death mask, so he was well prepared for this meeting, even if he'll find it rather annoying. The mask is a nice touch, part of the overall fatalism of the sequence, supported by other lines ("into my grave", "except my life", etc.) and invoking the graveyard scene that comes much later.

Hamlet's feigned madness allows him to be mercurial with Polonius, sometimes angry (that he does not admit to being a fishmonger, for example), sometimes serious, sometimes silly. He uses the repetitive lines in the scene to make those changes evident. It strikes me that these have a threefold use: One is to allow Hamlet to quickly change his delivery to simulate insanity, another is to show Polonius off as a dense (or obstinate) man who needs things repeated to understand them, and yet another, more metaphorical, is to tell the audience that Hamlet is a "complete" character who is never just one thing. This is an important point to make about Shakespeare's mature drama and how it was a change from the "cartoonish" theater of his era - from archetypal representations to psychological individuals. So when he says "Words, words, words", each "word" is different. The first is bored with the question, the second makes the answer obvious and the questioner stupid, and the third is completely mad as Hamlet twists his mouth bizarrely around each sound.
Not that he really reads. His slanders seem his own, looking at Polonius as if composing them on the spot. He reads Polonius, not the book. I didn't speak about the crab metaphor in the previous article, but it seems to me, among other things, that it continues the play on disjointed time. Going backward in time is physically impossible, though any murder mystery is essentially a mental game of time travel to the past. The disjointed temporality of the play could be a manifestation of that straddling between the past (the dead father) and the future (the prince's aborted ascension).

As Polonius sweats through the conversation, stopping for asides often to take a break from Hamlet's not-so-veiled attacks, the characters migrate to the exterior of Elsinore, a transition to the next sequence. We're reminded of their individual status here, because Polonius is forced to follow Hamlet into the snow only to ask to take his leave. It's not enough that the prince walk away from him. It's also an indication that Polonius doesn't pick up on things quite as deftly as he believes. Finally, we have the second repeated line in the sequence, "Except my life". Again, Branagh gives each repeated meme its own reading. The first is the more neutral, voice cracking slightly, but not really making a point with it, except perhaps to himself. Does he give away too much? Perhaps that's why he decides to make it part of his mad-speak. The second is said in a hushed and serious tone, a threat. The third is completely loopy, using the kind of sing-song voice you would telling spooky campfire stories. Though there is "method in it", Polonius isn't equipped to discern just what is real, what is implied and what is Hamlet's feigned lunacy, more serious readings forgotten smothered in the mad ones that follow them.