Saturday, August 27, 2011

III.i. Briefings - Classics Illustrated

The original
The sequence does not appear in the 1952 comic. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are given a mission, but we never see them on it, nor report back to the King. As for the set-up to Ophelia's encounter with Hamlet, space considerations leave it to the plan being first mentioned in Act II.

The Berkley versionTom Mandrake's adaptation, however, gives the sequence a full - and unusually sunny - page. Space is still a concern, with cuts both in dialog and images changing the "staging" of the sequence. R&G's report, for example, now amounts to a single line ("He does confess himself...") and does not include the invitation to the play. This omission actually highlights an irony in the play. In the play, Claudius makes a show of happiness to hear Hamlet has found joy in the Players. He then goes on to spy on the prince and set things in motion for his exile. Here, there is no false show of emotion, and that's perhaps because Gertrude has been cut entirely from the scene.

Compressing so much dialog into so few panels has a powerful effect. It rushes things. There is greater momentum to the story, but it also changes how we might perceive any given exchange. For example, it here looks like Claudius is informing R&G of his plans for Ophelia. While most stagings of the play have made Polonius say his "We are oft to blame in this" speech to Claudius (sharing the "we"), here he says it to Ophelia, a rare apology from the character. Needs must. There is no space, nor any compositional advantage, to craft panels with the correct expressions and facing characters to properly interpret each exchange and nuance. Reading these comics, it is clear that Hamlet is a drama meant to be ACTED.

Friday, August 26, 2011

III.i. Briefings - Tennant (2009)

The sequence sits right on top of the film's structural change. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's debriefing acts as preamble to Claudius' reaction to the nunnery scene, and so as a way to get back to the timeline as written. Ophelia's instructions, precursor as ever to "To be or not to be" and the nunnery scene occurs long before, at the tail end of the sequence this blog called "Brevity" (just before the fishmonger scene).

Part I - Rosencrantz & GuildensternThe restructuring means that by the time R&G get to Claudius, the King has already seen Hamlet throwing Ophelia about and playing games with Polonius. As in the original text, being aware of all this means he's primed and ready to send his stepson to England. He's made up his mind. While R&G make their report, the King and Queen simply use each consecutive argument to justify their opinions. When there is talk of crafty madness, Claudius wags his finger in an "I told you so" motion at Gertrude. She, in turn, asks leading questions that have an unspoken yet audible "yes but" behind them. Yes but... did he receive you well? She's building a defense for her son, and is happy when the retorts go her way, discomfited when the other twin puts a different spin on the same answer.

The staging reveals why R&G each take a side. In the story, one is sucking up to the Queen and the other to the King. In the drama, the Royals are enacting their argument THROUGH the sycophants. By their reactions, the King and Queen are suggesting answers to two people who only really want to say what the Royals want to hear, and so they do.

Part 2 - Ophelia
Here too, there is innovation from the cast and director Gregory Doran. It seems that in this version, Gertrude doesn't know Ophelia at all! She's unsure about the girl's name and says it with a question mark attached, and lets out a surprised, little "oh" when Ophelia takes her hand. There is no doubt her heart is warmed by the gesture, and that her words are sincere, but they are not borne of long-standing affection. What does it mean? Well, she doesn't know her son as well as she thinks she does, for one thing. For another, it lends weight to Polonius and Laertes warning Ophelia away from Hamlet at the start of the play. Was he perhaps a bit of a lad (at least before Ophelia)? His mother doesn't seem to keep up with who the latest girlfriend is. And what will be the impact of this choice on Gertrude's description of Ophelia's suicide?

"To both your honors." As it's often played - for I had not considered another possibility - this seems to refer to the honors of both Ophelia and Hamlet. That if love is the cause of Hamlet's madness, then the truth of it would heal both he and Ophelia. This Gertrude is more direct in addressing the line to Polonius, which makes more sense. It would be to Ophelia's honor that she be the object of this love/madness, and to Polonius' that his theory be correct.

As Gertrude is dismissed and the scene turns to instructions for Ophelia, we see Hamlet coming down an adjacent corridor, the words echoing quite clearly. He's heard it all and definitely knows he'll be watched in the nunnery scene (however, "To be or not to be" is still spoken quietly enough to register as unseen by the spies). A word on Hamlet's t-shirt as it's its first chronological appearance even if we've seen it before in these articles:
Apparently an old t-shirt of Tennant's, it's a bit flashy for the dark, brooding Hamlet, but takes on an ironic meaning. The muscled chest depicted relates to Hamlet's earlier comparison between himself and Hercules. We are invited to compare the mythic demigod with the thin, disturbed boy in front of us.

One final thing: There's a hilarious bit when Polonius takes the book Ophelia is to read from a large folder. In this hyper-surveillance world, did Polonius catalog, index and file all of Hamlet's mementos to Ophelia? It's as ludicrous and self-important as the First Minister himself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

III.i. Briefings - Fodor (2007)

The conspirators are in a dark space, made stranger by often abstract angles, watching Hamlet practice his fencing from behind a two-way mirror. There is much to learn about the characters as Fodor imagines them here. The camera follows glances from Polonia's chest to Claudius' eyes, for example, and the two characters are sometimes standing next to each other, sometimes have Gertrude between them. Continuity mistake? The effect is to make the Queen's relevance intermittent at best. Even Ophelia, naive in the way she gazes at Hamlet, gleefully smiles at the end of the sequence when the Queen notices, powerless, that Polonia and Claudius are holding hands. The Queen knows of her husband's infidelities, but bears them and the scorn and ridicule of the entire house. This is a world with far more palpable corruption, and one gets a sense from these events that the King is not so much do things for Gertrude as he is for Polonia. Polonia's motivation is manipulation for manipulation's sake, or simply to do evil. She drugs her sister to control her, keeps her away from Hamlet, and is now bored with that and tries something else. Hamlet is either the object of a certain vengeance (he and Horatio have humiliated her with the truth of their words - a more distracted, older Polonius would probably not react like that), or a pretext for getting closer to the King. The idea that she is in control here is presented visually by having Rosencrantz & Guildenstern seem to speak to her more than to the King. The King is not in the frame, and Polonia, being closer, becomes the most powerful (largest) figure.

R&G are less sycophantic in this version, they just share Polonia's evil bent. In fact, only Gertrude in any way smiles. The others are all cold and calculating. They report their findings while watching Hamlet, as if he were some laboratory animal. "There did seem a kind of joy" is said with the voice of a scientist, observing an intriguing behavior. Polonia entreats the King to "hear and see the matter" in what sounds like a further variable. There is no sincerity in Polonia's voice; she essentially says "Let's see what happens when we humor him." It is an experiment.

Hamlet ends his practice (with an unnamed characters), and tells his sparring partner that he "fights like a girl". This departure from the text has an ironic bent, since Hamlet's adversaries in the play include two women (three in this adaptation), and he is about to have a confrontation (possibly violent) with one of them. He then goes up to the mirror to fix his shirt. Ophelia looks right into his eyes, unseen. She's a manipulator too, though her goal may be different. She is happy to be part of this plan and will not show the doubt and fear other Ophelias have been prone to. As he lies down to rest in the white room, Ophelia leaves the dark one to join him.

Friday, August 19, 2011

III.i. Briefings - Hamlet 2000

We get into the sequence through the invitation to The Mouse-Trap, the title of Hamlet's film within a film, spoiled a good while before it is in the text. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are on the phone with the King, speaking the single line "We shall, my Lord" together, comically. It's an efficient piece of modern staging, putting great distance between the royals and the sycophants, and playing on the duo's "sameness" by having them huddle around the same phone (at least, in our imaginations).
While that is going on, Polonius is strapping a wire onto Ophelia, yet another piece of modern technology used to simulate the Elizabethan "behind an arras" technique. There's something rather creepy and hilarious at the same time about all this. Polonius winking at the royals as he seemingly fondles his own daughter, the gesture made more inappropriate by the royals ogling the situation lasciviously. There's in fact something very sexual about Gertrude in this adaptation. Here, she's halfway sitting on her husband, and talking about Ophelia's "virtues" in ironic quotation marks. She seems to infer that Ophelia's power over Hamlet is sexual, and that all her son really needs is a good roll in the hay. This Gertrude is someone who solves her problems with sex, having promptly changed her widow's fortune into a wedding, and definitely enjoying the honeymoon period. There's no real affection for Ophelia here. it's about using the girl as a sex object, if not to "fix" Hamlet, then at least to get information from him.
There are a lot of lines cut from the sequence - we come in late on the phone conversation, and the modern spin must avoid mentioning certain anachronisms - but the most important are Ophelia's. She has no lines at all, remaining silent and weeping through the entire ordeal. Cutting "I wish it may" makes her an unwilling participant in the scheme and supports her later suicide, making the royals and her father share in the responsibility along with Hamlet. The cuts also support the idea that the meeting will not be accidental. Ophelia will have to go to Hamlet while the older men listen in on the conversation. It also means that they won't hear "To be or not to be", nor will they be able to see what's going on. But those are all matters for the next time we pick the adaptation up, and I won't spoil them here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

III.i. Briefings - Kline '90

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's appearance is cut from Act III Scene 1, leaving us to imagine them giving Claudius their meager findings off-stage. We instead start with Claudius asking Gertrude to leave so they can spy on Ophelia, the proper start of the second briefing. This Gertrude doesn't seem to mind and is content to obey her husband. Ophelia, for her part, is enthusiastic! She evidently believes this ploy will work and that her father's theory is likely the correct one. After the scene recounted by Ophelia earlier, who could blame her? His first show of madness, as far as Elsinore is concerned (Horatio and the soldiers were sworn to silence), was to Ophelia. Most actresses use how shaken Ophelia was in that first sequence to inform her meeting with Hamlet, apprehensive and hurt rather than hopeful, but playing the opposite is quite correct too. Hopefully, that choice will play out in interesting ways later in the scene.

Josef Sommer's Polonius remains as pedantic as ever, instructing his daughter on where and how to walk, as if talking to a child, which is all the more ridiculous given his Ophelia's apparent maturity.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

III.i. Briefings - Zeffirelli '90

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's debriefing is played silently in Zeffirelli's vision, with them running up to the King while Hamlet looks on, unseen, and is moved to utter what words of the "O what a peasant slave am I" speech the film retains. This makes their treachery more brazen and/or gauche, which will always have the perverse effect of weakening Hamlet. It's no great achievement to outplay the too-incompetent R&G.
Ophelia's own briefing takes place well before - "To be or not to be" and the nunnery scene are placed at the end of Act II, just after the "Words, words, words" sequence - and is missing the front end of the conversation. We begin at Gertrude's "I do wish that your good beauties", which has the strange effect of giving Gertrude control over the scheme. Though the Queen treats Ophelia with much affection, but looks over the girl's shoulder at Polonius as if instructing him as well as his daughter, or perhaps letting him know that he's on the hook for his theory. Gertrude then has a silent moment with her husband as Ophelia and Polonius go down the stairs to the "lobby", hands are kissed and cheeks stroked before Claudius leaves her too. She stands at the top of the stairs a moment before leaving. That position of power again seems to point to a more manipulative Queen, at least pushing this ploy against her son. She does not "obey" Claudius, but seems to command him to do her dirty business. She means well, of course, but it does put her role in court politics into question. While perhaps not aware of Claudius' crime, how much did she actively seize a moment when she allied herself with him?

Another important cut: Claudius does not make a confessional aside. Zeffirelli does his best to take away any kind of regret from this character. His Claudius is a more obvious and one-dimensional villain (unfortunately), and it would not do to make him more sympathetic with even the perception of pangs of regret.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

III.i. Briefings - BBC '80

A variety of attitudes is on show early in this sequence, which is what makes it interesting. Rosencrantz and Gertrude are as expected - he with a certain defensiveness and she with sadness and worry. Guildenstern, for his part, almost chuckles at Hamlet's "craft", showing some admiration at how the prince has prevented them from succeeding. This is self-serving in a sense (they only failed because Hamlet is so clever), but could also be seen as a lack of loyalty to the King, which makes Rosencrantz's defensiveness flare up.

As for Claudius, I always had misgivings about the way Patrick Stewart played him, some of them reformed by this analytical, scene-by-scene viewing. I may now understand the actor's choice to disconnect Claudius from his emotions, though it had at first seemed "false". But Claudius IS false, and so playing him that way is legitimate. It's like he doesn't mean anything he says here, and may well be putting on a show for Gertrude when he expresses happiness at Hamlet's play. Does he even mean his aside? Polonius only laughingly chide himself here - as ever missing the point and being jolly about serious matters - which makes Claudius' guilty turn more severe in tone, but Stewart holds back. He doesn't seem to feel the guilt, only to recognize that he remembers the murder and that he has ever since lied about it. His crime is so horrific that he dare not connect to his emotions. "He doesn't mean it" will be an apt phrase to recall when he asks God for absolution.

When he asks Gertrude to leave, he searches for the right words, painting him as a liar there too. Claudius' attitude leads me to ask whether the plan to send Hamlet to England is already in motion. In a few minutes, Hamlet will have played the savage with Ophelia and Claudius will state that in "quick determination", he's made the decision, but it's so quick, it might already have been on his mind. In other words, he doesn't want Gertrude there so he can come to his foregone conclusion no matter what. Hamlet just happens to give him cause.

And in the category of line readings that inform the text, I'd like to mention "Good gentlemen, give him a further edge, And drive his purpose on to these delights" as spoken by Stewart's Claudius. His emphases reveal some delicious ironies in the words. On the one hand, Shakespeare has Claudius use a violent metaphor where none should apply, entreating Hamlet to enjoy working on his play by turning him into a weapon. And on the other hand, Claudius doesn't know that the play IS a weapon against him, Hamlet's added lines the whetting of a blade that will eventually lead to a very real sword driven into him. He's ordering his own murder and doesn't know it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

III.i. Briefings - Olivier '48

As Rosencrantz & Guildenstern do not appear in this version of the play, only Ophelia need be briefed. And as "To be or not to be" is uttered in Act II, she need not be subjected to overhearing it. So what are we left with? Quite an interesting piece of staging, actually. The innocent Ophelia's status as a victim is emphasized in this film. She comes down a corridor, unawares, and his ambushed by her father, just as he intends her to ambush Hamlet. His hand holding a book comes out of nowhere, and surprises her - a violent penetration into her interior world. This Ophelia has not been prepared for what is to come, which will add to her confusion and the unfairness of the situation. It's very clever.

Once she gets her instructions, Polonius and the King go behind and arras, though not before Polonius points repeatedly at the spot where he wants her to stand. As ever, he means to control members of his family - something he has in common with Claudius - though once he's hidden, Ophelia is left to mill around, despondent. In Ophelia's every movement, there is discomfort. She is going back and forth in her own mind as to whether she should or even could disobey her father. The decision is taken out of her hands when Hamlet finally enters, startling her.