Wednesday, September 28, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli places the speech between the Nunnery scene and his meeting with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and then the Players' arrival. He has just violently rejected Ophelia, and has yet to have his spirits lifted by the newcomers. Mel Gibson plays it as Hamlet at his lowest. He enters his ancestors' crypt, and surrounded by tombs and skeletons, he intones the speech. There is no question that he is alone and unheard. This is his depression talking as he faces death itself.

At first, I felt the intent of the speech was muddled by this staging. Shots of dead royals in their tombs as Hamlet talks about ending one's own life seemed jarring. Surely, those kings and queens didn't all commit suicide? And Hamlet praying to two different tombs surely took away from what would otherwise be a visit to his father's. But time and again, Zeffirelli has created meaning from imagery, replacing or supplementing the text. Looking at it with a more open mind, a new interpretation emanates from the scene. Zeffirelli's Hamlet isn't just facing suicide, but mortality itself. And opening this speech up to other ways of dying reminds us of a simple fact: There are more ways to commit suicide than the sudden stab of a dagger, or fall from a great height. By simply choosing to go against his uncle, Hamlet spells his own doom. It's not that he would commit suicide rather than commit regicide, it's that regicide is its own suicide. Not many men come out of such a mission unscathed or alive. We know this is a tragedy, so we know too that by choosing to act, Hamlet in effect commits suicide. He goes to his own death willingly. (Or does "the water come to him"? We must surely compare this speech to the gravedigger's later in the play.)

So though Zeffirelli changes the structure of the play to render moot the problem of Hamlet's backpeddling in Act III AFTER "the play's the thing", his staging here still evokes a justification for it. As written, Hamlet may well feign a speech about suicide to confuse the spies, but at the same time may sincerely discuss doubts about going through with his planned action. For such action will likely result in his death, and such an outcome naturally creates doubt, the nature of which he mentions.

Hamlet's anger rises through the speech - nothing new for Gibson's visceral performance - but ends in rhetorical defeat as the prince admits that great enterprises turn awry when they are over-thought, as they are here. His voice cracks, his shoulders stoop, and he goes back up to the world. In the next (previously discussed) scenes, he'll find his second wind.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - BBC '80

From the anguish on Hamlet's face, Jacobi does not allow him to suspect he's being watched. He speaks directly to camera as Ophelia is sometimes seen walking in the background, unseen and oblivious. Once again, I'm entranced by Derek Jacobi's performance. He always manages to surprise me. His line readings convey perfectly the inner turbulence of the character, shifting tone as the character actually THINKS about what he's saying, rather than recites it. For example, here's an emotional reading of the opening lines of the speech: To be, [Bitterness verging on anger:] or not to be, [softer, a revelation to his audience:] that is the question. And later: [Anger:] To die, [sudden realization that pacifies him:] to sleep, no more. [...] [joy:] 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep; to sleep: [another realization, this one inspiring dread:] perchance to dream. And so on, keeping the speech fresh at every turn. This is not something Hamlet has rehearsed in his mind, it is the true outpouring of thought as it occurs. The list of hardships is just that, a list, until he gets to "pangs of despised love" when the items suddenly become personal, and Jacobi lets us know what is rhetoric and what Hamlet truly cares about.
When he takes his dagger out, it's to insouciantly mime a suicide. He does not really consider it, except as a day dream. Behind him, painted boards showing a hellish plain, the undiscovered country as background to this scene. What else can this decor be? Surely it has nothing to do with Denmark's topography. It adds to the reflective and dream-like quality given to the end of the speech. As Hamlet speaks of travelers not returning, he fingers his father's medallion. Does he wonder, as we do, at the Ghost's true identity? At the supposed finality of death? "Puzzles the will" almost takes on another meaning here. By this subtle action, Jacobi manages to connect this speech with the previous one (O what a rogue and peasant slave am I). Hyperion to a Satyr has often questioned why and how Hamlet suffers a setback in Act 3 after having come up with a plan to reveal the King's guilt, but there's a double proof to be sought at the end of Act 2. Hamlet must prove Claudius a murderer, lest he prove the Ghost (another King) a false harbinger. This adaptation of the play reconciles the apparent incongruity by more overtly turning thoughts of the Ghost's honesty to those of mortality. One thought evolves into another, for they are well linked.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Olivier '48

Having placed this speech between the Nunnery scene and "The play's the thing", far from prying eyes, Olivier gives Hamlet a reason to sincerely deliver the speech. Hamlet has just hurt Ophelia deeply and learned he can trust no one. Without the Players in the mix, he hasn't had the opportunity to think the Mouse-Trap either. As we leave the previous sequence in one of those vertiginous camera moves, we move away from Ophelia's reaching hand (is she seeing the Ghost whose point-of-view Olivier's camera evokes? is this the onset of her madness?) and up, up, up, through walls and dizzying staircases until we land on the back of Hamlet's head, looking down from the highest parapet into the crashing waves below. The camera moves further in, zooming into his head itself - we even see his brain - until we're looking out through his eyes. Whatever spirit the camera represents and whose point of view we share, it can even go into a person's thoughts. It is a four-dimensional experience, with shifting perspectives and superimposed images. Hamlet's forehead with the foaming sea laid on top of it. Shifting back and forth between interior (voice-over) and exterior monologue. His "sea of troubles" in made manifest in the ocean itself, or indeed suggests the metaphor, and becomes a means to achieve the suicide he longs for. The cadence of internal/external monologue moves as the waves do, there is an ebb and flow to it. Say what you will of Olivier's choices (especially regarding some important cuts and restructuring), but he has a visual flair that adds meaning to the words.
He takes out a dagger, reclining on the castle spire, closes his eyes, and almost falls asleep. The camera slowly creeps towards him until a musical sting brings him out of his reverie, pushing the camera back to a more objective POV as he cries "perchance to dream!". Hamlet's lassitude makes him accidentally drop his dagger into the sea, an image of the very inaction the soliloquy uncovers. Not only could that dagger be used to commit suicide, but also to commit murder. Hamlet loses his resolve for either, and again, Olivier visually enhances the idea.

He does so again at the end of the speech. When Hamlet talks about "enterprises of great pith and moment", he stands on the platform, facing outward to his country, its past, his father's deeds, the missing Fortinbras. When they "turn awry" in the speech, he turns back inward, to Elsinore, his problems and his lonely fate. The irony of these lines is revealed. Hamlet's greatness (and Denmark's) is turned awry by his fatal flaw, that of inaction. He leaves with a now complete loss of motivation, his passions waiting to be reignited by the arrival of the Players.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Branagh '96

Hamlet has been called to the Hall of Mirrors, but no one's there. He enters trepidatiously and ends up facing himself in a mirror, triggering a meditation on self-slaughter. Each of those mirrors is also a door, and at least some of those doors have a special feature that allows you to look through the mirror. It's a wonderful cinematic conceit that allows Hamlet to say the speech directly to Claudius and Polonius, giving it an additional layer of irony and meaning. Suddenly, the "sea of troubles" is right behind the door and Hamlet talks about taking arms against his uncle.He simultaneously would take arms against himself, as he is talking to his own reflection. In this one mise en scène, everything Hamlet is facing is represented. The enemies both without and within (for what if his madness is making him believe all this?). The scene's central ambiguity remains. Does Hamlet know he's being seen? We've seen him navigate Elsinore's various secret passages and priest holes, so it's possible he knows (or at least suspects) spies are on the other side of the mirror. We can't know if ALL the mirrors are two-way, or if Hamlet specifically chose one that was. The irony works whether Hamlet is aware of it or not, of course.

Taken as an address to Claudius, the words take on a different bent, in particular the enumeration of this world's evils one (he) must bear. The oppressor's wrong is most on the nose, but there's also law's delay (justice for his father's murder subverted) and insolence of office. Hamlet must also deal with despised love and at least one proud man. Reverse the idea and make Hamlet address himself. How much of what he says can apply to him? In the next sequence, he will admit to being proud, for example. If his talk of suicide is sincere, how much of it is motivated by an unwillingness to become the monster he knows he must become to enact his revenge? How much is to protect his loved ones from himself? Hamlet knows he's about to get a confession from Claudius, knows events are about to speed towards a dreadful resolution. One answer to why he would contemplate suicide at the turning point of the play is that it's his last chance to prevent the evils that must surely befall Elsinore if he goes through with his plan.
At the end of a slow advance towards the mirror, Hamlet pulls out a dagger (the "bare bodkin"), eliciting a startled reaction from the men watching on the other side. Claudius almost seems to grab at Polonius to make sure the man doesn't cry out or attempt to stop Hamlet. The frame (above) quotes an earlier moment in which Hamlet kisses the sword and swears revenge. The death of a father, the promised murder of a stepfather, the idea of self-annihilation. These ideas are interconnected. As Hamlet speaks the "safe words", making his plans "lose the name of action", he taps the point of the dagger on the mirror. The image is ambiguous, but full of possibilities. Hamlet might be killing himself symbolically, or at least his past self, finally shedding the man who would never commit murder, finally erasing the books in his mind as promised at the end of Act I. He points the dagger at Claudius, but really sees himself, so might the mirror create an osmosis between murderers past and future? He might be attacking unreality itself, the world of thoughts but not of deeds. Or it could be an interesting way to stage the impossibility of suicide, as the blade hits a barrier of self-preservation before it can ever reach Hamlet's self.

In this most astute piece of staging, Branagh manages to open the speech up to new and interesting interpretation.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be

The most famous words in the English language and almost the dead center of the play, this speech is reputedly the bane of every actor who is ever to play Hamlet. After all, your audience is likely to know it by rote, may well have seen other actors do it, and remember those performances clearly. What do you bring to it that is your own and yet true to the character? How do you re-interpret and make fresh a speech that is so famous as to slip into cliché? And devoid of context, as multiple pop culture quotations of it have been, that may be true. Within the context of the play itself, it continues to fascinate. First of all, what is it about? The easy answer is suicide, but why would Hamlet consider such an act now? He's just been revitalized by the arrival of the Players and hopes to catch his uncle in a trap. Some stagings have chosen to restructure the play so that the speech comes in Act II instead as a way to resolve (or cheat) this issue. (I attempt my own answer in the body of the text, below.) The director and actor must also decide if Hamlet's words are heard by anyone else, and if Hamlet knows that he's being spied upon. What we might forget is that not only are Claudius and Polonius standing behind an arras, but Ophelia has never exited the stage. The conventions of theater still allow Hamlet to pronounce his soliloquy to the audience alone, but what if the other characters hear his meditation on death and afterlife? And if Hamlet DOES know he's being watched, how much of the speech can still be sincere and how much is performance? Shakespeare's words in italics.

HAMLET: To be, or not to be: that is the question:

That is the question indeed. There is something implied in the choice of verb here that is more profound than "to live or not to live" or "to die or not to die" or "to commit suicide or not to commit suicide". The question is about existence itself. Critic Harold Bloom likes to say - and I like to believe it true - that Hamlet is one of two characters that got away from Shakespeare (the other is Falstaff). So complex, deep and ALIVE, that he delays the play's action rather than allow events to proceed towards his inevitable death. Hamlet approaches meta-fiction in this sense, as if instinctively aware that he is a character in someone else's story (he calls her Fortune), and he refuses to let that story play out as scripted. Because if he is, as he suspects, in a tragedy, it will inevitably end with his death. And even if it didn't, the end of the story would signal the end of all its characters anyway. It is Hamlet who forces the story to last as long as it does (problematically long). And though he does die at the end, he is ready to do, as if aware that he did enough during the length of the story to achieve a certain literary immortality (indisputable in hindsight). Compare to Falstaff who has a false death scene in his first appearance, goes on to star in a play that has nothing to do with Prince Hal, and then dies off-stage rather than on it. Hamlet may dress it up in ideas of suicide, possibly for the benefit of the spies, but he's sincerely talking about oblivion. And would the murder of his uncle not send him to the same hellish place suicide would?

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

The speech sits in the middle of the play so should act as a turning point. Structurally, it would seem that a better turning point is "The play's the thing" or even Claudius' "Give me light", but "there's the rub" is a strong contender. Before this line, Hamlet is dour and would rather die than complete his mission. After it, he rejects suicide. He rejects Ophelia, sending her into madness. And Claudius, hearing all this, confirms his order to send him to England where he'll have him killed. Hamlet's choice is "to be" and it is made at this point in the speech. And since he "is", he completes his mission and fulfills the promise of the tragedy.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

Hamlet's vision is grim indeed. The only reason we don't kill ourselves is from fear of what lay beyond. Could the after-life be worse than the mortal world itself? But such is life in the unweeded garden.

But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will

In the play, we have Denmark, Norway, Poland and England, but Death is the fifth country and perhaps the most important one. Hamlet Sr. went to Norway, but eventually had to go to that "undiscovered country" too, as will most of the characters. There is also a hint her that Hamlet may be putting on a show for his observers: He says no traveller returns from there, but clearly, he's met at least one - his father's ghost - who has told him a little something about the horrors of that other world. He does not reveal this fact here. Because he doesn't want to let his secret mission slip from his lips? Or is it because he has more or less forgotten what started the ball rolling, "blunting his purpose"?

And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

As the speech ends, Hamlet finally notices Ophelia...