Sunday, January 29, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players - Fodor (2007)

Fodor actually weaves three sections of the scene together into a whole through the use of voice-over. The play has been turned into a film (one that must have been made very quickly, since we only just met the players), the projection of which is intercut with the faces of the people watching it (essentially, conspirators on both sides). None of the dialog is spoken during the film, but rather heard over the film (which is itself, if not silent, at least muted). We'll speak to that strangeness when we get to that part of the text, but for this section, it's simple enough. The only lines retained are an abbreviated version of Hamlet giving Horatio her mission, and her accepting. The voice-over acts as a memory from just before the projection as the two of them share secret, confident smiles, like the one above.

Friday, January 27, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players - Hamlet 2000

Because Hamlet presents a film, not a play, the scene is drastically reduced. We now pick it up from somewhere in the middle of Hamlet's talk with Horatio, as the two welcome and occasionally shake hands with guests at the theater's door. The staging is comical even if the text is not, as the Prince is continually interrupted by passers-by (including Rosencrantz & Guildenstern). It's a most public arena in which to give Horatio a secret mission. As patrons come in to humor the Prince by seeing his highly experimental short films, viewers who know the play well may be reminded of Hamlet's speech about false shows of love, the "absurd pomp", that is usually part of this scene. Sadly, nothing remains of it but the idea. Instead, we start at "Give me that man...". Hamlet still compliments Horatio, but he does not feel the need to compare it to common fawning. The nature of their relationship survives the cut, but is given in brief.

When Hamlet says he must be idle, he puts on wacky yellow-tinted glasses, an outward sense of his madness. There's an awkward moment (or two!) when Ophelia walks in and the modern recontextualizing of the play creates a big change there. In period staging, it's assumed Ophelia must come to the play, along with the rest of the Court. Her father is there, so she is there. She lives within Elsinore's walls, is part of the community. Here, it's a movie being shown in a private theater, but the characters are not really organized into a Court, and move around New York, often outside the walls of the Elsinore building. In other words, she CHOSE to come. It's not to say the text's Ophelia didn't make a choice, but it's assumed she didn't. Ophelia's choice - if there is one - opens another avenue of analysis. Does she believe she can still move Hamlet to sanity? Does she wish to show her independence? (Ophelia tries to give as good as she gets during the play.) Is she simply a fan of theater/film? (This might be a common interest that brought them together in the first place.) Or is it a false choice and she is still being coerced by her father? Giving Ophelia an option and somehow showing it may be a worthy and fruitful exercise.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players - Kline '90

The scene is prefaced by a "Part II" title card, no doubt where Kline's stage play broke for intermission, and it's notable that Part II is when Hamlet actually starts to act in response to his father's murder. Not coincidentally, it's when people start to die. As the scene starts, candles and chairs a brought in to support what looks to be an intimate performance. On stage, that's what we'd always get, a few characters sitting around a small stage ON stage, though the play's audience may act as the play-within-a-play's audience as well. A filmed stage presentation omits this meta-audience and restores the image of small affair. Big film productions allow the Mouse-Trap to act as a scandalous reveal of Claudius' guilt (or at least Hamlet's attempt to publicly flush out the King's culpability), but the realities of the theater rarely allow for this take.

Hamlet's directions are corrective ones, as he catches the Player sawing the air with his hands, for example. And as in the BBC version, the directions to the clowns are omitted. Is this common practice for Hamlets who are more on edge than others? The more clownish and mad Hamlet is, the less appropriate his warnings to the clown players become? It does rob the play of one of its ironies. While giving direction, the Prince sits on the stage, and so this is another performance, one in which the Players become the audience. It's a nice reflection of the royal audience that will be translated into the Players once the play begins. Hamlet directs both, and performs in both, and is audience to both. If the world's a stage, Hamlet is the one who plays all the parts, both on and off stage. He's even the usher, completing the mirror image of audience/Players by moving the "thrones" in the audience center to the stage, turning the Claudius and Gertrude's seats into the Player King and Queen's.

The portrayal of the Hamlet/Horatio relationship follows the usual conventions. Hamlet is sincere and calmer than normal, and Horatio is touched by his show of affection. In speaking to Horatio, Hamlet finds a stable rock to perch on, up and above his madness. The performance here highlighted one line I've usually glossed over, and that's "we will both our judgments join". Not only is Horatio considered an equal despite his lower birth, one whose opinion is equivalent to a Prince's, but it's also Hamlet's attempt at corroborating the information he got from the Ghost. Hamlet doesn't trust his father's spirit, but more importantly, he doesn't trust himself. If he's going mad, the accusations leveled at Claudius may be a product of his diseased mind, even if the Ghost is real. He trusts Horatio to confirm (as we, the audience, must) that he isn't imagining it. Horatio acts as the moral compass of the play, but also as a psychological gauge for Hamlet.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players - Zeffirelli '90

In Zeffirelli's adaptation, the scene has been slashed to shreds. From "the play's the thing", we cut directly to the Player Queen putting on his/her wig, pipe music blaring, and Hamlet running through the backstage area with made-up lines like "'Tis almost time". He's checking scripts, adjusting crowns, giving silent approval, but not giving any kind of verbal instructions. Even his talk with Horatio is brief and to the point, explaining briefly his plan, not giving his friend a single compliment or task, and then stating he must be idle and get you a place. No wonder Horatio looks so sombre.

In cases such as these, the question to ask is what effect these cuts have on our understand of the play. Obviously it is impoverished by the lack of relationship between these characters and Hamlet, and by the innate ironies of the scene. The story isn't changed, though from Horatio's expression, he might be thinking Hamlet's indeed gone mad and has about as much patience for his antics as everyone else. And would he have more when he's apparently kept out of the loop like this? Cutting out Horatio's part would make Hamlet more alone, but he's there just enough for that not to be the case. And yet, Horatio's not present enough to really make an impact in the prince's life. Like the Players who have suffered the most cuts, Horatio is merely an accessory to Hamlet's plans, advancing the plot but not the relationship.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players - BBC '80

As we come into the scene, Hamlet is doing the make-up for the (cross-dressing) Queen. In addition to the allusion to the "painted queen" of the text, there's also an irony here. Hamlet has just rejected Ophelia in the previous scene, in effect unmaking her as potential queen. The First Player comes in to wash the hands of the manic prince. Whether an act or real - and Jacobi's Hamlet is madder than most - the performance makes use of that manic state in Hamlet's directions to the players. Don't saw the air with your hand, but don't be too tame neither - Hamlet moves between extremes according to his own mercurial nature. As in Branagh's staging, it's the actor playing the murderer who gets the direction, as the First Player made too good an impression in his first scene. Even if the comments aren't directed at him, he's still a little testy about this royal amateur's interference with his troupe's work. While other actors stand and listen, he dares sit next to Hamlet, an equal in the theatrical arena. He even mocks the prince, and when Hamlet realizes he's being condescended to, he laughs with the First Player. This is not a subservient character, imbued as he is with the essence of the King he will soon play. The role given to the First Player is such that he provides a noble alternative to the corrupt Claudius, even if his blood is not technically royal.

One of the rare cuts in this adaptation occurs here: Hamlet no longer advises the clowns. Is there an effect produced by losing this part of the speech? Not really, though it strikes me that a further irony is lost. In this scene, Hamlet normally tells the clowns not to distract the audience from the play, and yet, his own antics during the play do exactly that.

As Polonius walks in, Hamlet grows even more agitated and the staging makes his commands even more absurd. He's just talked at length with the players, and he's only a couple feet from them, and yet he asks a third party to hasten them. Polonius walks off, leaving Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to do it. No one's taking Hamlet very seriously in this scene, are they? Even Horatio, sitting in another corner of the room, visibly finished reading a paragraph before truly acknowledging the prince.
Even after he closes the book, it takes a while before he becomes attentive and realizes Hamlet's sincerity. Hamlet calms down from his madness when speaking to his friend, and that's Horatio's role as discussed in these very lines - a stabilizing influence. Horatio is the only uncorrupted link to Hamlet's past, and being with him is like a return to a former, saner Hamlet. So it is from a non-idle moment that Hamlet must return to idleness. He puts on a cape and skull mask and prepares for his next performance.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players - Olivier '48

As the camera moves around the stage, from the props, to the troupe, wider, then back to the the props, the point of view also changes from Hamlet's to third person when he walks into frame. It's part of the film's camera strategy, flitting from POV to POV, apparently free to roam, drop and fly. The Ghost's POV, perhaps, able to enter (and even possess?) other characters. In this version, Hamlet is actively correcting the Player's performance, a true director. For example, the Player saw the air with his hands before Hamlet gives him a direction not to. The Players have a variety of reactions to Hamlet. Some stand afeared, others relax and read their scripts, not really distracted by the princely director. Horatio is also present, and much of the speech might be directed to him, like his musings about the state of theater, replacing the conversation with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in the text, but not this film. There's a poignant moment when Hamlet puts a wig on a boy, and we're instantly reminded of Ophelia's hair. A look of regret fleetingly crosses Hamlet's face, an awkward silence results. When Polonius enters, the Players grab every available prop and run backstage.
Hamlet lingers center stage, this is his big moment. Others will play the roles, but he wrote it. That's him on stage. And in crafting that meaning to the moment, the loss is Horatio's. He doesn't get the praise he deserves in the text, nor even the task of watching Claudius like a hawk. One might wonder why he's even included as Hamlet's lieutenant in this scene.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players - Branagh '96

The front part of this scene is another of Branagh's oners, taking us around the upper balcony and into a small room that serves as the Players' dressing room. In so doing, we get to see the curtains and theatrical machinae, but also Hamlet at his sanest. We're behind the scenes for BOTH plays, in a sense. The Players are themselves, not yet made-up as their characters, and Hamlet is too, not yet "idle" as he is before the Court. The Players would do well to listen to his acting tips, because his method HAS convinced all of Elsinore that he is indeed mad. For the most part, the speech is spoken not to the First Player but to the Second (who plays the murderer). It works, especially after the reverence given Charlton Heston's character during "Aeneas' tale to Dido". Hamlet also singles out the clown, a boy, and has fun with him. Might we here see a mirror of Hamlet's own childhood relationships? As we discover later in the play, he was raised more by the Court jester Yorick than gone-to-wars Hamlet Sr. His affection for the clown here, both kissing and mock strangling him (read what ironies you will) may be typical of the father-son relationship between Hamlet and Yorick. Of course, as soon as Polonius walks in, Hamlet reverts to a manic disposition, sending Rosencrantz & Guildenstern on a useless errand (they do not obey him).

Branagh continues to upkeep Horatio's presence by inserting him in an invented moment before this scene, in which he stands outside reading the newspaper and news of Fortinbras' advance on Poland (dissolves into shots of Fortinbras himself also help to remind us he is in this play), and then in the scene proper, having brought Hamlet his coat in preparation for the play. Having just escaped R&G, Hamlet goes into his study where he makes a declaration of his love and friendship to Horatio. And the latter could not look more awkward, even in the staging of it.
As someone delivers a script to Hamlet, the prince uses it to underscore his point about insincere fawning to contrast his own true admiration of Horatio. It's also another indication that regardless of class, Hamlet does not view Horatio as a servant or anything less than an equal.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

III.ii. Instructing the Players

Act 3 Scene 2 is again too long for a single set of entries, so we will be dividing it in four parts. The first, Instructing the Players, is of great interest because it presents Shakespeare's idea of what acting and theater should be. In Hamlet's instructions, we'll discover what going to see one of his plays in the late 16th and early 17th centuries would have looked, sounded and felt like. Since he advises them about the play within the play, I've thought it appropriate to also include in this section Hamlet's instructions to Polonius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and Horatio, players - or rather, "players" - all. Before heading into cinematic waters, let's look at the text. As usual, Shakespeare is in italics:

SCENE II. A hall in the castle.
Enter HAMLET and Players

HAMLET: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
FIRST PLAYER: I warrant your honour.

Shakespeare's first acting tip entreats the actors not to play "too big". For people who don't know or care about Shakespeare, his plays are synonymous with the very bombast he warns against here. Plainly, Shakespeare didn't like "shouty" acting, or big, unnatural gestures. It is part of theater's natural paradox that one must play to the rear of the audience without undercutting the story's intimate moments. And so:

HAMLET: Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

Here he tells us that the purpose of theater is to represent humanity, something that is certainly true of his writing, whereas the kind of presentational, bigger-than-life, winking-at-the-audience style he advises against takes us away from a true representation. Bad actors are human beings who, ironically, cannot portray human beings believably. It would seem that Shakespeare would have been happy with the idea of his plays being turned into films, where the actor can actually play quiet moments QUIETLY, in close-up. In a way, Shakespeare wants to do away with the artifice of theater, which is distracting. Note also how much of Hamlet's personal idiom is religious (Herod, Christians), relevant to an easy to support Puritan vs. Hedonists reading of the play.

FIRST PLAYER: I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir.
HAMLET: O, reform it altogether. And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too; though, in the mean time, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered: that's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go, make you ready.

Something I know all too well from 25 years of improv: The player's anxiety about silence. When a crowd is silent, the player starts to fear he is not entertaining enough. Laughs are vocal reactions and instant gratification for the player, one he might be tempted to indulge, play into, steering the attention away from the point the play is making, or even other actors. It takes a more mature player to realize silence can represent a gamut of reactions, most more relevant to the play than laughter - philosophical interest, fascination, delight, sadness... these may manifest relatively silently. What you don't want to hear are scraping chairs, people talking or going to the bathroom. Here, Shakespeare warns the players about clowning and giving in to that instinct to panic and throw in some laughs.

Exeunt Players

How now, my lord! I will the king hear this piece of work?

LORD POLONIUS: And the queen too, and that presently.
HAMLET: Bid the players make haste.


Will you two help to hasten them?



After talking to the actual players, Hamlet moves the bit players of his greater play (the Court) around, a precursor to how he is about to manipulate them with his play and in its aftermath. Hamlet is the play's director as well as the play within a play's. R&G's errand seems particularly useless, just a way to get them out of the room so he can talk more privately with Horatio.

HAMLET: What ho! Horatio!


HORATIO: Here, sweet lord, at your service.
HAMLET: Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal.
HORATIO: O, my dear lord,--
HAMLET: Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits,
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter'd?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.--Something too much of this.--

This is our best description of Horatio's relationship to Hamlet, one that gives munitions to the theory that Horatio is a fragment of Hamlet's personality, the part of himself that "is not passion's slave". In that interpretation, it makes sense that Horatio is a separate character, one divorced from the passionate, "idle" Hamlet. As written, Horatio is Hamlet's stabilizing influence, the one character Hamlet doesn't act mad around (not since the Ghost showed up and sundered Hamlet's mind). If the Ghost is the devil on Hamlet's shoulder, Horatio is its angelic counterpart, but not a conscience per se. Rather, his presence brings calm and focus to Hamlet's mission. Compare to the turmoil the Ghost brings with it from Hell. We must also note here the image of the pipe, which will return in the aftermath of the Mouse-Trap. There, the pipe is Hamlet, difficult to play upon. Here, the pipe is Not-Horatio, on whom Fortune may not play. In neither case can these characters be easily played on, but for different reasons. It is nevertheless a link between them, something that may point to their being the same person. The fact that Horatio doesn't seem to have a destiny of his own and is invisible to Fortune makes him a kind of non-entity. A projection by Hamlet?

There is a play to-night before the king;
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father's death:

It seems that Horatio was filled in on the details off-stage. He is Hamlet's only full confidante.

I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy. Give him heedful note;

Though Hamlet starts the scene as a pious Christian, he turns to paganism here, speaking in Horatio's own idiom. Is there an implicit analysis of the two in this scene? Hamlet, the Christian (even Puritanical) man is passion's slave, while Horatio, the "ancient Roman", is not. History is rather ambivalent on the subject (especially at the time of writing). Is it a play on words? The "passion" of the Christ linked to that of Hamlet and his impending sacrifice by tragedy's end? Greco-Roman myth celebrates victories far more than Christ-like "defeats". Perhaps there is a thesis there if someone were willing to develop it. Certainly, Hamlet is a Christ figure - he has been given a difficult and potentially lethal task by his other-worldly father and is even (arguably, illogically) in his 30s. But it's a distorted image of the Christ, with a hellish father who asks him to commit murder. He only friend, a self-professed Pagan who will act as his evangelist.

For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.
HORATIO: Well, my lord:
If he steal aught the whilst this play is playing,
And 'scape detecting, I will pay the theft.
HAMLET: They are coming to the play; I must be idle:
Get you a place.

Definitely in the "not mad" column: The fact that Hamlet says he must now become mad as the Court enters. As such, he sends his "stability" away while he plays the fool.