Sunday, May 27, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Branagh '96

In the whirlwind of words and black comedy that follows, I had never really noticed before that Nick Farrell's Horatio doesn't actually confirm the King's guilt in Branagh's version. He looks for the right words before coming up with "I did very well note him" and is not particularly enthusiastic. Hamlet has a moment of doubt where he goes "ahhh" before other characters walk in. Not doubt that the King is guilty, but doubt in the trust he placed in his friend. But what should he expect? At the top of the sequence (which will be another one of those whirling one-shots), Horatio is calling him out on his bad poetry as if they relationship was always one where Horatio brought the prince down to earth with a dose of acerbic wit.

But the moment quickly passes as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern arrive and Branagh uses the line "Some music" to herald that arrival. Yes, he's about to be handed a recorder, but Hamlet is really announcing the music of words that's about to ensue. Their lies and his vicious mockeries - the music of repartee. Hamlet is still giddy from his perceived victory and continues to giggle, impishly overact, sing-song lines in a parody of meter, and openly mock their every word, speaking to them as if they were deaf or dumb, and making grandly theatrical gestures. He's still at the theater. For their part, R&G have grown bold enough to show their anger towards him. They know Hamlet has gone too far and fully throw their support to the King. This is a mistake, and as if to foreshadow their eventual fate, Hamlet becomes violent with them. The prince handles that pipe like a weapon, here choking Guildenstern, there slashing the air with it as if it were a rapier.
There is another sudden change of attitude in Hamlet when Polonius walks in, another fool who now thinks nothing of showing angry impatience at the mad prince. Hamlet basically gives the same performance twice here. He's impish and overly theatrical, and turns to bitterness and anger. He just does it all much more quickly. It's really a reaction to Polonius' tedious redundancy, repeating behavior more efficaciously. For once, Polonius doesn't want to drag things out either, so he agrees to every fantastical cloud in the ceiling just to get it over with. The sequence ends with Hamlet asking his "friends" to leave him, the word dripping with sarcasm.
One of the few changes made to the play's structure in Branagh's integral adaptation occurs here as we cut to Act III Scene 3 before the short soliloquy that usually ends Scene 2. In Scene 3, R&G play sycophants to Claudius, Polonius tells the King he'll hide behind an arras in the Queen's closet, and the King heads for the chapel. The function of the edit is to get Hamlet's "I'm now ready to do anything" speech closer to Claudius' confession. In fact, the soliloquy is dropped in just before the confession, and its last lines even juxtaposed to Claudius entering the confessional, so that "my soul, consent!" precedes Claudius' prayer, highlighting the thematic connection between the two. In both cases, what is done falls short of what is said. Hamlet will not kill Claudius, and Claudius does not repent. Neither man's conscience manages to become more like the other's, a failed osmosis.

Friday, May 18, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception

The scene's final sequence concerns reactions less to the play than about everyone's reactions about the play. Hamlet wants to know if Horatio saw Claudius' reaction. Guildenstern & Rosencrantz react to Hamlet's wildness and bring a message that the Queen wants to speak with her son. Polonius arrives to do much the same, ever the tedious, redundant cog in the works. Shakespeare never fails to entertain when his genius confronts his fools, but after the laughs, he puts a button on the scene, a short soliloquy that allows Hamlet to react to himself, what he has seen, and what he now means to do. As usual, we'll be looking at the text first, Shakespeare is in italics.

HAMLET: "Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
So runs the world away."
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers-- if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me--with two Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir?
HORATIO: Half a share.
HAMLET: A whole one, I.
"For thou dost know, O Damon dear,
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself; and now reigns here
A very, very--pajock."
HORATIO: You might have rhymed.

The closeness between the two characters is well represented here, with Horatio teasing his friend in spite of the class difference. For directors who want to make Claudius' guilt ambiguous could use it to their advantage - Horatio is very critical of Hamlet's prowess as a player (he undervalues the first ballad and critiques the second), and may be critical of Hamlet's conclusions regarding his uncle. Even if the director doesn't go that route, the lines still have an ironic bent. Hamlet is here representing himself as a Player, but he broke character during the play with some outrageous behavior that undermines his entire experiment. Damon, by the way, is a character from Greek myth reputed to be a trusted friend. The realm dismantled of Jove is Denmark, as Hamlet Sr. is compared to Jove in the play. And a "pajock" is a peacock, which I've often heard directly substituted into the text for modern clarity.

HAMLET: O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?
HORATIO: Very well, my lord.
HAMLET: Upon the talk of the poisoning?
HORATIO: I did very well note him.

The text seems clear that Horatio saw the same thing as Hamlet and agrees with him about Claudius' guilt. And indeed it will soon become clear to the audience as well when we hear the King's confession. Depending on the staging, it may still be prudent to have Horatio unsure at this point, which does make him a less sincere character, albeit a more skeptical one.

HAMLET: Ah, ha! Come, some music! come, the recorders!
For if the king like not the comedy,
Why then, belike, he likes it not, perdy.
Come, some music!


GUILDENSTERN: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.
HAMLET: Sir, a whole history.
GUILDENSTERN: The king, sir,--
HAMLET: Ay, sir, what of him?
GUILDENSTERN: Is in his retirement marvellous distempered.
HAMLET: With drink, sir?

Hamlet is mocking R&G and the King, but since we know drink to be one of Claudius' weaknesses, the line may be taken as a stage direction to have the King drink during the play, perhaps as an explanation for his extreme reaction.

GUILDENSTERN: No, my lord, rather with choler.
HAMLET: Your wisdom should show itself more richer to signify this to his doctor; for, for me to put him to his purgation would perhaps plunge him into far more choler.
GUILDENSTERN: Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame and start not so wildly from my affair.
HAMLET: I am tame, sir: pronounce.
GUILDENSTERN: The queen, your mother, in most great affliction of spirit, hath sent me to you.
HAMLET: You are welcome.
GUILDENSTERN: Nay, good my lord, this courtesy is not of the right breed. If it shall please you to make me a wholesome answer, I will do your mother's commandment: if not, your pardon and my return shall be the end of my business.

A word like "breed" always alerts Hamlet's reader, since breeding, succession and yes, sex, are important themes. Hamlet is answering them with the wrong breed of courtesy, answering their own insincere breed of friendship, coming as they do from the wrong breed of King.

HAMLET: Sir, I cannot.
GUILDENSTERN: What, my lord?
HAMLET: Make you a wholesome answer; my wit's diseased: but, sir, such answer as I can make, you shall command; or, rather, as you say, my mother: therefore no more, but to the matter: my mother, you say,--

Hamlet's hatred for the various members of the Court guilty of his father's murder/disrespect is spreading, and lines like this one, where Gertrude and R&G are osmotically linked and interchangeable are a poetic reflection of that. When Polonius comes in later with the same news and request, he becomes interchangeable with R&G and thus the Queen. Later, Hamlet will play word games to make father and mother equivalent, including Claudius in this guilty ensemble. And despite the Ghost's return to try and reign Hamlet in, the psychic damage is done, and the play will have each of those characters die, sharing punishment along with guilt.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then thus she says; your behavior hath struck her into amazement and admiration.
HAMLET: O wonderful son, that can so astonish a mother! But is there no sequel at the heels of this mother's admiration? Impart.
ROSENCRANTZ: She desires to speak with you in her closet, ere you go to bed.
HAMLET: We shall obey, were she ten times our mother. Have you any further trade with us?
ROSENCRANTZ: My lord, you once did love me.
HAMLET: So I do still, by these pickers and stealers.
ROSENCRANTZ: Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? you do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend.
HAMLET: Sir, I lack advancement.
ROSENCRANTZ: How can that be, when you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark?
HAMLET: Ay, but sir, 'While the grass grows,'--the proverb is something musty.

For a more careerist vision of Hamlet who is driven not just filial duty, but by ambition, this line becomes important. Claudius may have said in open Court that Hamlet will succeed him, he nevertheless cut in line, as it were, by marrying Gertrude. What else is he capable of? Hamlet's exile to England has already been planned after all. As time goes by, Claudius may change the arrangement, have Hamlet killed, or even have another son. Claudius must die in order for Hamlet to become King. An entirely political reading of Hamlet would see it this way.

Re-enter Players with recorders

O, the recorders! let me see one. To withdraw with you:--why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil?
GUILDENSTERN: O, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly.
HAMLET: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?
GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot.
HAMLET: I pray you.
GUILDENSTERN: Believe me, I cannot.
HAMLET: I do beseech you.
GUILDENSTERN: I know no touch of it, my lord.
HAMLET: 'Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.
GUILDENSTERN: But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.
HAMLET: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

One of my favorite exchanges in the play, just for the wit of it, even if Hamlet does use a mixed metaphor (pipes and strings). But then, the pluck and fret puns are too good to pass up or criticize.


God bless you, sir!
LORD POLONIUS: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET: Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS: Very like a whale.
HAMLET: Then I will come to my mother by and by. They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
LORD POLONIUS: I will say so.
HAMLET: By and by is easily said.

The whole exchange about the clouds have posed problems for modern stagings of the play. In Shakespeare's day, the play would have been performed under an open roof, and I imagine crowds looking up and trying to spot that cloud, or actors changing the animals perceived based on the clouds that day. But for Hamlet, who is in Elsinore... are they outside? Do they have access to a skylight or window? Or is it all just a feigned hallucination Polonius buys into as an obsessive yes-man? Each director must answer that question for him or herself.


Leave me, friends.

Exeunt all but HAMLET

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,

Hamlet foreshadows here the return of the Ghost.

And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft! now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!


Hamlet promises to hurt his mother with words, probably by revealing the truth of his father's death and accusing her of "damned incest". What he WANTS to do is hurt her physically, so the closet scene will have that tug of war between his violent impulse and a more reasoned approach. Eruptions expected.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

III.ii. The Mouse-Trap - French Rock Opera

Un trône sans roi/Throne Without a King is a transitional piece of music on Johnny Hallyday's album, but if you use your imagination, you might see how it would have underscored action in the staged rock opera. It is placed where the Mouse-Trap would be, and through the repetition of the dirge motif Le vieux roi est mort/The Old King Is Dead already used twice before, has a similar recap function. Here is the text and a quick translation.

Un trône sans roi
Le vieux roi et mort
Depuis moins d'un mois
L'herbe sur sa tombe
Ne pousse encore pas

Le vieux roi est mort
Le temps d'une messe
Il est notre roi
Il cale ses fesses

Throne Without a King
The old king is dead
For less than a month
The grass on his tomb
Still does not grow

The old king is dead
The span of a [church] service
He is our king
He sinks his ass

It is telling that the chorus sings here and not Hamlet, though as we know from the play, he has written their words. This is the murder as presented by the Players. We could well imagine the processional music underscoring the arrival of the Court to the playhouse. Then, suspenseful stings over the dumb show, probably dance-like. Finally, we end with the result of a king's death, and the familiar Dead Old King theme. The first two lines are the same, but reiterate, as Hamlet does in the text, the temporal collapse caused by his grief. Using the chorus/Players translates that collapse to the People, foreshadowing their later rebellion. In fact, the lines here go further, from "less than a month" to "the span of a church service". The King has been forgotten by the time his funeral service is over.

And then time is collapsed even further when a new King shows up in the next line, so Hamlet Sr. has been forgotten in the breath between two lines. Those final lines do play on an ambiguity, as the "king" is actually two separate characters in the play. On the one hand, there is a resistance to a new leadership, the dead king being that of the people, even as his descent into the ground is mocked with colorful language. On the other, the new king is now that of the people - speaking to an ironic interchangeability as far as commoners are concerned - and a mockery of his sitting on that empty throne, now filled. That is the story of The Mouse-Trap.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

III.ii. The Mouse-Trap - Classics Illustrated

The original
Surprisingly, the old "boys' adventure" comics version includes both the dumb show and the speaking play, though it makes huge cuts through the use of captions to fit them in. In other words, they both "happen", but are not necessarily seen. The pantomime that precedes the play is visual, of course, so becomes the backbone of the comics version.There are number of interesting touches, as if the artist, freed from the Classics Illustrated constraint of heavy work balloons, has finally been allowed to show his quality. As the Player Queen leaves the sleeping king, for example, there's an odd expression on her face. Is she worried she might wake him? Or is she colluding with the murderer, but already feeling guilty? I also like the purely graphic juxtaposition of crown and poison separating the two bottom panels, showing how one can act as a gateway to the other. The sequence continues on the next page, where the Queen is offered jewels, but she seems to refuse from her body language. So it's not always clear what she's thinking.

A puzzled Ophelia asks about the argument of the play - the only live commentary made in this heavily edited version - but Hamlet leaves it to the Prologue. There is no cruelty towards Ophelia or the Royals, the play being the only possible impetus for Claudius to lose it. Hamlet's antics do not play a part or muddy the waters. On purpose perhaps, the Player Queen is a dead ringer for Ophelia, wearing the same kinds of clothes as well.
After a few words from the Prologue, the action cuts to Claudius' fit. We've seen the play's action through the pantomime, and we know the story because it's a mirror of Hamlet Sr.'s murder, so this is quite economical, while respecting the events of the play. Needlessly? If Claudius had reacted to the dumb show, it would have made more structural sense. As is, even though we know everything we do, there still seems to be a scene missing. It makes you want to see the trigger.

The Berkley version
Hamlet is likewise more pleasant to Ophelia in Tom Mandrake's version, his smiles turning cruelties into mere teasing. His art makes good use of shadows throughout the sequence, often keeping the Royals hidden, even when they speak lines. The darkness of their sins and their initial ambiguity make justify it, but it is starting to feel like they are shadows, ciphers or otherwise non-characters. Even the "protests too much" line is given to Ophelia instead of Gertrude. One place where shadows are better used is in Hamlet's face. The darkness of Ophelia's lap plays across it when he turns more serious and thinks of his father, ironically while entering a motherly womb.
Mandrake does away with the dumb show in favor of the spoken play, his painted Players in various cultural costumes separating the heightened reality of the Mouse-Trap with the Medieval trappings of the play outside the play, though I'll never get used to Claudius' Santa Claus outfit.
In the absence of a preceding panto, Claudius now sees the accusation for the first time, and reacts. Again, there are few public antics from Hamlet, so his idleness is not what distracts or affects the King. Both comics versions have chosen to make the King unambiguously guilty.