Sunday, September 30, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Classics Illustrated

The original
This page is preceded by two brief panels whose sole function is to keep the plot alive. In the first, Claudius dispatches Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to take Hamlet to England. In the second, Polonius describes his plan to hide in the Queen's closet, to which Claudius merely says "thanks". Such brevity is in complete contrast to the page above, which forces the characters to let out an entire speech fixed in a single pose. That's a weakness of the comics medium, but does it inform our reading of the play anyway? Claudius says his speech with an obvious headache and because he doesn't actually kneel before the next panel, he seems to decide that prayer, which he believed impossible, remains the only avenue left open to him. Hamlet, in the second, never approaches the King, and so likely does not hear the coda in the last panel, but note that in that panel, the King does not stop praying. In this version then, Claudius' attempts at prayer may go on longer, and might even succeed off-panel. These words become part of the same self-doubt he shows in the preceding speech. Can he overcome it and find salvation?

That large candle in front of him reminds us that he asked for "light" in the previous scene, and that this light may be physical or spiritual. He needs to shed light on his darkened soul. Should have caught that link earlier, but see how a simple (and fairly primitive) image can, uhm, shed light on Shakespeare's text.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake's adaptation omits Polonius (keeping his appearance in the closet scene as something of a surprise), but keeps Claudius' orders to R&G. As in the previous adaptation, they don't get to say their lines, and Claudius, his face in constant, unreadable shadow, dismisses them with his back turned. This is a man who cannot bear to let anyone see him in this state and he might even run from a mirror at this point. Before they've even left, his voice goes to a whisper (smaller lettering) as he starts on his speech. Finally, we're allowed to see his eyes, but he's hiding his face from the reader with his metaphorically blood-soaked hand. Mandrake, as always, is very strong at representing anxiety, and we won't see the King's eyes again in the scene, as he can't bear to look at any part of himself.
Behind his, a shadow with sword drawn. Is that pity in Hamlet's glittering eye? Or regret to find such a pioous Claudius? It does seem like he overhears the prayer if not the admission of murder, and yet, is powerless to act on that confirmation. He turns away and likely misses Claudius' final lines, but you'll note that his own speech is completely omitted. Mandrake is well aware that his reader has probably read or seen the play before, and allows us to fill in that blank. For the uninitiated however, he avoids the theological discussion and lets them assume... what? That Hamlet is satisfied with the King asking for forgiveness? That his mother is the greater target and that this is a result of his "blunted purpose"? It's a rather more ambiguous representation of the scene.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Slings & Arrows

Though we hear Hamlet's speech, we don't see it. Instead, the camera pans across the reactions of the characters backstage, watching from the side. First is Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), the putative "Claudius" in the meta story (S&A's plots always take a great deal of inspiration from the play the characters are staging... the play outside the play, if you will), and though he would have "sold out" and turned the festival into an American-style theme park with a strong focus on mainstream musicals, the play has really grabbed him by this point. The moment is well-chosen, with the play's Claudius experiencing a crisis of faith on stage.

But it's the group pictured above that is most touching. Nahum (Rothaford Gray) is an African immigrant who works as the theater's custodian who sees the play for the first time, with fresh eyes. He comments that "fate plays with our Prince", which confuses the other actors. His explanation (that Hamlet cannot kill the king while he prays) is what we've always known. Like those actors, we know the play left and right. There are no surprises on this order anymore. Except there must be. At one point, we must have seen the play for the first time (unless we were told about it, which I'm afraid happens a lot in this universe of Cliffs Notes and Wikis and popular media referencing everything). At one point, we must have been like Nahum, experiencing the play's twists and turns for a first, joyous time. It makes Kate (Rachel McAdams) smile broadly, and in that moment, we're all seeing Hamlet as if for the first time.

I always discover new things in Hamlet, but by now, they're small things. Lines, images, new ways of reading or staging a moment, or inferences. Nahum's reaction is each of those moments writ large. And since Slings & Arrows is about the actorly work of discovering a play and its characters so that you may inhabit them, it's that as well.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Tennant (2009)

Though he kept his cool during the Hamlet's play, Claudius now seems slightly more agitated. Still, he deals with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern with calm and diplomacy, giving them orders to ferry his dangerous stepson to England. While the scripted fawning can make the audience grow as impatient as Claudius in this scene, this version's R&G keep the moment alive with comedy. Guildenstern is, as usual, in deadly earnest and prompts the less resolute Rosencrantz to fawn along with him. So Rosencrantz looks at Guildenstern, not Claudius, while he searches for the right metaphor, then realizes almost too late that he's gone on too long, that the King is looking at him, so he gulps down the last words. Might this "wheel" metaphor also betray a lower birth, which is doubly embarrassing for Rosencrantz? I'm thinking specifically of Polonius' line about keeping a farm and carters, and something as mundane as a wheel not being a fit symbol for a King. R&G's gauche imagery could stem from their essentially being posers, men whose ambitions outpace their place in the hierarchy (contrast with Horatio's humility). As for Polonius, he is still deluded, and laughs through his lines as if all will be well as soon as the Queen speaks to her son. Not only is he wrong about Hamlet's motivations, but he completely misgauges Claudius' mood.

As soon as he's alone, Claudius' guilt - or perhaps his fear of being caught - catches up to him and makes him retch in a handkerchief. Patrick Stewart gives reality to the rank smell mentioned in the lines. It's a very physical performance, one that betters 1980's version by a mile. The act of prayer is denied him, his hands acting as polar opposites and refusing to make contact. He laughs at the absurdity of praying with bloody hands, linking the pious position to the metaphysical state of prayer. At the end of the speech, when he is finally able to touch his palms together, that seems enough to give him the hope that "all may yet be well". If it's all about the physical with Claudius, it's in direct opposition to Hamlet who is all thought and no action, and it also relates well to his carnal motivations. Claudius is a man of this Earth, a man of flesh, not one of Heavenly spirituality.
Enter Hamlet with a switchblade, his crooked theater crown still on his head, a visual link to the killer king who murdered his father. In the theater, this was a cliffhanger where their put the intermission. Clever to put it in the middle of a scene rather than at the end of an Act, even if today's audiences know very well the scene ends in anti-climax. The energy of the scene is all and insures patrons will return promptly to their seats. On DVD, of course, there is no such break, and the action continues with Hamlet standing right over the kneeling Claudius who is putting his whole body into a semblance of prayer. Hamlet switches to voice-over for realism's sake, but soon runs off behind a pillar, breathless, to speak more directly to the audience.

An ambiguity: At the very end, Claudius wakes from his useless prayer and smiles, turning his eyes on us. It's slightly creepy, and through the self-disgust, you might wonder if there's a also a sense of satisfaction at having tricked Hamlet. Did he feel him there? Did he intensify his physicality to MAKE Hamlet come to that conclusion? In the midst of prayer, did Claudius suddenly let go of his guilt and self-servingly feigned piousness to selfishly save his own life? Whatever the case may be, he then rips his jacket open in anger, defeated and frustrated by that "physic" (and a well-chosen pun it is, in the wake of this discussion).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Fodor (2007)

Fodor cut into this scene substantially, but his spareness works. The penitent Claudius is first seen in shadow (above) and says one line from his talk with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (absent), inserting it in the soliloquy admitting his guilt. The line: "I like him not, nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range". His guilt for past sins is prefaced by the promise of future sins. So it is in the play, but by removing all intervening text, Fodor brings the irony forward. Even as Claudius is praying for forgiveness, he has put into motion more evil. In this version, the speech can't even really be called a prayer, since it avoids his wish for forgiveness. This is a darker world where divine intervention isn't an option, and where it would not be believable for any of the characters to actually be pious. In part because of the modern setting, but also because their interpretation is so much more corrupt than in the classic text.

Mid-prayer (as it were), the lights come up and Polonia enters. Or has she been there all along? She is, in this version, fully aware of Claudius' misdeeds, and often a willing participant. She's there to explain her plan to Claudius (substituting the word "arras" for "mirror" to match the later location), and despite their romantic relationship, seems afraid of him. Or perhaps FOR him. Claudius seems to be in shock, and zombie-like, shuffles off after Polonia when she stops speaking.
Holding his arm, she brings him back to his room before heading for Gertrude's, and they share a light kiss at the end of the hall. Still, Claudius barely responds to it, though he does turn back towards her as she leaves. She is, after all, a part of his sins, which are amply on his mind in this moment.

Earlier in the hall sequence, Hamlet creeps up behind them, sees them together, might even guess at Polonia's destination, but he does not, as in the play, attempt to kill Claudius. We know he has a gun and that he has said he could do "bitter business" this night, so the implication is that he might have shot them both in the back right then and there, but chose not to. Why is not revealed. He certainly has no cause to think Claudius is seeking redemption, nor that a praying man would go to Heaven even if he'd seen Claudius praying (which he has not). There's not even the sense that Hamlet feels sorry for his stepfather. He just ducks out of sight after a short moment, and only Polonia feels that perhaps she was being watched. It's possible her presence protected Claudius as Hamlet could not be sure he could perpetrate a double murder successfully.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Hamlet 2000

The staging in the modern-era Hamlet 2000 is cleverly done. Hamlet takes the place of Claudius' chauffeur, and so is able to hear the confession from the front seat. The confession, and the conversation with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern over the car phone. This is how he learns of his impending trip to England, and gets confirmation that Claudius is guilty. And yet, he fails to pull the trigger. Aside from the modern trappings, there is an important deviation from the play in the way this is handled. As written, it is unlikely that Hamlet is meant to hear the confession. He comes upon Claudius praying for salvation, and based on that and his reaction at the play, concludes he is guilty. He does not kill him just then on religious grounds. In this film, Hamlet hears the confession, but has no soliloquy to express why he leave the car without carrying on the execution. It looks like he's just unable to commit murder at this point, and that he might actually feel sorry for Claudius. After all, if he's unable to kill, he sees in Claudius his future self, a man having trouble living with the guilt of such an act. It may also be that the religious nature of Hamlet's delay would ring false in a contemporary, so much more secular, setting. However, a shade of this idea is retained for the viewer who would like to think Hamlet's reasons are the same in any era: Claudius' lines which are specifically about his inability to be forgiven are the ones said in voice-over, the implication being that Hamlet cannot know Claudius' prayers are null and void, or else he would have shot his uncle.

The staging also allows for some dynamic elements. Hamlet gives the steering wheel a turn during the confession, further destabilizing the King. His royal hand lands on the limo's television, where backlit, it triggers his lines about his bloody hand. Some of the images on that screen may or may not inform the scene. While he talks on the phone, for example, he switches channels from an ad saying "Stop living paycheck to paycheck" to a crude animated skeleton reading the newspaper, to news footage of Bill Clinton. Images of desperation, death and kingship. When his hand lands on the monitor, it is showing a vaguely volcanic cliff on the sea. The undiscovered country? The real Denmark? An image of precariousness? Director Michael Almereyda uses a lot of images on television screens throughout the film, most to simply evoke a feeling and theme, not to necessarily comment on particular lines.

Soon, Claudius is at the stock exchange, and it's business as usual, his doubts and guilt a momentary thing.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional - Kline '90

Leaving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius out of it, we jump straight into Claudius' confession. The staging is quite well done. A funeral bell is hard, Claudius is in shadow, his collar undone. He is a man unmade by his own grief. At the word "above", the camera angle changes to a divine point of view above him, tracking back, repulsed by his inability to be redeemed. He will choose a square of light in which to kneel and pray in, crossing himself before doing so. In all this, he comes across as sympathetic. His guilt is real and makes him tear up, and he puts emphasis on his queen more than his crown. This Claudius did it for love, not just for ambition's sake.
Hamlet comes upon him, and it's no surprise since the staging is based on a theatrical performance that the prince can run around Claudius, shout and scream and not be noticed. The words are an aside, but so are the gestures, and meant to exist for the audience, but not for the characters. Symbolically, Hamlet aims for Claudius' ear before taking his swing, and in realizing that this is the wrong time for his revenge, he swings the dagger around Claudius madly with each mentioned sin. It reinforces the illusion that we're in a frozen moment in time, and must be quite a feat for the actor playing Claudius to remain so still while Hamlet whirls around him. Hamlet leaves, and Claudius is jolted out of that moment, not by a physical cue, but by an inner realization that he cannot and should not be forgiven his murder.

Throughout, Hamlet appears to be mad and dangerous, and Claudius so much more human and relatable. Indeed, is Hamlet so extreme an intellect that we might be more inclined to side with the villain, or at least better empathize with his venal motivations?