Friday, November 30, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's Hamlet really scrambles this scene up, changing the order of lines and events, to get the most creepiness out of it, but also to cover the fact that Gertrude hates her romantic rival Polonia, and the latter would not scream for help if Gertrude were in danger. Polonia's death scene thus comes at the end, rather than early on.

One of the points of view in the scene is a security monitor watched by the Ghost, who looks bored and distant, cold. This is an odd conceit, but as the scene develops, one used to create an image of the land of the dead. When the Ghost appears to Hamlet, there's a flicker that makes the normal image desaturate and distort, as if we were suddenly looking through the monitor. The effect heralds the Ghost's presence and is not sustained throughout the visitation, though Hamlet's POV is blown out, irridescent, whereas his mother's is normal. It's not just the sense of the supernatural that's conveyed here, but perhaps that he's having some kind of psychotic episode, hallucinating. And indeed, it's the Ghost that nods pointedly in the mirrored closet's direction from where Polonia watches. Real or not, it's the proverbial voice telling Hamlet to kill. And it makes sense that this Ghost would want Polonia dead, as she appears to have been a co-conspirator in his murder, or he may just want to push Hamlet over the edge to turn him into the weapon he needs him to be. If the Ghost is NOT real, the Hamlet is merely picking up on his mother's early reference to seeing black and grained spots as she looks right into the mirrored door, a silent cue to warn him they're being watched, something his psychotic break makes him subconsciously realize. Because we so often see the Ghost from an omniscient, third person POV, we must surely accept the Ghost is real, however, though it may be we are as mad as Hamlet.

The way the lines are stacked (and performed) in this adaptation, Hamlet is less of an accuser and more of a convincer. That's because Gertrude is already well on her way to rejecting Claudius, who she knows is already being unfaithful to her (with Polonia). As her son begins to speak, flashbacks to such indiscretions cross-fade through the screen. These same words and if somehow shared, images, bring a smile to closet queen Polonia's face. There is no real violence between mother and son, even once Hamlet pulls out a gun, and after Polonia's death, Gertrude easily promises not to let Claudius tempt her to bed, nodding emphatically, comforting him, completely sincere. Once again we must contend with parts of her dialog being delivered in German, which isn't so baffling in the context of royal pairings. Gertrude might well have been another country's alliance with Denmark, a rare pearl from another realm that two brothers fought over, though that's not very relevant to this modern staging.
After the Ghost leaves, a pounding beat is introduced in the score, Hamlet makes his mother sit in front of the mirror (introducing the line about setting up a glass much later in the scene) as he points a gun at her reflection. Her death will be a symbolic one, the death of the mother he hates, allowing her to be reborn on his side rather than her husband's. Polonia senses the bullets flying around her, and in an interesting bit of editing, flashes (as perhaps Hamlet does too) to the icepick murder shown in Hamlet's film. As the icepick enters the ear, so does a bullet penetrate her. The door opens, and to Hamlet's horror, he hasn't killed Claudius but Polonia (horror at having killed, at any rate, and in realizing he must kill again to honor his revenge pact). Polonia is framed in a smaller screen, her skin blue, with a treatment that makes it seem like she's part of Hamlet's film, odd slowed-down, choking sounds coming from her. This is where the fantasy of death and its reality converge, the cognitive dissonance Hamlet experiences. Polonia's death is almost painterly, a posed tableau. And eventually, the screen, colors and treatment adjust to normality (or what passes for it in this horrific version), and her death becomes real. Hamlet cries, for his own soul if not for this villain's.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Hamlet 2000

It must be said that Hamlet 2000 cuts out many lines, for time as much as anachronism, but these do create dialog juxtapositions that can, at times, illuminate the text. And as usual, part of the joy of watching the play translated into a contemporary setting is to see modern props, settings and attitudes used to give well-known scenes a new spin. The setting in this case is an odd bedroom, the bed's backboard right to a wall of skyscraper windows, no curtains (this later causes a technical hiccup when the boom microphone becomes visible in its reflection, but that's neither here nor there). A kind of tower from which the Royals can survey the realm, but also one where their incestuous debauchery would be visible to everyone. They are clearly shameless, and shame (or lack of it) is an important theme in this scene. As we come into it, it is set up like a bedroom farce. Polonius is sitting on the bed and rushes off to a mirrored closet, coming out again comically to grab his forgotten coat. There may not be something going on between Gertrude and Polonius (at least, we hope not), and Bill Murray's effete performance takes us away from any post-coital thoughts, but he is acting as the King's proxy and at least creating the image of an affair, perhaps an echo of Gertrude's original adultery.

Hamlet walks into her apartment and immediately moves to the bedroom, which is a bit suspect, but makes sense if he thinks to find Claudius there, or plans to accuse his mother of adultery in full sight of the bed (which seems a bit calculated for this particular Hamlet, but is still possible). He angers her and gets slapped, hard, at which points he actually uses the closet door to "set [her] up a glass", literally showing her her own sin. When Polonius starts shouting, it's not a dagger Hamlet pulls out, but a pistol, and he shoots through the mirror, breaking its reflection and, in effect, his family's status quo. Polonius walks out, having been shot through the eye, before collapsing.
This is one instance where the modern trappings can create an image the original props would have had difficulty with. Here we have a spy ironically shot through the eye, and layering in more irony, that spy can be called a blind fool. Gertrude seems surprised at her son's subsequent accusation, so despite her rather callous manner prior to this, she appears not to have been in on her husband's murder. Scared for her life, she attempts to grab the telephone, at which point Hamlet uses the "wringing of your hands" line to take it away from her. He jumps on the bed, throwing up the covers, grabs her and chokes her with the bedspread, he gives in to violence, but not to Oedipal lust (thankfully). In this adaptation, the Queen isn't shown the presentment of two brothers, the momentum is kept through movement, not words.
The Ghost appears to Hamlet as Gertrude is ready to pass out, sitting in the room. The cuts juxtapose "he glares" with "Do not look at me!", putting the focus on Hamlet's own shame. He has lost control, killed a man, and almost killed his mother, and the Ghost's judgment is unbearable. In his own mind, that judgment has just linked him to Claudius. The Prince thus acts as an example to his shameless mother. All are sinners, but having sinned, this is how one should feel. Thematically, it's what cleaves his mother's heart in twain. She is split between Claudius' hedonistic values and Hamlet's puritanical ones. There's also a lovely moment for the Ghost, a reaction shot to Gertrude saying she sees "nothing at all". He looks ascant, saddened and regretful that he cannot be seen by the love of his life. She cannot see him now, perhaps like she didn't really see him before. There's existential angst as the Ghost himself doubts his reality, and he dies again (never to reappear in the play) having been ignored and forgotten by his widow.

The end of the scene is cut with a silent sequence in which Hamlet drags Polonius' enshrouded body through corridors, and near the building's laundry, he calls Gertrude on a payphone to have "one more word". Structurally, the purpose this serves is to put the "neighbour room" well away from her apartment, a requirement the way this "Elsinore" is represented. It might also have been used as a reveal that Claudius is sitting in on the phone call, but that doesn't happen. Gertrude does not betray Hamlet. His "good night, mother", after the phone has been hung up, because more symbolic than literal, as if he's closing a chapter on his life. He's soon off to England and does not speak to her again before he leaves (and hardly after, in the play), but more importantly, his thoughts of taking revenge on her have been quelled. It's good night to that part of his plans.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Kline '90

No bed, no inappropriate mounting of one's mother, we seem well away from Zeffirelli's Oedipal staging, though by the end, Kline does give us a light kiss and a lot of hair and face stroking. Tender affection only brought on when Hamlet sees a hope for his mother's soul. But until then, the scene is set in a black room with red curtains, a red carpet and red chairs, foreshadowing the bloody deed that is to come and giving the entire scene, played mostly on the floor, a sense of violence.

Polonius goes out behind the arras earlier than in the text, at "I'll silence me, even here", which stressed this way, is rather like a suicide note. He'll come out again for one last line and bit of comic business before Gertrude asks him to withdraw. Dana Ivey as Gertrude is the one to watch here. Before Hamlet walks in, she's pacing, nervous, but once he enters, she becomes poised and regal, demanding answers as a Queen would. She puts on this character in part out of habit, and in part because it should work on a grown son who acts like a child. Queen/Mother, Country/Son - these concepts are connected, and when Hamlet asks her not to make things worse, he uses the rank weeds metaphor that we linked to Denmark as unweeded garden way back in Act I. From that angle, Hamlet is the rebellious country unhappy with its leaders' decisions, or rather that country's vocal discontents, as Laertes will actually lead the violent revolution. Should we then see Gertrude's mix of chiding and kindness as part of that allegory? A patronized Danish people who can get out of hand because of weakness at the top?

The scene plays out as more of a conversation than most adaptations allow. Gertrude genuinely wants answers and Hamlet is trying hard to convince her of the error of her ways. As the emotions reach a crescendo, the volume does go up, until Gertrude is screaming, through some very real anguish, for her son to stop. By showing her her two husbands, he seems to trigger her guilt and grief, but Gertrude always gets more agitated when he demands she stop sleeping with Claudius (and she gets a number of opportunities, he just won't let it go). Is the King violent? Does she fear political reprisal? Does she use sex as a weapon, and was planning to undo Hamlet's exile this very night with her feminine wiles? Does she truly love Claudius? Is she traumatized by the revelation that Claudius killed Hamlet Sr.? Any of these are possible and could make for interesting staging, though here it remains ambiguous.
The Ghost appears with a slight shift in lighting (no special effects, this was a theatrical production, after all), and it keeps to behind Gertrude, across from Hamlet, a most effective staging of the scene. The sense of worry Gertrude has for her son throughout returns to her here, and even Hamlet seems to be trying to convince himself of his mental health when he talks about his pulse keeping the time. Does it? Keeping time in this play is a most difficult enterprise. Kline's Hamlet doesn't appear to only be mad in craft, as evidenced by his murder of Polonius, and the way he speaks to the old man as if he were still alive. He drags him away, the red curtain getting caught on Polonius' foot and creating a sense of blood even though the scene is actually bloodless. His final good night is somber and macabre. The performance, as much as the text, puts Gertrude in an untenably ambiguous position. Madness and reason, violence and kindness, the men she loves both murderers, and this goodbye that does nothing to quiet her motherly concerns.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Zeffirelli '90

Ok. Let's talk Freud. While the world knows him best as a psychoanalyst, literature (and literary criticism) owes him a debt as well (the same is true of Jung, though this is not relevant to this discussion). Freud's use of myth and literature to illuminate human behavior created a new filter through which to analyze not just that behavior, but literary works as well. His analysis of Hamlet, connecting it to the Oedipus myth is justly famous, though it did inspire staging I deeply dislike, and among the best known filmed versions, is most obvious in Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation. The idea is that Hamlet is an Oedipal character who literally (whereas non-fictional men do so metaphorically) feels the need to kill his father to marry his mother. According to Freud, and I'm simplifying here, men love their moms and compete with their fathers for her attentions (the Electra complex reverses this paradigm for women). Whether we agree with Freud's generalizations or not, we must agree it is a viable lens through which we can look at Hamlet. Even if Shakespeare predates Freud by centuries, he was working within a theatrical tradition that included Sophocles' original Oedipus Rex, so the comparison is sound. Or did Shakespeare draw similar conclusions about human behavior, and expressed them in this play, in his own idiom?

There's certainly something going on under the surface in the text. Hamlet's obsession with his mother's sexuality is proof of that. In a sense, his father's Ghost possesses him, and he takes on the wronged husband's jealousy. He does not want to kill his father per se (though one could imagine a disturbing staging where a psychopathic Hamlet had killed Hamlet Sr. himself and was lying to various spies - us? - throughout the play), but he wants to kill a false father figure. This scene is particularly important to Freudians because in it, Hamlet kills a father (Ophelia's) and then confronts his mother about her infidelity. Has she betrayed her first husband, or her son? Zeffirelli goes the "fashionable" route by taking things a bit too far, in my opinion. When Hamlet is his rage, he starts humping his mother in a kind of mock rape. That's certainly not unique to this adaptation, but he then has Gertrude stop Hamlet's mouth with a deep kiss, and it then seems like it would have gone further had the Ghost not walked in on them. Where we might believe Hamlet's Oedipal complex from textual evidence, there's really nothing that should push Gertrude into an incestuous compulsion. It out-ironies irony that a confrontation about technical incest (she marries her husband's brother) turns to actual incest. Going this far undermines the entire play because it infers a precedent to this inappropriate contact. We're suddenly wondering Hamlet is jealous of Claudius because he used to share his mother's bed, and if so, why defend his father's memory so adamantly? In fact, why isn't the Ghost angrier to catch his son making out with his mother?
The staging just doesn't work. You can follow in Freud's footsteps, but you have to lay the idea in before this scene to make it work.

Otherwise, Zeffirelli's staging is often predicated by what dialog he's cut from the play. For example, Polonius starts this scene without a plan to spy on Hamlet and Gertrude from behind an arras. He seems to notice the tapestry as he's about to go out and decides to slink behind it. This Polonius is definitely more benign than the text would have him, and certainly less of a schemer. His end is tragic, but less warranted this way. As written, he thinks himself crafty and plans his spycraft well in advance, so there's a sense of satisfaction when he's hoisted by his own petard. His death here feels much more accidental. And does Hamlet see him there well before he starts to shout for help? He slides behind the arras just as Hamlet arrives, and it looks like the Prince notices the arras moving, at the very least, or even a dark shape behind it. It's a problem. Are we then to believe what he says to his mother is for the spy's benefit? Is that why he's so cocky, why he mocks his mother's anger? Possibly. There is a moment when he forgets himself, when she slaps him and he lets out an inhuman bellow, which might make this idea work. From then on, as he pushes his mother back at sword's point, he may have completely forgotten about the spy lurking behind the arras. When he "rediscovers" the spy, he doesn't have time to process the impossibility of it being the King whom he left in the chapel moments before, to which his victorious gesture testifies. The regret that follows may be motivated by not having killed the King, or for the consequences sure to follow for the death of Polonius, but as Gertrude starts to step away, he drops his sword and through his body language, tries to make her feel safe.

Where many Gertrude's vacillate between sadness and anger through these moments, Glenn Close's performance is heightened by abject fear. Her son is clearly mad and dangerous, and after that animalistic scream and on through their kiss, it's fear that motivates her. And it may not just be fear of her son. Fear of being discovered, perhaps? Her question "I mean what act?" seems to indicate a distinction between deeds and thoughts (a theme throughout the play, look back to the things Hamlet accuses himself of in the Nunnery scene). So... did she know about the King's murder? Was she in on it? Did she, at the very least, look the other way? The burial scene at the start of the film showed there was already a connection between her and Claudius, so could she be feeling guilty that their brewing affair resulted in the murder? The necklaces with pendants picturing her two husbands are once again used, violently so, as Hamlet almost chokes her with hers. It's Claudius' evil made manifest, a way for Hamlet to emphasize the blight her represents.

After the Ghost's appearance - or perhaps after the kiss - Hamlet grows kinder. There is no panic at seeing a spectral figure, but rather reverence. A calm falls upon him that contrasts with her own distress. He pleads with her to understand that he is not mad, never moving to coldness or anger as other, more mercurial Hamlet have sometimes done. He gives her his necklace as a reminder of her former husband and to show they're now on the same side (hopefully). It's interesting that this happens after she says her heart has been cleft in twain, because she was already a creature of two halves. Trapped between two husbands, or more likely between a son and a husband. That it is now cleft merely means she's been asked to choose between her two loves. The "purer" half is the motherly one, which Zeffirelli unfortunately compromised with his Oedipal stylings.

Hamlet's kindness extends to his taking Polonius' body out of doors, putting him upright before dragging him, less "guts" and more a person with a certain dignity. He even leans into his ear when he talks to him, through tears as things start to spiral out of control. Gertrude is left to look at the pendant her son has given him. What choice will she really make?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - BBC '80

As we find Gertrude, she's taking her rings off, getting ready for bed. It's hard not to see this as symbolic, since it prefaces a scene where she is asked to divest herself of a husband. She's agitated and angry to start with, at Hamlet more than at Polonius getting above himself, which comes to a head when she slaps Hamlet for his impertinence. Though it's a good performance, Derek Jacobi overwhelms the scene as usual, so mercurial as Hamlet that any given line may evoke some new analysis. For example, this is the first time Gertrude's "idle tongue" line resonates with so much irony for me, as his delivery of "go, go", a thoughtless reflection of her "come, come", is "idling" in every sense of the word. She makes him idle, just as his line makes her wicked (thus, the slap). As she attempts to leave, he blocks her with a drawn sword, the same he then uses to repeatedly stab the arras.

Anguish is on his face as he commits the blind murder, rather than anger, Jacobi truly making this about Hamlet killing the more ethical part of himself, and finally giving in to the revenge he's denied for so long. Contrast with his counsel to the Queen that she should throw away the worst part of her heart. He has done the opposite. Uniquely, Polonius takes some time to die after he's fallen, extending a hand towards his killer, much as Hamlet Sr. must have done towards Claudius, making the scene even more unbearable for Hamlet. After he's dead, Hamlet shouts his warning of danger at the corpse, as if trying to reach him in the afterlife, and bringing up the question of what happens to the soul after death, central to his early delay of action and his father's true fate (indeed, does the Ghost's appearance in this scene have any relationship to Polonius' sudden entry into Hell?). The emphasis on the line also makes us think of the Ghost as a "busy" schemer, whose machinations will bring on more danger.
From there, Hamlet frequently alternates between quiet kindness and violent accusations. The pictures of the two husbands on each character's necklaces is not a new trick, but Gertrude's reaction to these is always of interest. She refuses to look at either man, especially Hamlet Sr., seeming to grieve anew for him. She tries to flee her son, pacing back and forth in the antechamber, until Hamlet throws her into the bedroom and onto the bed. Here, it becomes a little disturbing, exploiting the Oedipal connections violently and sarcastically. The King's "compulsive ardour" is actually mimed, Hamlet humping his mother frenetically before he breaks down, his face in a pillow. Just when you think it's over, he starts on the "enseamed bed" section and tickles her cruelly, yipping like a lascivious loon on each beat. This behavior is not Oedipal in the sense that Hamlet seems truly in love with his mother, but is rather a parody of the Oedipal compulsion, showing the unnatural in the Claudius/Gertrude relationship through a grotesque lens.
The Ghost appears, still in armor even if many productions choose to dress him in more relaxed attire. But this is not a relaxed Ghost. He is very strict with his son and only mellows slightly at Gertrude's plight. The visitation is fairly standard otherwise, but what comes after provides more examination of the lines through Jacobi's unusual line readings. It's the word "ecstasy" that brings Hamlet back down to earth, when he goes cold and mean to his mother. The tone Jacobi uses makes it clear that the Prince is essentially saying "Don't you DARE say my madness and not your sin is the cause of all this". This Hamlet is far less forgiving than others, even after the Ghost has interceded on her behalf. And yet, he's looking for a way out, and believes he's found it when she says her heart has been cleft in twain. He starts laughing with relief. He believes she can be saved. But can she? She hugs him, seems to believe all will be well, but when he warns her about sleeping with Claudius, she stops. In fear? In shame? Remembering her love or lust for Claudius? In hesitation because she DOES love Claudius? His warnings turn to supplication and back again. There's still anger there, and contempt. Jacobi turns "I'll blessing beg of you" into an attack at her ability to repent, as if to say "You can judge me only when you've admitted your own sin". He is so changeable that you can hardly trust him when he says he's "essentially not in madness". Stern one minute, repentant the next, showing a flash of anger when his mother forgets he's off to England, and then giggling as he imagines his revenge on his school friends.

Polonius' eulogy fits this same pattern. Hamlet is able to choke back a sob by the end (but is he crying for Polonius, for Ophelia, or for his own soul?), and yet still make a Bondian death pun. Notably, he puts the murder weapon on Polonius' body, in a parody of a soldier's funeral, as if to represent machinations "fall'n on the inventors' heads". This is part of Hamlet's denial of action, justifying the accidental murder by blaming the victim. As the scene ends, we're treated to a staging that reveals Hamlet Prince of Denmark as a black comedy, Hamlet dragging a dead body while cheerily wishing his mother good night.