Sunday, December 29, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Kline '90

The scene suffers a number of cuts, starting slightly later, removing Lamond (as often happens), and any mention of the wick or snuff that could make Laertes hesitate. This Laertes is consequently all anger, and Claudius has no reason to challenge his commitment. One could almost believe Laertes had always held a certain malice against the prince who was wooing (if we're being tactful) his sister, who had more privileges than he did, who perhaps flaunted his wit and education around the castle. These events have just exacerbated an already tense relationship. One could also believe Laertes already has murder on his mind, and that he comes off thinking he's manipulated the King into giving him permission (which he does, in the sanctuary line). This might explain why his body language is so conspiratorial, giving Claudius a signal to keep quiet when a messenger comes in (after all, he has no reason to think Hamlet's already been sent to his death). Still, Claudius can't know the boy's mind, so does manipulate him a little bit, mostly by repeating the fact that Hamlet is returning, fueling that crucial anger.

This Claudius isn't as cold as some of the others, however, and Brian Murray lays fear into his performance. He's breathless, distracted, has to sit down. He almost shows his hand to the messenger, unwarrantably surprised and angry that the letter comes from Hamlet. It makes his plans sound more improvised and desperate. He's no mastermind, and we understand that it's all getting away from him. And Laertes is foolish to think it's a done deal, smiling like some psychopath and acting suspiciously when Gertrude comes in with some terrible news...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Zeffirelli '90

As with Olivier's adaptation, Zeffirelli moves this scene (or what's left of it) to after Ophelia's funeral and Hamlet's return. The lines cut have the usual effect of weakening Laertes and making him a simple tool for Claudius to use. Here he seems almost gleeful at the thought of killing Hamlet, despite returning from his sister's funeral. He doesn't need to be favorably compared to a Normand horseman, or incensed with talk of his snuffable whick, or even to hear what Claudius has planned. In fact, we cut away before the King reveals it, removing Laertes' part in poisoning the blade. We cut to Osric inviting Hamlet to the bout, and will be shown the scheme as it unfolds, but one would come off thinking it was ALL Claudius' idea. After Hamlet's line "we defy augury", we cut BACK to the conspirators, and here Laertes pulls out his poisonous idea. In other words, the duel was already called for, and the poison was a later addition.

For all my railing at the black hat portrayal of Claudius in this film, the performance here does have some humanity. Because he speaks to camera, his back to Laertes, when he talks of his love for Gertrude (ironically slipping away at this point), it is sincere, not a manipulation or facile excuse. Rather, it's a moment tinged in shame and he laughs at his own folly, an echo of Polonius telling us he once suffered maddening love himself. Perhaps he thinks of Hamlet and how everyone but him thought love was the cause of his malaise. Love's denier caught in a moment of self-realization that he himself has done the irrational for love's sake.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - BBC '80

Though lines were not cut from the top of this version, the direction still makes it seem like we're catching a conversation in progress. Claudius has been telling Laertes the story of Hamlet's madness and of Polonius' murder. But it hasn't made the best impression. Laertes is still bitter and the performances sell the idea that while the younger man does not think the King is responsible, he still has a lot to answer for in the way he dealt with the aftermath. So it's up to Claudius to disarm Laertes, which he never really manages to do. Showing himself vulnerable, laughing at Laertes' (earnest) "jests", complimenting him on his skills, asking for his counsel... Claudius tries it all. What seems to resonate best is mirroring his bitterness, accusing him of being less than dutiful and such. But Laertes never lets down his guard, never smiles or gets excited. He's a dead man walking.

How much of Claudius' dialogue is sincere is difficult to gauge. It's a safe bet that asking Laertes for advice is a ploy, because Polonius' son is a rather dense character. (As with Olivier's version, Laertes recognizing Lamond is cut from the script, which reinforces his lack of wit.) Patrick Stewart's performance while Laertes explains his plot to poison his sword adds a new wrinkle as well. Given that being the instrument of Hamlet's death and this poison sword business are both Laertes' contributions and not Claudius', it makes sense for the King to see them as wild cards. Though Laertes' scheme is meant to ensure Hamlet's death, it's specifically what makes Claudius start spinning back-up plans. Why? Unless he doesn't really think Laertes' skills are up to the job? He may believe they are initially, but if Laertes himself was confident, he wouldn't need to use poison and lay his hopes on a mere scratch. So if Laertes only hopes for a scratch, then maybe the King would do well not to expect even that. Their failure is all laid in ahead of time here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Olivier '48

Olivier moves this scene to a later position, AFTER Ophelia's burial and Hamlet's return, even conflating it with elements of Scene 5 ("let the great axe fall"), with Claudius capitalizing on Laertes' refreshed grief and anger (this time with Hamlet as the target) to get Laertes on his murderous plan. The front of the sequence moves the characters from the graveyard, up steps into Elsinore. It's there that Laertes is left alone in a way he never is in the play as written, his lines becoming a short soliloquy about what he's lost and the outrages done to his sister, even as he watches the gravedigger shovel dirt into her grave. (It also shows off the set's impressive depth.) But his wish for revenge is overheard by Claudius who recaptures him in that moment.

Through the whole sequence, Laertes seems spent. He's angry at Hamlet, but accepts Claudius' explanations rather easily. Over drinks, the King more or less informs him of the plan. With the cuts to the dialog, Laertes has less to say and when compared to other adaptations, there's less of a sense of a master manipulator making Laertes think it was all his idea to begin with. The Norman cavalier Lamond, for example, is not named (though lovers of the play will find a huge painting of a knight in the room to be in reference to him), only spoken about as a fan of Laertes'. Olivier's cuts weaken the character, and that's a problem for this scene, because Basil Sydney's Claudius is also a weakened character. Weakened more by the two-dimensional, mustache-twirling performance than the cuts, though they of course don't help.

Claudius does get one of his better moments in this scene, however, when he moves over to his throne and fondles it as he speaks his lines about "that we would do". It becomes a confession and justification for his own fratricide (indeed highlighting the idea that Hamlet and Laertes were likely brought up as brothers). It's a testament to Claudius as man of action, the man who acted on a "should", as always in contrast with Hamlet.

Interesting camera movement as the various additions are made to Claudius' plan. It - and we've been trained to think of Olivier's camera as either the Ghost's point-of-view or at least to have some kind of personality and morality - tracks back at the end of each ploy. As pure narration, it wants to leave when the plan is final, but the characters keep drawing it back in to amend it with another lethal element. By the third time, it's almost mocking the complexity of the plan. It feels like a joke. On a moral level, the camera recoils at the murderous instinct, tries to leave though it can't look away. Once done, it moves to another part of the castle and finds Hamlet and Horatio, who will also be making plans and discussing the "would" and the "should", or what Hamlet calls "readiness". Olivier ties the two speeches together by juxtaposing the scenes more closely.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Branagh '96

It's always exciting when lines glossed over in the text are made more interesting and given more power when performed. This happens a couple times in Branagh's well-executed adaptation, featuring an intense but slightly dense Laertes and a devious, always thinking Claudius. They've met over drinks, a sign of their coming together, but also an echo of the poison drink Claudius will offer Hamlet. This whole conversation is also poisonous, meant to poison Laertes' mind, infect it with an idea he would not have thought up himself. In practical terms, the fact Claudius has a drink in hand serves as inspiration for this particular back-up plan. The way Branagh stages the opening part of the scene, Claudius keeps his distance while giving excuses, watching for Laertes' dangerous anger, gauging when best to approach. Laertes' weakness is Ophelia, and it's when he grieves for his sister that the King dares approach, even squeezing Laertes' shoulder in comfort. That's his opening gambit, the rest is all rhetoric to convince Laertes to help him murder Hamlet (by poison, of course, that's his modus operandi).

One line Jacobi gives a nice reading to is "for youth no less becomes / The light and careless livery that it wears / Than settled age his sables and his weeds, / Importing health and graveness." This contrasts, in Claudius' mind, youth and maturity, an opinion that partly explains why his plan will fail. A young man (Hamlet, but more accurately Laertes) is careless and carefree, while an older man is prosperous (a winner) and dignified. Thinking of Hamlet as a youth is a mistake (and part of the play's ambiguity about this 40-year-old "student"), one that underestimates him thoroughly.

The fannish enthusiasm for the Normand Lamond also attracts attention. I was previously unsure of the character's role in the drama except as a way to awe and recruit Laertes, but the description of his as a sort of beast-man, half-man, half-horse, is part of the accumulation of imagery that contrasts Hamlet's behavior with that of men of action. The way he's described, Lamond is all instinct, all action, and apparently something Hamlet aspired to at one point (and in a way, still does). The flattering comparison Claudius makes seduces Laertes, who is much closer to Lamond's instincts already, into becoming such a "beast", as only soulless animals would commit violent murder in a church.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction

I've decided to split Act IV Scene 7 into two sequences: Claudius' Seduction (of Laertes) and Ophelia's Death. The latter is rather short, but its visual imagery is something adaptations tend to approach in a variety of ways, making it worthy of its own series of analyses. The first sequence is much longer, even more so when one considers the conversation started in Scene 5. The sequence is a mirror of Hamlet's first meeting with the Ghost, in which an older father figure counsels a young man to plot a murder.The extent to which the two scene might be staged to highlight this link rests on the each adaptation's director, and will be one of the elements to look out for over the coming articles. What are the differences between the Ghost's rhetorical approach and the King's? Is the Ghost's less convincing, or is Hamlet's delay his responsibility alone? How does Claudius ensure a different result and what can we infer from his brand of leadership? To begin to answer these questions, lets look at Shakespeare's original text (in italics). I'll break in with my thoughts (in normal script) when appropriate.

SCENE VII. Another room in the castle.

KING CLAUDIUS: Now must your conscience my acquaintance seal,
And you must put me in your heart for friend,
Sith you have heard, and with a knowing ear,
That he which hath your noble father slain
Pursued my life.
LAERTES: It well appears: but tell me
Why you proceeded not against these feats,
So crimeful and so capital in nature,
As by your safety, wisdom, all things else,
You mainly were stirr'd up.
KING CLAUDIUS: O, for two special reasons;
Which may to you, perhaps, seem much unsinew'd,
But yet to me they are strong. The queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks; and for myself--
My virtue or my plague, be it either which--
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her. The other motive,
Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces; so that my arrows,
Too slightly timber'd for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aim'd them.

Not only did Hamlet kill Laertes' father and drive his sister insane, he's conveniently not there to defend himself. So it's clever of Claudius to also blame his own inaction in this matter on Hamlet and those who love him. If the King did not take immediate action against the Prince, it's because it would have gone against the Queen and the public's will. Claudius does not take responsibility.

LAERTES:And so have I a noble father lost;
A sister driven into desperate terms,

If this sounds like Hamlet's own "That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd" (IV.iv), that's because it's meant to be.

Whose worth, if praises may go back again,
Stood challenger on mount of all the age
For her perfections: but my revenge will come.
KING CLAUDIUS: Break not your sleeps for that: you must not think
That we are made of stuff so flat and dull
That we can let our beard be shook with danger
And think it pastime. You shortly shall hear more:
I loved your father, and we love ourself;
And that, I hope, will teach you to imagine--

Let us note here that, at this point, Laertes thinks Hamlet is still alive, though Claudius should believe he is dead at English hands or at least well on his way to be. He's about to reveal his already enacted plan when a messenger cuts him off mid-confession.

Enter a Messenger

How now! what news?
MESSENGER: Letters, my lord, from Hamlet:
This to your majesty; this to the queen.
KING CLAUDIUS: From Hamlet! who brought them?
MESSENGER: Sailors, my lord, they say; I saw them not:
They were given me by Claudio; he received them
Of him that brought them.
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, you shall hear them. Leave us.

Exit Messenger

'High and mighty, You shall know I am set naked on your kingdom. To-morrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes: when I shall, first asking your pardon thereunto, recount the occasion of my sudden and more strange return. 'HAMLET.'

Hamlet insults the King by writing his letter in prose, a mode of talk usually reserved for peasants, though also for close friends. The phrasing is that of a loyal, even fawning, subject throwing himself on the King's mercy. Either the King buys this and is a fool, or takes it as scathing sarcasm. It'll be in the playing of it.

What should this mean? Are all the rest come back?
Or is it some abuse, and no such thing?
LAERTES: Know you the hand?
KING CLAUDIUS: 'Tis Hamlets character. 'Naked!
And in a postscript here, he says 'alone.'
Can you advise me?

Another rhetorical tool to draw Laertes in: Claudius, though the man in charge, who has the most information and is by far the most devious, asks for Laertes' advice. The younger man comes up empty (see?), but this has the function of making him more complicit in what will unfold next. Claudius' goal is to make Hamlet's murder LAERTES' idea, thus wiping his hands clean of it.

LAERTES: I'm lost in it, my lord. But let him come;
It warms the very sickness in my heart,
That I shall live and tell him to his teeth,
'Thus didest thou.'
KING CLAUDIUS: If it be so, Laertes--
As how should it be so? how otherwise?--
Will you be ruled by me?
LAERTES: Ay, my lord;
So you will not o'errule me to a peace.
KING CLAUDIUS: To thine own peace. If he be now return'd,
As checking at his voyage, and that he means
No more to undertake it, I will work him
To an exploit, now ripe in my device,
Under the which he shall not choose but fall:
And for his death no wind of blame shall breathe,
But even his mother shall uncharge the practise
And call it accident.
LAERTES: My lord, I will be ruled;
The rather, if you could devise it so
That I might be the organ.

Laertes had one last chance to wipe his own hands clean, but didn't take it. And so, Laertes becomes a willing instrument of Claudius' revenge because he feels it was his idea (to be included). Compare to Hamlet who was forced to swear to an action that proved to be beyond him.

KING CLAUDIUS: It falls right.
The word "falls" falls right indeed.

You have been talk'd of since your travel much,
And that in Hamlet's hearing, for a quality
Wherein, they say, you shine: your sum of parts
Did not together pluck such envy from him
As did that one, and that, in my regard,
Of the unworthiest siege.
LAERTES: What part is that, my lord?
KING CLAUDIUS: A very riband in the cap of youth,
Yet needful too; for youth no less becomes
The light and careless livery that it wears
Than settled age his sables and his weeds,
Importing health and graveness. Two months since,
Here was a gentleman of Normandy:--
I've seen myself, and served against, the French,
And they can well on horseback: but this gallant
Had witchcraft in't; he grew unto his seat;
And to such wondrous doing brought his horse,
As he had been incorpsed and demi-natured
With the brave beast: so far he topp'd my thought,
That I, in forgery of shapes and tricks,
Come short of what he did.
LAERTES: A Norman was't?
LAERTES:Upon my life, Lamond.
KING CLAUDIUS: The very same.
LAERTES: I know him well: he is the brooch indeed
And gem of all the nation.
KING CLAUDIUS: He made confession of you,
And gave you such a masterly report
For art and exercise in your defence
And for your rapier most especially,
That he cried out, 'twould be a sight indeed,
If one could match you: the scrimers of their nation,
He swore, had had neither motion, guard, nor eye,
If you opposed them. Sir, this report of his
Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy
That he could nothing do but wish and beg
Your sudden coming o'er, to play with him.
Now, out of this,--

What is Lamond's function in the play? Here is a never-seen, never-before-mentioned character that apparently captured Hamlet's imagination. The fact Claudius is telling the story makes it suspect. As a rhetorical tool to recruit and control Laertes, it's an example of flattery. Laertes is compared favorably to a great Norman hero (it should be no coincidence that Laertes is a Francophile), and told Hamlet would chomp at the bit to show Laertes how much better a swordsman he is. The calm demeanor with which Hamlet accepts the challenge later belies the attitude Claudius attributes to him here. It might have happened, but Hamlet has grown up since then.

LAERTES: What out of this, my lord?
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, was your father dear to you?
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?
LAERTES: Why ask you this?
KING CLAUDIUS: Not that I think you did not love your father;
But that I know love is begun by time;
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;
And nothing is at a like goodness still;
For goodness, growing to a plurisy,
Dies in his own too much: that we would do
We should do when we would; for this 'would' changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;
And then this 'should' is like a spendthrift sigh,
That hurts by easing. But, to the quick o' the ulcer:--

This is the argument against Hamlet's delay. Had Hamlet heard and followed his advice, Claudius would already be dead. It's also an echo of the "readiness is all" speech. What changed with Hamlet isn't the "would" but the "when". He would escape his dramatic destiny.

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?

Deed and word are opposite, something of the theme of the play. There's probably a thesis about the author's anxiety in there somewhere, for whom words ARE deed, something the play tries to resolve in the "Hamlet as his own author" scheme.

LAERTES: To cut his throat i' the church.
KING CLAUDIUS: No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize;
Revenge should have no bounds. But, good Laertes,
Will you do this, keep close within your chamber.
Hamlet return'd shall know you are come home:
We'll put on those shall praise your excellence
And set a double varnish on the fame
The Frenchman gave you, bring you in fine together
And wager on your heads: he, being remiss,
Most generous and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils; so that, with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and in a pass of practise
Requite him for your father.
LAERTES: I will do't:
And, for that purpose, I'll anoint my sword.
I bought an unction of a mountebank,
So mortal that, but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratch'd withal: I'll touch my point
With this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly,
It may be death.
KING CLAUDIUS: Let's further think of this;

Though Laertes believes himself in the right AND is prized to be the better swordsman, he still feels the need to cheat. Unsure he can stick Hamlet like a pig, he opts for a simple, easier, scratch. And then Claudius hedges his bets and produces a back-up plan if even this fails. Well-prepared, or instinctually aware of their own karma (in the dramatic, rather than religious sense)? Or is he just showing off his cleverness by adding one more convolution to the plan, a convolution he will be punished for? This is Hamlet's tragedy, and he will die because of his own hubris, believing himself too good a character to die during a revenge scheme. But it's also Claudius, for he too will die because HIS brand of hubris forces him to use his innate deviousness to make unnecessary preparations that will cause the death of his queen, and Laertes' final betrayal.

Weigh what convenience both of time and means
May fit us to our shape: if this should fail,
And that our drift look through our bad performance,
'Twere better not assay'd: therefore this project
Should have a back or second, that might hold,
If this should blast in proof. Soft! let me see:
We'll make a solemn wager on your cunnings: I ha't.
When in your motion you are hot and dry--
As make your bouts more violent to that end--
And that he calls for drink, I'll have prepared him
A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom'd stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.

We'll next see how the various adaptations handled the sequence, whether they played up or down the King's manipulative skills or the similarities between Claudius/Laertes and Ghost/Hamlet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Classics Illustrated

The original
A strange choice from comics makers so focused on the "boys' adventure" elements of the play. This would have been a perfect place to insert a visual flashback with ships and pirate battles. Instead, though the adaptation is often merciless with its cuts, we get the entire letter in what is practically a splash page. In other words, the authors have given a lot of weight to what is essentially a linking scene, but did not use that space to do Hamlet's story justice. The most we get is a sailor with an eye patch. So what effect does this rather poor decision (in terms of medium) have on the story? It may tell us Hamlet's story is at least in part a fabrication, and we might imagine a Machiavellian Hamlet who had a ship loyal to him waiting to take him off his stepfather's. The letter to Horatio would be a smokescreen filled with tall tales in case it was ever intercepted. Perhaps Horatio knows this is coded, perhaps he doesn't, but the image above makes clear he's taking a pirate into Elsinore. Why would he provide access for an outlaw if they weren't part of the same rebel faction loyal to the prince? No, I don't think the adaptation thought it through this much, but the creative team's poor visual choice does evoke staging and interpretation ideas.

The Berkley version omits the letter entirely.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Act IV Scene 4 - Tennant (2009)

An omission on my part, because it was out of normal order and I'd lost track of it, is the scenes that includes the speech "How all occasions do inform against me". Doran introduces it later than usual, where Hamlet's letter would normally be read, as a way to juxtapose its final line "my thoughts be bloody" with Laertes' own bloody thoughts just before Claudius comes in to seduce him into murdering Hamlet.

The modernized staging is interesting, with the camera up above as if Fortinbras and then the Captain are looking up at a helicopter, either dropping men off or taking them in. We're still on the same black, mirrored stage most of the play is filmed in, but with snow on the ground, contrasting with black soil and black sky (once we change angles). Hamlet is out in the cold, in darkness, lost. It gives the scene an eerie, dream-like feel, as if these are spirits come to taunt him in the night. The Captain, with his wry barracks humor, smiling contemptuously at the meaningless war he's been asked to fight. Fortinbras, standing in for the ghost of Hamlet's father, a warlike action man throwing Hamlet's inaction back in his face. Fortinbras waging a war for no real reason is the anti-Hamlet, ALL action and no thought, and is meant to prompt the Danish prince TO action.

But look at what actually happens in the staging of it. Hamlet's first reaction is to sit down and talk! The video diary device introduced earlier is hear used to justify the soliloquy, in which Hamlet perhaps sarcastically calls Fortinbras "delicate and tender", and ends with the entirely ironic "my thoughts be bloody." My THOUGHTS. So while Hamlet seems to be telling us that NOW he will act, he does not actually move beyond thinking of acting.

Thursday, November 7, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Kline '90

In this extremely simple version of the scene, with a single silent sailor waiting behind Horatio, a mystery just as the contents of the letter, Kline cuts the lines about pirate ships, giving no real account of how Hamlet escaped his escort. The story works without this complication, of course, but makes the scene almost too simple to warrant an article about it. Perhaps that's our chance to discuss the text a little more, and how even a linking scene like this still has a poetry to it. Hamlet story (though here abridged) is about a reversal of fortune, an exile coming home rather than leaving it, and Shakespeare makes reversal a major theme of his short letter. Horatio is asked to COME to Hamlet speedily as if he was running away FROM death, the pursuer gaining the haste of the pursued. Hamlet's words will create silence. And so on. We should then see "these good fellows" as an ironic confirmation that the sailors are the pirates in the preceding story, and could even see a sly joke about Hamlet having much to say about two people who barely have enough content for a single character.

And of course, the greatest reversal of all is that this tiny scene is the pivot at the center of the play, turning the delaying Hamlet into the revenging Hamlet needed to bring the tragedy to a close.

Saturday, November 2, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli doesn't use the scene in which Horatio reads Hamlet's letter, going straight from Ophelia's last scene to her suicide. He does use some visual shorthand to present the necessary information, however (though it removes the perhaps unnecessary complication of the pirate attack) in a cut-away to Hamlet just before Laertes arrives in Elsinore.

We see Hamlet skulking about the ship while Rosencrantz&Guildenstern sleep, ferret the King's letter out of their bags and read it (it's a voice-over in Claudius' voice, basically the lines that end with "Do it, England!"). He then switches those letters with new letters of his own writing. He makes the sign of the cross over their prone bodies, crossing them as he crosses them, a visual pun. Seeing it in these terms makes Hamlet quite ruthless. He has the letters sending R&G to their deaths before he even finds the King's letter, making us wonder if he would have had them killed regardless.

And we cut straight from that to R&G getting hauled to an executioner's block, where the axe falls on Michael Maloney's neck (out of frame, thankfully). So in very quick succession, we find out the contents of Horatio's letter (no longer needed) and the fate of R&G (which may cut more dialog down the line). Those are some efficacious chops for both Zeffirelli and Hamlet!

Friday, November 1, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - BBC '80

A most unusual staging, but completely supported by the text. We're in a public space, with plenty of people milling around. Horatio is reading at a table when the two sailors walk in. They look around them, not so much to find the one learned man in all of Elsinore, but to make sure they aren't noticed. The lead sailor has a smile on his face, one that might indicate he knows something others don't, a fact that amuses him. The body language speaks to a covert mission, but then, so does the dialog.

Note for example how Hamlet's name is not spoken. They call him the "ambassador bound for England" instead. Then, they make sure the man they are speaking to is indeed Horatio. When Horatio tries to steps away to read the letter, the sailor grabs his arm, restrains him. He won't let Horatio out of his sight, or perhaps it's the letter he's been told not to lose sight of. It mustn't get into the wrong hands, even by accident. One might imagine the sailors taking back and destroying the missive between scenes. And the letter is complimentary to the messengers, as if Hamlet knew full well it would be read in their presence, ennobling the pirates by calling them "warlike".

As they leave, the camera lingers on gamblers throwing dice. A comment on the situation's precariousness?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Olivier '48

The letters' arrival is interwoven into Scene 5, so occurs out of the normal sequence. First, the King and Queen get theirs BEFORE Laertes arrives, using lines from Scene 7, and they walk off reading, each up their own staircase, representing their completely different thoughts on the matter. Gertrude, sad and wanting news from her son; Claudius, surprised and angry Hamlet does not appear to be dead yet.

We then cut Horatio who is watching Ophelia pick flowers. He is approached by two men, the sailors, who give him a letter and step out of shot. As Horatio starts to read, the camera closes in, goes by him to the wall, which dissolves into the tale Hamlet tells, in his own voice. Model ships, some quick swashbuckling action, and Hamlet clasping hands with one one of the very sailors who delivered his message. The effect is very cinematic, and does a good job of clarifying Hamlet's story. It's clearer, for example, that Hamlet has jumped ships on purpose, to escape his English fate. (Of course, without Rosencrantz&Guildenstern, removed from this adaptation, his escort is faceless and he remains guiltless of their "going to it".)

As Horatio gets to the end of the message, the camera tracks back again and we see the sailors have not left outright. Ophelia enters singing, and they appear as haunted by her sadness as Horatio is. They let her pass, silently, and only then rush off to meet Hamlet as we stay with Ophelia, who enters Scene 5, already in progress, as previously discussed.

Sunday, October 27, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Branagh '96

From all accounts, the production got lucky one day when, after spending the whole shoot applying fake snow, a blizzard started up. Wanting to shoot something right away to get that production value, Branagh grabbed Nick Farrell at the lunch wagon and had him do the one scene that doesn't require remembering very many lines (since you can essentially read them). This was matched to an equally snowy establishing shot, which speaks to time having gone by and a less and less hospitable Denmark. Horatio reads the letter with a puzzled tone, with a hint of interrogation at the end of every line, in what feels very naturalistic. Interestingly, as soon as he reads the part about the sailors also bringing letters to the King, he moves away from them, unwilling to let them gossip about whatever his own letter might contain if interrogated by Claudius.

A culture of hyper-surveillance is also present in a short, silent sequent introduced between the moment Horatio hears about the letters and the one in which he receives them. On the way, he stops to open a peep hole into Ophelia's padded cell where she is evidently getting hosed with cold water (all the more cruel when we know the current weather report, and of course, water is her element). Though he leaves with a sad expression on his face, we cut back to Ophelia, who, once the orderly has left, takes a key out of her mouth.
Evidently, she's been hosed for having attacked some guard or maid. The scene is necessary in this version to show how she escaped her cell, free to go out and commit suicide. Branagh smartly inserts a linking scene into what is one of Shakespeare's own necessary linking scenes.

Sunday, October 20, 2013 Hamlet's Letter

Scene 6 is a brief moment that acts as "Meanwhile..." and tells us just what happened to Hamlet after he left Denmark. A dramatic necessity, it allows the prince's story to unfold without adding a complicated action set piece involving two ships. Of course, in movies, that can be shown, and some adaptations have gone through that trouble, replacing or enhancing this scene with visuals. We'll see who did and if it added something over the course of the next articles. For now, let's look at the text itself.

SCENE VI. Another room in the castle.

Enter HORATIO and a Servant
HORATIO: What are they that would speak with me?
SERVANT: Sailors, sir: they say they have letters for you.
HORATIO: Let them come in.

Exit Servant

I do not know from what part of the world
I should be greeted, if not from Lord Hamlet.

Enter Sailors

FIRST SAILOR: God bless you, sir.
HORATIO: Let him bless thee too.
FIRST SAILOR: He shall, sir, an't please him. There's a letter for you, sir; it comes from the ambassador that was bound for England; if your name be Horatio, as I am let to know it is.
HORATIO: [Reads] 'Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this, give these fellows some means to the king: they have letters for him. Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded them: on the instant they got clear of our ship; so I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy: but they knew what they did; I am to do a good turn for them. Let the king have the letters I have sent; and repair thou to me with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death. I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of the matter. These good fellows will bring thee where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their course for England: of them I have much to tell thee. Farewell. 'He that thou knowest thine, HAMLET.'
Come, I will make you way for these your letters;
And do't the speedier, that you may direct me
To him from whom you brought them.


I'll note three things. First, how brazen Hamlet is to also send letters to the King. He is not returning to Denmark under cover of darkness to assassinate Claudius in his sleep. He's giving him fair warning, challenging him. But we'll see how that plays out in that other letter and leave it be for now.

Second, while getting captured by pirates effectively separates him from Rosencrantz&Guildensten and allows him to escape his English fate, the idea that the knew what they were doing and asked a favor of him is an odd loose end. What was this favor, and why isn't it mentioned again? A contrivance then, and easy enough to explain. He would have made his noble birth known and promised to pay some ransom. It's still strange, and if the letter wasn't addressed to Horatio, we might wonder if he's lying. Or is he covering his bases in case someone else spies the letter? After all, he does make allusions to other events he doesn't want to discuss on paper. This is left unresolved, just as it isn't clear how long Hamlet was gone from the realm. Personally, I like to think his incredible charisma made him the pirates' liege lord and that he plans to use them in a potential civil war, then reward them with lands and titles. Indeed, are these sailors delivering his letters some of those same pirates?

Lastly, let's note that while Horatio keeps speaking in verse, Hamlet's letter is written in prose. On the one hand, it's part of the friendly familiarity he owes Horatio, while Horatio himself is maintaining an aloof distance between himself and the more common sailors. But might it also indicate some kind of naturalization of Hamlet while in pirate hands? Has he gone native and gotten used to a more common vernacular? And perhaps more germane to the plot, has his time with them hardened him and made him more of an action man, one that can finally take his revenge on Claudius?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Classics Illustrated

The original
Interestingly, the old Classics Illustrated shows us Laertes outside Elsinore, leading the rabble at the gates. That might have given the sequence a bit more menace, but Laertes is then immediately seen to enter the unguarded throne room. It's notable that no mention is made in the play, nor all that frequently in the adaptations, of guards who could have met their end in Laertes' action. The Switzers are inquired after, but aren't guarding the door. The dramatic effect is to show a deserted Elsinore where the Royals have been abandoned in the wake of the country's instability. In the comic, the mob enters the room while Claudius protests his innocence to a determined Laertes, and I'd like to think their swords have been blooded. But then Ophelia walks in.
That song and that one flower are all that remain of the sequence as scripted. It's a terrible piece of shorthand that gives Laertes pause, but diminishes this adaptation's already slim portrayal of Ophelia. As usual, this is part of the old Classics Illustrated remit of "boys' adventure" comics, with female characters sidelined in favor of sword fights and ghostly apparitions. The adapters probably didn't know how to make the flower-giving scene meaningful to their intended audience.

Strangely, Laertes is immediately cowed by this short excerpt and follows the royals out of doors, while the mob exits from another doorway entirely (and not the one they came in through; one might imagine a quiet massacre going on behind the scenes).

The Berkley version
The newer adaptation makes the same kind of outrageous cut. The confrontation is here again cut short by Ophelia's appearance (very short, he doesn't even have time to say he wants revenge for his father), though she just appears out of nowhere, sings the same song and a snatch of another in the same panel, drawn from afar, and that's it. She doesn't even have flowers with her. The character's last speaking appearance is thus wasted. Grant and Mandrake are just racing through this sequence for the plot's sake. They need their page count for things that interest them more.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - A Midwinter's Tale

Running through the whole play in a few minutes, A Midwinter's Tale keeps the energy level way up with Laertes brandishing a sword from the onset and quickly moving to behind Claudius and holding it to the King's throat. Only a quick couple lines, though if we imagine them in the context of an entire production, we can see the virtue of a thoroughly incensed and violent Laertes in this scene. He would be holding Claudius hostage through the whole sequence, ramping up the tension, and perhaps making the King's words more desperate or an even greater show of control. Perhaps they could stay in this position through Ophelia's sequence as well. I've never seen it done that way, but it would serve a number of dramatic functions - freezing the action and adding to Ophelia's ghostliness; juxtaposing Laertes' loving lines with his innate violence; turning his reactions to Ophelia's madness into accusations.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Tennant (2009)

One motive for the Queen defending Claudius in this scene despite what Hamlet told her about him we haven't discussed is one of the motives attributed to her marrying him in the first place. While it may or may not apply to this version of the play, something in Penny Downie's performance - Gertrude's mixture of protectiveness and doubt - made me think of it. If a Queen cannot rule alone in this society, then it's in her best interest to keep the King alive, especially given the unknown fate of her son, and how this mutiny would not, in fact, end with Hamlet taking the throne. She married swiftly to keep her country stable and now can't let it slip (further) into chaos.

And the danger is very real here. Laertes comes in brandishing a handgun, pushes the Queen down to the ground, and waves the pistol in Claudius' face. It could go off at any time, without much effort, if he thinks he's being juggled with. Claudius is completely calm throughout, and by keeping the Gentleman who comes in with the news of the rebellion in the room, a nice contrast is created between two sorts of men. At one point, Laertes waves the gun in HIS face and the Gentleman falls down in terror, trying to squirm away from imagined bullets. He's the common man, Claudius is something else - a King protected by divine favor. He can even afford to walk towards the gun.
Enter Ophelia, her arms full of branches. Though she turns to bitterness occasionally, Mariah Gale is perhaps the saddest of all the Ophelias, overwhelmed by her grief, her voice often breaking and tears flowing. For that reason, she's among the most touching. One of the few breaks in that sadness is when she slings fennel and columbines at the King, her tone contemptuous. Rue's nickname makes her laugh sadly, and Gertrude tries to comfort her with a similar smile. The daisy is noncommittally thrown at the Gentleman. Its folk meaning, innocence, is something Ophelia just throws away. Her line about her father making a good end seems a small comfort to her, but a comfort nonetheless. Then comes the long funereal song as she kneels down and lays her "flowers" on an imaginary grave before leaving, a blank look in her eyes, completely emptied. Her character's arc done, she goes to throw herself in the river.

Usually, Claudius then crassly approaches the stunned Laertes and continues his appeal as if nothing happened. In this case, Laertes takes his gun out again, giving the King a lot more justification for the continued appeal. I love to watch Downie's performance here. Gertrude is riveted by Claudius' speech, and I can't decide if it's because she's fascinated by his charisma, impressed/alarmed that he would give up everything if found wanting by Laertes, or in the final seconds of the scene, shocked at how Claudius just threw Hamlet under a bus.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's Laertes is a psychotic brute, never more apparent than in his return from France. Instead of leading a rebellion directly to the King and Queen, he first makes a move on Hamlet's friends, Horatio and Francisco, knocking the latter out and viciously beating the former to some heavy metal music. It appears as if he's about to rape Horatio, but Laertes actually takes his belt off to choke her with it, dragging her to the beach as a hostage when he meets Claudius and Gertrude. Though the disturbing inference is there, I'm relieved the film didn't go there, as it would have been a paltry misuse of Horatio's feminization.

At the beach, this Laertes proves too gross in nature to keep to the Shakespeare's lines, dropping a number of F-bombs into his speech that emphasizes his beastliness. Of course, the text was going to suffer a lot of changes anyway, since he's not asking after his father's death, but his sister's, Polonia being this adaptation's other feminized character. The sexual politics that come into play actually give Claudius a better motive for Polonia's death, and Laertes more justification to come after the King. After all, Polonia had been Claudius' lover, so both Royals would have had reason to want her killed. Their discussion becomes a shouting match, which is perhaps the only way one can communicate with this brutish Laertes. While present, Horatio of course has no lines during this scene, but that can easily be attributed to a bruised throat. Gertrude is also largely taken out of it as the King's pleas for her to let Laertes ("Let him go, Getrude") become "Let her go, Laertes", in reference to the captive Horatio.
Then a strange moment that foreshadows Ophelia's death. Laertes hears a noise, turns around, the sound drops out in favor of eerie music, and Ophelia stands there, flowers in hand, in saturated whites and blues. She's a ghost, already dead as far as fate goes. She comes forward and kisses him passionately, something Laertes has the surprising decency to find disturbing. If there's something this whole sequence proves is that while painted as a coarse monster, Fodor's Laertes isn't sexual, only violent. He would probably be intolerable if he were both.

The the sound drops back in, the colors return to normal, and the scene regains a sense of normalcy (such as it is) as the girl frenetically looks through her brother's pockets, likely looking for heroin, though she finds nothing. Remember, Polonia was supplying her with it, and a large part of Ophelia's breakdown in this version is attributed to withdrawal. Angry and bitter, and holding back tears, she then proceeds to distributing her flowers before walking off, her final words completely cut as we move back to Claudius' seduction of Laertes. She does tweak some the lines she IS afforded to interesting effect, in particular "You must sing a-down a-down, / An you call him a-down-a" pronounced "a-down-er", a clue to the drugs that are on her mind, as well as a less-than-stellar appreciation for her cruel, manipulative sister.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Hamlet 2000

Seconds after Ophelia is carried off by security, Laertes comes out of nowhere to confront Claudius (well, security IS distracted...). It's a quick, furious scene on a balcony overlooking a pit. It screams danger just like the Danish rabble at Laertes' heels might have. Claudius quickly moves to an adjacent room, his fear more about the public relations aspect of Laertes' rebellion than about his physical safety, though the younger man soon has his hand around the elder's throat, and image that is reversed by sequence's end when Claudius does the same, but in a kind of bond-creating embrace. In this version, the Queen is portrayed as being just as decadent as her husband, so she gets a good portion of Laertes' abuse. He screams at her to drown out her protests. He tells HER he dares damnation. In a sense, she's the King's only bodyguard in this scene, his only enforcer.

One note about the room: It somehow doesn't appear to be on the same floor as the balcony it seemed adjacent to. The street outside makes this no more than the second or third floor, while the balcony was high indeed. It gives the sense that the reception hall is a pit dug into the ground, a funnel into hell itself.
Ophelia comes in with Polaroids of flowers instead of the flowers themselves, which makes sense for the photographer she is in this adaptation. In great distress, Ophelia barely recognizes her brother and appears to be in a constant state of swooning, going weak at the knees and cross-eyed. Is she on drugs, medicine, or is this just how her madness manifests? Notably, many of her lines are cut and she does not make any reference to prayer. She's merely helped out of the room by her brother. This is because Christian notions have largely been weeded out of the text to better represent young people of Hamlet's and Ophelia's social class circa the year 2000.

"Where the offense is let the great axe fall" is now part of the next scene, not spoken to Laertes, but to Claudius himself, in the broken mirror up in his bedroom, just before he manipulates Laertes into helping him kill Hamlet. It takes on another meaning. Rather than trying to sound sincere for Laertes, he's rather psyching himself up for the task of "turning" an antagonistic "Laertes". The moment may imply that Claudius is ready to take his lumps if he can't work his magic, and that success in this instance is a sign from above that he shall prevail against Hamlet as well. The things we tell ourselves in the mirror to convince ourselves we're on the correct course.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Kline '90

Laertes' arrival in the Kevin Kline-directed version of Hamlet is pretty standard. While there's no rabble at his heels, the pseudo-military clothes give the feeling of mutiny, and Laertes' strong physical presence is threatening to the older, shorter Claudius, despite his cocksure smile. He's on guard. Laertes himself vacillates between anger and shock, as if he harbors a fear that he's misjudged the King, betrayed his country, and put his life and honor in danger. But before we can fully explore this, his mad sister enters.

In a white dress with a long train, Ophelia looks like she's come from her own demented wedding, and perhaps she has. She hold a paper flower made of what might very well be Hamlet's letters to her, unraveling them like the life she believed she would lead, and letting them fall on the floor, parallel to her tears. It takes a beat before she recognizes her brother and embraces him, though in her confusion, she almost kisses him full on the mouth, hiccuping her line about remembrance to stop herself. That's Hamlet represented. As for her father, she speaks her lines about him ("he made a good end" and so on) in a tone that parodies the platitudes one might hear at a loved one's funeral. Like Hamlet before her, she keeps changing character. Mocking and sincere, impish - stuffing a paper petal down Gertrude's cleavage, for example - and overwhelmed with grief. At the end of the sequence, she struggles with her brother and positively screams her prayers for God to have mercy on them all, finally collapsing in his grip, spent. And she'll walk out the same way she walked in, confused and deaf to the world.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Zeffirelli '90

Laertes rides into Elsinore, a man alone, shouting at the castle and running in to look for the King. There's no rebellion here except his own, as Zeffirelli has isolated his version of Elsinore from politics at large. We get no Fortinbras, we get no Danish rabble. Not to say the characters of the play are the only ones in this world, because Claudius is surrounded by men when Laertes catches up to him, and it's these soldiers the King warns off instead of Gertrude. She's up on a balcony, watching from behind a pillar. This makes her estrangement from Claudius more obvious, though it does beg the question as to why Laertes isn't killed as soon as he pulls a sword on the King. A sign of weakness on the realm's part? Could be, and though we never think about it, it's true of the play as written. Laertes and peasant rabble overcome trained palace guards to get into the royals' inner sanctum. Or is it a more personal affair? Claudius showed a certain preference for Laertes over Hamlet in Act I, and by disarming him rather than killing him, he seems to show such affection again. Claudius isn't arrogant when he waves his guards off. He looks at the sword, gauging the danger and what words to use next. By the time he brushes the sword point off, meeting fleeting resistance at first, he prevails because he detects doubt in Laertes.
Cries and sobs then distract Laertes, who follows them to the throne room where Ophelia is playing with dead things, twigs and bones playing the parts of flowers, on the Queen's throne (her homologue in the previous generation). Wet and impish, she distributes her wares, talking more to the King than to her brother, and walks out after reassuring Laertes that their father "made a good end". Stunned, he still gets the final line of the scene (about "a maid's wits"). Zeffirelli then cuts to Ophelia's suicide immediately, robbing Ophelia of her very last moments, her last song, her sudden nihilistic resolve, and her religious goodbyes. The director never lets her move away from the state of madness we found her in at the start of Act IV.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - BBC '80

The conflict between Claudius and Laertes works by contrast. David Robb gives us one of the angriest Laertes examined in this series of articles, red-faced and able to interrupt a King when he speaks. Patrick Stewart's Claudius is, in complete opposition, calm, dispassionate, even cold, but also commanding and frank. The aforementioned interruption is meaningful. Laertes won't be "juggled with". He knows of Claudius' reputation as a deft manipulator, but doesn't see that Claudius is giving him exactly what he will most respond to: a no-nonsense attitude which doesn't appeal to emotion. When Claudius eventually shouts a line, it's not out of wrath, it's to press a point home. He's winning an argument.
Enter Ophelia, with flowers in her hands. She goes to Laertes and kisses him as she would a lover. She showed such disturbing sexual behavior in the previous sequence (towards the King), and it has two effects. One is to reestablish Laertes as a mirror image of Hamlet. The other is to put Ophelia in an alternate universe, a hallucination. It's not her brother she sees there, as she proceeds to bring flowers to an invisible grave. She's reliving (or imagining, if it never actually happened in her presence) her father's burial. She tries to get the royals to dance, sings to the ground, and when her brother tries to touch her, perhaps snap her out of it, she bats him away. When she isn't by the grave, she's clutching at the wall painting of the Hades that played background to Hamlet's "undiscovered country", prettiness in Hell. And she's fairly nasty to Claudius, throwing one of the flowers she gives him on the ground, for example, and barking her prayers at him, sarcastically invoking his Christian soul before leaving with a sweet smile.

Notably, Ophelia's scene doesn't completely deflate Laertes' anger. As Claudius finishes his speech to him, Laertes is overwhelmed with emotion. Still red-faced, he's now visibly shaking, almost like he's about to go mad himself. And that's proper given how Ophelia just treated the King. If he's guiltless, why would his sister be so disrespectful to him?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Olivier '48

Olivier's treatment of this sequence is highly cinematic and focuses on Ophelia, not her brother, with massive cuts to his lines. Between the first and second parts of Scene 5, Olivier inserted Horatio's receipt of a letter from Hamlet, and it's at the end of that scene that Ophelia crosses his path, singing one of her songs. It increases the irony of her coming suicide because she almost learns her lover is coming back, or she might have heard, and his return is part of her nihilistic motivation. In any case, the camera follows her to the great hall where Laertes' sequence is already in progress. It removes the rabble at the gates and makes unclear the wronged son's ire towards the King. It's all on her, and the argument her brother is having with the Royals is just background noise, noise she interrupts with her entrance. We don't see her face until she speaks (singing excluded), which turns her into a ghost, with a function similar to the capital "G" Ghost of the play in the closet scene. She dispels the rage and violence in the scene, possibly prevents a misunderstanding from leading to murder. Laertes is haunted, and Ophelia is a sort of spirit, not truly connecting with the world around her.

After Laertes' initial reaction, we stay with Ophelia, she walks out of the room, speaks lines to herself, leaves rosemary on Hamlet's chair (asking him to remember), returns to the hall. And they don't follow her. They're stunned. She might as well be walking through walls. Ophelia is isolated - by choice, in a sense - and impossible to communicate with. The three onlookers don't even try. She gives them flowers (appropriate to their sins), and Gertrude is made to break down and cry, but they don't respond verbally. Even Laertes' running commentary is mostly removed. In the end, Ophelia walks away, crumples by an archway, crosses herself, looks back (though we never do), and seems to make her decision to commit suicide. What she imagines or reasons at that moment is a mystery. Does she imagine her brother will now avenge her father, and that her work is done? Does she realize she's lost any connection she might have had to the people behind her? We don't know. But Olivier certainly shows us that crucial moment of decision. The camera hangs back (and still no reaction shots), watches her leave the room, then follows her, but she's gone. And the image dissolves into that of the brook as Gertrude's telling of Ophelia's final moments begins. It's obvious Olivier draws a straight line from this moment to that fatal one, and in a way that could only really be done on film.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Branagh '96

The gentleman's story (here, a female attendant's) is intercut with the racing feet of the rebels through the halls until the break down the doors and an angry Laertes confronts the king he thinks responsible for his father's death. From there, a long run up, sword drawn, to the throne, and only Gertrude's hold on the boy's arm stays his hand. The sequence starts with a flurry of energy, and for the actor playing Laertes, it's like returning from a very long tea break and still having to crank the performance up to eleven. A red-faced Claudius, perhaps holding back on the outrage he feels, stands up to the would-be deposer, his throat close to the sword's point, but not in back to the wall by any means. This is how he puts on a show of innocence. Through his dialog with Laertes, it's at Claudius that Gertrude looks at. Her worried, even fearful look, is aimed at her husband, not at the one holding a sword. And sure enough, the manipulation Claudius uses could refer to Hamlet Sr.'s death just as well as Polonius'. A good actress - and Julie Christie is one - will make the Queen notice the similarities here and wonder how much of his brotherly grief, referred to all the way back in Act I Scene 2, was real. In a sense, she's experiencing the confrontation her son never had with his stepfather.

And then Ophelia runs in and saps the rage out of Laertes.
Perhaps because she sees her brother there, Ophelia is giddy, giggling through her songs and playing with imaginary flowers. Note the staging. Not since "To be or not to be" have characters been reflected in a mirror for this long, linking Hamlet's suicidal thoughts to what could be called Ophelia's suicide note. Unlike Hamlet, the characters do not look at their reflections, however. There is a disconnect between their emotional and rational selves that prevents them from looking at themselves and adjusting their behavior. Ophelia in the throes of madness; Laertes in his rage and then sadness. Neither can make informed or reasoned decisions, such as the one Hamlet made after deconstructing the concept of suicide. During the last song, the reflections will disappear entirely due to body position and camera angle.

The gift of flowers seems not to follow the Elizabethan symbolism. She gives remembrance and thoughtfulness to Laertes, which is standard, and similarly, flattery, male adultery and ingratitude to the Royals. However, "adultery and genuine repentance of all transgressions for women and everlasting suffering" (rue), she gives to Laertes. In her songs, "stole the master's daughter" takes on a special meaning, because she looks towards the Royals and acts like it's a secret not to be repeated, but I'm unable to decipher that meaning, if any. The master can only be the King, and he has no daughter unless Claudius somehow bedded Ophelia's mother. If so, it gives the accusations of adultery a whole other bent, and makes Ophelia Hamlet's cousin. But while you could stage the play with this over-complication, Branagh's doesn't do attempt it. But it's a thought.

Ophelia's last song is heart-breaking, devastatingly beautiful, and imbued with a finality that's absent from the rest of her performance. Before this, there's rebellion in Ophelia. She's stubborn, inappropriately disrespectful to the Royals, and seeking escape. But in this last and prettiest of melodies, she seems more at peace, more accepting of her father's death. She accepts her fate, perhaps having transferred the responsibilities of her grief to Laertes, and emotionally spent (the energy at the top of the sequence moves from Laertes to her and runs itself out there), walks into her padded cell and just stands there, a figure haunting her brother through the rest of the scene.
Before she goes, she prays for her father's soul, but also all Christian souls, foreshadowing more sin and death. And once she walks off, that's it. She will never speak again. That's why this is akin to a suicide note, if only the other characters could understand it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns

The second half of Act IV, Scene 5 sees Laertes return from France, in open rebellion against the King, with the support of the people who would crown HIM king. Laertes is fulfilling his role in the drama as an alternative to Hamlet. He too is a princely (if not of royal blood) young man with a father slain, intent on getting vengeance on the man responsible. But just as happened to Hamlet, this vengeance will be postponed. Hamlet's need to be sure of Claudius' guilt will be replayed in small by Laertes who, this time, will find Claudius NOT guilty. In a later scene, Claudius will turn into the Ghost and counsel Laertes to take revenge on the real murderer, Hamlet himself. The sequence also includes Ophelia's last appearance in the play (though many adaptations have show her suicide), as she walks back on stage to see her brother. Over the next few articles, we'll see how each adaptation has molded this sequence, and what effect both Claudius and Ophelia have on Laertes. First, we look at the text itself, in italics as usual, with my comments breaking in in normal script.

A noise within

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alack, what noise is this?
KING CLAUDIUS: Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.

Enter another Gentleman

What is the matter?

GENTLEMAN: Save yourself, my lord:
The ocean, overpeering of his list,
Eats not the flats with more impetuous haste

Another link to Hamlet is this ocean metaphor. When Hamlet returns, it'll be by sea, whereas Laertes surely comes from France by land. Perhaps the audience would think, for a brief moment, that Hamlet has returned in force.

Than young Laertes, in a riotous head,
O'erbears your officers. The rabble call him lord;
And, as the world were now but to begin,
Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
The ratifiers and props of every word,
They cry 'Choose we: Laertes shall be king:'
Caps, hands, and tongues, applaud it to the clouds:
'Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!'
QUEEN GERTRUDE: How cheerfully on the false trail they cry!
O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs!

It's notable that Gertrude is angry at this rebellion and could indicate that she's thrown in with Claudius after all, but one should remember that Claudius only became King through his alliance with her. Deposing Claudius means deposing Gertrude, and ultimately, Hamlet. No matter Claudius' worth, no Monarch is going to welcome the actions of rebels.

KING CLAUDIUS: The doors are broke.

Noise within

Enter LAERTES, armed; Danes following

LAERTES: Where is this king? Sirs, stand you all without.
DANES: No, let's come in.
LAERTES: I pray you, give me leave.
DANES: We will, we will.

They retire without the door

Though Laertes has many men, he's not really there to stage a coup. His quest is a personal one, and he leaves his troops behind to confront and accuse the King. Again, this mirrors Hamlet's actions as a prince not particularly interested in claiming the usurped throne for himself. Revenge is more important that reparation.

LAERTES: I thank you: keep the door. O thou vile king,
Give me my father!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Calmly, good Laertes.
LAERTES: That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
Even here, between the chaste unsmirched brow
Of my true mother.

A lot like Hamlet's own vows, Laertes says calming down, inaction and reflection in this case, are anathema to his very being. And in a later scene, he'll assure Claudius that he would eat Hamlet's heart in the church so constant is his need for revenge. And yet, in both cases, he does calm himself, his mood is changed (twice by Ophelia, and ultimately by Hamlet himself).

KING CLAUDIUS: What is the cause, Laertes,
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like?
Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person:
There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will. Tell me, Laertes,
Why thou art thus incensed. Let him go, Gertrude.
Speak, man.
LAERTES: Where is my father?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: But not by him.

This, more than her anger at the rebels, puts Gertrude on Claudius' side. She's only saying the truth when she says he didn't kill Polonius, but is seen physically restraining Laertes as he tries to reach the King. Again, this may be a question of preventing the crown from falling into a commoner's hands, but it's hard to see anything other than a wife protecting her husband here. It does depend on staging and performance, and I hope to see some fruitful variety among the adaptations.

KING CLAUDIUS: Let him demand his fill.
LAERTES: How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with:
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.
KING CLAUDIUS: Who shall stay you?
LAERTES: My will, not all the world:
And for my means, I'll husband them so well,
They shall go far with little.
KING CLAUDIUS: Good Laertes,
If you desire to know the certainty
Of your dear father's death, is't writ in your revenge,
That, swoopstake, you will draw both friend and foe,
Winner and loser?
LAERTES: None but his enemies.
KING CLAUDIUS: Will you know them then?
LAERTES: To his good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms;
And like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood.
KING CLAUDIUS: Why, now you speak
Like a good child and a true gentleman.
That I am guiltless of your father's death,
And am most sensible in grief for it,
It shall as level to your judgment pierce
As day does to your eye.

Claudius gives a lesson in persuasion throughout the sequence, asking questions to Laertes whose answers open the door to the way out, all the while playing the innocent and valorous man. The political animal is out.

DANES: [Within] Let her come in.
LAERTES: How now! what noise is that?

Re-enter OPHELIA

O heat, dry up my brains! tears seven times salt,
Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!
By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight,
Till our scale turn the beam. O rose of May!
Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!
O heavens! is't possible, a young maid's wits
Should be as mortal as an old man's life?

Hamlet proved far more than those two things mortal with his single blow, as we can find it responsible for all the deaths at the end of the play, as well as Denmark falling to Fortinbras with the entire line of succession dead.

Nature is fine in love, and where 'tis fine,
It sends some precious instance of itself
After the thing it loves.
OPHELIA: [Sings] They bore him barefaced on the bier;
Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny;
And in his grave rain'd many a tear:--
Fare you well, my dove!
LAERTES: Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge,
It could not move thus.
OPHELIA: [Sings] You must sing a-down a-down,
An you call him a-down-a.
O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward, that stole his master's daughter.
LAERTES: This nothing's more than matter.

While Ophelia's speech is laced with that the other characters consider complete non sequiturs, neither does Laertes respond directly to anything she says. Both are entirely disconnected from their sibling, both are holding parallel conversations. This is emotionally true of their situation, but more importantly, it continues the pattern of Ophelia being defined by men. What Laertes does here is the same he's always done, which is describe Ophelia as she is or as he thinks she should be. His sadness in part stems from the idea that he can no longer control her, though it would be unkind of anyone but his critics to say so.

OPHELIA: There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies. That's for thoughts.
LAERTES: A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.
OPHELIA: There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue for you; and here's some for me: we may call it herb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end,--

Each flower has a meaning in local English lore, of course, and Ophelia is intimately tied to flowers in the manner of her death (she too withers). So rosemary is remembrance, pansies are thoughtfulness (in French, we call them pensées, which literally means thoughts), fennel for flattery, columbine for male adultery and ingratitude, rue for adultery and genuine repentance of all transgressions for women and everlasting suffering, daisies for innocence, and violets for fidelity. Note how it isn't always clear from the text who she gives each flower to, allowing the director and actors to modulate Ophelia's message, though of course, modern audiences will not get the hidden meanings unless Ophelia reveals them (which she sometimes does). Laertes obviously gets remembrance and thoughts, as is asked to remember her and their family as it used to be. This is in many ways her suicide note. Fennel might well go to Claudius, the flatterer, and the same character receives columbines, the sign of male adultery. So rue must go to Gertrude, though she takes some too, both women linked by suffering and the crimes of men. Proponents of the theory that Ophelia was pregnant should be aware that rue was used in abortions. The daisy (innocence) doesn't seem to go anywhere, it's been lost. As for violets, fidelity and loyalty have died along with her father. As we've seen already, she blames the Royals for her hardships.

[Sings] For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.
LAERTES: Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favour and to prettiness.
OPHELIA: [Sings] And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead:
Go to thy death-bed:
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll:
He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan:
God ha' mercy on his soul!
And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi' ye.


LAERTES: Do you see this, O God?
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, I must commune with your grief,
Or you deny me right. Go but apart,
Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will.
And they shall hear and judge 'twixt you and me:
If by direct or by collateral hand
They find us touch'd, we will our kingdom give,
Our crown, our life, and all that we can ours,
To you in satisfaction; but if not,
Be you content to lend your patience to us,
And we shall jointly labour with your soul
To give it due content.
LAERTES: Let this be so;
His means of death, his obscure funeral--
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones,
No noble rite nor formal ostentation--
Cry to be heard, as 'twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call't in question.
KING CLAUDIUS: So you shall;
And where the offence is let the great axe fall.
I pray you, go with me.


Ophelia exits and Claudius ruthlessly exploits Laertes' vulnerability by returning to arguments of his innocence. And yet, Ophelia just delivered a coded message about the Royals' improprieties. But Laertes doesn't have all the information that would link his father's death to a sequence of events that go back at least to Hamlet Sr.'s. Not as worthy as Hamlet, Laertes will not try things further or uncover the truth until it's too late.

Friday, July 26, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Classics Illustrated

The original
Probably because there was too much sexual subtext in the sequence, the original Classics Illustrated adaptation chose to explain Ophelia's madness in no uncertain terms in a caption (Claudius will repeat some of this information in verse in his short speech), and reduced the scene to two mostly harmless snatches of song (though "cockle" survived as a rude pun, as did "maid" which is implicitly sexual). In fact, it's all about Hamlet. Nothing about Polonius' death, despite what the caption might say. Note also Ophelia's flowers which will play a part in her next (and last) appearance.

Gotta love the royals' comic take in the first panel. They're also given a panel (not shown) in which to despair, again in mirroring poses that would suggest these versions of Claudius and Gertrude are still a solid couple. The adaptation sadly doesn't do a lot to flesh out the characters, so the underwritten Gertrude is more underwritten (underdrawn?) still, often just an ornament on Claudius' arm, placidly receiving dialog more than she ever doles it out. We can't really know what she thinks of the King, if anything.

The Berkley version
The Grant/Mandrake version has also been sanitized, cutting everything that relates to Hamlet, so Claudius is right to invoke her father's death as the reason for her madness. In this adaptation too the royal couple seems as solid as ever. Look at the staging: It's Gertrude who brings Ophelia to the King, placing the Queen in a servile position. As for the art, I wondered what those pill-like shapes on the edge of the first panel were and decided they were hinges. Unstuck from the second panel, they're an image of the "unhinged". A clever little piece. I've looked and it's not a recurring motif. A clue that Ophelia's madness is real, whereas Hamlet's was not?
Claudius gets to say his piece on the next page, and you'll note the bloody wash that frames the panel, the same kind of wash that framed Polonius' murder. It gives Claudius' speech about "murd'ring" an ironic bent, showing how selfish he is to moan about his woes when those of others are much greater (and indeed, stem from his own misdeeds). Ophelia in this panel becomes a dark figure, disappearing into the walls of Elsinore. She has become a truth-speaking ghost, not unlike Hamlet Sr. though less intelligible. Of course, the Ghost was an enigmatic figure until Hamlet came. This time, Hamlet will come too late to wring any meaning out of Elsinore's resident ghost.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Tennant (2009)

Starting in front of the broken mirror, a metaphor now for Ophelia's broken mind, Gertrude's broken spirit, and Claudius' broken Denmark, we see tensions run high in Elsinore. Only Horatio's calming influence makes Gertrude agree to see Ophelia. Left alone for an instant, Gertrude speaks her only soliloquy in the play, laughing bitterly at the irony of it all, but keeping it brief as if unwilling to look (and speak) into that mirror for too long. When Ophelia walks in disheveled, it's like the Queen sees her for the first time and is suddenly worried for her (rather than the realm). It's made real. But for the audience, it takes a moment longer before we're shown Ophelia directly. We initially remark on her madness only as it plays on Gertrude's face. Is this an image of the Queen's greatest fear about herself? Is one of the reasons the Queen doesn't want to see Ophelia that she feels herself slipping into madness and can't bear one more "spill"?

Ophelia begins with a sad song, but as soon as either of the royals try to touch her - as Claudius walks in with papers that later prove to be news of Laertes' rebellion - she grows manic, screams "PRAY MARK" and starts whirling about the room. She's a dangerous creature to the realm and that sense is given by sudden moves, like her jumping at the Queen's hair, or ripping off the King's jacket. Director Greg Doran apparently rehearsed Ophelia separately from the other actors at first, so that their reactions would be truthful and the mad girl's antics all the more surprising. As she moves to the mirror and goes to touch a sharp shard of glass, they fear she might do a desperate outrage to herself (and she will, through something else that gives a reflection). Some of her madness is real, as in the moment where she looks vacantly into the distance reliving her father's burial, but sometimes she feigns madness to terrorize the royals. The story about the owl, for example, is accompanied by an epileptic fit to mime the transmogrification. This ties her more solidly with Hamlet. She's his mirror, but perhaps in more realistic psychological terms, her imitator. Note also the hilarious reading of the line "I hope all will be well" as a mockery of Patrick Stewart's mannerisms and voice. As such, it means Ophelia does not hope all will be well, and indeed wishes doom on this entire family at her brother's vengeful hands.

The production does not shy away from the more sexual aspects of the scene. In her manic state, Ophelia quickly removes her dress and slip during the tumbling song and refuses the Queen's attempts to drape a shawl over her nakedness. Although Ophelia still has underwear, Claudius looks away embarrassed, contradicting Hamlet's portrait of him as a lust-filled beast. She runs off, clothes in hand, when she suddenly finds herself vulnerable with the thoughts she'd been avoiding all along, those touching her father's death. But make no mistake, this was a coded attack on the royal family.

Claudius, ever the unctuous politician, seems all too calm about the situation, his priority to cajole the distance Gertrude into his frame of mind. His smooth tones betray his intentions, this is a spin job, and he makes sure to blame Hamlet for their problems, an accusation she shrugs off angrily, as if it's been his mantra now for a while and she's tired of hearing it. But he's not exactly wrong.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Fodor (2007)

The more extreme relationships in this version of the play transform the meaning of almost every line in the scene (at least, those that survived the edit). It occurs under a quay on a muddy beach where Ophelia is brought to the Queen by Horatio and the Gentleman, where they exchange sarcastic barbs. It's a reversal. Instead of the Queen trying to avoid the mad young girl, she instead has the disruptive Ophelia brought to her for a scolding, either on her orders or by Horatio's initiative. Why is Gertrude so aloof? We have to remember that in this version, the slain Polonia was Ophelia's SISTER, a sister having an affair with Claudius. The Queen may be transferring resentment to the mistress' sister. The scene also suggests a similar adulterous relationship between Claudius and Ophelia, as the songs (here just shouted rhymes) about "tumbling" are thrown the King's way. And he seems particularly empathetic, though again, this may be transference as she was his lover's sister. Either way, the mistrust in the Queen's eyes is what creates the ambiguity.

Oddly, the songs are not gender-translated like the rest of the play. "He is dead and gone" can now only mean Hamlet, because Ophelia has lost no father. Hamlet isn't dead, though they might have said that to comfort her. She might be talking about Hamlet Sr., as she is one of the people who seems able to see the Ghost when she's high on heroin. Fodor had a perfect excuse for Ophelia's madness even in his modern context, but he doesn't seem to use it here and the scene is the weaker for it. Polonia was Ophelia's pusher, and the girl could have been crashing hard at this point. However, the performance has none of that, and the way Ophelia recites the songs by rote, without inflection or inner discourse, doesn't work either as withdrawal OR madness.

Fodor suggests a number of dark happenings in both past and present, but they don't come together satisfyingly in this scene.