Sunday, January 27, 2013

Act IV, Scenes 1-3 - Olivier '48

Olivier cuts scenes 1, 2 and indeed, 4, from Act IV, which does have a considerable impact on the play. By omitting Scene 1, Claudius' character is impoverished (the King is rather flat throughout the adaptation), and we can't evaluate whether Gertrude sides with her son or her husband (though the previous Act definitely leans towards the former). Scene 2's omission is unsurprising, given that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern have been excised from the play completely. So we start with Scene 3, a much calmer moment for lacking the chase through Elsinore. In fact, the King's sealing letters with Hamlet standing right there. Claudius' tone is restrained and ever the politician, he makes it sound like Hamlet's exile is for his own good, to avoid prosecution. The Prince is insolent, but Claudius' lack of reaction turns the words into curious/profound observation rather than insult.

Much more interesting is Hamlet's moment of madness when he calls Claudius his mother. He gets that far-away look in his eyes and his hands clench as if around someone's throat. By transforming his stepfather into his mother, or merging the two concepts, is he in a way giving Claudius a stay of execution? Olivier plays it as a realization. It's as if having decided not to harm his mother, he can now no longer harm her husband. Olivier is answering the question as to why Hamlet allows himself to go into exile rather than give in to his murderous impulse and kill the King instead. The exile saves all their lives, at least temporarily (aside from Ophelia, of course). With Scene 4 missing, THIS becomes the mid-play epiphany, the dramatic turning point. Not "my thoughts be bloody", quite the contrary. Hamlet apparently gives up his revenge, and we'll have to wonder why he returns to Denmark later. He can't even kill his two false friends on the voyage to England since they don't exist. Does Claudius' treachery (the letters requesting his death) reignite his desires? That's an analysis for another day.

As for Claudius, the staging has him go to the window to give his closing speech, speaking to England across the sea. A cool, collected delivery that speaks less to rage than it does to acceptance of one's situation. The role is underplayed here, but one might still praise it as an ideal form of Hamlet himself, i.e. a character who has already come to terms with "the readiness is all".

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Act IV, Scenes 1-3 - Branagh '96

Each of these three scenes is given its own unbroken shot, a technique Branagh says fostered a kind of anxiety in the actors that translated to their characters. It's a clever and subtle way to get across the instability and political (and personal!) upheaval caused by the Prince effectively killing the Prime Minister.

Scene 1
Most of Claudius' lines are played as an aside though Gertrude is present, usually off-screen, which creates the effect of her shock. She is obviously stunned, disconnected from the scene, their final embrace non-committal. Is she still clutching at him, wondering if she should betray him, or is he the one holding her close? Probably a bit of both. In this version, he does love her, and she is the principal reason for the murder he committed. All of which clashes with his feelings for Hamlet - fear and murderous anger - nevertheless Gertrude's reason for living. He's impatient with her contention that her son is somehow repentant, thinking her naive and foolish. Because no matter how important Gertrude is to him, Claudius can't ignore his own selfishness. On hearing of Polonius' murder, he thinks first of his own safety, and by the time the scene is resolved, he's put together a plan to make sure the Court knows who was really guilty of the crime lest the blame fall on him. During a crisis, Claudius falls to public relations mode.

Not content to believe Gertrude's interpretation, Claudius visits the crime scene himself, looks at the counterfeit presentment of two brothers on the bed, puts it all together. Between this scene and his next (Scene 3), not to mention the play within the play, there's every reason to believe he's understood what Hamlet is really on about. The Prince is gunning for him, possibly planning a coup, but at the very least trying to avenge his father's murder. He can no longer excuse the madness, nor does he particularly believe Hamlet's act.

Meanwhile, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, asked to wait in the hall outside the rooms, and are often seen in frame, connecting them to Polonius, another conspirator listening in at a remove. Can their own deaths be far ahead?

Scene 2
Then, action. Soldiers running through Elsinore, searching Ophelia's bed. R&G find Hamlet first, creeping about as if in a comedy routine. They don't lay a finger on him, nor do the soldiers that join his train every time he turns a corner. It's a last hurrah for the madcap Hamlet, a version of the character that won' exist after Scene 3, and as if in an encore of a previous scene, he even takes Rosencrantz hostage (pipeless, this time). Branagh invents a bit here where an awakened Ophelia comes down the stairs, face to face with Hamlet. Confronted by the woman he's just orphaned, the Prince makes a run for it, going through room after room, jumping over tables (the courtiers seem to be having a late dinner after the play). It's notable that he tries to avoid his fate, or perhaps he's trying to find a weapon and get to Claudius before the guards get him. In the end, he reaches his library/study, but it's been compromised (as has the rest of Elsinore; note how none of the guards are those shown loyal to him in Act 1). A rifle is leveled at his head and we cut to Claudius.

Scene 3
Claudius is in his own study, sealing letters bound for England and explaining, in a soliloquy, the politics behind his next action. I wonder if Derek Jacobi muddled the pronunciation of "distracted multitude" on purpose, because it sounds like "destructive multitude" to me. Certainly, that's how he thinks of Denmark's population, as rabble not only stupid (distract), but dangerous as well. He's interrupted by R&G who bring Hamlet to him. Horatio is also dragged in, either as a co-conspirator or to bear witness to Hamlet's fair treatment. There are two reasons to have him present even if the text does not mention him. One is to keep him in play the same way Ophelia has been brought into these scenes. Neither character has appeared since the play, and neither gets a farewell scene with Hamlet before he is exiled. Branagh manages to give each of them a wordless farewell, both given meaning through performance. The other reason to have him there is to cement his role as an objective witness in the final scene. If he is telling us this story, he needs to be present as much as possible.

Hamlet continues to be insolent, and Claudius has had enough. He's drinking more and more (one of his sins), and back-hands Hamlet quite hard when the Prince refuses to give him a straight answer. And yet, Hamlet doesn't break character or even lose his sense of humor. In fact, the scene becomes a kind of duel, both characters knowing full well the other's secrets, but daring the other to reveal themselves in front of witnesses. Hamlet even goes so far as kissing Claudius on the mouth when he calls him his mother. Claudius finally breaks when Hamlet is carted off and he gives his "do it, England" speech, barely containing the rage and anguish he feels at the discord in his heart. His wish is to kill his stepson, but politically, he needs to exile him instead, either move sure to hurt the woman he loves. Because the exile means death, there's also a measure of guilt there. This is a man who only a few scenes ago was suffering from having committed one murder, and here he is ordering another.  It all plays out in Jacobi's voice.
Before being taken away, Hamlet goes to Horatio and almost talks to him, leaving it at a silent look passing between the two friends. Nothing so good for Ophelia, clutching at the chapel's doors as her father's found body is brought in, screaming her head off, her sanity already slipping away. Those screams echo over the water in an exterior shot, extending the mad scream right to the girl's very death, the brook where she will take her own life.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Act IV, Scenes 1-3

Act IV begins with a few short scenes with one motive purpose - sending Hamlet to England as reprisal for killing Polonius (or, if you will, to prevent him from killing the King). I've chosen to take all three scenes as a whole, since many adaptations skimp on one or two of them, and because they are in fact so brief. In Scene 1, Claudius finds Gertrude distraught after her meeting with Hamlet. In Scene 2, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern hunt down the Prince. And in Scene 3, Claudius confronts and exiles him. Before addressing the adaptations, let's examine the Bard's text (in italics). As usual, I'll break in with commentary from time to time.

SCENE I. A room in the castle.

KING CLAUDIUS: There's matter in these sighs, these profound heaves:
You must translate: 'tis fit we understand them.
Where is your son?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Bestow this place on us a little while.


As usual, Gertrude has no patience or trust for Claudius' lieutenants, R&G and the late Polonius. This is consistent throughout the play, but subtle and easily missed (or ignored) because she never makes a speech about it, part of her "under-written" nature.

Ah, my good lord, what have I seen to-night!
KING CLAUDIUS: What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend
Which is the mightier: in his lawless fit,

Note the accumulation of sea-going imagery building up to Hamlet's departure for England. He's "as mad as the sea and wind", and before that, Claudius speaks of "heaves", Gertrude as the swelling waves of the ocean, her signs and tears poetically carrying Hamlet out of her life. In Hamlet, water portents terrible things, whether it be any given character's tears, Hamlet's exile at sea or Ophelia's impending drowning.

Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries, 'A rat, a rat!'
And, in this brainish apprehension, kills
The unseen good old man.
KING CLAUDIUS: O heavy deed!
It had been so with us, had we been there:

Obviously, Claudius thinks of himself first. And he's right. Hamlet was angling for him. In the following lines, he includes Gertrude and everyone at Elsinore, but he thought of himself first.

His liberty is full of threats to all;
To you yourself, to us, to every one.
Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer'd?
It will be laid to us, whose providence
Should have kept short, restrain'd and out of haunt,
This mad young man: but so much was our love,
We would not understand what was most fit;
But, like the owner of a foul disease,
To keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of Life. Where is he gone?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: To draw apart the body he hath kill'd:
O'er whom his very madness, like some ore
Among a mineral of metals base,
Shows itself pure; he weeps for what is done.

In the text, it is clear that Gertrude does not divulge what Hamlet has said to her, either about his father's murder, or that he's only playing at madness. One thing to watch as we go through the various adaptations is how each actress interprets this. Is Gertrude now betraying Claudius' trust? Or did she not believe Hamlet in the first place? Performance will be everything.

KING CLAUDIUS: O Gertrude, come away!
The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch,
But we will ship him hence: and this vile deed
We must, with all our majesty and skill,
Both countenance and excuse. Ho, Guildenstern!


Friends both, go join you with some further aid:
Hamlet in madness hath Polonius slain,
And from his mother's closet hath he dragg'd him:
Go seek him out; speak fair, and bring the body
Into the chapel. I pray you, haste in this.


Come, Gertrude, we’ll call up our wisest friends
And let them know both what we mean to do
And what’s untimely done. So envious slander,
Whose whisper o’er the world’s diameter,
As level as the cannon to his blank,
Transports his pois’ned shot, may miss our name,
And hit the woundless air. O, come away!
My soul is full of discord and dismay.

SCENE II. Another room in the castle.

HAMLET: Safely stowed.
ROSENCRANTZ: GUILDENSTERN: [Within] Hamlet! Lord Hamlet!
HAMLET: What noise? who calls on Hamlet?
O, here they come.


ROSENCRANTZ: What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?
HAMLET: Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin.
ROSENCRANTZ: Tell us where 'tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel.
HAMLET: Do not believe it.
ROSENCRANTZ: Believe what?
HAMLET: That I can keep your counsel and not mine own.
Besides, to be demanded of a sponge! what replication should be made by the son of a king?

As Hamlet denies R&G's right to question him by reasons of class, he slips into prose, making it clear to them that he does not consider them worthy of verse.

ROSENCRANTZ: Take you me for a sponge, my lord?
HAMLET: Ay, sir, that soaks up the king's countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the king best service in the end: he keeps them, like an ape, in the corner of his jaw; first mouthed, to be last swallowed: when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again.

A notable pun here is "ape", which means "apple", but can also be the primate. Hamlet simultaneously turns R&G into something to be slowly devoured, and the King into a brutish beast. As we'll see in Scene 3, Hamlet will expound on the carnivorous metaphor, in a way that informs this line as well with additional insult. The point of the worm speech is an alchemical transformation through words of the King into baser matter. So if the King eats R&G in this particular image, he becomes like them (and in Scene 3, will deserve the same kind of disrespect).

ROSENCRANTZ: I understand you not, my lord.
HAMLET: I am glad of it: a knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.
ROSENCRANTZ: My lord, you must tell us where the body is, and go with us to the king.
HAMLET: The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing--
GUILDENSTERN: A thing, my lord!
HAMLET: Of nothing: bring me to him. Hide fox, and all after.

A veiled threat. Hamlet considers Claudius already dead - part of his fatalism, though some may be expected to die sooner than others - so he is "with" the corpse spiritually, if not physically. Hamlet nihilistically turns Claudius first into a thing (an object) and then into nothing at all, denying his existence, right to the throne, and life. Again, these are alchemical transformations using words to denature a person and an office.


SCENE III. Another room in the castle.
Enter KING CLAUDIUS, attended

KING CLAUDIUS: I have sent to seek him, and to find the body.
How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!
Yet must not we put the strong law on him:
He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes;
And where tis so, the offender's scourge is weigh'd,
But never the offence. To bear all smooth and even,
This sudden sending him away must seem
Deliberate pause: diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.

In this speech, Claudius reveals why he can't have Hamlet executed. Because the Prince is so loved, he fears a revolt from the common population of Denmark. This speaks to the political climate he's created by marrying Gertrude, interrupting the normal line of succession. When Laertes returns later, the rabble will be at the gates. Without their Prince, the population is quick to object to the usurper king.


How now! what hath befall'n?
ROSENCRANTZ: Where the dead body is bestow'd, my lord,
We cannot get from him.
KING CLAUDIUS: But where is he?
ROSENCRANTZ: Without, my lord; guarded, to know your pleasure.
KING CLAUDIUS: Bring him before us.
ROSENCRANTZ: Ho, Guildenstern! bring in my lord.


KING CLAUDIUS: Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?
HAMLET: At supper.
KING CLAUDIUS: At supper! where?
HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end.

Note how Hamlet shows disrespect by speaking in prose to the King. The alchemical transformations in this little speech loop around to undermine everything about Claudius' right to rule. The worms are "politic", a reference to Claudius' Court (and Polonius in particular) bowing to him for political gain. The worm is an "emperor", a title well above the "king". And the King is equal to the beggar on the worm's dining table (one insultingly fat, the other virtuously lean). The fatalistic image Hamlet creates here mocks everything Claudius stands for, but will be repurposed in the graveyard scene as a more sober acceptance of one's own death.

KING CLAUDIUS: Alas, alas!
HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
KING CLAUDIUS: What dost you mean by this?
HAMLET: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

The alchemical process reaches a crescendo as the King becomes a worm, then a fish, then food for a beggar. This equalizing metaphor not only threatens the King with death (which is its topic), but with revolution, the beggar devouring the King.

KING CLAUDIUS: Where is Polonius?
HAMLET: In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i' the other place yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.
KING CLAUDIUS: Go seek him there.

To some Attendants

HAMLET: He will stay till ye come.

Exeunt Attendants

KING CLAUDIUS: Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety,--
Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done,--must send thee hence
With fiery quickness: therefore prepare thyself;
The bark is ready, and the wind at help,
The associates tend, and every thing is bent
For England.
HAMLET: For England!

Part of the disjointedness of the time element in Hamlet is that it seems like Hamlet knows he's to be shipped to England three scenes before he's actually exiled. We can resolve this with the text, as nothing contradicts the idea that Claudius is merely accelerating his plans in the wake of Polonius' murder, but it nevertheless creates the effect.

KING CLAUDIUS: So is it, if thou knew'st our purposes.

Claudius gives himself away, and if Hamlet didn't know to watch himself on this voyage, he would now.

HAMLET: I see a cherub that sees them. But, come; for England! Farewell, dear mother.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thy loving father, Hamlet.
HAMLET: My mother: father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother. Come, for England!

One final alchemical transformation (for the road, you might say): Hamlet transforms Claudius into the Queen as a parting insult (or so Claudius receives it). Using the marriage vows as his metaphor, Hamlet changes his stepfather's gender - the weaker in this society - while also reminding him of his de facto coup d'etat. The real power is the Queen, because Claudius is only allowed to rule through marriage with her. Though it may also represent remnants of bitterness against his mother, tying her into Claudius' misdeeds once more, I prefer to think of it as a transference of the anger he felt towards her into Claudius alone. All the sins to be avenged are in a single vessel.


KING CLAUDIUS: Follow him at foot; tempt him with speed aboard;
Delay it not; I'll have him hence to-night:
Away! for every thing is seal'd and done
That else leans on the affair: pray you, make haste.


And, England, if my love thou hold'st at aught--
As my great power thereof may give thee sense,
Since yet thy cicatrice looks raw and red
After the Danish sword, and thy free awe
Pays homage to us--thou mayst not coldly set
Our sovereign process; which imports at full,
By letters congruing to that effect,
The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me: till I know 'tis done,
Howe'er my haps, my joys were ne'er begun.


Is there a satirical function to making England the instrument of Hamlet's death? Scholars better versed in history may be able to make that determination better than I. If England kills Hamlet, then it kills everything he represents. Should we infer an attack on the part of Shakespeare on English elements that would stifle intellectualism, poetry, a strong and vibrant theater, and other values Hamlet espouses? After all, this scene wasn't just an attack on Claudius, but on Royalty itself. I do not, however, feel well-equipped enough to make a determination on Shakespeare's opinions on the matter, nor the historical context that might have prompted such an attack.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Other Hamlets: Swing with Scooter

Published by DC Comics in April-May 1967, written by Jack Miller and Barbara Friedlander, with art by Joe Orlando and Mike Esposito, Swing with Scooter #6, a "hip" teen comic that would only later become a straight Archie rip-off, featured the story "Hamlet and Eggs". You can probably guess this is a Hamlet pastiche as the cast of high school kids attempt to put on a play to raise money and don't take it very seriously. Is there anything we can learn about Shakespeare's original from a jokey comic book?

The plot is pretty simple and rather silly, and has absolutely nothing to do with the cover. Miss Bluff, the German drama teacher, puts the kids in rehearsals for Hamlet, and has some real trouble getting them to focus. They giggle, they start doing lines from other plays (one girl, Penny, confuses Hamlet with Romeo and Juliet, which could be an interesting idea for a mash-up since the Prince of Denmark and Ophelia are also star-crossed lovers; maybe something with the Ghost of Mercutio), fight for roles, or destroy props and sets. By the time they're selling tickets, everyone's heard it's to be a disaster and no one wants to come. Then, the comic's titular hero, Scooter/Hamlet, is inspired to turn the tragedy into... a musical comedy?
Sorry Hamlet 2, Swing with Scooter was there first! Hopefully, the townsfolk know the story, because that banner isn't spoiler-free. Could this work? If you know it's going to be terrible, saying it's a comedy might be the way to go. And Hamlet does have a lot of humor and wit, it would be a matter of sending up the tragical elements. Sadly, we get very little of the play itself in the comic, barely more than the following page, but it does give us an idea of how the evening went:
Scooter's version of the play apparently appropriates lines and re-purposes them as pop tunes to create entirely new scenes. "To be or not to be" becomes a love song, for example, "To be or not to be my baby". This, perhaps accidentally, taps into meanings presents in the original text. In poetry, dying and making love are related concepts. For the teens in this book, Polonius was right: Hamlet's sanity hinges on the love of Ophelia. "To be" is to love this girl. "Not to be" is to be alone. The teen Hamlet (as opposed to the oddly middle-aged Hamlet of the play) may express his sexual frustration with jealousy for his sexually active mother and trying to get revenge for his dead father. There is something interesting as well about Penny (the second Ophelia) appropriating "to sleep, perchance to dream" since Hamlet's speech may be what eventually drives her to suicide. Ophelia's madness is represented as a kind of dream state that ties into this image as well.

And finally, there's the matter of the competing Ophelias, a joke from rehearsals taken to its logical punchline on opening night. In the panel following the above page, the last we'll see of the play, there are two simultaneous fights. Hamlet and Laertes, of course, and the two Ophelias (neither dead, it seems). They're breaking character, of course, but doubling up on characters in a more serious attempt at the play could create the image of a girl battling herself. There's the dutiful daughter and Hamlet's lover, and their struggle leads to her madness and death. Unfortunately, both sides of Ophelia are dominated by men, which makes this metaphor far less useful than the Cynthia/Penny rivalry would seem to suggest.

"Hamlet and Eggs" only plays it for laughs (or frankly, for the thin, occasional smile), but the play is rich enough that even a silly pastiche of it can still uncover staging ideas and meaning.