Sunday, March 31, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4

Despite its containing one of Hamlet's soliloquies, it's not uncommon to see this scene excised from any given adaptation. Obviously, those that remove Fortinbras entirely won't be able to justify Hamlet crossing paths with his army on his way to exile in England. And a director might legitimately ask if their adaptation needs another moment where Hamlet decides that NOW he must act. In many ways, this is a mirror of "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" (Act II, scene 2). There, he was shamed by the First Player whose ability to express a false passion was greater than his to express a true ambition. Here, Hamlet is shamed by Norway and Poland, who attack or defend a worthless patch of soil with more conviction and willful action than he went after his revenge. Fortinbras is, after all, Hamlet's opposite number, a princely man of action, perhaps far more like Hamlet Sr. than his scholarly son. In him, Hamlet finds a role model, and perhaps enough of the qualities he would like to see in himself to give the Norwegian prince his vote of confidence at the play's conclusion. But let's look at Shakespeare's text (in italics; my comments interrupting in normal script) before heading off into those adaptations that included the scene.

SCENE IV. A plain in Denmark.

Enter FORTINBRAS, a Captain, and Soldiers, marching
PRINCE FORTINBRAS: Go, captain, from me greet the Danish king;
Tell him that, by his licence, Fortinbras
Craves the conveyance of a promised march
Over his kingdom. You know the rendezvous.
If that his majesty would aught with us,
We shall express our duty in his eye;

There is perhaps an early clue to Fortinbras' treachery. Expressing his duty "in his eye" might be something done for appearances only, since his plan is to invade Denmark after the invasion of Poland. This is Fortinbras' first appearance on stage, and it doesn't tell us much, only recaps the deal he has with Claudius as per the wedding banquet scene. But that's the point. Fortinbras is a plain-spoken man who deals in facts and not abstractions. A doer, not a thinker. At least, not beyond the tactics of the day.

And let him know so.
CAPTAIN: I will do't, my lord.

Exeunt FORTINBRAS and Soldiers

HAMLET: Good sir, whose powers are these?
CAPTAIN: They are of Norway, sir.
HAMLET: How purposed, sir, I pray you?
CAPTAIN: Against some part of Poland.
HAMLET: Who commands them, sir?
CAPTAIN: The nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.
HAMLET: Goes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?

I'm not sure I've ever seen it played that way, but Hamlet's questions could indicate a certain suspicion as to Fortinbras' intent. After all, he's just discovered a foreign army on Danish soil. The Captain's candor and sincerity (he is like his master, just as Hamlet is a product of his own deceptive Court) relieve him of his suspicions, however, as Shakespeare offers a tidy satire on the absurdity of war from the soldiers' point of view.

CAPTAIN: Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.
HAMLET: Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
CAPTAIN: Yes, it is already garrison'd.
HAMLET: Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.
CAPTAIN: God be wi' you, sir.


ROSENCRANTZ: Wilt please you go, my lord?
HAMLET: I'll be with you straight go a little before.

Exeunt all except HAMLET

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.

Hamlet invokes his earlier "quintessence of dust" speech, but where earlier he condemned humanity, here he condemns how men abuse other men and render their existence meaningless. He's turned a corner. Where before, he saw humanity as a futile state of being, now he accepts that humanity is not necessarily futile, but one must overthrow the chains of that futility. Relative to the cannon fodder before him, he has power enough to make his life (and death) count, and resolves to do so. He even admits God's gift of free will and thus rejects predestination and nihilism:

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do;'

Hamlet counts himself lucky to still be alive, but can't believe he still hasn't done what he set out to do. Hamlet looks into himself and does not know exactly why he's delayed. Blaming "bestial oblivion", i.e. having forgotten his mission and Claudius' deeds, may not seem possible on the surface of it, but his confusion between blaming Claudius and blaming Gertrude might be what he's referring to. The question he asks himself is whether emotion (the realm of the unthinking beast) or reason (thinking himself into inaction) was to blame, not that it makes a difference.

Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake. How stand I then,

His admiration for Fortinbras takes root here, admiration for his ability to take risks and action. He hasn't met Fortinbras, of course, so one might suspect Hamlet seeing a bit of himself in him. Certainly, he's the more tender and delicate prince. Psychologically, Hamlet is turning himself into a Fortinbras, readying himself for his eventual return.

That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!


Hamlet's tried to convince himself to take action before, but this is the one that takes. By the time we see him again, he'll have arranged two deaths and will be ready to kill more. There really is no going back, though ironically, he's leaving Denmark and will have to literally go back.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Act IV, Scenes 1-3 - French Rock Opera

Strangely out of place on Disc 1 of the Johnny Hallyday's double-album, between Ophélie! Ô Folie! (Ophelia! Oh Madness!) and Je lis (I Read), is a song about the transmigration of kings through the guts of beggars. Its position seems to relate far more to Hamlet Sr. than it does Claudius, which isn't inappropriate, and resonates with the fishmonger and carrion references in the play as they relate to the song I Read, i.e. Hamlet's confrontation with Polonius. In any case, I held off discussing it until we reached the proper speech in the play. The tune itself is unremarkable, though as usual, Hallyday's songwriters have gone beyond Shakespeare's own metaphors and introduced their own images. We'll discuss them in due course, but first, the original French lyrics, and an ugly little English translation so we can all be on the same page. The song uses a lot of colloquial French, which, as a French-Canadian, aren't in my vernacular, so hopefully I did right by them.

(Refrain:) Un roi tombe en asticot
La cause n’est pas entendue
L’asticot devient le roi
Et la danse continue

La charogne est bon fumier
Elle devient vite moissons
Et elle nourrit la nation
Les hommes, les veaux, les poissons
La charogne redevient roi

Le croquant, le va-nu-pieds
Le croqué claquant du bec
Qui fait des rêves de bifteck
Mais qui mange du pain sec
Fait pourtant festin de roi


Quand le lion, roi des félins
Partage avec sa féline
Une gazelle, sa voisine
Pas un des deux n’imagine
Que le roi bouffe du roi

Quand un gros roi dit «j’ai faim»
Pas un cuisinier ne bouffe
Et le roi boit, le roi bouffe
Mais l’arête qui l’étouffe
Est aussi morceau de roi

(Refrain x2)

The Worm King
(Refrain:) A king becomes a worm
The cause is not heard
The worm becomes the king
And the dance continues

Carrion makes good compost
It soon becomes the harvest
And it feeds the nation
Men, calves, fish
The carrion becomes the king again

The yokel, the tramp
The chewed-up man with chattering teeth
Who dreams of beefsteaks
But eats dry bread
Still eats a king's feast


When the lion, king of felines
Shares with its female
A gazelle, their neighbor
Neither of them imagines
That the king eats king

When a fat king says "I'm hungry"
Not a single cook eats
And the king drinks, the king eats
But the fishbone he chokes on
Is also a piece of king

(Refrain x2)

The song uses a number of eating-related words in some figurative sense, not all of which I was able to translate. For example, "yokel" is "croquant", which literally means "crunchy" or "biting". But you can see how the lyrics take the concept of a beggar eating the fish that ate the worm that fed of a king's rotting corpse and widens it. Hallyday links it to Denmark entire by having carrion enrich the soil that feeds the country and the next king. He also creates the image of a kingly lion devouring its "neighbor" (with its queen), unknowingly eating of its own kind. As with the image of the king's cooks going hungry while he chokes on food, we are presented with the king as parasite. Is this part of the original image? Not entirely, though the very idea of a nobleman (Hamlet) even mentioning his country's poor is a subtle indictment of the king's rule, a dramatic representation of the gap between Denmark's classes. Finally, we have the king choking on king, restoring the veiled threat Hamlet makes. Claudius will die because he committed regicide.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Act IV, Scenes 1-3 - Classics Illustrated

The original
With no space to spare after that giant ghost visitation double-page splash, this three-scene sequence is reduced to a single panel, with a caption box explaining what happens and Claudius, finally alone, reveals his true agenda - the execution of Hamlet at England's hands. The original Classics Illustrated was nothing if not precipitous when it came to talking scenes. The single panel is more or less used as a punchline, a surprise twist that Hamlet has been sent to his death.

The Berkley version
In three panels, going from a claustrophobic close-up to an airy wide shot - perhaps representing how Claudius feels trapped by the situation, and freed by his decision - Tom Mandrake's Hamlet also reduces the sequence to a single moment. Once again, Hamlet has been caught offscreen, and no final confrontation between Prince and King is to be had on the page. Thrift, thrift, Horatio. Strangely, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are allowed to stand there while Claudius pronounces his usually secret soliloquy. This makes them more obviously complicit in Hamlet's murder. They know the contents of the letters they carry and perhaps better deserve their deaths. Of course, part of this is the freeze-frame aspect of the comics form. A panel's action represents a single second, but the dialog takes far longer. Might R&G have left in between the two speech bubbles, and thus never heard the King's more private words? It's an ambiguity that wouldn't exist on the stage or on film.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Act IV, Scenes 1-3 - Tennant (2009)

Scene 1
Patrick Stewart's Claudius is as ambiguous a figure as he is creepy in this sequence. Gertrude is startled out of her sobs by hands around her neck, a killer's hands, though it's of course meant to be a massage. Because we're experiencing the scene through her, the camera focused on showing us her reactions, everything Claudius says is does is imbued with a threatening quality, even though, on the surface, he shows her nothing but kindness. But is he asking her questions out of concern for her well-being, or sounding her to see if Hamlet revealed his murderous secret? She's very careful not to give too much away, weighs every word and scrutinizes his face, looking for a sign that he might do her or her son harm. Claudius too, weighs his words, but as a slick politician does, making cool choices to control others' perception of him. Though she is shocked at his assertion that his love (for her? for his adopted son?) was too much to stop this from happening, he eventually wins her over when he admits his soul is full of dismay, reacting to his pain and finally finding the man she loves and was evidently seeking for. We cut away before the embrace, though the director says they did indeed kiss at this moment when the scene was shot.

Gertrude may be desperate to cling to what she once had and resolve her mixed feelings, there's no denying Claudius' selfish streak here. Yes, his first reaction to Polonius' death is shock that he might have been the target of the assassination, but beyond that, there's the moment when he calls Rosencrantz & Guildenstern into the room, thoughtlessly exposing Gertrude to humiliation. She's in her night gown and has been crying and looks quite vulnerable. As R&G walk in, she goes running with a yelp, and sits her back to them, mortified. At no point does Claudius even notice. He's playing the part he wrote for himself, that of the concerned father, tiredly apologetic when asking Hamlet's two school chums to go and find the prince and the corpse. There's definitely a vein of black comedy in the matter-of-fact way it is played.

Scene 2
And then the comedy explodes with the apprehensive, not to say terrified, duo (and a host of guards) running around corridors and staircases, à la Marx Brothers, through Elsinore in search of the killer Prince. The music is humorous, and stops when they stop, so they can hear the body being dragged down stairs. Darkly funny. The Hamlet they find is Mad Hamlet, waiting for them, in complete control, and soon doing voices (pitching up on "squeeeeeeeeezed" for example, or giving the next few lines a swinging cadence as his body sways around a post, appropriately ape-like). The scene is lit by torches (or as we say in North America, flashlights), giving it an uneasy feeling, through which we well understand R&G's reaction. Hamlet is having fun, but no thinks it's funny. Not getting a reaction, he gives up and asks to be brought to the King... at which point he resumes running, jumping the balustrade and leading a merry chase once again.

Scene 3
At the bottom of a stairwell, a new venue, an ugly basement with mysterious stains on the concrete floor and a broken mirror over a dirty wash basin. A place where things are done in secret. Torture? Covert murder? People made to disappear. The cool and collected, even reasonable, Claudius is attended by lawyer types in suits, one of which will turn out to be a doctor. Again we have the push and pull of a reasoned leader protecting his family, who could also be about to kill Hamlet and have his body wash up somewhere innocuous (at least, for an audience who doesn't know the play). Enter Hamlet, taped to a chair on casters, a piece of tape on his mouth as well. It's an interrogation/torture scene. The threat to his life doesn't deter Hamlet from his mockeries. He makes his wild speeches and responds to Claudius' single loss of temper ("Where is Polonius?") with a silly shouting voice ("In heaven!"). The doctor in the room shoots him up with some drug, precursor to his exile, a way to smuggle him, sedate, out of the country. There's a nice moment when Hamlet looks straight into the camera at his mention of a cherub that sees Claudius' purposes, something that can easily be translated to the stage. The audience sees all, and it's true to say that soliloquies are a kind of compact between character and audience. It admits our existence in the world of the play, as observers... and judges. In the film, we're part of the paranoid hypersurveillance theme, but our function is the same.

And wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, Hamlet is rolled out of the room, eager to get to England now that he's done with Claudius. Acting the child to the end. Claudius' brief soliloquy is told in the broken mirror, a match to the one upstairs in Gertrude's closet, and a reference to the mirror used in the stage production. This is an Elsinore that is falling apart, disjointed and fractured, just like its royal family unit. Like Ophelia's mind. And that's where Doran's Hamlet goes next.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Act IV, Scenes 1-3 - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's Hamlet makes Ophelia much more of a participant in this sequence, starting on her and a visitation from the Hamlet ghost child. She follows him out into the hall, where a young Ophelia ghost is also running around. In this world, it seems your spirit can leave you early and remain in echoes of better times. Ophelia ignores her younger self and moves towards the end of the hall while intelligible shouts are heard resonating through Elsinore, likely people looking for Hamlet. Ophelia finds him first, having just stowed the body behind a folding screen, in a room dimly lit in red. She spies from one of the doors as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern find Hamlet. These are much more menacing, violent characters in Fodor's adaptation, so Rosencrantz is visibly holding back from attacking the Prince with great difficulty. Guildenstern's "A thing, my lord?" is said with outrage instead of the usual misunderstanding tone. Calling the King a thing is, it seems, a step too far, and the sponges wonder how much trouble Hamlet is willing to get himself into.

After they leave, Ophelia walks towards the folding screen where she finds her sister Polonia's body, hung in the closet, head down.
 She tries to take her down, to awaken her, and failing, throws an expletive-filled tantrum. Flashback images remind us of Polonia's role as her sister's drug pusher, sticking needles into her arm to manipulate her. The whole set-up creates an entirely new motivation for Ophelia's madness. She hasn't lost a beloved father at her lover's hand, she's lost her dealer. She's angry, not distraught, but soon she'll be feeling the pangs of withdrawal. What's most interesting is that Polonia has basically been placed "behind an arras", in death an image of the life she led.

Scene 3 is entirely omitted (as is Scene 1). It's an odd exclusion, and we may wonder where Hamlet has gone. The point is made later when he returns, so expediency may have been the order of the day. And since Ophelia discovers Polonia's body, there's less of a reason for Claudius to keep asking where it is.