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.