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.