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.