Sunday, February 23, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - BBC '80

The staging here is fairly standard, with the scene playing on a stunned Gertrude, no flashbacks, etc. Interesting things about the performance include her looking straight at Claudius when opening on "woes" (though there's no sign of ironic intent from her), and a breathless delivery, as if she was fighting the urge to pass out.

David Robb's Laertes is slightly over the top at times, but he makes some interesting choices too. His "Oh", a line that can come off as risible, plays as a sigh as he sits down, the wind taken out of his sails. And at the end, he positively shouts the tears out of his eyes, his voice blazing with anger, giving Claudius' reproach to Gertrude the carp of truth. Since Laertes does look angry, Claudius could be setting up Hamlet's death in the duel. He did his best to calm the boy down, but in the end, that's why the duel went wrong. Laertes as willing patsy.

Second Quarto vs. Folio
The Folio, usually used as master text, has Ophelia singing snatches of old tunes. The BBC adaptation uses the Second Quarto's "snatches of old lauds" instead. "Lauds" in this context are hymns praising God, while "tunes" is a more generic term that would easily include the bawdy snippets heard earlier from Ophelia. Critics have been divided on the word choice, some finding contradiction in the sexual nature of the songs we do hear and Ophelia's Christian values in her final moments. Is there though? Her last lines on stage were a prayer for mercy for all Christian souls, and it's in that frame of mind that she went to her watery grave. Her fury, sexual/marital frustration and grief all spent, a calmer, more nihilistic madness came over her in the end. It's possible Gertrude is fudging the details to comfort Laertes, but her expression makes this unlikely.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Olivier '48

Olivier opts for a very literal interpretation of the scene, done completely in voice-over, showing Gertrude's story as fact. In the restructuring of the play, we go directly from Ophelia's madness scene to the suicide, though the literalism turns it into an accident. The camera struggles to follow her out of doors, and turning the corner, finds she's gone. But the brook is in the background outside the next doorway. We then cut to a shot of the swampy stream under the weeping willow and, panning left, find Ophelia singing some songs normally in the previous scene. floating on a cushion of vines. She floats out of shot, vines trailing her for a while, and by the time the camera pans to where she would be, she's gone, swallowed up. As painless for the audience as it is for her. Fade to the next scene's tombstones.

A rather efficient and fairly unambiguous scene then, though one could make the claim that we're seeing a product of Gertrude's or Laertes' imagination.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - Branagh '96

Laertes already isn't the most voluble of characters, but learning of his sister's suicide has him react with a simple "oh", an example of Shakespeare showing he wasn't paid by the word, but actually fit word to emotion. What would you say in that situation? What is there to say? Michael Maloney's Laertes is stunned, can't process the information, and by the time Gertrude finishes her account, is still on "she's drowned". Did he even hear the story, need she have told it? Once he's cried, the woman will be out, not just his "female" nature, but he'll have exorcised Ophelia from his life as well. We might compare this image of grief to Hamlet's refusal to exorcise his dead father.

Julie Christie's performance as Gertrude has a lot to fawn over as well. The pace at which she tells the story tells us it's not a prepared speech, she's feeling herself through it, either reliving the experience herself (Branagh's take) or fabricating it out of whole cloth (a cynical take in which the truth might have Ophelia escaping her cell, getting pursued and falling accidentally into the brook). Either way, she couches her words to bring Laertes comfort, making it sound like Ophelia never suffered, her death a lyrical event filled with flowers and prettiness. Christie's hesitation is precisely what highlights Gertrude's word choice.

And if she means to console Laertes, Claudius' angry reaction is even more of a bad move. It shows his motives were self-interested, while hers were genuinely altruistic. She refuses to follow him when asked, and he realizes he's said the wrong thing, and that their relationship is no longer what it was. In effect, she not only refuses his protection, but condemns him for offering it.

Before moving on, we're given a single shot of Ophelia's face a watery surface. And then it's off to meet the clowns. Shakespeare's ironic editing.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death

The tail end of Scene 7 is Gertrude's description of Ophelia's suicide, which immediately asks the question: Did Gertrude watch the girl die and do nothing? Is she instead recounting news as related to her, and who is the original witness who failed to intervene? Even more choices are open to film director who may, unlike stage productions, actually show the event, perhaps without even the benefit of Shakespeare's words supporting the images. This is why I've chosen to isolate such a short sequence. Before heading into the various adaptations, let's take a look at the language itself. As usual, the Bard is in italics, and I use normal script to break in.


CLAUDIUS: How now, sweet queen!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow; your sister's drown'd, Laertes.
LAERTES: Drown'd! O, where?

A strange question. Not "how", but "where". The "why" is self-evident, and so perhaps is the "how". Laertes may assume it's a suicide and not an accident, from what he's seen of his sister's madness, and only wants to go to her.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:

The vegetable imagery, already associated with Ophelia, is here distinctly melancholy. The scene takes place by a "weeping" willow, and dead men's fingers are at once a reference to her dead father and through their grosser name (usually dogstones, but there's a selection of testicular nicknames that might be appropriate), to the question of sexuality and whether or not she slept with Hamlet. The two ideas intermingled in her mad rants.

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

With "coronet" we get the image of a flowery crown, a parody of the crown she might have worn had she become Hamlet's queen. Like Hamlet, her royal destiny has been aborted by Court intrigue.

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

The mermaid image takes us to the sea on which Hamlet has recently sailed. Like her, his life has been saved by that sea, but only temporarily. For Ophelia, death comes swiftly. Hamlet gets another Act, but no more.

Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
LAERTES: Alas, then, she is drown'd?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Drown'd, drown'd.
LAERTES: Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears: but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord:
I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze,
But that this folly douts it.


KING CLAUDIUS: Let's follow, Gertrude:
How much I had to do to calm his rage!
Now fear I this will give it start again;
Therefore let's follow.


In reality, Claudius fears Laertes' rage will be smothered by this new grief, though he says the opposite. We'll see how the acting and staging impacts the sequence in the weeks to come.