Sunday, April 27, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Olivier '48

Olivier mercilessly cuts lines, but he also adds to the play through visuals. He dissolves straight from Ophelia's watery grave to her earthly one. We here singing (just as she was singing). A shovel comes into view. The Gravedigger is hard at work, the top of the scene with the Second Clown is missing. He finds a skull, smiles at it in fond remembrance; this is Yorick. He sets it outside the grave for Hamlet to find. And it's this skull that's in the perfect position to give Hamlet's shadow the terrifying face of a Grim Reaper. Hamlet has returned and he is Death, but he is also already dead, as far as Fortune is concerned.

Stanley Holloway makes a good Gravedigger, a simple man who straddles the line between truthsayer and knave. He is sometimes too literal, sometimes pokes fun and sometimes is serious, but in a way that seems consistent. For example, when he delivers the line about the grave being for one that WAS a woman, he goes from the teasing the gentlemen to earnestness. This is what he really believes, that after death, a person ceases to be one and becomes an object. This is the philosophical distance he puts between himself and the beneficiaries of his work. And yet, he can fondly remember them in life, as he does with Yorick, catching the skull's absent nose with affection more than mockery. It can also be seen as sign of how perverse the Ghost is, how contrary it is to the laws of nature better represented by the literally grounded Gravedigger.
Hamlet may say he's repulsed by his late jester's chopless skull, and a touch of macabre realism is inserted when earth spills out of it at one point, but a smile never leaves his lips. He even animates the skull, bringing it close and reenacting a scene from his childhood by whispering in its missing ear. Again, we're seeing a Hamlet who is so close to death, he is already interacting with the dead. And perhaps, this has been so from the very beginning, and the reason the Ghost could speak to him. Metaphorically, Hamlet died the day his father did (they do have the same name, as revealed in this very scene).

A word on Horatio: He shares some of Hamlet's lines in this, so he too can tease the Gravedigger, and Hamlet gives him a sidelong look through most of the scene as if to make sure he doesn't give away the game and blurt out who Hamlet really is. Otherwise, he's the usual sounding board, though Hamlet has less to say in this version. The funeral party interrupts the scene and Hamlet never talks of Caesar or Alexander. But perhaps the visuals achieve the same effect.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Branagh '96

One of Branagh's tricks is to fill the smaller roles with big names to give them, and their words, more power and potency. Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger is one of the better examples of this. If there's a question as to whether this First Clown is foolishly dense (à la Dogberry) or pitting his wits against Hamlet, Crystal's performance and persona make it crystal clear that the latter is true. His Gravedigger is curious, thoughtful, witty, and used to being the smartest man in the room (in his circles anyway). And his incisive intelligence makes it clear as well that the text supports this interpretation better than the other. First, he has a reason to gently take down a nobleman, because he condemns them for having rights (in this case, suicide) the peasantry doesn't. There are nobles and there are noble professions. He sees the difference and it empowers him. Second, there comes a point when he wins the battle of wits, when Hamlet can't help but laugh, which in turn makes the Gravedigger smile. From then on, the Gravedigger answers questions straight, without word play or obfuscation. In other words, the first part of the exchange was a game, a character he was taking on, not unlike the madness assumed by Hamlet earlier. The Gravedigger twists words around and confounds Hamlet just as Hamlet had done to Polonius.

The other cameos are less obvious to American audiences, but still yield better performances than most. The Second Clown is played by Simon Russell Beale, for example, a famous stage Hamlet who gives his gravedigger a sweet innocence. The man is just happy to come up with an answer to the First Clown's joke, and so becomes the most basic of Shakespearean characters - one that hears and reacts to his own language. The dead clown in the scene, Yorick the jester, need not be played by anyone, but Branagh provides us with a flashback to Hamlet's youth - happier times - with Ken Dodd in Yorick's role. This has a few notable effects. It brings a reality to Hamlet's horror, as we too see the skull used to be a living, breathing, sparkling person. The flashbacks also give weight to the idea of Yorick as a surrogate father, though Hamlet Sr. is also in the flashbacks. The idea that Sr. is an idealized figure, while the real family had people like Yorick and Claudius in the actual, practical roles, is only slightly squelched by this. Finally, because Dodd's teeth are rather recognizable, it allows the production to create a similar skull, which is how the Gravedigger can tell who it is, and Hamlet can better recognize it as well.
Because we can tell the skulls apart, there seems to be some light satire to the idea that Hamlet at first identifies it as a lawyer's, and even absent any specific skull, could Shakespeare be doing the same in the text? Hamlet expounds on the decay of all these higher-class professions, but the revelation is that the one he's presented is a clown's. It's a subtle take-down of courtly life. Twisting it back on itself, the iconic image of Hamlet holding a clown's skull becomes a personal experience with death and decay, and turns a comedy scene into human drama again. Cutting to the Gravedigger who finds Hamlet's reaction rather deep and heavy provides some relief at least.

One of the lines that reached out for me in the performance is the one about Caesar's remains patching a wall to expel the winter's flaw. Perhaps it's the frozen-seeming, but winter and Denmark are necessarily connected in the play, and one might wonder if Hamlet is now seeing his own death as the required "patch" to fix a broken country. Everything he says from now on should be taken in the context of his readiness.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene

Shakespeare begins the final act with two clowns, literally comic relief for the audience when juxtaposed with Ophelia's suicide in the previous act. I have divided Scene 1 into two parts, the transition marked by the arrival of the burial party. In the first sequence, Hamlet enters, back from his trip abroad, and meditates on mortality, producing the most famous image from the play: Hamlet holding Yorick's skull. Reproducing this image on film is a necessary beat, and we'll see how different directors staged the action in the coming weeks. Before we begin our cinematic tour, however, let's look at the text itself. The Bard in italics, my comments interrupting in normal script, as usual.

SCENE I. A churchyard.
Enter two Clowns, with spades, & c

First Clown: Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?
Second Clown: I tell thee she is: and therefore make her grave straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.
First Clown: How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?
Second Clown: Why, 'tis found so.
First Clown: It must be 'se offendendo;' it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act: and an act hath three branches: it is, to act, to do, to perform: argal, she drowned herself wittingly.
Second Clown: Nay, but hear you, goodman delver,--
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,--mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is't; crowner's quest law.
Second Clown: Will you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o'Christian burial.
First Clown: Why, there thou say'st: and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their even Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam's profession.

Though "clowns", the gravediggers nevertheless discuss a serious topic, and some of the themes of the play. One of these is religious law's relationship to suicide (also touched on in "To be or not to be"), and another is Denmark's corruption, embodied by Claudius and in this case turning a suicide into an accidental death through legal wrangling. A question hidden in plain sight is whether Fortune, as a force in the play, is like the water that might come to a man and drown him? In other words, if Fate (and in Hamlet's case, we can conceivably talk about the rules and necessities of Tragedy, since he is continually trying to subvert the genre in which he is trapped) is a willful entity, is any character's suicide their own fault? And yes, this extends to Hamlet's suicide-by-Laertes, his readiness to die as suicidal as Ophelia's mad dive into a muddy brook. In less metaphysical terms, we may ask whether any given person's suicide was actually set in motion by events exterior to them. Is Ophelia to blame for her own death, or is Hamlet? Is Hamlet responsible for his doom, or was it inevitable from the moment Claudius killed his father?

Second Clown: Was he a gentleman?
First Clown: He was the first that ever bore arms.
Second Clown: Why, he had none.
First Clown: What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture says 'Adam digged:' could he dig without arms? I'll put another question to thee: if thou answerest me not to the purpose, confess thyself--
Second Clown: Go to.
First Clown: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?
Second Clown: The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.
First Clown: I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows does well; but how does it well? it does well to those that do in: now thou dost ill to say the gallows is built stronger than the church: argal, the gallows may do well to thee. To't again, come.
Second Clown: 'Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?'
First Clown: Ay, tell me that, and unyoke.
Second Clown: Marry, now I can tell.
First Clown: To't.
Second Clown: Mass, I cannot tell.

Enter HAMLET and HORATIO, at a distance

First Clown: Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating; and, when you are asked this question next, say 'agrave-maker: 'the houses that he makes last till doomsday. Go, get thee to Yaughan: fetch me a stoup of liquor.

Historical note: Apparently, Yaughan's was a tavern near the theater, an inside joke lost to the ages. As clowns, the gravediggers can break the fourth wall. This is sometimes done quite literally, with actors winking at the audience, but this is denied to film adaptations. In literary terms, clowns can still "break the fourth wall" by knowing more than the other characters do, often unconsciously, and they may have one foot in the real world (thus the reference to a local water hole; I'd be tempted to change the name to a nearby pub if I were to stage the play) and one in the fiction. This allows the clowns to tell truth to power because they are somehow disconnected from the nobler characters' authority. The First Clown's irreverent interactions with Hamlet are a good example.

Exit Second Clown
He digs and sings

In youth, when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet,
To contract, O, the time, for, ah, my behove,
O, methought, there was nothing meet.

HAMLET: Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?
HORATIO: Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.

Did many heads roll during Claudius' reign, Hamlet Sr.'s, or the transition between them? Or in Hamlet Sr.'s case, did many Danish soldiers die to win his wars? We can ask because the gravemaker is accustomed to digging graves and makes jokes about the gallows' thousands of "residents". Something is rotten in Denmark both figuratively (corruption, vain wars, political executions) and literally (the ground is filled with corpses, so many, some escape to walk the night).

HAMLET: 'Tis e'en so: the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.
First Clown: [Sings] But age, with his stealing steps,
Hath claw'd me in his clutch,
And hath shipped me intil the land,
As if I had never been such.

Throws up a skull

The throwing of skulls is important, not only to set up the famous moment, but to show this is a common grave. Ophelia is not to be buried alone. The implication may be the forgettable denizens of Elsinore (and those it wants to forget) get such a treatment, but in the greater rotten Denmark metaphor, you're likely to find bodies wherever you dig.

HAMLET: That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o'er-reaches; one that would circumvent God, might it not?

Cain's first murder is invoked, bringing us back to Claudius' fratricide.

HORATIO: It might, my lord.
HAMLET: Or of a courtier; which could say 'Good morrow, sweet lord! How dost thou, good lord?' This might be my lord such-a-one, that praised my lord such-a-one's horse, when he meant to beg it; might it not?
HORATIO: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Why, e'en so: and now my Lady Worm's; chapless, and knocked about the mazzard with a sexton's spade: here's fine revolution, an we had the trick to see't. Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with 'em? mine ache to think on't.

The "revolution" of the commoner fiddling with the bones of nobles repeats the image of the King working its way through the guts of a beggar from Act IV Scene iii.

First Clown: [Sings] A pick-axe, and a spade, a spade,
For and a shrouding sheet:
O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.

The gravedigger sings while digging Ophelia's grave. There's a certain poetic continuity to that. And like her, he sings of love and death.

Throws up another skull

HAMLET: There's another: why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?
HORATIO: Not a jot more, my lord.
HAMLET: Is not parchment made of sheepskins?
HORATIO: Ay, my lord, and of calf-skins too.
HAMLET: They are sheep and calves which seek out assurance in that. I will speak to this fellow. Whose grave's this, sirrah?
First Clown: Mine, sir.


O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.
HAMLET: I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in't.
First Clown: You lie out on't, sir, and therefore it is not yours: for my part, I do not lie in't, and yet it is mine.
HAMLET: 'Thou dost lie in't, to be in't and say it is thine: 'tis for the dead, not for the quick; therefore thou liest.
First Clown: 'Tis a quick lie, sir; 'twill away gain, from me to you.
HAMLET: What man dost thou dig it for?
First Clown: For no man, sir.
HAMLET: What woman, then?
First Clown: For none, neither.
HAMLET: Who is to be buried in't?
First Clown: One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she's dead.
HAMLET: How absolute the knave is! we must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us. By the Lord, Horatio, these three years I have taken a note of it; the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe. How long hast thou been a grave-maker?

One choice directors and actors must make is whether the gravedigger is actually a knave or if he's actually able to match wits with Hamlet. And whether Hamlet realizes this. Is "How absolute the knave is!" a compliment or a reproach? Part of the ambiguity is that the prince holds two simultaneous conversations, one with the gravedigger, the other with Horatio. Certainly, he responds to the Clown's audacity, and we may again see Claudius' reign at work. The present king is so base, the moral gap between peasant and courtier is abbreviated; respect for authority is undermined.

First Clown: Of all the days i' the year, I came to't that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
HAMLET: How long is that since?
First Clown: Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that: it was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he that is mad, and sent into England.
HAMLET: Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
First Clown: Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it's no great matter there.
First Clown: 'Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.
HAMLET: How came he mad?
First Clown: Very strangely, they say.
HAMLET: How strangely?
First Clown: Faith, e'en with losing his wits.
HAMLET: Upon what ground?
First Clown: Why, here in Denmark: I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.

The origin of one of the play's most famous "problems", Hamlet's age. If he is thirty, why is he still a student? We may once again invoke the line "Time is out of joint" and wonder if time didn't go by more quickly for those outside Elsinore than for those within. Was Hamlet gone for years? He returns changed and more resolved. That events in Elsinore seemed to speed by days or weeks after his exile may be an illusion. After all, Laertes has to return, a revolution has to spring up... How long was the Royal Family hiding in the castle before he broke down its doors? How long did Ophelia wanders its halls, a mad spirit, before she finally killed herself? All this to say, Hamlet may not have been anywhere near 30 at the beginning of the play, which would allow for his studies, general "teen angst" and for the Court to justify Claudius' usurpation of the throne as a kind of regency.

HAMLET: How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he rot?
First Clown: I' faith, if he be not rotten before he die--as we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in--he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.
HAMLET: Why he more than another?
First Clown: Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body. Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.

A major element of this sequence is Hamlet's fixation on decay and on the transformation from person to base matter that occurs after death. He is already contemplating his own, inevitable death and will compare himself, in effect, to Alexander and Caesar, other great nobles and intellects who nevertheless have been converted to soil, as he will be.

HAMLET: Whose was it?
First Clown: A whoreson mad fellow's it was: whose do you think it was?
HAMLET: Nay, I know not.
First Clown: A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! a' poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester.
First Clown: E'en that.
HAMLET: Let me see.

Takes the skull

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.
HORATIO: What's that, my lord?
HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'the earth?
HORATIO: E'en so.
HAMLET: And smelt so? pah!

Puts down the skull

HORATIO: E'en so, my lord.
HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO: 'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
But soft! but soft! aside: here comes the king.

This is his metafictional anxiety. Hamlet is a character who knows himself to be a character in a tragedy, but in love with his own genius and language, tries to subvert that tragedy in various ways. He tries to make it a comedy with shows of madness. He tries to take control over through a proxy, The Mousetrap. And finds ways to delay his revenge so the tragic cycle never completes. All to keep his character alive. The play, once over, may or may not be a success. Will it become so much forgettable air, and its pages used to line some bird cage? Or will it transcend its "physical" existence and survive through words and reputation as Alexander and Caesar did? Hamlet is ever a mouthpiece for the author.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death - French Rock Opera

Funereal and pretty, Johnny Hallyday's song plays the same role as Gertrude's speech, casting events in a fantastical light, as much in the lyrics as in the music, which is filled with angelic voices and fairy twinkles. Oddly, it ends on a piano solo that seems a song apart. These sad twinkles could be Laertes' reaction, or possibly, Ophelia's last song as she sinks below the waters, the truth behind Gertrude's grandiose lyrics. There is panic in neither piece of music, as if "incapable of her own distress" was taken literally. We'll discuss the lyrics after we listen to the song. Here are the original French lyrics, then a doggerel translation for those readers who may not be up on that language.

La mort d'Ophélie
Un saule penché sur le ruisseau
Pleure dans le cristal des eaux
Ses feuilles blanches

Ophélie tressant des guirlandes
Vient présenter comme une offrande
Des fleurs, des branches

Pour caresser ses boutons d’or
Pour respirer son jeune corps
Le saule se penche

Mais sous elle un rameau se brise
Le saule en pleurs la retient prise
De part sa manche

Ophélie lui dit «qu’il est bon»
Quand le ruisseau dans un frisson
Casse la branche

Ophélie file au fil de l’eau
Qui vient gonfler son blanc manteau
Contre ses hanches

Son cri s’éteint comme une joie
La boue immonde où elle se noie
Prend sa revanche

Un saule penché sur le ruisseau
Pleure dans le cristal des eaux
Ses feuilles blanches

Ophelia's Death
A willow leaning over a stream
Weeps into the crystal of the waters
Its white leaves

Ophelia tressing garlands
Comes to present, as an offering
Flowers, branches

To caress her buttercups
To breathe in her young body
The willow leans

But under her, a bow breaks
The weeping willow keeps her from falling
On its sleeve

Ophelia tells him "he is so good"
When the stream in a shiver
Breaks the branch

Ophelia goes by on the water
That just inflated her white coat
Against her hips

Her cry is extinguished like a joy
The foul mud in which she drowns
Takes it revenge

A willow leaning over the stream
Weeps into the crystal of the waters
Its white leaves

The song is told from the willow's perspective; it stands in for Gertrude in this instance, but may weep just as much. The image is the same in French where a weeping willow is a saule pleureur, its tears its own garlands of leaves. The willow becomes the last being to have contact with Ophelia, and in these last moments, she knows love and peace. It's the stream that's villainous, that breaks the branch, that drowns the girl. Hallyday doesn't seem to believe in her suicide, and links the gravedigger's story of animated water forcibly drowning a person to redeem Ophelia. "The mud takes its revenge." While the tree is "good", the rest of Nature seems bent on killing this young woman, possibly because she has taken flowers and branches from Her. Obviously, that wilfulness is mere personification, but is Nature personified as specific people? Revenge is Hamlet's affair, and his vengeful quest is the reason her life has been smothered this day. The stream may just be the course of events, or the destructive power of Claudius, more active than muddy Hamlet, who started the ball rolling. And so the tree must be her father, her lone and ultimately useless protector. At least in her mind. One could also take the willow to be Gertrude - and my mind immediately goes to Desdemona's song in Othello, another object of men's affections doomed by them - an off-stage protector grooming Ophelia to be her son's wife, and in this story, weeping for her death and her own inability to prevent it.