Thursday, July 24, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - BBC '80

One thing the Derek Jacobi version of Hamlet does really well is motivate the text. There are several instances of this in the sequence. For example, by having Hamlet and Horatio hide behind a tomb, unable to see the action, motivates and justifies the Prince's lines describing actions the audience sees quite well. He recognizes Laertes' voice, he realizes who they are talking about, through sound alone. (And in the staging, though this isn't all that important on television, all participants would be facing the audience.) In another example, when Laertes jumps into Ophelia's grave, it's to cover her face with her shroud, not mere melodrama. His gesture is a kindness, getting us away from images of incest.

Situations call for lines, but characters react believably to them as well. A pair of notable double-takes tell the story that's found between the lines, for example. The first is Laertes' look at Gertrude when she claims Ophelia was in line to become queen. In that surprised look may be found shock that his sister almost married the man he hates so much, but also a sense of shared responsibility in Ophelia's madness and death, since his misjudgement of Hamlet and the royals caused him to warn her away from the Prince, and quite possibly to betray the couple to Polonius. You can just about see Laertes connect these dots to their fatal end in that moment. Gertrude also registers surprise when Laertes curses the person he deems responsible for her death. She doesn't know Claudius has already poisoned Laertes' mind, and does not see the confrontation coming.

That confrontation, for all its emotion, shows Hamlet in control. Men have to hold Laertes back until his energy is spent, but no one makes any such move against Hamlet. As ever, the Prince is all words, while Laertes would be action. He fights for release, spits at Hamlet (the Prince's own "spitting" is flinging the dog reference at the King, as contrast), and gets a menacing rebuke from Claudius after all is said and done. The King threatens patience into him.

On the issue of this production's minimalistic "exterior" set, it does create an irony here that informs the dialog. When Laertes prays for flowers to bloom on Ophelia's grave, one has to wonder if anything can bloom in this wasteland. Prays fall on deaf ears in a land ruled by an entrenched sinner, and one could say Laertes has inherited his father's capacity for misprision. The blooms he hopes for are impossible in this location, and his emotion blinds him to the fact, as it does to other facts.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Olivier '48

Olivier's version of the cemetery is an impressive space, essentially a multi-tiered quarry so tombstones are visible in every shot, whatever the height of the camera. It also creates a pit that best describes the hell to which the characters are in danger of falling. Interestingly, Horatio is given the line about suicide, and even as he says it, shock and realization flash on his face and he becomes desperate for Hamlet not to investigate further. He is aware of Ophelia's madness, recognizes no doubt the members of the burial party, and puts two and two together. There are things he hasn't told his friend, but things have gotten a lot worse since he left Elsinore to meet Hamlet at the sea port.

Terence Morgan's Laertes, with his fresh face, is more hurt than angry at the priest, and even when he flings an insult, you can't really hate this grieving boy. Morgan eventually gives in to melodrama, with the kind of gestures Hamlet explicitly condemns in actors earlier in the play (but cut in this adaptation), but then the scene almost calls for it. Is there greater melodrama than leaping into someone's grave? Should we see a condemnation of Laertes in this? Shakespeare, Hamlet and/or Olivier may find the boy's action less than sincere by contrasting them with the Prince's description of bad acting. By making Laertes saw the air with his hands, the idea that he is somehow insincere sets in, and Hamlet is better justified in his outrage. The absentee brother's grief is perhaps just a circus replacing the normal obsequies denied Ophelia.

But Hamlet isn't himself innocent of melodrama. He comes "onstage" arms out, like a Christ figure, a monument, one of these tombstones come alive. The irony of Laertes asking the Devil to take him is palpable. He may be "resurrected", but he's not Savior. He is their doom, and his own. In his anger, he rattles his lines off quickly. His last lines are spoken as he walks away, throwing them at specific characters insultingly. Laertes is the mewing cat, a suckling, or if you'll excuse the modern parlance, a "pussy". Claudius is the dog who will have his day, a not-so-veiled threat. Throughout, Gertrude is the loving mother, interceding on behalf of her son and seeing the best in him, excusing his behavior. This prompts a cold reaction from Claudius who is left alone with the grieving Laertes, where he, in this adaptation's restructuring of the play, then seduces the younger man into conspiring to kill Hamlet. This meeker version of Laertes is now primed to do something despicable, where before it might not have been justified.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Branagh '96

Setting is important, and while the stage is limited, film is not. Branagh sets Ophelia's burial in a secluded wood, at night. This explains why Hamlet so quickly realizes the funeral isn't official. He essentially "catches" the Royal Family burying a suicide on the sly, away from prying eyes. And perhaps that bag of coins thrown at the Gravediggers is meant to buy their silence as much as a pay them for their labor. It certainly seems heavy enough. They seem to feel much less recompensed for having been right about the dubious nature of their "tenant's" death, befuddled and cowering as soon as nobility is present and the priest confirms the First Clown's suspicions.

A stunned Laertes eventually loses it and notably, grabs the Bible from the priest's hands, an object he'll later throw at Hamlet's head. There is an element of the profane in all this, one that mixes well with a secret burial attended by a compromised clergyman and in which a grieving brother leaps into his sister's grave and opens the casket to clutch the girl's cold corpse. If this isn't a holy rite, then nothing is sacred, and we already know Laertes the Libertine isn't above the heretical, willing to commit murder in a church. All signs point to the Church having left Denmark, in spirit if not in fact.

Between the melodrama and the action, it's easy to miss the reactions of the less vocal characters, but they are noteworthy. Hamlet's complete surprise at what has happened tells us Horatio has failed to tell him anything, including the fact Ophelia went insane. Gertrude's lack of surprise at seeing Hamlet means his letters to her arrived uncensored, while her motherliness towards Laertes emphasizes the mirror that already existed between this boy and her son. Finally, Claudius' coldness increases the divide between him and his wife.

At the center of the scene (as played) is an important irony. When Hamlet announces his presence and speaks of his great love for Ophelia, Claudius (and then Gertrude) is quick to say the Prince is mad, giving Polonius' theory weight for the first time. But it's also the first time this is true, if we decide that Hamlet is distraught (a temporary madness) because of love. However, it may be more true to say his madness derives from grief, just as before. Over-grief for a father, and now blinding grief for a lover. Blind in that he seems to forget his plans for a minute, forget himself, but also forget the wrongs he has committed against Laertes. Hamlet may have loved him as a brother, but he nevertheless killed his father an driven his sister into a desperate situation. As he regains his emotional footing, Hamlet gives up the fight and walks away. His new readiness seems to have returned, and in that context, the inevitability of the cat mewing, etc. is also that of the tragedy.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral

The second half of the scene sees the burial party arrive as Hamlet and Horatio watch in secret, but the Prince can't help but reveal himself when a distraught Laertes jumps into his sister's grave. The event is, in a way, the first exchange in their duel, or perhaps the second or even third, if you count their competing for the attentions of the King and Ophelia in Act I. Things to watch out for include how the grave jump is achieved, whether or not directors and actors have managed to keep the melodrama believable, and the reactions of characters who have few lines like the King and Queen. But before diving into our various adaptations, let's look at the text itself (which contains an uncommon amount of stage directions). Shakespeare is in italics, as usual. In normal script, intermittent comments.

Enter Priest, & c. in procession; the Corpse of OPHELIA, LAERTES and Mourners following; KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, their trains, & c

HAMLET: The queen, the courtiers: who is this they follow?
And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken
The corse they follow did with desperate hand
Fordo its own life: 'twas of some estate.
Couch we awhile, and mark.

Retiring with HORATIO

LAERTES: What ceremony else?
HAMLET: That is Laertes,
A very noble youth: mark.
LAERTES: What ceremony else?
First Priest: Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warrantise: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o'ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Whether we chose to believe in Gertrude's fanciful tale of an "accident" or that Ophelia committed suicide, the Church recognizes the latter as the truth, and only the King's intercession has granted Ophelia this much respect. Note that she's "allowed" her virgin dress, so the priest even calls her maidenhead into question. That's another clue supporting the theory of a pregnant Ophelia.

LAERTES: Must there no more be done?
First Priest: No more be done:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.
LAERTES: Lay her i' the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.

If Ophelia's purity is in doubt, Laertes doesn't see it, or refuses to. He imagines her as an angel whose grave will see violets bloom. You'll remember violets as the flowers that withered and died when Polonius did, a symbol of fidelity closely associated with Ophelia. Laertes mentioned the flower to her before leaving for France, and it's the flower she would have wanted to give her brother in her mad state. Laertes imagines this natural manifestation will prove the priest was wrong about her.

HAMLET: What, the fair Ophelia!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Sweets to the sweet: farewell!

Scattering flowers

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,
And not have strew'd thy grave.

Act II Scene 2: Gertrude may or may not be surprised Hamlet is courting Ophelia. She seems to support Polonius' stand against such a union. Here, she says she hoped Ophelia might have replaced her as Queen. Kind words said out of grief or to pacify Laertes? Or does she mean them? If she does, it might add to her irritation in the earlier scene, having to suffer her husband's tedious adviser wanting to throw a wrench in her plans, and unable to say anything in front of the King. Dramatically, of course, these words sting the hidden Hamlet and probably help push him to the edge. It also inspires half-treasonous vitriol from Laertes:

LAERTES: O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:

Leaps into the grave

Laertes famously prefigures his joining his sister in death with this gesture.

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.

Jumping into a grave with dubious Christian sanctification, Laertes pointedly turns to the pagan idiom.

HAMLET: [Advancing] What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,
Hamlet the Dane.

Through a twist in the line, Hamlet seems to ask something of Laertes in this speech, until one realizes he's really talking about himself, acting as his own narrator, in effect writing (or "willing") himself back into the action. This reinforces the mirror between the two "adopted sons" of Claudius, and is followed by Hamlet repeating Laertes' action so that he may share his doom.

Leaps into the grave

LAERTES: The devil take thy soul!

They are certainly getting closer and closer TO the devil, both physically and morally.

Grappling with him

HAMLET: Thou pray'st not well.

Even in his grief (and perhaps belying it), Hamlet manifests a sharp wit. Laertes's devilish invocation puts his own soul in peril.

I prithee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For, though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I something in me dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear: hold off thy hand.

This speech mirrors the one Hamlet offered Laertes' sister ("I could accuse me of such things...). Is he still making empty threats, or will he let the beast out?

KING CLAUDIUS: Pluck them asunder.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Hamlet, Hamlet!
All: Gentlemen,--
HORATIO: Good my lord, be quiet.

The Attendants part them, and they come out of the grave

HAMLET: Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O my son, what theme?
HAMLET: I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?
KING CLAUDIUS: O, he is mad, Laertes.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: For love of God, forbear him.
HAMLET: 'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do:
Woo't weep? woo't fight? woo't fast? woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'lt mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.

The duel continues. Hamlet's lines are meant to put Laertes down, but are also a rather poignant treatise on the futility of grief. He rattles on a list of impossible feats before admitting the best they can do is rant. His grief for his father is revisited, and he finds he must once again unpack his heart with words which do not equal what he's actually feeling. But he does ask "what will you do?", and the focus on action is notable. Hamlet means to soon transition from words to action.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: This is mere madness:
And thus awhile the fit will work on him;
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.

Question: Hamlet's letter to his mother. What did it contain? We're never told. How surprised is she to see him here? Does she really believe him mad at this point? Is she covering for him? Clues may be found in specific performances. Her metaphor of a dove waiting for her eggs to hatch is either prescient or a knowing prediction, and could even be code between mother and son. She could be reminding him of his plans and warning him not to sabotage them with this show of emotion. Of course, Claudius and Laertes are hatching plans of their own.

HAMLET: Hear you, sir;
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever: but it is no matter;
Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.


KING CLAUDIUS: I pray you, good Horatio, wait upon him.



Strengthen your patience in our last night's speech;
We'll put the matter to the present push.
Good Gertrude, set some watch over your son.
This grave shall have a living monument:
An hour of quiet shortly shall we see;
Till then, in patience our proceeding be.


Ever the expert politician and manipulator, Claudius makes Laertes, Gertrude and even Horatio members of his team in the way he speaks. Little does he know none will be loyal to him in the end.