Friday, October 24, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Zeffirelli '90

Having already shown Hamlet switching the letters on the ship, the sequence actually starts with Osric walking in. But this isn't the comic relief we're expecting. Zeffirelli's thuggish Osric is a threatening presence, contemptuous of the Prince. He's deadly serious, impatient with what he views as Hamlet's much-touted madness, refusing the "reality" the King's nephew would impose on him. When Hamlet tells Osric to put his hat on his head, the latter just starts talking of royal wagers, and leaves with a nasty smirk and putting his hat on a little too deliberately, as if in defiance. Zeffirelli really wants Osric to be a harbinger of Hamlet's death here, and Hamlet certainly responds with foreboding, letting as little emotion as possible cross his face, unflinching in the face of this obvious threat. Massive cuts are required to make this work, of course. We have no reference to Osric being a lowly sycophant, nor do Hamlet and Horatio share banter mocking the man. Osric's lines have been severely curtailed to remove the appearance of foolishness. The film is the poorer for it, but there's a certain efficiency to it as well.

After "we defy augury", we cut back to Laertes and Claudius, still plotting. As far as the time line goes, we must assume the duel/wager was called and only later did the conspirators think of it as an opportunity for assassination. Or else Claudius set things into motion before insuring Laertes' participation, which works too. It provides motive for his seduction of the younger man. When we cut back to Hamlet, he is now alone, looking out a window at the sea, smelling in the sea air, ostensibly for the last time. The short "readiness is all" speech is turned into a soliloquy, something he comes to terms with rather than a comfort to his friend. There's something slightly ironic about his enjoying one last sight of Denmark, a country he has railed against steadily since the start of the play, or perhaps we're meant to look at the water and think of the undiscovered country on the other side, Hamlet's final destination.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - BBC '80

Robert Swann's Horatio is often invisible, but his wet, empathic eyes give this scene an extra injection of pathos. We're with him as Hamlet recounts his murder of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern with some relish. The prince licks his lips, and all his friend can do is ask questions in the hope that the answers will absolve him of any guilt. But he can't punch a hole into this story, and there's the sense that "What a king is this" could be about Horatio's own liege lord, Hamlet, and not Claudius. Faced with this all-new, rash Hamlet, Horatio becomes the thinker of the duo, and is the one who makes Hamlet realize England will soon get word of this to Denmark. Hamlet HASN'T thought this through. His reaction doesn't comfort Horatio, who sees his friend's death wish for the first time.

Enter Osric. Peter Gale is quite funny in the role, pushed to the limits of his courteousness to the point where he delivers his lines through subtly gritted teeth. Hamlet mostly ignores him, speaking his lines to Horatio, or turning his back to force him to go around the table, or rising when Osric would sit down and sitting when he gets back up again. As in Olivier's vision, he waves his hat about because he's sweating bullets. Whether that's the temperature or his nerves is up to debate. When Hamlet and Horatio hear Laertes' name mentioned, they share a meaningful look. Right then and there, they know this is a trap. They give Osric more attention then on, but mostly to mock him. Where Osric pronounces "continent" à la French - as much to elevate his language as to wink at Laertes' Frenchification - Hamlet starts pronouncing every work shared by English and French the same way. Horatio's "Is't not possible to understand in another tongue?" becomes a nice punchline. The way Hamlet interrupts Osric consistently makes him hit his lines harder, giving more resonance to "to know a man well, were to know himself", as indeed, the mirroring of Hamlet and Laertes has been very consistent throughout the play.

As Orsic leaves, with his own shame and odd hits, the two other men grow wistful, Horatio especially. He has sympathy for Osric, just as he perhaps had sympathy for R&G and Hamlet's other victims. And perhaps his pity extends to Hamlet, or the Hamlet lost, the one that was sent off to England and apparently never came back.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Olivier '48

In this staging, Claudius and Laertes have just worked out their murder plot, the camera moves away from them, pans up, and Hamlet and Horatio come into view, coming down stairs and stopping by a window. Cut from this conversation is Hamlet's sea voyage, since Rosencrantz & Guildenstern don't exist in the adaptation. We lose the "sea change" that would make Hamlet appear a changed man to Horatio, one able to take lethal action. It's replaced with the "passion' slave" exchange from Act III, commending Horatio's stability, but at this point perhaps also taking on those qualities, "wearing" them in his "heart of hearts". Hamlet himself will seem more at peace and "stable" than ever, while Horatio will be the one panicking and trying to delay the action. It does connect the line with recent events in which Hamlet forgot himself to Laertes, but that's a different type of passion than the one from the text.

Enter Osric. Olivier presents him as a clown, certainly not sinister or even overtly opportunistic. As soon as he arrives, Hamlet and Horatio start walking away, and they will keep walking, with this fop in tow. Osric fans himself constantly with his feathered hat, something that irritates Hamlet by its proximity, motivating the hot/cold on/off exchanges. Osric never does put the hat on his head, even if he accepts Hamlet's reality in principle, so Hamlet has to put it on him at some point. Cue slapstick walking around with the feather in Osric's face. The character will leave with a bow for every "yours" Hamlet utters, and fall down the stairs in a final act of buffoonery.

At the end of the sequence, Hamlet has walked right to the hall where the duel will be staged, and overlooks it. Again we're motivating the text. Hamlet finally tells Osric he'll be walking in this hall, essentially waiting for the duel to come to him. He stops Horatio from calling the whole thing off, and with a smile, comforts his friend with "the readiness is all". Olivier doesn't push on these lines as, say, Branagh does. They're really for Horatio's sake, telling him not to worry, and in "let be", simply telling his friend not to stop whatever gears have started turning already (as opposed to answering some crucial question in the previous few lines).

But Horatio couldn't have stopped it even if he had tried. Within seconds, the Royals arrive with Laertes and a host of trumpeters, and the trial is already under way. In the world of this film, there are barely 6 minutes between Claudius hatching his plan and setting them into motion. Osric was sent less than 2 minutes after his conversation with Laertes. This is more urgency than the play as written musters; Shakespeare put the Hamlet's arrival and Ophelia's death and funeral in between events.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All - Branagh '96

Elsinore, the next day, with Francisco on guard duty. This sets up Fortinbras' arrival, a means to jump in and out of the palace and expand the world of the play. Inside, Hamlet tells Horatio his tale, their walk keeping the momentum up until they reach what has been Hamlet's inner sanctum in this adaptation, his library. There, Branagh highlights various lines using the props at his disposal - the model theater when he mentions that the play has begun, and his writing station when he explains how he forged the King's letter. The latter's contents he intones in a theatrical voice, mocking courtly messages and the flattery he finds hypocritical, between heads of state as much as in fawning courtiers (which we'll get an example of shortly, but of course includes the now dead Rosencrantz & Guildenstern). Should we infer from the flattery Hamlet includes in his letter that Denmark is subservient to England? His own critique of his homeland may be undermining Denmark. The truth is that the Danish state IS in on the wane, its political fall imminent.

Enter Robin Williams as Osric, one of Branagh's more successful celebrity cameos. Williams plays Osric as a comedy figure, of course, sending up the character's praise of Laertes as a kind of man-crush, all the more obvious thanks to an effeminate lisp. It is obvious that Osric is out of his depth, and we should remember the text calls him "young Osric" even if Williams isn't particularly youthful, because it means he's an inexperienced courtier, and as Hamlet says, one not of noble birth. So he is naturally thrilled to have been asked to take part in this wager and duel, but is soon confused by Hamlet's attacks. He has no experience with rhetorical sparring, and many of the words he uses were prepared in advance to raise himself up to a level where he could indeed address a Prince. He uses French pronunciations - and indeed, Laertes' decadent Frenchness is one symptom of a failing Danish state - and is embarrassed when he's forced to drop the pretense at Hamlet's prodding. The gag where he salutes and knocks his sheathed sword into a chair heightens his awkwardness and lack of practice with courtly affairs. To his credit, he endures Hamlet's humiliations without, for the most part, letting his royalty-pleasing smile break, though probably out of fear.

The steely, intense Lord who follows him provides an interesting contrast. He's more experienced and closer to the King and Queen, delivering messages that are essentially royal commands or advice. One has to be able to look at a Prince in the eye unapologetically. I like to imagine behind the scenes action featuring Osric and this unnamed Lord, where Osric either isn't quite sure if Hamlet agreed to the duel, or understood that it was happening imminently, and someone else has to go in and make sure. The Lord's look of triumph here would fit this scenario. Certainly, the Lord is part of the final scene's urgency, allowing Hamlet no time to reflect or back out. You agreed to this, so let's get this show on the road. The irony is that Hamlet is ready, for once, but who would condemn anyone in this universe for thinking he would delay the action with lots of talking and other distractions?

Claudius is in such a hurry for this duel to take place that Hamlet and Horatio are immediately aware that something is wrong, and that Hamlet is unlikely to walk away from it. Horatio's reaction is to tell Hamlet not to go through with it, his love for his friend leading to tears and an embrace (I can't help but think Osric's show of love for Laertes is a parody of this relationship), but Hamlet, looking older than he ever had, his eyes wet, has come to terms with what must happen or at least could happen. Though they'll have a goodbye scene at the end of the duel, this also serves that purpose. On the commentary track, Branagh says something interesting about Hamlet's speech, calling it a possible answer to the question "To be or not to be?": "Let be." In essence, Hamlet must give in to Fate and meet it with aplomb rather than try to control it. You do not decide whether you live or die, God/circumstance/the author does.