Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cheer Up, Hamlet! Paper Doll

Cheer Up, Hamlet! is a paper doll available for free online from Les Vieux Jours, and for which there are 16 costumes plus sundry accessories and counting. An amusing diversion, the makers at last know their Shakespeare, and find proper quotes from the play to juxtapose each image. Obviously, there's the classic look:
Alternate wear based on lines from the play:
(That's a sweet Horatio.)

Some jokes are best appreciated by fans of certain actors who have played the role.
And then there's the completely outlandish...
But Hamlet IS an avenger, right?

For more costumes, accessories, and humor, in larger sizes, check out the website.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - French Rock Opera

Three songs close Johnny Hallyday's rock opera: Le duel (The Duel), La mort d'Hamlet (The Death of Hamlet) and Le rideau tombe (The Curtain Falls). We will take each one in turn, with the French lyrics followed by my literal and unpoetic translations.

Le Duel
Elle peut venir quand il faut pas
Comme un cheveu sur la soupe
Comme un as sous la coupe
Au moment de dire «bonjour»
Au beau milieu de l’amour
C’est tellement con la mort !
Je vous souhaite le bonjour, Monsieur
Et si c’est le dernier
Je vous souhaite la belle mort, Monsieur

Elle peut venir de n’importe où
Elle peut vous tomber d’en haut
Comme l’éclair ou le couteau
Ou bien venir de trop bas
Comme le serpent, le Judas
C’est tellement con la mort !
Je vous souhaite le bonjour, Monsieur
Et si c’est le dernier
Je vous souhaite la belle mort, Monsieur

Elle peut venir n’importe quand
Au printemps comme en hiver
Qu’on sen moque ou qu’on l’espère
Qu’on soit deux ou seul pleurant
Mais jamais au bon moment
C’est tellement beau la vie !

The Duel
It can come when it shouldn't
Like a hair in your soup
Like an ace up your sleeve
When it's time to say "hello"
In the middle of love
Death is so stupid!
I wish you good day, sir
And if it's the last
I wish you good death, sir

It can come from anywhere
It can fall on you from above
Like lightning or a knife
Or come from too low
Like the serpent, the Judas
Death is so stupid!
I wish you good day, sir
And if it's the last
I wish you good death, sir

It can come at any time
In the spring or the winter
Whether we mock it or hope for it
Whether we're two or crying alone
But never at the right moment
Life is so beautiful!
Life is so beautiful!
Life is so beautiful!

Representing the duel of swords between Hamlet and Laertes (the knife) AND the duel of wits between Hamlet and Claudius (the serpent) both, the song also smacks of the "readiness is all speech". Death is unpredictable, but inevitable. The opera is more overtly romantic than any other adaptation of the play, and The Duel makes sure to reference love interrupted, and in French, plays on the similar sound of "l'amour" (love) and "la mort" (death), so that in Hallyday's accent, one might hear/sing those words interchangeably. In other words, "love is stupid" as much as death is, because they are intertwined anyway. Sex as death is a common literary trope, and Ophelia has died from love denied. She looms large in the opera, and in these final moments. The Duel starts out as fun ditty that recalls the macabre humor of the gravedigger scene (presented as bowling with skulls in the opera), until the very last lines when, it seems, Hamlet goes from thumbing his nose at death to realizing life is beautiful - in the end, he doesn't want to die - and the song heads right into The Death of Hamlet.

The Death of Hamlet has only one line, repeated over and over, and that's "Je l'aimais!" ("I loved her"). It's a lament, passionate regret, and with each heartbreaking repetition, Hamlet's voice grows more desperate, weaker, until he dies. The music's driving beat, his heart. His last thoughts in the opera are not for Fortinbras, or Horatio, or himself, but for the woman he loved badly and lost.

The Curtain Falls acts as an epilogue/summary, with a choir singing what is essentially a dirge. An apocalyptic one:

Le rideau tombe
Quelques vérités
Un peu de passion
Un fil de l'épée
Un peu de poison
Et le rideau tombe
C'est la fin du monde

Un peu de colère
Un peu de souffrance
Un peu de prière
Si peu d'importance
Et le rideau tombe
C'est la fin du monde

The Curtain Falls
A few truths
A little passion
The stab of a sword
A little poison
And the curtain falls
It's the end of the world

A little anger
A little suffering
A little prayer
So little importance
And the curtain falls
It's the end of the world

Written as a recipe for tragedy, the song downplays the epic nature of the play and gives it an existentialist mortality. All of that, and for what? The futility of life and the anticlimax of death. And yet, it's the end of the world. The world on stage. The world created in Hamlet's image. A character that contains the whole world in his scope and breadth.

And this marks the end of the project as it was originally set out, covering those specific adaptations in detail. Which doesn't mean it's over. The label "Other Hamlets" still needs to be filled with versions we haven't discussed yet.

Friday, March 27, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Classics Illustrated

The original
Obviously, "Hamlet's Own Boy Adventure" is going to give a sword battle its due. To keep it as concise as it needs to be, expository narration does a lot of the work, and the artist's limited expressions replace what would normally be an actor's nuanced portrayal with basic goodness or villainy. Case in point:
Couldn't this panel be right out of a dream sequence in an Archie comic? I'm actually surprised that there isn't MORE swordplay. We don't even see the "touch" of the second bout. The adaptation at least recognizes that the important part of that sub-sequence is the Queen drinking the poison cup. Here, while the King's expression is minimal, Gertrude's is that of an offended coquette.
In the previous panel, the comic sends us to a footnote to translate "fat and scant of breath" as "in poor condition", which put an interesting spotlight on the line. One never really thinks of Hamlet as "fat" or that he should be breathing hard at the end of these exchanges, but that's what the lines say (and from a character sympathetic to him, in response to the King's contention that he shall win). The Queen does NOT believe he'll win the wager, and carouses not to his skill, but to his FORTUNE.

Chaos ensues, and the artwork follows suit, with dueling in the foreground, and people milling about, queens dying, etc. in the background. Everyone is killed, with some small cuts here and there (the whole wager with the pearl is absent, so too is the King's double poisoning at the end, and Horatio's suicidal intentions), and the comic ends on Horatio's prayer, no Ambassadors or Norwegian Princes. The last panel has very strange perspectives, which puts us in mind of a Medieval painting.
For the uninitiated, before the "invention" of perspective, art would routinely give characters and objects the size they deserved, rather than their naturalistic size as perceived by the human eye. So Kings would be bigger than soldiers, and so on. The artist here may have accidentally or willingly created the same effect, hard to say, but note how small the King, Queen and Laertes look in the tableau, shrunken next to the now immortal Hamlet who resonates with power even in death.

The Berkley version
The Grant/Mandrake adaptation gives one more page to the sequence than the original did (5 instead of 4), and includes, as usual, much more of the Shakespeare's dialog. But it's also more violent, with swords piercing the flesh, and thin sprays of blood (nothing TOO gory, but standards have definitely changed between 1943 and 1990). Mandrake also uses speed lines in the background to give the action more energy.

Things get a little confused during the second bout. The "touch" Laertes confesses to looks like it goes through his shoulder, which makes the reader realize there's no question either of the swords are unbaited, no question this duel will end with the participants bleeding. The poison is the only treachery here, and Hamlet gets his hand on the poison blade by accident, not to give Laertes a taste of his own medicine. Likewise, the staging of the Queen's poisoning leaves something to be desired. She states her intent to "carouse" in one panel, then grabs the cup from the King in another, which is awkward and makes the King look like he's got a weak grip.

Much of the action that follows is bracketed by shocked expressions from onlookers, but the Queen's strange word-to-action pacing problem continues through to the end of the book. Hamlet will say "Venom, to thy work" in one panel where its meaning isn't clear, then in the next, scratch the King. Sometimes it even seems like panels are missing, though the disconnect between "Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?" and the panel in which it is featured, which just shows Hamlet impaling the King with his sword, does have a certain poetry to it. The "potion" is merely the poison, "drunk" from the blade, but it's still a little clunky.
Though the action settles down at the end, Mandrake still puts speed lines on one key panel, where the dying Hamlet hears cannon fire outside. This gives the moment the feel of someone getting shot, and sure enough, with Hamlet's death so too does his Denmark (his royal line) die. This is the shot we hear. As he dies, the colors darken, Fortinbras and the English Ambassador come in for their lines, and Hamlet is carried out by soldiers into the fog of Mandrake's watercolors...

Sunday, March 22, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - A Midwinter's Tale

The play as seen in montage in A Midwinter's Tale's climax only features two key moments, but they're edited in such a way, they speak to each other. The first is just a sword fight, with none of the poisoning machinations, just a violent enthusiastic duel. It goes all around the church that serves as a stage, while the patrons are, as if part of the story, on their feet cheering the duelists on. In an actual staging of the play, I suppose one could encourage the audience to take such an active part (that of the courtiers), but it's really a pure movie moment here.
From the loudness of the fight, we cut directly to Hamet's line, "The rest is silence". This is a great play on the editing, but also a fine end to a montage that's meant to give us a Hamlet in 2 minutes. Horatio and Fortinbras do get a line in each before the lights dim and the characters are once again lost in fog, but it does bear asking just what all the characters are talking for after Hamlet's final pronouncement. It's a great irony that after Hamlet comes, not silence, but a multitude of voices who need to analyze, dissect and discuss the play. The final word on Drama only spawns more and more words, only the tiniest fraction of which have been contributed by this series of articles. It's like we've all been trying to prove Hamlet wrong all this time, and indeed, his meditation on mortality has only made him, in the end, immortal.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Slings & Arrows

Though the sequence includes a brief shot of the fight, the montage focuses principally on Hamlet's death and Jack Crew's emotional release after getting through the entire play (he turns his head away from the audience in death, but faces us, the other audience, and smiles). If indeed Hamlet (like many, if not most of Shakespeare's plays) is about the Actor on Stage. Hamlet's sufferance is dramatized as an inability to leave the stage for extended periods of time; it's a marathon. So when he's allowed to rest, Hamlet's relief is the actor's.

Slings & Arrows also plays on a behind-the-scenes irony: The sequence is intercut with shots of the audience, and among them (just off-stage), Mark McKinney's character, the theater manager Richard Smith-Jones, was, through the whole of Series 1, trying to undermine the Festival's Shakespearean mission, and push a Broadway Musical agenda. By turns the equivalent of Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius, in the end he is a Fortinbras figure, there to supplant the "Danish" regime, and yet, like Fortinbras, reluctant in the end to do so. It illuminates a character we don't see a lot of in the play. Norway's prince may have conquered Denmark, but so potent is the play and its central character, that he is filled with regret and elevates his defeated foe to a higher stage, somehow becoming a kind of Hamlet, one that can carry on.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Tennant (2009)

In the final sequence, the film keeps its hyper-surveillance conceit up, pulling away from the action to a security camera from time to time, even though there are no characters left whose POV this could accurately reflect. But in the for a penny...

And that's my segue to say Penny Downie as Gertrude is really the one to watch during this scene. She's always active, looking to one character or another, trying to understand what's going on, where the dangers lie, what's real and what isn't. After all, Laertes has just attacked Claudius and then Hamlet, but they're all smiling at each other and playing a "game" now. And knowing what she does of Hamlet's fragility, and his allegations about her husband, which she probably believes, something HAS to be up. And so on her face, often in the background, there are reactions that are crucial to understanding her character. She's surprised and perhaps relieved that Hamlet can throw off the shackles of madness. She tries to decipher whether Laertes means it when he accepts Hamlet's apology. And what of Claudius, all smiles and out of breath? She's in evident pain as she tries to pierce the web of lies around her. In that context, it makes perfect sense that when she realize the cup is poison (the staging is impeccable too, as Claudius, out of focus in the background, turns his head at the tray behind him and realizes which cup she's holding). She drinks deep, as if to save her son from this trap, but then offers him that cup, a suicide pact so that she, Hamlet, his father and Ophelia can all be reunited in the afterlife. At the moment of her death, still holding the cup, she pushes it once more towards Hamlet. A dark interpretation nonetheless consistent with Tragedy.

The duel presents three bouts that are more or less the same - we're not dealing with a big budget production here - but longer and more aggressive each time. Paranoid Laertes lets himself be riled by Hamlet's quips, or rather more by the assembly' laughter, and realizing he will lose, starts to cheat. He thrusts at Hamlet before the judge (Osric) allows it, so Hamlet fights without headgear, and still not scoring, slices the back of Hamlet's back when his back is turned. Hamlet drops his sword and jumps him, and once subdued, takes the poison sword, and in anger over its unblunted end, inflicts the same wound on his opponent. With the Queen dead and both duelists poisoned, Hamlet cries treachery and Claudius is still in a position to get away with it. But afraid Laertes will tell on him, he points to guards to get his co-conspirator out of the room, which is when Laertes decides to point fingers. The last of his family, Laertes doesn't care to die a traitor and stain his name, possibly. After all, would it be so hard for Claudius to brand him such posthumously? A man who just recently incited revolt and tried to kill him?
Claudius' death is amazing. Instead of the usual force-feeding of the poison cup, Claudius is handed the cup and ASKED to drink it. In the play, this a redundant (if poetically just) action anyway, since Hamlet has already stabbed him with the poison sword. In this version, Claudius grabs the sword around the tip to stop Hamlet from stabbing him, but the Prince twists it out of his hand, scratching his palm ("I am but hurt"). So he's doomed anyway, and Patrick Stewart conveys this in great way, that's also darkly comical. He raises his shoulders in defeat, silent asking "meh, why not?", and drinks deeply. This is a stronger Claudius that at least makes a show of dying by his own hand, even though the poison was already in his system. In the end, he still tries to reach for Gertrude.
Handed back to him, Hamlet still holds the cup when he falls over, and he must struggle to keep it out of Horatio's hands. I just struck me that Hamlet's last act was to save a life, and there's hope in that, even if the more cynical among us could see this as a selfish act - Horatio must live to keep HAMLET alive as a story. In his last moment, Hamlet looks off-stage in a mix of awe and fear, as if seeing his ghostly father one more time, or that undiscovered country which can sometimes act as a metaphor for a New Denmark. And yet, once his noble heart has cracked and Horatio cries over him, the credits roll. There is no Fortinbras to herald that New Denmark, no funeral, no questions or revelations from England's ambassador. Director Gregory Doran attributes its importance in the play to an Elizabethan obsession with succession (who would replace the aging Virgin Queen?), and while filmed, seemed an easy cut to make given modern audiences can be satisfied without the coda.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Fodor (2007)

Much more from Laertes' point of view than other adaptations, the sequence starts with him painting his blade with poison and tying a red ribbon - belonging to his dead sister Polonia - to the hilt. There is an odd smelling-of-the-ribbon moment that's in line with the incestuous vibe of the family and Laertes will be haunted by red-filtered memories of his dead sisters over the course of the next minutes. Though we can sympathize with his loss, we mustn't forget this version of Laertes is a psychopath. And yet, does his resolve flag after Hamlet's sincere apology? The way he grits his teeth having to say he would not wrong Hamlet's love makes us think perhaps it does, he does not wish to wrong it but knows he must.

Fodor's limited means to stage the duel sets it in an unimpressive white room (like much of the film), too small for an audience (or a camera, the excitement of the fight is sustained by POV shots and editing). Claudius, Gertrude and others - including Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, very much alive - thus stand behind the two-way mirror, observing. One observer that stands in the room itself is the Ghost, sarcastically looking on, and sometimes visible to the participants, especially when they're about to die. The duelists' attendants are sometimes present, sometimes not, initially seen in perfectly composed shots just behind their friend - creepy Osric for Laertes, and loyal Horatio for Hamlet. The latter obeys her feelings more readily than Hamlet does and has a sense of what's about to unfold, staring at Laertes' blade most intently. But the purplish color of the metal isn't necessarily proof of foul play. Also in the room with them, so to speak, is Polonia. Not physically (or in ghost form), but as that red ribbon, showing even when the swords themselves don't, as the white blows them out of sight. Unfortunate that the sound of the room is so hollow, speaking to the film's cheapness more than the visuals do. If the dialog isn't recorded properly at times, at least Fodor uses sound design to enhance the scene, with cheering crowds and driving techno.

As the fight progresses, Claudius seems to lose faith in his plan. "Our son shall win" isn't the insincere enthusiasm that's often depicted, but something he fears is happening, or is even resigned to at that point. After Gertrude drinks from the unattended cup, sad Claudius stops looking at the fight and only looks at her. The Ghost smiles sarcastically at the situation. Meanwhile, Hamlet gets his hands sliced open, at which point he and Laertes go at it with fists, and in the struggle, the Prince gets his hands on the ribboned foil and skewers Laertes (which is potentially a fatal wound, poison or no). The music cuts out, everyone just stands there not knowing what to do, and then Gertrude starts to convulse and dies. In a small trade of lines, it's Horatio who deduces and reveals the cup was poisoned, not Laertes, making her a stronger character in the end. That hard bastard confesses and dies, but does not point fingers or ask for forgiveness.
The culprit is clear and Hamlet's call to seek out treachery is pointed firmly at Claudius who then gets stabbed repeatedly. The POV shot (above) is violent but not gory, and the scene shifts to a blue filter as Claudius enters the Ghost's world (we don't see it per se, but this is the implication). Horatio is shocked, the Ghost's face does not change, presumably the courtiers (including R&G) have run off, there will be no Fortinbras in this version. Dissolves during the stabbing makes it seem like it lasted a long time too.
Hamlet's final scene is his farewell to Horatio (and it's his strongest scene in the film), a two-shot that gives them equal importance, perhaps to highlight the passing of the story from one teller to the other. The sound of the ocean outside can be heard, death coming in like a tide. Her offer of a suicide pact is rejected, but as the cup isn't in her hands, Hamlet's "let go" takes on another meaning: "Let [me] go". Here, Horatio's gender swap allows for a tenderness that's been politicized by modern day audiences when both are male, and yet, they don't hold each other with their arms, only their eyes. Hamlet kisses her tears away, and then her, full on the lips. He dies loving his best friend as Marillion's "She'll Never Know" plays. A more positive ending than one might have expected from his "horror" adaptation. The sexual tension between these characters ends with Hamlet's death (the literary connection between sex and death need not be expounded on here). As he dies, the room gets darker. The Ghost finally approaches and Horatio sees him, an angel of death (though should we be thinking her doom will yet come?). A crashing sound like a gun shot, cut to black and credits. That's almost a reference to Fortinbras' war-like volley, isn't it?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Hamlet 2000

The setting for the duel is the Elsinore building's rooftop, the duelists dressed in fencing uniforms wired for electronic detection of hits. It looks windy and precarious, but there's still an assembly of courtiers and news photographers to witness the event. Hamlet is sincere and teary-eyed as he gives his apology, but Laertes cannot be thawed. He doesn't even answer, just goes for the foils. Interestingly, when Laertes says his foil is too heavy and he wants another, he's actually refusing the poisoned one. Claudius looks dismayed, wondering if his plan is already going awry. The audience may well think Laertes wants to try his hand at actually defeating the Prince without the poison, though the truth, as we will see, is something else entirely.

As the fighting begins - and Hamlet 2000 doesn't really do anything too impressive with the swordplay - the King looks uncommonly haggard, his kingdom slipping away. Gertrude has a certain smug pride in her son, and then decides Claudius is acting strangely. This is a Queen who knows her husband well, and his nervousness coupled with the perhaps unusual tradition of offering a cup of wine to the victor (an anachronism, surely), makes her suspect the worst. She runs to Hamlet to wipe his brow, pushing Claudius and his poison cup aside, and turning, grabs the cup herself and on impulse, drinks deep from it.
"I pray you pardon me" takes a different bent, a sarcastic acknowledgment that she's just spoiled Claudius' plans on several levels. Wiping her son's face becomes her last act, a motherly one.

Laertes' own plan is revealed when he pulls a gun - likely the one Hamlet used to kill his father Polonius - at "Say you so? come on". A major difference, it adds a layer of ironic mirroring to the situation, and since guns have been equated with swords throughout the whole film, except for the duel, it makes sense it would return as the murder weapon at the very end. Laertes doesn't shoot from a distance, however, he and Hamlet struggle corps-à-corps, the gun firing twice to produce the same effect as the twin poisoning. Here we might see another irony in Laertes and his father both being shot in mirrored circumstances, Polonius through a mirror and Laertes facing his "mirror" in the play. He does not ask for forgiveness, nor does he show regret (the cuts do pile up). Instead he whispers the truth in Hamlet's ears, revealing the Claudius as the villain only as a final blow, telling Hamlet he's been played and has lost.

One victim of all the cuts is Claudius' death, which is abrupt and lacks poetry. He's shot several times, an act not accompanied by Shakespeare's lines, nor even the use of the poison cup. Hamlet's own death is more complete, and accompanied by a montage of memories, treated like the artistic video he was wont to make, of all the characters in the play. A kind of fuzzy curtain call. It may hark back to silent film, if one would like to connect to his famous last words. Before we get to the coda, a shot of the blue sky, a plane trailing exhaust is used to show Hamlet's symbolic ascension to Heaven, but since the angle has the plane going downward from our point of view, it's ambiguous. He may be bound for Hell instead. Regardless, the use of a plane creates a visual travel pun relating to that "undiscovered country".
Though Horatio is left to tell the tale, there's no hint of him appearing on the news. A missed opportunity. Taking a page (or a shot, really) from Romeo + Juliet's Chorus, Fortinbras' lines have been put in a newscaster's mouth to close out the film. In addition to the Norwegian CEO/prince's lines, the anchor also uses the Player King's from earlier in the play:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own

It's not uncommon for a Shakespeare play to hold the key to its themes somewhere in the middle (or several possible keys, open to interpretation). Highlighting those lines can be a useful directorial trick. Moving those lines to a meaningful position may be cheating, but that's what they've done here. Hamlet 2000's choice is in line with its protagonist's existential outlook, though I still prefer "to thine own self be true" as the key to the play. The final shot of the film is the anchor's teleprompter showing the above speech, as film returns to words.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Kline '90

I've had my issues with Kline's adaptation, but have to admit the duel's choreography is to my liking, as it explicitly shows Laertes vacillating between murder and forgiveness all the way through. It begins with a sincere Hamlet apologizing and even embracing his wary "brother", which may well sow the seeds of doubt in Laertes' mind.

In the first exchange, Laertes knows he has a lethal weapon in his hand, and is timid in coming at Hamlet. This motivates the line "Come on, sir!" Laertes eventually does, and it's a good fight. An aggressive one too, and now wary of Laertes, Hamlet's attention really isn't on Claudius and his poison cup. The second exchange begins with a series of feints from both fencers, and at first, Hamlet seems to be having fun. It stops being enjoyable when he falls into a group of courtiers and while he's held in their hands, Laertes looks poised to skewer him in a rage. Obviously, this isn't one of the ways Hamlet can legally die here, so he stops himself, but from then on, the Prince is more careful. And it rattles Laertes too. The second exchange ends in a strange way, with Laertes letting his guard down on purpose and allowing Hamlet to get an easy hit. It's possible he now knows Hamlet is his better and he's trying to push him into drinking from the poison cup, but as events develop, it looks more like Claudius was right to doubt his drive for revenge.

After Gertrude naively drinks the poison, it looks like he's lost it completely. He heads for the weapons rack to get a non-poisonous sword, but Hamlet is too quick and begins the bout before he has a change to exchange one foil for another. As is usual, there's a moment where they hold each other and Osric must push them apart. In that moment, Hamlet - still oblivious to Claudius' shenanigans - almost takes a drink from the cup. The gesture makes Laertes turn again, and now wanting Hamlet to die by HIS hand, not Claudius', he stops Hamlet from drinking with the point of his sword, scratching him in the process. He then drops his sword and backs away, a gesture that recalls the modern "mike drop". There. Done.

Hamlet takes the dropped sword, and throws the other at Laertes. In the ensuing scuffle, Laertes grabes the blade in the middle, trying to keep the poison tip away from him. Hamlet slides the blade out of his grip, however, which slices his palms open. This ambivalence on Laertes' part makes his asking for Hamlet's forgiveness, and Hamlet giving it, more believable.
This Claudius clearly loves his wife, the fact of which we're reminded when he kisses her hand before even taking Hamlet's and Laertes'. His "Do not drink" comes off as a heartfelt warning, even a plea, which really should have given Gertrude pause. For the modern theater goer, the means by which he poisons the wine will seem highly unhygienic. He takes his ring off his finger and drops it in the cup, the pearl apparently set in it. I wouldn't drink out of that cup no matter how many fencing matches I won.

Gertrude dies in Hamlet's arms, which is a kinder way for her to go than is usually staged. He then moves to kill the King, scratching his ear, which we'll remember was where Hamlet Sr. was poisoned. He dies quickly; they don't make a meal of it. When Hamlet himself starts to feel the effects, he calls for Horatio who almost magically appears to catch him from behind. He clutches the Queen's hands for a moment more, the bodies more or less arranged in a chain on the floor, thematically representing their familial connections. Horatio would die with his friend, and there's a struggle for the cup, which Hamlet ends by throwing it away.
In the end, Kline's Hamlet doesn't struggle through his final lines the way other Hamlets sometimes have. The poison overcrows his spirit, not his vocal chords. If it means he dies more peacefully, so be it. At least the lines are strangled and hard to hear. Fortinbras next enters, and he seems a compassionate youth, surprisingly warm in his exclamations. Once again Hamlet is carried out in a Messianic position - this seems a favorite bit of staging - and as the soldiers slowly recede down a corridor, we hear a choir. These are the angels singing Hamlet to his rest, and in the notion of Horatio, a commoner, ordering royalty about, is expanded beyond even the mortal sphere. Horatio has commanded the very angels in Heaven. The world truly has been turned upside down by these events, an echo of Hamlet's parable of the worm and the king.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Zeffirelli '90

Though not the most verbose of scenes, Zeffirelli still manages to cut a fair bit of material, making the sequence of triumph of staging over text.

Hamlet is herded into the throne room where a fighting area has been erected, and where people mill around unceremoniously until the trumpets sound and the Royals enter. Hamlet makes an apology to a smirking Laertes, but does not blame his madness or paint himself as a victim. Consequently, the crowd is heard to cheer Laertes on, not Hamlet, but in the second exchange, the Prince plays the bout for laughs - acting like his sword is too heavy, winking at the Queen, running around the room, calling a time-out to sneeze in Osric's face - and regains the crowd's favor.

Zeffirelli's excision of the word "unbaited" and failure to mention what weapons are being used means he can stage the action with heftier swords. Each exchange has a different arrangement of blades and armor - sword/chain mail, heavy sword/chain and plate combination, and two swords/frilly shirt - to give them a distinct flavor. Laertes is violent and eager right out of the gate, Claudius feigning shock when he exchanges a look with the Queen, and this does highlight the fact this combat could be deadly, poison or no. After Hamlet scores the first touch, Laertes tries to have a go at him right away, but is stopped by the judges. Combat often goes just a little bit too far, and in the third exchange, Osric must break a hold for the fighting to continue. When Hamlet breaks it is when Laertes takes advantage and scratches his arm with his green-tipped blade. Enraged, Hamlet attacks him hand to hand, the poison sword falls, Hamlet picks it up, and Laertes spends the right of the "fight" looking deathly scared of its point.
Meanwhile, the Queen has drunk from the poison cup, and gone from wiping her son's brow to wiping her own. Sweating gives way to pain and the editing makes it clear she knows what's happened. The culprit is also easy to determine. When she looks at Claudius, he can't endure her gaze. She knows. Her death will be as violent as everyone else's, with spasms and cross-eyed indignity. It's a bit much, actually.

Laertes' turn, from anger to regret, is one of the weakest elements here. It seems barely justified. One minute he is frustrated and angry, the next the fear of death has shocked him into friendship and the rejection of the King's plan.
The poisoned Hamlet, for his part, acts drunk. He pokes at his wound, pathetically, stumbles over to his mother, gags on the poison, and slips to the ground dangerously - the mark of an actor who doesn't mind the stunt work. Throughout, the assembled audience stares in shock, Horatio included, with frequent cutaways to stunned swordsmen just standing there. Eventually, Horatio will go to him, but never will he attempt to follow him in death. They just don't have that close a relationship in this adaptation. Absent any notion of Fortinbras, we will simply accept that Horatio will tell the tale to whoever wants to hear it, and the camera zooms out from above, as if representing Hamlet's soul finally free of his wretched physical existence. If there is hope in the tragedy, it is through devices like these, subliminally indicating that the hero goes to his peaceful rest.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - BBC '80

As the duel begins, Hamlet is all business, a rhetorical genius with a prepared speech for the benefit of the Court. His apology to Laertes has charm and grace, but no real emotion. It's meant as much for the public as it is for the younger man, and indeed, much of it is spoken to his mother. Somehow, and this is what keeps Laertes so "aloof", Hamlet paints himself as just another victim. he would have made an excellent lawyer, and we can see why he was so loved of the Danish populace. Wary Laertes' own speech feels practiced, but then, it's part of a murder plot, so it surely is. And where he might have gotten off the script, Claudius walks up and touches his shoulder, keeping him under control and on point. Since the beginning of the play, Claudius has shown a preference for Laertes anyway, and treats him more like a son than he ever did Hamlet, so this gesture does not seem out of place.

The Prince doesn't understand why Laertes' attitude is so venomous, and the lines are given deductive intentions. When he questions the foils' lengths, he seems to be wondering if this is where the trap he senses lies. As the fight begins, the first exchange is mostly played for comedy. Laertes is disarmed (of his rapier, not his dagger) right away, and reaching for it as if it were a simple bad start, is touched on the arm. But don't go thinking this television production skimps on the fight choreography. The second exchange is quite good. Fast, dangerous-looking, violent and as far as I could see, all done by the actors. At this point, Gertrude drinks and I am reminded of why I originally had little use for Patrick Stewart's Claudius. He just doesn't seem affected by Gertrude's doom. His aside is passionless, just a statement of the fact, and this is followed by anger at Laertes, a realization that he allied with someone who won't be able to get the job done. Through this series of articles, I have of course found many things to like about Stewart's 1980 performance, but my parting impression of his Claudius necessarily comes from this scene.

Laertes is a self-centered jerk as well, and to get shed the blood he needs to shed, he lets Hamlet hand him the poison rapier handle first, grabs it, and twists it into the Prince's hand. More fighting ensues, and he is wounded himself, but I don't get the impression he's really sorry once he knows he's dying. "Almost" against his conscience is the word to keep in mind. When he blames the King, it's not because he suddenly sides with Hamlet, it's just to take someone down with him. The King's to blame... for his own woes. Laertes remains unapologetic, at least until he panics about his place in Heaven. Claudius tries to embrace Hamlet, calm him down - and odd moment that doesn't play very well - and when stuck like a pig, tries to get help from the stunned courtiers. Alas.
Hamlet won't accept Horatio's embrace, and only seeks him out when he realizes he won't have time to explain the plot. By this point, Horatio is close to the camera, contemplating sympathetic suicide, his back to Hamlet. But when the Prince sees the cup, he pleads for his friend to stay in this world and continue suffering in his stead. It's an interesting notion: That Hamlet insists his overlong grief (from his first scene) continue even without him, though Horatio, through Shakespeare, through the 400+ years since the play was written.

Another interesting twist on the line about Fortinbras, "He has my dying voice". Literally, it means Hamlet names him as successor (or at least accepts this is the natural succession). The way it is presented here, and considering this world is a stage, it's like Fortinbras is stealing his spotlight and his "voice". During the death scene, cannons blare out and several Courtiers leave the room, more interested in the new arrival than Hamlet's departure. The cannons are what we might call today "stolen thunder". Fortinbras only enters when Hamlet's soul has left this world.

As Hamlet is carried out, we might recognize the shot and pose as the one Branagh used 16 years hence. And as the credits roll, we might also recognize the kind of shadow play funeral Olivier used 32 years before. These three actors have a connection that bears this out. Traditionally, when the premiere Hamlet of his generation sees a newer Hamlet that he considers to have bettered his own, he passes the baton officially (I think there's some gift involved, I can't remember, probably an antique copy of the play). Olivier passed the mantle to Jacobi this way, and Jacobi to Branagh (according to the documentary Discovering Hamlet).

Saturday, January 17, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Olivier '48

The duel Olivier offers us is framed in two traditions. The first is stagecraft, as these are extremely well choreographed set pieces of stage fighting, done in camera by the actors, fierce and dangerous-looking exchanges. The second is the Danish tradition of the world of the play, with highly ritualistic posing before the fight begins, the cannons sounding as Claudius beckons them to, and the courtiers repeating the King's lines during the toast. The weapons are, just as the text indicates, both rapier and dagger, and it's not until the camera zooms in on the sword points, one of them unbaited, that we truly leave the framework of what's expected to enter the more dangerous and unpredictable world of the fight. Almost certainly, if the courtiers could see what we see, they wouldn't be standing so close.

It's unfortunate then that Olivier cuts out so much of Laertes' character, reducing Hamlet's opponent to a near non-entity. During Hamlet's just-as-ritualistic apology, the camera doesn't care to look at Laertes' reaction, nor does he have lines with which to respond. He and Osric look sinister as they shuffle the swords, but that is the whole of it. The speech does make his mother happy, but Claudius and Laertes are presumably so invested in their murder plot, they cannot have an honest reaction to it themselves. Fair enough. If we're talking cuts and changes, note the translation of "union" to "jewel", even though we see what Claudius drops into the cup.
Though each exchange is well done, the second fight is mostly played off camera. There is ANOTHER duel, you see, between Gertrude and Claudius, or perhaps inside Gertrude herself, between self-preservation and a mother's love. It's made clear that she figures out the cup is poisoned, her eyes (and the camera) keep going to the cup, and a sadness overwhelms her. A decision is made. She takes the cup herself, exchanging it for a handkerchief so Hamlet can wipe his brow, and drinks deep. When told not to, she smiles a fatalistic smile. The courtiers cluelessly laugh at her small act of disobedience. She has sacrificed herself for him quite consciously (small cuts allow this to happen more believably).

Before the last exchange, Laertes scratches Hamlet, which shocks everyone, and he immediately starts to back away, as if shocked himself. He is caught cheating, and judged by the assembly, and is suddenly afraid of Hamlet's reaction. Playing up the tension, Hamlet's slow dawning realization gives way to a quick disarming maneuver. No more games, no toying with the opponent, the show is over. The disarm means he can look at the tip of the sword and confirm Laertes' cheating, and when Osric calls out that the two duelists are incensed, it's all in their eyes because nothing has happened yet. The line is like a starter's pistol, and they go at it - again, a strong fight.
Laertes is defeated, the Queen dies and Claudius is revealed as the villain. At this point, the guard and Court, a fickle lot, rally behind Hamlet. Claudius has lost all power, a situation that has been growing since Hamlet went into exile, and is surrounded, trapped. Hamlet stabs him fiercely, and in his last moments, he reaches for the crown he lost in the scuffle, as if that badge of office could protect him. He dies, and the assembly is strangely frozen in space. The shock, but also a sort of fixed moment in time, speaking to the power of History, perhaps, or a skip of the clock as "time out of joint" resets to its proper rhythm. Hamlet uses that short time to sit on the throne, and the Court offers him the crown. He'll be king, finally, for all of three minutes.

His last speech is spoken from that throne, Horatio attending him. Like Laertes, the latter's part has also been shredded. This Horatio doesn't try to commit suicide and follow Hamlet. In fact, for a second, it looks like he won't even get to eulogize Hamlet properly. What actually happens is that he first gives Fortinbras' command to put the bodies on a stage, etc. - there is no Fortinbras in the film - and then comes his eulogy, and a kiss. The ever-mobile camera tracks into blackness, then follows the guards bringing Hamlet up to the top of Elsinore, lingering in each room as it does. Cannons fire, we see one or two smoking. The chapel. The Queen's closet. And finally, silhouettes going up the tower, Hamlet's final stage. Ending as it does outside Elsinore, we may understand the Ghost to be finally exorcised, if indeed it was the camera's point of view, as it often seemed.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Branagh '96

The duel is staged, as most things are in Branagh's version, in the great hall of mirrors. A long thin red carpet has been set up where the fencing action must occur. The color of blood, and the color of Hamlet's robe. Claudius usually wears red, but is here in green, as are all his attendants (not the fullest Court, but then, the country is in political upheaval), as a visual contrast. The most striking thing about the opening moments of this scene is that it is intercut with action outside Elsinore as Fortinbras' army sneaks into the palace and captures it. Poor Francisco is at the gate and is killed. Norway's army is coming. This is Branagh's device to justify Fortinbras' sudden and fortuitous arrival at the end of the play, and because it is the most ironic reading of the play (Claudius' diplomatic overtures to Norway failing and his never noticing), I've always accepted is as Shakespeare's intent, though it's not, I realize now, in the text per se.

But the way the editing underscores the invasion under Hamlet's lines of reconciliation with Laertes creates yet another irony - the arrow over his brother's house, and so on - to the point where one might get the feeling Hamlet made a deal with Fortinbras for the keys to the kingdom. Think about it. When we left him in exile, he was last seen in the company of Fortinbras' army. Fortinbras invades (why else send some war-like volleys at the English ambassador if he wasn't on a war footing), but is shocked and saddened by the royal massacre. He already knows his rights to Denmark, as does Hamlet because his final speech predicts his ascension to the throne. Did Hamlet, in fact, make Fortinbras his heir in exchange for liberating Denmark from Claudius the usurper? Is all the talk of inevitability more about Fortinbras' arrival than the English messenger's?

But returning to the duel... In any production, but in film especially, it may be important to make each of the three exchanges look and feel different. In Branagh's case, the participants, getting hot and sweaty, remove more and more protection, going from full fencing armor, then losing the mask, then the breastplate. The danger is heightened each time, while also affording us a look at the actors' faces as things get out of control. The last exchange isn't just protectionless, but gets off the carpet and uses the entire room. But this is also a skirmish of words. Hamlet in public is cocky and always trying to get laughs, no doubt part of why he's also been so popular with the people. Single-minded Laertes finds none of it funny of course, and takes everything as mockery and personal insult. And because it's all too personal for him, he's more reckless and aggressive in the fight, less strategic, and gets hit twice, then indeed, three times, and fatally. Osric, the nominal judge, takes delight in his duty - he really is just a foolish pawn, because the fact Hamlet is winning doesn't diminish his excitement - and continues even once the sword play goes out of bounds, craning his neck to get the results out to the Court.

After the second exchange, the Queen drinks the poison cup, grabbing it from Claudius who tries to tell her not to drink it, but can't reveal his treachery. She can't intuit his deceit because she offers a drink to Hamlet. She'll go back to her seat unaware, if a bit woozy. Laertes and Claudius are shocked, almost to the point of abandoning their scheme. They now share in the doubt Hamlet's been broadcasting for most of the play. By now, the army is inside the Elsinore, and the alarm cannot be given. Both outside and inside the hall, there is a sense that all is lost, but the concerned parties just don't know it. From the chaos of the last exchange, more chaos erupts. Laertes falls from the second level, the Queen swoons on the other side. Both know they have been poisoned. As attendants scurry, Osric sees the wind's direction turn, tries to take a secret door out of the hall, and is stabbed by a Norwegian soldier. His last line, spoken only a short while later, uses Robin Williams' talent for pathos, as the ridiculous man shows the "war-like volley" as blood on his hand, he too a victim of the tragedy, if not one killed by Shakespeare's own pen.
The climax's swashbuckling action is a little over the top. Hamlet throws the poisoned foil at the King and pins him to his throne, drops down from a rope while a massive chandelier swings down and smashes into Claudius. Hamlet then force-feeds him the last of the poison wine. It is important to the Prince that Claudius be killed by both his treacheries, and poison was always going to be the best poetic justice for him. It's how he killed Hamlet's father.

The usual staging for Hamlet's own death is to have Horatio holding him in his arms. Branagh's staging is a departure from that tradition. Hamlet dies alone on the floor, while Horatio stands shocked at a short distance. He can't help his friend now, and he can't share his fate. Hamlet won't let him. Because Hamlet's death, while something he expected and embraces, cannot mean the voiding of his existence. One of the things that made him delay his revenge was that he relished in his own intellect too much to risk it. So he must die, but someone must relate his story, and Horatio has been groomed to be that person. All is almost lost when he talks to sharing Hamlet's fate, and he must be shocked into dropping the cup. Hamlet will survive as a story, and in that final moment when he speaks his last through a strangled, cramped voice, it's Horatio who is the touching one, no small thanks to Nicholas Farrell's sympathetic performance.

Suddenly, Norway's soldiers crash through the glass on the second level and have the room surrounded. A cold, disaffected Fortinbras walks in, a strange performance from Rufus Sewell, rather ambiguous and unemotional. We saw him like this before, hugging his uncle Norway in a flash-sideways, where we just knew he wouldn't let Denmark go, no matter what he said. So are his words here simply platitudes, things he is expected to say in such circumstances? The English Ambassador, a cameo by Richard Attenborrough, may seem like a bit of over-casting, but the great actor lends the role weight and pathos. He seems genuinely sad that the King isn't alive to hear his macabre news. As Fortinbras takes the throne, England skulks away, lest he become the tragedy's next victim.
In the end, who rules in Denmark isn't really important. The "natural" order has already been upended (as perhaps heralded by the rise of the peasantry behind Laertes), and the last "unnatural act" of the play, as Horatio would put it, is Horatio himself taking center stage, essentially telling the new King what to do. And Fortinbras lets him command such attention. Horatio, the reluctant star, is pushed on stage by the promise he made to his friend, and that friend is carried out in a Messianic, crossed position, evoking his ascension to literary immortality.

In the film's final moments, Hamlet is given a state funeral - there was talk of also burying Gertrude and Claudius here, but the actors weren't available for it, so we get a celebrated Hamlet whose version of the story reigns victorious over the calumniated King and Queen instead - exposed and holding a sword, the action hero he never truly was. The statue of old Hamlet is taken down, shades of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, to be replaced either by Fortinbras, or by Hamlet himself, Denmark's new fallen hero. The ghost is symbolically destroyed without having to reappear to look on his works.

The credits roll under Placido Domingo singing from the Book of Proverbs, lines about the righteous man lying in peace, funereal but hopeful. This Hamlet will not walk the earth as a disturbed spirit.