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).

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