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.

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