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A brilliant new
Hamlet celebrates the awesome joy of Shakespeare's poetry, and its moral
In 1989, Derek Jacobi directed then 27-year old Kenneth Branagh in a miraculous
Hamlet. Staged on the grounds of what is said to be the actual Elsinore
Castle in Denmark, the bare-stage outdoor production seemed to solve many
of the text's unsolved mysteries. One part of the solution was Branagh's vibrant
youthfulness combined with his already-estimable talent as a Shakespearean
actor. Another was the eerie appearance of the Ghost on the battlements of
the Castle to begin the play. For more than a century, critics and great Shakespearean
actors have generally assumed that a psychopathological interpretation of
Hamlet was necessary to explain his supposedly mysterious delay in exacting
revenge. A vocal minority has disagreed, arguing that the delay is "the
greatest red herring in the history of literature." The Jacobi-Branagh
production confirmed that view. With a passionate young Hamlet, uncertain
whether he has seen his father's honest ghost or an apparition sent by the
devil to trick him into damnation, the delay is no longer mysterious. (Although
the play was much abridged, Jacobi's direction also underscored the importance
of Claudius's role as a usurping fratricidal king who poses a mortal threat
to young Hamlet, who must feign madness to avert suspicion.)
Stanley Cavell, in his brilliant interpretation of King Lear, acknowledged
the importance of a particular production and even the performance of a
single actor for one's understanding of a Shakespeare play. The Jacobi-Branagh
production was just such a revelation; it lifted 200 years of sturm und
drang from Hamlet's shoulders. Gone were the overwrought Oedipal wrestling
matches that an aging Lawrence Olivier staged with his queen-mother Gertrude,
and that Zefferelli echoed in his recent Hamlet film where he imagined
Gertrude (Glenn Close) to be a teenaged bride more in love with her only
child Hamlet (Mel Gibson) than with his old father, the warrior King. Zefferelli's
fast-moving film left out most of Hamlet's lines but made sure no one would
miss the sexual tension between Prince and concupiscent Queen. These inward-looking
Oedipal versions of Hamlet scanted the Machiavellian Claudius and
the ghost of Hamlet's father; as their lines and dramatic significance diminish,
the practical, moral, and religious reasons for Hamlet's caution in revenge
lose their significance as well. The psychiatric case study versions of
the play eliminate altogether the first scenes where Horatio and the soldiers
of the guard see the Ghost of Hamlet's father. The Ghost becomes Hamlet's
hallucination and the soulless play begins with a Prince already mad and
ends with a senseless slaughter. This is tragedy, but is it Shakespeare?
Long before psychoanalysts put Hamlet on the couch, literary critics had
been offering characterological or psychopathological explanations for what
was assumed to be the otherwise inexplicable delay in Hamlet's revenge-taking.
Goethe's theory was that "Shakespeare meant to present a great deed
laid upon a soul that is not capable of it," and Schlegel understood
Hamlet as "the victim of an excess of the reflective faculty which
unfits him for action." Early in the 19th century the interpretive
solutions to this mystery centered around the "melancholy" nature
of the Dane. Hamlet himself worries that the Devil has taken advantage "of
my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses
me (the ghostly apparition) to damn me." Read in historical and dramatic
context, "melancholy" means "of choleric humour"--sullen,
irascible, and sad. Later, "melancholy" came to mean pathological
depression and that understanding gave a funereal dimension to the entire
play. That depressed version resurfaced at Harvard's American Repertory
Theatre a few years ago when a long-suffering Hamlet skulked around the
stage in his pajamas in a production that avowedly owed as much to melancholy
as to Shakespeare's play. Last year, Boston University's Huntington Theatre
played the other side of the bipolar coin. More than sullen, irascible,
and sad, a manic Hamlet raced through his lines (sometimes hanging upside
down) in an agitated demonstration of push of speech.
Margaret Webster, the foremost producer-director of Shakespeare of the
1930s and 40s, had the best diagnosis of these ailing Hamlets. Critics for
two centuries had made Prince Hamlet "a distinct entity," she
wrote, "having a life of his own, related only distantly to the dramatic
purpose he serves in the dramatic world which he inhabits. Cut versions,
all soliloquies and no plot, added to the murk of the conflict."
George Bernard Shaw, in his role as theater critic, chastised John Barrymore
for just such a cut and murky version, but audiences flocked to Barrymore's
tour de force as they would in later years to the tours de force
of Olivier, Burton, Fiennes, et al. A Hamlet on Broadway or London's
West End became something like a sporting event; audiences went to see each
great new actor test his mettle against the ultimate challenge of Hamlet's
soliloquies. Margaret Webster had produced an uncut version of Hamlet
on Broadway in 1938 with Maurice Evans as the Prince. It was a revelation
to American critics and even a popular theatrical success. She proved to
the critics that there was much more to Hamlet than the Prince. The
characters in the play are like planets in a solar system in which the orbit
of each can only be understood in relation to the others. But four-hour-plus
productions have been few and far between for Shakespeare devotees. (The
traditional full-length text of Hamlet as found in the Folger Library
Edition combines the First Folio and passages from the Second Quarto, most
importantly Hamlet's "How all occasions" soliloquy where he compares
himself to Fortinbras).
There are fortunately several sound recordings of full-length Hamlets,
with voices doing all the acting. On audiotape, Richard Burton's Hamlet
(almost full-length) has no equal. His voice has the range of an orchestra,
his intelligence makes every word count, and his choices of intonation and
feeling reveal a surprising ingenuity and subtlety that his brute physical
presence obscured. If Hamlet is an acting contest, the mature Burton
takes the gold medal, but the play sinks under the weight of his overwhelming
performance. Branagh taped a full-length Hamlet for BBC Radio in
1992. Although his own performance (voice alone) does not compare to Burton's,
the purity and clarity of the play as performed outdoors in Denmark can
still be recognized. The BBC experience convinced Branagh of the virtues
of the full-length text. And the commercial and artistic success of his
film production of Henry V gave him reason to hope that he would
find a studio willing to finance a full-length production of Hamlet
while he was still young enough to carry it off. In 1995, with commitments
from Castle Rock Entertainment, Branagh launched his project.
Branagh's splendid film is nothing less than a monument to the highest
art of the Western canon. It is surely the most ambitious Hamlet
on film and it may well be the grandest cinematic rendering of any Shakespeare
play. Branagh may not do the soliloquies better than his predecessors but
his film quite overshadows his rivals. The Academy Awards nomination of
Branagh for best screenplay of a previously published work was greeted with
scoffing and ridicule by the media. But anyone who takes the time to read
the published screenplay will realize that it is a prodigious accomplishment.
Yes, Branagh has left in every word of Shakespeare's poetry. He has not
changed a line. Precisely for this reason, he has achieved something truly
extraordinary: he has interpreted in detailed stage directions every scene
in a way that invites our understanding. Branagh has given one of our greatest
texts a context, and it is not about psychopathology. He has rediscovered
the moral adventure of Shakespeare's Prince.
Serious students of Hamlet know that even the full-length play is
somewhat "murky" and presents conceptual problems for any director.
T. S. Eliot complained that Shakespeare "has left in superfluous and
inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed."
Shakespeare probably never did revise any of the versions of the play that
now exist. But Eliot's criticisms went much deeper. His notorious aesthetic
conclusion was that "so far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the
play is most certainly an artistic failure." Eliot found Hamlet's emotions
bewildering, lacking an "objective correlative." The inconsistent
scenes add to the careful reader's confusion: Horatio is both stranger to
and expert on Denmark; Hamlet is a young student back from Wittenburg and
a 30-year-old man; Polonius is a shrewd courtier and a senile old fool;
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are amiable fellows and deserve to be executed.
The passage of time might account for some of these contradictions, but
Shakespeare is notoriously disdainful of calendar time and seems much more
interested in tempo of mood and sequence. In any event, no hypothetical
timeline resolves the many inconsistencies that compulsive scholars have
catalogued in Hamlet.
Contemporary Shakespeareans are of several minds about this. Academics
generally put some of it down to the fact that there is no authentic text,
only composites. Theater people, including Kenneth Branagh, think most of
the inconsistencies disappear in the performance--the play after all is
a drama to be enacted not a dissertation to be studied by "closet critics."
Everyone agrees that we have no original stage directions for Shakespeare's
plays and that this is the source of particular puzzlement in Hamlet.
Consider the middle of Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" speech,
in which he suddenly asks Ophelia "where's your father" and speaks
so cruelly to her: If a stage direction indicated that Hamlet has become
aware that Polonius and Claudius are spying on him and that Ophelia is in
on it, we would understand his change in tone. Many directors have adopted
this convention, as does Branagh:
A tiny noise. She glances across the room. And then it dawns. . . . It's
a trap. She has been unable to be purely honest. . . . Hamlet (continuing
his lines) "Where's your father?" The most agonizing decision
of her young life. Ophelia "at home, my Lord. . . ." And with
that phrase their love is dead.
Hamlet's shift in emotions--as he is forced to recognize that, just as
he feared, he cannot trust the woman he loves--follows not from the lines
but from the stage directions. If a scholar studies the standard editions
of the play, as perhaps T. S. Eliot did, he will find no explanation of
these lines other than the madness of Hamlet's confused and confusing emotions.
But a director, and particularly a film director, cannot simply worship
Shakespeare's poetry. He has to engage the text and make it tell a story.
He and his company must create and orchestrate all the dramatic action,
body language, facial expressions, and kinesics. In a film version of a
Shakespeare play, choices must be made about setting, costumes, and atmospherics;
the camera liberates and tyrannizes the director as he tries to "suit
the action to the word, the word to the action with this special observance:
that [he] o'erstep not the modesty of nature." A director who reimagines
the play may, then, find opportunities to resolve many of the inconsistencies
that confound scholars--even if the Prince is never confined in an "objective
Branagh acknowledges that his own directorial choices were often more intuitive
than intellectual. The description of how he and his company went about
this enterprise is briefly recounted in the published screenplay/diary.
Although we do not think of great art as being produced by compromise, Branagh
obviously followed that strategy. He wants to break out of the self-referential
English mold of Shakespeare productions while preserving Shakespeare's language,
to give his play emotional relevance to the largest possible modern audience
without sacrificing its heightened sense of poetry. He wants his royals
to be royal and believably human. To achieve these compromises he has put
together an international cast, chosen a 19th-century historical setting,
and created a visual hypertext for Hamlet.
The international cast includes lots of famous Hollywood stars with unmistakable
American accents. Perhaps surprisingly, it works. Though a 70-year-old Jack
Lemmon is oddly cast as Marcellus, the soldier of the watch who reports
that something is "rotten in the state of Denmark," his aging
vulnerable face and damp eyes carry him through. Billy Crystal is winning
as the riddle-telling grave digger, notwithstanding his obvious New York
accent. Charlton Heston is majestically cast as the Player King and Robin
Williams is superb as the "waterfly" Osric. These cameo appearances
do create distracted whispering in the audience. But the actors all carry
it off without embarrassing themselves, and Branagh's intuition that these
celebrity faces would energize a contemporary production seems justified.
Not enough can be said for Julie Christie's performance as Gertrude. Her
face, thirty years after Doctor Zhivago, is still this side of a ruined
beauty; her Gertrude conveys the sexual magnetism that is the linchpin of
Shakespeare's play. One can believe that a man besotted by such a woman
would kill his brother. Gertrude has the "willow" speech about
Ophelia's drowning which Gielgud thought could only be declaimed, not acted.
Gielgud considered the "whole situation absurd": on one hand,
the queen's description makes it sound like she or someone else was there
and watched it all happen and made no effort to help Ophelia; on the other,
Gertrude has the stumbling block of what seems to be a quite inappropriate
sexual innuendo in her tale of woe involving "long purples, that liberal
Shepherds give a grosser name." To play this scene, Gielgud thought,
"a bit of the old grand manner is required." But "the old
grand manner" is just what Branagh wanted to avoid, particularly in
a film production aiming for emotional realism. Julie Christie found her
way through these absurdities in a realistic style that defies Gielgud's
Kate Winslet is a marvelous "new" Ophelia and here Branagh's script
direction helped. He made at least two critical decisions that brought flesh
and blood to her skeletal character. By flash-cutting naked bedroom scenes
early in the story he used his visual hypertext to establish that Hamlet and
Ophelia have in fact secretly been making love. Thus when her brother Laertes
and her father Polonius warn her, in Laertes' words, "not to lose your
heart, or your chaste treasure open to his unmastered importunity," the
audience is meant to understand Ophelia's predicament. This consummated love
affair humanizes Ophelia's subsequent interchanges with Hamlet and, with the
aforementioned stage directions, gives the "get thee to a nunnery scene"
a tragic sense and the clear meaning it often lacks. Branagh's second helpful
directorial decision was to involve Ophelia directly in the aftermath of Polonius'
death by intercutting a scene of soldiers carrying his casket: Ophelia, her
face against the iron gate of the chapel, unlooses a primal howl; the brief
visual moment ends with her contorted and screaming face. The logic of her
progression to madness becomes inescapable and the sexual overtones of the
mad scene, made explicit through Ophelia's pelvic thrusts, point unequivocally
to her affair with Hamlet--her lover and the man who killed her father. Winslet
is not an anorexic ice-virgin Ophelia. She is fully human, her character fleshed
out by Branagh's hypertext and brought to life by Winslet's performance.
Unfortunately, and this is one of the failures of the film, most of the
audience seems not to get it. Branagh's hypertext of the naked Hamlet and
Ophelia bewilders those who know the play. Is this Ophelia's and/or Hamlet's
fantasy, or are we seeing something that is actually supposed to have happened?
Branagh's screenplay stage directions make it clear that the audience was
supposed to understand that the couple became lovers during the period after
the death of Hamlet's father.
Those who want to remember a chaste Ophelia with her madness prettified
will object to Branagh's added scenes. But Shakespeare was after all an
Elizabethan and Branagh's flash-cuts are brief and muted. He has resisted
the vulgar excess on display in recent film productions. Nicole Williamson's
has Gertrude and Claudius hold court from their bed, as though briefly interrupting
an orgy. Zefferelli heaped the theme of incest on incest. He has Laertes
and his sister Ophelia exchanging deep full-lipped kisses as he warns her
against Hamlet and she teases him about dallying on the primrose path. Branagh
has moments of theatrical excess, but always intends to bring Shakespeare's
poetry to life. No other film of a Shakespeare play has been so admirably
Although Branagh's intuitive decisions about Ophelia are at the very least
intriguing, he had more trouble with her father. Polonius's character is
a major problem for any director. Polonius advises Laertes: "The friends
thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops
of steel. . . . To thine own self be true," etc. When we first read
these words in high school, we are apt to believe this is paternal wisdom
and, fixing on that understanding, to admire Polonius. Generations of fathers
have quoted these lines to their children. The subsequent scene is ignored
or its significance denied by these readers (it is omitted in most productions):
a scheming and hypocritical Polonius follows up his paternal advice by dispatching
Reynaldo to spy on his son Laertes in France. When Polonius's character
is launched as a wise and decent parent and the loving father of the woman
Hamlet loves, his subsequent ill treatment by Hamlet is difficult to justify.
The standard alternative is to try to convince the audience that Polonius's
wise advice amounts to little more than the venal, self-interested, hypocritical
cant of a garrulous, intermeddling, old fool which the rest of the play
shows Polonius to be. To accomplish this the director must mock Polonius
from the outset and undermine the seeming wisdom of his advice to Laertes.
This approach runs the risk of putting off those in the audience who believe
Polonius' advice to be one of the most sensible statements in this troublingly
ambiguous play. Granville Barker, a great authority on Hamlet, concluded
that Shakespeare must have changed his mind about Polonius' character after
the first scenes where the father's advice to his son and daughter contains
"sound worldly wisdom."
Branagh's directorial solution has it both ways. His Polonius is a good
father and a corrupt courtier. More surprisingly, he is a vigorous middle-aged
man rather than the usual "tedious old fool." The reasons for
this casting decision will only become apparent in subsequent scenes. Branagh
enlisted Gerard Depardieu to take the role of Reynaldo--the man Polonius
sends to spy on Laertes in Paris. Reynaldo has no more than fifteen lines
and most of them are versions of "Ay, my lord." Branagh and his
brain trust went over the top in imagining how Depardieu would play this
nonentity. Branagh made Reynaldo a French pimp, a man who owns a bordello
in Paris. With that Gallic inspiration, Branagh's hypertext adds a prostitute
to the scene between Polonius and Reynaldo. It may well be the lamest moment
in the film--a scene more out of Balzac than Shakespeare. Not only is the
"pimp-whore" idea a bad one, it is never clearly communicated
that Reynaldo is a pimp. Branagh's Polonius comes on like a mafia Don, good
to his family no matter how corrupt he may be. But he is no fool; when baited
by Hamlet he is resentful and condescending not confounded. One can understand
why Claudius would have such a man as his principal advisor and why Hamlet
would be so unfazed about killing him. Again we can see Branagh's effort
to make Polonius a real person rather than a stock character, or mere poetic
vehicle. But this real person is difficult to reconcile with the man whose
epitaph is "This counselor is now most still, most secret, and most
grave, who was in life a foolish prating knave."
The effort to make Derek Jacobi play Claudius as a real person was also
not without problems. One might assume that Jacobi was cast for the role
because he knows something about projecting a sinister and complicated soul.
(Jacobi was the unforgettable "I Claudius" on television and played
Hitler in "Inside the Third Reich.") But Jacobi was asked to blanket
his sinister intensity. The hypertext has him cowering with fear as he kills
his brother, and playing a hang dog lover as he covets his brother's wife
before the murder. This Claudius is almost oblivious to Hamlet's resentment
and its significance until he is inescapably confronted by the play within
the play and the killing of Polonius--"O heavy deed! It had been so
with us had we been there." Jacobi is a great actor and he manages
to carry off the benign Claudius for half the film. But he is not a regal
presence and without his sinister vibrations it is difficult to understand
what Gertrude sees in him or why Hamlet should be wary of him. When Claudius
interrogates Hamlet after the killing of Polonius, Jacobi finally explodes
with rage in a great back-hand slap of the Prince's face. Branagh gave away
a great deal so as to build to that dramatic moment. The sinister Claudius
is at last unmasked and Jacobi is released from his unctuous cocoon. But
Branagh is unwilling to let Claudius dominate Hamlet. The slap is part of
the hypertext and it sets up the famous bizarre farewell that soon follows:
Hamlet: Farewell, dear mother.
Claudius: Thy loving father, Hamlet.
Hamlet responds, "man and wife is one flesh, and so my mother."
And then in a stage direction not found in Branagh's screenplay, he kisses
Claudius full on the lips--his revenge for the slap and for Claudius' "Thy
That kiss, which must have been invented during one of the takes, is quintessentially
Branagh. The line "farewell dear Mother," through obviously derisive
to Claudius, had always sounded a little batty. The kiss suddenly makes
the insult and the lines clear to the audience and unmistakable to Claudius.
This is the first time in any performance that I had an immediate sense
of both the words and Hamlet's intentions. And Branagh does it over and
over: brilliantly finding an emotionally coherent sense of the lines. Branagh
is the master of every word and he has intuitively plumbed its meaning.
If critics are looking for something to quibble with in Branagh's performance,
they will find it in his polished brilliance. Hamlet is never at a loss
for words, but one might expect him at least to pause once or twice before
he utters his next profound thought. Hamlet is above all else an improvisor,
reacting to a situation that threatens his life and his soul. Hamlet doubts
and philosophizes and at the same time improvises as the situation arises.
He is as much Shakespeare himself as the Prince of Denmark.
Branagh is so much the master of his role that he never reaches for a line;
rather than becoming Hamlet his perfect mastery transcends the role. He
is almost operatic. This is most extreme, even intentional in the "How
all occasions do contrive against me" soliloquy: the background music
mounts in volume as the camera rises in the sky to reveal a bellowing Hamlet
in the foreground with thousands of computer generated troops in the valley
behind him signaling the might of Fortinbras. The sense of Branagh's overmastering
spills over into the dramatic narrative. At the crucial moment of the play
within the play, instead of letting his "mousetrap" "catch
the conscience of the King," Hamlet rants and rages onto the stage
dominating the players, the assembled court, and the dumbfounded Claudius.
This is more a star chamber inquisition than a "mousetrap." At
moments like this one is even tempted to ask why so many Hamlets insist
on directing themselves. Branagh has other theatrical excesses; his father's
ghost is a Danish Darth Vader and his duel scene puts Errol Flynn to shame.
But these criticisms are no more than quibbles about this glorious film.
Its most notable achievement is to make something powerfully real and cinematic
out of every scene including the last. All productions of Hamlet
have to struggle with Fortinbras, who first appears anticlimactically at
the end of the play. Often he is left out and the play ends with Horatio's
line "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet Prince, and flights
of angels sing thee to thy rest." The great 18th-century English actor
David Garrick, whose Hamlet was supposedly the greatest stage version,
could not stomach Fortinbras' entrance into the final bloody death scene.
He had good Horatio crowned the new King of Denmark, thus ending the play
on an optimistic note. Branagh would allow no such disrespect of the text.
Fortinbras appears early in the hypertext as Claudius describes the threat
he poses to Denmark. The hypertext has Fortinbras and his great army, having
conquered the "little patch" of Poland, turn their might on Denmark.
While Hamlet and Laertes have out their deadly duel, Fortinbras takes an
undefended Denmark. The political dimension of the play is fully realized
as never before with climactic visual images that only film can create.
It is the end of the royal house of Hamlet and Fortinbras is crowned.
Something beyond movie-making has happened in this film. There in the hypertext
was Gielgud as Priam, Judi Dench as Hecuba, and Richard Attenborough as
the English Ambassador. These actors, together with all the Americans and
Depardieu, were gathered in the spirit of joint enterprise: they came not
just for Branagh but to be part of this monument to the greatest playwright
in the Western canon. This Hamlet above any other is a celebration
of Shakespeare's genius and the awesome joy his poetry still gives. Branagh
is quite right in describing Shakespeare's importance: Shakespeare is "not
a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that." Amen!