Hamlet tantalizes us with questions that cannot be answered. To what extent is the prince suffering a mental breakdown? How does he feel about his mother, his father, his erstwhile sweetheart? What is the play really about, and how do key lines and scenes support the various interpretations?
For me an “impossible dream” is viewing the definitive Hamlet, the performance that an-swers all such questions and embodies the Platonic form of Shakespeare’s intent. But I doubt we can have such a Hamlet Ne Plus Ultra. The man of action is not the melancholy Dane; the misogynist cannot love Ophelia more than “forty thousand brothers” (V.1.272).
Still, there may be Hamlet prototypes, versions that qualify as models of their kind: Proto-Hamlets. Following is a précis of some candidates that I would recommend. My views have been garnered through more than three decades of studying the play and discussing it with students, all of us mulling over directorial visions and theoretical interpretations, analyzing which facet of the Prince is depicted in key behaviors and soliloquies and how his attitude differs toward the women in his life.
Lawrence Olivier (1948 film), Portrait of the Prince as Melancholy Dane, Case Study of Depression: Like the 1990 and 2000 versions, Olivier’s begins not with the haunted battlements of Elsinore but with a hint of the directorial vision: in this case, the definition of the tragic flaw, originally located in Act I, Scene 4: “So, oft it chances in particular men…” The voice-over narration then clearly denominates the flaw to be considered in this instance: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Hence we are told in the beginning that this version depicts Coleridge’s man of reflection, with “that aversion to action, which prevails among such as have a world in themselves” (150); or Goethe’s “lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero” (67). This melancholy Dane, paralyzed by depression, appears isolated and alone, seated so often in a chair that it comes to define him in his absence. During the first soliloquy he slumps in it, wrapped in his inky cloak and a malaise so black that he cannot voice the words to express his despair. The words of the first soliloquy echo in his head as voice-over narration, with only a phrase spoken aloud: “Within a month!” “To be or not to be” is voiced as an internal monologue over a wave-tossed cliff: sug- gestive of turmoil, suitable for suicide. From time to time this Prince of Despair emerges from his deep-sunk gloom to indulge an Oedipal frenzy of kisses on his mother’s mouth, a passion so hungry that at in Act 1, Scene 2 an exasperated Claudius pulls her off, crying, “Madam, come!”
The setting and camera work reinforce the impression of a mind obsessive and despair- ing. The castle, shot in black and white, is “a place of interminable corridors, coiled staircases, caverns measureless to man” (Trewin 72). The editing heightens this effect “by grouping scenes that are separated in Shakespeare, scenes that unwind a single narrative thread” (Kliman 32), to mimic the flow of a tormented unconscious. After the “too, too solid flesh” soliloquy, the camera meanders from the prince, slumped in his chair, through the corridor of the castle and to Ophelia, isolated in her separate world:
“Ophelia remains immediately outside, looking down the long hall towards the darkened area where Hamlet sits. Hamlet raises his head, looks to his right, and sees her. She looks yearningly towards him, but when her father sharply calls her, she enters the apartment. Hamlet’s arms, which had been slightly lifted, fall.” (Kliman 33)
This Hamlet epitomizes Timothy Bright’s melancholy humor (Campbell 109-47, O’Sullivan 667-79)—or, in clinical terms, depicts the clinical symptoms of unipolar syndrome: suicidal ideation, paralyzed inaction, obsessive rumination on dark realities. The canopy “fretted with golden fire” has become a “pestilent congregation of vapors” (II.2.302, 304; Mack “The Readi- ness is All”). When at last this prince rouses himself to do the deed commanded by the ghost, we see him summon up a final spurt of energy before he descends to that “country from whose bourne/ No traveler returns” (III.1.80-81).
Mel Gibson (1990 film), Portrait of a Dysfunctional Family: Zeffirelli’s 1990 version makes no secret of its intent to define the dysfunctional family. In an HBO special, The Making of Hamlet, Mel Gibson says this is “a play about a guy’s relationship with his parents.” The royal bed of Denmark is “a couch for luxury and damned incest” (I.5.84) while the prince with his “too, too sullied flesh” (I.2.29) broods on his stepfather’s fingers “paddling in [his mother’s] neck” with “reechy kisses” (III.4.191, 192). The film opens with a dumb show of distraught queen throwing herself on her first husband’s coffin as her lover Claudius watches; they ex- change a guilty glance and are observed by the brooding figure of the prince, his solemn face shaded by a cowl. In the HBO special Gibson says of the prince’s situation, “He’s lost his best girl,” and director Zeffirelli says, “He’s mad about this creature his mother. He’s jealous of the wind that touches her cheeks.”
What Freud called “the family romance” is intensified by staging and cutting that eliminate the political elements of the play. The scene in which Claudius addresses the court and instructs his stepson to “think of us/As of a father” (II.ii.1107-08) is set not in a public arena but in the hothouse of a small family chamber, occupied only by the three principals in their Oedipal tangle. Afterward Gertrude plants hungry kisses on her son’s lips, and he watches bitterly as she swirls out of the castle to grasp his uncle. In this context the first soliloquy is uttered; with dis- gust rather than with the despair of Olivier, Gibson exclaims of her behavior with her first hus- band that “she would hang on him/As if increase of appetite had grown/By what it fed on!” (I.ii.143-45) As in Olivier’s version, Fortinbras is cut from the play. The final scene shows Hamlet’s dead body spreadeagled on the palace floor, with no suggestion that here dies a tragic hero, no instruction that his body be borne as befits a prince.
Like Olivier’s this is a psychoanalytic view of Hamlet, the one described by Ernest Jones as “’the eternal triangle’ with which every child is faced” (155). Gertrude has no romantic rival in Ophelia. No moments of tenderness exist between her and the prince. Before the nunnery scene Gibson’s Hamlet, following John Dover Wilson’s recommendation (106) and Olivier’s practice (Kliman 33), has observed Polonius and Claudius setting up Ophelia as a decoy, so throughout the scene the embittered prince directs angry gibes at her.
This version differs from Olivier’s in that we have not a melancholy but a “mutifacteted Dane”: not a madman but “an extremely physical, quicksilver Hamlet,” “a moody and gloomily introspective young man who’s gleefully entertained by his own cleverness as he plots to embar- rass the king,” “a grief-stricken son,” “a prankish schoolboy,” and “a grim avenging angel” (Leydon E6): “virile, dynamic, violent, wild” (Hapgood 88). Not for this version the unbal- anced humor of melancholy, the clinical diagnosis of unipolar syndrome! This Hamlet, unlike Olivier’s, has variable moods, plays for humor when he jumps on a table and whistles, kicks aside scrolls, squats, and tells Claudius that Polonius is “at supper” but “will stay till you come” (IV.3.17, 40). As Clown Prince he mugs, skips, and winks at his mom during the early part of the final swordplay. This comic farce may be inspired by Zeffirelli, who also gives us horseplay in the duel between Romeo and Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet, 1968) and madcap tumbling in the courtship of Kate and Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew, 1966). On the other hand, the slap- stick may be Gibson’s. In the HBO special his mother says, “We had ten, but he was the one that made us laugh.”
Zeffirelli, who calls himself ‘’a popularizer,’” wanted to make a movie “’to be enjoyed by ordinary people’” (qtd. in Hapgood 80, 81). His Hamlet is short, clocking in at 135 minutes (Brode 138); and, in fact, commentators note that this version is more accessible than Olivier’s (Rosenthal 24, Hapgood 84-85). However, the “controversial cuts” create a heavily edited inter- pretation (Brode 138). “The paradox is that while carefully constructing a movie that beautifully plays to a modern audience, Zeffirelli allowed something of Shakespeare’s eternal wisdom to slip away” (Brode 140). The focus on the dysfunctional family—like Olivier’s focus on depres- sion—is the best of its type but does not epitomize the whole play. It is a prototype, not the Hamlet Ne Plus Ultra.
Kenneth Branagh (1996 film), Portrait of “a Ruined Kingdom”: “This then is Shake-speare’s story of a ruined kingdom,” says Maynard Mack, summing up the play in his 1959 Encyclopedia Britannica film (Lesson 3). And this then is the Branagh’s interpretation of the film. The political interpretation is uppermost. Filmed in Blenheim Palace, awarded to the first Duke of Marlborough after his apotheosis as Augustan war hero, the 1996 Hamlet features a cast in gold-braided red uniforms evocative of nineteenth-century imperialism: “Denmark as a militaris- tic state” (Burnett 90). As the new king Claudius makes a pompous triumphal entry, he leads his queen into a throng of cheering spectators. In contrast to the Gibson-Zeffirelli version, which staged Act I, Scene 2 in a private chamber, this rendition is set in a hall full of courtier-toadies who cheer the new king’s oration. In contrast to the Olivier version, which depicts the depressed prince huddled apart in his chair, this political version features a histrionic gesture: Claudius takes Gertrude’s hand (“let the world take note,” I.2.108) and draws Hamlet to his side to show the courtiers his heir. In the brilliant white chamber confetti drifts like snowflakes, a setting evocative of the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago “with its sumptuous appearance and sprawling snows” (Burnett 90): a major contrast to both the murky film noir of the Olivier Elsinore and the medieval gloom of the Gibson-Zeffirelli battlements,
Fortinbras, cut from the earlier two versions, operates here as a foil, a political rival whose destinies rise to eclipse Hamlet’s. Mark Thornton Burnett notes the “parallel montage whereby the scene cuts between unfolding wrangles at Elsinore and the relentless advance of Fortinbras’s [sic] army” (91); Douglas Brode goes so far as to say that this “crosscutting” “sug- gests predetermination”: “ Branagh makes clear that his Fortinbras is fated to arrive at Elsinore” (145). Each time the rival prince is mentioned in the expository speeches of other characters, we see a handsome, vigorous, and martial Rufus Sewell marching at the head of his troops, tearing maps, kneeling at his uncle’s feet. Fortinbras becomes an important physical presence long be- fore he appears leading the force to the little plot of land that he claims for honor’s sake. And this scene Branagh makes climactic: he “cranks up the soundtrack” for a “big finish” before the intermission (LaSalle “Good Shake”), the armies of Fortinbras flowing across the valley as the prince orates passionately that “from this time forth/ My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (IV.4.66-67). As the music swells, we watch a vow with the determination of Scarlett’s in the turnip patch as she makes God her witness that she will never to be hungry again. “This is the play’s turning point as well as a pivot for Hamlet’s transformation” (Brode 144). In con- trast, Zeffirelli’s “family romance” makes the turning point the closet scene. Glenn Close in The Making of Hamlet says the intent was to make this “very physical” encounter between mother and son “the emotional core of the play”: “Everything changes from then on.” In this interpretation Zeffirelli agrees with A.C. Bradley, who outlines the construction of Shakespeare’s trage- dies as a struggle between hero and antagonist (Lecture II, 47-58) and notes that in the closet scene the hero’s fortunes begin their decline (51).
Fortinbras’ importance continues in the final scene, when the duel is periodically interrupted by the invading troops from Norway as they charge the castle and crash through windows. The invading hero is given a key role: to pronounce upon the bloody sight before him, seat him- self on the throne, be crowned, and utter in imperial tones, “Take up the body.” Branagh is carried out in a crucifix pose, a martyr to the survival of the state, symbol of the death of the old or- der, of the poison that must be purged before a new and healthy regime takes over and sweeps away the remnants of the old. [The focus on Branagh as tragic hero may account for why the singular has been substituted for “bodies” in the text, V.2.403]. This interpretation is reinforced as the new king’s troops pull down the statue of the old King Hamlet outside the palace. The ghost has been avenged; the old order, poisoned by Claudius, is past; a new order reigns.
This version provides the complete text in a “242-minute running time (the second- longest English-language film ever, about a minute less than Cleopatra). . . . intentionally big, influenced by Cecil B. Demille and his Ten Commandments” (Brode 140-41). It also embodies a “rejection of the oedipal complex” (Brode 141). Lehmann and Starks identify how the psy-choanalytic interpretation permeates other versions but is negated in Branagh’s:
In Olivier’s film . . . narrow corridors, swirling staircases, and confining quarters signify the interior of the mother, or “the womb, enclosing space inside the mother’s body, that provides an instant source of connotation and a ‘poetics of space’ quite usual in culture.” Zeffirelli’s Hamlet also articulates the play’s preoccupation with the maternal in its equally cave-like, undulating interiors and its claustrophobic staging of surveillance among its characters—the ever-triangulating gazes between Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude neatly articulating an Oedipally-charged “poetics of space.” By contrast, Bran- agh’s mise en scene implies a total disavowal of the maternal body, for the film’s vast in- teriors and its luminous exteriors actively shun the horror of the womb. (4)
In Branagh’s prototype, the premier relationship is between Hamlet and Ophelia, whom he said he wished to “start out ‘fiery, spunky and full of life’” (qtd. in LaSalle “Reigning Prince”) and whom Davison calls “perhaps the most fully developed representation of Ophelia to be brought to any film” (2). Flashbacks to their passionate lovemaking establish that “When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul/ Lends the tongue vows” (I.3.117-18) and suggest that Ophelia has reason to cry, in her mad song, “Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed’” (IV.5.63-64). The nunnery scene (III.1) begins with a tender interchange between the two; he hugs her to his bosom, citing his current state as “well, well, well” while he plants kisses on her and doesn’t realize he is being observed till he says, “Where’s your father?” At that point tenderness becomes hurt and at last rage.
This scene is problematic; Sir John Gielgud once confessed, “I’ve never understood how [it] should be played” (The Great Hamlets Part 2). Carol Carlisle catalogs six possible explanations for Hamlet’s mistreatment of Ophelia in this scene:
mental anguish over the necessity of breaking with Ophelia, (2) real madness, (3) anger aroused by Ophelia’s duplicity, (4) identity of Ophelia with Gertrude, (5) reaction to Ophelia’s earlier refusal to see Hamlet, (6) the expression of Hamlet’s histrionic nature. (132)
The Branagh version begins with bewildered despair over the rejection (“No, not I, I never gave you aught”), moves to a sudden awareness of her “duplicity” (“Where’s your father?”), then at last to rage (“I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry”) and heartsick disgust (“wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them”). Ophelia has become Gertrude; and, through generalization, all women have proven false.
Davison remarks that by viewing the 1990 and 1996 performances together, we note “the subtle differences between each actor’s expression of the same character,” including “some of the most controversial issues in interpreting this play: Hamlet’s possible madness, his seemingly Oedipal relationship with his mother, and Ophelia’s suicidal demise” (1):
Mel Gibson portrays a brooding, sullen-browed young Hamlet—moody, miserable yet clever and cunning, and always lurking in the dark corners of this ever-somber castle. By contrast, Brannagh [sic] commands the screen with a Hamlet more brash and emboldened than Gibson’s, a determined young man whose bright and opulent surroundings reflect a very intellectual, socially and politically astute strategist. (1)
Ethan Hawke (2000 film): Portrait of Alienated Postmodern Youth: This rendition, like Olivier’s and Zeffirelli’s, opens with a statement of focus: a voice-over narration of the prince quoting the speech that he later is to make to his school friends (II.2): “I have . . . lost my mirth.” The “majestical roof fretted with golden fire” has become the “pestilent congregation of vapors” (II.2.302, 304). With this proclamation there unfolds an update of the melancholy Dane, transferred to the modern zeitgeist as a portrait of Gen-Xer. We view Hamlet brooding over a skull at a cluttered desk; Hamlet slumped, a wool cap pulled over his head as he saunters apart from his mother and stepfather. This Hamlet seems young, not a thirtysomething philosopher but a college kid on semester break to visit a dysfunctional family. After a screening at the San Francisco Film Festival, director Michael Almereyda observed that this prototype stands alone as “an adaptation’” of Hamlet as “’ a truly young man’” (qtd. in Guthmann “Tough Acts” 1). Sir John Gielgud, who played the role in six productions between 1930 and 1946, might have en- dorsed the spirit of this interpretation. He once said the play is about “the problem of youth and solving sexual difficulties” (The Great Hamlets Part 1).
Even more than Olivier’s, Hawke’s prince is isolated. His only relationship is with his video monitor, into which he stares moodily. Gertrude is absorbed with her handsome new hus- band. Ophelia is a dispirited cipher. Horatio is given a girlfriend, an innovation that increases the prince’s isolation and negates the homoerotic undertones that Lehmann and Starks have noted as possible in the play (6).
In this version the most startling angle is the postmodern setting. Such anachronisms can be unsettling: machine guns in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), bicycles in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999), Nazi uniforms in Richard III (1996), black leather jackets in Romeo and Juliet (Stratford-on-Avon 1980). My mother, a traditionalist appalled at the 1980 Stratford travesty, refuses to watch the Almereyda-Hawke Hamlet. Having read that the prince declaims “to be or not to be” in Blockbuster Video, she sardonically restates his existential dilemma as “to buy or not to buy.”
However, Bruce Reid has a point: “Forget that the immortal rumination on suicide is placed in a Blockbuster aisle and notice instead how Ethan Hawke’s own youthful, callow arrogance makes Hamlet’s vacillations believable” (2). Hawke offers a convincing portrayal of what is probably an actor’s most challenging role, and the updates are quite ingenious: Polonius fitting Ophelia with a wire before the nunnery scene, Hamlet watching old videos of his father, the ghost appearing on security cameras. No doubt our pleasure involves what Fran Teague, writing about Kiss Me, Kate (1948), calls a joke mingling “high” and “low culture”: “we get [the] jokes because we too are low and high” (222). The pleasure is typically postmodern in its conflation of pop culture and canon; the virtue of the prototype is its seductiveness to Gen X,Y, and Z. The Baz Luhrman Romeo+ Juliet (1996) is much beloved by most of my students, though they will admit that the lines are delivered ineptly by the principals. (For an interesting mixture of opin- ions on Hawke’s Hamlet, see the DVD reviews posted on Amazon.com.)
Kenneth Branagh summarizes the delights and perils of such anachronistic settings: “’You work to find a period that releases as much of the mystery of the play as possible,” but the danger is that “’you do certain bits absolutely astonishingly, and other bits get lost’” (qtd. in LaSalle “Reigning Prince” 41). Ethan Hawke portrays a brooding college kid to whom my students can relate, but what Tillyard called The Elizabethan World Picture is sacrificed for a portrayal of “Denmark, Inc.”
Et al: I have experienced other Hamlets, but they are less popular, recent, or accessible. Among them, or among others I have not witnessed (Sarah Bernhardt, 1900; John Barrymore, 1922; Sir John Gielgud, 1930; etc., etc.) might there be a candidate for the Hamlet Ne Plus Ul- tra? Might Richard Burton’s 1964 stage performance, just recently available on video and DVD, qualify? It is a riveting spectacle of a golden-throated declamatory genius hitting all the notes and stops of Hamlet’s character, playing upon him as on a pipe, uttering lines and soliloquies in a way entirely fresh to me; but the performance will never be the ultimate. It remains an artificial curiosity, done on stools and out of costume.
I recall seeing on TV, in the mid-1970’s, Christopher Plummer in a Hamlet so exquisitely balanced and nuanced that I told everyone at the time, “This is the best Hamlet ever made! This is the final version, the ultimate; no other Hamlet need ever be done!” Alas, this was the pre-video age. Search as I may, I can find no record of this performance. Would I still agree that this version is the ultimate? Would eighteenth-century diarist Fanny Burney, if she could see Branagh or Olivier, still agree that Garrick was the best? We can never know.
I also remember the worst Hamlet I have ever seen. The director’s vision is described in a local newspaper (Guthmann “Meant to Be”): a play in which all the action takes place in Ham- let’s heart, represented “as a suspended metal box, 12 feet wide and 20 feet deep.’” Hence the prince acts in a box “’suspended between heaven and earth” while the other characters stand out- side and to the back (B12). The execution of this revolutionary idea I found disappointing. Too often the prince stood apart and orated while other characters posed or acted woodenly in the background.
The problem with Hamlet is that as soon as we settle on one interpretation, we must es- chew the others. Richard Burton, who played Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1953 and on Broadway in 1964 for a total of over 300 times, said that the part has “all different moods”: “I believe you can play Hamlet as almost everything. You can play him drunk. You can play him puritanically. You can play him as a homosexual. You can play him as a man suffering from the Oedipus complex” (The Great Hamlets Part 1). He also confided, “To the bitter end I kept finding mean- ings, and even now I would wake up . . . and suddenly think of a line from Hamlet and think, ‘Oh, my God, it could mean that’” (The Great Hamlets Part 2). Olivier, speaking of “the immensity of the variations and the variety that you can bring into the character,” once said that “You could perhaps kid yourself that you could do an entirely different Hamlet than had ever been done before” (The Great Hamlets Part 1).
Hamlet is like Walt Whitman’s boast of himself; it contains multitudes. I cannot help but wonder why. Is there a missing key, bastardized in texts taken down in performance, omitted from the Folio? Is the play as we have it a pastiche of too many versions or revisions never meant to be performed together? (Winn D2) Or is the play so large because it was written, as suggested archly in Amy Freed’s play The Beard of Avon, not by one person but by committee? Autobiographically the play parallels incidents in the life of the Earl of Oxford (Mitchell 169-70, 189). Poetically the work ranges beyond what we would expect from any one pen, especially that of a sixteenth-century rustic (Mitchell 17-38).
Perhaps Maynard Mack is right in his assertion that
the mysteriousness of Hamlet’s world . . . is not simply a matter of missing motivations to be expunged if only we could find the perfect clue. It is built in. It is evidently an important part of what the play wishes to say to us. (“World” 506)
Whatever the answer, my search for the Hamlet Ne Plus Ultra seems doomed to continue. But I’m happy to have company—not only the many perceptive critics who have written about the play, from Coleridge and Bradley on up, but my students, who every semester help me to “go where no man has gone before” in what is, like the Man of La Mancha’s, a “glorious quest.”
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