English in Drama: Compare Two Major Scenes
Alright, I might as well tell you right now, there’s a bit more work to do this week than last, so you’ll need to budget your time. You should try to watch all requested scenes by Wednesday, January 30th, midnight. This week’s reading on this page is a little more extensive, and I’m asking that you also review some film clips. In short, here’s this week’s agenda:
1.Read the commentary below.
2.Watch the accompanying film clips. You will find the links as always in the Film Links folder to the left of the screen. If you have a problem with any of the downloads, please contact the person noted in the Film Links.
In the following stages of this week’s lesson, you’ll have the opportunity to view and compare major scenes from many different versions of “Hamlet.” The two scenes in particular I’m going to ask you to view are the initial scene where Hamlet is first introduced, and the confrontation scene where Hamlet accosts his mother in the bedroom (where Polonius gets killed). I would entice you to watch the full feature; it will add greatly to your enjoyment of this class and your appreciation of theater in general. However, in order to participate in this week’s coming Discussion Boards, it’s only necessary to see the two scenes noted above in each of the versions.
The director of each film may have the very same text to work with but the results, thanks to the use of lighting, sound, blocking and actor motivation, are markedly different.
Each scene is accompanied by a brief introduction to the technical production at hand, and a full analysis of each scene which you can choose to read before or after your viewing.
I have provided you with video links and commentary to the following versions:
Laurence Olivier, the Classical Hamlet
Mel Gibson, the Swashbuckling Hamlet
Ethan Hawke, the 21st Century Hamlet
Richard Burton, the Decisive Hamlet
Kevin Kline, the Sensitive Hamlet
Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” (1946)
Laurence Olivier provides us with a classic interpretation of Hamlet. He had been performing this role on stage to terrific reviews for many years in his life, and then, bringing the play to film, he took the role of director, producer, and star. It was a daunting task that paid off in spades. The film won Best Picture and Best Actor.
Olivier cut the play down for Hollywood consumption, taking a piece that clocks in regularly at four and a half hours, and bringing it in in just over two. He also re-arranged scenes, attached voice overs, and generally played havoc with Bard purists. However, the most audacious act he committed was to attach a subtitle to the play, namely, “Hamlet, the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
Purists were up in arms. That wasn’t Shakespeare’s subtitle. How dare he put his own agenda onto Shakespeare’s play?
By offering this subtitle, Olivier was calling Hamlet weak willed, and I’d have to agree with the man. I mean, come on. Hamlet’s dad just came back from the dead to tell his son who his murderer was; and then begged the boy to get revenge. Hamlet then goes out and finds himself totally unable to pull the trigger, or plunge the sword as the case may be.
It should be noted that Olivier uses no music in this film other than what would normally be heard in a King’s court. For instance, when the King arrives, the courtiers will blast the trumpets. Olivier trusts his actors to convey the full impact of every scene without much help from music. This is a brave thing to do. It’s always easier when you can work your audience to your side through music. The absence of this accompaniment also makes Olivier’s rendering seem colder and more sterile.
All of this gives this film, and especially the two scenes you’ll be watching, a flavor that is unmatched in any other version.
Olivier’s “Hamlet”: Bedroom Commentary
Hamlet’s emotions have changed drastically since last we saw him. He’s now incredibly angry at his mother. She waits to greet him peaceably enough, but Hamlet seems long past the man of peace. He starts bellowing at her, then throws her onto the bed. However, it’s made abundantly clear to us that he’s no longer tipping toward incest, for, instead of joining her on the bed, he immediately places a swordpoint to her throat.
When she cries out for help, Polonious, who has been hiding behind the curtains, joins her in the call. Hamlet then turns the sword on him, thinking it the King. He performs this action quickly and with authority. For a moment, peace overcomes his features, as he appears relieved that his plight is over, that he has finally carried forth on the promise of revenge he gave to his father.
When he finds that it is instead Polonious who he has killed, he shows no remorse to the camera. Watch closely at how Polonious’s death is first framed, however. What do we see before the camera pans up to Hamlet? What does this imply about Hamlet’s emotions?
Now take a look at how Hamlet’s father is introduced onto the scene. We get no physical embodiment, nor even a shadow. All we have to represent the former King is the sound of his heartbeat. It’s even more interesting how the departure of this King is set to the screen. It is the audience itself that plays the part of Hamlet’s father. We’re forced into the camera’s point of view as we flee our son, who pleads with us for further assistance. But neither the father nor the audience is willing to help Hamlet out whatsoever.
In this version, Hamlet is on his own, and it is the viewer who has left him there.
Richard Burton’s “Hamlet” (1964)
This is a stripped down version of Hamlet filmed directly from the stage. Director John Gielgud conceived the play to be seen as a rehearsal. As such, the actors are dressed in street clothes, the set is sparse and there are no props to speak of. This is a daring approach to the play, as it leaves the actors on the stage with but the words of Shakespeare alone. There is nothing to aid them in their rendering and evocation of the audience.
Compare this to Franco Zeffirelli’s version that starred Mel Gibson as Hamlet. That rendition presents its viewer with a lush and near resplendent representation of Denmark. You could take away the actor’s words, and still the play would make dramatic sense. Here the actors are left alone with absolutely nothing to fall back on. It’s an incredible amount of trust that a director would offer, and it’s rarely been done.
This method can be easily doomed to failure. Take for instance the most recent Hamlet staged in Philadelphia over the summer of 2005 by Vagabond Theatre, where Director James Christy used minimal props and costumes. The actors, though competent, never quite rose to the task. The audience was able to sit back and listen to the poetry of Shakespeare’s play, but was never able to actually witness it as the drama it was intended to be.
But here, the cast shines. Stripped of all accouterment, they seem to be able to reach levels that rarely have been climbed in the history of this play’s production.
Richard Burton’s “Hamlet”: Bedroom Commentary
We are again offered little but an empty stage in this scene. The only visible stage accompaniment is a clothes rack where the actors have apparently set their costumes. Polonious, who plays his role in this version with command and precision (as opposed to the buffoonery usually given to the role), gives Gertrude an order to chide her son, and then disappears behind the clothes rack, in want of an actual closet.
Hamlet then enters. Richard Burton’s range in this rendition of “Hamlet” is truly incredible. He enters mirthful and ironic with his mother. Since we know him to be a decisive man of strength and fortitude, as displayed in the first scene, we recognize that he must be adopting this cavalier attitude in order to accomplish another goal here. Other Hamlets, though they claim to be only “mad in craft,” are clearly loony. Burton’s Hamlet, on the other hand, wields those people around him as a director would actors on the stage.
Unlike other renditions, Hamlet is not violent with his mother. It is his going to the very heart of the matter at hand that disturbs her and forces her to call out for help. When Hamlet hears Polonious cry out from behind the clothes rack, he takes the man’s life with absolutely no remorse. He wishes he had killed the King, his uncle, but does not stop to pity the fact that one of the King’s trusted cabinet members has gone from this world as well. He takes note of the error and then quickly moves on to the matter at hand: he must force his mother to understand her sins, and then to get her to do his bidding.
This is quite a task considering the guy has just killed one her most trusted friends, while attempting to kill her husband. But Burton’s Hamlet accomplishes the feat with great dexterity. Most other Hamlets work this scene with overwhelming passion. They are near break down as they turn on mother, often moving toward violence, and then to near incest.
Not so Burton. He attacks his mother like a prosecuting attorney who is trying to get her to confess on the witness stand. That’s all well enough, but it hardly gets him to where he needs to be. Burton’s Hamlet knows that he must get his mom to turn against her own husband by the end of this scene. Sure, he might get her to confess and recognize her sins, but she’s not going to feel all that willing to do Burton’s bidding if he keeps up this prosecuting attorney tact.
Knowing this, Burton’s Hamlet calls upon the ghost.
It is important to note that we do not actually see the ghost here, but merely a large shadow of the man cast upon the stage. Thus, the ghost is quite possibly only part of Hamlet’s “craft,” of getting his mother to his side once more. He doesn’t see any ghost any more than you or I do. He knows that mom is vulnerable right now, so why not use the man she has betrayed to assist him in turning the knife?
How could she not suddenly turn completely to her son’s side, if only out of maternal instinct, when she sees how distraught he has become? This is exactly what Burton’s Hamlet has attempted to garner from her.
Now she is complete putty in his hands. When she falls to him, claiming that he has “cleft [my] heart in twain,” it is never more startlingly well delivered. She really has nothing left after this scene. Burton’s Hamlet has manipulated her unlike any Hamlet that has gone before.
He has some remorse for doing this to his own mother and confesses that she must understand that he “must be cruel to be kind.” Nonetheless, he drives forward with a determination akin to Ahab going after the whale. He successfully commands her to his will.
Normally, I must say, Hamlet is portrayed so weak that I tend to cheer for him against my own better judgment. We’re made to understand at the beginning of Shakespeare’s actual script that Hamlet would be next King of Denmark once Claudius is dethroned. However, when we see Hamlet’s weakness and inability to act, we usually can’t help but think that the more commanding and decisive Claudius actually makes the better King. Surely, if the indecisive Hamlet took over the throne, Denmark would be in utter peril.
Not so in this version. Burton’s Hamlet seems so in control and command, that he would thrive as the King, as would Denmark itself. You Go, Hamlet.
Kevin Kline’s “Hamlet” (1990)
This is a filmed stage version of the play that heavily relies on its actors to convey the messages of the work. Note the vast difference between the rendering of Zefferilli’s version with Mel Gibson in the title role. Zefferilli uses glorious colors, sumptuous scenery, haunting music, together with a hovering, inquisitive camera to capture the mood of the Kingdom and of each and every scene. You might want to compare Ethan Hawke’s version as well, where the camera is manic, the technology of the 21st century floods over the scenes, and the frenetic intensity of New York City’s Great White Way overwhelms the paltry problems of this little Denmark Corporation.
In great contrast to this, Kevin Kline, who both starred in and directed this version, strips his stage to a minimum of props, and uses sound sparingly. The actors have no cover if they falter whatsoever. It’s a daring and demanding way to direct a play, giving neither the actors nor the audience any leeway for fault. If an actor fails to hit a line correctly, usually there is music, sound, lighting, which accompanies the work, allowing the audience to get full impact of the scene. Not so here. These actors are on a tight rope with no net below.
It’s a breathless performance. At the conclusion, you feel as if you’ve just been on a roller coaster that has left you in need of getting the ground back under your feet. It’s an incredible ride.
Kevin Kline’s “Hamlet”: Bedroom Commentary
As in previous scenes, Kevin Kline, as director, makes sparse use of staging, props and music here. However, what little accouterments he does use, certainly makes a statement. We’ve got one large set of curtains and one large carpet, placed in the center of the stage. They are both blood red.
By the time the events unfold in this scene, Hamlet has already been approached by the ghost of his father, and has agreed to enact revenge on his murderer, the seemingly good King Claudius. However, from the way that Kevin Kline has interpreted his character, we have never before seen a Hamlet less equipped to enact such revenge.
This Hamlet is kind and loving to a fault. It’s hard to believe he could set out a mouse trap without breaking down into convulsions and tears. In fact, Kline’s Hamlet cries so much in this version that it tends to make the DVD itself a bit soggy.
He does begin this scene, however, in anger. He has whipped himself up to this rage as he approaches his mother, and is ready to at least tell her the truth about how he feels regarding her quick decision to marry her deceased husband’s brother. Naturally, he does not show any signs of the incestuous interpretations that other Hamlet’s have offered. That would fall wildly against the sincere and generous heart that is Kline’s Hamlet.
He also does not seem given toward violence. It is only when his mother tries to walk away from him that he makes physical contact and asks that she stay. When she cries out for help, it’s not in fear for her life as in many other versions, it’s because she really doesn’t want to have the discussion that Hamlet is requesting that she have.
By this time, however, Hamlet has worked himself up into a passion and, when Polonious cries out, he kills the man out of rash emotion. It is made abundantly clear in this version that Hamlet could never have committed an action such as this while in complete control of his thought and reason. He is far far too sensitive for that.
Indeed, when he finds that it is Polonious that he has killed and not the King, Kline’s Hamlet is stunned and heartbroken. He will cry many tears over this man in later scenes, more tears than even Polonius’s family will shed.
When his deceased father makes entrance into the scene, Kline’s Hamlet becomes distraught and frightened. He is a man who quite obviously is approaching mental collapse; he is surely not simply “mad in craft,” as he later claims to be. Kline’s version makes it quite clear why Hamlet has indeed gone mad.
Here we have a Hamlet who is a sensitive, peaceloving man; yet he is being asked by the spirit of his murdered father to act completely against his nature. It is precisely because these actions go against his very soul and because the plea comes from someone he simply must obey, that causes him to fall apart, and, at the same time, become unable to act.
When this Gertrude tells Hamlet that he has “cleft her heart in twain,” it is not because she sees the error of her ways, but because she is unnerved at seeing the pure madness of her once dutiful and gentle son.
The scene ends with Hamlet speaking to God over the dead body of Polonious. When he claims that he must “repent” because of his actions, and that he “must answer well for this death he gave” Polonious, he is being honest. This Hamlet believes in God and knows that his actions have doomed him. He leaves the scene enshrouded in darkness, both in life and apparently beyond.
Mel Gibson’s “Hamlet” (1991)
This is probably the most lush “Hamlet” yet filmed, with the most controversial of casting. Director Franco Zeffirelli had already brought two Shakespeare plays to the screen in “Romeo and Juliet” (1968) as well as “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967). Given that these two were so wildly successful, he had carte blanche when it came to his next adaptation. Thus, though he was seriously criticized for his choice of Mel Gibson for the lead, the decision was nonetheless accepted.
At this point, Gibson was known for his Action Adventure roles only, namely in films such as “Mad Max” and “Lethal Weapon.” This would be like putting Vin Diesel into the role of Hamlet today. Personally, I enjoyed Gibson’s interpretation immensely. In direct comparison to Olivier, he is lively and vibrant. Even when indecisive, he is manic.
Zeffirelli directs his editing, camera work and setting as a perfect accompaniment to Gibson’s portrayal. The camera is in constant motion, the editing quick and sharp, and the settings are full of life and bounty.
Mel Gibson’s “Hamlet”: Bedroom Commentary
Gibson’s Hamlet seems deranged from the very outset of this scene. He is in fact so out of control that his mother strikes him across the face in an attempt to calm him down. This has just the opposite effect unfortunately, as a series of events is then brought on which will lead to the death of Polonious. One wonders, in Zeffirelli’s vision, whether Polonious would have had to die if Gertrude had not struck Prince Hamlet.
Unlike Olivier, after Gibson does away with Polonious, he is quite clearly remorseful, and, because of this, becomes even more unglued. Seeing as how unstrung he was at the outset of this scene, this seems a difficult feat to accomplish; however, Gibson finds himself up to the task.
With great histrionic fervor, he pushes his mother onto the bed, then straddles her as he berates her; finally, while remonstrating her regarding her betrayal of his father, he begins to feign making love to her. As he does this, she reaches up to him and passionately kisses him. If we had ever questioned the possible incestuous relationship between the two, we wonder no longer at this point.
It is this kiss that brings Hamlet’s father back to the scene. In other versions, the father returns to try to get Hamlet to keep focus on the goal of revenge. In this one, the father has the duel purpose of putting a stop to the lovemaking between mother and son. The guy has been betrayed by his Uncle and now by his son. Will the dead never get a break?
Since Gibson’s Hamlet does indeed seem to be having some form of a breakdown (and who could blame him?), it does make his closing comment to his mother that he is but “mad in craft,” a difficult one to accept, especially since he’s wiping his bloody sword on Polonious’s robes just after he makes the claim.
Ethan Hawke’s “Hamlet” (2000)
Michael Almereyda, who directed “Aliens,” took the reins for this 21st Century exploration of Shakespeare’s troubled prince. He cast Ethan Hawke, who had just completed “Gattaca,” as the lead. This Hamlet is besieged with all the technological trappings of modern man. Hamlet himself is obsessed with his video camera. You rarely find him without the gadget clamped to his eye. He’s continuously editing and re-editing the work on his computer while singing the soliloquies of Shakespeare. My very favorite moment of the movie is when he does the “To Be or Not to Be” speech in the Blockbuster Video. Lost in a sea of faceless DVD’s, meaningless images shouting at him from surrounding video monitors, he wanders the aisles contemplating suicide.
Almereyda re-edits the play with the gusto that his Hamlet re-edits the videos he shoots. He shifts scenes from mid play to the beginning. He removes characters and whole subplots. He reorders sequences and jumpcuts with the joy of a skateboarder on a natural high.
A perfect accompaniment of this style is the setting itself. Almereyda places the Great Dane directly in midtown New York City. It’s a stunning and vibrant film, full of the near breathless pace and cross cutting, the bright lights, and audacious trappings of New York City itself. The camera movement is often frenetic, the angles are sharp, the scenes are always fresh, even the shadows are bright. By the end, we can feel how weary of all this movement Hamlet must feel, and, when he is finally laid to rest, we nearly feel relieved that at least the poor bastard can finally get some sleep. Perchance to dream.
Ethan Hawke’s “Hamlet”: Bedroom Commentary
We finally see some raw emotion in this scene, as Hamlet seems at near breakdown when he enters his mother’s bedroom. As in the Mel Gibson version, Hamlet is not driven toward physical violence until Gertrude strikes first, slapping him across the face. Hamlet then throws her at the mirrored closet where Polonious hides, causing her to cry out for help. Polonious, instead of coming to her aid, meekly calls for assistance as well. Hamlet responds by shooting blindly at the closet.
What is fascinating here are the mirrors, for it seems as if Hamlet is shooting an image of himself, foreshadowing the “To be or not to be” speech which comes shortly thereafter. In other versions, Hamlet commits the murder with dexterity, being well versed with a sword. Here, however, we find Hamlet shocked that he’s even fired a gun. This makes sense.
When the play is staged in earlier times, it seems logical that the Prince of the land would be adept with a sword, for it was common for those in royalty to be practiced in swordplay. As the upper class son of a modern corporate mogul, Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet hasn’t had much cause to draw a gun.
For the same reasons, this Hamlet shows more remorse at the action than in any other version. Indeed, he’s practically overwhelmed. He is only shaken from his misery when his mother reaches for the phone to call the cops. Though he pushes her onto the bed, as in other renditions of this play, there are no incestuous overtones to the action. Indeed, when he wraps his mother up in a blanket, he seems more interested in smothering her than anything else.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father then appears. In this version, we are left with no doubt that the ghost is real and not a figment of Hamlet’s skewed imagination. When Hamlet asks his mother if she can see the ghost herself, the camera pans to the King’s hopeful face. He wants to be seen by his former wife. When she responds to her son in the negative, the King’s eyes, disappointed, lower half lidded down and away, filled with a near intoxicating sadness. This is not a reaction cast upon him by his son; this is entirely an interaction between husband and wife.
It is then fitting that when Hamlet tells his mother that he is “but mad in craft,” that we actually believe him. He’s not a madman who has conjured up the ghost of his father. His father has actually come down to explain the ways of the world to him, and Hamlet, taking his advice, acts upon it. Ethan Hawke comes off her as sincere, and, more than that, saner than any of those he interacts with. This is a far different interpretation than is usually portrayed.
Please view the following two scenes in each of with commentary from each version:
1) Pick two versions of Hamlet and compare the below two scenes only (125 words).
2)The Opening Court scene, where Hamlet is first introduced and conflicts with Claudius
3)The Bedroom scene, where he confronts his mother and kills Polonius.
4)Which actor offered the best Hamlet and why? (125 words)
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