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A Hamlet Of My Own: A Hamlet Dreamcast

March 23, 2014

Hello friends! As some of you know from my tweet earlier, The Daily Mail announced today that Benedict Cumberbatch is set to play Hamlet in 2015, under the direction of Lyndsey Turner. I am very excited about this, because not only is Mr. Cumberbatch one of my favorite actors ever, but also Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play! I was freaking out this morning about this, to the point where my mom had to fake-promise we could go. I’m not going to hold her to it, but maybe if I start playing the lotto now I’ll win???

Castles-in-the-air aside, I’ve been thinking about Hamlet a lot today Cumberbatch doing the soliloquies is going to kill me slowly and dug up one of my old college essays about my Hamlet dreamcast. The assignment was to watch three productions of Hamlet and then write up which of their actors and actresses we would want for our own production, though the idea of me directing a play is laughable at best. In any case, I hope you enjoy!

A Hamlet of My Own

Every production of Hamlet presents the director’s vision of a play full of characters that remain, after 400 years, essentially a mystery.  No one interpretation of Hamlet, Horatio, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia works for all readers.  Three movie versions of Hamlet–Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, and Kevin Kline–continue in this vein with each presenting very different sorts of characters despite using the same Shakespearean language.  To fit this reader’s interpretation of the characters, I would need elements from all three movies.

To begin, Hamlet himself is one of the most important characters in the play, but also one of the most mysterious.  Centuries of critics and readers try to “play upon [him…] would seem to know [his] stops, […] would pluck out the heart of [his] mystery,” (III.ii.358-360).  We question his madness, his treatment of the other characters, the necessity of the Mousetrap, and most importantly, his delay in avenging his father’s death.  During the soliloquies, the reader catches a glimpse at his own inner confusion–he does not understand why “yet [he] live to say ‘This thing’s to do’” (IV.iv.44) begging the question of does Hamlet know the reasons behind his actions.  However, my interpretation of Hamlet’s mystery is best placed in Kenneth Branagh.  He plays a rational Hamlet, his suicidal tendencies coming from true grief over his father’s death and mother’s marriage–his disgust for this uncle and his mother’s actions clearly displayed in his repulsed facial expressions when they try to comfort him in front of the court in Act I scene 2.  During soliloquies he is not thrashing about in a manner more wild than the truly mad Ophelia or standing stock still with tears down his face as Kevin Kline does, but moves around and uses hand gestures in a way that indicates he is truly trying to figure himself and the events around him out.  Neither does it come out as scorn for and harshness against the entire world as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet does–Olivier seeming to like no one until he finally warms up to Horatio.  Instead Branagh seems to keep intact the “noble and most sovereign reason” (III.i.357) that Hamlet is noted to have.  When Horatio and the guards tell him of the Ghost’s appearance, his eyes flare, but otherwise it seems like he is trying to reason why the Ghost appeared and a safe method in which to see it.  In instances where I believe Hamlet is acting mad, Branagh pulls it off as clever wordplay, verbally dancing around Polonius such as Act II scene 2.  Other times when I believe Hamlet teeters onto madness, Branagh plays it as an overexcitement of a sensitive spirit that captures the character just as I imagined.  A good example would be his delightful proclaiming of “my wit’s diseased” (III.ii.315-316) with a funny eye crossing and his tongue sticking out.  The performance keeps in mind that Hamlet knows “a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.322) throughout the play, but also is a sensitive, emotional soul with a flair for the dramatic.  Though the other actors perform Hamlet excellently–especially Kevin Kline’s vision of Hamlet as an already tainted mind which evokes excessive amounts of pathos from the viewer–Kenneth Branagh is my favorite Hamlet.

In my interpretation of the play, Horatio is an important character to bring out other sides of Hamlet, humanizing him in a way as well as staying the trusted friend to tell the story.  With this view, the relationship between Horatio and Hamlet was extremely important to me.  Once again I will borrow from Kenneth Branagh with Horatio played by Nicholas Farrell.  Throughout the movie he conveys the care he has for Hamlet–putting an arm around him when they hear of Ophelia’s death, tearfully embracing him before the duel with Laertes and other moments–and also manages to epitomize the man who is “not a pipe for Fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please” (III.ii.69-70).  He seems horrified by the events at Elsinore, but truthfully says the lines that mark him as a reasonable, calm man that Hamlet can wear in his “heart’s core, ay [his] heart of heart” (III.ii.72).  To me, Horatio is a foil for Hamlet, and a modest, practical person whom the dramatic, traumatized Hamlet can rely on when all others have betrayed him.  This sort of friendship was not really seen in the Kevin Kline version where Peter Francis James’s Horatio seemed surprised at Hamlet’s affection towards him and does not fully reciprocate Hamlet’s feeling until the very end.  With Hamlet dying in his arms, James reaches the Horatio I imagined while reading the play, and I would add that portion to my final scene.  The Laurence Olivier Horatio, played by Norman Wooland, seemed a little arrogant and brash in his knowledge and demeanor which I believe took away from the character’s reliability as a conveyer of Hamlet’s story after the Prince’s death.  By contrast, the Kenneth Branagh Horatio was added into the background of scenes he was not originally in for the play as Shakespeare wrote it, such as the scene in which Hamlet is exiled to England.  This staging furthers the idea that Horatio is the lone survivor who can tell the truth of the tragedy at Elsinore.

Continuing after Horatio, the next two important characters to cast are King Claudius and Queen Gertrude.  For my ideal Hamlet, I would choose Brian Murray as Claudius from Kevin Kline’s Hamlet and Eileen Herlie as Gertrude from Laurence Olivier’s version.  Murray’s Claudius begins the play with a very manipulative attitude, deftly dealing with the affairs of the court and Fortinbras.  He seems completely in control of the court and very happy with his new wife, the scene opening on them kissing.  He also has an air of practicality and sly nudging of others towards his desired result, which was perfect for the role.  Beneath this visage, however, seems a slight fragility that really came out in Claudius’s soliloquy–this humanity and weakness being almost entirely absent in the Laurence Olivier and over-pronounced in the Kenneth Branagh.  He seems truly tortured that his “cursed hand [is] thicker than itself with brother’s blood” (III.iii.43-44), which adds a third dimension to his character as opposed to just being a stereotypical evil villain–the audience is given the chance to have sympathy for him because of the soliloquy.  This third dimension can be enlarged more with his relationship to Polonius.  Somewhat present in the Kevin Kline version but clearly marked in the Kenneth Branagh, Claudius acts as if Polonius is dear friend and is truly grieved at his death.  Polonius’s death, then, serves to further humanize Claudius–this is a real man with real relationships with people who care about him and he cares for in return–and also serves to put Hamlet more into the classic theme of tragedy where all the characters are slowly isolated to face their trials alone.

The other half of this duo is Eileen Harlie’s Queen Gertrude.  She plays the sweet, naive queen very well, really epitomizing that she “lives almost by [Hamlet’s] looks,” (IV.vii.12), which I think Gertrude does.  During Act III scene 4 with Hamlet in her bedroom after the Mousetrap has been sprung, Gertrude’s plea that “upon the heat and flame of [Hamlet’s] distemper sprinkle cool patience” (III.iv.123-124) is heartfelt.  In addition, after the scene, her suspicion of Claudius and their breaking off suggest the guilt she feels for the “black and grained spots” (III.iv.90) on her soul as seen in the scene where she and Claudius go up separate staircases.  However, this blocking makes this splitting up a tad more dramatic than I thought necessary.  To me, Gertrude does feel guilt about her actions, but this feeling is blunted by the fact that Hamlet’s rant can be labeled as madness.  She still loves and remains loyal to Claudius throughout as evident in Act IV scene 5 where she tries to protect him from the murderous Laertes.  None of the movie versions really portrayed this interpretation of Gertrude, but I feel Harlie’s was the closest.  I did like the touch of in the final scene of Laurence Olivier’s where the Queen senses her second husband’s plot and seems to drink the poisoned cup in a bout of self-sacrifice to save her son and as penance for her actions.  For my ideal Gertrude, I would also add a deeper bond with Ophelia as evident in the Queen of the Kenneth Branagh version, played by Julie Christie.  In this rendering Gertrude seems to recognize Ophelia as a lost child that is under the destructive thumb of male domination.  One example of this would be in Act III scene 1 where, while the men plan to use Ophelia to discover the cause of Hamlet’s madness, she has an arm around Ophelia as if to give her support.  Her sorrow over Ophelia’s death and madness seems more pronounced than in the Kevin Kline and Laurence Olivier, almost crying at the funeral.  I believe this bond with Ophelia deepens Gertrude’s character and also makes her more affected by the events at Elsinore.  Not only are her male supports dying, but also her only presented female friend is driven to insanity.  This isolation again lends itself to the theme of tragedy where all the characters must face their trials alone.  It also suggests that Gertrude too feels the pulls of patriarchy, this perhaps influencing her decision to marry Claudius.

The final trio of characters in my ideal of Hamlet are that of Polonius and his family.  For the Danish councillor himself I would choose Felix Aylmer from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.  In my view, Polonius is the fool of the play–the foolish character who spouts the wisdom of “to thine own self be true” (I.iii.77) and the cunning of “by indirections find directions out” (II.i.65), but is still a simpleton.  He manages to be the butt of many of Hamlet’s wordplays and blind to the reality around him in that Hamlet’s madness has little to do with his daughter.  Aylmer plays this perfectly, making it look like the character is trying to be wise amidst his confusion of being called a “fishmonger” (II.ii.189).  Aylmer exactly portrays Polonius’s love of hearing himself talk as evident in his excessively long speech to the King and Queen about Hamlet’s love for Ophelia.  His visible glee at the hint of a plot and spying can be seen plainly and this trait, coupled with his knack for occasional verbal wisdom, would endear him to Claudius, to whom Polonius is unswervingly loyal.  His loyalty to Claudius ties into his full support of patriarchy as seen in how he treats his daughter.  To him his daughter is a “green girl” (I.iii.100) unable to think for herself, ridiculing her while he praises Laertes.  He uses her in his plots and does not care when she is hurt as seen in Act III scene 2 when Alymer, rightly so I think, ignores his crying daughter in favor of addressing the King.  In this viewpoint, Ophelia’s dependence and love for him a kind of Stockholm syndrome where the child continues to love the abusive, cruel authority figure and is lost without him.  However, his callousness is blunted by his foolishness, which makes him tolerable to the audience.  His foolishness is important in this aspect and is sadly missing in the Kevin Kline play and Kenneth Branagh version, though in that version he does show some love for his daughter when he hugs her after her planned encounter with Hamlet.

The next person of the trio is Polonius’s action-oriented son Laertes, who in my version is played by Terence Morgan from Laurence Olivier’s rendering.  Morgan excellently exhibits Laertes’s love for Ophelia, telling her of “the trifling of [Hamlet’s] favor” (I.iii.5) in a tone of kind brotherly advice.  During Polonius’s speech of “a few precepts” (I.iii.57), he lets Ophelia hang on and play with him, playfully batting her away when she becomes a hindrance.  In the other versions, especially the Kevin Kline, Laertes seems more like a second Polonius in this scene which greatly misfits someone who later insists that “a minist’ring angel shall [his] sister be” (V.i.230) despite her questionable death.  At the same time, the audience knows Laertes’s anger at his father’s death–Morgan’s vehemence “to cut [Hamlet’s] throat i’ th’ church” (IV.vii.124) and insistence that he “might be the organ” (IV.vii.68) of Hamlet’s death clearly shown onscreen.  This anger, I feel, was tad overplayed in the Kenneth Branagh where Michael Maloney’s Laertes was so enraged I was under the impression he could not see straight much less reconsider that his revenge “is almost against [his] conscience” (V.ii.279).  This anger and love for Ophelia and his father are the essential traits of Laertes, Terence Morgan playing them perfectly.

After Laertes, the last character to be cast is Ophelia, who I would like to be played by Kate Winslet from the Kenneth Branagh piece.  Winslet really captures the agony and loss Ophelia goes through in the play–a feat mirrored but lessened in Kevin Kline’s Diane Venora and nonexistent in Laurence Olivier’s Jean Simmons.  Jean Simmons has a more child-like Ophelia who truly seems to “think [herself] a baby” (I.iv.104), wandering around the castle in a white nightgown and while drowning singing, not softly or melancholic as I would imagine, but high-pitched, with a blissful, dazed smile on her face.  In the Kenneth Branagh performance the drowning is not shown, but Gertrude is left to tell the “one woe [that] doth tread upon another’s head” (IV.vii.161).  I think this theatrical move allowed the viewer to beautify and solemnize the death as he or she wishes–adding to the tragedy as they will.  Winslet’s Ophelia has a certain emotional depth that I had never seen in an Ophelia before.  Her Act III scene 2 was given a new meaning as a betrayal and breaking off of a deep relationship between Hamlet and herself, and the woe that her father “will never come again” (IV.v.188) after his death practically tangible.  Her madness is superb, conveying the right amount of movement and fancy to be able to “botch the words up fit to [our] own thoughts” (IV.v.10).  She seems to carry all of Ophelia’s burdens of tainted love: a crass, uncaring father, an absent brother, a murderous former love all comingled in authoritative voices of patriarchy that tell her what to do, how to think, and, intentionally or unintentionally, reject her.  This depletion of her spirit is added to the suggestion that she feels guilt that her rejection of Hamlet caused her father’s untimely death, his sword into the curtain an act meant to punish her.  All these emotions would make anyone go mad, not just a oppressed woman within the rotten state of Denmark.

With this as my cast, I would direct my ideal rendering.  Modest Renaissance attire would used and for the set I would borrow Laurence Olivier’s Elsinore castle which successfully gives the viewer the sense of being trapped in this labyrinthine space, full of twisted corners and spooky haunts.  It would be there that we would enact the sorrow, anguish, and taint that becomes Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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