In a fit of misplaced ambition I offered to teach a course on Hamlet in the Continuing Ed program at Southern Oregon University. The idea was that we’d look at five filmed Hamlets, not simply to compare the productions, but to consider the decisions actor and director had made in conceptualizing the transition of the play to the screen. We began by identifying what we actually know from the text and what “unscenes” had to be imagined in order to carry the plot (?) along. We don’t get a lot of help from Hamlet in a play in which the central character pauses to speak to us in regular fits of soliloquy; yes, he wants his flesh to melt, yes, he’s got something against fardels, of course he feels like a peasant slave at times, but here’s the rub: What’s an actor playing Hamlet supposed to want when he walks through the door?
There are two easy outs available to actors, neither of which actually answers that question but which at least give the actor something to do with his hands.
The first is the Hamlet and Oedipus template popularized by Ernest Jones in the appropriately entitled Hamlet and Oedipus. The notion is that Hamel has lost all his mirth and forgone exercise because his mother has married his uncle. There may be treason and murder in the mix around the edges, but the existential dilemma has to do with feeling out of sorts and angry at and repulsed by women. Some productions goose that along a bit by amplifying the Jocasta part of the program, portraying Gertrude as all-too-physically fond of her kid. The queen intuits Hamlet’s distress at her “oer hasty marriage” and may feel a slight tingle even though the heyday in the blood should have calmed down.
Awkward and unpleasant, this choice appears to have been in Laurence Olivier’s mind as he created his Hamlet. His is a melancholy Dane, at times so depressed that he seems drugged, pumping up to action in the conversations with Ophelia and Gertrude. Things get loud, physical, messy, and way beyond suggestive when the brooding gives way to grabbing. As Erica Moulton noted, “When Olivier stages a climactic argument between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, with the two writhing and struggling on her bed, he isn’t insinuating anything.”
The second out is the unpredictable adolescent Hamlet, careening from hyper-sensitivity to manic pique. Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet wobbles between self-conscious snarkiness and self-aware reflection. In putting on an antic disposition, Jacobi’s a witty Hamlet, a shrewd Hamlet. All in all, Jacobi’s Hamlet is a self-protective Hamlet, not entirely timid, but, detached, wary. Jacobi has said that every Hamlet is inescapably the actor’s persona writ large; it comes as little surprise that it was in playing this Hamlet that Jacobi unleashed his own demons and became virtually paralyzed by stage fright for more than two years. This Hamlet is precocious; he’s intellectually far more sophisticated than any of the characters in this political thriller, but emotionally unprepared for the situations in which he finds himself.
It’s worth noting that every Hamlet appears to be unprepared, which raises all the obvious questions as to what Hamlet thought was waiting for him when he finally left school at the age of thirty. He may have been born to set things right, but it takes quite a while for him to begin to pull things into focus. It is only at Ophelia’s grave that he declares himself Hamlet the Dane, then obscures his kingly mien by leaping into the open grave to wrestle Laertes. “Eat a crocodile, I’ll do it.”
That’s what comes to mind? Crocodiles?
The only Hamlet that comes to mind to me in the leaping and bizarre non sequitur universe is Zeffirelli’s choice, Mel Gibson. The key to appreciating Gibson’s Hamlet may be in recognizing that the director rewrote the screenplay, dropping scenes, shoving them around, in effect creating the stripped down, muscular, lightly indecisive action script, and a central character who has been described as robust. Simmering beneath the surface, Gibson’s steam has been boiling , expressed in biting contempt until he virtually rapes his mother. It’s easy to believe that this Hamlet would have no problem bumping off Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The ending remains the same, but the final scene gives us a swashbuckling Hamlet, finally allowed to unleash the physical energy that has been compressed throughout the rest of the film.
If we think Hamlet has a tough time summoning meaning as he walks through the door, consider Ophelia’s dilemma. Hamlet may put his antic disposition on from time to time, but Ophelia has to travel from meek submission and sisterly affection to raunchily inappropriate suicidal madness in under an hour. The question for any actor taking on the role has to be whether Ophelia has always been a bit too finely tuned. Zeffirelli’s Ophelia, Helena Bonham Carter, is a disconcertingly effective Ophelia. Gibson is fun to watch as an actor; Bonham Carter can break hearts.
David Tennant’s Hamlet is pretty finely tuned as well, a taut Hamlet, frayed and about to snap at any moment. It has been observed that Tennant seems to fall into character as he becomes increasingly antic, an observation that presents the next-to-last template, the tortured, existentially damaged Hamlet, a Hamlet whose pain emerges as the biting wit of the smartest guy in the room. Tennant is a hipster Hamlet who operates on a tight leash until the moment he pops, too loud, drawing too much attention to his torment.
Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, on the other hand, is in charge, seemingly deciding when and how to put revenge into action. He’s a competent Hamlet whose antics are delivered with a comic’s timing. There’s nothing adolescent about this Hamlet; from the first moment, as Jacobi’s Claudius insults him by dealing with Laertes before turning to the his nephew, the Queen’s son, the Prince, this Hamlet is composed and sharp. It’s clear that he’d rather spend his time with actors than with affairs of state, but this Hamlet could handle things as well as a Claudius who seems not to notice that Fortinbras and the Norwegian army have invaded his nation. Branagh is a special case as an actor and director in that he has almost single-handedly made Shakespearean English accessible to a wide range of audiences. He speaks the speech trippingly with masterful inflection, so beautifully delivered as to inhibit great chasms of emotion, although it is clear that his Hamlet has no patience for those who don’t catch his meaning quickly. This is a Hamlet who pulls the foppish courtier Osric into a duel of words to amuse himself even as he prepares to go to what Horatio fears is his death.
Here’s the last template then, the one an actor such as Branagh seem to inhabit: this Hamlet has landed in an alternate universe in which the entire population is operating as though nothing untoward has happened. In this model, it is the court which is schizophrenic, not the Dane. There are points of confusion and contention, not the least of which is the obvious and immediate usurpation of the throne. The court seems to have gone along willingly, and the Queen seems not to mind having her son knocked over in favor of his uncle. Ophelia and Hamlet have been busy, but her equally busy father in using her as proto-spy causes Hamlet to see her as the fair Ophelia to whom he wrote a charmingly awkward love letter and as yet another conspiratorial agent of the crown.
The contending realities template supports the seemingly endless stream of events and characters who are not what they seem, taking us back as expected to the opening lines in the play, which ask, “Who’s there?”.