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Hamlet and Film

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William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a story of a young man who is the son of the late King Hamlet of Denmark. His uncle, Claudius, murdered his father and claimed the latter’s throne and married the latter’s wife. Hamlet’s father appeared to him as a ghost and demanded retribution. In order for his intentions not to be revealed, he pretended that he was insane, and even rejected Ophelia whom he has loved. By mistake, Hamlet killed Polonius, Ophelia’s father. Later on, Ophelia was found drowned, presumably due to suicide. While fighting with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, Queen Gertrude died by drinking the poison intended for her son Hamlet. Towards the end, Hamlet died of having been wounded with a poisoned sword, but he was able to kill Laertes and Claudius.   

This tragedy, which is often acclaimed as Shakespeare’s supreme achievement, depicted revenge and justice, and explored certain psychological depths. Many parts in the tragedy are open to several interpretations. I will dwell on just few of them. First, Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is oftentimes interpreted as accompanied by incestuous desire. Though nothing in the original text explicitly speaks of Hamlet’s sexual desire to his mother, many interpret the relation between Hamlet and Gertrude as something that has sexual subtext. 

Second, there is the idea of uncertainty. Are we certain that there are ghosts? If there really are, how can we be sure that they are telling the truth? How can Hamlet be sure that Claudius is a murderer simply by observing the latter’s behavior? What does the afterlife bring? Is the “To be or not to be scene” about Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide? Hamlet as a play is often interpreted as a play about indecisiveness and of Hamlet’s failure to act appropriately due to having been burdened with uncertainties. Hamlet may also be seen as truly insane due to being burdened with uncertainties that are too much for him to handle.

Third, there is the idea of Hamlet’s hatred towards women. Here is where the famous line “Frailty, thy name is woman,” is uttered. Hamlet despises his mother’s act of marrying his uncle, and urges Ophelia to go to nunnery than experience the corruptions of sexuality. There is an important question as to whether there is a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. On the other hand, Hamlet’s hatred towards women can also be interpreted as an effect of Hamlet’s failed relationships with women. It must be noted that he rejected Ophelia as the latter betrayed the former to spy for Claudius. With regard to his relationship with his mother, there are interpretations saying that Hamlet has hidden sexual desire towards Gertrude. Because this desire has not been realized, not only because Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother but also because Gertrude is married to Claudius, Hamlet can be seen as having a suppressed incestuous desires that lead to his hatred towards women.   

There had been several interpretations of Hamlet, about at least 35 filmed versions (Anderson). For this essay, let me focus on Franco Zeffirrelli’s version released in 1990, and Kenneth Branagh’s version released in 1996. The 1990 version was chosen for its aim of making a Shakespearean movie that would cater to all sorts of movie-goers to the point of cutting some scenes. The 1996 version, on the other hand, was chosen for its attempt of making a full-text feature film of Hamlet, which makes it four hours long. How the aforesaid parts in the play (that are open to several interpretations) are answered in these two films is provided in the next paragraphs.

With respect to whether or not Hamlet has an incestuous desire towards his mother, the 1990 version is very clear. This film version featured Freud’s Oedipus complex as a theme. This theme is evident in the scene where Hamlet (played by Mel Gibson) confronts his mother and does some “swinging (of) his sword around like an outsized and deadly phallus before tossing his mother onto the bed and climbing atop her (Mancini).” In fact, Gertrude is played by Glenn Close who is only few years older than Mel Gibson. This helped in successfully depicting the sexual subtext in the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. Furthermore, there is an opinion that this scene is brought about by Hamlet’s violent anger towards the mother; and the violent anger is caused by suppressed sexual desires.

In the 1996 version, on the other hand, there is no attempt (nor an underlying assumption) that Hamlet desires his mother. In fact, the incest theme is more applicable to the scene where Ophelia (played by Kate Winslet) end up on the bed and being comforted by her father (VCCS Litonline). Kenneth Branagh makes it clear that the “Oedipus complex” theme is not applicable to his movie. He attempts to make an “Oedipal free” movie, avoiding the representation of sexual subtext (Lehmann).

As to the depiction of the questions on uncertainty, the 1990 version leaves very little room for interpretation. Hamlet productions usually depict an air of ambiguity; allowing rooms for interpretation as to whether Hamlet is crazy or he is merely faking it, and whether Hamlet is contemplating about suicide in his “To be or not to be” scene. Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Hamlet gives the idea that Hamlet is not considering suicide in the “To be or not to be” scene. Hamlet seems to be lamenting the idea that suicide is not an option for him. Unlike other portrayals of Hamlet, Mel Gibson’s Hamlet seems to be more in control of his faculties. This gives the 1990 film version a more grounded and earthy environment.

Gibson’s Hamlet is emotional and passionate. Choosing Mel Gibson for the part gives the movie a charisma. It also supports Zeffirelli’s attempt to depict a Hamlet who is less insane and more in control of himself. Having an action star for Hamlet provides the audience the idea that Hamlet is a strong young man who is merely pretending to be insane. 

The 1996 version, on the other hand, is an unabridged version of Hamlet, which makes it more loyal to the original text written by Shakespeare. There is an amazing attention to detail, which gives us an almost similar air of openness to interpretations, unlike Zeffirrelli’s film adaptation of Hamlet in 1990. Hamlet (played by Kenneth Branagh), however, does not seem to be suffering from depressive pain or existential dilemma. Unlike other interpretations, Branagh’s Hamlet does not appear to be insane.

Branagh’s “To be or not to be” scene is worthy of consideration. He spoke into a two-way mirror, while his enemies are spying on him. Branagh’s portrayal differs from Gibson’s as his provides a Hamlet who is probably contemplative of suicide. The part where Branagh points a dagger to his neck gives an eerie feeling. Though this may suggest Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide, it is still unclear whether Branagh’s Hamlet is indeed suicidal.

As to whether Hamlet has indeed hatred towards women, the two films provide different interpretations. In the 1990 version, the line “get thee to a nunnery” and similar lines have been cut and inserted at a later time. Gibson’s Hamlet does become angry at Ophelia and delivers some lines in Shakespeare’s original text, but the “nunnery” and similar lines are found only in the middle of the subsequent scene during the play within the play. The lines are delivered calmly, and not in anger. Placing these lines on a different scene gives the idea that Hamlet is alerting Ophelia to go to a safer place, discarding the negative connotation of a nunnery. Hamlet appears to be desirous of Ophelia’s safety. Here, Hamlet is portrayed as not mad (Maçek III). As aforesaid, he is more in control of his faculties.

The 1996 version did not omit the “get thee to a nunnery” line, nor was it transferred to other scenes. Branagh’s delivery of this line during a confrontation with Ophelia (played by Kate Winslet) is very emotionally wrenching. There is a depiction of Hamlet’s cruelty towards Ophelia, which is caused, as is successfully portrayed by Branagh, by Ophelia’s betrayal. Branagh successfully presents the idea that Hamlet’s anger towards Ophelia is not due to his failure to realize his sexual desires for his mother (Lehmann).

There are points and differences in the two films that are worthy of discussion. The 1990 version cuts several scenes and makes some rearrangements on the sequencing of scenes, even in the delivery of lines. The good thing about this is that it makes the film more digestible and marketable. Those who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet will tend to appreciate this version more than the other versions. Another good thing about it is that Zeffirelli, as the director, is able to play with the story, enabling him to insert his own textual and psychoanalytic interpretation of the original text. He is able to make the story of Hamlet modern, such that his film establishes a connection between the modern-day people and the centuries-old play.

The negative thing about Zeffirelli’s attempt to make Hamlet digestible and marketable is that it provides an over-reading and an over-interpretation of the text, to the point that there is almost an injustice inflicted upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is particularly obvious in the scene where Gibson confronts Close in her bed, where instead of leaving a room for interpretation as to whether there is a sexual subtext, Zeffirelli makes it clear that Hamlet has indeed an incestuous sexual desire towards Gertrude.

Zeffirelli also omits Fortinbras in his adaptation of Hamlet. This might have provided the movie a more focused attention on Hamlet rather than giving some attention to the future of Denmark, but this omission changes how the story should end. It differs from how Shakespeare envisioned it to be. The absence of Fortinbras gives the film a more chaotic ending.

On the other hand, the 1996 film version starred and directed by Kenneth Branagh is a full-text version of the play. The advantage of an uncut version is that the audience is able to see more details. The political situation in the story has also become clear; Branagh successfully provides us the idea that Hamlet is about both domestic and national tragedy. The downside of making a long film is that it is not appealing to many movie-goers. It is not as marketable as the 1990 version and as friendly to non - Shakespeare fans. Nevertheless, Branagh’s adaptation is often seen as the best adaptation of Hamlet. It is more loyal to the original text than any other interpretation.      

Branagh tried to veer away from traditional psychoanalytic interpretation of Hamlet, and he was successful for that matter. The “Hamlet-confronts-his-mother” scene is not in any way similar to how Zeffirelli presented it. Likewise, there is no omission of Fortinbras, which provides a less chaotic ending.       

The choice of actors is quite interesting. There are Shakespearean actors and movie actors in the film, unlike in the 1990 version that showcased Hollywood stars. It could be said therefore that there is an attempt to present Hamlet similar to the way Shakespeare envisioned it. It is likewise clear that the aim of the film is to create an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and not to make a box-office hit.

The 1996 version is also beautifully executed. The set is a hodgepodge of classicism and romanticism. The film is very visual and makes use of flashbacks to depict the scenes that are only described in the original text. Despite of being lengthy, the film also makes a connection to the audience through its amazing visual sense. It is able to preserve the whole original text, and catch the flavor Zeffirelli tried to create as well.

On a personal note, although both films attempt to make adaptations of a centuries-old play, both reflect the modern culture. Every adaptation includes an interpretation of the one making the adaptation; and every interpretation includes the personal stance of the one making the interpretation. Zeffirelli’s adaptation reflects the modern culture’s idea of a good movie. The modern culture deems of a good movie as not lengthy, not boring, beautifully executed, and able to connect to the audience. The choice of having Hollywood actors clearly gives us the idea that Zeffirelli wanted to provide an air of modernity, instead of making the adaptation out-of-date. The way some scenes are executed likewise gives the idea that some parts of the story are happening in the modern world. This includes the “Hamlet-confronts-his-mother” scene, and “to be or not to be” scene, which is not as lengthy as Branagh’s adaptation.

Branagh’s likewise reflects modern culture albeit this reflection of modern culture is not as evident as in Zeffirelli’s. This culture is seen in the execution of the film where there is somewhat an obsession to flashbacks as a way of explaining some details that were merely described in the original text. The flashbacks are necessary to provide the audience, particularly those who are easily bored by mere listening to speeches, a picture of what the characters are thinking. There is likewise a little attempt to make the film appealing to the modern man by making use of luxuriously decorated place, dramatic cinematography, and star-studded cast. Even though the attempt is to preserve the original text, it cannot be denied that Branagh is using the perspective of someone who embraces the modern culture in the making of the film.   

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