Five Hamlets Expanded
This post was created to supplement a writing workshop.
“To be or not to be”
From The Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Hamlet
by Hilary J Kovar, Ph.D
The status of Hamlet’s most famous speech is tricky.
If Hamlet knows (or even suspects) that Claudius and Polonius (or their agents) are spying on him, this is a monologue that pretends to be a soliloquy, and its representation of Hamlet’s “inner thoughts” is a matter of performance over revelation—seeming over being.
If Hamlet doesn’t know (or suspect) that spies are present, this is apparently a soliloquy that is nonetheless technically a monologue; it can by convention be taken as Hamlet’s true inner thoughts.
Given events in the play prior to III.i, when this speech occurs, if Hamlet doesn’t expect spies everywhere, he must be crazy. (Aye, there’s the rub.)
Hamlet is not an idiot; is he truly crazy? This one gets played both ways, especially in film versions.
Kenneth Branagh’s version is a monologue; he is aware of Claudius’s and Polonius’s presence (he faces a mirror and his eyes dart to the curtained alcove behind him at various points in his delivery).
David Tennant’s, however, is delivered as a true soliloquy— a confession of innermost thoughts.
If “To be or not to be” is a soliloquy, Hamlet is contemplating suicide very seriously indeed; if it’s a monologue, the possibilities are endless—as are the double meanings for his probable auditors: Hamlet may want Claudius to think he’s suicidal, but the words “grunt and sweat” and even “to die” (a French euphemism for orgasm) take on an earthier meaning given Polonius’s diagnosis that Hamlet is mad with love (i.e., crazy with lust) for Ophelia.
Whether Hamlet suspects spies—and their identities—is a decision for actors and directors and readers.
Olivier* stresses Hamlet’s psychology, particularly his Oedipus Complex.
As a result, he eliminates most political meanings; cuts Fortinbras , Voltimand and Cornelius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; downplays Hamlet’s concern with honor, fame, reputation; and emphasizes Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude.
Olivier makes his psychological interpretation clear from the beginning: After the opening credits, Olivier reads the slightly cut speech about a personal defect (I.4.23-36); the text appears against shifting fog (why use fog?).Olivier then announces, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
This bad boy* presents the whole text unabridged. Yep, all 4,042 lines. Most versions of Shakespeare’s longest play drop at least a few lines or even a few scenes to keep the running time down. Not so for Branagh.
Branagh seems to stress the hidden secrets and other goodies lurking just below the surface. In his mind, the court’s corruption has been papered over with pretty pictures, and people are doing their best to ignore it. So we (here in the audience) focus on all the prettiness of the surfaces themselves and slowly become aware of what’s really going down. For example, the main hallway is decorated with mirrors that lead to hidden rooms, and the sets have all sorts of filigrees and sculpted edges that stress their appearance…
This version stands out from the rest because it’s not all gloom and doom. Everything is bright here: people wear colorful outfits, confetti falls from the ceiling, and the party never ends. (Considering that the old king just died and Fortinbras is marching on the palace, that’s probably a mistake. Just sayin’.) Only Hamlet wears black, serving the role of the honest man in the room to remind everyone of the way things really are. Very passive-aggressive, Hammie.
*The ‘bad boy in question is Kenneth Branagh, who like Olivier before him, directed and starred in the production. Also, like Olivier before him, he made the choices on how to adapt the play to film, what to leave out. His answer? Nothing. Ironically, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing [Adapted Screenplay].
This is a Hamlet of quicksilver intelligence, mimetic vigour and wild humour: one of the funniest I’ve ever seen.
He parodies everyone he talks to, from the prattling Polonius to the verbally ornate Osric. After the play scene, he careers around the court sporting a crown at a tipsy angle.
Yet, under the mad capriciousness, Tennant implies a filial rage and impetuous danger: the first half ends with Tennant poised with a dagger over the praying Claudius, crying: “And now I’ll do it.”
Newcomers to the play might well believe he will.
Cumberbatch’s Hamlet Discussed
I don’t think I have ever seen a more rational Hamlet. When Benedict Cumberbatch tots up his bodkins, whips, fardels and slings in “To be or not to be”, he might be enlisting the audience’s support in a debate about assisted dying. Each possibility is laid out with complete clarity and assessed. Like a first-rate barrister in training, he nips around his mind to argue against himself.
Anyone who has seen Cumberbatch on stage over the past decade knows he is as quick and varied in the theatre as he is enclosed and enigmatic on the small screen…. Now it turns out that he also has an elastic ease with Shakespearean verse. He can shift an emphasis – “You were sent for…” – or drop in a 21st -century intonation without missing a beat or skewing the sense. He always transmits a meaning. He is never in the least bit mad.
Perfect for the contemplation of suicide! And yet, this most sane of all Hamlets* doesn’t appear to be actually considering suicide, as other Hamlets are. Other Hamlets seem to come to the conclusion during this speech that suicide is off the table, but Gibson’s Hamlet seems to begin it already knowing that he had no intention of offing himself — he seems more to be lamenting the fact that he already believes suicide is not an option, as if it’s his poor fortune to be so thoughtful and introspective.
To agree with that as a valid take on the play, or not to agree, isn’t so much the question for me as is the simple fact that this production made me see things, in its unusual approach to the play, that I’d never seen before. That makes it extremely valuable… and fascinating.
*Written prior to Cumberbatch’s “rational” Hamlet [see above].
Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet starred teenagers who were the age of the actual characters played. This was an unexpected deviation from tradition. It was also remarkably successful both artistically and financially. It was a blockbuster hit and is still a stunningly beautiful performance almost fifty years later. His choice for Hamlet was even more shocking. Gibson was not classically trained and had only done action movies prior to this.
Here. Enjoy the Romeo and Juliet trailer and see the famous tale presented as it should be–the throes of teenaged first passion with all the naiveté and innocence and foolhardy passion that entails.
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