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    The Portrayal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Cinema Essay

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    This indecisiveness is apparent again in this quotation from Rothwell (1999) ‘Prince Hamlet as misogynist is but one of the princes multiple masks that include avenger, wit, actor, manager, director, philosopher, murderer, duelist, soldier, courtier, “glass of fashion”, and almost every other imaginable human trait… yet in this movie a good deal of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s misogyny lurks behind the Hamlet mask. ‘ (Kenneth S. Rothwell, 1999, pp. 57) Rothwell believes Hamlet to be an everyman (or everywoman, e. g.Sarah Bernhardt and Asta Nielson) and even manages to match him up to Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy as played by Laurence Olivier.

    Hamlet’s anger comes through more in this film as in the Branagh film but not so in the Zeffirelli film. Olivier’s Hamlet is a very bad-tempered character; he paces around and lets his thoughts run wild (as Mel Gibson described Hamlet an introspective, who thinks too much). In the voices over’s of his soliloquies especially in the first you can see how his thoughts are affecting him quite strongly, his mind is in turmoil.

    There is even some indication that he may have been considering suicide during the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy as we see he is holding a dagger to his abdomen. Olivier chose a surprisingly young actress for his Gertrude, at the time of filming she was more than 10 years his junior despite playing his mother; ‘Eileen Herlie was only twenty-seven when the film was made (Olivier was forty), and she brought with her a decidedly sexy presence. ‘ (Anthony B. Dawson, 1995. pp. 181) Anthony B Dawson believes that Eileen Herlie was cast as Gertrude to create ‘a plausible rival to Ophelia for her son’s affections.

    ‘ It cannot be denied that there are one or two marginally overenthusiastic kisses but contrary to many critics I do believe that the Olivier film makes less of the oedipal interpretation in the closet scene, though it seems to favour the child-like portrayal of Hamlet. There is little sexual contact with his mother as could be used for the Freudian perception and is so in Zeffirelli’s film. Olivier prefers more to hug her and at one point lays his head upon her lap as would a child.

    This contrasts well with the Zeffirelli film, Olivier’s Hamlet is not physically violent towards his mother, but this once again may reflect more the views of the time rather than Shakespeare’s intention. The duel scene contrasts with the Bernhardt film by lasting much longer and the use of camera movement, mainly high angle shots. The duel scene is very stagey; swashbuckling and flashy swordplay, unlike the thrusting broadsword of Zefferilli’s Hamlet and the structured and controlled fencing of Branagh’s. The final scene of this film imitates the first with Hamlet’s funeral procession up to the highest tower in the castle.

    Chapter Five Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, 1990 Zeffirelli’s film is the only one of the three studied for this essay, which is not directed by the actor playing Hamlet. Zeffirelli cut, rewrote and rearranged much of his Hamlet; he only kept 1242. 5 of Shakespeare’s original lines. The speech made by Claudius towards Hamlet in the text during his wedding in which he requests Hamlet sees him as a father is moved to the extra added scene of old Hamlet’s funeral and the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech is moved to the same scene as The Mousetrap.

    Zeffirelli’s aim with all of his Shakespeare films was to make Shakespeare accessible and understandable to not only a wider but a younger audience hence his rewriting of some of the language, to make it more comprehensible for a modern audience although it is often thought that he underestimates his audience’s intelligence by changing words that really may not have needed changing. ‘Some of the changes indicate that Zeffirelli has a distressingly low estimate of his audience’s intelligence. At 3. 2.

    49 for instance, ‘stirrups of no kindred’ becomes ‘stirrups of different families. ‘ At 1. 1. 84, Minerva is replaced by goddess. ” (Ace Pilkington in Davies and Wells, 1994, pp. 168) Zeffirelli was an enthusiastic devotee of Shakespeare. He felt that Shakespeare and his plays should be universally celebrated and everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy them. He chose his actors carefully, feeling that famous actors, especially Hollywood heart-throbs like Mel Gibson, would attract the younger generation.

    He was right, as we can see from the reference to Mel Gibson as Hamlet in the chick flick, Clueless (1992). ‘Zeffirelli is often criticised for the lavish spectacle of his productions, which are said to distract from the underlying play, but he has undeniably brought Shakespeare to a wider audience’ (Charles Boyce cited by Ace Pilkington in Davies and Wells, 1994. pp. 164) I believe, Zefferelli’s Hamlet is slightly less lavish than his past productions.

    The ‘all star’ cast and the numerous stunning locations are the only spectacular aspects of this film, rather than the beautiful costumes or adorable but unknown actors (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) used in Romeo and Juliet. I do not believe that this lavishness will detract from the play, because adding visual interest can often attract more attention, as many young people are very visually orientated and in film the visual element lends itself to be easier to understand, it becomes self-explanatory. Zeffirelli’s Hamlet unlike his other films was not filmed in Italy.

    It was actually filmed at various locations around the UK, including Dover castle in Kent, Aberdeen and several other castles, mainly in Scotland. I believe Scotland was chosen to create a setting with the typical Scandinavian weather but may have been cheaper than to film on location at Elsinore itself. Both Zeffirelli’s previous films ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had been set and filmed in Italy. The filming of Hamlet challenged Zeffirelli and took him out of his comfort zone by being set in Denmark and filmed mainly in Scotland;

    ‘He is simply not as much at home in Elsinore as he was in Padua or Verona. ‘ (Robert Hapgood in Boose and Burt, 1997. pp. 89) Zeffirelli is Italian and uses his knowledge and love of Italy in his first two films. This is virtually impossible for his Hamlet. Zeffirelli was not familiar with Denmark. Scandinavians like Hamlet are very affected by their location. Northern Europeans are plagued by depression and seasonal affective disorder because of their cold, dark, wintery climate and this is shown in Hamlet’s character.

    Zeffirelli, as an Italian, may not completely understand this aspect of Hamlet as these disorders are much less common in Southern Europe where it is warm and bright. Like Branagh’s Hamlet, Zefferelli’s is filmed in colour but it still retains the element of darkness like Olivier’s. Zeffirelli was strongly influenced by Olivier’s Hamlet he is said to have renounced all other films of Hamlet between 1948 and 1990. Zeffirelli referred to Olivier’s Hamlet so much that Mel Gibson was offered Olivier’s actual shirt worn in the previous 1948 film of Hamlet;

    ‘A further example of the impact of the Olivier version comes from Glenn Close in the short HBO film The Making of Hamlet ‘The first day of shooting he [Mel Gibson] was given by one of the producers the actual shirt that Olivier wore in his famous Hamlet,’ And Gibson tells of making ‘sure that I was in the hotel room by myself, with the lights out and I tried this shirt on. Gradually I got the courage to turn the lights on and I found that it was probably a little too small, but it fit well enough” (Ace Pilkington in Davies and Wells, 1994, pp. 166)

    The film opens with a mix of high and low angle shots upon a crowd of traditionally black clad mourners and solemn knights leading into the crypt where Hamlets father is laid to rest. The scene is dark with the only lights on the faces of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet. Gertrude’s love for Claudius is more demonstrative in this film. In others it is not obvious and there has been much debate over Gertrude’s reasons for marrying Claudius; she may have just wanted to keep her own status and her son in line for the throne. Much more affection between the couple is shown in this film.

    The ghost in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is very different. It comes away from the text by not wearing armour as is stated in the text although this line and the whole scene in which it features has in fact been cut. Also to those who do not know the story, it may not be clear that he is a ghost and he looks very solid and human compared to those in Olivier’s and Branagh’s films, if a little pallid and unwell. There is nothing obvious to confirm the supernatural nature of the scene, no special effects; Hamlet could be talking to any other character had the text not stated that he is a ghost.

    Also Hamlet’s reaction to his father seems more emotional in Zeffirelli’s film; shock, grief, disbelief, emotional terror, as a son may react to seeing the ghost of his deceased father. Contrary to the other two films, Zeffirelli readily, almost enthusiastically, takes up the oedipal interpretation of Hamlet. It is very obvious in the closet scene where Hamlet all but rapes his mother. The childlike interpretation is also apparent in other scenes. He starts carelessly waving his sword around in rage, he mocks Polonius in the madness scene and when he is killed.

    Hamlet openly flirts with Ophelia while professing he doesn’t love her, he also becomes tearful at various moments during the play. Ophelia is played by 24 year old Helena Bonham-Carter, her own innocence does not seem so genuine in this film, through her facial expressions, her comments and her unusual behaviour towards Banardo when she goes mad. This is as if she has already had some sort of sexual awakening and is returning his flirting in a slightly more meaningful way.

    In this film much eavesdropping goes on; he witnesses the scene between Polonius and Ophelia when Polonius tells Ophelia to not be so freely accepting of Hamlet’s tokens. This may be a reason for going to Ophelia first with his pretend insanity because he knew she would tell her father. As it happens Ophelia does not need to tell him because Polonius is shown to witness this scene also. Hamlet’s madness is less angry in this film and more comical; he laughs and makes the audience laugh. He mocks Polonius while reading and being questioned.

    He wears Polonius’s cap after killing him and comes out with some of the strangest comments to his uncle. Hamlet’s brief comical and flirtatious moments in the film contrast with the almost permanently angry or gloomy Hamlet played by Olivier and Branagh. The fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is shown in this film, because the text that would usually indicate what happened to them is cut. We are shown Hamlet switching the letters but are only told by voice over what is said in the original letter.

    The acting style of our Hamlet’s between the films is incredibly different. Mel Gibson is not a stage actor, although he has had experience on stage, he is famous for films; his acting is a more realistic presentation. He plays Hamlet as if he is Hamlet, he is this seriously disturbed, grieving young man whereas Branagh and Olivier are both more stage orientated and play Hamlet more as the usual larger than life Shakespearean character paying indirect homage to the writer rather than the story and character itself.

    Mel Gibson was chosen for the role of Hamlet after Zeffirelli saw him playing the character of depressed Sergeant Martin Gibbs in Lethal Weapon; ‘Zeffirelli’s sudden inspiration as he watched Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, that here was a young actor who could play a new kind of Hamlet had paid off in a return to the roots of Shakespeares play – the revenge tragedy and Hamlet as a thriller. ‘ (Ace Pilkington in Davies and Wells, 1994, pp. 174) Mel Gibson is probably our youngest Hamlet at thirty-four, Glenn Close, who plays Gertrude, was forty-three and his Ophelia is twenty-four.

    Olivier was forty when he played Hamlet opposite his twenty-seven year old Gertrude and eighteen year old Ophelia, both of whom are considerably young compared to the other actresses. Branagh was thirty-six in his film of Hamlet, Gertrude play by Julie Christie was fifty-seven a seemingly more appropriate age for Gertrude and Kate Winslet’s Ophelia was twenty-one. There is a reference to Hamlets age in the gravedigger scene, when we are told how long Hamlets childhood friend Yorick has been in the ground making early thirties a very feasible age for Hamlet.

    The indecisiveness of Olivier’s Hamlet is almost non-existent in Zeffirelli’s film, though this does not make him a more understandable character. Zefferelli’s Hamlet is impulsive, he does not think about his actions until afterwards, if he thinks about them at all. ‘Gibson’s prince is not weighed down by ‘conscience,’ which means in Elizabethan usage ‘thoughtfulness’ rather than moral scruples… or what today might be called ‘guilt’. ‘ (Kenneth S. Rothwell, 1999, pp. 132)

    He is a spur-of-the-moment prince, as mentioned before he waves his sword around like a child in anger. He does not think twice about plunging his sword through the arras in Gertrude’s chamber not knowing who is behind it. He does not think how his actions are affecting the people around him Ophelia most of all is upset by his behaviour and the murder of her father tips her over the edge. He’s a very careless person and his desire for revenge is insatiable and selfish. Chapter Six Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996

    Kenneth Branagh has performed and directed many stage productions of Shakespeare between 1987 and 2002, he played Hamlet on stage in 1988 directed by Derek Jacobi who himself played Hamlet in the BBC Shakespeare series and in turn plays Claudius in Branagh’s film. The Branagh film is the full text. Nothing has been cut. Branagh struggled to obtain finance for his full length Hamlet because too many film companies did not believe that a full length Shakespeare, and of all things Hamlet, would be practical for a late 20th Century audience.

    “‘The perpetual reluctance of film companies to finance Shakespeare had frustrated each attempt’ (Branagh cited by Mark J. Casselo, 2004) It is not difficult to see why film companies thought that. Youngsters and even some adults today are not interested in Shakespeare; the enjoyment is crushed out of them before they even leave school from being forced to study it. They maybe happy to watch a severely cut version but a four hour version of a play they do not know or like and barely understand, is hardly going to be box office blockbuster.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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