Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Who Killed Osric in Branagh's Hamlet?

Hamlet. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh and Robin Williams. 1996. DVD. Castle Rock, 2007.

Small epiphanies are still epiphanies. When I first saw Branagh's Hamlet, I wondered about Robin Williams' Osric. As I remembered it, immediately after Laertes said "The King—the King's to blame" (V.ii.326) and two women each cry "Treason!" (V.ii.328), he moved to the wall in the great hall, stabbed himself, and looked startled. Later, he gives his last line, raising his bloody hand near the end of the speech:
Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland,
To the ambassadors of England gives
This warlike volley. (V.ii.255-57)
I recall being very puzzled. Was Osric's suicide intended as a comic counterpoise to Hamlet's contemplation of suicide? Osric offers no soliloquy, brooks no delay, ponders no consequences, and reflects on his death not at all, preferring to talk about Fortinbras and the ambassadors of England instead. Very unlike the Dane, that.

When the videocassette was released, I watched the film again. This time, I noticed that it wasn't Osric who stabbed Osric—but I couldn't figure out who did! Who in the Great Hall would have such a grudge against Osric? And why would they seize the opportunity to stab him upon the cry of "Treason"? Was it because he could be a witness to the trechery?

When the DVD came out, I added it to my Shakespeare and Film syllabus and watched it—thrice (once in fits and starts and twice as a complete film)—with my classes. But it was only on this third viewing that I figured it out.

Osric actually exits the Great Hall before he is stabbed!

In this, Branagh seems to be (to a degree) following Harold Jenkins' Arden edition. Jenkins places the stage direction "Exit Osric" at V.ii.318, immediately before Laertes' accusatory speech; Branagh places it after Laertes' speech (and after a moved "Treason! treason!" line). The Folio has the stage direction "Enter Osric" at V.ii. 354—a stage direction that is usually quietly excised. Jenkins leaves it in, and he provides the corresponding exit here. J. Dover Wilson places it in the middle of V.ii.354, thus: ". . . to tell my story. [A march afar off and shot within. Exit Osric.] What warlike noise is this? [Enter Osric.]" But that seems unnecessarily distracting and time-consuming. And it makes sense for Osric to be in on the treason—to however small a degree (he is the one who gives Hamlet and Laertes the foils)—and for him to be cowardly and exit on the first sign that the treachery is revealed.

But who stabs Osric? Will this fourteen-year-old mystery never be solved?

Take a look:

That sleeve is the sleeve of one of Fortinbras' soldiers! Osric is a victim of Fortinbras' general orders to pacify the castle. He lasts long enough to re-enter and to deliver his last line—and then he become another in the pile of bodies at the end of the play.

The death of Osric may not puzzle everyone—nor does it need to be thought about as deeply as this. But I had never noticed the absent exit direction for Osric.

Additionally, I think placing the line "Treason! treason" immediately after Laertes' line is intriguing. Could it be read as an accusation against Laertes? Can Laertes so easily place all the blame (if all the blame is what he's attempting to place) on the King's head? Could it be read alternately—as an accusation against the King and, therefore, as absolution for the action Hamlet is about to do? If so, does it mean that Claudius has been treacherous to kingship itself? To the former King? To Gertrude?

And does the original placement of that line—right after "[Hamlet] wounds the King" (V.ii.326.s.d.)—indicate that the general crowd of Danes considers Hamlet's actions treasonous? Would they be more ready to support Fortinbras because of that?

I'm ready for another epiphany.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Anonymous said...

We tried in my englsih class to figure out who killed him. Someone with a brown coat

kj said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I'm glad that students and teachers still find this an intriguing question. And you're right--but you can add that the brown coat is worn by one of Fortinbras' soldiers.

Another question is whether it's fair (or Shakespearean?) to have a minor character killed off by an unnamed character. Any thoughts?



Anonymous said...

Ya I don't think it's fair just added not needed confusion. It's not fair because Osric was barely even there and then when he leaves he gets killed. Just doesn't make sense and not nessary. I wonder what Fortinbras solder had against him. Is it supose to be some sort of comic relief cause if it isn't that funny but.

Anonymous said...

wait never mind that but

Ken Johnson said...

I don't recall Osric dying on stage in any other version of Hamlet.
My guess is, with everyone else dying, Robin Williams cajoled Branagh into letting him have a death scene too.
And that sleeve doesn't belong to any other character either. It's probably just one of the stage hands in a tweed.

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