Monday, May 2, 2022

Hamlet's First Line

. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, and Robin Williams. 1996. DVD. Castle Rock, 2007.
Hamlet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, and Helena Bonham Carter. 1990. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2004.
Hamlet. Dir. Kevin Kline. Perf. Kevin Kline and Diane Venora. 1990. DVD. Image Entertainment, 1990.
Hamlet. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Perf. Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, and Terence Morgan. 1948. DVD. Criterion, 2000.

Hamlet's first line is famously "Who's there?" which has lead to many jokes about the play being the world's longest knock-knock joke. But Hamlet's first line is "A little more than kin, and less than kind." [Please note the difference between italic typeface "Hamlet" and straight Roman "Hamlet" there—that's where we have vive la diffĂ©rence in this instance.]

An interesting discussion started on Twitter last week about that line. Many reported seeing it marked [Aside] in various editions. So I ran right straight to my Three-Text Hamlet (for which, q.v.) and confirmed that the line is not marked aside in Q1, Q2, or F. Indeed, Hamlet doesn't get the line in Q1 at all. His first line there is "My lord, ti's [sic] not the sable sute I weare . . . ." But, as usual, I digress.

Next, I grabbed my favorite Arden edition (the second series one—edited by Harold Jenkins), and I found that the first edition to mark the line as aside is Lewis Theobald's second edition (1740).

Therefore, we don't have a contemporary aside—but that doesn't mean actors and directors can't have it delivered aside. In fact, it's another place where my idea of Hamlet as a game of chess (for which, q.v.) comes into play. It's Hamlet's first line, and it can set the tone for his character for the rest of the play.

After that, I remembered that this is a Shakespeare and Film Blog, so I put together one video that shows how four different actors have performed the line: Branagh, Gibson, Kline, and Olivier. Take a look!

Branagh gives us an aside in voiceover. It's a telling choice that indicates the heavier emphasis on introspection in his idea of the character of Hamlet. Gibson gives us a straightforward reading, directed at Claudius. There's not much reaction from Claudius—but Gertrude seems to like the sun / son pun. 

I find Kline's to be the most interesting. It's delivered straight at Claudius—with the whole Danish court watching on and listening in. They respond with a few Oooooooohs. That clues us in to the idea that his Hamlet is not following social mores. He's a bit unaccountable—a loose canon. 

And then we have Olivier—who cuts the line entirely! I suppose it's meant to be internalized—presenting a different kind of challenge to Claudius' authority. There's more to be developed here. What's the difference between an audience member who knows the line is coming and doesn't hear it and an audience member who doesn't?  [Note: Here's a good Shakespeare and Film essay topic ready to go!]

It's one line, but it can be served up in many ways—each one providing something of significance to the Hamlet delivering it.

Links: The Films at IMDB: Branagh, Gibson, Kline, and Olivier.

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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