Sunday, November 22, 2009

Micro-Comment on Macro-Hamlet: Branagh, King Hamlet, and the Serpent

Hamlet. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, Reece Dinsdale, Ken Dodd, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Ian McElhinney, Michael Maloney, Simon Russell Beale, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Ben Thom, and Robin Williams. 1996. DVD. Castle Rock, 2007.

Enough material about the Branagh Hamlet could be generated to make a month of posts. But, for today, we'll just have a brief comment on the winter setting.

Branagh cuts away very frequently in his Hamlet: he cuts to scenes that illuminate, explain, or annotate the speeches. One of these occurs when Hamlet's father's ghost is explaining the circumstances of his death.

In the explanatory sequence, we see Hamlet's father, looking remarkably like Father Christmas, dozing in his garden (see the image above). We're presented with that image while the Ghost speaks these lines:
’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused. . . . (I.v.35-38)
In this version, it is even more rankly abused than elsewhere! Does anyone really believe that a snake made its way through all that snow to bite the King of Denmark? All the snakes in Denmark, I imagine, were in deep hibernation that winter. Either Claudius is a very good liar or the people of Denmark are far too credulous!

The setting is winter in the present of the film as well—it's not just in the flashbacks to King Hamlet's death—and that setting also makes us wonder where Ophelia gets the flowers later in the play—though this is such a wealthy court that they are doubtless delivered daily to Denmark. More importantly, it makes us wonder about Gertrude's account of Ophelia's drowning. Who chipped a hole in the ice for her to fall through?

I'll need to do some additional research into those aspects of the setting. But I'll just remark how fascinating it is that a shift in the setting of the play can have such far-reaching ramifications for its interpretation.

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Marcheline said...

Methinks thou dost protest too much.

The snowy setting was fantastic, and nitpicking one or two small, unimportant items because they didn't match up exactly is pretty sorry commentary on such a fantastic production.

I live where it snows every winter, and just because there is snow on the ground does not mean that the lakes, rivers, and brooks freeze solid. Right now, as I type, there is snow on the ground, and running water in the stream to the lake near my house.

In an interview available on the Kenneth Branagh Compendium website, Mr. Branagh admits that the flowers that Ophelia was making a garland of wouldn't have been growing in the snow, but he felt it was not enough of an issue to change his whole idea of the movie setting. After all, the castle could well have, and most likely did have hothouses, or she could have used dried flowers.

Shakespeare actually suggested the setting himself, if you want to get right down to it.

First, in Act I Scene I, we have this:

"Bernardo: ’Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
Francisco: For this relief much thanks; ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart."

Later, in Act I Scene IV, Horatio and Hamlet discuss the weather as they are walking out to watch for the ghost, and they comment on the cold weather:

"Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air."

With a mere 18 million dollars (a pittance in movie making parlance) and a ten-week shoot, Kenneth Branagh gave us the most gorgeous, lush, exciting, and COMPLETE film version of Hamlet ever recorded.

If you can do it better, perhaps it would be a better use of time than nitpicking at pure genius.

kj said...

Oh, dear. I'm afraid my tone didn't come across the way I intended. It was intended as humorous and flippant, and it came across as nit-picky.

Branagh's production is marvelous. I'm thinking about his choice of a winter setting and the effects it should have on the in-play audience. Branagh's choice makes the idea that a serpent killed the old king highly suspicious to those in the world of the play. They really ought to be looking strangely at Claudius from the play's beginning: "Really? A serpent? In mid-winter?" Whether that's Branagh's choice or whether Branagh's choice draws attention to Shakespeare's choice (although things can go from warm, serpent-producing weather to bitter chill in two months' time), it's interesting.

I'm sorry if it came across as nit-picky. If you want nit-picky, we could talk about Jack Lemmon!



p.s. I don't think I could do a better job than Branagh, but if anyone wants to give me eighteen million dollars, I'm willing to try!


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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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