Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hamlet (1948)

This is Deadly Daddies Week! All this week we'll look at some of the nastiest, meanest and downright scariest fathers to cross the silver screen.

Hamlet (1948)
seen online via YouTube

In my acting class in college, I played a scene from Hamlet once. Don't ask me what act and scene it was specifically, but it was the one in which Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius thinking that he's his stepfather Claudius, and gives his mother Gertrude an earful. I've talked before about how I approached that scene, but one thing I never mentioned is the obstacle of William Shakespeare's language. Yes, it definitely helps if you have one of those Shakespeare books that have footnotes on one side which explain certain words and phrases, but if you read and watch enough Shakespeare, you can get a rudimentary sense of the language. It's a barrier for a lot of people, I know, and it's not easy to get past, but if even I could figure out enough to be able to play the scene, anybody can. (Not that that makes me any kind of authority - I still have difficulty grokking a Shakespeare play a lot of the time.)

As I saw the same scene played out in the Laurence Olivier version, I thought about my approach to it, all those years ago. Unlike me, Olivier didn't feel the need to go for the home run, emotionally speaking, but then for him this was one more scene out of an entire play he was performing (and directing). Then again, perhaps the fact that he was making a movie and not a live performance made a difference. Someone like him surely knew that different media had to be approached differently. Regardless, he at least had a better Gertrude to work with than I did!

I'd always thought of Olivier as this larger-than-life figure that was cold and remote and very properly British. Then again, maybe I associated him too much with his role in Rebecca, a favorite old movie of mine. You have to admit, though, his legend does precede him to a certain degree. His very name is practically a metaphor for acting brilliance, but it's acting of another generation: the crisp enunciation, the mannered way of speaking, the bold gestures - it's all very theatrical, but it's not the kind of acting we're used to seeing today. Brando and DeNiro and Pacino and Hoffman set a new standard, at least in America, and Olivier doesn't loom quite as large anymore, I think. Not that it makes him any less great to watch.

Back to Hamlet, though. Everyone knows the story, but I wanna talk about the character Claudius, who secretly kills Hamlet's dad, marries his mom and assumes the throne of Denmark. (Claudius is played here by Basil Sydney, who I've never heard of.) After the play Hamlet arranged that's meant to implicate Claudius as the killer, Claudius seems repentant for a moment afterward, and even prays, and Hamlet, like a schmuck, not only doesn't kill him, he doesn't even try talking to him. 

For the villain of the piece, we really don't get deep enough inside his head. It seems to be taken as a given that Claudius did what he did out of ambition, but I'm not entirely certain about that. Was it even the throne that he was after? Maybe it was Gertrude? How did Claudius really feel about his brother? Maybe he thought he was doing a crappy job of running things. If he was able to feel regret over what he had done, that makes me think there might be more to the story besides a simple murder - and not just a murder, but a coup d'etat. But Hamlet doesn't even try to find out, which is odd when it seems as if what he wanted out of the gambit with the play was a public confession from Claudius. 

Plus, as the rightful (and only) heir to the throne, Hamlet should've considered it his responsibility to, at the very least, expose Claudius publicly as the usurper if he was that opposed to killing him. The play doesn't make a big deal about this aspect of Hamlet's dilemma, and looking at it again now, I think that was a mistake. Someone - Horatio, Polonius, anybody - should've reminded Hamlet of his duty to the kingdom and to stop being such a wuss!

Previously on Deadly Daddies Week:
The Attic
The Stepfather

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