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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: May ::
Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0493  Monday, 25 May 1998.

[1]     From:   Justin Bacon <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 May 1998 12:21:44 -0700
        Subj:   Branagh's and Jennings's *Hamlet*s

[2]     From:   Kristine Batey <
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        Date:   Thursday, 21 May 1998 10:14:23 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*

[3]     From:   Jean Peterson <
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        Date:   Thursday, 21 May 1998 15:16:50 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0485  Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*

[4]     From:   Justin Bacon <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 May 1998 11:45:47 -0700
        Subj:   Branagh's Hamlet

[5]     From:   Justin Bacon <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 May 1998 11:59:06 -0700
        Subj:   Hamlet -- A Pet Peeve

[6]     From:   Justin Bacon <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 May 1998 12:09:11 -0700
        Subj:   Branagh's and Jennings's *Hamlet*s

[7]     From:   Justin Bacon <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 May 1998 12:21:44 -0700
        Subj:   Branagh's and Jennings's *Hamlet*s


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kevin J. Donovan <
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Date:           Thursday, 21 May 1998 08:29:02 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: 9.0485  Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0485  Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*

> Finally, let me defend one of the choices that was remarked on earlier:
> putting a prostitute in Polonius' bed.  One of the themes I see at work
> in the play is the notion that men inherently lust after and degrade
> women.  As Polonius says to Reynaldo, one of the "usual slips/ As are
> companions noted and most known/ To youth and liberty" is "drabbing",
> i.e., whoring.  Hamlet himself recognizes this and is unsure who's to
> blame: men or women ("I could accuse me of such things it were better my
> mother had not borne me" and, alternately, "wise men know well enough
> what monsters you make of them").  To put a prostitute in Polonius' bed
> emphasizes this theme.

Yes, yes, we're all pigs.  What about the descriptions of Hamlet's
father?  His behavior towards Gertrude hardly "degrades" her.  Certainly
the play is obsessed with lust and sin, but this directorial decision
seems heavy-handed and tendentious.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kristine Batey <
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Date:           Thursday, 21 May 1998 10:14:23 -0500
Subject:        Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*

>No turnip, but most definitely Scarlett.  Dale Lyles isn't the first to
>have noted the echo of GWTW.

In my own family, for example, one person started humming-well,
booming-the GWTW Tara theme, while two others yelled, "As God is my
witness, I'll never be hungry again!"

This is why we have to watch movies on video.

Kristine Batey
Northwestern University

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[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jean Peterson <
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Date:           Thursday, 21 May 1998 15:16:50 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 9.0485  Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0485  Re: Branagh's *Hamlet*

I knew my objections to Branagh's *Hamlet* risked being misunderstood,
so let me clarify: In my opinion, directors have the "right" to make
aesthetic choices, and to scissor the text (of Renaissance plays
especially, so notoriously unstable to begin with) into any
configuration that suits their artistic purposes.  What I found
objectionable-indeed, outright dishonest-was the gap between the CLAIMS
Branagh made while promoting the film-creating the impression that he
was somehow presenting a pure, authentic, unadulterated Hamlet (an
impossibility anyway, but let that pass)-- and his practice.  Russell
Jackson reports in the film diary that Branagh agonized over
"compromising" (B's word) the text (a cut-and-paste compilation of
extant versions-why is this "the full" or "complete" *Hamlet*?) by
changing so much as a syllable.  It strikes me as simply bizarre that
two such apparent textual "purists"-and they are the ones placing value
on textual fidelity, not me-did not view extra-textual elaborations, the
introduction of new characters, and the interpolation of non-existent
scenes in the same light as altering or changing the words.  Sure,
seeing Polonius with a prostitute enhances the general theme of
hypocrisy and sexual corruption.  But SHE ISN'T IN THE PLAY-so if you
are going to put her there, kindly drop the pretense that this version
is somehow more truthfully, authentically "Shakespearean" than all the
others.

After that, we get into matters of taste and opinion.  Those who enjoyed
the film are welcome, of course, to do so, but I could not.  It seemed
to me that what Branagh really needed was a director-someone to rein in
his excesses (we've already had fun with the *GWTW*-inspired
intermission break, but that was only one inappropriately risible
moment; Claudius' demise by flying sword and Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque
chandelier was my particular favorite), put brakes on his
self-indulgence, give his own performance better guidance, and (please!)
tone down Patrick Doyle's intrusive score.  And this is from someone who
still thinks that *Henry V* was a marvellous film; I even liked *Much
Ado*, which has had a much more negative reception from Shakespeareans
in general (and this list in particular, if I recall correctly).  So
here I stand by my opinion that Branagh's ego has, rather recently,
overwhelmed his sense of artistic discrimination.   And I say this in
genuine disappointment that a talent I admired seems to have squandered
itself in so short a space of time.

RE: Phyllis Rackin's suggestion that the film's campiness was
intentional; perhaps. (If only?)
 But that's hard for me to reconcile with how seriously Branagh seemed
to be taking himself and it during its promotion.  Still, it's possible
his tongue was planted in his cheek...

Jean Peterson
Bucknell University

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Justin Bacon <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 May 1998 11:45:47 -0700
Subject:        Branagh's Hamlet

Jean Peterson wrote:

> With all due respect to Justin Bacon, I do wonder at his holding up
> Branagh's *Hamlet* as a kind of standard or definitive *Hamlet*, as his
> suggestion implies.

My apologies, that was not my intent at all. Although, personally, I do
find Branagh's to be my favorite of the various filmed versions of
Hamlet I have seen, I was in this case suggesting the film not as a
matter of quality or validity of interpretation, but rather for
completeness of text. In this case a text based upon the Folio and Q2
versions of the play, which would provide a valid contrast (in my
opinion) with the Q1-influenced text used in the Jennings RSC
production.

>  This seems to take Branagh's own claims about the
> authoritative nature of his film entirely too much at his word.  I for
> one was at first puzzled and increasingly put off by Branagh's repeated
> insistence that he was filming the "entire" play, the "complete" text-as
> if such a thing existed-when he, like many directors before him, culled
> together a working text from all existing versions of the play,
> including modern emendations.  Branagh's version has the dubious
> distinction of being longer, perhaps, and including more of the
> potential options than other *Hamlet*s have, but his representation of
> his film as "the" complete *Hamlet* deliberately and dishonestly glossed
> over the very complex and interesting problems that the multiple texts
> of that play offer, and presented a misleading picture of his own
> directorial process.

To be fair to Branagh, he was attempting to present his reasons for
doing a 4 hour long Hamlet to a popular press-a popular press which is
unlikely to appreciate the finer nuances of textual interpretation. ;-)
We must also realize that for the vast majority of people there is no
such thing as alternate texts-there is only "Hamlet". They can
understand cutting the play down, but explaining the existence of
multiple "original" texts for the plays and the challenge of compiling a
single text from theses disparate sources is quite beyond their
knowledge base or their interest.

His version is certainly the most complete version of the play done for
film.

> I am not a textual "purist" myself, but I saw troubling contradictions
> between the way Branagh so vociferously claimed to treat each word of
> the text as sacrosanct, while taking such cavalier liberties with other
> kinds of changes and interpolations:

Agreed, the film's weakest parts are when he decides to try to be clever
(such the prostitute and sexual flashbacks).

> In short, I found Branagh's take on the play as "horribly warped" (to
> use Mr. Bacon's phrase)--by, more than anything, the continual intrusion
> of the director's colossal narcissism, which, since the dreadful
> *Frankenstein*, has apparently overpowered what judgement he once ever
> had-as anything the RSC might currently be dishing out.

The slight liberties Branagh may have taken with the play compare in no
way with the decisions made in Jennings' RSC version, in my opinion.
Branagh, while becoming excessive at times with his interpolations and
interpretations, remained largely true to both the structure and sense
of the play. The changes of the Jennings' version serve to not only
fundamentally alter the structure of the play, but also change the sense
and meaning of the play. I know it has become culturally vogue to have
Hamlet be completely insane and the Ghost false-but to push it so far as
to have an interpretation in which Claudius is obviously meant to be
*innocent* of Old Hamlet's murder is beyond my comprehension (by
removing and altering his two on-stage confessions and all other outward
signs of guilt). You are no longer even doing Shakespeare's Hamlet at
that point, in my humble opinion.

Justin Bacon

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[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Justin Bacon <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 May 1998 11:59:06 -0700
Subject:        Hamlet -- A Pet Peeve

Speaking of the Jennings and Branagh Hamlets has reminded me of a
personal pet peeve which I possess regarding a particular interpretation
of a line in this play. It is a little thing, but it is something which
has always baffled me. (Jennings does it in his performance, which was
one additional, small strike for me.)

Just after Hamlet sees the Ghost he has a long speech in which is
contained the line:

[OXFORD EDITION -- G.R Hibbard editor -- Stanley Wells General Editor ]
"My tables,
My tables -- meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

Why is it that immediately before, following, or during this line there
is always a stage direction of something along the lines of "He
writes."?

Yes, I know that "tables" are (as Hibbard describes in his footnote)
"small portable tablets for jotting down notes and observations". We
also know that Hamlet doesn't literally mean, "Let me take out my book
and write, 'That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.'" because
earlier in that same speech he says:

[Same edition.]
"[...] Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandmant all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter."

That passage clearly sets up "table" as a metaphor for memory. When he
says "My tables, my tables-meet it is I set it down..." he isn't saying,
"Let me jot down a quick note on this.." he's clearly saying, "I must
remember this!"

Like I said, it's a minor, little thing-and I am probably overreacting
to it. Yet I have always wondered why it has survived not only as an
archaic stage tradition, but as a prime example of poor scholarship in
not plucking that misplaced stage direction out of the text.

Justin Bacon

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[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Justin Bacon <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 May 1998 12:09:11 -0700
Subject:        Branagh's and Jennings's *Hamlet*s

Kristine Batey wrote:

> I have to agree with Jean about the Branagh Hamlet. There was a lot to
> like about it-the amount of textual material included set some parts of
> the play into a totally different perspective. But I, too, found myself
> put off by  the 19th-century setting. Anachronistic staging can work
> very nicely on the live stage, but it's rough to pull off on film, which
> is a terribly literal medium, without the anachronism being obtrusive.

I could find no objection to the 19th-century staging (although,
initially I was concerned). Branagh stayed true to the characters,
although their costuming had changed. This is certainly preferable to
staying true to the costuming while despoiling the characters.

> Oddly enough, the Hamlet-Gertrude bedroom scene was
> amazingly devoid of sexual tension; it eventually peters out into Hamlet
> and Gertrude sitting on the settee, having a calm chat, with Polonius
> stretched out on the floor in the background.

Allow me to say, "Thank God." There is nothing in the text to support
conclusions of sexual tension in that scene-to attempt to layer them on
destroys what I feel to be the true dynamic of the scene, Hamlet's
attempt to force Gertrude into resolving her inner conflict and "live
the better" half of herself.

> Branagh himself spends the whole movie tearing up the scenery and
> out-Heroding Herod; I was very disappointed in his performance. And the
> cameos, a la List of Adrian Messenger, got just plain silly.

I personally loved Crystal's Gravekeeper. Lemon, Gielgud, and Dench
(OTOH) were the lowest points of the film.

Justin Bacon

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[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Justin Bacon <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 May 1998 12:21:44 -0700
Subject:        Branagh's and Jennings's *Hamlet*s

John McWilliams wrote:

> I'm sorry to hear that
> Justin Bacon got bogged down in textual niceties and ended up hating
> this production.  Personally, I found it wonderfully enjoyable (and,
> incidentally, I think the cutting of the whole first scene was inspired,
> as it allowed for more inclusion elsewhere).

This is not about "textual nicety", but about a decision made somewhere
along the way in the development of Jennings Hamlet that decided they
would not be doing *Shakespeare's* Hamlet. The performance I saw had a
tangential relationship with Shakespeare's Hamlet, but was clearly *not*
Shakespeare's Hamlet-its form, its characters, its plot, and its events
were all different in very fundamental ways. They were similar, but
different.

The decision to not include the first scene, for example, fundamentally
changes the structure of the play-and was clearly done so that we never
see anyone but Hamlet observe the Ghost.

> And, it must be said, Alex
> Jennings acts rings round Kenneth Branagh...

Jennings and Branagh are my two favorite "young" Shakespearean actors.
I'm afraid I cannot rank them.

> >Why remove everything in the play which gives tangible proof
> >that Hamlet is not insane
>
> Well, I think that the definite proof that Hamlet is not insane which is
> being sought here shouldn't be given by any production. Isn't one of the
> play's virtues that it leaves us unsure as to the exact nature of
> Hamlet's state of mind and that our responses to this character are
> constantly shifting throughout the play.

I'm sorry, my original message was sloppily constructed and I did not
communicate my ideas effectively. The question's of Hamlet's degree of
sanity is, of course, open to a certain degree of interpretation,
however I feel in Shakespeare's Hamlet there are a few things we know
for sure:

1. The Ghost is real. Multiple people see it, its accusations are
confirmed, etc.
2. Claudius really is guilty. He admits it, the play (when done
properly) functions as corrobative evidence.

Jennings' Hamlet (and that's not an accurate descriptor, since it
certainly wasn't Jennings who made those decisions) cast both of those
things up in the air. Claudius' admissions of guilt are cut or blatantly
altered with no textual preference. The Ghost's reality is never
confirmed. The play scene was deliberately manipulated so that Claudius'
reaction was not one of guilt, but of reaction to Hamlet.

Shakespeare's Hamlet may occasionally balance on the brink of insanity,
Jennings' Hamlet clearly is meant to have slipped completely over the
edge- seeing false Ghosts, believing in false accusations, murdering
without cause, raving like a complete madman.

Justin Bacon

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