The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0518  Monday, 1 June 1998.

[1]     From:   Carol Barton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Saturday, 30 May 1998 09:28:50 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0517  Re: Branagh's Hamlet

[2]     From:   William Taylor <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 31 May 1998 21:37:58 -0700
        Subj:   Re: Branagh's Hamlet

From:           Carol Barton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 30 May 1998 09:28:50 EDT
Subject: 9.0517  Re: Branagh's Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0517  Re: Branagh's Hamlet

Larry Weiss writes:

>  Hamlet tells us four things that, if accurate, make it inexplicable that
>  he has not yet killed Claudius.

I should like to debate the "inexplicable" aspect of this argument with
you, Larry.  Certainly, Hamlet has both strength and means, and that is
clear from the events of the play, as you have remarked; but as to
"cause" and "will," I think there is more conflict than you have
suggested.  Yes, Hamlet knows after the conscience-catching play-or
knows as certainly as he can, absent an overt confession from
Claudius-that his uncle is his father's murderer; but he does not "know"
in the sense of personal conviction that he has the right to kill God's
anointed (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not crowned kings), and he
doesn't know if his clear and present duty under the Hammurabic lex
talionis that would perhaps have obtained at least vestigially at the
historical time of the play-and is asserted by the ghost-is a duty at
all under the Christian ethos that obtains at the time of the writer.
Shakespeare deliberately plays up the Christian aspects of Hamlet's
dilemma when the prince recoils from killing Claudius in the midst of
prayer, and the gravedigger expresses surprise that Ophelia will be
buried in consecrated ground; under that system of belief, "vengeance is
mine, saith the Lord," while under the older code, Hamlet is obligated
to take that vengeance upon himself, eye for eye.  I submit that the
same is true of Hamlet's perception of the ghost: at the historical time
of the play, the existence of spirits was unquestioned; at the
historical time of the writer, the forces of Mab were yielding to the
forces of the Royal Society; and Hamlet struggles to straddle the two,
trying to make sense of both ("be ye spirit damn'd . . ."), and able to
come to a conclusion about neither.  I think that, more than anything
else, is the basis for his procrastination: he would do what he had to
do, if only he could know for certain what that was.  I recently taught
Hamlet at the end of a lit survey in which I also covered the Oresteia,
and two things struck me in the juxtaposition of the two: Gertrude is a
non-entity (I had thought of her as an airhead, in my salad days)
because she cannot be otherwise: if she is a strong, thinking character
like Clytaemnestra, she could not be on the fringe of the action the way
she is in Shakespeare's play; she would have to side with Hamlet, or
against him.  And why is it that Hamlet never asserts his usurped
patrimony as a reason for wanting Claudius dead-especially when that
issue clearly informs the Fortinbras line?  It is early on Saturday
morning, and I have not entirely thought this through, but I would be
interested to know what others on the list think about these musings?

That would also explain the difference between "actual" and "conceived"
cause as a motive force, Larry: Hamlet may believe he has empirical
cause, but not legal/moral right, with or without the urgings of the
apparition of his warlike father.  Indeed, "it is quite possible for
Hamlet to 'want' to kill Claudius in an abstract sort of way"-and in a
concrete sort of way, too, from this perspective.  But perhaps he cannot
"will" himself to do't because wanting to in a Christian society is not


Carol Barton
Department of English
Averett College - Northern Virginia Campus

From:           William Taylor <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 31 May 1998 21:37:58 -0700
Subject:        Re: Branagh's Hamlet

I have not followed this Branagh thread very closely, so please forgive
me if I cover ground already discussed, but I believe no one has yet
mentioned several strong arguments that can be made in support of some
of Branagh's choices.

I agree that the film is flawed.  I am particularly annoyed by the
sloppy editing, the intrusive and often inappropriate music, and the
special-effect ghost scene, which seems to have been constructed of
out-takes from _Poltergeist III_.  I, too, am dismayed by his reading of
"How all occasions do inform against me," which was clearly determined
by his desire to give the audience something "big" as a reward for
sitting almost three hours to get to the intermission.  (Those
interested in how Branagh really thinks this speech ought to be read
should listen to the audio recording of the BBC radio production of the

Despite its problems, however, the film is, on the whole, admirable, and
I am grateful to Branagh for what he has given us.  Moreover, I am
grateful even when I disagree with him, because I admire his grasp of
the problems inherent in the script.  Every one of the play's very
thorny difficulties comes complete with a theatrical history, and
Branagh is responsive, not only to the text, but also to the solutions
to its problems which have been tried in twentieth century productions.

Take, for example, one of the elements of the film which has irritated
many of the contributors to this list: the addition of love scenes
between Hamlet and Ophelia.  Why did he do that?  Ever since Olivier's
film in 1948, the Freudian interpretation has dominated major
productions of the play.  The main attraction of the "Oedipal" approach
is that it offers an explanation of why Hamlet seems unable to get
Claudius killed, but it also provides the subsidiary benefit of
explaining why Hamlet has such apparent difficulty with Ophelia.  If he
is "Oedipal," his guilt over his unconscious desire for his mother has
led him to associate all women with her, and thus has made it impossible
for him to have a satisfactory relationship with any woman.  As
mechanistic as it may seem, this interpretation has been very attractive
to twentieth century actors, who, in the main, have preferred a
psychological orientation.

I was startled to see the opinion of H.R. Greenberg that Branagh's
Hamlet is similar to Derek Jacobi's.  Like Justin Bacon, I found it to
be vastly different.  Jacobi's Hamlet is flamingly Freudian, the most
successful embodiment of that interpretation I have seen.  Branagh will
have none of that.  He not only avoids the Freudian approach; he
aggressively attacks it in several ways, the easiest and most direct of
which is simply to show Hamlet involved in a happy and successful sexual
relationship with Ophelia.  (It's worth noting, parenthetically, that
several of these shots are quite unusual, in that, unlike nearly all
such scenes in films, the man is nude, and the woman clothed.)

Paradoxically, Branagh has thus altered the script in order to clarify
his interpretation of what is actually in that script.  I have not seen
the performance of Alex Jennings, but from what I read in the postings
here, one could not develop such a defense for what that production has
done to the script.

These added scenes, together with extra-textual shots of Ophelia
frightened by soldiers searching for Hamlet and screaming as the corpse
of her father is carried away, have the further benefit of helping the
actress and the audience with Ophelia's rather sudden madness, which
often strikes viewers as insufficiently motivated, since in the text we
see nothing of her between the play-within-the -play and her entrance
singing mad songs.

Many other examples could be cited to illustrate how Branagh's
unorthodox choices are actually made in support of very defensible
interpretations of the text, but the most striking, and certainly the
one with which I most strenuously _disagree_, is the assault upon the
palace by Fortinbras during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.  I have
several objections to this, but it is enough to say that it distracts
from the duel, and from what is said before, during, and after the duel.

Branagh knows this.  He decided to do it anyhow, and this decision is
related to his determination to fight the Freudian interpretation of the
play.  The Freudian, Oedipal approach focuses so exclusively upon the
psyche of the leading character that other, very important elements of
the play are often de-emphasized, or even totally cut.  One such element
is the political dimension, which is elaborately developed by
Shakespeare.  Olivier, in his concentration upon Hamlet's psychological
problems, cut Fortinbras completely, and all of the political elements
of the script along with him.  Many productions since have done the

In recent years, there has been a reaction against this trend.  The last
production I saw in Ashland, Oregon, _began_ with a mob marching across
the stage with a huge banner bearing Fortinbras' name, and chanting,
"Fortinbras!  Fortinbras!"  This may be erring in the opposite
direction, but the impulse to get the political side back in is surely
correct.  For Shakespeare, the destruction of a great man has
ramifications far greater than the loss of a single life-it's a tragedy,
not just for the hero, but for the nation as well.  Branagh, in his
aggressive determination to put back what others have omitted for fifty
years, clearly decided that it was appropriate to shift emphasis from
the duel between two individuals to the clash between the nations, and
the consequent loss of Denmark's national identity to an invading,
foreign king.  As the funeral music is still sounding in ours ears,
Fortinbras' troops tear down and smash the statue of Hamlet's father.
The final image in the film is not a romantic shot of Hamlet silhouetted
against the sky, as in Olivier, but the head of the decapitated statue.
This is the death, not just of a man, but of a lineage, and of a nation.

I would not have done it this way--but it's not hard to figure out why
Branagh did.

William Taylor
Seattle University

Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.