VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)

The Hamlet Site

General Preview of "Staging Elements" in the 1990 Hamlet

Objective for this Page: To define many staging elements in the movie and to prepare you to watch the movie critically. 

Props: Each prop is potentially a symbol related to the main action or the theme of the play. For instance, what does it mean for Getrude to place one of her two metal flower hair pins into the coffin with the dead King Hamlet in the funeral scene? Hamlet puts dirt into the coffin. Claudius places a sword on top of the coffin. How do these three objects characterize the motives or attitudes of the three major characters toward the king's death?

Later, consider the importance and significance of the necklace that Ophelia returns to Hamlet--and he throws back at her. Consider also the medallions in the bedroom scene. Hamlet still wears the one imprinted with his father's image, while Gertrude has switched to the one imprinted with Claudius's image. Hamlet plays on the visible difference in their allegiance, thereby defining himself the symbolism of the two medallions.

What importance do the letters carried by Rosencranz and Gildenstern have beyond their literal message? What does Yorick's skull suggest beyond the fact that he was court jester?

What other objects take on importance beyond what they are as things or suggest something about the relationships among characters? For instance, what's the public reason and the conspiratorial reason for Claudius to put a pearl into the goblet before the sword fight?

Sounds and Sound Effects: The first sound we hear is Gertrude crying at the funeral. What significance could this have? Later, we hear the dogs and the horns announcing the hunt--for which activity Gertrude leaves Hamlet and goes to Claudius. How does this movement typify the relationship among these three characters at this point in the play?

The wind whistles through the battlements as Hamlet follows the ghost and the king's ghost speaks. At the end of this scene, we hear the ghost saying "Swear" over the dawn as Hamlet gets his followers to keep the secret of the ghost.

In what other scenes does sound emphasize the action or ideas of the scene?

Colors: Of course, the gray castle and black-clad mourners help set the funeral scene. Later on, though, what does the blue sky do to amplify or contrast with Hamlet's speech on how rotten life is on this earth.

At what other points in the play do colors in the setting enhance or contrast with the content of the dialog or the ideas of the scene?

Costumes: Related to the scenic or environmental colors are the colors and perhaps textures of the clothing worn by characters during the play--especially as they change or contrast with each other. For instance, early in the play we see Claudius in gold and tan garb. Both Gertrude and Ophelia appear in white. Traditional associations with these colors, such as innocence for white and earthiness for tan, may be relevant to the personality or attitudes of the characters.

At the dinner revelry going on below Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius wear shades of red, while Ophelia appears in pale blue. If red suggests lustiness, does this imply that Claudius and Gertrude have a passionate marriage? Does it suggest they were passionate before their marriage, and perhaps before her earlier marriage ended? What does the pale blue suggest about Ophelia?

Why might Hamlet be dressed in red during "the Mousetrap" and shed the red once Claudius has been exposed?

When Ophelia appears insane, she is wearing a grayish-green nightgown and stating that "All violets withered when my father died." Could the color of her untimely gown suggest something about her situation? What do the violets signify in the context of her ranting?

After Ophelia has died, why does Gertrude begin to wear blues and pale blues? Has she taken on some characteristic or importance that formerly belonged to Ophelia?

Don't forget: Someone had to design the costuming for each scene. Sure, the costumes are supposed to look regal and Medieval. But recreating the period is the easy part. Just like the director's choice of camera angles, the colors of the costumes should help establish not just the period for the action but the meaning of the scene and the theme of the play.

Camera Angles: Several scenes in the movie have 3-dimensionnal camera shots. For instance, we see Hamlet above Polonius and Ophelia as her father gets her to abandon Hamlet. We also see that Hamlet sees Polonius and Claudius spying on him as they use Ophelia to see if he is faking insanity. What patterns are there to these vertical camera shots? Do they show power, smallness, or what?

What important scenes include close-ups? How do these intensify or reveal the emotions of the character on screen? Several close-ups focus on Hamlet, but one close-up in the pivotal bedroom scene focuses on Hamlet and Gertrude. Why?

Actors' Positions and Movements: Why does Hamlet shove a flute onto Rosencranz's neck (or is that Gildenstern)? Why does Laertes slice Hamlet's arm between rounds of their sword fight? Why do the ghost and Hamlet reach out for each other?

Settings: Mel Gibson says that the famous "To be or not to be" passage in the play is filmed "where it ought to be, down among the dead." In what other scenes does the setting fit the dialog or enhance the action?

Music: The booming reverberating bass opening sets the ominous tone for the whole movie-- after all, the funeral is for a murdered king. The somber trumpets and violins associated with the ghost further this musical enhancement of the vengeance theme. In what other scenes does the background music suggest something about the plot or the emotions or situations of the characters?


Lighting and Shadow: Look closely at "To be or not to be." During this passage, Gibson sometimes has light full on his face; at other times, his face is partially or completely shadowed. How do these moments match his moods as they vary during this passage during which he contemplates suicide--again?

When else do light or shadow seem to match with the statements of a character? For instance why is Claudius shouting for a light after "the Mouse Trap"?

Assessment:  Choose one or two elements to focus upon as you watch the movie. Consider how the element enriches a particular scene and/or a theme of the movie.

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