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Commentary with Still Photos

Reflections on the Kenneth Branagh Staging of a Famous Soliloquy

To demonstrate what sort of considerations might go into a presentation about a movie scene, I offer the following handout and notes regarding one of Hamlet's more famous speeches, the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in which he apparently wonders why more people don't commit suicide--and provides an answer (Hamlet 3.1.56-88).  Only it's not exactly a soliloquy if there are eavesdroppers and Hamlet knows it!

The following demo blends quotations from a website on how Branagh did Hamlet and still photos from that website (now gone from the Web) and my own commentary.  Even though the pictures show other scenes, they are used to comment on the "To be or not to be" staging.

Hamlet, III, 1, 56-88: "To be or not to be . . . "

The image above (like all photos on this page), showing Kenneth Branagh as a blonde Hamlet, delivering his "To be or not to be" soliloquy for Claudius' and Polonius' ears, is copyrighted © 1996 by Castle Rock Entertainment.

Branagh's Hamlet Speaks Directly to Claudius

In the Branagh version, Hamlet knows he is being watched so that his revelation about not committing suicide for fear of an afterlife is part of his ploy to keep Claudius at bay until he can convince himself that Claudius is really an assassin and find a way to do him in.  Yet the staging of the scene includes Hamlet banging doors to find whoever is overhearing him, even as he drags poor Ophelia around the room.  This Hamlet may convince the king and his advisor that he is certainly acting crazy, but it almost certainly convinces Claudius that Hamlet is angry with him and out to get him.

Seeing Why Suicide Is Not an Easy Out

" ‘To be, or not to be - that is the question’ is a speech about suicide. Whether Hamlet is contemplating suicide at this point is unclear. I rather think it's a meditative speech about death and an easy way out. A soliloquy that is some stages on from the point where he wished he might die, which was actually much nearer the beginning of the play when Hamlet is wishing God hadn't forbidden suicide." -- Russell Jackson, Text Consultant on the Kenneth Branagh film of Hamlet

Other commentators have seen a progression throughout the play during these soliloquies from a more scattered mind to a more purposeful and disciplined mind, based on the imagery of the particular soliloquy.

The Mirrors Add Complexity to the Blocking and Plotting

"In our set we have a mirror and we have a mirrored door, but you can't quite tell them apart. At various times Hamlet's trying to find people but he doesn't know which door they're behind, and it just seemed to keep throwing up images that were useful for the incredible number of choices available to him and to other characters. They were continually looking at, admiring and asking questions of themselves." --Kenneth Branagh, director and actor

Actually, as he plays the scene, Branagh's Hamlet seems to know exactly which door Polonius and Claudius are hiding behind.  After "To be or not to be" when Hamlet confronts Ophelia, Branagh drags the poor Titanic girl from door to door, as if he is deducing which door has the eavesdroppers, though he skips several of the doors in the long hallway and goes right to the one just as they are exiting out the side door.  Of course, this gives away the entire purpose of discussing suicide in the first place and confronting Ophelia.  Hamlet wants to convince the eavesdroppers that he's crazy; Branagh's Hamlet may be talking (or rather reciting) a mile a minute during some of his conversation with Ophelia, but exposing the eavesdroppers would only convince Claudius that Hamlet knew he was being watched--and therefore was more of a threat than a harmless loon.

"I felt with a long film that something had to be going on all the time, or at least you had to have the option of that happening, something always active in the frame. The mirrors helped that, however much of a nightmare it was sometimes to light and to shoot." –Kenneth Branagh

When Hamlet talks to himself in a mirror about why people chicken out from committing suicide because "conscience does make cowards of us all," it does give a more eerie feeling, especially as he points the dagger at his own neck.  On the other level, Hamlet's knowing that Claudius is behind that door makes "enterprises of great pith and moment/ lose the name of action" a convincing confession that he has been afraid to kill Claudius, even if he is standing inches away with a drawn knife.

Moving the Actors and/or the Camera

"My interest is in moving the camera and making the dynamics of the scene be about either the movements of the actors or the movement of the camera, or both." --Kenneth Branagh, director

In "To be," Branagh is almost motionless, taking perhaps one or two steps toward the mirrored door during the soliloquy until he is touching it, but wielding the "bare bodkin" (knife).  The camera starts on him, seemingly, but actually is on him in the mirror--clever blocking and camera work.  In the confrontation with Ophelia, the camera is behind the door, from the perspective of King Claudius and Ophelia's father.  Shoving her face up against the two-way glass looks ridiculous but sort of fits the sarcastic tone of Hamlet's movements during the scene as he drags her around (after she lies to him about her father's whereabouts) and shoves this pawn, Ophelia, right up against the glass separating him from his real prey, Claudius.  Funny-looking (especially as she moves her lips fish-like to breathe) but still threatening.

Speaking Shakespeare

"There's no saying that in Shakespeare's time people understood every word, every sentence, not at the speed they went. You know, no-one was gonna stand up for more than two hours in Shakespeare's time, two and a half if you're lucky.... So the stuff had to be delivered at a pace, what you get is the message of the speech, you know, you get, 'oh I get it', but you don't really hear every inclination, every sophistication, every convolution of the speech." --Michael Maloney (Laertes) on hearing Shakespeare’s lines

What nonsense!  Branagh zooms through the longer speeches; nobody gets the message.  Zeffirelli was right to cut the movie down, though he shouldn't have cut out Fortinbras completely.  Mel and Helena get to have a conversation; Kenneth spews words at his poor Ophelia, reciting "the Bard," instead of talking like a person.  His speed undermines the verisimilitude (realism) of the play.

Source of quotations and stills: The Readiness Is All: The Filming of Hamlet (1996) 2/10/00

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