The Many Faces of Hamlet

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Hamlet has stood the test of time as one of the most tormented, treasured, and remembered of Shakespeare’s works. From the original written text, it can be said that Shakespeare meant for Hamlet’s famous soliloquy to reflect the intense sadness, anger, and isolation of the character and the utter fragility which remained. When translating such a powerful scene onto film, the actors and directors have the creative freedom of choice to make the scene something fresh and new or to maintain its original genius. Having closely watched Kenneth Branagh’s, Ethan Hawke’s, and Mel Gibson’s portrayals of the tragic character, I feel that Kenneth Branagh is the one who truly captured the scene in the rawest and natural form, while still breathing new and interesting life into the scene.

Hamlet’s famous soliloquy begins with a poetic contemplation about the vagaries of life and death embodied by the simple, yet mind-numbingly existential, phrase, “to be or not to be.” Each of the three aforementioned versions takes a different spin on the soliloquy, each emphasizing different aspects of the emotional tone of the scene. Branagh made a conscious decision to portray Hamlet’s fragile state through the use of a mirror to show that Hamlet is, indeed, speaking to himself about whether or not he wishes to live any longer. The camera shot begins at a distance, revealing Hamlet standing, alone, in front of a full-length mirror. As the scene moves onward, the camera slowly pans in closer. Simultaneously, Branagh’s voice begins to shake with passion as the scene progresses and the camera focuses in closer to his face revealing a unique intensity.

One of the things which makes Shakespeare’s Act III soliloquy so powerful is the intense isolation that Hamlet is feeling. In Branagh’s version, Hamlet is alone in an enormous and empty palace, so the camera could have been focused on Hamlet from any number of angles. However, the decision was made for the camera to rest just over Hamlet’s shoulder, giving the audience a rare perspective, looking into the mirror through the eyes of a suicidal prince. Branagh’s version also expertly utilizes the faint and unsettling sounds of music playing in the background of the scene, which provides a certain degree of suspense and severity. The music has to be soft in order for the focus to remain on the impact of the soliloquy, but its presence in itself exists to create tension and mood.

In Mel Gibson’s version, on the other hand, the decision was made to film the scene in complete absence of background noise, such as music, as Hamlet deals with his emotional instability and confusion over the quandary of life’s worth. While the pure silence creates a certain effect in regard to isolation while maintaining a very intimate glimpse into the character’s psyche, the music from the Branagh version lets the viewers know that the soliloquy is not just one of Shakespeare’s poetic and beautifully written pieces, it is also heavy with melancholic elements of speech about the maddening struggle between Hamlet and his unquenchable desires to reach the other side of mortality.

Another difference between the Branagh and Gibson versions is the perspective of the camera. As was mentioned previously, Branagh engaged the viewer by providing a glimpse into the mirror in which Hamlet, himself, gazed. Gibson’s scene, on the other hand, was filmed in a more natural way, with the camera focused on Hamlet as he moves throughout the dark, cavernous room. The difference in perspective does a lot to shift the overall tone of the scene. Gibson’s version of Hamlet seems more emotionally fragile than Branagh’s, but Branagh delivers each line of the soliloquy into the mirror with dominance and an eerie sense of self-control, even though the audience knows that mental control is out of Hamlet’s grasp.

What Gibson’s version lacks in suspense, it makes up for in dramatization. Gibson’s body language provides the audience with a more detailed and in-depth portrait of Hamlet’s slipping mental faculties. This is exemplified by Gibson’s choice to rub his head against the wall in exhaustion and frustration, giving the audience an intimate glimpse inside the brain of the character. Additionally, Gibson takes several pauses throughout the soliloquy for dramatic impact.

While Gibson does breathe a certain degree of intensity and desperation into Hamlet, Branagh actually utilizes his vocal delivery of the speech to captivate the audience. Branagh uses a slow and methodical delivery which allows the viewers to fully grasp each word in relation to the next. What both Branagh’s and Gibson’s version have in common, however, is the way in which they capture Hamlet’s desperation within the human condition in an identifiable way. Ethan Hawke’s version, on the contrary, provides the audience with a modern take on Shakespeare’s classic play.

The scene opens with Hamlet, as portrayed by Ethan Hawke, casually walking up and down the aisles of a Blockbuster video store. By placing Hamlet in a modern-day setting, Hawke’s version attempts to bridge the gap between the centuries but fails to do so because of the disconnect between the intricate Shakespearean language and the everyday monotony of the consumerist twentieth century. Aside from the setting of the scene, Hawke’s Hamlet delivers the “to be or not to be” soliloquy without speaking. Instead, a voice-over is used to create a more cerebral effect. The intentions of setting the scene in this way may have been good, but the interior nature of the voice-over creates a disconnect and a separation between Hamlet and the torn nature of his psyche.

The voice-over is not the only thing which creates distraction in Hawke’s version– the setting alone takes away from the profound impact of the soliloquy. No matter what setting is chosen for the scene, the fact remains that Hamlet is battling his inner demons and pondering his own immediate fate through suicide. Most of the impact is lost when Hamlet is placed roaming aimlessly through a video store. Based on aesthetics alone, the untrained eye does not know where to rest in the Hawke version. There are television screens, rows of videos labeled “action” or “comedy,” the list goes on. By placing so many objects in the periphery, the focus is shifted off of Hamlet and his suicidal thoughts and, instead, placed on meaningless minutiae in the background.

When Hawke does actually begin to speak out loud, the soliloquy takes a strange and unexpected turn. At this point, Hawke’s Hamlet comes off as more certifiably insane than deep and troubled. The moment that the scene shifts from internal monologue to actual spoken word also creates a distraction from the soliloquy. Rather than focusing on the intense and serious words of the scene, the audience’s perspective is shifted, causing disruption and a momentary shift of focus.

One cannot decide simply which version is the best version because the art of film and the creative forces behind each version have their own right to their individual interpretations of the scene. Personally, however, Branagh’s version rings the truest to Shakespeare’s original visions for the scene. Branagh masterfully delivers a powerful performance utilizing a unique perspective with the camera to bridge the gap between Hamlet and the audience and, instead, makes them one and the same. Most impressive is that Branagh accomplishes this feat without detracting and stealing focus away from Shakespeare’s beautiful words.