Monday, August 23, 2010

Hamlet -- ambition, murder and revenge

Director: Kenneth Branagh, 1996. (PG-13)

Two things stand out immediately about Branagh's screen adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. First, it's long, playing at 4 hours duration. (It's the first full-length version, true to the text, that has been made.) Second, it's remarkably engaging, despite the Elizabethan English that is a little hard to follow at times.

I've never seen or read "Hamlet" but decided to watch this version in preparation for seeing the play at the Ashland Shakespeare festival later this month. Knowing it was a tragedy didn't prepare me for the depths of sadness. It is an uber-tragedy, one that moves deliberately, almost fatalistically, to the shocking climax.

Branagh has assembled an all-star cast, with the best of British thespians: Kate Winslet, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Bian Blessed, Judi Dench, and Rufus Sewell. Even the bit characters have big name actors, including Jack Lemon, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, and Robin Williams. Billy Crystal shows up stealing his one scene as a grave-digger, bringing some light relief to a dark story. But the film belongs to Branagh. And he excels as Hamlet, the tortured hero. He conveys the chaos and turmoil that fuels Hamlet's inner pain. His crazed antics communicate the confusion of his lost soul.

The story, one of the Bard's best, centers on murder, ambition and revenge. Hamlet (Branagh) returns home to Denmark to attend his father's funeral only to find his uncle, Claudius (Jacobi), is marrying his mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie, who came out of retirement for this role), barely two months a widow. Marching into the throne room at Elsinore Castle, Hamlet stands starkly apart from his relatives and friends in his black uniform while all else wear white or red.

When Hamlet sees the ghost of his father (Blessed), he discovers the truth behind his father's death: "murder most foul". His mission: revenge.

Four hundred years after the play was written, Hamlet still presents a keen insight into the human condition. Ambition and lust, envy and jealousy will drive a man to murder. Claudius wants his brother's crown and queen. One of the ten commandments says, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" (Exod. 20:17). Especially abhorrent is it when that neighbor is your brother. It parts brother from brother until, like Cain (Gen. 4:8) one kills the other. Murder is another of the sins warned against in the ten commandments (Exod. 20:13).

Not only is his murderous uncle the new king, but his lover, Ophelia (Winslet), is warned to stay away from Hamlet.With so much conspiring against him, it is no wonder Hamlet uttered his famous soliloquy: "To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them." As he totters between grief-struck craziness and despair, it seems he must choose suicide or revenge.

Suicide is an easy way out. He could end his troubles, sink into the sorrow and let it engulf him, swallowing him until he is no more. But suicide is ethically questionable. It is the way of the wimp. It leaves behind grieving survivors who must wrestle with the question of "why?" for years, if not their whole lives. Suicide focuses on self at the expense of family and community.

Hamlet comes to his senses and realizes revenge beckons stronger. Inside his shell of insanity he plots murder. Given the chance to do it furtively, while Claudius is in confession, he withdraws since it would excecute Claudius with his sins pardoned. That is not revenge. That is release. Instead, he must wait until Claudius has racked up more sin, unforgiven, and catch him at that point.

Revenge is a meal best eaten cold. But revenge consumes the murderer when he eats this poisonous meal. Moses understood that when he penned, "'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). Moreover, in the New Testament Paul wrote, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." (Ron. 12:19). This is not something Hamlet wanted to hear, but it is something we should listen to. God is the ultimate judge, though that judgment and sentence may wait till the next life.

Full of wonderful scenes, two stand out. The first is the play within a play, where Hamlet asks the players (including Heston) to use his own dialog as a trap. "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." He calls it "The Mousetrap." Hamlet begins to go over the top, making a scene that only a prince could pull off. Then there is the climax, where all key players, including Ophelia's brother, plot murder in their own ways.

If you have never seen Hamlet,  Branagh's version is the one to watch. This sweeping epic will ignite a spark for classic literature that most high school or college English classes snuffed out. The Bard is dead, long live the Bard!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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