10/28/14

Shakespeare in Love to Meet Game of Thrones on CW


According to The Hollywood Reporter, the CW TV network will develop a series called Shakespeare's Sisters:
Described as a tale of black magic, romance and revenge, the drama is set in 1590s London and chronicles a young Will Shakespeare's rise to prominence as he finds himself caught in a deadly conflict among three witches and the most powerful woman in the world, Queen Elizabeth. The project is described as having the grit of HBO's hit fantasy drama Game of Thrones with the wit and heart of Shakespeare in Love

10/27/14

"To Be or Not to Be" in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet

At the top of this page on the right, you'll find a poll where you can vote for the best of four movie performances of Hamlet's fourth soliloquy (3.1.58-90). (If you'd like to compare them, they're posted here.) I now regret not asking about more than the acting since other elements contribute so much to these interpretations. For instance, each rendition is reinforced with a different setting. Franco Zeffirelli puts Mel Gibson's melancholy musings in a crypt, while Kenneth Branagh has his Hamlet rage at a one-way mirror behind which Claudius and Polonius are hiding. Michael Almereyda—like many of you, I'm eager to see his Cymbeline—has Ethan Hawke meditate in voiceover while walking past the "ACTION" shelves in a Blockbuster, a contemporary setting in 2000 that now looks as dated as rotary phones and typewriters.

Elsinore
Laurence Olivier sets the soliloquy on the castle tower that he first shows us at the beginning of his 1948 film. As I described in my post on the film's Freudianism, our first sight of the tower is followed by a title with a bit of Hamlet's "mole of nature" speech, which Olivier uses to point to Hamlet's "particular fault." When he then tells us in a voiceover that this fault is indecisiveness—"This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind"—we see the tower again, only now it's topped with Hamlet's corpse. By associating the tower with the flaw that brings about Hamlet's downfall Olivier makes it an apt setting for the fourth soliloquy.

He couldn't use this setting without rearranging the play's timeline. In the play, the fourth soliloquy comes after Polonius and Claudius set up a seemingly chance encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet. Claudius and Polonius exit to hide and spy on the encounter, while Ophelia remains on stage. Hamlet enters and speaks the soliloquy. When he's finished, he and Ophelia meet and have their horrifying "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation. Because Olivier's tower lacks hiding places for Claudius and Polonius and isn't a likely place for Hamlet to run into Ophelia, Olivier needed to rearrange the story if he wanted to set the soliloquy there. So in his film, the soliloquy comes after the "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation (Zeffirelli makes the same choice). This change also fits Olivier's handling of the Hamlet-Ophelia story, which makes Hamlet less cruel and more obviously in love with Ophelia than he is in the play. When Olivier's Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, we know he's trying to help her, to get her out of the castle so she'll be safe. Hiding the truth and behaving cruelly hurts Olivier's Hamlet so much that it drives him to the fourth soliloquy's suicidal thoughts, just as his disgust with his mother drives him to the first's.

Last glimpse of Ophelia.
In Olivier's transition between the confrontation with Ophelia and the fourth soliloquy, the camera serves as Hamlet's stand-in, as it does in much of the film. We see Ophelia from Hamlet's perspective. Sobbing on the floor, she lifts her hand toward us and then disappears as we spiral up the tower steps. We catch a last glimpse of her as we make the first turn, and then we wind faster and faster until we reach the tower's top and fly into the clouds. The soaring camera movement is matched by William Walton's music; together, they give us a momentary sense of escape. We descend with them slowly until the camera shows us the sea, a sight that may remind us of the lie Claudius told Polonius, that he's sending Hamlet to England because "Haply the seas and countries different / . . . shall expel / This something-settled matter in his heart" (3.1.170-72). The lines are fresh in our minds because the rearranged narrative has placed them immediately before our last looks at Ophelia.

Hamlet looks at the sea before
beginning his fourth soliloquy.
As we hear the whoosh of waves, the camera continues to move down until the sea is directly below us. That we're seeing from Hamlet's vertiginous perspective becomes obvious when we see the back of his head, a shot I believe was inspired by one in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Rebecca. Hamlet looks down at the rocks as if ready to throw himself from the tower, a moment which might remind us of Horatio's warning, that the Ghost could "tempt [Hamlet] toward the flood . . . / Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o'er his base into the sea" (1.4.50-52). Horatio said that it wasn't just the Ghost that might draw Hamlet into madness or suicide—
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
                                            (1.4.55.1-4)
"To be or not to be . . ."
In the film, the sea roars beneath increasingly dramatic music as the camera moves closer to Hamlet's head and then seems to go through it, revealing a blurry view of waves swirling around rocks. This view dissolves into a double exposure of waves on Hamlet's forehead, as he begins the soliloquy's famous first line: "To be or not to be . . ." (3.1.58). When he says, "that is . . .," the shot dissolves back into blurry rocks and sea, which come into focus when he reaches "the question." Olivier then cuts to a shot of Hamlet looking down, making it plain that "the question" is whether he should cease "to be" by throwing himself from the tower.

10/20/14

Accurate List of Hamlet's Soliloquies

Though Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech is his fourth soliloquy, many websites call it his third. They're skipping the twenty-line speech that follows his interview with the Ghost, which in my view is a particularly bad mistake since Hamlet's monomaniacal vow there is at the heart of his tragedy.

The internet's cosmic sinkhole of misinformation will never be filled, but it's worth throwing some dirt in when we can, so here's an accurate list of Hamlet's soliloquies, with a short description of where they occur and what they say, along with a few observations.

10/13/14

Did Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and Rebecca Influence Laurence Olivier's Hamlet?


Salvador Dali's set for
Spellbound's dream sequence.
Spellbound's opening title.
When Laurence Olivier released his 1948 Hamlet, psychoanalysis intrigued many moviegoers. It featured prominently in films like The Dark Past, which was released the same year, and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, which was released three years earlier. Spellbound included a trippy dream sequence, with sets by Salvador DalĂ­, and starred Ingrid Bergman as a psychoanalyst who solves a murder by analyzing Gregory Peck's dream, as if psychoanalysis were forensic science rather than speculation and intuition.

The film begins with a Shakespeare quote, a title reading "THE FAULT . . . . . IS NOT IN OUR STARS, BUT IN OURSELVES," words that come from Julius Caesar's second scene, in which Cassius tries to talk Brutus into joining the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. Cassius tells Brutus that their present position under Caesar isn't determined by astrology—they're responsible for their own fates. This sentiment is turned upside down by the title of John Green's YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. Green's main characters are teenagers with cancer, and he uses the quote to mean that we don't control our fates. Hitchcock uses it to suggest that we're not controlled by astrology but by psychology. Behind the title's words we see the psychiatric hospital where we'll start the story, and the next, rolling titles provide us with a short, psychoanalysis-for-dummies course to prepare us for the film's use of Freudian theory.

The opening title of Olivier's Hamlet, a bit of the "mole of nature" speech (1.4.18.7-20), also prepares us for a film that has Freudian theory at its center. The title introduces the hero's "particular fault," which the film will show us is indecisiveness caused by Hamlet's Oedipus complex. The similarity between the two directors' use of their opening titles suggests an influence; if Olivier was watching Gary Cooper sea movies, then he was also watching Hitchcock mysteries. But the resemblance may simply result from the frequent, mid-twentieth-century use of opening, key-to-the-movie titles and from Freudianism's grip on many mid-twentieth-century Englishmen.

On the other hand, the opening and a key shot in Olivier's Hamlet seem very likely to have been influenced by Hitchcock's 1940 Rebecca.

10/9/14

New York Times Critic Pans Robert Wilson's Staging of Shakespeare's Sonnets

In today's New York Times, Charles Isherwood pans the Berliner Ensemble's production, Shakespeare's Sonnets, blaming its failure on the director, Robert Wilson:
No theater director working today has a signature as recognizable, and as unvarying, as Robert Wilson. Whether he is staging a Wagner or a Monteverdi opera, an Ibsen play, a piece about the life of Marina Abramovic or a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, as he currently is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mr. Wilson employs the same stylistic markers: starkly minimalist settings, luminous backdrops on which bands of glowing light slowly rise or fall, and actors in bright white makeup looking like merry or morbid ghouls, gliding across the stage in ritualistic movement. 
“Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” a mostly ponderous evening that Mr. Wilson created in collaboration with the Berliner Ensemble, features music by the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, and uses 25 poems [in German translation] as a springboard for a bizarre, dreamlike pageant. But neither Mr. Wainwright’s appealing music nor Shakespeare’s verse — not so bad either — plays the leading role here. That belongs, as always, to Mr. Wilson. 
Isherwood concludes by describing a scene that
features rock music pulsing away while three figures in some sort of celestial gas station manipulate nozzles, oh so slowly. Then a black bowler hat lying on the ground presently begins to levitate, also oh so slowly. Looks cool. Sounds cool. Means absolutely nothing. 
Which essentially sums up my response to “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” in its entirety. 
If you'd like to judge for yourself, here's the scene Isherwood is talking about, from the original 2009 production.

 

The text is a German translation of Sonnet 23:
As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart,
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'er-charged with burthen of mine own love's might.
O let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
     O learn to read what silent love hath writ;
     To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.

10/6/14

Laurence Olivier's Hamlet: Acting and Cinematography

When I recently showed Laurence Olivier's 1948 Hamlet to a class of college students, two things surprised them.

First, because of what they had had heard about Olivier, they had expected great acting, but they initially found the performances hammy, like "old-fashioned stage acting." After a while, they became used to this more theatrical style, and by the time we reached Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation with Ophelia, most were too caught up in the story to think about the performances. I stopped the movie at this point—embarrassing some students with tear-stained faces—and we discussed what we had seen. A few students still thought that the acting, especially that of Jean Simmons as Ophelia, was overly theatrical, but they all admired the subtlety of Olivier's performance, how, for example, in the "nunnery" scene, his facial expressions tell us that Hamlet finds what he's doing painful. Some students who had seen Mel Gibson and Helena Bonham Carter and/or Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet in the same scene thought that Olivier and Simmons's performance was better.


Laurence Olivier and Jean
Simmons in act three, scene one.
Image from the Boston Becks.
If I had started the class by playing those performances back to back, the students would probably have ranked Olivier and Simmons a distant third. For the uninitiated, the acting in Olivier's Shakespeare films takes some getting used to, but, as is true of so many things, newbies who give it a chance may discover a new pleasure.

Though it took a while for my students to appreciate the acting in Olivier's Hamlet, they were immediately impressed by its cinematography. This was their second surprise: they had thought of Olivier primarily as an actor and didn't know that he was also a tremendously creative director.

10/2/14

First Look at Benedict Cumberbatch's Richard III


From The Telegraph, here's the first publicly released photo of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in the BBC's Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.

9/29/14

Laurence Olivier's Freudian Hamlet

In the opening of his 1948 Hamlet, Laurence Olivier identifies indecisiveness as the prince's tragic flaw, the "particular fault" that brings about his downfall. As the film unfolds, he provides a Freudian explanation for that indecisiveness. Though I don't buy this interpretation of the play, the film remains one of my favorites. Its unforgettable performances and creative camera work make it one of the best Shakespeare movies, and if I had to choose a single Hamlet to take to a desert island—along with a solar-powered DVD player—I'd choose this one. I've come to enjoy its Freudianism the way I enjoy the clothing or cars in a film noir, as an entertaining artifact of mid-twentieth-century culture.

Introducing Hamlet's "Particular Fault"


The opening credits roll over a castle that perches atop a surreally high promontory rising from a roiling sea. After the credits finish, the screen goes black, and then we see swirling fog and a title: "SCENE — ELSINORE." The fog parts to reveal the castle and tower again, only now they're below us, as if we're looking down from the clouds, a perspective reminiscent of the opening of Olivier's 1944 Henry V, which shows us Elizabethan London from above.

Olivier's fondness for aerial perspectives may have come from his experiences as a pilot in the Royal Naval Reserve. In On Acting, he writes that seeing England from the air made him think of John of Gaunt's patriotic "sceptered isle" speech from Richard II (2.1.31-68; Olivier 268). A minor detail of this story, the plane Olivier was flying, is challenged in Terry Coleman's biography (145), but there's no reason to doubt the gist. Flying over his country made Olivier think of Shakespeare and feel patriotic.

9/25/14

The First Soliloquy in Laurence Olivier's Richard III

Jane Shore's presence in the busy opening scenes of Olivier's Richard III gives us a sense of King Edward's vulnerability—the next scene shows us his brother's strength and determination. At the same time, the scene establishes a powerful sense of intimacy between Richard and the movie audience.



We start with the camera moving toward the palace door, which opens to reveal Richard leaning on the throne. When the door shuts behind the camera, Richard turns and looks at it. He walks forward, limping slightly, blinks a few times, and looks directly at the camera as he begins the play's famous opening soliloquy: "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York."

9/15/14

Advice for Reading Richard III and a Summary of the First Two Scenes

Richard III seems complicated because, as the last of a group of four plays, its characters share a bloody past that is unfamiliar to most readers.

But the play isn't as complicated as it seems. In the first half, Richard does everything he can to get the crown. In the second, he does everything he can to keep it. Stay focused on Richard and you won't get lost.

Here's a detailed summary of the first two scenes to help get you started.